In the face of unvarnished realities, we have to speak some unpleasant truths. Less than a decade into the twenty-first century, triumphal capitalism is suffering from severe crisis, both politically and economically. After the fall of the European socialist states, capitalism marched confidently forward, promising an unprecedented period of economic growth, rising standards of living, equality, democracy, peace, and civil and human rights. We were told that history had arrived at humanity’s highest stage and there was no imaginable alternative to profit-driven market societies. The 2007 end-of-year scorecard for the leading developed country, the US, reveals a dismal failure:
Economic progress: The US economy is in the throes of a profound, persistent, and lengthy financial upheaval, reflecting the deeply embedded contradictions first exposed in the 2000-2001 stock market collapse, and now in the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Standards of living: Wages have not significantly improved since 1972. Health care costs have risen and retirement incomes have shrunk. Home ownership is collapsing in the face of the mortgage fiasco. Decent, secure jobs are disappearing, replaced by low-wage and transient employment.
Equality: Income and wealth inequality have reached pre-Great Depression levels. Minorities, especially African-Americans, have fallen far behind.
Democracy: In spite of some notable differences between the Republican and Democratic parties on health care, reproductive rights, and civil liberties, the two party system has become more of a one party system with two faces than at any time in modern history. Voter alienation is at an all-time high, while confidence in US political institutions sinks to new lows.
Peace: The US military maintains active units in nearly every corner of the world while maintaining an occupation and ongoing bloody engagement in Iraq. US direct intervention in Central Europe and indirect engagement in Eastern Europe, throughout the Middle East, South America, and Africa has left the world a tinderbox. Imperial intervention has become more audacious and violent.
Civil Liberties: The bogus "War on Terror" has justified the wholesale abandonment of over two centuries of homage to a constitutional tradition. The security services are virtually unrestrained in the US.
Racial and ethic chauvinism: Racism and xenophobia have reached heights unseen since before the struggles of the nineteen fifties and sixties. African-Americans are economically, politically, and socially shackled to a degree unseen since those times.
Human Rights: Long the touchstone of US imperial arrogance, respect for life, security, and self-determination is brazenly trampled by the US government and military.
So Where is the US Left?
One would think one would hope that these failures and evils of US capitalism, only briefly sketched here, would embolden a vibrant, militant left to challenge an order that meets defiance and resistance throughout the less developed world. Historically, the left has enjoyed its greatest growth, popularity and influence in such times. One thinks of the Great War (1914-1919) that gave birth to the Communist movement and launched people’s movements for justice and national liberation throughout the world. The initiatives spawned by a world-wide depression in the thirties brought millions into movements for democracy and social change. The Second Great War (1939-1945) liberated millions from the ugly domination of fascism, expanded socialism dramatically, and hastened the collapse of colonialism. In our time, the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War expanded US democracy, the welfare state, and strengthened anti-imperialist sentiment. Yet in much of Europe and, especially, the US, the left has now hunkered down, vainly accepting a tactical retreat to establish an elusive unity of forces against a determined, radical right set on restoring a new gilded age of unbridled capitalism.
Without question the radical right has made great advances beginning with the era of Thatcher and Reagan. But their success has not only changed the political balance of forces and the economic landscape, but also changed the fundamental ideology of the media, the academic world, and the entire political strata in the developed world. In short, neo-liberalism – the ideology ushered in with Thatcher and Reagan – is entrenched firmly in the mainstream of everyday life, from entertainment to spiritual thought, from consumerism to social responsibility, and from manners to individual taste.
Recent history demonstrates the depth of this victory (or more accurately, feeble surrender of liberals and social democrats). By its embrace of conservative fundamentals during the Clinton Presidency offered no leadership to rally a progressive offensive. Likewise in the UK, the Blair administration trampled upon the Labor Party’s historic mission. The same assumptions stood behind the electoral strategies of Germany’s Social Democrats and the Communists-turned-"Democrats" in Italy. The reasons for this "mutation" are interesting; suffice it to say that they signal the full maturation of state-monopoly capitalism. Unity with such centrist "allies" is hardly a promising approach to advancing the cause of working people.
