The US Communist Party held its 29th Convention this past weekend in New York city on the 90th anniversary of its founding. I last attended a CP convention in 1991, a time of great turmoil throughout all parties and movements that identified with socialist or communist ideals. The collapse of the USSR and the fall of quite a few socialist led governments had persuaded many that the entire socialist experiment had failed, that Marxism was false.
For those who had came to view the vision and theories of Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin, more as religion than contributions to economic and political science; for those who followed dogma over facts; for those who believed political regimes by will alone were capable of leaping over the real laws of economic and social development - a reckoning was certainly due.
Return of the Specter
But time has not been kind to those forces who believed Bush the First when he proclaimed the dawn of a new world order in love with the vicissitudes of capitalism, and lawless globalization. Despite vigorous attempts to bury the socialist and communist movements - and social democratic regimes too - and poison the atmosphere against their ideologies, both organization and ideas on the Left appear to be returning in new, more robust and energetic forms, judging by the new wave of activists and rebels attending the 29th CP convention.
Of course the CP has been around for a long time. But it gives every evidence of shedding old skin and reinvigorating itself. It takes multitudes of working people, of many races and nationalities, men and women, gay and straight, youth and seniors - together - to move the mountains of inequity and injustice arising from the past 35 years of financialization of the US economy, and the greatest economic crisis since the 1930's. And the end of this crisis is not yet in sight, which in itself gives rise to new thinking about the nature of capitalism, and its ability to reproduce itself. This convention marked a sharp break with any remaining legacy within the party for narrow or defensive conceptions of party organization. It rejected notions of the path to US socialism other than through the struggles to defeat the ultra right, and raise the wealth and democratic rights of working people, at the expense of monopoly corporate power.
Both old and new defenses from the ideologists of capitalism are being broadly challenged. Robert Rubin's well-managed society whose economy rests in the hands of liberal investment banks has crashed. David Brooks can't decide what to think. The right wing crazies are probably too agitated and medicated to even be allowed to drive a car. In this atmosphere of permanent hot media and ceaseless information streams, no wonder Obama's coolness stood out as a virtue voters thought we might need! Thus, no surprise that Karl Marx, and revised, more democratized conceptions of socialism, are gaining renewed interest as the economic crisis once again confronts society with the grave difficulties of reining in capitalism's terrible instability. Under the right constraints, capitalism has been shown to generate great innovative successes. Yet as each technological revolution overthrows and succeeds a previous order, the conflicts between private anarchy and public stability appear to have grown sharper, to become destabilizing on an ever greater scale. Globalization, left to the management, or non-management might be a better term, of a few large powers and central banks greatly aggravates this conflict on a worldwide scale. Vladimir Lenin, liberated in recent years from the grim Stalin legacy that followed him in Russia, also seems to be making a comeback via diverse and mixed socialist parties and governments from China and Vietnam, to the popular social-democracies in South and Central America.
Emulating the Working Class, Diversity and Equality
The beautiful and diverse composition of the delegates to the CP convention was its most striking feature. Always striving to reflect the character of the US working class in its own composition, the Communist Party has been one of the most integrated political organizations in the United States - going all the way back to its founding. Of all left organizations in the US, a CP meeting is the most like a union meeting - there is a century long and deep commitment to strengthening the organized section of the working class. The party focuses much of its work on, and draws much of its strength from, the US labor movement. Working people need strong unity to exercise power, and organizing multi-national, multi-racial cooperation and solidarity are values that the CP in particular has long placed front and center in every political fight. No change there. Except the breadth and depth of the Obama coalition, building on the always deepening diversity of the US population, makes the CP not so unique in this respect. Perhaps it even makes this part of its task easier. Inequality and inequities abound. Yet young people are raised in a much less segregated, and much more diverse, culture than the generations before.
Delegates to the convention appeared steeped in trade union and working class movements. The African American, Latino, Asia and Pacific island, LGBT, Native American, gender, youth and senior, immigrant and naturalized composition genuinely reflected the real colors and shades, cultures, traditions, lifestyles, dialects and languages of this land. Watching them struggle and reach for agreement on an advanced but realizable progressive platform gives one hope about our country, despite the many storms and furies that seek to divide us.
Sam Webb's Report
The convention opening report of National Chair Sam Webb focused on the compelling need to accelerate the democratic upsurge of working people and all progressive forces combating persistent joblessness, which stands near 20% of the workforce when all are counted, and to defeat a resurgent ultra right-wing, racist offensive designed to derail and destroy the entire Obama progressive reform agenda, and Obama's historic presidency as well. Webb targets the 2010 midterm elections were as the focus of political activity for the next 6 months. Both the ultra-right challenge, and the prospects for deepening reform and kicking up the strength of the coalition that elected Obama, will meet their next big test on November 2, 2010. That's just 160 days from now.
