Committee of Correspondence Looking Ahead

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Joanna Misnik

IN ITS PROCESS of rethinking, the Committees of Correspondence (CofC) has already made a contribution to the rebuilding of a socialist movement in the U.S that will benefit all participating in its reconstruction.

Their contribution is measured by much more than the impressive number of participants–over 1,400–at the July 17-19 national conference in Berkeley, California, initiated by the CofC. It lies in the inspirational honesty with which this grouping of former Communist Party (CPUSA) members, numbering around 1,000 prior to the July conference, set out to rejoin socialism with democracy, inclusiveness with organization-building, humility with determination, and Marxism with living reality.

The conference on “Perspectives for Democracy and Socialism in the 90s” was open to the entire socialist left, not just those who had walked out of the Communist Party. Membership in the CofC is likewise open to all who share its basic goals, including members of other organizations. Obviously, however, this was the first opportunity for a national discussion among the veterans of a long internal struggle in the CPUSA.

The factional struggle culminated at the CP’s 25th national convention in December 1991 with the exclusion of all dissidents from its new leadership bodies, including such long-time leaders as Herbert Aptheker, Angela Davis, James Steele and Charlene Mitchell, all now active in the CofC. Whole sections of the CP walked out of the party as they became convinced that there was no hope for reforming it or challenging its anti-democratic regime.

To the bitter end, the Gus Hall leadership in the CPUSA has resisted successive waves of “rethinking” among the world Communist parties, including the development of Eurocommunism that swept through the West European parties in the mid-1970s. The crisis in the CPUSA mirrored the general crisis of the Communist parties throughout the world in face of the collapse of mythical “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and East Europe.

This gave rise to the dissident “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party,” signed by 800 members. The struggle, initially inspired by the Gorbachev reforms, soon met opposition from a Hall regime determined to lay the blame for all that was occurring at the door of incompetence and human error and a departure from true communism on the part of Gorbachev and his “revisionist” ilk.

Toward A New Beginning

Dissidents sought to probe deeper into the history of the Soviet revolution for the answers to its failure. They insisted that the problems were systemic. stressing the absence of democracy and the masses’ disaffection from the bureaucratism and commandism in the Soviet Union and East Europe. There could be no socialism without democracy.

A stark example of the methods of this leadership can be found in the remarks by Hall himself to the first meeting of the “new leadership” elected at the 25th convention, delivered on December 17, 1991:

“The convention rejected the petty bourgeois, pseudo-intellectual drive to take over the party…. I read only about 5% of the preconvention material. I made a conscious decision not to read much of the propaganda, but only the headlines. It is amazing that our membership was able to discriminate what was garbage and what was genuine thought, debate and probing. I think our pre-convention discussion period would have been deeper and more meaningful if we had not allowed real garbage to appear in print.”

At a time when the entirety of twentieth century revolutionary experience must necessarily be put under a critical microscope in order to go forward, this is the response that greeted these dissidents. The experience both of the crumbling of the Soviet system and the harsh factionalism inside the CPUSA has forged a group determined to fiercely protect internal democracy and provide a non-sectarianism and openness that alone can lay the basis for the reclamation of socialism.

Every plenary speaker who called for a new humility evoked wild applause. The simple statement by Carl Bloice, ousted Moscow correspondent for the People’s Weekly World, that “we’re not IT” brought the house down. Crossroads editor Elizabeth Martinez summed up the mood: “Such an elitism can be a hard habit to break. It has to be broken. We have to face the need to give up the joy of certainty for the promise of relevance.” CofC members welcomed of those not from their tradition in a way that would rival the best of any of us.

During Sunday’s plenary, devoted in part to an organizational resolution, a membership burned by the internal practice of the CP tested its new organization. A parade of speakers to the floor mikes offered many amendments, most aimed at finding that one clause or phrase that could give rise to membership disenfranchisement or inequality.

This was not a discussion on Leninist theory of organization, or the role of democratic centralism. These, like many other theoretical and strategic questions, remain open to frank and ranging review, which has already begun in the pages of Dialogue and Initiative, the new discussion bulletin of the CofC. In fact, the conference did not rush to resolve the debate on precisely what kind of organization the CofC will become.

In eighteen months, another conference will be held to found a new organization. The basic conception is a new, pluralistic socialist organization that rests on Marxism in a general sense that can incorporate activists from the social movements. Proposals in the direction of some kind of broader progressive, not overtly socialist organization, as well as those for an ill-defined “Marxist-Leninist” party, had much less support.