Unity and the United Front: Lessons from Germany
Often, the left defends the "unity" tactic by appealing to the history of fascism’s rise in Europe and the Communist response of seeking a united front with bourgeois forces aligned against fascism. This argument has been particularly appealing to revisionists within the Communist movement, particularly those who pose some vague notion of an "all people’s front against the ultra-right." But this is a false analogy, neither historically appropriate nor politically sound.
If anything, the history of the fascist rise to power as opposed to the response to that rise was a history of betrayal. Revisionists conveniently forget that bourgeois parties dominated political life in both Italy and Germany before power was assumed by fascist movements, power conceded by a king and a president. In both cases, a conciliatory tolerance of fascism emboldened the right-wing leaders to more violence, and greater demands for power. Fear – fear of communism, workers’ power, and internationalism – led to appeasement and accommodation with a virulently anti-Communist , chauvinist movement. Bourgeois politicians – not unlike jost Democratic Party leaders in the US – sought a civil, responsible "bi-partisanship" with elements to their right whose only goal was complete dominance and overthrow of the existing constitutional order.
Consistently, the Communist movement and many workers’ organizations saw the danger and fought ferociously against the tide of fascism. For this reason, the Parties grew and enjoyed greater and greater popularity, especially in Germany. In the last free election, the German Communist vote measured only a few percentage points below the Social Democrats, a party that shared power or served as a loyal opposition during the Weimar Republic. Youth and militant workers turned more and more to the Communists because of their determined anti-fascism. As a Soviet historian, Arkady Yerusalimsky, wrote of the 1930 elections:
Just two, parties the Communist and National-Socialist, were successful in the September 14 elections. Surveying the returns, the Social-Democratic leadership which usually calls the Communist Party a party of the lumpenproletariat, admitted that "among workers of many industrial areas the KPD is no weaker and even stronger (in six constituencies)" than the old Social-Democratic Party. "We should have the courage," it adds ruefully, "to admit this unpleasant fact without embellishments." The "unpleasant fact" is that the September elections indicated in all the industrial centers that the working class is shifting en masse from the Social Democrats to the Communist Party. (German Imperialism: Its Past and Present, p. 237)
And they shifted to the Communists because of the Communists’ fierce resistance to Nazism. While Social-Democrats distanced themselves from Communists and sought coalition partners to the right, the Communists offered united action on several occasions, jost notably one day after the Nazis made a strong showing in the Prussian Landtag election of the spring of 1932. "We Communists," they announced, "make the following proposals: call immediate mass meetings of the workers in every factory and every mine, at every labor exchange and relief office, in all trade unions; these should assess the dangerous situation, compile a list of joint demands, elect action committees composed of Communists, Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers; and prepare to carry out with determination the mass struggle…"
This history of principled Marxist-Leninist struggle against fascism is sullied by those, including modern-day "Marxist-Leninists," who rail against Communist sectarianism in the struggle against fascism. Perhaps the Communists could have done more to court the bourgeois parties, perhaps they should have simply liquidated their organization (as some seem to offer as a solution to the US ultra-right danger), perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… But the painful, unvarnished truth is that nothing would have brought the leadership of the Social Democratic Party into a united coalition against fascism with the Communist Party. At the last, desperate moment, the Social Democrats supported the Hindenburg presidency, the election that brought Hitler into the chancellery. The Communists ran Ernst Thaelmann, a candidacy of which the martyred, independent journalist and 1935 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Carl von Ossietsky wrote:
…we urged readers to vote for Thaelmann, since for any Socialist or honest Republican the alternative of Hindenburg or Hitler must appear sheer perversity. The slogan of Thlmann as candidate, clears the air by attempting to gather in all those who refuse to accept as an act of fate the results of Republican and Social Democratic incapability. The largest possible number of votes for Thlmann will not mean victory, but it will open a prospect. (Die Weltbuhne, March 8, 1932)
This prospect was slammed shut by Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler in 1933.
We revisit this history because some left leaders in the US have falsely and opportunistically cited the report and resolutions of the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International as grounds for a policy of uncritical, slavish support for a corrupted Democratic Party and a class-collaborationist top labor leadership in the struggle against the ultra-right. They accept the caricature of Dimitrov’s report and the interpretations offered by anti-Communist historians, a distortion that retreats from class struggle, revolutionary tactics, and confrontation. One can only assume that they have not bothered to read the documents.
