Convention Keynote: For a modern, mature, militant, and mass party
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by: Sam Webb
June 13 2014
A version of these remarks were delivered at the opening of the CPUSA 30th National Convention, June 13-15, 2014. Edited slightly on June 27, 2014.
Good afternoon everybody, and a special good afternoon to our international guests. Thank you so much for coming.
Every National Convention has its own particular mission. So what is the mission of this one, our 30th?
In addition to catching up with old and meeting new friends, breaking bread together, and just generally having a good time, our mission is to take a fresh and sober look at today’s realities and challenges.
This includes making adjustments of our strategic and tactical policies to new conditions. It entails taking better care of the future in the struggles of the present.
Over the next three days, we will turn our attention to those social movements, which are critical to recasting our country’s politics, economics, and popular thinking.
While we will look ahead, we also keep in sight the immediate challenge of this fall’s elections.
If it isn’t obvious, the mission of the convention isn’t to mothball the struggle against right wing extremism — our current strategic task — in our zeal to address more radical and fundamental tasks. The decisive defeat of the right is not yet finished and remains the gateway through which today’s movement has to pass if it hopes to eventually reshape the political, economic, and cultural landscape in a progressive, radical, and, eventually, socialist direction.
Nor is our mission to scale down our efforts (along with others) to assemble the core social forces and movements — the working class, people of color, women, and youth and their respective organizations — into a labor/working class led people’s coalition in favor of some narrower formation. While it is tempting to look for some other change agent that possess a radical disposition and will get us to our socialist destination in short order, no one should doubt that only a broadly based people’s coalition anchored in and led by these very forces will usher in a progressive and socialist future.
Finally, the mission of this convention isn’t to challenge the time tested notion that the immediate issues that draw people into the vortex of practical struggle are the main point of departure of any politics that has transformational aspirations. To think otherwise is a sure fire recipe for languishing on the margins of U.S. politics — a ground that the left of which we are a part has occupied for far too long.
Whatever mistakes — and mistakes are inevitable — we have made, they weren’t mistakes of a strategic nature, like some others on the left have and a few in our party have advocated.
I have said before that neither impatience with the process of change, nor revving up the revolutionary phrase, nor skipping stages, nor foreswearing any connection to “bourgeois politics” will get us a flea hop closer to socialism.
It may bring us a small measure of righteous satisfaction, but the main purpose of political engagement from our perspective isn’t therapeutic; it isn’t about feeling “revolutionary” or showing off one’s “radical credentials.”
Instead, it’s about soberly analyzing the balance of forces; it’s about connectedness to the struggles that the people themselves choose; it’s about turning millions — no tens of millions — into change agents and tribunes for a radical democratic and socialist future; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.
And, by no means least, it’s about the many sided building of a 21st century party – one that is modern and mature; one that is revolutionary, but not sectarian; one that possesses an expanding pool of leaders who think independently, soberly, and critically; one that is mindful of the complexity of the process of social change in the most entrenched and powerful capitalism in the world; and one that looks at the world through the lens of a living Marxism as well as incorporates the best of our nation’s own radical and democratic tradition.
Now I’m going to turn my attention to the main challenges that the leadership of the Party would like to you to discuss, debate, and decide over the next three days. I will present them one by one for the purposes of clarity, but in real life each intermingles with the other in countless ways.
Challenge 1: People’s surge
It seems like every day somebody new is raising hell, rattling the cages of the powers that be.
One day it’s the Dreamers, the next day it’s Moms for Walmart and fast food workers, and then the “Moral Monday” movement the day after that.
Then there are seemingly endless actions to increase the minimum wage.
There are also initiatives to stop deportations and the militarization of the border.
To this list, we have to add mobilizations against voter suppression along with ongoing campaigns to register new voters.
Nor can we forget the struggles to stop mass incarceration and overhaul a judicial system that is punitive and riven with racial and class bias.
Of great significance are the efforts to protect women’s health and abortion clinics, which are under ferocious attack.
Then there are the inspiring student campaigns against global energy corporations, student debt and the Keystone pipeline.
And we should include in this surge the flood of phone calls that nearly overwhelmed the Congressional switchboards to protest what looked like imminent U.S. military action in Syria.
Also of great significance was the transformative AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles last fall.
Still another impressive example of this surge was the landslide win of Bill de Blasio for mayor of New York City, who is a self-described progressive. The New York Times no less called it “a sharp leftward turn.”
Then a few weeks ago, across the mighty Hudson River, Ras Baraka in another impressive victory was elected Newark’s mayor.
Finally, an aspect of this surge that is so inspiring it brings tears to my eyes has been the passage of marriage equality legislation in state after state. These victories have become so common that it is easy to lose sight of the enormous change this represents and thanks goes to the courage and tenacity of the LBGT rights movement.
From this podium, let me in everyone’s name tip our banner to the late Harry Hay, as well as to the pioneering Stonewall Generation that includes our own Gary Dotterman and Eric Gordon. The Stonewall generation came out when it was very difficult to do so; they battled and lost loved ones to the AIDs epidemic, and they never gave an inch to ignorance and hate.
If I could sum this surge up in a few words, I might say that things are breaking good, not “breaking bad.”
Now I will be the first to say that this surge of struggle doesn’t have the capacity to resolve the crisis of capitalism in a consistently democratic and working class manner.
But does it have transformative potential? Yes — it contains the seeds that could, if properly cared for, sprout and bring a “new burst of freedom, economic security, and peace.”
Of course, a devil’s advocate would quickly remind me of the barriers that make any kind of progress, let alone social transformation, unlikely.
And you know what? The obstacles are formidable; the task is daunting.
But we shouldn’t lower our sights or lose those precious gifts, called hope and desire or give up on the American people.
