Reformism vs. Reformism in the CPUSA: Divorce in the Family
[First printed in 1917 West #1, Spring 1992]
The Communist Party USA appeared on the verge of splitting at its 25th national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, held in December 5-8 against the dismal background of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. Actually, there were two conventions: the official one, held on the 6th floor of the Sheraton hotel under the bureaucratic control of Gus Hall (backed up by armed Cleveland police), and a counter-convention of the oppositional grouping calling itself the Initiative, many of whose members had been excluded from the official convention. The Initiative met across the street in Room 211 of the Cleveland Convention Center, under the leadership of prominent party members Charlene Mitchell, James Jackson, Carl Bloice, and Barry Cohen. Comrades of the International Bolshevik Tendency spent several days at the two conventions distributing our 1917 Supplement “Counterrevolution Triumphs in USSR” and arguing for a revolutionary Trotskyist alternative to the politics of both the majority and the minority
Not surprisingly, both factions have utterly failed to address the causes of the downfall of Soviet Stalinism. At a public forum in Cleveland on August 3, 1991, before the failed coup, chairman Gus Hall simply blamed the Soviet crisis on “Gorbachev’s errors.” When confronted by questions from the floor as to why the CPUSA lied and covered up for the bureaucracy and Stalin’s crimes, such as the execution or murder of virtually the entire Bolshevik leadership of 1917, Hall responded, “We’ve made mistakes, too.”
Speaking before a special meeting of the party’s National Committee on September 8, 1991, Hall elaborated:
“The system is not to blame. If one believes that the crisis of socialism is not systemic, in other words, not inherent in the socialist system itself, then you have to look for the cause of the crisis in human error.”
At the convention itself, he would repeat yet again that:
“The crisis of socialism is mainly caused by wrong, anti-socialist policies. The system itself is based on inherently humanitarian precepts.”
Hall had faced a rebellion in the National Committee, which at the September 8 meeting ended up condemning the failed Soviet coup:
“The National Committee states its strong condemnation of the attempted coup as adventuristic, unconstitutional and illegal…. We reject the formulation to ‘neither condemn nor condone’ the attempted coup, and deplore all public statements which give the impression of sympathy for the coup or its aims.”
That “impression of sympathy” had emanated from the lips of none other than Hall himself. The National Committee vote was thus a slap in the face for the Hall apparatus. But Hall’s cohorts backed away from support of the failed coup for other reasons as well. They were unable to maintain this stance because it would have totally alienated the liberal Democratic Party milieu.
For its part the Initiative grouping, despite its rebellion against Hall’s bureaucratic leadership, has responded to the crisis of Stalinism with nothing but vague social-democratic sentiments, and shows no signs of breaking with the CPUSA’s reformism. According to the October 21, 1991, “Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party” after which the grouping was named:
“The ability to make corrections, innovations and adjustments is the sign of a living movement. It is the hallmark of a party that is relevant and able to contribute to the further development of the movements for peace and international solidarity, labor rights, equality, political empowerment and democracy….
“While the 1992 election campaign is in full swing, we have not laid an adequate basis for our convention to adopt an electoral policy.”
This oppositional document, widely circulated within the party prior to the convention, was reportedly endorsed by over 900 party members, or roughly one third of the entire membership of the CPUSA. Of the roughly 600 delegates at the split convention, about a third supported the Initiative. Unfortunately, it would seem that outside of their organizational concerns, the main political problem for this grouping is deciding which 1992 Democratic Party presidential candidate to back.
The general mood of the delegates at the convention was one of disillusionment and disgust as they watched their party drift into irrelevance, and possibly out of existence in the near future. While the former Soviet Union was being declared dead by the counterrevolutionary nationalist regimes of the various republics, the delegates sat and listened to a three-and-a-half-hour speech by Gus Hall, in which he claimed that in the Leninist tradition:
“Factionalism and the development of organized trends in the Communist Party are incompatible with its democratic functioning. The institutionalization of factional trends by the application of such concepts as proportional representation and minority/majority positions in leadership runs contrary to the nature of the Party—it violates the basic organizational principle of collective process.”
