Posted by: exiwp | August 9, 1987

Communists in the Mainstream (1987)

An IWP Plenary Presentation

The accomplishment of our tendency is the development of a non-revisionist new left in this national sector. We have successfully built a tendency which is bringing communism into the mainstream of the body politic in the United States of America. For a particularly exemplary instance of communist leadership in the mainstream, think back to the last weekend of June 1986.

On Friday night, we produced a Musicruise featuring Jorma Kaukonen. While some of our organizers were keeping the peace among the white working class of New Jersey, others were presenting at a gay leadership conference downtown. This conference continued the next day. That night, the New York Institute for Social Therapy & Research presented at its 10th Annual Marxism and Mental Illness Conference a theatre piece, “After the Revolution,” which showed not only that it could happen here, but graphic details about just how it might happen-complete with hints at contemporary activities (such as infiltrating the Sixth Fleet and having NAP stockpile weapons in the community).

The next day, we marched 200 strong down Fifth Avenue in the Gay Pride March. In the scornful words of one Democratic Party hack, “NAP put on a show again.” The March was followed by a meeting of some of the leading theoreticians and organizers of our tendency in which they planned a conference on the issue of communists in the mainstream, and that was followed by a week-long program to train newly developing communists who had come in from all over the country. This exhausting weekend was a particularly striking display of our capacity to be, and our location as, communist leaders in the mainstream.

Self-conscious Bolsheviks were on the Hudson, marching down Fifth Avenue, in a West Village church, a Social-Democratic controlled community theatre, and in our own independent Castillo Center-hard at work shaping whatever social motion could be discerned, exploiting opportunities that came our way while the bourgeoisie was on vacation, imparting a certain social stamp even to a rock concert. It has always been our contention that we don’t have to water down our communism in order to be in the mainstream. On the contrary, we believe that it is impossible to be a communist without being in the mainstream, and whatever mainstream successes we have had are wholly due not to our business acumen, but to our cadre, as Bette the Bronx Bomber would say: “that tightly knit, well-disciplined leadership body of crazy motherfuckers.”

Not since the successful organizing of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s has the U.S. had communist leadership. And never before has it had non-revisionist leadership. How did the CP sell out? How do we avoid the pulls of revisionism? What are revisionism’s historic roots, and the current manifestations in the left, the working class movement, the mainstream body politic?

We are communists in the mainstream, the non-revisionist left in the United States of Amerikka. Therefore, because we have a fused, if modest (or “small,” to quote the New York Times, the official newspaper of record) relation to the class and because of that, a fused, if modest, toehold in the American body politic, we are confronting mainstream revisionism every single day in a hundred ways. Revisionism is no less than the character of progressive politics in the United States. As Marxist-Leninists, we must know its character and history intimately in order to purge all remnants of it from our tendency and to further expose it in the mainstream-distinguishing it from our politic and organizing the class to support a genuine communist politic.

We are not the first communist attempt to move into the mainstream. The Communist Party USA was a significant force in the mainstream during the 1930s and the first part of the 1940s. This was the period of their greatest success as a mass-based leadership force of the U.S. working class and, in the later part of this period, their greatest failure, as the popular front was transformed from a correct tactic for fighting fascism to a revisionist strategy for socialism.

From the end of the Civil War through the post-World War II period, U.S. capital consolidated its political control, rapidly built its industrial plant, and emerged as the leadership of the international bourgeois class. This relatively rapid ascendancy of the U.S. bourgeoisie also meant a rapid proletarianization of the U.S. working class-one of the historic conditions for mass working class ferment. During this approximately 80-year period-in particular from the 1880s on through the late 1940s-the U.S. working class waged a bitter and ruthless struggle (not infrequently an armed struggle), against the U.S. bourgeoisie. In its struggle for economic rights the U.S. working class expressed unadulterated, pure class rage.

During the organizing of the copper and coal miners, lumber jacks, longshoremen and other industrial workers, pitched battles occurred frequently between armed workers and armed thugs, the Pinkertons-a private army hired by the Rockefellers and other robber barons and industrialists. A not uncommon scenario was the Pinkertons murdering the women and children at a strike camp and the strikers attacking the Pinkertons, culminating in the public hanging of leadership of the strike. In the organizing of the United Mine workers, if a worker didn’t sign a union card his arms were broken in half. If a miner wanted to live, he signed. International Women’s Day and May Day-both international working class holidays-have their origins in this country. The U.S. working class was out for blood. That is our heritage-which the CPUSA sold out.