The present surge is real. And it can evolve into “a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority,” as a young Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto.
Which means that it reaches into small towns and suburbs as well as cities, into Lubbock as well as San Francisco, into the South as well as the North, into the heartland as well as the coasts, and into red states as well as blue states.
Or to put it differently, only a movement, as one progressive analyst wrote, that includes the desperately poor and the insecure middle class has any chance of success. This is not exactly a Marxist formulation, but framing it like that encourages big universe thinking and expansive tactics, both of which are sometimes lacking on the left and in the Party.
Challenge 2: An economy that works for working people
The 99 percent aren’t faring too well. Are you?
The economic recovery is anemic; and things don’t look good going forward.
In fact, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist, wrote:
“But what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?”
In making this claim, Krugman is arguing that contemporary U.S. capitalism, while still governed by the same underlying laws of motion and dynamics and still dominated by powerful corporations, isn’t like its mid-20th century predecessor. And he’s right.
Let me explain:
Present day capitalism, which began to take shape in the early 1980s, bears little resemblance in important ways from its forerunner in the years stretching from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, In that era, U.S. capitalism (as well as the other core countries in the capitalist zone) registered remarkable growth. Prosperity was broadly shared. And capital accumulation out of which come corporate profits took place largely in the sphere of material production.
Now and then interruptions in this process occurred, but they were short and followed by a resumption of production, rising living standards, and accumulation on a broader scale.
But this changed in the mid-1970s. Capitalism’s robust and near continuous expansion over a thirty year period gave way to stagflation, that is, high inflation, slow growth, a weakening dollar in international markets, and declining profits in an increasingly integrated world economy, notable for its concentration of economic power and wealth in the hands of a few hundred globally organized corporations and fierce competition/rivalry on a state and corporate level.
Unhappy with this turn of events on a global as well as a domestic level, but fully resolved to overcome the new barriers to capital accumulation, profit maximization, and economic growth in this new economic environment, the moneybags in the corporate suites decided that U.S. capitalism’s “Golden Age” was over and, accordingly, switched gears:
First, they declared war on labor. And what a war it was and still is. They extracted massive concessions from workers in the unionized mass production industries; they closed factories and slashed payrolls; they downsized, restructured, and rationalized industries and the workplaces; and they deployed new technologies to replace and speed up labor.
But this was no more the opening act of a long running play. They also loosened a good chunk of their money from its old moorings in the sphere of material production and said to it: “You are free. Go wherever you want. Multiply many times over. Make me rich many times over.”
Which is exactly what their now footloose and profit-seeking money did.
It moved into new lines of production as well as real estate, land speculation, sports teams, art, and luxury living.
It fled to the other regions and states where wages were low and labor unprotected.
It also chased after, as Naomi Klein has written, natural disasters, where it profited handsomely off people’s tragedies.
It circumvented as well as broke down trade barriers as well as claimed intellectual property rights on everything from seeds (stolen from farmers and indigenous peoples) to medicines to new technologies.
It also licked its chops for a moment and then got down to the business of privatizing public education, social security, health care, public housing, water provision, and public land and resources.
But the main place surplus capital flowed was into financial markets and channels.
In fact, the flow was so massive and sustained that it became the main factor shaping the contours, structure, interrelations, and evolution of the national and world economy.
But, as we know now only too well, this enormous flow of overwhelmingly speculative, parasitic, and non-productive money into the financial sphere, while pumping life into an underperforming economy for longer than most of us expected was anything but an unmixed blessing.
Sure a few people on Wall Street or connected to Wall Street got rotten rich, lived in unconscionable luxury, and accumulated enormous social power to effect events and outcomes on the national and international level.
But most of us here (as well as elsewhere) got spanked, and spanked hard, especially when the financial feeding frenzy finally unraveled and the whole economic edifice collapsed in 2008.. We lost jobs, income, homes, and family farms. Piled up debt so we could get by. Did nothing but worry about the future of our families and communities. And if we were a person of color or woman, the impact was calamitous. Poverty became even more racialized and feminized.
And to think that not one, not even one, of these thieves of high finance spent a day in jail.
To make matters worse, five years later, things are no better for us. Nearly all of the income gains during this time have gone to the 1 per cent. And the prognosis for the economy is more of the same – slow growth, stagnation, and mounting contradictions.
What gives added force to the stagnation pressures are the vast changes that have occurred in the global economy since 1980.
On the one hand, at the apex of the economy are huge multi-national corporations and banks.
And, on the other hand, Marx’s reserve army of the unemployed, underemployed and informally employed has doubled in size since the 1980s.
The scale of this absorption of workers into wage exploitation has radically re-leveraged the relative positions of capital and labor in favor of the capitalist class.
What is more, this disparity in wealth and power at the core of the economy constitutes a new and powerful source of downward pressure on the U.S. and world economy.
Now this whole turn of events and reconstitution of U.S. and global capitalism could not have happened without a major assist from the capitalist state (governmental bodies, courts, instruments of violence and repression) and the political class.
Of crucial importance were the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the ascendency of the right that followed. This political grouping was the hammer in this transformative process.
But to be fair, the Democrats, and especially the Clinton administration, were not bystanders either. They also had a hand in transforming the economy to the advantage of the 1 per cent and Wall Street.
So the question before us is: How do we get out of this mess?
Here’s my two cents:
What’s needed is nothing less than the restructuring of the economy in a consistently and deeply anti-corporate, and eventually socialist direction.
First: The conversion of a fossil fuel driven and militarized economy into a peaceful, sustainable one, based on and developing renewable energy sources.
Second: Major infrastructure construction and renewal.
Third: A guaranteed and livable income for all, and a reduction in the workweek with no cut in pay.
Fourth: Major expansion of every aspect of the public sector – education, housing, recreation, culture, childcare, retirement security, healthcare, elder care, and so forth.
