Communist Party USA: ‘No easy road to future—but we’ll get there’

Report to the National Committee
Sam Webb, National chair
Communist Party USA • Nov 13, 2009
Found at

Slightly over a year ago, the American people elected a young African American to the presidency and increased the Democratic majority in the Congress. President Obama’s victory represented a repudiation of right-wing ideology, politics and economics and a setback for neoliberalism in both its conservative and liberal skins.

This victory was a long time in coming. When it finally happened it did so not only because of the brilliance of the candidate, but also due to the broad shoulders of a people’s coalition.

The swing­ in the political pendulum ushered in the possibility of a new era. After 30 years of right-wing dominance, the balance of political power tilted once again in a progressive direction.

Though that tilt wasn’t far enough for a people’s agenda to be easily enacted, political advantage did shift, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Perhaps it is obvious, but if McCain and Palin had been elected, a public option would not be in the center of the conversation — in fact, health care reform wouldn’t even be on the agenda. The Employee Free Choice Act would be off labor’s wish list. The stimulus package would be far smaller and unemployment much higher. There would not be a Puerto Rican woman on the Supreme Court. Our government would be actively supporting the coup regime in Honduras, and relations with Cuba would be frozen or worse. Legislation extending hate crimes to include anti-gay violence would still be on the ‘to do’ list. And not a word would have been mentioned about the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In short, President Obama’s election has made a difference, and the progressive movement has space to dream again. There are limits and obstacles to be sure, but what should frame our outlook are hope and possibility. The great reformer of the 20th century, Rev. Martin Luther King, taught us this lesson.

The purpose of this discussion paper is to assess where the country and world are a year after the election, refine our strategic and tactical policies, outline some practical actions, and discuss our role in a very complex situation.

World setting

The world, it is generally acknowledged, has been torn loose from the old moorings that for decades structured life for billions of people.

This unhinging began with the Volcker “shock” in 1979 (when Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volcker lifted interest rates to nearly 20 per cent), the election of Reagan a year later, and the meltdown of the Soviet Union at decade’s end. But it reached a new stage with the rise of China, India, and Brazil, the resurgence of Russia, the social transformations in Venezuela and other Latin American countries; the Iraq war, and the recent world financial and economic crisis.

At the time of the Soviet collapse, defenders of U.S. imperialism declared U.S. imperial power was preeminent and that would remain the case, far into the 21st century. But obviously they badly misread the tealeaves. Though still dominant, the limits of U.S. power are narrowing and a multi-polar world is taking shape.

It is easy to imagine China rivaling the U.S. on the world scene. To go a step further and predict a civilizational re-centering from Europe and America to Asia, with all its implications, isn’t out of the question either. (Although, it should be added that while trends are instructive, they become less so as they stretch far into the future. History can, and usually does, surprise.)

This transitional period, some theorists of international relations say, will bring instability, even chaos, and we should not dismiss this out of hand. In earlier periods, conflict, crisis, and war scarred the landscape as once dominant states declined and new ambitious rivals sought to take their place. Such rivalry turned the first half of the 20th century into a bloody and barbaric era.

At the same time, the past doesn’t have to be prelude to the future. People and nations do learn. Historical memory can be a force for progress. The vast majority of humankind strongly desires an easing of tensions, an end to violence, and the normalization of international relations.

They want dialogue, negotiation, and a cooperative effort to address climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, finite natural resources, swelling poverty and disease and broad-based and sustainable economic growth — not threats, war, and uneven economic development.

All of these challenges require speedy collective action. The global clock is ticking

While rivalry between states — especially in a multi-polar world — is built into the world system, the appetite and ambition of our imperialism constitutes the main obstacle to cooperation, peace, and equality.

A less malleable world

U.S. imperialism so far has been reluctant to yield ground to subordinate classes, nations, and regions entwined in the global world order. But reluctance is one thing; capacity to enforce your will is another.

U.S. imperialism doesn’t have the same reserves and legitimacy as it had in the second half of the 20th century, its global power is far more circumscribed and collective resistance to the re-imposition of old imperial relationships, dressed in new forms, comes from many different quarters, including from the American people. Hundreds of millions are insisting that the new century not be a rerun of the second half of the old, in which a single country and its allies largely determined the path of global political and economic development. Such a path was unjust, unsustainable, and unacceptable then and is more so now. The world is far less malleable to the architects of imperial rule.

The current worldwide economic crisis has reinforced these sentiments. The turn to neoliberalism, financialization, and hyper globalization three decades ago not only resulted in financial and economic ruin on a world scale, but also, it is commonly understood, originated on Wall Street and in Washington.

Thus the global economic crisis has amplified the insistence of people worldwide that a new economic order be constructed — shorn of U.S. dominance. Not everybody is having it, especially in the seats of imperial power. Some want to reconstruct the old order, while some others are for minor changes that would not undercut in any significant way the dominant position of the U.S.

The outcome of this struggle is still to be decided in the decades ahead. And like everything else, it will be determined as much by human actions as the evolution of broader objective processes.

And given the immediacy of global challenges, history has to be speeded up. This is where humankind again comes in.

Foreign policy

President Obama is resetting U.S. foreign policy. In a series of speeches, he has accented human solidarity, diplomacy, cooperation, and peaceful settlement of contentious issues. In nearly every region of the world, he is engaging with states that during the Bush years were considered mortal enemies — Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and others.

In Latin America, he expressed a readiness to put relations on a different footing. In a historic speech in Prague, he voiced his wish to reduce and ultimately abolish nuclear weapons. And in an unprecedented address in Cairo he indicated his eagerness to reset relations with the Muslim world, sit down with the Iranian government, and press for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

No small achievements! What the president has said (and done) so far constitutes a turn from the policies of the previous administration and an acknowledgement that the U.S. has to adapt to new world realities and challenges.

And he does so with support of some (more sober and realistic minded) sections of the ruling class.

At the same time, neither the current administration nor the more sober-minded sections of the ruling class are ready at this point to give up U.S. global primacy — top dog status.

Adjustments in policy are not the same as a change of policy. They are not equivalent to reentering the world community on the basis of reciprocity, equality and cooperation.

And yet, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss or “damn with faint praise” the new approaches of the president.