Debating Electoral Strategies

The major political discussion and debate that traverses the CofC turns around electoral strategy. The CPUSA has long supported the “progressive sector of the ruling class” in the Democratic Party. During the Cold War, this was part of their defense of the Soviet Union and “world peace;” it was also justified by the identification of labor, the Black movement and the progressive community with this party.

Unlike social democrats, since at least 1972 the CPUSA has not been officially hostile to the idea of a progressive break from the Democrats. It has formally held a three-pronged strategy that also includes running in its own name.

In CofC’s preconference discussion, several leaders of the CofC counseled that 1992 represented a test for the viability of the left. The job would be to defeat the ultraright Bush, thus paving the way for a new people’s movement by decreasing the danger of fascism.

Touring in Detroit before the CofC convention, Charlene Mitchell opined that an ultraleft mistake had been made in 1988. The left bailed out after Jackson lost the nomination and did not help get Dukakis elected. Stating her personal view that the left should consider itself
obligated to work for Clinton, she also reported that strategy for `92 would become a big discussion in the CofC, and that this time around–referring mostly to her own work for Dukakis in `88–nobody would have to work on anything they disagreed with because there would be no line from on high.

Mitchell was right: There is no big consensus for carving out an identity for the CofC by providing the revolutionary backing for Clinton in `92. There has been much debate over this approach. A good number of CofC members are far more interested in throwing their energies into the fledging efforts toward independent political action such as the Ron Daniels presidential campaign, the Labor Party Advocates, etc. The rightward drift of the Democrats was continually bashed from the podium of this conference, coupled with calls for something new.

Manning Marable slammed the Democrats’ move to the right and the focus on winning back white, middle-class voters by abandoning the traditional image of the party as the champion of civil rights and the welfare state. He made an eloquent case for the bankruptcy of the two-parties and the “crisis of legitimacy” in the political system.

Marable’s suggestions for the left to meet this challenge centered on campaigning for universal registration, changing elections to Sundays, public financing of elections, institutionalizing a none-of-the-above ballot option, fair ballot access, and cross-endorsement or fusion tactics between smaller third parties and major parties. These are necessary objectives if third party politics are ever to take hold in the U.S. winner-take-all system. But a clear call to break with the Democrats did not emerge.

Marxism for the Movements

The faction fight inside the Communist Party was not limited to interpreting events in the Soviet system. The CofC conference reflected other issues that the dissidents had raised in their attempt to “renew” the party. The importance of struggles for women’s liberation, for gay and lesbian rights, and to save the environment were given much prominence in workshops and plenaries. There was a clear critique of the CP’s abstentionism from these social movements.

The struggles of people of color and the role in the U.S. revolution of the special oppression of African Americans was a major theme. There remains a pride in the contributions of the CPUSA to the anti-racist struggle, as well as in its ability to build a multiracial membership and leadership that was more extensive than in other socialist organizations.

Many prominent Black leaders of the party were supporters of the “Initiative.” The exclusion of dissidents from the new leadership bodies saw the removal of eighteen of the twenty-nine African Americans on the CP National Committee. Oppositionists believed that the party leadership was backsliding on its commitment to the centrality of the Black liberation struggle; this was a hot issue in the internal fight.

The new CofC interim national leadership is headed by a five-member executive committee–Kendra Alexander, Carl Bloice, Manning Marable, Charlene Mitchell and Raphael Pizarro. All are people of color. Marable, a widely respected African-American historian and activist who played a key role in bringing the conference about, is a former member of the Democratic Socialists of America; he is the only one who hadn’t been a member of the CP.

Elections were also held to an interim national coordinating committee of thirty. Anyone at the conference could make a nomination. This new body is over half women and people of color; it also includes people not from the CP. The import of this composition for the development of a multiracial socialist movement should not be underestimated.

A New Labor Orientation

The attack launched by the “Initiative” supporters was also centered on issues of trade-union and workplace strategy. Articles in the pre-convention bulletins and the new CofC publications echo two basic criticisms: 1) The failure to understand the changing character of the U.S. workforce, a myopic bias toward the “industrial bastions” of the working class, and an inability to grasp the significance of the need to organize the unorganized. 2) The sectarianism with which the CP counterposed the formations it initiated to other genuine developments and campaigns.