Fifth: Strengthening of worker’s rights and people’s rights generally.
Sixth: Turn “too big to fail” banks and the energy industry into public utilities.
Seventh: Measures to overcome longstanding inequalities and rebuild hard hit communities.
Finally: Controls on capital’s ability to abandon communities and move around the world.
Of course such reforms will be met with the refrain: there is no money!
But that is perhaps the biggest of the Big Lies.
In the past few decades, trillions of dollars of unearned wealth has been amassed by the 1 percent — this should be transferred into public hands.
Another huge source of funds is the reordering of governmental priorities, away from military spending.
Finally, taxing of financial flows and transactions should get our radical economic program off and running.
And let me add this: the purpose of such a reform program isn’t to “level the playing field” or to insure that everyone, who “plays by the rules” and works hard, gets a shot at the “American Dream.”
To the contrary, the purpose is to decisively change the rules and tilt the playing field in favor of the underpaid, the underemployed and the unemployed; the struggling family, the discriminated against, the woman who combines wage labor at unequal pay with the lion’s share of unpaid household labor (not least of which is child and elder care), the indebted student, the underwater homeowner, the bankrupt city, the underfunded school, every victim of capitalism’s crisis and its irrational priorities.
But where do we begin? My answer is that we begin where we are, that is, with the existing movements and struggles.
And there are so many! Starting with the growing movements against economic inequality, the low wage economy, and right wing extremism.
One day it is AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka passionately speaking against the growth of inequality.
The next day it is President Obama, making a speech on the same subject.
The books of Thomas Piketty and Elizabeth Warren, both on the subject of glaring and unjustified inequality, are on the New York Times best sellers list.
A progressive bloc in Congress stands firm behind economic, gender, and racial justice.
The minimum wage movement is really kicking up sand, the latest victory the vote by the Seattle City Council to lift the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Meanwhile, around the world, powerful movements, and in some cases, even governments, especially in Latin America, are demanding economic justice.
And before we move on, as a former alter boy, I got to bring the Pope into the conversation, who said, and I have to quote him:
“While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies, which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
Powerful stuff! Like Lebron James, The Pope’s got game!
One of the most compelling struggles against economic inequality, maybe the most compelling, is the low wage worker organizing campaign.
Who are these workers? Well they are us. They are young as well as old, black and brown as well as white, women and men, immigrant as well as native born, suburban and rural as well as urban, and, I’m sure, gay and straight. They also come from red states as well as blue states.
In their corner are important sections of the U.S. labor movement, including the top leadership of the AFL-CIO.
We (and many, many others) are supporters of this struggle. But at this convention we should agree to up the ante.
I say, let’s decide here, right now, at this 30th convention of the Communist Party to make this struggle a strategic focus.
Can we agree to that?
Such a focus, in case anybody is worried, isn’t a turning away from the traditional sections of the working class. It’s not a back benching of our industrial concentration policy, which by the way was never intended to create a pecking order within the working class; to the contrary, its purpose was to activate, empower, and unite the working class as a whole.
Thus, a focus on Walmart, fast food, and other low-wage workers is an adaptation of our concept of industrial concentration to new realities and challenges. This doesn’t mean that people in Michigan should forget the autoworkers, or in California, the long shore workers or in… you get the gist.
Now I’m also sure someone is thinking that low-wage workers don’t have the same strategic power that, say the autoworkers in Flint had in the winter of 1935.
I would counter with three observations. First, strategic power doesn’t turn only on location in the capitalist economy. That strikes me as too economistic. It also is about relationships, outreach, alliances, creative forms of struggle, unity, and, not least deepening class and democratic consciousness.
Second, the victories of low-wage workers will bring new spirit, ideas, power capacity and confidence to labor – traditional and non-traditional.
And, third, the organization of low-wage workers will augment manifold labor’s ability to organize the millions of workers who are unemployed and underemployed.
Can labor ignore this reality? NO.
Can we? Same answer!
Can we make a full-blooded turn toward the struggles of low-wage workers?
Great! Sounds like everybody is on board.
Challenge 3: Assisting labor’s growth and revitalization is an overriding strategic task
The labor movement is an essential cornerstone of transformative politics.
Not everyone in the left and progressive community is of this mind. Some assign the labor movement no part in the process of change; some a bit part; still others include labor in long list of other political actors.
Contrast the reception on the left to Occupy as compared to the recent convention of the AFL-CIO! It was gaga in one case and ho hum in the other.
This obviously isn’t our attitude; when organized, united, and equipped with a class and democratic vision, the working class and its organized sector possess transformative power.
Of course, this isn’t the case today; labor membership is at its lowest level since WW II; it’s on the defensive and fractured, the left in labor, while growing, is still small in size; and the barriers to reconstitute a revitalized and growing labor movement are formidable.
Now if this were the entire story, it would be a “bummer.” I would go on vacation, head to the pub before noon.
But it isn’t. Labor is breaking out of its defensive shell, opening its arms to millions of new members into its family, and taking new initiatives. Some labor is evolving into a social movement.
So what should we do?
We should do what sections of labor are doing — acknowledging, embracing, and doing something about this crisis.
Now I am not Pollyannaish. Even in the best of circumstances, the transformation of the labor movement won’t be accomplished overnight.
But, as I said, the first steps are being. It’s beginning to dance with a new beat and rhythm. Labor’s allies and the left should join the dance.
Thus, the question before house is: are you ready to put on your dancing shoes and boggy to labor’s beat?
Guess what? You didn’t surprise me; I expected that answer because I know how much you like to dance.
Challenge 4: The elections and the struggle for political independence
An immediate challenge for anybody who cares about the future of our democracy is the elections this fall. Their outcome probably won’t shift the political terrain in a deep going way, but that doesn’t take away from their importance.