If anything, the Seventh Congress criticized German Communists for not being more forceful, more aggressive in their actions. Dimitrov contended that the Communists should have "forced the Social-Democratic leaders to discontinue their campaign against the Communists and to accept the repeated proposals of the Communist Party for united action against fascism." Regarding the Prussian Landtag elections mentioned above, he emphatically stated "It [the Communists] should have compelled the Social-Democratic leaders who headed the Prussian government to adopt measures of defense against fascism, arrest the fascist leaders, close down their press, confiscate their material resources and the resources of the capitalists who were financing the fascist movement, dissolve the fascist organizations, deprive them of their weapons, and so forth… It was the fault of the Social-Democrats of Germany that this was not done, and that is why fascism was able to triumph." These words are not a call for accommodation or supine agreement, but of struggle to reach the masses. They are not words that blame the rise of fascism on isolated, sectarian Communists. Of course Communists erred in narrow, sectarian ways before the Seventh Congress of the International, especially in trade union work. And Dimitrov was unsparing in sharp criticism of these errors. But the United Front tactic was never meant to impose Communist compliance with the posture of the bourgeois parties. Both the International’s and the French Communist Party’s stance towards the pre-war French Popular Front government and its successor demonstrate this point. For example, both were sharply opposed to the French government’s lack of support for Republican Spain.
It may shock and shame the modern day opportunist, but Dimitrov offered the following prescription for combating fascism: "Whether the victory of fascism can be prevented depends first and forejost on the militant activity of the working class itself, on whether its forces are welded into a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism. By establishing its fighting unity, the proletariat would paralyze the influence of fascism over the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the youth and the intelligentsia, and would be able to neutralize one section of them and win over the other section." The Democratic Party and the top labor leadership in the US surely don’t resemble "a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism" to any but the blind and self-deluded.
The plain truth is that total obeisance to a corporate-dominated political party or a labor leadership, many of whom are in recovery from the Cold War, is neither a principled nor effective tactic for resisting the ultra-right threat. As Dimitrov emphasized, it is a "fighting unity" based on "militant activity" and not compliant accord with "the lesser of two evils" that promises to challenge the ultra-rightists.
Communists Today: the Unvarnished Truth
We stand with those who believe that an ideologically strong and militant Communist Party is essential for combating capitalism in all its incarnations. The history of the last century is a history of working class resistance and advancement sparked by Communist and Workers Parties, both large and small. Communists bring a deeper understanding of the capitalist mechanism, enabling the working class to aim for the heart of the beast. Even when the Communist program is not heeded, the challenge provokes reformists to support more audacious, radical alternatives to ruling class domination. Of course Communists are not infallible; to believe so is theology and not Marxist theory. Nonetheless, the working class movement always benefits from the influence of a determined Communist Party, a party for socialism.
In the US that role belongs to the Communist Party USA. Throughout the twentieth century, the CPUSA has inspired a vision of socialism in the jost advanced workers while working diligently to develop the struggles against racism and for equality, for the organization of workers, for social security, unemployment insurance, peace, and social justice. It is no exaggeration to refer to Communist leadership. While Communists have not always been among the top leaders or spokespeople of every movement, their agitation and boldness have pressed reformers far further than they would have otherwise traveled.
Sadly, Communist Party USA (CPUSA) leaders have retreated from this historic role. Contributors to our website have well documented the ideological drift from Marxist-Leninism on the part of some CPUSA leaders (see Reflections on Revisionism in the USA, Edward A. Drummond, MLToday). We focus here on the practical results of that drift.
First and forejost, it is obvious that the CPUSA has not grown in size or influence at a time when Marxist-Leninist ideas are needed more urgently than ever. The Party press, formerly present at every important demonstration or strike, has fallen in circulation, quality, and militancy.
One looks in vain for even the word "socialism" in jost issues of The People’s Weekly World. In its place are liberal nostrums that seldom exceed the demands of the organized labor leadership or prominent Democrats. Coverage of international events is often good, but seldom backed by editorial force or framed in the spirit of internationalism. More and more, commentary is drawn from liberal sources lifted from the internet and not from Marxist-Leninist thinkers. Labor coverage lacks even a mild rebuke to the tepid actions of the jost backward union leaders.