For these changes can make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. They also create a better political environment for the progressive and anti-imperialist movements to press for a new foreign policy.

That there are inconsistencies and contradictions in words and deeds of the president and others in his administration — on policy towards Cuba, Honduras, Afghanistan, Iran, the fight against terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. — comes as no surprise. The opposition to any significant adjustments of foreign policy is enormously powerful and includes core sections of transnational corporate capital, the military-industrial and energy complexes, the Pentagon, right-wing extremists, the foreign policy lobbies, other elements of the national security state, and not least elements within the Obama administration itself.

Each, motivated by geoeconomic and geopolitical objectives as well as a determination to maintain U.S. global primacy in some form, couches their actions in the language of democracy, actions humanitarianism, national security, and anti-terrorism.

Terrorist actions are an undeniable danger; to say otherwise is not only mistaken, but also harmful. They deserve a collective, proportionate, and many layered response, but they shouldn’t be turned into a rationalization for the protection and expansion of U.S. imperialist interests.

U.S. foreign policy is not solely decided in elite circles. In the larger vector of struggle that determines our place in the world are found the American people and people and governments the world over.

An immediate task is to resolve the highly combustible trouble spots mentioned above in a peaceful, democratic, and just way, thereby easing tensions and weakening the hand of imperialism and political reaction worldwide.

The new normal

Of the factors shaping class and democratic struggles in our land, none looms larger than the economy. So what are some of its main features and dynamics?

Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase are back to the “old normal.” Profits are soaring — $3.2 billion and $3.6 billion respectively in the third quarter. Bonuses of $23 billion are in the pipeline for their managers and traders. Their field of competitors has thinned. And these leeches have morphed from “too big to fail” to “much too big to fail.”

In other words, the main engineer of the economic meltdown — finance capital, a.k.a. Wall Street — has re-constituted itself in slightly different form and is back to its old parasitic and destabilizing tricks.

In the meantime, the rest of us are living in the “new normal.” Let me explain.

A year ago the old model of capitalist accumulation (profit making) and right-wing political governance, resting on the rise of finance, mountains of debt, record levels of inequality, unsustainable global economic imbalances, successive bubbles in real and fictitious assets, and the unrestrained use of military power came crashing down — not with a whimper, but with a bang that triggered an economic tsunami.

The U.S economy and its financial system imploded, throwing people out of their jobs and homes, closing family farms, evaporating pension funds and savings, freezing credit lines, shuttering plants and factories, devastating cities and towns, and much more.

Much the same occurred elsewhere in the world, as the global economy, integrated in a thousand ways, wobbled and then went into a nosedive.

A complete collapse was dodged, thanks to swift government action, but the crisis was the worst since the Great Depression and isn’t over yet.

Reliable sources forecast unemployment climbing to nearly 11 percent officially and nearly 20 percent unofficially, while foreclosures, poverty, and other indicators of the crisis of everyday living continue upward.

The prospects for a quick and robust recovery seem dim. Some economists, including mainstream thinkers, argue that economic stagnation is just as likely as a vigorous recovery.

In their view, the economy could operate at sub-normal levels in terms of growth, capacity/plant utilization, employment, and income for an extended period of time. Even a new dip downward — “a double dip” — can’t be ruled out, they say.

In the “new normal” universe, the economy is not self-correcting. There is no automatic and seamless return to a path of vibrant and balanced long-term growth. Many of the imbalances and contractions that metastasized in the upward phase of the cycle continue in the depression and recovery phase at a national and global level.

On the one hand, because of the economic crisis, conditions for a fresh round of profit making and economic growth on the supply side of the accumulation process (the process by which capital is constantly expanded in successive rounds of the production process) are favorable. These include a clearing out of uncompetitive businesses, plentiful unemployed wage labor, the cheapening of the price of labor power (wages/salaries), rising productivity, low interest rates, and the further concentration and centralization of economic (corporate) power.

But, on the other hand, conditions on the demand side of the process are far less favorable. And, again because of the economic crisis:

* An export led recovery is very problematic, even with the fall in the dollar and rising economic activity in other regions of the world. China, for instance, is growing again, but doesn’t have the capacity or inclination to act as the buyer of last resort (like the U.S. did in the 1990s and up until the recent crisis.)

* Political and budgetary constraints rule out greatly increased military spending (military Keynesianism) as an option — the favorite counter-cyclical tool of Reagan, Bush, and the extreme right.

* Bubbles and asset inflation — stocks, housing, (private sector Keynesianism, to use a term of Robert Brenner) are be a tough sell.

* The evaporation of wealth during the downturn coupled with the pile of consumer debt in the previous cycle makes a consumer-led recovery virtually impossible.

* Layoffs continue to climb, while wages implode and employers are very reluctant to add to their workforce, preferring instead to offshore work, install labor-saving technologies, and reorganize and speed up the labor process.

* Private investment in plant and equipment is sluggish and appears likely to remain so; and there is no new investment frontier on the horizon, at least as long as capital is in the driver’s seat.

* Housing construction, which traditionally leads economic recoveries, is stalled. Rather than absorbing capital in the form of new housing units, the housing market is destroying capital as prices continue to fall and homeowners vacate their homes.

* The financial system is loaded with debt and deleveraging is a long-term process, thus making banking and credit crises a possibility in the future.

So what will it take to resume and sustain growth, rebuild old and new industries, and increase employment?

The answer is simple: government direct and indirect democratic intervention to re-inflate and reconfigure the economy.

Of course, objections will be raised, especially by the right wing and entrenched corporate interests. An obvious one that is that the federal deficit is out of control now and a project of this size would send it into the stratosphere.

Another is that an expansion of the public sector would result in a dangerous round of inflation, as the money supply is expanded and pours into the “real” economy.

Still another objection is that our national disposition is to favor “free” markets, with the public sector operating only on the margins of the economy.

A fourth objection is that public capital will crowd out private capital, thereby slowing growth and causing inefficiency.

A fifth is that it will add to global economic instability and undermine the value of the dollar internationally.

Finally, it will be said that such an expansion of the government’s role will create a vast new bureaucracy.