Whichever side wins will have the wind in its sails over the final two years of the Obama presidency and a leg up going into the 2016 presidential race.
If the Republicans capture control of the Senate, while retaining control of the House, they will claim that the American people have unambiguously rejected the president and his policies of redistributive economics, government overreach, and a supersized “nanny state.
On this ground they will press their reactionary agenda to the max. They will block the president at every turn as well as ramp up their efforts to portray him as incompetent, a voice of “takers and freeloaders,” and a weakling in the global theater. Nothing new here, except that they will pursue this smear campaign with more vigor.
This zealousness of the Republican opposition goes beyond the “normal” give and take of politics and heated partisanship, even beyond their zeal to beat the Democrats in the 2016 elections. What it reveals is a barely concealed and deeply felt racist animus toward a Black president who in their eyes symbolizes the imminent demise of the old order that is white, male, and well to do.
As fixated as they are on Obama, they are by equal measure indifferent to the plight of tens of millions struggling to survive.
Thus the stakes are tremendously high. And it goes without saying that we should be in this battle; no one should sit on the bench.
This is PLAYOFF TIME!
Now granted, it won’t be a cakewalk.
But who ever said the road to freedom would be easy or smooth. Who ever said, for example, that it would be easy to elect the first African American president? None of us, I bet; and most other people shared our view. But life and struggle and a Yes We Can attitude combined to break new ground and make history.
Can we surprise the pundits again and give the Republicans a good thrashing in November? Se Puede?
We got the right spirit, but we (and the larger people’s movement) have to combine this spirit with two other things, if we are to win in November.
First, good talking points that will convince people that their vote counts and that the right wing can be defeated this fall.
The other thing is a massive voter registration, protect the vote, get out the vote campaign.
If this is done – and I think it can be — then lots of talking heads that predicted a Republican victory, will have to eat their words.
Now some left and progressive people minimize the importance of this election – in part because they don’t share our concern about the right wing danger and in part because they feel that the Democratic Party is no great shakes either.
I’m mindful of the fact that the Democratic Party has a class anchorage, and it ain’t working class. Despite the broad range of people and organizations that comprise it, not everyone has an equal seat at the table.
But I’m also mindful that any realistic strategy to defeat the right, thereby creating opportunities to move to higher ground necessarily includes the Democratic Party as part of a growing people’s coalition at this stage of struggle.
So how do we square this circle? I’m not sure if I can do it completely, but here are some brief thoughts:
First of all, an independent labor-people’s based party able to compete with the two main parties doesn’t exist now, nor is it on the horizon. And while there is disaffection within the Democratic Party, nearly nobody in the Democratic Party is ready to say “See ya later.” What they are ready to do is to fight with the Party’s leaders and Wall Street over policy and political direction.
So if a third party isn’t on the agenda for now, what does the left do in the meantime? Hope the Democratic Party will do right by us? Not at all!
Three interrelated tasks come to mind. One is to continue to build the broadest and deepest (grassroots) coalition, including the Dems, against the right wing in this fall’s elections and beyond.
Another is give new urgency to extending and deepening the streams of political independence — both inside and outside the orbit of the Democratic Party — and to press a progressive agenda.
Finally, we need to keep in the conversation at lower volume the need for an alternative people’s party at the national level that has the capacity to compete with the two major parties of capitalism.
Will there be tensions in executing this layered policy? Of course! How could there not be? But we will learn how to negotiate these tensions. And we will do it without fracturing the still developing multi-class coalition against right wing extremism.
I mention this because some on the left — even in our own party — are ready, if not to vacate, then at least to dial down on the struggle to defeat right-wing extremism. In their view, the strategy has come up empty; the two parties are two peas in a pod; and the democratic — legislative and electoral – process has become completely compromised and corrupted, thanks in part to Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions. The real action, many now say, is at the state and city level. And then a few on the sectarian left who claim that the effort to defeat right wing extremists is a retreat from the real class struggle.
None of these claims hold up in the court of life. In the first place, this strategy has stymied the right wing’s most extreme plans to restructure political, economic, and cultural relations in a deep going, permanent, and thoroughly reactionary way. No small achievement.
Second, victories — some of great import, some garnering fewer headlines — have been won. And these victories have made a difference in the lives of tens of millions.
Third, the emerging movement against the right doesn’t yet have transformative capacity, but it’s closer to it today than a few years ago.
Fourth, there is no other way – and certainly no easy way – at this stage of struggle to get to a future that puts people and nature before profits other than to battle and defeat right-wing extremism. I wish this stage of struggle could be skipped in favor of something sexier, but it can’t. Political possibilities at every level are and will be limited as long as the right wing casts a long shadow over the nation’s politics. Islands of socialism, and even progressivism, in a sea in which the right wing makes big waves are a figment of a fertile, but unrealistic imagination.
Finally, the struggle against the right is a form of the class struggle. In fact, it’s the leading edge of the class (and democratic) struggle at this moment. Only someone with a dogmatic cast of mind would think otherwise. Struggle, class and otherwise, never comes in pure form.
We shouldn’t minimize the difficulties, nor conceal the class nature of the two-party system, nor give the Democrats a free pass, but at the same time we shouldn’t suggest in the slightest way that the electoral/legislative struggle in present circumstances is a fool’s errand. Such a position feels self-satisfying and has a radical ring to it, but in the end it’s the real fool’s errand. Frustration – and we all feel it now and then — can’t be a substitute for informed and sober politics.
Or to paraphrase Engels: impatience is a poor substitute for theory.
In the 20th century two transformative movements uprooted deeply structured modes of political and economic governance — one an unregulated, crisis ridden capitalism in the 1930s and the other a massive, many layered, and deeply racist system, sanctioned by law, custom, and violence in the 1960s.
