The Communist Party: A Work in Progress in a Changing World

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Editor's note: This is an excerpted version of a speech delivered to the Chautauqua Conference, New York, July 21, 2009. Sam Webb chairs the Communist Party USA.

No organization or institution can long exist in a condition of stasis; organizations in general and political parties and social movements in particular have to adjust to new conditions.

And the reason is simple: change is constant and organizations and institutions must, if they want to remain relevant, change in the face of changing conditions.

Since the beginning of this decade, the Communist Party has been reconfiguring its theory, politics, structures of organization and, not least, finances to the turbulent times in which we live. We did so because we had no other choice. Necessity was the mother of invention.

To be sure, not everything turned out as we hoped and many things still have to be attended to.

On the whole, however, we challenged outdated notions and practices, adjusted our policies and style of work to new conditions, and gained experience.

Had we stood still, life would have left us in the rear view mirror. A glance at history, after all, reveals that the political landscape is littered with political and social formations that didn’t adapt to new realities.

But to our credit we chose change. We eagerly searched for new angles of looking at, thinking about, and reshaping the world.

Such an approach is consistent with and an imperative of Marxism. Otherwise, Marxism loses its capacity to assist people in their desire to re-imagine and remake the world – not in some sort of utopian way, but rather in a way that meets the expanding requirements of a good life at the beginning of the 21st century.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who together developed an analytical structure and methodology that enabled the working class to comprehend and change the world, never claimed the “last word” on any subject; they never shoehorned facts to fit a preconceived theory; they never allowed abstract theoretical constructions by themselves to determine political policies or action.

Near the end of his life, Engels, in an effort to counter a dogmatic interpretation of historical materialism that was fashionable in the socialist movement of that time, wrote: “Our conception of history is above all a guide to study … All history must be studied afresh.”

A decade or so later, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution asserted, “A Marxist must take cognizance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity.”

In other words, Marxism, if properly understood and practiced, has no affinity for lifeless schemes that squeeze contingency, contradictions, and novelty out of the process of social change. The repetition of timeless and abstract formulas, which the Communist movement has been guilty of at times, is inconsistent with Marxism’s spirit and letter.

Only when Marxism takes into account concrete realities, absorbs new experience, and is open-ended to new insights by Marxists and non-Marxist alike does its analytical and political power reveal its full potential. The truth is concrete.

I belabor this point because it is this method of inquiry that we are employing to the best of our ability to today’s world.

New realities

The impulse to look at the world afresh springs from the inescapable new realities of the closing decades of the 20th and the first decade of this century that are reframing politics, economics, culture and modes of thinking.

What were some of these realities?

To begin, the ascendancy of the extreme right to political dominance signaled by the election of Ronald Reagan and continuing through the Bush years was a sobering and painful reality for anyone who favored peace, equality, fairness and democracy.

The aim of this right wing grouping, of which the Bush administration was the last and most dangerous example, was to reestablish by any means necessary the unchallengeable hegemony of US capitalism, to restore profits and wealth of the ruling elite, and to reconfigure the role and functions of the government to the advantage of the richest families and corporations.

While achieving many of their aims over a 30-year period, their political project is now in shambles and its perpetrators have been discredited.

Of course, in the meantime, a heavy price was paid and working people and their allies were thrown on the defensive for that entire period.

The changing structure and distribution of economic activity and power across global space was something we could not ignore in our calibrations and recalibrations either.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, thus removing one of the two states that structured world relations for nearly a half century, China was emerging as the main rival to the global dominance of US capitalism. It has been joined in recent years by India, Brazil and Russia. And East and South Asia has been the most dynamic region of capital accumulation over the past decade or so.

I would further add that other regional groupings, nations, international bodies, and hundreds of millions of people are resisting US tutelage too.

