With the New Year, Sam Webb, the chairman of the CPUSA has offered some new, ostensibly self-critical assessments of the Obama Administration’s first twelve months. (Observations One Year In). “Ostensibly self-critical” because his latest thinking on wrong estimates that “we” allegedly made, overuses the second person plural, as if the blunders were made just as much by his party colleagues. A more honest leader would own up to the truth that the blunders were his.

Webb’s observations are prompted by two facts:

One, his prior assessment is fully out-of-step with nearly the entire left and many of the centrist forces that have now developed a critical posture towards the Administration. A year ago, most saw the Obama election as signaling a qualitative change from the policies identified with the prior Administration. It is no secret that the majority of the left viewed Obama as a progressive and interpreted his campaign positions as a road map to the restoration of Great Society, if not New Deal, policies. In essence, they  hoped the election of a young “visionary” with a modest background and a Democratic Congressional majority could begin to overturn the neo-liberal agenda born late in the Carter Administration and fully matured in the Reagan years. I did not share that view, nor did my colleagues at MLToday.

In fact, we argued vociferously that it was both naïve and dangerous. And now reality is intruding on that comforting image, with disappointment widespread. From the health care reform fiasco to the expanding imperialist wars, from the coddling of  finance capital to the dire crisis of working people, from the escalation of hostility towards Cuba to the complacency about Israeli aggression, and most recently, the shabby performance at the Copenhagen summit, there are few signs of the expected sea change in US politics. Even The Nation magazine and MoveOn are beginning to vocally reflect this disappointment. Obama-mania is on life support, if not dead.

Two, consequently, many CPUSA members are both unhappy with the prior assessment and more willing to speak out against it.

Even though Webb’s reassessment is necessitated by the harsh reality of events he did not foresee, any departure from his slavish defense of the Obama Administration is welcome, a defense that went much further (remember “Springtime of Possibility” and “Out of the Crisis”?) even than important elements in the labor movement, the Democratic Party, and other left-leaning and even centrist organizations.

His Reassessments

1. “To transform the coalition that elected Obama into a powerful political force will take a strenuous and sustained effort.”

Webb admits the he did not expect the road to be so “uneven and bumpy,” a strange confession for the leader of an organization that historically scouted the road ahead for the masses to follow. But then Webb, on other occasions, confessed that he has rejected the notion that Communists constitute a vanguard of struggle.

The whole notion that Communists can “transform” the diverse forces that coalesce in an electoral campaign into a force affecting political change is backwards. Communists build movements for change that may or may not transform electoral outcomes, but, through persistent, sustained effort definitely reshape the political landscape. The independent movements in the thirties for unemployment insurance and social security forced the issues onto the legislative agenda; the Communist-led movements for racial equality in the thirties and forties paved the way for the civil rights movement; and the post-WWII peace movement laid a foundation for the anti-war movement of the sixties.

2. “Second, our estimate of the balance of forces and trends in 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 on our part was necessary.”

Neither the President nor his Party delivered the goods. More importantly, neither the President nor his Party promised to deliver the goods, except in the minds of many seduced by vague promises of change and an investment in hope. Some of us identified the unprecedented amount of corporate support for Obama in guiding our assessment. Some of us found cause for skepticism in his appointees and advisors. Some of us saw the pattern of previous electoral campaigns and the huge gap between vague promises and performance. Obama’s first year has borne out our judgement.

3. “Third, a year ago 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 easily lead to narrow tactical approaches, which is especially bad in a moment of political fluidity and crisis. A year later, a closer look at the various trends is warranted, although it shouldn’t turn into a daily preoccupation.”

It is no sin to miss the signposts that signal an exit. But it is embarrassing to blame that oversight on “political fluidity and crisis.” Political fluidity is ever present in political life, and the crisis did not fall from the sky with Obama’s election. It is time to move beyond relying upon the Administration to initiate and execute a progressive agenda and urgently press an independent, aggressive and popular program. Millions of US citizens are calling for an immediate end to the occupation in Afghanistan. It’s time for Webb to join them. Most of our fellow citizens are profoundly disappointed in the health care reform sell-out. Webb should add his voice.

4. “Fourth, we exaggerated the magnitude of the defeat of right wing extremism. No longer did political initiative reside in its hand nor did it set the agenda, but it didn’t follow that right wing extremism became a minor player in the nation’s political life. While blue dog and centrist Democrats are a drag on progressive politics, 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.”

