Wrap Fish in it
Sectarianism in the CP, final chapter
Once around 1980 I tried to give away a copy of the Daily World, a successor to the Daily Worker and a newspaper published by Communist Party, USA, to Boris (Red) Block, then General Secretary-Treasurer of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). The paper had an article in it based on an interview I had done with Bernie Sanders after he had been elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt as an open, independent Socialist.
Red Block replied: "I would not wrap fish in that paper!".I was taken aback, surprised, despite knowing some of the history of the UE's founders' disagreements with the Communist Party over the election campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, and more seriously, over the Party's reaction to the Taft-Hartley act's anti-communist and anti-union provisions.
While I did not much like the style and format of the paper myself, I nonetheless had and still have a very high regard for my early mentors and teachers in the labor movement. Almost all of these folks were either active or ex- members and friends of the Communist Party's very talented and effective brigades in the industrial organizing campaigns of the 1930's, through the World War, and including the big strike of 1946. I knew Red had been in that crowd--working-class geniuses--every one of them.. I counted, and count, him among those mentors.
In addition, I had some direct loyalty to the Party, who found me in 69-70 when I had been indicted for various SDS offenses, and helped me recover my courage, as well as other considerations, for which I am forever in their debt.
I thought Sanders agreement to be interviewed, AND some of the spicy remarks he made, made good press for the paper. Maybe reach a bigger audience. But not Red?
So asked "Why?"
"No organization or movement in American history was ever more consumed in eating its own than the Communist Party."
Notwithstanding that for which I am forever thankful, truer words were never spoken. Red had even deeper disgust for the various left splinterings from the CP, few of which he ever took seriously.
Indeed, Red's very assertion was itself a joust in the sectarian disease, or perhaps more accurate -- diseases -- that blind the infected to what is directly in front of them: in this case evidence of a "socialism", of an "elected, and electable, working class advocate"; direct evidence of a socialism that shunned dogma and embraced the real challenges of democratic governance in a mixed economy. Bernie Sanders will not go down in history for his great ideological or scientific brilliance. He did not write a new edition of Capital (although one of his supporters, Thomas Piketty, did). He did not indulge much in punditry style polemics (a la Krugman, or Lenin). He devoted himself, more like Dolores Ibarruri of Spain, to showing by doing.
Still, neither Red, nor Gus Hall, then General Secretary of the CP, were much impressed by Bernie. For Red, Gus was an embodiment of the "disease", and anything appearing on the pages of the Daily World would stink of it. He viewed with contempt, and never forgave, the CP role in raiding left led unions in the face of the post war wave of cold war repression against the CIO under the slogan "merge with the mainstream" AFL, which he referred to as a "sewer of redbaiters", while at the same time, the CP itself would go underground rather than become an association [a la Browder], or merge with the Democrats."
For Gus, the UE leadership were renegade syndicalists, or FBI agents (he frequently got around to suggesting some adversary was connected to the FBI).. Further, he was starting his own presidential campaign with Angela Davis as his VP running mate, and referred to Sanders as "a fake socialist".
Gus was wrong. Sanders' campaign was the serious campaign. He won. Gus's was fake. Wrapping it in "Marxism Leninism" did not change that. Indeed it aggravated and confirmed Gus's never faltering allegiance to the Soviet model of socialism and its leadership of the "world communist movement". "Marxism-Leninism" might seem like something to do with Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin. But it's not anymore. And I suspect never was. The term is a "whole cloth" (a backasswards Vermont expression meaning NOT "whole", but made of patches) fabrication by Joseph Stalin intended to transform the legacy of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx into dogmas serving, primarily, the state interests and reputation of the USSR, the "land of socialism". Dogma here is defined as: the assertion of "scientific laws and truths" unsustained by evidence.
The Hall presidential campaign was a joke as an electoral political event, and served mainly as recruiting tour he could do with Angela Davis, with members consumed in petitioning to get the ticket on the ballot in states where the CP retained some modest strength and coherence.. As it turned out time would have been better spent defending Jimmy Carter against Reagan, or going to Vermont and learning how to run a real socialist, working class campaign for public office. Patterns similar to this persisted until the 1991 split when nearly every dogma collapsed under the weight of the final exposure of Soviet socialist model as a failed model.
