With less than two months to go until its 30th National Convention in Chicago, the Communist Party USA, the country’s oldest extant left-wing party, is in crisis.
Casual observers could be forgiven for not realizing this. John Bachtell, chair of the CP’s Convention Organizing Committee, delivered a fairly straightforward pre-convention address, available on the Party website and on YouTube, in which he spends two minutes talking about the great strides the convention and the Communist Party can make toward the fight for a jobs program, equality for all Americans and peace. Mostly unobjectionable if boilerplate stuff, save for the nationalist tinge of advocating equality for all “Americans” (aren’t Marxists internationalists?).
This short address, the Convention homepage, and in general all of the Communist Party’s public voices assure us that the 30th National Convention will be democratic and participatory, with ample opportunity for members and friends of the organization to have their say and collectively determine policy. But a closer inspection beneath the democratic veneer shows the pervasive rot forming in the body of this “official communist” organization and a fundamental break with the revolutionary politics that made the Communist Party the leading light of the workers’ movement in the years after its birth in 1919-21.
“Official communism” is the term used to describe parties that, during the Cold War, took their cues from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU.) These parties all began as revolutionary working-class organizations when they were born in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The combination of imperialist invasions (including 13,000 U.S. troops) and the revolution’s isolation in economically backward Russia1 lead to the growth of a privileged bureaucracy that usurped power from the working class, replacing workers’ democracy with Stalinist dictatorship.
Owing to the over-centralization of the Communist International2, these parties then became the Stalinist CPSU’s mirror image, suppressing and expelling all opposition currents within. The parties of “official communism” were in practice little more than apologists for the Stalinist regimes abroad. At home they were (and still are) nationalist-reformists. The CPUSA has supported corporate liberal politics for quite some time, tailing those politics on domestic issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act to “pathway to citizenship” immigration reform.3
Today these parties still cast a nostalgic glance back to the “good old days” of “socialism” in the USSR / Eastern Bloc, but without the Soviet Union to look toward they find themselves essentially rudderless. The People’s Republic of China, a seemingly logical replacement, is far more interested in running capitalism and adding billionaires to the leadership of the Chinese “communist” party, is not interested in taking up the role. Because of this, the various official communist leaderships patch together new strategic frameworks as best as their stunted conception of Marxism allows – and in the CPUSA’s case, this has meant a total and slavish subordination to a section of the U.S. capitalist class embodied in the Democratic Party.
Politics of Subordination
The CP’s sharp turn to the right is embodied in its Chairman, Sam Webb, who took over the leadership from Gus Hall in 2000. Of course, the CP has supported all kinds of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces (including, intermittently, the Democrats) since the beginning of the “Popular Front” period in the 1930s where it was theorized that a cross-class coalition with sections of the capitalists could more effectively combat fascism than a united front of working class organizations.
In practice, the Popular Front lead to communists watering down their positions to whatever the allied bourgeoisie found acceptable, refraining from criticizing those forces, and giving up much of the hard-won respect the CP had earned as a militant and effective part of the workers’ movement. What distinguishes Sam Webb’s leadership is the sheer scale of subordination the CP displays with regards to the liberal bourgeoisie, and the disastrous effect this has had on the Party’s external impact and internal structures.
The CPUSA supported Bill Clinton in 1992/96, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008/12, the official position being that workers and oppressed people should vote Democratic as the lesser evil in order to keep the Republicans (who they characterize as ‘ultra-right’) out of power. During the Gus Hall period this tendency was kept at bay, although it was still unprincipled even then. Since the ascension of the Webb leadership it has become canon.
Marxists do not oppose the Democratic Party out of dogma. We oppose the Democratic Party because it is not, has never been and never can be a force for positive change in the interests of the working class majority – at home or abroad. Never mind socialism; the Democrats aren’t even a source of reform. To cite just a few examples: Bill Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and pushed through his signature neoliberal “welfare reform; Congressional Democrats closed ranks around George Bush both during the criminal invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and in support of the 2007 bank bailouts.
President Obama has stood with the class he represents – the capitalists – on every important question. He has effectively cut the wages of federal workers, considering wage freezes in combination with increased employee pension contributions. He has extended the Bush-era erosion of privacy, acted as warmonger-in-chief on the world stage (Libya, Syria) and made pro-corporate health care reform his signature policy achievement. As far as tackling the seemingly permanent economic malaise that the capitalist economy has entered, there has been not a word from the Oval Office on a mass public jobs program or even the (much more modest) policy of raising taxes for the super-rich to defend the social programs so desperately needed by millions of Americans.
State-level Democratic politicians are no better: the Wisconsin Democrats, through their ties with the union leadership, diverted a mass protest movement against union-buster Scott Walker into the dead end of a gubernatorial recall campaign in which the Democratic candidate did not even commit to undoing the hated legislation if he won! Democrats have lead the charge for austerity, implementing social welfare-slashing budgets in New York, Massachusetts and Iowa. Clearly they are not even a useful shield against the Right, differing with their counterparts across the aisle not on any principles but merely on details (and, increasingly, not even that.)