Neither one of these transformative movements, however, boycotted or stood apart from the electoral and legislative process. They were engaged in a very practical way in “bourgeois politics,” but that didn’t weaken their cause, in fact it was part of the explanation for their historic victories. A mature Party and left will not discount these experiences.
Challenge 5: Climate change and planetary sustainability
The piling up of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has reached a point that James Hansen, one of the foremost climate change scientist in the U.S. calls it a “planetary emergency.”
What makes matters worse is that time is becoming humanity’s enemy; the window to act is closing. Never before has such a challenge confronted the human species; and yet sensible people sit on our hands.
Can’t say the same thing about the fossil fuel industry, most of the Republican Party, well-funded right wing think tanks, and the rightfully despised Koch brothers.
This motley gang is making the rounds, denying the science of climate change, and resisting the smallest measures that might cut down on carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
While this crisis is planetary in scope, the worst consequences will weigh most heavily on working class, the racially oppressed and the poor, and especially on countries and peoples in the developing countries.
Despite this impending catastrophe, the response of left and broader democratic movement hasn’t been commensurate to the danger. And if our Party in particular were going to be graded on our performance, my guess is that we would get a D. And the only reason we wouldn’t receive an F is due to the regular coverage on climate change and the environment in the People’s World.
We can and must do better. I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King in another context,
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”
If King’s eloquent words and scientific data don’t move you to be a better steward of this fragile place we call Earth, then make it personal; that’s what I do; I think of my two daughters, step daughter and stepsons, and, I think a lot about Violet and Pearl, my little granddaughters, ages 2 and 4, who hopefully will live long into this century and in climate conditions that are friendly to humans and other life forms.
Whether that happens or not, however, rests on what tens of millions of people — including our small party — do in the next few years.
But here’s the good news if I have made you too gloomy! A movement is being born, and it includes young people; and the trade union movement is a part of it too, although they are understandably concerned that working people not bear the weight of a necessary transition to a fossil free economy.
We should join this movement heart and soul. We should bring our energy and whole tool kit, including our socialist perspective, which tells us that climate crisis is the result of human activity, but it is activity in the context of a particular system – capitalism – whose logic is endless capital/profit accumulation, compound growth, massive waste in its multitude of forms, and rampant consumerism – all of which are increasingly unraveling, and undermining the natural systems that sustain life.
In the fall, mass mobilizations are scheduled at the United Nations to demand action from the world’s leaders and governments to mitigate climate change. Can we agree that we will join as well as mobilize friends and neighbors for these actions?
A month of two ago I signed up, as did others in our leadership to commit civil disobedience, if necessary, to stop the Keystone pipeline. How many of you will pledge to do so today?
New beginnings require a first step. And I think we have taken one today!
Challenge 6: New racist order
The right wing extremist attack against democracy and equality is sustained, coordinated, and exceedingly dangerous.
In the right wing’s bulls-eye are the whole range of rights and social institutions — unions, churches, community organizations, families and kinship groups, women’s health care centers, etc. — that sustain everyday life and empower tens of millions.
But for sections of the ruling class, their right wing pied pipers in Congress, and the right wing media, a robust democracy and substantive equality are at “war” with their worldview and their zealous pursuit for full spectrum political dominance.
This gang of democracy and equality busters by temperament, outlook, and practice are authoritarian, racist, male supremacist, xenophobic, and misogynist. They despise labor.
I wish I could say that this gang isn’t yet at the gate, but they are. And in two years they hope be to inside and in charge of the castle. No joke!
What do we now? What do the American people do?
The obvious answer is fourfold: to concede no ground, to go on the offensive to expand democracy and equality, to interconnect the whole range of democratic struggles, and to give the right wing a spanking this fall and, again, in 2016.
Of particular significance in this regard are racism and the struggle against it. Both have left in indelible mark on every aspect of the democratic and class struggle over the past 300 years. Today, and I dare say tomorrow, will be no different.
As much as racism and the struggle against racism are timeless, they express themselves differently over time, as conditions change.
In fact, I would argue that vast political, economic, social, and demographic changes going back to the 1960s have given rise in the opening years of this century to a new racist order and to a new anti-racist movement resisting that order.
This dialectic makes the struggle against racism and for equality at once more difficult and more promising.
On the one hand, notable victories in the struggle for equality, led by people of color in the first place, have been registered over the past few decades, perhaps none more than the stunning election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Furthermore, racial attitudes in sections of the white community are changing for the better. Of particular significance, sections of labor and other social movements are engaging in organized anti-racist struggles and taking steps to make their leadership reflective of their membership, something that they didn’t do decades ago,
Can anyone who grew up in the 1960s, imagine former AFL-CIO presidents, George Meany or later Lane Kirkland stumping the country making the case to white workers to vote for an African American presidential candidate. Don’t think so!
And, of course, young people are far less likely to embrace some of the old racist and other stereotypes of older generations.
This is one side of the dialectic around which can form even broader and deeper multi-racial unity and anti-racist understanding.
But on the other side of the dialectic, new political and economic realities making racist exploitation and oppression more durable and difficult to dislodge.
Take Detroit. For example, compare the barriers to equality today with the barriers say, a half century ago.
In the 1960s, Detroit was anything but a model of democracy and equality. Racism was deeply etched into the city’s way of life.
At times it got downright ugly and violent, but the path to equality was easier to visualize in some ways, hope was in the air, people were on the move, and economic and political conditions were different.
Today, a different picture of Detroit emerges, complicating, in my view, the struggle against racism and for equality.
