There has been an ongoing debate simmering in the Communist Party of the United States of America over its future direction. There have been sharp differences of opinion over the correct attitude to and significance of Obama’s election, and how the CP should try and address itself to ongoing developments. There has been talk that some within the leadership would like to change the name of the Party, or to go into a broader left formation, while others remain wedded to the more traditional view of what the CP is, and what it is for. It’s not clear where all this is going, but Sam Webb, the Chair of the CPUSA, has recently published an article outlining his personal views on some of these questions, A Party of Socialist in the 21st Century: What it Looks Like, What it Says, and What it Does. Needless to say, it makes for interesting reading. Although it is clearly addressed to the situation in the US, it raises issues for the left everywhere. It makes arguments regarding both theory and practice that challenge traditional assumptions among communists. It’s a long document made up of 29 different points, but what does it boil down to?
1. A party of socialism in the 21st century elaborates its theory and practice in a world defined by the following:
• a social system in which the reproduction of the conditions for exploitation of labor and nature appears to be reaching its limits;
• a hegemonic shift in power in a crowded and highly competitive world, albeit in its early stages, that could easily throw the world into fierce inter-state rivalries, generalized war, and chaos;
• a series of processes (global warming, nuclear proliferation and war, global poverty, pandemic diseases, population pressures, and the exhaustion of natural resources) are unfolding that could have catastrophic consequences, threatening the existence of most living species;
• the irruption and diffusion of new (communication especially) technologies that are reshaping the economic, occupational, class, racial, and gender structures, production methods, consumption habits, class and democratic politics, forms of social interaction and leisure time, the power of instruments of mass destruction and the nature of war, and conceptions of time and space.
Realistically speaking, a resolution of these challenges must begin well before the arrival of socialism on a global level. If we wait till then, both socialism and humanity are doomed. There is a “fierce urgency of now” that can be ignored only at a perilous price.
But here is the paradox: the “fierce urgency of now” is not yet matched by popular movements at the state and global level that possess the vision and capacity to resolve these daunting and interconnected challenges.
So, the argument runs, socialists in the 21st century must be eco-socialists given the scale of the environmental challenge, and must be organised in the ways and using the means that people organise themselves. This means using the internet in particular, and in changing the ways that the Party itself is organised, in its conception of what a member should be, and in how it communicates with people (pushing this argument to the extreme, we could cite the recent events in Egypt as an example of the effectiveness of new media as an organising tool). We’ll come back to the practical implications of these arguments below, but to begin with the theoretical arguments made in the paper.
2. A party of socialism in the 21st century embraces Marxism, understood as a broad theoretical tradition that reaches beyond the communist movement. At the same time, it critically assimilates the American radical/democratic inheritance and the insights of other intellectual and political traditions.
As for “Marxism-Leninism,” the term should be retired in favor of simply “Marxism.” For one thing, it has a negative connotation among ordinary Americans, even in left and progressive circles. Depending on whom you ask, it either sounds foreign or dogmatic or undemocratic or all of these together.
For another thing, Marxism-Leninism isn’t identical to classical Marxism. The ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and other earlier Marxists retain incredible analytical power, if studied and creatively applied to current realities.
But the same cannot be said about Marxism-Leninism. It took formal shape during the Stalin period during which Soviet scholars, under Stalin’s guidance, systematized and simplified earlier Marxist writings – not to mention adapted ideology to the needs of the Soviet state and party.
This simplification of Marxism, coupled with the enshrinement of a single party to the status of “official interpreter” of Marxism, came with a price tag. Theoretically and practically, it hemmed in and negatively impacted our party’s work.