Webb made strong appeals not to underestimate the important and positive changes in the political environment since the campaign and election of Barack Obama. The broad coalition that gave birth to the Obama phenomenon went to sleep for a while after the election. But if the recent primary elections are any sign, it is waking up again! And none too soon! This movement is taking us all to school in the art of grassroots majority politics.
The Ultra-right, racist danger
The dangers posed by unambiguously racist propaganda emanating from not just the fringes but the leadership of the Republican Party -- were specifically addressed by Executive Vice Chair Jarvis Tyner. He argued that the so called "tea party" forces' unchecked resorts to vicious slurs, threats of violence, and provocations are well organized and are picking up steam in some areas of the country. The goal being to distract and divide folks who are in near panic over the prolonged economic crisis. Rand Paul, an open opponent of the old Republican establishment, wins the Kentucky Senate primary. Like his father, so-called Libertarian Ron Paul, this "Tea Party" candidate is a front and cover for outright white supremacist organizations, as was revealed in press conferences following the election where Paul criticized the foundations of de-segregation laws. Fox news pundits and the Limbaugh-talk radio, drug-crazed crowd running the new Republican Party are also riding these racist diversions to challenge longstanding civil rights legislation on affirmative action and bars against public segregation, as well as celebrations of the Confederacy.
Tyner, and many speakers, noted the intense anti-immigrant fever that has broken out like an infected sore in Arizona. The state legislature and Governor enacted a draconian law directing state law enforcement to arrest and demand "papers" of anyone they "suspect" is "illegal." A large, multi-racial and multi national movement to "legalize Arizona" has emerged in response, gaining a hat tip from President Obama, and direct pledge of support from the President of Mexico and other international forces. Yet, as convention participants noted, polls currently show two to one support for the law, both in Arizona and across the US, reflecting again both a profound level of panic over jobs, and frustration with failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Despite warnings about the danger from the ultra right, the mood was upbeat at the convention. Convention reports noted the results of the recent primary elections that, in the main, repudiated Republican and ultra right campaigns, and asserted that the majority of voters, while divided on some questions, are in support of the Obama reform agenda and in many cases moving toward even more progressive proposals.
Expressions of greeting and solidarity were received from many communist, socialist and workers' parties, including remarks from an official rep of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
Highlights also included reports of many rich experiences of delegates in electoral, grassroots, trade union, health care, May Day, financial reform, and varied community struggles and campaigns. Communists are winning or in serious contention in several races across the country. They are running primarily in the Democratic party. There were strong messages of solidarity from UE Republic Windows, victorious sit-down strikers in Chicago, and from organizers and leaders in the immigrants rights movement, and from the many moving and emotional song, letter and speech tributes, from many nations, at the Saturday evening international solidarity and 90th anniversary celebration.
Reports on the struggle for peace focused on accelerating and advancing the withdrawal from Iraq, returning to regional diplomacy over war in Afghanistan, and addressing the urgent needs to implement the two state solution in Israel-Palestine. The world wide improvement in unity in preventing the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction needs to be buttressed with legislation.
Much attention was paid to building and expanding online media initiatives and responding to increased demands for flexibility in tactics.
Sometimes in reports on political conventions, especially those on the Left, there is a tendency to overstate, or perhaps mis-characterize the overall impression of unity. Of course all political parties can only move decisively forward on those matters where there is the broadest agreement. There is indeed broad CP unity on strengthening the democratic upsurge behind a reform agenda that is friendly to that of the president. But the convention was not a boring recitation of people rising to associate themselves with the remarks of the chairman. There are very diverse, and quite different, conceptions of how socialism, or mixed market - socialism, or the transition to socialism, is developing in the United States, and around the world.
Sam Webb, Jarvis Tyner and Roberta Wood were re-elected as officers, Chair, Exec Vice-Chair and Secretary-Treasury, respectively.
The meeting opened singing "This land is your land", and closed on the "International."
How come not bigger?
It's an odd and somewhat uneasy juxtaposition of thoughts and feelings that witnesses the truly beautiful composition and spirit of the delegates to this CP convention alongside the small size of the Communist Party - which has not enjoyed a strong base of strength since the beginning of the McCarthy repression in the late 1940's and the 1950's.