The auto industry and the other industries and jobs dependent on it have vacated the city; a huge swath of stable neighborhoods have physically disappeared; the city is bankrupt; the transportation system is in shambles; the public sector which provided services and jobs to the Black and Latino community is threadbare; the flight of not only white people, but middle income African Americans and other people of color to nearby suburbs has created new zones of racial hyper-segregation and poverty, the re-segregation, defunding, and privatization of Detroit’s schools is well underway; state government is in the hands of the right wing who are hostile to Detroit; the federal government – Democrats and Republicans alike – show no inclination to address the crisis either in Detroit or our nation’s urban centers; the Robert’s Supreme Court sits in Washington; the judicial system is turning vast numbers of young Detroiters into felons and criminals; and the current crisis has fractured as well as united the city’s people.
Detroit is a special case to be sure, but it is, I would argue, not so special that it isn’t on the same spectrum as many other cities — big and small. The similarities far outweigh the differences.
Legitimizing the rise of this new racist order is an ideological structure that combines old and new racist notions, including the pernicious and utterly mistaken notion that our nation has entered into a post-racial, post-civil rights, color blind era. In this false rendering of reality, the very successes of the civil rights movement and individuals who surmounted racism are turned into evidence that racism is a thing of the past.
Here we have the other side of the dialectic that meets the anti-racist side in the streets, corridors of politic power, mass media, and in the conversations of countless millions.
So what do we do? Seems to me that we (and others) have to expand the struggle for jobs, housing, adequate funding of schools and education, for an end to racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the “war on drugs,” for an overhaul of the criminal justice and mass incarceration system, for political representation, and, not least, for the defeat of the right in the coming elections.
But I would add we — you and me — have to make the case more persuasively and vigorously that anyone who hopes that this country will move in a democratic direction, let alone a future in which people and nature trump corporate profits, cannot afford to sit out this struggle. If left unchallenged, this new racist order could throw the country back to days long thought gone by or into a future that we long thought could “never happen here.”
We have to argue that racism hurts; it crushes hopes, dreams, dignity, families; it destroys lives; it defunds education, housing, and health care, it creates joblessness and homelessness; it incarcerates; it profiles; it sanctions violence and lawlessness; it executes the innocent; and it kills, especially the young, sometimes in the streets, sometimes in distant lands, sometimes in prisons. And the victims are people of color.
But racism also tempers, disciplines, brings wisdom, begets courage, provokes resistance, inspires liberating visions, and has a hand in transforming people of color into front row marchers and leaders on freedom road as well as into a powerful voice and material force for progressive and radical change generally.
But to this I would add, and this is crucial point. At the end of the day, racism also morally and materially scares and diminishes white people in one way or another. While racist ideology and practice denies equality and dignity to people of color in the first place, it also heightens exploitation of all, corrodes real democracy for all, and makes a society free of class, racial, and gender divisions a pipe dream.
Moreover, it is on this ground that significant sections of white people can be won to this struggle. The aim in case it needs to be said can’t be to win only the most radical and progressive white people; to the contrary, it can be nothing less than winning the majority to anti-racist positions.
There is no other road to a society that measures up to the poetry, vision, and ideals that the great revolutionary democrat Martin Luther King articulated so beautifully and gave his life for at such a young age.
In singling out the struggle against racism I am not suggesting the we establish a pecking order that ranks — and worse yet, counterpoises — the moral and political importance of one democratic struggle over another. Instead a wise left, progressive, and working class movement will delve into each particular democratic struggle far more than I have done in this keynote and disclose its particular dynamics as well as its historical, dialectical, and strategic interconnection and interpenetration with other democratic struggles and the class struggle.
Challenge 7: End violence and a world of peace
We can barely turn in any direction without encountering violence of one kind or another. Violence is pervasive presence in our lives and the lives of people worldwide. It kills innocent people, tears up the social fabric of our communities and societies. It can even numb our sense of outrage to the point where we become accepting of its presence.
But violence isn’t natural and eternal. Hate isn’t in humankind’s DNA; war is a social and political construct; there are alternatives.
King was right when he appealed for a transvaluation of values. His message to humankind was non-violence and love. But for him neither were passive appeals to people’s good will, but categories of struggle.
They rested on the struggle against the structures of exploitation and oppression that are the material ground for violence. He appealed to anyone who would listen that the elimination of what he called the “triplets” — poverty, racism and militarism — were the gateway to a beloved and non-violent community.
“ …we are called to play the Good Samaritan” he said, “on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Were he alive today I can’t help but think that he would despair, but only for a moment at the violence that is so pervasive here and elsewhere.
And then my guess is he would tell us that our mission can be nothing less than to join with millions of others here and across our planet to insist on peace and an end violence, to study war no more.
1. We should insist that our government make a U-turn in its foreign policy — from one that rests on militarism, power projection, and unrivaled dominance to one of cooperation, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and equality and mutual respect among nations.
2. We should insist on a nuclear free world and our government should lead the way.
3. We should insist on the dismantlement of alliance and multi-national institutions that are nothing but staging grounds to project violence — beginning with NATO.
4. We should insist on a “pivot not to Asia and the Pacific,” but towards a common effort to solve the pressing issues of nuclear poverty and climate change.
5. We should insist on a just settlement of the conflict of the Palestinian Israel conflict that that includes at its core a independent, viable and robust Palestinian state existing in peace and equality with Israel.
6. We should insist on hands off Venezuela, no war with Iraq, and a normalization of relations with Cuba and freedom for the Cuban Five.
7. We should insist on an end to the “War on Terror” and the “Surveillance State. Terrorist actions against innocent people cannot be justified and should be stopped, but the “War on Terror: isn’t the way to do it. It easily becomes that rationale for wars of aggression abroad and the cutting down on democratic rights and neglect of human needs at home. The scourge of terrorist actions can only be counted by the collective effort of the world community.
