Editors’ Note: This is a contribution to pre-convention discussion.
The CPUSA and May Day in New York:Â An Indication of Our Fading Presence and a Call for Serious Reconsideration
This year, May Day in New York City was indeed a special occasion. For the first time in decades, May Day was not only widely acknowledged, but widely celebrated. Here converged AFL-CIO unions alongside radical and moderately progressive groups and a bevy of militant immigrant groups.
For the first time in decades, the expected May Day throngs would far exceed the space a park could offer and the New York Police Department had to grant organizers not only large public spaces, but the international workers’ holiday literally took back the streets: rally sites swelled over downtown squares and entire sections of lower Manhattan were sectioned off by the police, who were also out in vast numbers. Rallying and marching on May Day, standing shoulder to shoulder with comrades, union sisters and brothers, environmentalists, peace activists, and radicals of every stripe inspired visions of the May Days of yore.
For this writer, the prospect of being in the heart of this action with the Communist Party USA was all one could ask for. As I had not heard anything about a "uniform" of the day, I wore a black tee shirt which features a red image of Lenin on it; only befitting of the day. I arrived early, about 10:15 AM, and scanned the area, noting the many unions and Left organizations gathering in different spots, all brandishing signs and banners and almost all wearing tee shirts or caps featuring their logo.
I made my way over to the corner the Party intended to meet at and found two comrades initially, on the way to buy some breakfast. One was a local officer, the other a respected comrade who often volunteers for Party assignments in the New York/National office. I inquired into our contingent, what we’d be carrying, etc, and was dismayed to learn that we had no banner to carry — the many older ones had somehow accidentally been discarded (along with many books, I was horrified to learn), when the offices were remodeled.
Worse, though there’d been a meeting on the Monday prior to May Day, no one had actually followed up to get a new banner made till the day before, and then it was too late. Thus, the Communist Party USA, the organization most responsible for the huge May Day parades of the 30s and 40s, and the one group to consistently hold May Day rallies in Union Square Park in the latter years (up until 2003, after which time the rallies mysteriously fell off) did not even have a banner to march under on May Day 2010. I was assured by the local leader however, that we’d all have placards with some kind of stick or pole to elevate them.
By the time we three arrived at the designated corner, several blocks to the rear of the podium, I saw other comrades standing together. One was holding the white placards we’ve used in recent years—the ones with the No War and dove atop, large empty center and Party name at the bottom. Folks were writing important topical messages on the blank white centers, I along with them not before long. Within 20 minutes or so, many of us had placards but there were no sticks or poles, unfortunately.
At this point I began to take note of our group: one other comrade had a red and black star insignia, one had on a Vets Against the War shirt, others in the rank and file wore other generally progressive messages but unfortunately few had any kind of decidedly communist imagery to share. I was surprised to see no one wearing a CPUSA tee or cap.
Under the circumstances of the lack of a banner and only a series of handwritten placards to display—those with the Party’s name down at the very bottom of each (appearing more as placards of anti-war activists much more so than those of Marxist-Leninists), it would have been vitally important for our contingency to display our powerful hammer/sickle/cogwheel proudly on their chests, but this never happened.
Instead, the leadership whom I have always respected wore street clothes. One’s only statement was an "Obama ’08" pin attached to the strap of his shoulder bag, another wore a Michele Obama as Rosie the Riveter shirt. These would have been great during a contentious general election of course, but for May Day the message is supposed to be revolutionary. One important local comrade wore his red proudly and even displayed not one but two of our lapel pins.
But this was not enough to make up for our National Chair to be marching in an old Bruce Springsteen tour tee-shirt; and no, it was not even a "Seeger Sessions" tour. I respectfully inquired about this with him, stating that I thought he’d be in a red shirt for sure. Sam responded lightly, clarifying that he did not own a red shirt.
For the record, I have enjoyed Sam’s role in the Party, but for the life of me, I will never, ever understand this lack of conviction. His role that day was to be a model of our Party’s leadership, one which stands in history with the likes of Foster, even founders like John Reed and firebrands like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But no one who was not familiar with Sam would have realized that he was a Party leader that day. In fact, with no identifying markers on them, none of our leaders could be "made" as Communists.
Beyond the important issue of facade, the matter also extended into our physical place in the crowd. As the strains of "Solidarity Forever" emanated over the crowd, the performance of the NYC Labor Chorus’ heralding in of May Day 2010, most every radical and union group had already moved to the front lines.
But the Communist Party contingent stood back, leaning near some Police Department barricades under the shade of some oak trees in the park. I encouraged all to move forward but only one other comrade joined me in my quest to be in the mix. Ultimately he moved back to the group to encourage them to join us in our spot, approximately a half-block from the podium, in full view of the large screen which hovered over the staging area.
Instead, the comrade came back and said that the rest insisted we all stay together in the back. We returned and when I openly questioned this, several agree we need to have a presence on May Day and we began to walk forward. While the others joined us, it must have been begrudgingly, for after we’d gotten back to a reasonable spot, I was momentarily lambasted by one leader who said I had "made" the group worm through the crowd, only to have to "stand in the sun."
While we all stayed together and then marched more or less together, this is the situation we are now in, comrades. And as a cultural and labor activist firmly embedded in Marxism-Leninism, it troubles me greatly. And especially on May Day, this May Day, we needed to have a strong presence….but we were largely invisible to all.
With no PW to hand out, with no pamphlet to allow ralliers to learn of our program, with no banner to march under and no sense of identity in our outfits, we seemed to be a loosely associated group of well-meaning progressives.
I have resisted the accusations that some in our ranks have hurled at the current national leadership; I am firmly against the Stalinist trend seen in many of these dissenters and have made my differences with them known. But in this time when our role could and should be an important one on the wider Left and at this time when it is so easy for those in opposition to the Party’s leadership to seek out faults, why in God’s name where we the invisible party at so important an occasion as May Day in New York City?
Comrades, without examining this matter fully we are simply deluding ourselves.Â We need to seriously reconsider who we are and what it is we need to be.
May 7, 2010