These charges have to be taken seriously and persuasively answered because the bottom line is this: only a radical democratic government intervention to stimulate and radically restructure the economy stands a chance of lifting the working class and nation out of the present and persistent economic morass.

The elements of such an intervention could include:

* Assist democratically elected municipal and regional authorities to plan and organize major projects;

* Channel investment dollars to small and medium sized businesses, worker/community cooperatives, and financially starved state and local governments;

* Adopt an industrial policy that will renew and convert to new uses our nation’s manufacturing sector;

* De-militarize and go over to peacetime production;

* Facilitate the formation of cooperative owned plants and workplaces, which the steelworkers are currently exploring;

* Initiate massive public works jobs for infrastructure development, environmental cleanup, and green industries, ranging from power turbines to windmills to non-polluting public transportation systems;

* Democratize the Federal Reserve System;

* Insist on the passage of EFCA and other legislation to enhance the rights and conditions of workers and communities;

* Review trade pacts, such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and others;

* Restructure global economic institutions or construct new ones that take into account the new economic and political circumstances on a global level;

* Reduce the work day with no cut in pay; raise the minimum wage; and apply consistent and robust affirmative action hiring guidelines;

* Tax capital movements, especially short term movements that are so destabilizing to the economies of many countries;

* Shift taxes to the wealthiest individuals and corporations;

* Reform the financial sector and turn the “too big to fail” banks into public utilities under democratic control. (Many of the regulatory proposals already under consideration are positive, but some of the sticky issues like democratic control over the Federal Reserve Bank, the hyper concentration of the banking system, the future of hedge funds and equity firms, the loopholes in derivative trading, etc, are not part of the conversation. Nor is the placing of the “too big to fail” banks under public democratic control a consideration.)

The likelihood of passage of the above measures has little to do with their feasibility; it hinges by and large on the ability of working people and their allies to frame the national conversation and win active popular majorities for them.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression convinced millions of people that the old model of unrestrained capitalism was bankrupt. But it was only in the course of fierce battles that significant democratic reforms were passed.

As a result, a new set of institutions, rules, and legislation — a new model of governance, the New Deal — took deep root in our nation’s political economy and psychology.

What was missing, however, was an adequate stimulus and investment frontier to revive the economy. The Roosevelt administration was going in that direction, but under pressure changed course in the name of budget balancing (sound familiar) and the economic recovery stalled. And it wasn’t until the war mobilization that included government borrowing, industrial conversion, and national planning that that the economy fully recovered and a sustained expansion, lasting for roughly three decades, began.

Much the same combination of restructuring and re-inflating the economy, albeit in a very different circumstances, is necessary again. So far the administration has junked some of the economic assumptions and practices of neoliberalism, but much more needs to be done to re-inflate, restructure, and democratize the economy, to lift it onto a dynamic growth path. But as mentioned earlier, a full recovery and sustained growth could be an elusive goal, because economic conditions are so very different than were at the close of WW II.

In any event, the struggle for radical reforms and a new model of governance is imperative. While neither will resolve the contradictions (and its main contradiction between private appropriation and socialized production) and crisis tendencies of capitalism, both will mitigate capitalism’s impact on the conditions of life and work of working people.

Furthermore, in struggles for radical democratic restructuring the working class and its allies not only come up against the insufficiencies of capitalism, but also gain the experience, desire, and unity to transform themselves and society.

Jobs and immediate relief

A starting point is the struggle for immediate relief for victims of the economic crisis. The accent should be on action —to provide unemployment benefits to every job seeker, to open livable homeless shelters and more food pantries, to prevent evictions, to support collective bargaining and strikes, to create jobs, to build health care clinics, schools, and public and cooperative housing, to halt utility cut offs, and to aid decimated cities. Some of this is happening, but much more needs to be done.

Such actions, led by the victims of the crisis as well as mass leaders and activists in unions, churches, neighborhood and ethnic organizations, block clubs, and social groups, are the roar from below that will give an urgency to the legislative process above.

No one should be overwhelmed by the scope of the problems, or held back by the idea that mass action has to mean thousands of people. Mass is a relative term.

The labor movement can play a special role. Ditto for the churches.

Special attention should be given to the struggle for multi-racial, multi-national unity and equality — the struggle for the latter is a condition for the former.

Recently, the AFL-CIO, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Center for Community Change rolled out a proposal for a jobs and infrastructure program. It includes five critical points:

1. Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.
2. Rebuild America’s schools, roads and energy systems.
3. Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.
4. Fund jobs in our communities.
5. Put TARP funds to work for Main Street.

The campaign for such a program can become a channel for millions of people — unemployed and employed — to become participants in the jobs struggle. It can turn frustration, isolation, and despair into action, community, and hope. And it can be a yardstick by which to measure candidates in the 2010 election.

And it can also help to strip from the extreme right their claim to be “fighting for ordinary Americans.”

This campaign should be the bread and butter of every people’s organization. No one should sit it out. While the intended effect is economic — to create jobs — it will also have a political effect, deepening, broadening, and energizing the people’s movement and in so doing, shaking up Washington.

First Year

A year ago, we said that the country was entering an era of democratic reform and that the same coalition that defeated the right in the 2008 elections would drive the process going forward.

By and large, we were on the mark. But it is also the case that after a year of real events, real struggles, and real clashes of real people some changes in our thinking are necessary.

To begin, the first year of the Obama administration was a sprint. The conditions of struggle were far more favorable than in the preceding eight years, to say the least. The mood was hopeful. And the political conversation and agenda on a range of issues was reframed, thanks in no small measure to the president.

The forms of struggle were many — marches, picket lines, town hall meetings, civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, lobbying, phone banking, online petitions, solidarity actions, informal conversations and organizing, and so on. Some actions were local, others statewide, and still others national.

And the fight was bitter. The opposition to the administration’s policy gave no ground.

Early on the struggle over the collapsing economy was atop the agenda and that has continued. But other issues entered the public domain as well, placed there by the Obama administration and by the popular movement — health care, nuclear weapons, Iraq, financial regulation, the detainees, and climate change, to name a few. As a result, the space to take initiative, build broad unity, and organize for progressive change was considerably enlarged.