8. We should insist that big powers — existing and rising — respect the rights of small states.
9. We should insist on a peace budget not a war budget, and a peace economy not a militarized one.
10. We should insist that the judicial system be overhauled, the system of mass incarceration be abolished, and justice be not punitive and retributive, but redemptive and restorative.
11. We should insist on an end to capital punishment and strict gun laws that prohibit the proliferation of violence in our neighborhoods and schools and civilian review boards in every city.
12. We should insist on the expansion of health care clinics and school staff to provide humane and nurturing treatment to people — young and old — who have mental health problems — no shame there, right?
13. We should insist on a massive and fully funded plan to restore and sustain hard hit communities, including reservations where native peoples live in abject conditions.
14. We should insist on a just and humane immigration system.
If we want to fight a war, we should once again declare a war on poverty, joblessness, decaying underfunded schools and inadequate housing, malnutrition, and all the social ills that make life difficult for millions
We should declare “No Tolerance” for racism, male supremacy, xenophobia, and homophobia — all of which can easily turn into acts of violence.
Lenin once wrote, “An end to wars, peace among the nations, the cessation of pillaging and violence — such is our ideal.” I would modify that in this way: the cessation of violence must become our passion as well as our ideal. It should be encoded into our emotional and political DNA.
In the big universe in which we live and do our politics, our brand should have inscribed on it: “An end to violence, peace, and a peaceful path to socialism.” In other words, the image, style, look, slogan, banner, and signature of our Party should give pride of place to a our unyielding commitment to a non-violent and peaceful world.
If we want to be rebels, let’s rebel against the violence and hate, let’s rebel against war and the loss of too many young lives in Chicago, Oakand, and Sandy Hook. Let’s become drum majors for peace and against racism, poverty, and militarism. Let’s take inspiration from the lives of Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Dorothy Day.
Challenge 8 – Building the Party
Taking care of the future in the struggles of the present includes the building of the party in size, capacity, and influence; it will take the building of a mature and modern transformative party of the 21st century.
So what is to be done? What will it take to address all sides of this question?
It will take a good measure of confidence that the audience for our ideas and our Party is growing under the impact of the changing objective and subjection conditions. And there is no reason to think that isn’t the case. Both in size, capacity, mass relationships, and influence, we’re in a better place today than we were 4 years ago. We are growing, not by leaps and bounds, but incrementally, and incrementally can add up. Our mass connections too are very developing nicely. And our ideas get a good reception nearly everywhere we go.
It will also take a conviction that the Party’s growth, influence, and ideas are of enormous consequence to the trajectory and success of the working class and people’s movement at this and subsequent stages of struggle.
It will take systematic attention at every level of the party to building the party. It can’t be the work of one or two comrades.
It will take greatly enlarging the pool of a new generation of leaders. Currently the breadth and depth of leadership is too thin in the face of the challenges that we face, far less than what a party with transformative aspirations needs.
It will take a more active and vibrant clubs. Such clubs are the ground floor of a transformative party. It is hard, if not impossible, to qualitatively increase our political and organizational capacity without far, far more clubs at the local level. Just as union power depends on local unions, party power is materially rooted in a dense network of clubs. It should go without saying that clubs will come in many different shapes and sizes. One size doesn’t fit all. Clubs have to adapt to the comrades who are members of them and to the places where they are located. Some will be statewide, others citywide, and still others, and we increasingly hope, will be located in a neighborhood or workplace.
It will take a party of action and penetrating ideas that give people a way to understand the present and move into the future with some confidence of success.
It will take far more public presence.
It will take a sound strategic policy and tactics resting on a close and accurate assessment of the balance of class and social forces.
It will take a party that fights for equality in all its forms and vigorously opposes racism, male supremacy, nativism, homophobia, and reactionary nationalism.
It will take a party that fights for peace and practices internationalism.
It will take a more robust utilization of social media, and especially the People’s World. We’ve made headway in this area, but not enough, and I have to admit I am simply amazed that some comrades still consider the utilization of new technologies and social media as a lower-order tool for organizing, reaching, and influencing people.
It will take new forms that provide new members and leaders in the broader movements a way to comfortably participate in the party.
It will take a special approach to people of color, women, youth, and immigrants.
It will take a systematic effort to build the party among trade union activists and leaders who bring with them their experience, connections, and stability to our collectives.
It will take a range of forms, including the Young Communist League, to attract youth to our circles.
It will take more systematic fieldwork in places where the party is in its infancy and in general.
It will take a more full-blooded and modern educational program that is equipped to reach new and old members alike. This is an overarching challenge.
It will take a fresh look at how we are structured and our priorities at the national, district and club level.
It will take a party that dares to renovate, that is thoroughly modern and mature, that is, sunk in the 21st century with its unique sensibilities and challenges.
It will take more democracy, transparency, and coordination in how we function.
It will take a Party that looks confidently into the future, but also looks soberly and strictly objectively at the present.
It will take new attention to fund raising, including the exploration of new forms such as the Internet.
It will take a party that is proud of its past, a past of notable and heroic contributions, but also a party that is not afraid to cast a critical, albeit balanced, eye at that same past.
It will take a deeper organizing culture. Now we aren’t steeped enough in the notion and practice of organizing and influencing the thinking of others. Many people join and remain in the Party because they agree with our views; not because they see the party as a place to organize other people practically and ideologically, both of which are necessary components of a communist organizing culture, or if they lack such skills to learn them in the party.
I’m afraid that the late Comrade Frank Lumpkin’s simple, but profound advice, “Always bring a crowd,” isn’t, as a practical matter, built into our day to day style of work, our DNA to the degree that it should be.
Yes, we are part of the mix. We take part in mass organizations, activities and movements. We fight the good fight. But in too many cases we are only participants, not movers and shakers, not organizers and change agents; we aren’t the people who make things happen and change the way people think. We are in the trenches, but we aren’t organizing others to do battle and see the world anew.