When combined with the implosion of Wall Street and the Iraq disaster, it signals a terminal crisis of US capitalism’s dominance of the world system of states. Or to say it differently, a unipolar world is giving way to a multipolar world, which presents both opportunities and dangers to the new administration and humanity.

In fact, an urgent question for the American people is the following: Will US capitalism adapt peacefully to new world realities or will it employ massive force to maintain its standing? Bush tried force, but abjectly failed.

On the other hand, the new administration is going in a different direction. How far it will go is another question that can’t be answered yet.

Suffice it to say that the redefinition of the US role in the world is among the most compelling issues in the first part of the 21st century, ranking in importance to combating global warming. Unless both are attended to, they could endanger the survival of our species on Mother Earth.

Where is the sustained boom?

The new dynamics of the US economy that took shape in the late 1970s and structured the economy for the next three decades were another factor that compelled us to reexamine our traditional wisdom.

While the present economic crisis was triggered by the collapse of housing markets, it is located first of all, in the outgrowth of longer-term processes of capitalism that go back to the late 1970s.

Thirty years ago US capitalism was beset by seemingly intractable and contradictory problems – high inflation and unemployment, declining confidence in the dollar as an international currency, new competitive rivals in Europe and Asia, a slowing of economic growth and a falling profit rate.

All of these problems occurred in the context of progressively growing overproduction in world commodity markets.

Faced with this unraveling, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker stepped into the breech and pushed up interest rates to record levels. This spike in interest rates sent unemployment rates soaring to double digit levels, forced the closing of scores of manufacturing plants and family farms, left communities of color in depression like conditions and negatively impacted the global economy, particularly the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

At the same time, the spiking of  interests rates upward, redirected mobile capital abruptly and massively from hither and yon into US financial channels where returns were now extremely high.

Once in financial channels, banks, investment houses, hedge funds, private equity firms and so on, intent on maximizing their profits in a very competitive and increasingly permissive regulatory environment raced at breakneck speed into a massive buying and selling and borrowing and spending spree for the next three decades – all of which led to bubble economics, the erosion of the real economy, instability and ultimately to economic ruin.

If the cause of the ascendancy of finance lies in the contractions and decline of US capitalism domestically and internationally, its lubricant was the production and reproduction, seemingly without end, of staggering amounts of debt – corporate, consumer and government.

Debt is as old as capitalism. But what was different in this period of financialization is that the production of debt and accompanying speculative excesses and bubbles were not simply passing moments at the end of a cyclical upswing, but essential to ginning up and sustaining investment and especially consumer demand in every phase of the cycle. Indeed, financialization grew to the point where it became the main determinant shaping the contours, structure, interrelations, evolution and dynamism of the national and world economy.

Without speculative bubbles, generated by the federal government and Federal Reserve over the past 15 years in internet technology, then in the stock market, and most recently, in housing – the performance of the US and world economy would have been far worse. But, as we are painfully learning, financialization is a two-edged sword.

Not since the Great Depression has the economy been in such bad shape. Forecasts that economic activity will resume at the end of this year or early next year are problematic in the minds of many economists. Don’t be surprised if the economy’s cyclical path is L-shaped – that is, deep and prolonged.

While we don’t know exactly what the contours and trajectory of the economy will be going forward, we do know the notion that capitalism isn’t a self-correcting system and that lifts all boats.

The notion that it is has its roots in the so-called “golden age” of US capitalism from 1945-1973, during which economic growth rates, investment levels and living standards steadily increased for broad sections of the American people.

But there is a problem here. An era of stable and continuous growth is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the conditions for US capitalism’s “golden age” no longer exist. They were specific to a historical moment – not universal and timeless features of US capitalism.

None of those conditions exist today; indeed just the opposite is the case and the economy is not poised either in the short or medium term to take off as it did in 1945; long-term stagnation is a real possibility unless the economy is radically restructured.

Environment reeling under stress

Another factor nudging us to reexamine our policies is the potential catastrophe of global warming and environmental degradation. Almost daily we hear of species extinction, global warming, resource depletion, deforestation and on and on to the point where we are nearly immune to its ominous possibilities.