Line up

The legislative process turned into the main, but not the only, site of class and democratic struggles (notable were the plant takeover by workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, the Ford workers’ rejection of concessionary contract, G-20 actions, the campaign to win Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, protests at the campuses in University of California system, and the Chicago anti-bank protests.)

On both sides of every legislative issue, contending political blocs flexed their muscles.

In the House, the majority of Democrats pressed for an agenda that addressed people’s needs. The caucuses — African American, Hispanic, Women’s, and Progressive — and individuals like Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee, Bernie Sanders, and others — distinguished themselves. In nearly every instance they found themselves a step ahead of other Democrats and the Obama administration. The Blue Dogs, on the other hand, were busy trying to rein in reform measures.

Senate Democrats, despite holding 58 seats, plus the support of Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, were a different kettle of fish. While clashing with Senate Republicans, they were less progressive than their counterparts in the House. And when combined with the rule that requires sixty votes to send legislation to the floor for deliberation and action, the Senate has been (and probably will continue to be) a drag on progressive change.

To make matters more difficult, corporate interests and their lobbyists poisoned the Congressional well in a thousand ways. Their ability to block or contain the legislative process goes way beyond simply owning a stable of Congress people. So much so that columnist Paul Krugman wondered in early September if the country was becoming ungovernable. He is both right and wrong — right about the difficulty of governing as long as corporations dominate and infest our public institutions, but wrong about the impossibility of changing this.

Outside of Washington, the loose people’s coalition that elected the president regrouped and redirected its energies to the legislative process.

At the core of this loose coalition are the main organizations of the working class, African American, Mexican American, and other racially and nationally oppressed peoples, women and youth.

In addition, seniors, immigrants, and many other social movements and organizations are in the mix.

The labor movement is a particularly active, clear, and unifying voice, and continues to emerge through dint of effort, organization, and resources as a leader of this broader coalition.

To no one’s surprise, the right wing hasn’t retired from politics. To the contrary, these “un-American” extremists also regrouped and came out fighting the president’s agenda, hoping to pave the way for the Republicans’ return to power.

With an African American in the White House, a Latina on the Supreme Court, the presence and acceptance of gay and secular sensibilities in the culture, continued challenges to patriarchal gender roles, and an economy that is laying waste to the position of the male as breadwinner, right-wing extremists in Congress and elsewhere are churning out racist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-government appeals to white working people and especially white males. Limbaugh, Hannity, and other talk show hosts are howling to whoever will listen, “take back America.”

Pat Buchanan, echoing the same theme, wrote, “America was once their [white people’s] country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”

This drivel is racist, anti-working class, and anti-democratic. It is an insult to every fair-minded white person, a falsification of history, and an appeal to division along the color line. It carries the foul odor of fascism.

Our country was built on the backs of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class and a system of slave labor that remained unchallenged for nearly three centuries. What is more, economic crises have a sharper impact on minority (and immigrant) communities. They are the first to “lose” their jobs, homes, living standards, rights, voice, and dignity.

This propaganda barrage is not new. But it is getting louder and ugly, evoking irrational and dangerous reactions from too many people. And its aim, though never stated, is to conceal the commonality of interests that organically glue together the multi-racial, multi-national, male-female, young-old, skilled-unskilled, white collar-blue collar, service-industrial, and immigrant-native born working class and its strategic allies.

I’m not suggesting that fascism is around the corner or that the majority of the American people embrace these backward sentiments. Other trends and public expressions go in the opposite direction, the most obvious example being the changes in consciousness that made possible the election of our first African American president.

What I am saying is that a progressive turn in our nation’s politics requires an intensified and broader struggle against racism, male supremacy, and other forms of division.

The struggles for racial and gender equality are at the core of the broader democratic struggle. A movement that is fractured along those lines will be unable to win jobs and other democratic reforms.

If unchallenged racism and male supremacy (along with other divisive ideologies and practices) will disfigure and paralyze the people’s coalition. If embraced, they will push the country in a disastrous direction.

Health care reform

The current struggle for health care reform gives us a concrete glimpse of the contours, dynamics, and complexities mentioned above.

It has been a pitched battle. At one point there appeared to be a crack in the Republican edifice when Olympia Snowe voted to move the bill out of the Senate Finance Committee, but she quickly backpedaled when Majority Leader Harry Reid raised the issue of a public option.

On the other side of the aisle, nearly all the Democrats favor reform, though they quarrel over its nature.

Across the country a movement is charging forward. Early on the mobilization was inadequate, but that changed, thanks to the so-called tea parties that were a wakeup call for many who were enjoying the afterglow of the 2008 elections and underestimated what it would take to consolidate and extend that victory.

All sides in this struggle have gone to great lengths to frame the debate and shape public opinion. In the early going the right had some success with its fear mongering — talk of death panels, socialism, Nazism, etc. — but that changed as health care supporters answered the challenge.

While many sections of labor favor a single payer system, they have avoided painting themselves into a corner. Instead they have stated their support for single payer while battling for the inclusion of the public option, and greeted the House bill with enthusiasm.

While labor differed with the Obama administration on some matters, it has done so in a thoughtful, respectful and unifying manner. It has not sought to score points, demonstrate superior wisdom, or expose Obama as a ‘do-nothing centrist.’

Other organizations of the popular movement — NOW, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza — as well as many of the health care organizations and coalitions take much the same approach.

The passage of the legislation by the House constitutes an important victory for comprehensive health care reform and progressive change generally. If the bill had been defeated, we would not be simply back to square one, as some suggest.

Rather, health care reform would be off the agenda, indefinitely. Political momentum would shift to the right wing, and prospects would be bleak for a second stimulus, Employee Free Choice, climate change legislation, immigration reform, and other key battles.

Some left and progressive people dismiss this danger, but politics is not only about passing laws, as important as that is — it is also about gaining and maintaining the initiative, building on victories no matter how small, and expanding the breadth and depth of the coalition at every opportunity. It’s higher math, not elementary addition and subtraction.

The health care reform fight is not over, of course, since the Senate has yet to act and the balance of power is less favorable there. Still, the House vote gives fresh impetus to the broader movement to bring its weight to bear on Senate deliberations and then on to the reconciliation process where the bill can be improved, including through deletion of toxic elements like the Stupak amendment that would curtail access to abortions.