In short, we don’t “bring a crowd.”
• It will take as well a party that has a compelling vision of socialism — a vision of socialism that is modern and shaped by our own national experiences, realities, traditions, sensibilities, and challenges.
A rear view mirror to construct a vision of socialism USA won’t fill the bill; it won’t meet the challenges of this new century, including the massive ecological challenge and deep yearnings for real democracy.
Socialism if it is going to be attractive to millions can’t simply speak in the language of structures, relations, planning, growth rates, and the provision of material goods. That won’t do it.
It must possess a vision, or tell a story that expands the boundaries of human freedom and equality, situates ordinary people in the center of the transforming practice of creating a new society, accents the full, free, and many sided development of the individual, and paints in many colors new arrangements of collective living and working.
Nor should our vision of socialism be reduced to working class power. Power and its application should be subordinated to socialism’s vision and values; and it should be combined with justice and embedded in, accountable to, and checked by a democratic polity, culture, and institutions.
Furthermore, power shouldn’t be the property, constitutionally or otherwise, of any one party. Socialism should diffuse power, not centralize it into the hands of any single entity. If the 20th century taught us anything it should have been this lesson.
In short, our vision of socialism should give new vigor, if not recover, the democratic, emancipatory, humanistic, people centered essence of Marx’s socialism.
• It will take a party that understands that its leadership role rests – not on some rhetorical “vanguardist” assertions – but rather on the strength of our strategic creativity and tactical flexibility, appreciation of the links between class and democratic struggles, our nose for the main issues of struggles, our skill in building broad and deep unity, our readiness to fight against racism, male supremacy and other ideologies and practices of inequality and disunity, our day to day commitment to fighting for our class and people, our ability to the build the party in size and capacity, and our theoretical insight and creativity.
In short, our leadership role doesn’t issue from our self-declarations or what we did yesterday. Rather it pivots in the final analysis on how well we distinguish ourselves at the level of ideas and practice in today and tomorrow’s struggles.
We will be much better served if we situate ourselves as an equal and dynamic part of a larger left and progressive movement, and on that ground make (in fact, we are already making) a vital, unique, and necessary political and practical contribution to immediate and longer-range struggles.
• Finally, building a transformative party will take a party that is guided by Marxism. While we give pride of place to Marx, Engels, and Lenin, we embrace as well the whole body of Marxist thinking as well as our own radical-democratic traditions. We need to take more seriously, Lenin’s observation:
“We do not regard Marx’s theory as something completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life.”
I understand that to means that we have to accent the creative and ongoing development of Marxism. It’s not a closed and completed system, but one that needs constant attention and development.
Our task isn’t to reduce theory and politics to cut and dried schemes, to simplistic answers, slogans, and formulas, but just the opposite. It is to breathe movement, complexity, processes, contradictions, and even contingency into theory.
And not because it seems like a good idea, but because life is like that.
I sometimes think that our job when it comes to theory and politics is to complicate our own and other people’s understanding of class, class struggle, the role of democracy and democratic struggle, the process of social change, racism and anti-racism, gender oppression, imperialism, the economy, and so on.
Yes, we should look for general, interactive, and reoccurring patterns, processes, and causative linkages in capitalist society. And the great thing about Marxism is that it gives us a leg up in finding those underlying processes, but even where we uncover them, they have to reenter a dialogue with historical practice and be subject to testing against the facts on the ground.
Lenin always insisted on a concrete presentation of every question. He distrusted abstract formulas and generalities, as did Marx and Engels. It was Engels, who famously said, “All history has to be studied afresh.” Dam good advice!
Our theoretical and analytical work, I would strongly argue, is not what it should be; in fact, it falls far short of what is necessary if we hope to evolve into a major political player in the politics of the U.S. Being “in the fight” is an absolutely necessary condition, if we are to qualitatively gin up our role and influence at this and successive phases of struggle, but it is not enough, and never will be. A modern, mature, and mass 21st century communist party has to distinguish itself at the level of ideas as well as practice. Both are crucial and, for that matter, the quality of one depends on the quality of the other.
Enormous challenges are all around us, so enormous that one could easily wallow in despair. But I know you won’t.
Because communists don’t give up in the face of momentous challenges; it’s not our style; it’s not our heritage; it’s not in our DNA; in fact, it’s not the style, heritage, or in DNA of the American people.
We may in some situations back up for a moment; no shame there. But we never give up. It’s not our default position. Fighting harder and smarter is. And I don’t doubt for a moment that we will do both in the years ahead.
As this journey that began 95 years ago takes another step down freedom road, let us resolve in this hall, on this day, and at this 30th convention to step up the pace of our march. Our legs may be tired, but our spirit is strong, our determination is unshakable, our mission is just., and our vision of free people, living in harmony with each other and our planet, is ever more urgent.
And while we can’t exactly say when socialism will arrive, we remain, as we march deeper into this new century, confident that one day it will, and on that day, the bells will ring, the people will rejoice, and a new burst of freedom will grace our land.
And on that day, we will remember the songs of Woody, Paul, Pete, and Odetta; we will hear the echoes of Dr. King’s words on the Washington Maul in August of 1963; we will recall the memory of farmworkers marching from Delano to Sacramento; we will shed a tear for the trail of tears, slavery, unrelenting exploitation, and the other crimes of a now vanquished capitalism; and we will feel a renewed kinship with all the freedom fighters who walked and rambled down Freedom’ s Highway and whose footsteps will remain forever etched in the sands of time .
And also on that day, we find joy — immense joy — in the prophetic words of Maya Angelou:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Let’s have a great convention. Thank you very much!
Sí Se Puede!
We shall win!
We shall overcome!