This last argument about the simplification and systematization of Marxism-Leninism under Stalin echoes themes in Hobsbabm’s recent book on Marx and Marxism (reviewed by me here), and this fact in itself may offer something of a guide as to the politics behind some of Webb’s thinking. On the other hand, this makes sense if Webb is trying to knit the Communist Party and its beliefs into a framework whereby there is a radical-democratic tradition in America that has bloomed in many different directions, and he is trying to position the CP as the, or at least, a leading body within it. In this view, the CP becomes one of a number of indigenous radical traditions all seeking to build a fairer and better America, traditions that need to cooperate and that have much to learn from one another. Placed in the context of an analysis that argues that the weakness of the left in America requires mobilising the broadest possible coalitions around challenging the rise of right-wing extremism (Palin, the tea party et al) and broadly progressive demands (separation of church and state, social welfare, healthcare), you can see the logic of the argument. The problem for traditional communists, of course, is that this stream of thinking – especially the point about embracing thought from outside the communist movement – risks removing the idea that the CP must play the vanguard role in effecting the transition to socialism, and that class demands risked being downplayed or lost amidst the desire to forge maximum unity.
These are concerns that Webb acknowledges, and tries to address, although not without implicit criticism of his opponents.
5. A party of socialism in the 21st century elaborates a strategic policy at each stage of struggle. After all, there is no direct or inevitable path to socialism. Nor is the working class going to simply “rise up” at some appointed time and fight for a society of justice. The struggle for socialism goes through phases and stages, probably more than we allow for in our current writings and program.
A strategic policy rests on an estimate of the alignment of political and social forces at each stage of struggle along the road to socialism. On this basis, a specific strategic and tactical policy emerges that brings into bold relief the contending array of class and social forces, the main democratic and class tasks at any given moment, and the political coalition that has to be assembled if the balance of forces is to shift in a progressive direction.
The historical landscape of our country is marked by periods during which such transformations occurred: 1765-1790, 1840-1876, 1890-1915, 1932-1948, 1954-1965.
In each period the contending forces and the nature of the struggle were different in content. But in each instance, the boundaries of democracy were qualitatively enlarged, a new alignment of forces took shape, and new democratic tasks came to the fore.
The election victory in 2008 cracked opened the door for another “burst of freedom.”
But the realization of this possibility has been blocked so far by right wing extremism – the political grouping that dominates the Republican Party and does the bidding for the most reactionary sections of the transnational capitalist class. It is not simply an, or the only obstacle to social change and transformation.
What is it is the main obstacle to social progress at this stage of struggle. And only broad people’s unity has the wherewithal to decisively defeat the deeply entrenched power of right-wing extremism, which would, in turn, weaken the corporate class and its allied bloc as a whole.
It makes little sense to take on the entire capitalist class when it is not necessary. Similarly, it is boneheaded to artificially “hurry” the political process along when pursuing such an option would likely result in defeat.
It seems to me, the key sentence here is the one about Obama’s victory cracking the door open for a burst of freedom, which seems to be the belief that is dictating the strategic orientation argued for by Webb, allied to the argument about the need to defeat the right of the Republican party. Effectively, Webb seems to be arguing that the danger of the right comprehensively destroying the space for progressive politics and launching wars of aggression is so great that some form of modern-day popular front is necessary if there is to be any space for the further growth of the left in the foreseeable future.
6. A party of socialism understands that in any broad coalition of social change, competing views are inevitable. The role of the left is to express its views candidly, but in a way that strengthens rather than fractures broad unity, which is a prerequisite for social progress.
The main social forces in this coalition, as we see it, are the working class, people of color, women, youth and seniors. And the overarching challenge is to transform these social forces (a category of analysis whose interests are conditioned by the place they occupy in a social structure) into social movements (a category of struggle), distinguished by their differing degrees of unity, organizational capacity, mobilization, alliance relationships, and not least, depth and consistency of political outlook.
The most dramatic illustration of this transformation of social forces into social movements was evidenced in the 2008 election campaign. Unfortunately, the “movement” of these broad social forces was not sustained in the post-election period.