The health care reform movement has to “keep the pedal to the metal.” All kinds of actions are planned over the next month, from congressional lobbying to “thank you parties” for those who have supported reform, to phone banking to influence the Senate vote. Everyone should be a part of this.

Observations one year in

Against this background, what observations can we make after the first year of the Obama Presidency?

First, while the broad coalition that elected the president has a political advantage over the right wing, it still hasn’t yet fully regrouped, in spite of some very promising developments. I believe it will, but our earlier assessment didn’t take into account that the transition from an election mode to a post-election mode would uneven and bumpy.

By Election Day 2008, people were exhausted and felt that they had done their part. They were ready to hand the ball off to the president and the new Congress. A year later it is clear that we didn’t appreciate this dynamic enough. Our view was too seamless and not grounded in realism. To transform the coalition that elected the president into a powerful political force will take a strenuous and sustained effort. We can’t rely on spontaneity.

Second, we properly estimated (and celebrated) President Obama’s victory, but our estimate of the balance of forces and trends in the Congress was too general. Democratic majorities don’t necessarily translate into support for the president’s agenda — let alone a people’s agenda. Democrats in Congress hold diverse views and the progressive Democrats while undeniably more influential are not yet dominant. A more fine-grained analysis was necessary.

Third, we resisted placing the administration and its individual members into neat political categories before they began governing. At the time, that was correct, because such categorizations can lead to narrow tactical approaches, which is especially bad in a moment of political fluidity and crisis. But a year later, a closer look at the various trends is warranted, although it shouldn’t turn into a daily preoccupation.

Fourth, it is one-sided to say (as we did) that the right no longer sets the agenda or frames the public debate. That one-sidedness lends itself to an underestimation of the continued right danger.

Right-wing extremism is not simply one factor among many — it is a major factor in the nation’s political life. To imply that it is an exhausted force, or that the main obstacles to progress are the blue dog or centrist Democrats is wrong. While such Democrats are a drag on a progressive agenda, it is the extreme right in Congress and elsewhere that mobilizes a mass constituency, shapes public opinion, and employs racism and other forms of division and demagogy. Their stated aim is to obstruct and derail the Obama presidency.

Though the election was a major defeat, the far right retains a significant mass base, has connections to some of the most reactionary, powerful, and wealthiest corporations and a dense network of think tanks and political actions committees. It has significant influence in the mass media, military, and other coercive institutions and a comeback isn’t out of the question.

Fifth, our assessment didn’t give enough weight to the fact that the interpenetration of big capital — especially finance, military and energy capital — and state/government structures has reached unprecedented levels. It is anything but a neutral social institution standing above society.

This reality explains why it was not possible for President Obama, were he so inclined, to attempt the kind of radical restructuring that is objectively needed.

Though he is the president, and has a majority in Congress, that majority is neither big enough nor progressive enough. Moreover, a large, mobilized, working class-based mass movement doesn’t yet exist with the political and organizational capacity to challenge this concentration of power. It is a work in progress.

Sixth, our reading of changes in public opinion suffered from one-sidedness too. On the one hand, we correctly noted and applauded findings that right-wing and neoliberal ideology resonate less and less with tens of millions of people, who are increasingly skeptical about “free markets” and unregulated capitalism.

But the problem with public opinion polls is that they don’t capture what Antonio Gramsci called “contradictory consciousness.” The same people can like a public health care option and even approve of socialism, but also be suspicious of big government; or support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and at the same time want the Obama administration to eliminate Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by any means necessary; or favor a second stimulus bill, while opposing a larger deficit.

Most people (and social classes for that matter) don’t have a consistent worldview; rather, they have a worldview that is eclectic, contradictory, and sensitive to changing circumstances and experience. For those who desire progressive change it is essential to better appreciate the complexity and fluidity of public opinion.

Finally, the struggle over the past year in general and the health care struggle in particular bring home the importance of the 2010 elections. The stakes are nothing less than the future of the country and both sides realize this.

Will the struggle for democratic reforms be deepened or reversed? Will the costs of the current crisis be placed on the shoulders of Wall Street and the wealthy, or working people and especially people of color?

Will we begin a sustained attack on global warming or remain stuck in a fossil fuel/carbon-based economy? Will racial and gender equality take new strides in the direction of freedom, or will a 21st century Jim Crow assert itself? Will the next decade be a decade of peace, or of violence and plunder? Will the stockpiles of nuclear weapons be reduced, or will the opposite happen?

We could go on, but the point is obvious: the outcome of the midterm elections will have enormous repercussions. The aim of the people’s coalition is clear: to increase the Democratic advantage in the Congress, including the number of progressives in the House and Senate, while at the same time further defeating the Republican right.

The objective of the Republicans will be the opposite, and no one should think that their approach to these elections would be routine. They will throw everything into them, including lots of money and endless demagogy.

Given the political and economic dynamics at this moment, three outcomes are possible. One is that the Republicans will make big gains; another is that neither party will pick up any significant number of seats; and the last is that the Democrats increase their majorities in the Congress. The latter is possible, but only if a health care bill passes, unemployment comes down, the economic crisis eases, an exit strategy from Afghanistan is embraced by the Obama administration, and an enormous bottom mobilization of old and new voters is organized next fall.

But this will happen only if the broader movement finds a narrative and vision that captures the political imagination of tens of millions whose hopes for the future are squashed, and whose lives are reduced to surviving day to day.

The genius of candidate Obama was his ability to do precisely this. In the recent election, the Democrats with no compelling vision came up woefully short and the electorate wasn’t expanded. As long as this occurs, the fight for progressive reform will be uphill and slow going. New faces, new voices, and new leaders are necessary to transform the political landscape in a more fundamental and enduring way.

Strategic direction

For nearly three decades, our strategic policy envisioned the assembling of a broad coalition to defeat the right whose political ascendency began with Reagan’s election and continued until the 2008 elections. Over the past decade we have further developed and refined this policy, while maintaining its essential character. The delegates to our national convention in 2005 formalized this policy in our new Party program.

In the wake of the 2008 elections, however, it became apparent that some adjustments in our strategic policy were necessary. But before going into this, some general remarks about our understanding of strategy are warranted.