Our planet cannot indefinitely absorb the impact of profit-driven, growth-without-limits capitalism. Many scientists say that unless we radically change our methods of production and consumption patterns in the near term, we will reach the point where damage to the environment will become irreversible.

Despite this, even the most modest measures of environmental protection are resisted by sections of the transnational corporations and their right-wing extremists in Congress and in the media.

Embedded inequalities

Still another consideration that caused us to think afresh is the deep and persistent racial, gender, and regional inequalities that exist across the planet.

The evidence of these inequalities is obvious: massive hunger and malnutrition, dire poverty, pandemic diseases, daily and institutionalized brutality against peoples of color, systemic abuse and oppression of women, explosion of slums around mega-cities, massive migrations of workers and peasants in search of a better life and the decay of whole communities and regions.

While these conditions exist worldwide and within our own borders, the countries of the southern hemisphere experience the worst forms of deprivation and inequality. And they won’t tolerate this condition for another century.

Another framing element for our reevaluation is the new communications technologies. These technologies are changing the way that we receive our news, work, do business, live, play, interact and think. They are compressing time and distance. And their penetration into every aspect of life can only grow as time goes by.

The emergence of new social movements of considerable scope and the new vigor of the labor movement also challenged our received wisdom and actions. Over the past three decades old and new oppositional forces, including a revitalizing (it’s a process and thus uneven and developing) labor movement have entered politics to challenge right wing domination, culminating in a many-layered coalition that was instrumental in the victory of Barack Obama.

Finally, we were nudged to change because the Communist Party (and the left generally) was neither big enough nor influential enough. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union we were small, not much more than 4,000 members.

But with the split that occurred in 1991 our membership fell by a third, thus making our growth in size even more imperative.

Fresh look

Now that I mentioned to you some of the framing elements that weighed into our reconfiguration process, let me tell out you about the results of so far.

We are employing a methodology free of rigid and enclosed notions that resist new experience and discourage fresh thinking. Our catch phrase is to get in the mix, to join with others, to give priority to those struggles and issues that are impelling others into action.

We are giving greater coherence and elasticity to our strategic and tactical concepts and accenting the struggle for broad unity, and especially multi-racial and working class unity.

New emphasis is being attached to the popular character of the coalition, while at the same time giving prominence to the special role of the working class and labor movement as an emerging leader of this coalition.

We are taking a fresh look at the labor movement, noting the new positive developments, even asking ourselves whether quantitative changes were reaching a qualitative turning point in terms of labor’s outlook and practical activity.

The internet is being utilized in a full blooded way to communicate our message and organize our work. At the end of this year we are phasing out our print paper that goes back nearly 90 years and going over to daily online news.

We are shedding, what I call, a “mentality of marginalization.” Because of McCarthyism, the Cold War, the long economic expansion following WW II, and a resistance to thinking anew, the left, of which we are a part, found itself on the edges of politics for more than a half century. During this time, our ability to impact on broader political processes in the country has been narrowly circumscribed – nothing like the 1930s, nothing like the left in many other countries.

While the left stubbornly fought the good fight and made undeniable contributions over the past half-century, it was not a major player; it didn’t set the agenda or frame the debate; it didn’t determine the political direction of the country; it wasn’t a decider.

But the past doesn't have to be prelude to the future. Because of the new political landscape, the left has an opportunity to step from the edges into the mainstream of US politics. It has a chance to become a player of consequence; a player whose voice is seriously considered in the debates bearing on the future of the country; a player that is able to mobilize and influence the thinking and actions of millions.

Whether we do depends on many factors, one of which is our ability to shake off this “mentality of marginalization.”