We begin, I suspect, to come to another point that will cause concern for many within the CP. This is my old hobby horse of class politics versus identity politics. Issues of gender and racial discrimination have obviously been central to the CP USA’s programme for decades. The question though is one of balance – how to fit these issues (as well as issues surrounding sexuality for example) into the broader struggle for socialism. Those opposed to the trend of Webb’s leadership and analysis fear that he is giving too much ground. Webb in effect accuses his opponents of a form of ultra-leftism that will doom communists to the margins.
9. A party of socialism in the 21st century doesn’t turn – liberals, advocates of identity politics, single issue movements, centrist and progressive leaders of major social organizations, social democrats, community based non-profits, NGOs, unreliable allies, and the “people” (according to some, a classless category concealing class, racial, and gender oppression) – into enemies.
Nor does it withdraw from participation in capitalist democratic institutions. Rather than participating reluctantly and intermittently and rather than seeing such participation as a lower order task, a party of socialism will elevate electoral and political struggle to a primary arena of struggle; it will see such participation as absolutely essential at every phase of struggle.
Struggle within the state is no less important than struggle against the state. The two are dialectically connected, but at various moments, one side of the dialectic may take priority over the other.
I’d be surprised if there weren’t a certain caricaturing of his opponents arguments going on here, especially regarding elections. The logic of his position – that all those communists disagree with should not be treated the same – is certainly something that cannot be argued with, particularly in a country like Ireland, where the left is weak, especially in the north, where, as in America, the only form of class politics is that practised by the rich against the poor. The question of course lies in the point at which a sensible approach to cooperation with, for example, social democrats or secular/non-sectarian liberals becomes a cover for opportunism and the abandonment of fundamental principles, such as that practised by the coterie led by De Rossa, Geraghty, Rabbitte, Lynch and Gilmore.
Webb also states,
7. A party of socialism in the 21st century takes as its point of departure the issues that masses (relative term) are ready to fight for.
This seems like a no-brainer. And yet, the pressures to make left demands, or anti-reform reforms (the new buzz word) the point of broad unity are constant. Too many on the left still think that the role of the left is to up the ante, to double the bet, to sets its demands against the demands of the broader movement.
No one doubts that left demands have a place in class and people’s struggles; only a fool would suggest otherwise. But they are neither the takeoff point for united action nor the singular thing that the left brings to mass struggles.
More important is a strategic approach, capacity building skills, an alternative analysis, vision and values, and a sustained commitment to uniting a broad people’s movement.
Again, the suggestion that opponents are ultra-leftists, racing ahead of the objective reality, and seeking to fit it to their theory, rather than the other way round. Examples might be the demand for mass or general strikes where there is clearly no appetite for one, or seeing the weakness and compromises of trade union leaders in isolation from the general level of class consciousness of their workers.
Webb’s article recalls the arguments of Hobsbawm at other points, specifically those of the Forward March of Labour Halted (1978), and the decline of the traditional proletariat.
In the bull’s-eye of our working class focus is the organized sector of the working class – the labor movement. This sector, with its political understanding, experience, organization, know-how, tactical acumen, and resources is at the core of any revitalized working class and people’s coalition.
But here is a problem: the working class’ associational power (the power that comes from organizing into trade unions and political parties) has declined significantly; roughly 12 percent of the working class is organized into trade unions. At the same time (and connected) labor’s structural power (the strategic power that comes from labor’s location at the core of the strategic sectors of the economy) that it leverages in its own interests has also been greatly weakened with the precipitous decline of mass 20th century production industries.
How to change this, how to strengthen labor’s bargaining power in the workplace and its social power in the community and state, how to build up its political and organizational capacity are compelling challenges. As long as the number of organized workers is near single digits, labor’s impact no matter how good its initiatives will be limited.
Thus, an overriding strategic task of labor, and every democratic-minded organization and person for that matter, is to enlarge the organized section of the working class. The country’s future depends on it.