A strategic policy springs from an analysis of the stage of development and the overall balance of political and class forces at a given moment. Strategy is bound by time, place and circumstances.

Attempting to derive strategic concepts from either abstractions (capitalism is historically obsolete — true) or mass moods (the people are angry as hell) is a recipe for political mistakes. Militancy and moral outrage do enter into our calculations and our practical activity, but are not determining factors in working out a strategy.

A solid strategic policy is derived from an assessment of the main social force(s) hindering progressive development at any given moment as well as the main class and social forces that have an objective interest in moving society in a progressive and left direction.

Thus, our strategic policy is a conceptual device and guide to action. It is a first approximation of what is happening on the ground among the main class and social forces, which of them has the upper hand, and what it will take to move the political process forward.

If there were a direct path to social progress and socialism, strategic considerations wouldn’t matter. But there is no such path, as evidenced by the history of the 20th century.

Instead the revolutionary process passes through phases and stages; it’s messy and chaotic, the political fortunes of one or another class ebb and flow, unforeseen events suddenly arise, alliances are unstable and shifting, and the outcome is seldom certain.

In contrast to strategy, tactics involve choices about issues, demands, forms of struggle, slogans, etc. at any given moment to mobilize and unify masses of people. They are conditioned by strategic considerations and, at the same time, bring strategy to life, that is their purpose is activate the core forces, draw in new ones, and deepen and extend unity.

The aim of tactics is not to up the ante at every turn, as too many think. In fact, the challenge is to combine partial demands that elicit broad support and are winnable in the short term (public option) with more advanced demands that are not yet supported by a broad enough constituency but could be won in the course of ongoing struggles (single-payer).

Adjustments in strategic policy

With the foregoing in mind, what changes/adjustments if any in our strategic policy are warranted given the new landscape?

On the one hand, the strategic thrust of last year — to defeat the ultra right at the polls — doesn’t exactly fit the new conditions, but as mentioned earlier the right danger can’t be underestimated; it remains a considerable political, ideological, and mass mobilizing force.

On the other hand, we are not yet at a consistently anti-monopoly/corporate strategic stage of struggle either, given the challenges facing the country and the world, the continued presence of the extreme right and its reactionary corporate backers, and the level of consciousness of the American people.

Thus, our strategic policy is neither one nor the other. It’s an unstable mixture of both. This isn’t surprising given the fluid and transitional nature of this period.

And yet as the process of democratic reform (democratic ownership of the financial sector or a worker/community base industrial policy, major expansion of union rights, for example) deepens, the class, anti-corporate, anti-transnational nature of the struggle will come to the fore more and more at the economic, political, and ideological level.

All of which goes to show that the struggle for democracy doesn’t dilute, postpone, or bypass the class struggle, but brings it into bolder relief, extends the ground on which it is fought out, and brings in fresh voices and leaders to the every field of struggle. Just as the struggle to elect President Obama was at once the leading edge of the class struggle as well as the struggle for democracy in 2008, the struggle to deepen democracy (understood broadly — right to a job or income, peace, equality, health care, day care, and so on) particularly in the economic realm is the main form of the class and democratic struggle in today’s conditions.

With this in mind, our strategic policy seeks to extend and deepen a coalition of political actors that stretches from President Obama to the core forces of the people’s movement, and also includes small and medium sized business, working-class people who are influenced by the right, big sections of the Democratic Party and even sections of corporate capital.

The notion of only the capitalist class on the one side and only the working class on the other may sound radical, but it isn’t Marxist and doesn’t exist in the real world.

Lenin once remarked,

“To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a ‘putsch’.”

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”

It would be a profound mistake to distance the working class not only from the other core forces, but also from temporary and even unreliable allies. In fact, this diverse alliance is the strategic cornerstone for progressive and radical reforms. Separately, neither the president nor the people’s organizations nor the working class can win. But united, they pack a wallop! Many get this, especially labor and the other core forces. And the African American people have always practiced it, as have other racially and nationally oppressed peoples.

Needless to say, the right wing — along with the corporate class — also gets it and is doing everything possible to bust it up.

So again, the challenge is to fully activate and maximize the unity of this very diverse, multi-class, and fluid coalition in the course of concrete struggles. There will be tensions, contradictions, and competing views, and the opposition will be ferocious and clever.

All of us who want to live in a more just, peaceful, and equal society must master the art of fighting for unity while, at the same time, stretching the boundaries of the possible and deepening the role of the core forces.

At this moment, advantage lies with the people’s movement as mentioned earlier, but it is a fragile advantage. Neither side is yet able to gain hegemony in a political and ideological sense — that is to say, neither side’s views can claim to be the accepted common sense of millions. The political balance of forces doesn’t yet overwhelmingly favor the forces of progress.

The main elements of the New Deal, for instance, were not passed in Roosevelt’s first year in office, but in 1935-1937. Nor did the popular insurgency arise in full bloom at the depression’s outset. The New Deal victories were the fruit of a many-layered struggle of a motley group of social actors. The next decade(s) will be much the same.

A new emphasis

For some time we have accented the importance of breadth of the movement, but for this discussion another emphasis is warranted. Because the people’s coalition is broad in scope and varied in political outlook, it is all the more imperative to step up the activity and enhance the leadership role of the main core forces, and especially the working class and its organized sector.

Without an enlargement of the role of the working class and the other core forces the reform process will lose its focus and its political weight. Allies are critical in any struggle, but the core forces are indispensible.

Any movement that hopes to make major changes in the political and economic landscape requires at its center the working class and its strategic allies (racially oppressed, women and youth). Absent the tight unity of these social groups, we will be tilting at windmills.

Luckily, the core forces — all of whom interpenetrate with one another thereby giving them a deep community of interests and enormous power — are in motion, but — and it is this that we should note especially — not yet to the degree that is necessary to enact a progressive agenda. How to increase the role of precisely these forces is the key task for every activist.

Our role

The new opportunities to be part of mass movements make it urgent that communists act, that we take initiative, that we bring and join a crowd. The doors are wide open!

If we aren’t a part of the immediate struggles — for health care, jobs, and relief, against foreclosures and utility shutoffs, then we are nowhere.

Some, however, say that it is not enough to be a part of a crowd, a broad coalition, and a bigger mix.