The history of sectarianism in the Party can be traced back to multiple origins: from largely anarchist movements in 19th century labor radicalism; from the racial, nationality, ethnic, gender and geographic divisions in the emerging industrial working class; from the strong culture of individualism in American social development. But -- from the 1932 "Build a Soviet America" CP presidential campaign of WZ Foster AGAINST Roosevelt, and onward, the commitment to Stalin's dogma, and its emerging weaknesses -- especially in the post-war scene -- infected almost every area of political work. It can get complicated: In the CIO organizing upheaval dogma and reality were pretty close to equal for industrial work in ALL the emerging mass manufacturing centers. Yet it also had early weaknesses, as seen in Foster's slogan. As a semi-legal movement, democratic standards of organization were seldom on the top of the CP to-do list, and factions -- open differences -- were nearly intolerable. One might excuse this in an illegal organization, but it's poisonous for participation in US democratic processes.
Yet the disease of sectarianism prevailed against every attempt -- and there were several -- to dislodge it. Including, it appears, Sam Webb's latest attempt, as calls from the remaining narcissistic fools condemning him for "bourgeois liberalism", and "Browderism" for supporting Hillary have made their way into the CP press. That means the suicidal, stupid season is on again in the CP. LIke a curse that can't be exorcised. Browder, Gates, Healy, the CCDS split: 10%, 20%, 30%, 50% membership losses -- no matter. Keep sucking on the "better fewer but better" tube until any remaining sustenance from the legacy of some heroic and unequalled fighters in the working class movement is completely depreciated.
No party leader was more vilified -- eaten by his own -- than Earl Browder after 1946 when he distanced himself from both the USSR and the "cadre-style" organizational culture (another of Stalin's betrayal of Lenin's warnings on exporting features of the Russian revolution). Yet his criticisms look pretty astute today. Except for modest growth during the 60's and 70's upheavals, the CP never recovered from the repression of the 50's. After the 1991 CCDS split and the collapse of the USSR, Gus Hall -- a Fosterite and Stalin supporter from way back -- remained undaunted by his failures as a leader. Dogma will eventually blind you to everything if you hold on to it. Hall blamed everything on Gorbachev, on FBI agents (one of them, however, was his bagman for USSR money -- "to pay for newspaper subscriptions", he told me --- Jesus, you can't make it up!), and "petty-bourgeois forces".
Sam Webb made a major retreat from sectarian practices, in press and messaging. But in his retirement as Chair and now resignation from the Communist Party, there are signs that there may be an insufficient leadership and membership base remaining to perform the necessary reforms. There are signs of this in many other left factions as well. Jill Stein, for example, is running a completely high-minded and pointless, indeed reactionary, campaign from any serious working class standpoint. In states like West Virginia, where it could make a difference in which party controls the state legislature post election, the third party efforts are scab-like in their denials of the obvious consequences of their campaign.
What are the necessary reforms? The short answer is: drop every last ounce of dogma from the official line and documents (Marxism-Leninism, Communism in the name (no one knows what that means), Democratic centralism, etc); retain the working class approach, the fight for equality, the common advance of all who labor across the world. Be a voice around which the "Our Revolution" agenda, and its millions of rising adherents, whatever its name, can find friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, and the ability to take on governance challenges in very harsh circumstances. Develop the socialist elements of Bernie's campaign, many of which were included in the Clinton platform.
Now -- it's 2016. Sanders has repeated his lesson many times since 1980. He just did it again on a national, even international scale. He did it on straightforward working class issues. He did it by taking a class approach to every question. He did it by being SERIOUS about American politics. He shunned dogma completely. Yet he used "revolution" and "socialism" repeatedly in constructive, not rhetorical, dogmatic, or bullshit, contexts. "Revolution" because the reforms required to address inequality and austerity require a new ruling coalition to consistently implement. "Socialism" because most of the reforms involve expanding public goods, infrastructure and services, as well as changes public regulatory authority in trade, tax, financial sector, and corporate governance policy.
Sanders campaign is only part of the story. Many other movements are challenging the status quo in comparable ways, most notably the Black Lives Matter movements and the intimate connections between equality, democracy, justice, and peace, at home, and in the world.
So, once again, a crossroads for the Left, one leading to opportunity, the other to dogma death. Sanders has, very interestingly and not unlike his approach after his first Mayoral victory in 1980, chosen NOT to personally lead an independent political formation. He set up a funding mechanism for campaigns across the country in line with the themes of his presidential campaign. But a new political formation he did not form, either inside, or outside the Democratic party. That's up to the Left, a sober, serious Left, to figure out. If we can. He has shown how, in large measure, to make the sharp turn that our duty and class loyalty asks of those who seek the rise of the working class, and not to rise above it.
Harpers Ferry, WV