Political Affairs, formerly the Party theoretical journal, has been transformed into a hodge-podge of disparate views ranging well beyond what anyone would count as Marxist-Leninist. The editors seem determined to reduce its relevancy for anyone curious about the Communist program. One is reminded of the tragic self-destruction of Marxism Today and Socialism: Theory and Practice the former, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the latter, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The ideological gutting of both journals was a harbinger of the collapse of their respective Parties. Both journals surrendered rigor to an unfocussed ecumenism unworthy of a Leninist organization.
It is no wonder that both CPUSA publications are in financial crisis – their Communist identity has been virtually dissolved.
CPUSA practice mirrors the decline of the press. From the 2006 interim national elections, the focus of Party work has been preparation for supporting the Democrats in the 2008 Presidential elections. No organization, perhaps with the exception of the campaign teams of the leading candidates, has been as singularly absorbed with the 2008 Presidential election as the CPUSA leadership. In the run-up to the primaries, Democrats are engaged in advocating various candidates and their programs. But CPUSA leaders, despite occasional lip service, are devoting no attention to pressing for the jost progressive candidate, Dennis Kucinich. Their "Anyone but a Republican" approach actually places them objectively to the political right of Democratic Party progressives and demobilizes Party activists from the electoral arena until after the primaries. Is it a surprise that the Party is not attracting new members?
The major issues dominating the electoral campaign will undoubtedly be the war in Iraq and the economy. CPUSA leaders have urged framing the war in the jost general, easily accepted terms. They have willfully blunted an understanding of its imperialist character in favor of a weak, opportunistic pacifism palatable to the jost reactionary critics and saber-rattlers. With the CPUSA sharing the perspective of lukewarm liberals and we-could-have-done-it-better Democrats, the peace movement is in the doldrums, disarmed by a "surge" that has lowered US casualty figures while leaving the Iraqi people in abject poverty, splintered by a "divide and conquer" strategy, and overwhelmingly opposed to the occupation. The public debate over the morality of a brutal invasion and the barbaric treatment of a sovereign nation has been tempered to a civil discussion of the management of Iraqi affairs by our "honorable" military. The CPUSA leadership refused to proclaim Iraqis engaged in armed struggle as anti-imperialist while vigorously opposing US activists’ call for "Out now!"
Ironically, the CPUSA position of shaping the anti-war effort to embrace "the broadest" forces has weakened the impact of the majority anti-war sentiment in the forthcoming elections.
The economic crisis is not merely the current stock market volatility or the decline in gross domestic product. Rather, it is the exploitation and impoverishment of the masses of working people. This crisis is not new. Working people’s incomes, well-being, and prospects have been stagnant or in decline for decades. For a Marxist-Leninist, these facts signal a ruling class, capitalist offensive that cannot be shrugged off as the cruelty of an ultra-right cabal. Therefore, the fate of the working class cannot be entrusted to the fair-mindedness of the millionaires and corporate courtiers who dominate the Democratic Party. The leaders of the CPUSA see things differently. They rest their hopes on an election, not unlike past elections, that will likely replace one set of open corporate shills with another group, a group that will continue on the path of corporate pillage while paying token homage to the welfare of the working class. Even before the 2006 elections, a majority of business interests swung their financial support behind the Democrats. Will the Democrats defy their sponsors and craft a people’s program?
Layoffs, concessions, the stripping of benefits, the destruction of welfare, and the weakening of Medicare coverage are not events hidden from the public. The outsourcing of jobs, the deterioration of health care, and the neglect of public education are not disputed facts. Nonetheless, they are met with a stony silence from much of the Democratic leadership. Bromides that recognize the pain and offer little but verbal support are the palliatives rendered by top Democrats.
The current CPUSA leadership fails the working class by investing all of the Party’s energy in supporting the Democratic Party. Where is the commitment to Communist candidates, independent candidates, third-party slates, even progressive Democrats, a strategy that has been central in the Party’s past electoral efforts?
We look in vain for encouragement of democratic, progressive rank and file movements in labor. Again, the CPUSA leadership sees such developments as challenging the unity of the labor movement unless officially sponsored.