Two things would greatly facilitate this: first, the defeat of right-wing extremism, thereby creating the possibility of a more labor-friendly organizing environment, and second, the continued evolution of labor into a social movement, that is, an acknowledged champion and tribune of the broader people’s movement.
This puts Webb’s other arguments about the need for a broader alliance into a clearer perspective. It also helps explain why there are nerves among US CP members, especially given the road taken by Hobsbawm’s allies in the CPGB and the PCI. These arguments sound familiar, and have in the past produced the dissolution of communist parties. The danger apprehended is that the CP could end up as effectively the left wing of a kind of radical democratic party playing a similar role to the bourgeois-led radical republican parties and conspiracies in the era before socialism became a mass political movement at the end of the nineteenth century.
The struggle for democracy is a central one in all communist programmes, and has been since the days of Marx, despite the failures of the socialist states on these grounds. Throw in the dominance the word has achieved in political culture, especially in the US, and the reason behind the following section becomes obvious.
11. A party of socialism in the 21st century attaches overriding importance to democratic (reform) struggles (right to a job, health care, housing, equality, education, clear air, peace, vote, speech, etc.) They are a core element in the struggle for class advance, social progress and socialism.
Anyone who demeans the struggle for democracy goes directly against the grain and experience of the great democratic reform movements and leaders (Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Fanny Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez) who fought for the expansion of rights/reforms and every inch – no matter how small – of democratic space.
That these struggles unfolded in a capitalist democratic shell doesn’t negate their significance. In fact, in each instance the protagonist took advantage of the existing space and rights available to organize for his or her cause.
A party of socialism in the 21st century should do likewise.
Indeed, the struggle for democracy/reforms is every bit as important in the 21st century as it was earlier. It is both a means and an end. It empowers people and people empower democracy. It not only brings relief from capitalist exploitation and oppression, it is also the main road to radical change.
In fact, it is hard to imagine how the necessary forces can be assembled and unified at each stage of struggle, including the socialist stage, if the working class and people’s movements are not fully engaged in democratic/reform struggles – first and foremost the right to a job at a living wage and other economic rights.
In saying this, it could be argued that I’m privileging the democratic struggle over the class struggle? Not in the least, changes in the balance of class power can and do either open up new vistas for democratic and socialist transformation or narrow them down, depending upon which class and its allies have the upper hand politically and ideologically at any given moment.
What I’m challenging is the notion that everything is subordinate to class and class struggle no matter what the circumstances.
Analytically and practically, I would strongly argue that the relationship between the two – class and democracy – is dialectical. Each interpenetrates and influences the other. Neither one can be fully realized apart from the other. And both interact in the context of a social process of capital accummulation.
12. A party of socialism in the 21st century doesn’t irrevocably lock social forces, organizations and political personalities into tightly enclosed social categories that allow no space for these same forces, organizations, and personalities to change under the impact of issues, events and changing correlations of power.
As one keen observer, for example, wrote,
“Given how things have turned out so far, it’s comfortable for some on the left to pass off the Obama phenomenon as all myth and illusion from the very beginning. The ‘neo-liberal’ label is pinned on him, he’s ‘always been a conservative’, ‘he’s really pro Wall Street’. Such stereotyping and assignment of an individual to a closed political box runs counter to much historical experience. Movements and the flow of events can change how individuals see things and how they act. All things considered, there can be little doubt that Obama views himself as on the side of struggling Americans – nor is there any doubt that defeating him and ‘taking back the country’ is the prime objective of the neo-fascist mob.”
This is mature advice.
It’s an interesting move to equate the struggle for democracy (and the defence of democratic reforms from the right) with support for Obama, and again one that will cause concern to some, on the grounds that it is possible to struggle for democracy without tying yourself to the Democrats and their role in US imperialism.