The 1930s-the Great Depression-was a period of massive working class ferment: in the urban neighborhoods, on the farm and on the job, in the factories and coal mines, amongst the southern Black sharecroppers, middle-class progressives and the intelligentsia. The CPUSA played a leading role in organizing all of these sectors. The two most tactically significant were the organizing of the industrial working class through the eventual building of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), and the southern Black working class.

The CPUSA owed its capacity to organize Blacks to the leadership it got from the Third International, the Comintern. For the CPUSA’s position was that Blacks were simply another section of the working class that had to be united and gain equality with the white working class in order to achieve greater class strength. Under the leadership of the Comintern, the CPUSA changed its position to one of identifying Blacks as a separate nation with the right to self-determination. The Sharecroppers Union-a predominantly Black organization of sharecroppers and laborers who were arming themselves and demanding land-expressed this strategy.

By the mid-1930s, the CPUSA’s base in this most militant working class in the leading capitalist country of the world made the CPUSA a shining star, the jewel of the Third International-of all the CP’s internationally. The political challenge which the CPUSA faced was how to provide political leadership to the class-conscious militancy of the U.S. working class. It did not rise to this challenge; it failed utterly-such that this most militant and rageful working class was sold out and destroyed as a class, and the CP-style revisionism spread like a cancer and became incorporated fully into mainstream American progressivism.

The CPUSA was formed shortly after the Russian Revolution by trade union leaders and militants and, as they were called, foreign born Marxists from Eastern Europe and Russia-all of whom supported the Principles namely Leninism-that guided the Russian Revolution. There were many fundamental problems in the formation of the CPUSA. One (which we have discussed and written about extensively) is that while the CPUSA was formed out of the correct recognition that a vanguard party was needed to make the revolution, the tactical question of what needed to be done to form a vanguard was not engaged.

Historical, tactical, dialectical, scientific questions like: what kind of relationship could be organized between a vanguard and the working class; what was the state of the working class at that time; was there a basis for a vanguard party; what political issues would be raised for the class in following the leadership of the vanguard; what mass organizations were needed as a basis for the development of the vanguard; were not raised. Though there was a programmatic agreement with Leninism, Leninism was never practiced. Political differences which were worthy of principled political struggle in order to advance the Party’s organizing rapidly polarized into factional fights. A factional struggle broke out between the trade unionists and foreign-born Marxist elements over whether the party should be legal and above ground (the position of the trade unionists) or illegal and underground (the position of the foreign-born Marxists).

The decision of the Comintern was in support of the organic U.S. trade union based leadership. The party, it was stated, should be legal because, since the U.S. was a bourgeois democracy, the party could function legally. This was seen as an advantageous position from which to recruit the working class into a communist party. Indeed, the position of the trade union faction was that the militancy of the U.S. working class would make it receptive to communist organizing-a very dangerous position if it’s oversimplified, which it was. The Comintern’s support of the trade-union wing coupled with the upsurge in trade-union organizing in the 1930s de facto made the trade-union faction’s politic dominant in the CPUSA. It’s important to examine this politic and its historic origins.

The trade union movement in this country did not grow from a party as in Europe, but rather the parties-most importantly the CPUSA-grew from the trade union movement. This has had a two-fold effect on the development of the U.S. working class. On the one hand, it allowed for the development of a working class that was not conservatized by a social democratic politic as in Western Europe but rather expressed pure class rage. On the other hand, the U.S. working-class movement developed separately from a strategy for socialism and historically has been politically backward. The specific politically backward perspective of the class in this national sector has been syndicalism-a politic which holds that the working class struggle is fundamentally economic, not political, and needs to be fought in the economic arena. Working class rage and militancy is thought to be sufficient to achieve socialism-a vanguard party is not needed.

The International Workers of the World (IWW), a most militant working class organization seeking to organize One Big Union in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was anarcho-syndicalist. They rejected participation in the electoral arena and any form of organizational structure that would curb spontaneous class struggle, e.g., dues check-off, union contracts, etc. They were for all-out continuous class struggle. Ironically, the CPUSA was formed in part as an alternative to anarcho-syndicalism, as well as to the social democracy which engaged in the political arena through elections but didn’t recognize the need to smash the state. The CPUSA, while recognizing that a revolutionary political party was necessary, retained a syndicalist deviation. This deviation was the source of their sellout.

William Z. Foster was the leading trade unionist who formed the Communist Party in 1919 and was General Secretary of the Party in the 1940s, following Earl Browder. In some of his writings, Foster located the U.S. working class’ vulnerability to syndicalism in its being seduced by bourgeois democracy and thereby thinking there isn’t a struggle to be waged on the political front. He bemoaned the fact that the U.S. working class suffers from a low class consciousness. This is an interesting analysis, for in claiming that syndicalism demonstrates a lack of class consciousness Foster is confusing a rejection of the political struggle with a low class consciousness.