I keep asking - how come? How come such a lively outfit as this crowd does not have 20,000, or 100,000 members? The same question could be asked about the organized Left in general. But I think when its answered for the CP, it will be similar to the answer for the Left too. The most important part of the answer is rejecting all political doubts about the importance of the democratic struggle for workers, and not picturing the path to socialism as in any way separate from the tasks of this struggle. The CP focus on labor and its explicit class orientation has always been the essence of its survival strategy even in the darkest times. And now - now that the time for an offensive is at hand - the class base and focus is helping it make the necessary adjustments in political program, strategy and tactics. This convention got that done! Which should alone enable it to grow its membership if folks do as they have pledged!
The name "Communist"
Beyond that, while it did not come up on the agenda, or in speeches, one of the elephants in the room - not far from my own mind, at least - is the linkage between the name "Communist" and the failed USSR, so identified with it. To ask American workers to find their way through all of cold war history in order to help work with and lead the class and democratic fight that the delegates to the CP convention committed themselves to - is asking too much, in this writer's opinion. However, even if that association were to fade with time and be overtaken by the record of sound, sober, serious and solid leadership in this struggle before us, its hard to picture a large workers party in the US calling itself "Communist." Why? Because such a party is tasked in this era chiefly with fully exhausting the democratic struggle to raise workers incomes and rights under capitalism. Further, even strategically such a party must be willing and able to participate in and help lead coalitions capable of running a sustained mixed - part capitalist, part socialist - economy for a likely lengthy transition period. Naming this party "Communist" before such time as the tasks of constructing a society reflecting the communist ideal are fully prepared, is premature in a mass context, at least in the US. However, since all political obstacles to full participation in this great democratic upheaval of our time have been set aside, I am sure this one too will in due course be set aside if it remains a block to the growth that the CP's program and broad approach most definitely deserves. I recommend its serious consideration by all.
Single slate elections
The other elephant in the room, from this writers point of view, is the single slate method of electing leadership. To most Americans familiar with trade unions or other political parties, it would seem strange. Most of the latter have a more "federal" style of electing leadership. That is, geographical and other established party or union organizational components are each given some proportion of seats on the leading committees. Delegates to conventions of more federal organizations do not vote on leading committees as a whole, but by district, state or other type of sector. Officers are typically elected at large, and with a broader mandate than members of leading committees. The CP in the US does it differently, due to three factors. First, preserving a balanced class, racial, national, gender, youth and cultural composition in leadership has always been a high priority - a priority that can sometimes be sacrificed to regional or other sectarian tendencies. Second, the repressions against the CP for years made it very difficult to operate as other organizations. And a fully open or transparent process still poses some risks - although these are declining in the current period - of retaliation from members' employers or other forces meaning harm. Third, the slate method arguably constructs a more harmonious leading collective able to perform multiple tasks, both regional and national, with better coordination. In the single slate election a presiding committee, elected by the delegates, prepares a proposal for the entire incoming national leadership, subject to amendment by the convention.
So, there is cause to proceed carefully and in a manner that does not provoke unnecessary division. But it is hard to see the single slate method adaptable to a larger party without risking bureaucratic distortions. Yes - becoming more "federal" might weaken collectivity and give more ground to factions. But dealing with factions, and building unity, is a never-ending task in all mass organizations. Further, single slate methods can weaken individual leadership accountability to members. Lastly, I don't see the single slate method adapting easily to a party much more focused on elections and electability, as a mass party must be.
Si Se Puede!!
I will no doubt be accused of quibbling about less important matters by some, or exposing liberal ideological tendencies by others. But I remain convinced these are important quibbles, weighty elephants indeed!
Nonetheless, it is clear from this convention that these challenges will be addressed in order, and constructively. These delegates are serious, and practical. They elected officers completely committed to the democratic tasks before working people. They are bowing to no authority but reason and necessity. The enthusiasm, the si se puede!! spirit, the stubborn determination and grit of the delegates and leaders gathered in New York for the 29th Convention of the CPUSA do not look like folks who will be stopped, or driven in any cultish or sectarian direction. They have the main tasks down! And they seem ready to lay it all on the line to move the working class and popular democratic movement forward, for peace, and a higher standard of living. From this convention, I predict they will not be blocked by any trees fallen across the road that stand in the way!
As Robert Frost wrote:
"...And yet [Nature] knows obstruction is in vain: We
will not be put off the final goal We have it hidden in
us to attain, Not though we have to seize earth by the
pole And, tired of aimless circling in one place, Steer
straight off after something into space."
...and across the Universe
yes we can! si se puede!