Right wing extremism has been with us since the country was founded. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through the Patriot Act of our time, there have always been forces of extreme reaction bent upon turning the political clock back as far as possible. Yet is only in our time that the more politically advanced organizations have called for “strategic” retreat and deference to a vacillating center in order to meet that threat. It is disingenuous for Webb to distinguish between an extreme Republican right and a diffident, disinterested Democratic “center,” especially when he has no plan to shock the Democrats into action. The Webb approach of ceding  to the Democrats leadership of the fight against the extreme right has proven bankrupt.

5. “Fifth, our assessment didn’t give enough weight to the fact that the state is anything but a neutral institution standing above society and negotiating between competing interests. Rather it is a class-based, historically determined set of institutions, procedures, policies, and personnel that, taken together, are resistant to any kind of radical (anti-corporate, anti-capitalist) restructuring, no matter how necessary. In recent decades, the interpenetration of big capital — especially finance, military and energy capital — and state/government structures has reached unprecedented levels.”

It is frankly appalling  that a Communist leader, presumably having read Lenin’s State and Revolution at some point, needs reminding that the state is an instrument of the ruling class.

While it is true that the entrenchment of state-monopoly capital – the coalescing of the state and monopoly capital – continues unabated, it should catch no one by surprise. It has long been fundamental to a Marxist-Leninist understanding of contemporary capitalism (see State Monopoly Capitalism Today, https://mltoday.com/en/state-monopoly-capitalism-today-372.html ). It is this lack of attention to longer term trends in socio-economic life that has diverted Webb, and the CPUSA, from a path of militancy and leadership in the fight for both progressive reform and socialism. The Democratic Party and its elected officials will not lead the fight against state-monopoly capital . They are one of the two major party-political expressions of state-monoply capital.

6. “Sixth, our reading of changes in public opinion suffered from one-sidedness. On the one hand, we correctly noted that right-wing and neoliberal ideology resonates less and less with tens of millions of people, who are increasingly skeptical about “free markets” and unregulated capitalism… 
 [On the other hand] “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, not simply reducible to their place in a system of social production. … For those who desire progressive change it is essential to better appreciate the complexity and fluidity of popular consciousness. Most people lack a consistent worldview. Gus Hall referred to this phenomena as “shifting thought patterns” because the popular consciousness is bombarded on all sides with a decadent, resistance-strangling ideology shouted by the corporate media.”

It is not enough to “appreciate” this destructive force. It is essential to counter it, even with the limited megaphones that we possess on the left. Surely the tens of millions who “are increasingly skeptical about ‘free markets’ and unregulated capitalism” need to hear of alternatives. That is the real role for the left and the CPUSA: to fill the need for the alternative worldview and organize people for that alternative, not merely muse about them.

No Change in Course

With these miscalculations – and missed opportunities – behind him, one would hope that Webb would propose a new path, a new approach that would return the CPUSA to the militantly oppositional posture that served the Party well through most of its history. While the Party was never large, it was large enough to stir the ruling class into fits of anti-Communist hysteria. Not so today with the timid, vacuous theory of the “all people’s front.” Instead, the Party buries its identity in a cycle of anonymous, uncritical electoral activities on behalf of the Democratic Party. And Webb has no intention of changing that approach: “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 enormous.”

Thus, Webb proposes to invest the Party’s energies once again in the Democratic Party’s election efforts, as he did in 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002, and 2000. Once again, the CPUSA will be a tiny player in the cesspool of corporate money, back room deals, deceipt, and manipulation that constitutes a Democratic Party electoral campaign. As in the  recent past, there will be no focus on third-party candidates or building political independence. Forget about running CPUSA candidates. There will be no concentration of limited resources behind the most progressive primary candidates. There will only be a blank check to the Democratic leadership.

Beyond Webb’s now tired call for uncritical support for the Democrats in the forthcoming interim election, beyond his Frank Capra-like, wishful vision “of 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, sections of the Democratic Party and even sections of corporate capital,” there is little new in this “reassessment.”

It is not even real self-criticism. It is sham self-criticism, slight adjusting the language to deflect growing Party unease at just how dreadfully wrong its leader’s estimates have been. Real, Leninist self-criticism doesn’t stubbornly reaffirm the same failed analysis and  failed policy. Like Obama’s “change you can believe in,” Webb’s inspiring “coalition” is no more than a shallow slogan without a movement to force its realization, a force both critical and independent of the Administration.

As the left and many liberals shed the fairy-tale intoxication of a new American Idol  presidency, as activists cast off the logic of “the best we can get” and “fake left, go right,” it would be tragic if the leadership of the CPUSA continues wedded to a bankrupt path of doggedly following the Democratic Party – tragic for the Communist Party and tragic for the working class movement.

January 7, 2010