Today the Democrats extend tepid, toothless support for a multi-year, phased-in $10.10 minimum wage. This is transparently a move to stave off increasing social discontent that could erupt into mass struggle – and indeed there already is popular struggle over the issue of poverty wages, embodied in the union-lead “Fight for 15” campaigns around the country fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage and union representation in the famously low-wage fast food industry. Communists, of all people, should know the famous dictum of Frederick Douglass: without struggle there is no progress. Even Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, beloved liberal icons, enacted reforms not by their consciences but because of mass struggle from below.
When workers and oppressed people stand up and fight, nothing is outside our reach; the growing movement for a $15/hour wage as a step toward a living wage is a testament to this. To support watered-down liberalism while a real struggle is developing and in urgent need of communist participation is a betrayal of principle. Yet People’s World, the CPUSA-affiliated news website, runs article after article praising this and other Obama Administration talking points.
The Democratic Party cannot be reformed. It is not democratically structured – even in theory – the same way a labor union is, where bureaucratic and collaborationist leaderships can be removed through the will and organization of a radicalized membership. Unfortunately, recent developments in the Communist Party are showing it to be not much more democratic than the Democrats themselves.
A wave of recent expulsions have shaken what remains of the Communist Party’s on-the-ground infrastructure as the leadership moves to prevent any opposition to its liberal political line at the upcoming convention. The Los Angeles Club (branch) was expelled from the Party before the pre-convention period began; it has now been joined by the Houston Communist Party (unilaterally expelled and “reorganized” by a CPUSA National Committee representative) and the Transit Workers Club, formerly part of the New York District Communist Party. The Transit Club expulsion is the most shocking of the three, carried out as it was by one man and against an active local Party unit. Workplace branches are a rare and precious commodity on the modern Left, so the Transit Club’s expulsion shows just how willing the CP leadership is to hobble its own organizational strength for the sake of cracking down on dissidents.
The CP opposition finds its most coherent expression in a group called the National Council of Communists, to which the Transit Workers Club, LA Club, Houston Club and another opposition group – the Communist Party of Oklahoma – are all affiliated. While the opposition goals of kicking out the Webb clique and ending support for Democrats4 are admirable, they fail to break with the stale “official communism” described above. The CP opposition is, to one degree or another, openly Stalinist: they defend Stalin’s brutal bureaucratic dictatorship as an example of historical “socialism” and everything that comes with that outlook, viewing the ultra-sectarian5 Communist Party of Greece as a model.
It is understandable that CP dissidents would want to raise up the banner of Stalin, since the Stalin era coincides with a period where the Communist Party USA had a high degree of influence: the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, the Unemployed Councils that organized direct action to win unemployment relief, strong showings from Communist electoral candidates, et cetera. But it has to be stressed that these successes were in spite of Stalinism, not because of it. In fact, Stalinism would prove to be the CPUSA’s undoing.
The Communist Party was formed in a process of revolutionary realignment and unity. It brought together the best elements of America’s class-conscious workers and oppressed people, grouping them together around a principled Marxist program. Early on in the CP’s life, however, democratic centralism (free and open inner-party democracy combined with unity in action of all members) turned into its opposite, bureaucratic centralism.
Directives from above replaced control from below. Famously, one of the CPUSA’s founders, James P. Cannon, was expelled from the Party on charges of “counterrevolutionary Trotskyism.” The bureaucratic regime made it easy for General Secretary Earl Browder to dissolve the CP during World War II, a move that Stalin’s international representatives did nothing to oppose until it was politically expedient to do so. Sam Webb’s opponents are right to compare him with the “revisionist” Browder, but the dead hand of bureaucratic control belongs just as much to William Z. Foster (Browder’s “anti-revisionist” successor) as to Browder or Webb.
That such methods are now being used against pro-Stalin elements is a case of reaping what has been sown. Of course a certain amount of criticism is allowed in the pre-convention discussion as a safety valve, but in the final analysis the CP leadership exercises total control over its proceedings. It would take nothing less than an open, programmatically unified members revolt to overturn it – and maybe not even then. Offering up warmed-over Stalinism won’t win over what remains of the CP rank-and-file and it certainly won’t win over the broad numbers of the working class, who are rightfully repulsed by a tyranny that ruled in the name of communism.
Building a powerful working class movement in the United States will require going back to the principled Marxist unity that founded the Communist Party in the first place. We need to unite around a revolutionary program – a shared strategy on how to transcend capitalism. This can only happen inside the framework of genuine democratic centralism, where acting as a united whole doesn’t preclude open debate and control from below.
That’s the kind of party that would put socialism back on the map.
- Russia, as an economically backward country, did not have the material basis for socialism. The Russian revolutionary leadership banked on revolution in the more advanced capitalist countries nearby; these revolutions did occur (such as in Germany) but were crushed due to the treacherous role of Social Democracy and the local communists’ immaturity.
- The Third (Communist) International was created on the initiative of the Russian Bolsheviks after the collapse of the Second International during World War One.
- See “Immigration: No More Pathway to Citizenship” in the Red Vine #1 for a detailed critique of liberal immigration reform.
- For the most part, at least. Some elements of the CP opposition still advocate supporting “progressive” Democrats and / or working to change that party “from within.”
- Sectarianism, in the Marxist sense, is defined as putting the interests of one’s own group ahead of the interests of the working class as a whole.