The Wobblies, for example, were scornful of bourgeois democracy, not seduced by it. Their lack of political activity didn’t grow from a lack of class consciousness or vulnerability to belief in the bourgeois state. Rather, they were ultra-left politically. Class consciousness was not the problem with the U.S. working class prior to WWII. The issue was how to shape that class consciousness, that rage, into a political consciousness or, more to the point, revolutionary activity. This was the very question that needed to be dealt with in deciding what kind of communist organization to form after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917.

Though militant class consciousness may be a necessary condition for the development of a mass-based revolutionary vanguard organization, it’s not simply more class consciousness that is needed to form this vanguard organization. Foster’s analysis holds on to the primacy of class militancy and confuses that with political development. The perspective the CPUSA ultimately employed was to “lend the economic struggle a political character,” Lenin’s characterization (in What Is To Be Done?) of economism-making the economic trade union struggle primary or placing the economic struggle before the political struggle.

The vulnerability of the U.S. working class and its leadership to syndicalism is not simply that it’s enamored of bourgeois democracy. The vulnerability is historical, not psychological, and has much to do with the specific manner in which capitalism and bourgeois democracy developed in the U.S. As articulated in Green and Newman’s article “The Divine Right of White America: Euro-Centrist Ideology in the U.S.” (Practice, 1986), it is the white skin privilege of the U.S. working class that is the basis for its political backwardness which, among other things, takes the form of glorifying the struggle and capacity of the working class to achieve economic power-a kind of syndicalist “manifest destiny” (Practice, pp. 22-23).

For the working class to function as a political leadership force and not merely fight for its own immediate economic interests (i.e., syndicalism), it must provide leadership in the political struggle against all oppression. Making the political struggle primary in the U.S. means making the fundamental struggle the struggle against racism. A communist leadership force in the U.S., then, must provide revolutionary leadership to the struggle of Black people.

Though for a brief period in the early 1930s the CPUSA moved beyond organizing Blacks simply for equality to organizing for revolutionary control, this was only a temporary programmatic change, which, at the risk of sounding anti-communist, was imported from Moscow under the leadership of Stalin. The fact that it was imported is not the problem, but rather the problem is that the correct identification of the revolutionary potential of the Black population did not result in the purging of the CPUSA’s syndicalism. The change in perspective didn’t come complete with a thorough reappraisal of the CPUSA’s tactic and analysis nor was it a self-conscious challenge to the racist ideology of the white working class.

The CPUSA, never employing Leninist method, never capable of principled political struggle, overwhelmed by the militancy of the trade union struggle, was incapable of reversing the racism of its analysis and misidentified the source, character, and what is to be done about the political backwardness of the U.S. working class. The response of the CPUSA to the challenge to develop the politic of the class was to call for more militancy (which meant joining the CPUSA) instead of engaging head on structural racism.

By the mid 1930s, with syndicalism in hand, the CPUSA had become a militant left political force to be reckoned with in U.S. politics. Its popularity was growing. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. This helped lay the basis for the Third International in 1935 to organize a popular front with all anti-fascist forces against the rise of fascism in Europe, which was posing a threat to the existence of the Soviet Union and the future of International Communism. The objective need for a limited unity of anti-fascist forces was a valuable opportunity for the CPUSA to thrust further into the mainstream, which it did. Furthermore, the CPUSA was moving into the mainstream with something the bourgeoisie, in particular the Roosevelt wing, needed to control, namely, a militant labor base with popular support.

Roosevelt, a bourgeois revisionist, was revising the structure of the bourgeois state in the form of the New Deal. He was attempting to bring labor into a new political coalition which would reorder economic policies by bringing the economy under more direct state control. By doing so, labor’s effectiveness and revolutionary potential as an independent force would be blunted. Just as the bourgeoisie needed something from the CPUSA, the CPUSA needed something from the bourgeoisie, namely, for it to fight fascism. In addition, the bourgeoisie had something the CP wanted, as opposed to needed-the capacity to help it become a legitimized social force. Both sides had strong bargaining positions and a deal was struck.