To sum up the ideological arguments: Webb is arguing that communism in the USA must seek to become more intellectually open, and to adopt a more friendly approach to other progressive currents, and to orient itself more towards them. This means dropping aspects of traditional communist identity that appear problematic in today’s world (although he makes a distinction between rejecting Stalin and defending the achievements of the socialist states), giving up on claims to be the authentic voice of Marxism for being one among many, and addressing the concerns of those it is seeking to build an alliance with more. He also maintains the need to continue to rely upon historical materialism, and to build on firmly Marxist footings, but to look at the classic Marxist texts afresh.
What does all this mean in practical terms for party organisation? Big changes are recommended. They are all interlinked, and worth quoting as a whole because they are all part of the same argument.
26. A party of socialism in the 21st century will construct its own organizational model in line with its own material conditions and needs. It shouldn’t be hatched out of thin air or imported from another country. The size of the membership, the concentration and location of members, the breadth of leadership, the scope and intensity of the class struggle, and its aims are the main determinants of the organizational character of a 21st century party – its structures, forms and rules of organization.
The structures, forms and rules also depend on the organizational and cultural traditions of our country.
Organizing club meetings every two weeks, insisting that every member belong to a club and pay monthly dues, agitating clubs to focus on a shop or neighborhood, and expecting every member to support the entire party program, circulate the press, and abide by the decisions of the majority is one way to structure a communist party. But it is not the only way. We need much more flexibility as far as structures of organization and membership expectations are concerned.
We are a small party with a committed but thin layer of leaders that hopes to become a much bigger party in a non-revolutionary situation, in a far-flung country, and in the age of the Internet.
In this era defined in many ways by the internet, we shouldn’t attempt to replicate in every, or even most, details the old model of communist organization. A party with a high degree of discipline and centralized structure of organization doesn’t fit the present status of our party or the zeitgeist of our times. This isn’t 1917 – our society is exceedingly complex, the mentality of the Cold War is receding, people are busy as hell, a good number of boomers are tired, and young party members are juggling careers, debt, and activism.
These realities require new forms of interaction, communication, education , decision-making, organization and messaging. And, not least, they require new standards for party membership and a new style of leadership that politically engages the membership and leads by force of argument.
So where does this leave democratic centralism? I’m for dropping the term. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m for collective discussion, broad interaction, democratic decisions, testing decisions in life, and the struggle for unity in action.
But the rule that every member is obligated to carry out party decisions no longer fits our circumstances. The truth is that we never enforced it. If someone chose not to carry out a decision, nothing was done in most instances. If we can’t win members and leaders to a position politically then administrative action is unlikely to help.
The main way to mobilize and unite the party is through political discussions, education, transparency of decisions, persuasion, and sound political decisions.
For similar reasons I suggest we drop the term “unity of will.” Among other reasons, it’s a term, or really a concept, that can easily be abused, and it has in our past.
27. A party of the 21st century must be Internet-based. To believe otherwise is to turn one’s back on recent experience, especially President Obama’s 2008 campaign. The argument that Internet work is at war with on-ground organizing should be retired.
The Internet gives us a tool to organize people far beyond our organized spaces; it allows us to grow faster in old and new places; it provides a menu of programs and services that any member or club can easily access; it allows us to compensate for our thinness of leadership; it makes possible a new division of labor; it gives us the ability to communicate regularly with the whole membership in a timely way; it makes it possible for the People’s World and Political Affairs to reach an infinitely bigger audience; it makes it possible for us to organize meetings in cyber space across thousands of miles, and to expand our visibility and presence.
So far our experience has been positive, but we have only scratched the surface of the Internet’s potential.
28. A party of socialism in the 21st century should open the door to new members. Joining should be no more difficult than joining other social organizations; going through political hoops and close vetting aren’t necessary. That is for White House appointees, not people who take a liking to us.
What is needed is not more stringent standards, but a range of ways that new members can become familiar with our program, policies and activities. The Internet is critical in this regard, but I would also add that we need an on-the-ground team to travel into organized and unorganized areas to meet and greet new members, to acquaint them with our party and its positions, and to hear what they are thinking.