They ask, “Shouldn’t we make a contribution that distinguishes us from Democrats and other activists? Don’t others advocate for health care and worker’s rights, for ending the wars? So what’s our role, what makes us different? Shouldn’t we get something organizationally out of our activity — public acknowledgement, new members, speaking engagements, clubs?”

Fair questions and we should all try to answer them.

Communists are an organic part of the working class and broader movements. We share in the hopes, dreams, and joys of these movements (remember when the First Family walked onto the stage in Grant Park on election night?), as well as the hurt that comes with setbacks. We desire the same things — jobs, peace, equality, democracy, education, and so on.

We make the same mistakes and have the same warts as others. We are neither perfect nor all knowing. Sometimes we stumble; sometimes we grow weary, but we get back up and fight.

We feel anger at the injustice and immorality of capitalism. Our opposition to racial, gender, and other forms of oppression and our insistence on equality and unity is a matter of principle. Our sense of solidarity is worldwide in its reach. Action is at our core and Marxism is our guide to action. And our enduring commitment is to peace and socialism.

The above distinguish us from others — although we don’t have a patent on radical thinking and politics — but what makes us unique at this moment is our strategic insights and our struggle to practically apply them. Those who say we are no different from Democrats, other activists, and others on the left reveal a simplistic understanding or no understanding of our strategic policies — not to mention other features of our Party.

Because of our strategic orientation, we are not building just any kind of movement. Rather we work to help build a particular kind of movement that comprises a particular set of class and social forces which when activated and united can strike a blow at a particular set of opposing class and social forces.

To be more concrete, our strategic orientation gives us to:

* An understanding of the primacy of broad unity;

* An appreciation of the profound importance of the struggle for democracy (understood in the broadest sense — the right to job, housing, health care, equality, etc.);

* A determination to build the widest possible “impure” movement while at the same time struggling to enhance the leadership role of the working class, the racially oppressed, women and youth;

* A path along which a movement of millions can traverse from one stage of struggle (say against the ultra right) to another stage (like today) and eventually to socialism;

* An understanding of how divisions among our enemies can be utilized in the struggle for social progress;

* And an appreciation of a perhaps-overlooked fact — that there is no substitute for practical activity.

Our strategic policy is a concrete guide to understand and change the neighborhood, workplace, city, state, country and world that we live in at this particular moment. It is the tool in our political toolbox that allows us to lead struggles and movement. If we leave it home, our ability to lead will limp.

In sum, our strategic insights are what differentiate us from other currents, including many on the left, at this moment. Others may share one or more of our insights, but few embrace and employ them all.

Some political and ideological questions

The president doesn’t simply register and reflect the balance of power; but he influences it as well; no other person has as much power as the president. To identify him as a centrist democrat akin to Clinton or Carter or Kennedy conceals more than it reveals; it’s too neat. It doesn’t help us understand him as a political actor and his place in the broader movement fight for progressive change. And it can quickly lead to narrow tactics and a wrong-headed strategic policy.

Some say, for example, that the strategic role of the left is to criticize the president, to push him from left. But is that a good point of departure strategically? Doesn’t it elevate a tactical question to a strategic one?

Criticizing the president (especially in the internet age) takes little imagination or effort, far less than activating the various forces that elected him last year. To do the latter takes a strategic sense, flexible tactics, creative thinking, and sweated labor. The president’s report card, it could easily be argued, is better than the coalition that elected him. He doesn’t get an A, but neither do we.

There are no prohibitions against criticism of the president, but it should be done in a unifying and constructive way. We shouldn’t lose sight of two things that should frame our attitude: first, the task of expanding, broadening, deepening, unifying, and activating the strategic alliance that will drive the process of change; and second, an appreciation of the main class and political obstacles to progressive change.

The success or failure of the Obama presidency will resonate for years. A deep imprint on class and racial relations will be part of his legacy. It is hard to imagine how a successful struggle for reforms can happen without the president or how anyone other the extreme right and sections of the ruling class would benefit if his presidency fails.

Attitude towards reform

A very different political and ideological issue that has a bearing on practical politics is the assertion that capitalism has no solutions to the present crisis and can’t be reformed.

If this means that the endemic crises of capitalism (for example, cyclical and structural unemployment, regular crises, overproduction, over accumulation, etc.) will persist as long as the profit motive is the singular determinant of economic activity, we would agree.

But if this means that anything short of a system wide change is of little importance, or that the underlying dynamics and laws of motion can’t be modified, we would disagree.

We should avoid counter posing the bankruptcy of capitalism against the struggle for reforms under capitalism. Such juxtaposition is unnecessary and counterproductive. If we don’t struggle for the latter (reforms), what we say about the former (systemic nature of problems) will carry little weight nor will we get to where we want to go — socialism.

Capitalism is more elastic than some believe. It changes on its own (its internal laws motion is what Marx studied) and is modified by the class struggle. Look at its historical development if you don’t believe so.

Role of the working class

A final ideological question that should engage us is the role of the working class in general and the labor movement in particular. The right wing and mass media (not just Fox) either heap abuse on the labor movement or make it invisible. They are well aware of the new developments in organized labor, and recoil at the prospect of a revitalizing labor movement. None of this is a surprise.

What is surprising is that many progressive and left people either have a blind spot when it comes to the labor movement, or see it as just another participant, or refuse to see — even dismiss out of hand — the new developments within it.

Leading up to the AFL-CIO convention, we heard more than once that labor should be ‘a social movement,’ that it should ‘take on capital,’ etc. But, unless you are the hostage of “pure” forms of the class struggle, isn’t that what labor is doing — in the elections last year and on issues like health care, war, racism, immigration, climate change, international solidarity, and so forth?

Granted it’s not across the board, there are still backwaters, the old style of leadership hasn’t completely disappeared, and rank and file participation is not where it should be.

But isn’t that an old movie? Is going over in righteous indignation the litany of sins of the labor movement the most productive thing that we can do? Doesn’t it make far more sense to note the new development and directions, the new thinking, and the new composition of labor’s leadership? Do we think that the transition from the legacy of the Cold War and the so-called Golden Age of capitalism can happen in a day, in a month, in a decade? Change is hard, but when sprouts of change come to the light of day we should nurture them.