In its first decade of existence (the 1920s), the CPUSA was a marginal political force. Within the space of a few years in the early 1930s, the CPUSA built a mass base in the labor movement and within a few more years it had direct lines to the White House-a very rapid move into the mainstream. During the popular front period, 1935-45, with a brief interruption during the Hitler-Stalin pact (a tactical move by Stalin to delay Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union), the Party was at the height of its popularity and growing rapidly. Its influence also extended to the intelligentsia and middle class. Its syndicalist deviation was particularly evident here in its perspective on culture-which was to build and support working class culture. The syndicalism lies in the belief that you can have working class culture under capitalism without making the revolution, another example of the divine capacity-stemming from the divine right-of the white working class.

The specific major reforms from the New Deal were the unions winning minimum wages, maximum hours, restrictions on child labor and the right to organize and to strike. The cost of the deal for the bourgeoisie was making the trade union movement a permanent fixture, a state-endorsed element of U.S. society. Elements of the bourgeoisie were dead set against Roosevelt’s concessions to labor; they were considering assassinating him and had plans to seize state power. But, in fact, legitimizing labor was a small price to pay for retaining economic and political control. The cost of the deal for the CPUSA and the U.S. working class was, of course, much greater in fact, too great.

In exchange for winning economic reforms and the possibilities of consolidating the popular front and remaining in mainstream locations where it could best influence the U.S. entry into the war against Germany, the CPUSA dropped its independent organizing. The Sharecroppers Union, an organization that was beginning to arm the southern Black and some elements of the white working class, was disbanded and full support was thrown behind the NAACP. Within the unions, patriotism superseded all else. By 1940, CPUSA members were introducing resolutions in the trade unions denouncing the adoption of communist, fascist or other “extremist” foreign policies-justified as an attempt to prevent an anti-communist purge.

Though during World War I the international capitalist class was disunified and at war with one another, the capitalists emerged from this war as a unified international class under the leadership of the U.S. bourgeoisie, with a right split (fascism) emerging. The international working class, on the other hand, emerged from the war split by the sellout of the social democracy, but having made a monumental historic gain in Russia, the establishment of the first socialist state. What was needed internationally was much party building, but it wasn’t being done. Instead, a non-Leninist method of party building was used, leaving the strategic needs of the working class in other national sectors vulnerable to being subsumed by the tactical needs of the Soviet Union. Thus, by the 1930s the international communist movement made the same deadly political sacrifice to the bourgeoisie as did the CPUSA. In exchange for the popular front, revolution was abandoned as the means for achieving socialism. In Spain, the Civil War of the 1930s was fought solely in defense of the bourgeoisie state against fascism with no independent tactic for making a socialist revolution. The critical task of figuring out how to employ the necessary popular front tactic without subsuming strategic goals for socialism was not accomplished by either the Comintern or the CPUSA.

The CPUSA mistook the concessions Roosevelt made to labor in the New Deal for socialism. It thought they had achieved their goal without making the revolution. They were full partners; Roosevelt like Stalin; Uncle Joe was a kind of popular hero. The unions had state sanction. Socialism was underway and would continue to develop under the benevolent protection of the popular front. The Marxist-Leninist cover of the CPUSA’s syndicalism was blown. The syndicalist deviation and practice of the CPUSA made the Party vulnerable to total cooptation when it entered the mainstream. The winning of the trade union demands was equivalent in their eyes to winning the revolution. Communism was equated not only with unionism but patriotism as in the remarkable slogan “Communism is 20th century Americanism.”

In 1940, Earl Browder, then General Secretary of the Party, was jailed on trumped up charges of passport forgery. This signaled FDR’s support for purging the Communists from the unions. Shortly after his release from jail three years later, he made the following statement in a piece called, “Victory and After,” which became the Party’s ideological guide:

The prevailing “American way of life,” which is dominated by its capitalist foundation in many and most decisive ways, determines that our national unity cannot find expression in the forms and modes followed by the Soviet peoples . In the United States, national unity can be achieved only through compromise between the conflicting interests, demands, and aspirations of various class grouping (primarily between those usually spoken of as “capital and labor”), a compromise which agrees to reach at least a provisional settlement of all disputes through arbitration. The motive power behind such a compromise can only be something which all parties hold in common-that is, patriotism, the common determination to win the war .

The Communist Party of the United States has completely subordinated its own ideas as to the best possible social and economic system for our country . to the necessity of uniting the entire nation, including the biggest capitalists . The Communist Party of the United States foresees that out of victory for the United Nations will come a peace which will be guaranteed by the cooperation of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and China . This will make possible the solution of reconstruction problems with a minimum of social disorder and civil violence . We offer our cooperation to all like-minded persons and groups.