In his article “Home Alone: A Trade Union Strategy that Was Left Behind,” Jim Williams comments:

“Does anyone recall ever being in a discussion that examined the history of TUAD or Labor Today? These organizations, which were the core of CP trade union policy for two decades, just sort of `faded away’ …. Even as the former editor of abor Today, I was not apprised of the decision to shut it down (much less consulted), until the decision had been made …. Hopefully, we can begin to develop a style of discourse and analysis that will make it possible to glean the lessons of our trade union experience, while at the same time making it clear to our friends in the broad trade union left that we may, in fact, be worthy allies in the struggle.” (Dialogue and Initiative, No. 3, July 1992)

Several hundred people participated in a trade union workshop held on Friday before the conference opened. Not all were trade unionists; some were early arrivals. However, a sizeable number of union activists were present from, among others, 1199 Hospital Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, Social Service Employees, United Electrical Workers, United Auto Workers and its New Directions Caucus, and Communication Workers of America.

Recurrent themes in a free-flowing discussion included the need for establishing rank-and-file democracy and control, organizing the unorganized, combatting racism in the unions. Speakers who highlighted the need for labor to build its own political voice and break from the Democrats got an enthusiastic response.

In a discussion about the tasks of unionists who are CofC members, notions of starting from scratch were overwhelmed by those encouraging the group to work with the rest of the U.S. left and to become involved in already successful labor projects and caucuses. The two most prominent examples cited were Labor Notes and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Looking to the Future

The CofC correctly conceives of itself as a work in progress. Uplifting as this conference was, the objective situation facing socialists today is not one that yields easy gains and victories. Though people from thirty states came to Berkeley, the CofC membership is heavily concentrated on the two coasts, specifically the Bay Area (which provided over half the conference-goers) and New York.

Young people are sparse among the membership. A motion from the youth caucus was passed mandating fifteen percent under thirty on all leadership bodies to try to correct this imbalance. This is not unique to the CofC in the left today.

In the months ahead, the CofC, among others in the world socialist movement, will have to grapple with how–or whether–to define a revolutionary current. The objective basis for a world Communism resting on the post-capitalist societies and defining revolution through the prism of “actually existing socialism” has been abruptly removed. Also removed is the objective basis for a world current in left opposition to that kind of Communist movement! By contrast, the basis for a social democratic movement that sees the endless reform of capital and the limitless extension of capitalist democracy as its only possible goal is vastly enhanced in the New World Order.

It will take more than traditions and organizational bloodlines from the past to delineate a revolutionary outlook distinct from social democracy, yet fighting hard for reforms and reversals in the relationships of forces. Some things that give CofC its own identity different from today’s Democratic Socialists of America were evident at this conference. One is an ethic of collective activism and commitment to building organizations of struggle; the number of seasoned and dedicated activists at this conference was impressive.

Another is internationalist anti-imperialism. The Friday night opening rally would have been a complete anomaly at a DSA-sponsored event. Speakers included a representative of the Association of Vietnamese in the U.S. describing the situation of that revolution in the new world context; Judy Rebick from the left wing of the Canadian New Democratic Party and organizer for the Action Canada Network, which seeks to keep the NDP honest from the outside where it is in office; representatives of the El Salvadoran CP and the South African ANC; and Andrea Lederer, a Bundestag deputy from the German PDS (former CP).

Messages were received from the Communist parties of Canada, Britain, South Africa, Austria, Spain, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, and the Organizing Committee for a Party of Labor in Russia. There was no message from Cuba. Despite this, the conference was punctuated with urgent appeals to defend Cuba against imperialist strangulation. The CofC clearly draws some identity from its particular tradition of anti-imperialism and its association to the effort of CPs and former CPs facing redfinition around the world.

Overall, this conference contributed to establishing a method and atmosphere on the socialist left. As plenary speaker Mark Solomon put it: “We need to do something that the left has rarely done: dig deeply into our own history and traditions, values, in defining perspectives for democracy and socialism …. We need an organization informed by the unlikely but kindred spirit of Bertold Brecht and Aretha Franklin. Brecht, who said: how is it that we who want happiness for the people of the whole world can be so cruel to each other? And Aretha Franklin who told us how to spell RESPECT.

“Today we have a hard job that will require all the expertise, all the good will, all the patience, all the irony, all the humor, all the staying power that we can muster.” That goes for all of us.

September-October 1992, ATC 40