In all fields of struggle, the current CPUSA leadership exhibits an unjustified satisfaction with the agenda established by the liberal mainstream. Where are the Party initiatives to advance the struggle for a shorter work week, affirmative action, expanded social security, free education, immigrant rights, guaranteed annual incomes, Medicare-for-all, disarmament, a bill of economic rights, free education, and on and on? The Party’s long-standing, principled leadership in the struggle against racism is not reflected in today’s struggles from Jena to the fight to save public housing in New Orleans. The present leaders refrain from pressing advanced issues for fear of disrupting the "unity" of left and center forces, an approach that guarantees inordinate influence by the center-right and far-right. As a result, the CPUSA largely functions as a small reserve brigade for the Democratic Party and labor officials. This is an embarrassing corruption of the United Front strategy.
Why this Road?
This sad state of affairs is the product of the post-Soviet courtship with revisionism, the "new thinking" and "rethinking" that occupied so much of the left after Gorbachev’s subjectivist, alien program to revitalize the Marxist-Leninist legacy. The easy road was to whimper over the shortcomings of the Soviet experience, accepting the never-ending attacks upon twentieth century socialism by the paid carnival barkers of capitalism. The easy road was to join the triumphal chorus that slandered every effort to shape a new world free of exploitation and class privilege. Thus, much of the left took a long bath, washing away any remnants of the messy and difficult trek of twentieth century Communism. While they are now splendidly clean and respectable, they discarded their ideology with the bathwater.
But revisionism in the US has uniquely national roots as well. From its birth, the nation has been fertile soil for radical individualism, a notion that invests virtue and happiness in personal initiative and success. The constantly moving frontier, purchased at a genocidal cost to indigenous peoples, instilled a sense of both possibility and destiny in early Americans. The confidence that equal opportunity, limited though it may be, was sufficient for individuals to forge a prosperous future and overcome obstacles was not a vision shared by other peoples frozen in status by old institutions and tradition. Of course this optimistic world view was fueled by enormous material growth and a consequent high standard of living. Yet it came with a price. The cult of the individual blinds many in the US from an understanding of the value of collective action and a full appreciation of the collective good.
Such a view places an exaggerated weight on the doctrine of individual rights and personal responsibility. Individualism stresses the autonomy of the person, neglecting the forces that shape or influence what appears to be independent action and thought. North Americans share an aljost religious faith in the sanctity and sufficiency of individual rights.
For this reason, left movements in the US have underestimated the class divides that shape US history, framing class conflict as a matter of perfecting "American Democracy." Class divisions have been skillfully masked or subordinated to sectional, ethnic or gender divisions. The reigning radical banner is "equal opportunity" and not "a classless society." Unfortunately, this pervasive perspective has crippled the US Communist movement often in the past – in the twenties with the Lovestone group, in the forties with Browder, in the fifties with the Gates faction, and in today’s toothless "Bill of Rights socialism."
Of course there are many important, historically specific factors besides the collapse of the socialist community that explain why the virus of revisionism has struck so critically at this moment: The CPUSA has lost a generation of comrades that were schooled in militant working class struggles, steeped in Marxist-Leninist ideology and immunized to the disease.
In earlier times, the international Communist movement has helped to restore Marxist-Leninism to a wayward US party. Unfortunately, today that movement lacks both the unity and common understanding to serve that purpose. The truth is that the future of the Communist movement in the US is wholly in the hands of CPUSA members. We urge members to rediscover the legacy of militant, revolutionary Communists who have given so much to advance the cause of US working people. Party members can study Lenin and Communist history. They can study the CPUSA Program before the last convention. They can read Marxism-Leninism Today. They can challenge revisionist positions by writing letters to the People’s Weekly World and Political Affairs.
The Party beat back the revisionist challenge of 1991. A new concerted struggle to restore to the CPUSA its key Marxist-Leninist principles class struggle, warring against US imperialist aggression, fighting against the special oppression of African-Americans and other people of color, building independent political action, playing the role of a vanguard party is necessary, not only for the future of the Party, but for the benefit of our besieged class.
The author and the editors of Marxism-Leninism Today welcome comments and criticisms. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org/or email@example.com. The views of Zoltan Zigedy are not necessarily the views of the editorial board of Marxism-Leninism Today.