With the recommendation to drop democratic centralism, alarm bells will be ringing among much of the CP in the US, and perhaps further afield. This is of course the defining contribution of Lenin to, for want of a better term, the theory of practice. It marked the Bolsheviks out from their rivals, and provided them with the discipline to achieve the revolution. It has also enabled CPs to punch above their weight. Those parties who have previously gone down the path of abandoning it have without fail also dropped political as well as organisational principles. But putting that aside, and accepting Webb’s premise that this is necessary in the modern world, how does his proposed alternative stand up?
The concept of an internet-based party – as opposed to say an internet savvy one – is hard to understand. Even allowing for the fact that the Americans are dealing with a country the size of a continent, and that the internet does indeed offer excellent opportunities for propaganda, there can be no replacement for work and organisation via face to face contact. And in fact Webb acknowledges that when he talks about the need for a team to travel and meet and greet new members and organise them. I think it’s a badly-phrased argument, and one that may also be drawing the wrong lessons from the 2008 election in that it downplays the importance of other types of communications. This can be seen in the tea party’s success I think. As for becoming more welcoming to new members, I think this has already happened in probably virtually every communist party in the world that isn’t in government, so he is pushing at an open door there, although again there will be concerns about diluting the political line of the Party if too wide a net is cast.
So what to say about Webb’s vision? It is certainly an attempt to face up to and meet the demands of the concrete conditions which now face the CP USA and the American left and progressives in general. Elements of it – like the importance of political struggle, the necessity to build alliances with other forces, even among the bourgeoisie where interests in common can be found, the necessity to deploy new media effectively, to communicate better within and beyond the Party, to use Marxism imaginatively to respond to the conditions created over the last few decades by the dominance of finance capital – are ones that I feel are important. They chime well with discussions taking place among communist and workers’ parties elsewhere. Equally, I understand the concerns of those who worry about what is happening. The language used is certainly reminiscient of those who have abandoned class politics in the past, and the desire to drop democratic centralism is one that goes against every instinct, and indeed the lessons of The Workers’ Party, where it saved the Party from dissolution. There is a real danger in tying the CP too closely to the Democratic Party and Obama specifically. More critical independence may be needed. I guess only time will tell whether the accusations of wanting to dilute the Party’s class politics or change the name are correct. It will certainly be worth watching. There isn’t a communist on the planet who doesn’t respect the CP USA and its actions during the Cold War, so its fate is of interest to all.
More generally, the piece throws up questions about organisation, ideology, strategy and tactics, especially in a country where the left is very weak. We have seen in recent years the creation of a spate of multi-tendency parties of the left, with mixed success. Der Linke is doing well in Germany, whereas the Scottish Socialist Party collapsed under a weight of different problems. Attempts to get something similar off the ground in England also failed fairly miserably, while the French New Anti-Capitalist Party never got the traction some had hoped. On the whole, CPs have not entered them, although the Eurocommunists in France and Spain have joined left parties, partly to offset their decline. The most successful CPs in the EU, the Czech, Greek and Portugese CPs, have not. No general rule there, but there is clearly a danger that a party that seeks to be the revolutionary vanguard loses something when joining a bigger party, as opposed to an electoral alliance or other forms of closer cooperation with other left forces and progressive liberal elements (in NI, the Alliance Party when it comes to fighting sectarianism for example, or secularists in the republic). In terms of ideology, it seems to me all socialists must face up to the need to embrace environmentalism as a core value, and attempt to find answers to some of the more difficult questions regarding the changes wrought by neo-liberalism and Reganism and Thatcherism to class consciousness. We might though want to find different answers to Webb’s. Organisationally, as noted above, we need to bring new people in, but we also need not to throw out what offers us the chance to function effectively, i.e. democratic centralism and hard work on the ground rather than the virtual environment. So much to agree with, and much to question, with the balance perhaps more towards the latter.