In 1944, under Browder’s leadership, the Party was disbanded and reorganized into the Communist Political Association (CPA) and though Stalin ordered the Party reinstated in 1945, it continues to this day to function along the lines of Browder’s Political Association: “A non-partisan association of Americans” that “adheres to the principles of scientific socialism, Marxism,” and “looks to the family of free nations, led by the great coalition of democratic capitalist and socialist states, to inaugurate an era of world peace, expanding production and economic well-being.”

The CPUSA had the bourgeoisie on its knees and it let them up. It had significant mainstream location and substantial leverage given its mass, militant base. It needed the popular front, but couldn’t handle the tactical intricacies of building the popular front without giving up its independent organizing of the working class. In fact, the harder the bourgeoisie kicked the communists in the head, the more they capitulated. By 1953 the Rosenbergs were executed, McCarthyism was in full swing and the CPUSA was completely on the defensive. At the height of its strength and ferment of the working class and its middle-class supporters the CPUSA never even attempted to seize state power. Indeed, if there were elements of the CP leadership or rank and file that wanted to, there was no possibility of struggle over this most important of issues because a factional split would have ensued.

This most militant of international working classes that picked up arms again and again in hatred of the capitalists was destroyed-totally wiped out as an independent political force. So much so that our class heritage, even to us as communists, is barely recognizable. The social impact on the U.S. working class of its total destruction has been profound. The proletariat exists only as a political class, not an economic class. Without its own political organization and means of expression, it ceases to exist as a class. The complete loss of identity of the U.S. working class is one of the factors that makes psychology the dominant ideological mode of late U.S. capitalism and Social Therapy such a viable tactic.

Since the 1930s, progressive politics has come to be the politic which emerged from the CPUSA’s deal with the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie under Roosevelt. But CP revisionism goes beyond the colossal sellout of the New Deal era which destroyed the U.S. working class movement. The CP as an organization makes reconstruction-the rebuilding of the U.S. working class movement-enormously difficult and painstakingly slow by boldly and explicitly thwarting progressive and revolutionary efforts that spring up (e.g. the Black Panthers, the New Left, us). And, further, revisionism has come to be what progressive politics is in the U.S. Its dominant paradigm is the capitulation to reform as the evolutionary means of achieving socialism which requires the abandonment of independent working class organizations. When the progressive movement reacts to the building of an independent left-of-center party as fringy and crazy, this is revisionism.

How else can we make sense of the ludicrous charge against [Liz] Munoz’ Peace and Freedom Party run for Governor of California-that an independent party will take votes away from a party of the bourgeoisie (the Democratic Party)-than revisionist capitulation to the bourgeoisie. Isn’t a working class party supposed to take votes away from the capitalists? Don’t we want to defeat the capitalists, with whom we are in a class war? The brainwashing of revisionism is so great that this argument actually holds significant weight in progressive circles. It is important to see that the revisionism of the CPUSA per se is not the problem. Daily we see them becoming more and more irrelevant as an organization as they tail the Democratic Party and fail to organize any direct relationship to the class. It is, rather, the legacy of their deal with the liberal state-a left-of-center progressive politic that is thoroughly revisionist and corrupted by liberalism-that we must expose and reorganize. The tactical expression of anti-revisionism in this national sector is independent politics. We are thus in the best position to raise constantly the difference between revisionism and communism, while the CPUSA has no historic relevancy.

The failure of progressive politics in this country has made the working class cynical and as a result open to right-wing organizing. The cynicism of the class about the capacity of a progressive movement to bring about social change has its counterpart in the cynicism of the left about the capacity of the working class to carry out revolutionary activity. The failure of progressive politics is not the failure of the U.S. working class but the failure of its leadership. Our commitment as communists in the mainstream is to reorganize this relationship between the class and its leadership.

We must do this by exposing to the class how revisionist progressive politics is a distortion-not an expression-of communism. We do not reinforce anti-communism by blaming communism; we will never do anything that supports anti-communism. Thus, our efforts to stamp out revisionism cannot be a vindictive attack on the CPUSA. Rather, we face the class, continue to build from the bottom up, so that when the class asks what is communism, we are there to answer. Our mainstream location allows us to become that force which the class looks to to learn what communism is. The New York State 1986 gubernatorial campaign is an example of how our location in the mainstream allows us to function in this role.

Our task is to rebuild the American working class from scratch. We must be bold enough to move into the mainstream, ruthless enough to use our mainstream success to keep building our party organizations and our independent relationship to the class, politically principled enough to expose mainstream revisionism without ever being anti-communist, and scientific enough to attack the ideology and political backwardness of the U.S. working class at its source-structural racism.

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