Convention Discussion: No more tradition's chains shall bind us
Submitted by Elena, Bronx, NY
Over the past 15 or so years, we have been making lots of changes that move us closer to being a 21st century party. We have emphasized our broad, coalition politics, and the importance of democratic struggles and their interconnectedness with the class struggle. We have updated organizational practices and terminology and utilize new technology to the fullest. We have worked to root ourselves in reality with all its complexity, and reinvigorated our vision of socialism so that it better expresses the hopes and needs of humanity going forward.
Fourteen years into this new century, we have to say that despite these changes, we still face a big challenge, namely, will be we "alive and well" in the years to come?
I think for that to be so, we need to make even more changes, while being clear about what is the baby in the proverbial bathwater.
So here's what I think is our baby:
We are a working-class organization, in membership, roots and approaches.
We have a long track record in the fight against racism and for equality and unity.
We advocate for peace and oppose war, which sacrifices working-class young people on the altars of power and corporate profit.
We promote and practice solidarity: working-class solidarity, international solidarity, human solidarity.
We work hard; we are in it for the long haul.
We are dedicated to the struggle for democracy;
We develop our policies utilizing in-depth, fact-based, Marxist study of reality;
We want a humane, democratic way of organizing human life, which we call socialism.
No other organization offers quite that combination; nobody is better at finding ways to advocate for both reform and fundamental change.
That unique and potent brew is what makes our organization so essential at a moment in history when humanity faces terrible dangers and challenges, and political life is so complex.
It is because I feel so strongly about the indispensability of our Party that I believe we should make whatever changes we can to ensure that it survives and prospers.
Despite some gains in some places, we are not growing in the ways and to the degree that we must. Just as an example: how many of us are in the labor movement, which is also struggling to survive, change and grow? We need many more of us there. And we have serious weaknesses in our leadership pool, especially future leadership.
In my opinion, there is still an "elephant in the room." And that is that all of these changes, innovations, etc., are undermined and belied by the name Communist Party.
To become a viable 21st century organization we need a name that is appealing and understandable, to people in "the movement" and way beyond. We need a name that trade unionists, immigrant rights activists, grassroots volunteers in election and voting rights campaigns, friends, co-workers and neighbors, will be attracted to and able to defend.
We need a name that better describes who we are, what we do, what we believe.
The fact is that the majority of the members of our Party are uncomfortable telling people that they are Communists, and/or don't see how they can convince others to join the Party. They believe that if their membership is known they will be politically marginalized.
Since I've been in the Party, we have dealt with this problem in various ways. One was to criticize such people; more often we soft-pedaled the problem ("not everyone needs to be public"); another was the somewhat mysterious notion of "security."
At countless meetings we discussed how to convince such comrades (usually the most active in their unions and other mass organizations) to try harder.
But I believe all of these approaches boil down to a denial of reality; an avoidance of looking at how we are seen by masses of people; of how we appear in the public mind. We have substituted how we feel about our name; how we understand its meaning; what we know about its history, for that bigger reality.
Underneath the resistance to thinking about the problem of our name is the premise that it is a principle. Following that logic, since we can't change the name, we have to change public perception of it; to convince people that Communists are not what they might think.
We do this by working with them in the wonderful way that we do, by getting them to read our wonderful publications and analysis. I don't use the word wonderful jokingly -- most of the Communists I have known have been pretty damn wonderful: hardworking, principled, dedicated people. And as I said before, our analysis and news coverage are excellent and indispensable.
But despite trying to do this since, well, forever; despite the tremendous expansion of communication opportunities provided by the internet, this approach is not working. There simply aren't enough of us. The country is too big. The negative associations are too strong.
So rather than trying to turn this reality on its head, let's look it in the face.
I want to make it clear that I while I think changing our name will help, and is a necessary step, I'm not saying it will result in immediate dramatic growth.
There are other good reasons why we should drop the name "Communist."
We cannot overcome the negative image of the word and the historical experience to which it is attached. We couldn't do it even when the Party was much larger (in the '80s, for example). More than twenty years have gone by since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Why do we think we can do it now?
For most people, "communism" is something negative and discredited, equaling at worst dictatorship, repression, censorship; at best foolish idealism, scarcity, Orwellian absurdity, irrelevance. We are seen as doctrinaire, and frankly, even cultish -- why else would someone willingly participate in something so unpopular?
I think it's a very unscientific mistake to interpret the polls that show positive attitudes towards "socialism" as reflective of a similar positive attitude towards "communism." Though we Marxists put the two concepts on a continuum, most people do not.
We should change our name because it does not describe who we are, what we do, what we advocate. Most of our activity is fighting with others for small changes and reforms; we work with people all along the political spectrum; we believe in democracy; we advocate socialism. How does the name "Communist Party" convey any of that?
As I said earlier, I am not saying that if we change our name we will experience instant growth. Many of the factors that limit the Party's size also affect other organizations, on the left and generally; most of these are beyond our control. Whatever name we have, it will take organized and creative efforts to bring in new members.
However, the name is a self-imposed block on growth; it's a problem we can actually fix.
Holding on to symbols of the past, of which our name is the biggest example, means expecting new people to embrace that past. That makes no sense, especially when we ourselves do not embrace all aspects of that past
To be more relevant and effective, we have to bring in people who are politically engaged, people we work with on election campaigns, people we know from our unions and other organizations. And the fact is that our name is a big barrier to joining for them.
And while we should continue to develop our online recruiting, if we change the sign on the door, those who walk through it won't do so based on a misunderstanding of what we are all about, as too many of the online joiners currently do.
As for what the new name should be, I think it should have the word "socialist" in it, but organizational names can be varied and creative, and I'm confident we can come up with something.
Finally, this should not be simply the deletion of one word and its replacement with another. My idea is that we approach changing our name as a bold, creative, public undertaking in which we announce that we are overhauling our organization so that we can be part of the American political landscape for another 95 years. It would be an opportunity to shine a light on the tremendous contributions, big and small, that American Communists have made to the struggle for a more just, secure and peaceful world.
Last but not least, it would be a very good opportunity to bring in new members.
I know people need time to think and talk about this. So here's my suggestion: that we agree to launch a thorough discussion of the idea, and see where it takes us. I'm confident that everyone who wants our Party to prosper will participate in a serious way in that conversation.
The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.
30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014
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