Our understanding of Marxism reveals that in the process of exploitation, not only surplus value, but also oppositional tendencies arise — albeit uneven and full of contradictions and inconsistencies — but arise nonetheless to challenge corporate prerogatives and class rule.

An under appreciation of the new developments in labor can only weaken the broader movement for change.


Marxism is an open-ended, integrated, and comprehensive set of ideas to conceptualize and change the world — a world outlook. It brings to the light the existing and developing regularities and laws of social development of societies, and especially capitalist society.

Thus, continually deepening our understanding of Marxism’s basic theoretical constructions is of crucial importance to us — not to mention the movement as a whole.

At the same time, Marxism is not simply a science (understood in a general sense) and worldview, but it is also a methodology.

Marxist methodology absorbs and metabolizes new experience; it gives special weight to new phenomena.

It isn’t about timeless abstractions, pure forms, ideal types, categorical imperatives unsullied by inconvenient facts, unexpected turns and anomalies; it doesn’t turn partial demands, reformist forces, inconsistent democrats, liberals, social democratic labor leaders, even blue dog democrats, into a contagious flu to be avoided at all costs.

Marxism methodology insists on a concrete presentation of a question and an exact estimate of the balance of forces at any given moment.

As a method of analysis, Marxism emphasizes fluidity, reexamining old and new questions, process, dialectics, and movement; it’s about allowing space for individuals and organizations to change.

We should deepen our understanding of Marxism as a science and methodology. And we should not give too much attention to those who take issue with us from the left. When we do, it cuts down on our ability to think creatively and respond practically to new opportunities and developments.

In the era of the Internet, everyone’s voice is amplified. If some try to turn Marxism into a sacred cannon much like the strict constitutional jurists and biblical literalists do with the Constitution and Bible, so be it; if they want to spend all their time looking for examples of right deviations, to the point where they themselves are simply self-satisfied observers of struggle and too busy to build the people’s movement or, in the case of those who are in our Party, build our organization and press, so be it.

We will go our own way, focusing our energy and talents on building the working-class movement and our Party and press, and be much the wiser for it.

Opening new doors to the Party

We have acknowledged the difficulty of building the Party and press, but after some discussion in the National Board we are persuaded that we should begin from a different vantage point. So here it is:

This is the most favorable time to build the party and press (and the Young Communist League (YCL)) in 40 years, especially among our multi-racial, multi-national, male/female, young/old working class. The bitter experience of our working class over the past three decades has eroded their confidence in American capitalism.

They haven’t completely given up on it, but because of what has happened many people are questioning its ability to provide a satisfying life and thus are open to thinking about new ways of structuring society.

Of course, we share their view and when combined with our strategic insights, our understanding of Marxism, our working class and multi-racial, multi-national roots, and our tactical flexibility, we become an attractive package.

So although there are lots of organizations out there, and anti-communism does still resonate, we should like our chances to grow in influence and size.

Growth won’t happen automatically — few things do. And in the near term our growth will still be incremental at every level, including on the Internet.

To respond to the new possibilities for growth, we will have to restructure our work at every level and move full throttle into the online world. In particular, we have to provide more entry points into the party and YCL.

What do I mean? First, joining the Party should not be considered as a point of entry, but rather as a point of destination. Not everyone will come closer or into the Party in the same way. The clubs should not be the exclusive form through which new members join the party. Even though we hope every member does participate in a club, we can’t insist on it at the outset. And for those people who join online, there is no club for them to be in, so we will have to provide them with virtual/online forms of participation.

We have to accept and adapt to the reality that times have changed; the pace of life is so much faster; the requirements of living are so much more, and leisure time has become a private affair.

Moreover, our political culture and people’s connection to political parties is different. Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, said a while ago in an article that the day of a cadre party is over.

I’m not sure if it ever existed, but I agree with him that it doesn’t now. The typical member in a growing party will never be a 24-hour, dawn-to-dusk communist. Like any party, movement, or organization, we need a growing pool of dedicated leaders at every level, but our membership in the main will not fall into that category.

The Party will be an important, but not all consuming item on their agenda. We shouldn’t try to fit square pegs into round holes. We need to be looser, more open, more visible, friendlier, more social and more action specific club meetings. We can do this without losing our ideological punch or our understanding of the necessity of grassroots clubs.

If we agree that growth is a political priority, we have to take steps to organize that growth; we have to develop a very practical plan. Some elements that a plan should include are:

First, clubs meetings have to be vibrant and connected to doing something about real life problems; boring and do nothing discussions will not make for an attractive place for new people to hang their hat;

Second, building our online press is crucial. This is a task of every member, every club and every collective. No one should sit this out. What better way to reach a huge audience? Our online team does incredible work, but they would be the first to say, “All hands on deck.”

Third, more entry points are necessary where friends and activists can acquaint themselves with us. Too few exist now. And again, one size doesn’t fit all.

Finally, lists of friends and activists have to be constructed collectively; follow up is necessary; and experience – and all experience is good — should be shared.

Young people, and the YCL

Most of what I’ve said about growing the Party applies in one way or another to the YCL, and given the strategic importance of the young generation, the YCL deserves close attention and assistance by the Party.

It is our partner in struggle. In recent months we’ve made some proposals to deepen our working relationships. Some of the most important include:

* Reviewing and assisting in the leadership transition;

* Integrating the leadership more into the discussions of our Party leadership bodies;

* Hosting a seminar on youth (early next year);

* Hosting a meeting of YCLers who have left in recent years, but haven’t joined the Party;

* Deepening consultation and joint action at the city/state level.

These steps go in the right direction, but they only represent a beginning.

We have a lot of challenges and opportunities before us. But I’m sure that we are going to seize the time just as communists have done over the past nine decades, Happy 90th anniversary Communist Party USA and many, many more!

3 thoughts on “Communist Party USA: ‘No easy road to future—but we’ll get there’

  1. paulie Post author

    All CPUSA wants is a Democrat majority. See where it’s gotten us?

    They seem to be functioning more as a caucus than a party, which is what usually happens to parties that stop running their own presidential candidates.

  2. Mik Robertson

    This reminds me of the Communist literature I used to see on Poland. Extraordinarily verbose.

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