How does this mentality express itself? In a number of ways – in spending too much time agitating each other; in dismissing new political openings; in thinking that moderate reforms are at loggerheads with radical reforms; in seeing the glass as always half empty; in acting as if our outlook is identical with the outlook of millions; in turning the danger of cooptation into a rationale to keep a distance from reform struggles; in enclosing ourselves in narrow Left forms; in damning victories with faint praise; and in having nothing good to say about our country.

In this peculiar mindset, politics has few complexities. Change is driven only from the ground up. Winning broad majorities is not essential. There are no stages of struggle, no social forces that possess strategic social power, and no divisions worth noting. And distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties are either of little consequence or disdainfully dismissed.

Unless the Left – and I include communists first of all – sheds this mentality, it will miss a golden opportunity at this moment to engage and influence a far bigger audience than it has in the past six decades.

Path to socialism

We are re-envisioning the path to socialism and socialist society, based on present day challenges and a critical examination of the socialist experience in the 20th century. What are some of its main elements?

Our vision is of a society that is peaceful, democratic, economically just and efficient, and ecologically sustainable. Our socialist goal privileges social solidarity, economic security and sustainability, equality, cooperation, respect for difference and peace.

In our view, socialism is not simply a good idea, but an overriding necessity for humankind to find timely solutions to problems that threatens its very future – massive inequality and poverty, global warming, war and nuclear proliferation, energy and resource depletion, pandemic diseases and so forth.

There are neither universal paths to nor universal models of socialism. Socialism has to grow out of the soil of a particular country, at a particular time, and in particular set of circumstances. Our country will be no exception. We will follow our own distinct nationally specific path.

Socialism must settle the “property question” (from capitalist to socialist property relations or to put it differently, from a capitalist to a socialist mode of production) to be sure. Every revolution must accomplish this essential task, and ours will be no different.

But how this is done and the pace by which it proceeds largely depends on concrete circumstances. At socialism’s dawn in any country and then long into the transition to socialism I expect that a mixed economy, operating in a regulated socialist market and combining different forms of socialist, cooperative, and private property, will prevail, albeit with tensions, contradictions, and dangers.

Such ownership relations and market mechanisms by no means preclude economic planning and democratic control. It is hard, in fact, to imagine how the transformation of the economy can be successfully tackled without democratic planning.

While political supremacy of the working class and its allies is an imperative, once acquired its task isn’t to smash the state into so many pieces, but rather to transform the class content of state structures; extend democratic rights into the economic, social and cultural spheres; enact new democratic forms of participation; and finish the democratic tasks left unfinished by capitalism – especially the elimination of racial and gender inequality.

I stress this because in the American mind, the idea that socialism and democracy are incompatible has widespread currency. And this perception can’t be ascribed solely to ruling-class propaganda. Socialist societies have had democratic shortcomings, too often major ones.

The path to socialism in our country will be long, laced at every turn with massive struggles on many levels and involve a wide array of class and social forces. It will proceed – not straightforwardly, not smoothly, not without reversals, but through stages and at each stage of struggle the balance of power will hopefully tip to the advantage of the working class and people.

Rather than one final conflict triggered by a generalized economic breakdown, I envision a series of connected political, economic, and social crises compressed in time and large in scale that result in a crises of confidence and legitimacy in capitalism and its institutional forms on the part of millions.

Such a rupture of power won’t settle everything once and for all, but it will constitute a decisive turn in a transitional process toward socialism.

Decades ago socialist revolutions grew out of economic catastrophes and major wars. But communists, going back to the 19th century, never believed that armed struggle and civil war were the only nor the preferred avenue to socialism.

“The worker,” Marx said in a speech in Amsterdam in 1872, “must one day conquer political supremacy in order … But we do not assert that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores, and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America and if I am familiar with your institutions, Holland, where labor may attain its new goal by peaceful means.”

I would add that in recent years radical social transformations in relatively peaceful circumstances have occurred in Latin America.

There the force of an active, organized, and overwhelming majority of the working class and its allies combined with the winning of bridgeheads in state structures, including the military, have isolated elites, dislodged neo-liberal governments from power, and cleared the ground, so far peacefully, for social and socialist transformations.

We believe that such an outcome is possible here too. In fact, it is hard to imagine a non-peaceful path to socialism in our country.

Obviously, socialism isn’t imminent. As I see it, we aren’t living in an era of revolution, but rather an era of reform, including possibly radical reform, marked at its beginning by the election of the first African American president.

Six months into the Obama presidency, I would say without hesitation that the landscape, atmosphere, conversation, and agenda have strikingly changed compared to the previous eight years.

Obama’s role

So far Obama’s presidency has both broken from the right-wing extremist policies of the Bush administration and taken steps domestically and internationally that go in a progressive direction.

At the same time, the administration hasn’t gone as far as we would have liked on a number of issues. He is neither a socialist nor a revolutionary despite the incessant claims of the far right.

All and all, however, the new President in deeds and words – and words do matter – has created new democratic space for peace, equality, and economic justice struggles. Whether this continues and takes on a consistently progressive, pro-people, radical reform direction depends in large measure on whether the movement that elected him fills and expands this space.

The struggle going forward, much like the New Deal, will be the outcome of a contested and fluid process involving broad class and social constituencies, taking multiple forms, and working out over time.

It will pivot on the expansion of social and economic rights, the reconfiguring of the functions of government to the advantage of working people, and the embedding of a new economic architecture and developmental path into the nation’s political economy.

No less importantly, it will also entail the recasting of the role of the US in the global community along egalitarian and non-imperial lines.

“What’s all this talk about reform?” you may be asking. “Aren’t you a communist? Isn’t socialism your objective?”

Yes, socialism is the objective of the Communist Party and, according to recent public opinion polls, it is increasingly attractive to the American people. But clearly it is not on the immediate political agenda. Neither the current balance of forces nor the thinking of millions of Americans – the starting point in any serious discussion of strategy and tactics – has reached that point.

That socialism isn’t on the people’s action agenda, however, doesn’t mean that communists will zip our lips. Quite the contrary! We will talk it up and bring our modern, deeply democratic 21st-century vision of US socialism to the American people. And with the use of the Internet we can reach an exponentially bigger audience than we could in the past.

As for our radical disposition, we are as radical as reality itself. And reality tells us that our main task is to assist in bringing the weight of the working class and other democratic forces to impress their interests on the struggle for reforms.

Current phase of struggle

The road to socialism is neither direct nor unencumbered. It will be complex, contradictory, roundabout and go through different phases/stages of struggle.

It will only be reached in the course of struggles for reforms, including radical reforms and then only if tens of millions of American people embrace and fight for socialism.

If it only took the enthusiasm and energy of the left we would had socialism long ago. Active majorities make history and social change, not militant minorities.

The left can help re-bend the arc of history in the direction of justice, equality, and peace. But only if we, and millions like us, pursue a sound strategy that unifies broad sections of the American people.

President Obama and progressive Congress people can’t be the only change agents and will be change agents only up to a point. Our responsibility is to support them, prod them, and constructively take issue with them when we have differing views.

But more importantly – and this is the heart of the matter – we have to reach, activate, unite, educate and turn millions of Americans into “change agents” who can make the political difference in upcoming struggles.

Our parents and grandparents were such bottom-up change agents in the Depression years and the sixties. The American people today would do well to follow their example.

Likewise, communists of our generation would do well to follow the example of our Depression-era comrades. Without giving up their longer-term vision of socialism, they were guided by a sound strategy that accented struggles for reforms and broad unity; they employed flexible tactics; and they didn’t conflate their mood and temper with the mood and temper of the American people. As a result, they were a vital part of the political process of the Depression era.

Our nation faces great challenges as we plunge forward into this new century. But I am convinced that the people of this great land – and communists among them – will meet them as earlier generations met challenges on their watch.