This is Stalinism, not Leninism. All the way from its formation until 1921, factional rights were recognized and vigorously exercised in the Bolshevik party. The only condition was that factional groupings carry out the decisions of the majority if they lost a vote. The 1921 ban was implemented in a situation of crisis. Even in that situation it was intended only as a temporary, emergency measure. It is not in its proposals for democratic functioning and factional rights that the Initiative breaks with Lenin, but rather in the reformist politics it shares with Hall.
In counterpoint to Hall, Dr. Herbert Aptheker, a leader of the Initiative, revealed to the convention that:
”The main source of the collapse that Comrade Hall describes—not only in the USSR but in every party of Eastern Europe—lies not in socialism, but rather in the distortions and vitiation of the essential nature of the Party as conceived by Marx and Engels and Lenin into an organization eaten up by bureaucracy, tyranny authoritarianism, repression and finally human annihilation.”
“….the collapse, the present crisis of the world of socialism, rests fundamentally upon the Stalinization of Lenin’s party.”
The so-called crisis of socialism is indeed the crisis of Stalinism, not socialism. But for decades Dr. Aptheker, author of The Truth About Hungary, a pack of lies which whitewashed the brutal suppression of the Hungarian workers attempted political revolution of 1956, was a fervent supporter of Stalin’s every move. It is hardly credible when people like this suddenly “discover” that Stalinism is undemocratic. Moreover, Aptheker and the other Stalinist “critics” of Stalinism uniformly fail to go beyond this obvious truth. Stalinism destroyed every semblance of workers’ and party democracy for a reason: it was the only way to enforce betrayals of the working class on a generation of communists who knew a better way, that of Lenin and Trotsky, and were accustomed to fighting for it.
Using a variety of tried and true Stalinist tactics, Hall prevailed at the convention. According to people in the Initiative, those who signed the Initiative document (including 40 percent of the outgoing National Committee) were excluded from the elections. The new National Committee reportedly has no members of the leadership from New York and Northern California, the two largest locals in the country, which were heavily represented in the Initiative grouping. One delegate came out saying, “He’s acting like Ceausescu.”
The CPUSA has never had any qualms about calling the police on its leftist opponents, but this time Hall descended to a new low by using the cops against his own membership. Armed Cleveland police were used to keep out the numerous delegates sympathetic to the Initiative whose credentials had been rejected on various pretenses. There were police milling around the convention throughout the four days. One senior party member became so ill at the sight of the police in her convention that she refused to enter. Such sentiments are entirely legitimate, but Hall’s action was only a logical extension of longstanding CPUSA practices
NO SYMPATHY WHEN THE BITER GETS BIT
It is hard to feel too much sympathy for those in the Initiative grouping who profess outrage at Hall’s heavy-handed tactics and violations of workers’ democracy—now that they are on the receiving end. These people are up to their ears in complicity with use of the very same sort of tactics against others in the workers’ movement. As James Cannon, one-time CP leader and founder of American Trotskyism, once said, nobody cries when the biter gets bitten. To mention only a few recent and local examples: Bay Area CP honcho and Initiative supporter Kendra Alexander threatened to sic her goons on the Labor Militant group, who had setup a lit table in front of Finn Hall during the fall, 1991 Northern California CP convention. A CP goon “Franc” attacked one of our comrades at Chris Hani’s summer 1991 press conference at UC Berkeley. Another of our comrades was physically threatened outside an October 1991 forum featuring Initiative leader Carl Bloice.
What held the CPUSA together for so long? First of all, it was residual loyalty to the Soviet oligarchy and the illusion that this gave them some connection to “actually existing socialism.” Secondly, no matter how adverse the relationship of class forces in the US, they could always rely on the political and financial support of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Five thousand subscriptions to their paper in the Soviet Union, along with other perks that came with being the designated franchisee of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy, didn’t hurt. These benefits have been cut off. No more summer camps on the Black Sea, no more scholarships to the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, no anything! Part of what makes the current factional struggle so messy is the question of who will control the party’s accumulated assets: buildings, bookstores, etc. This is particularly true in Northern California, where the opposition is in the majority and some party property is held in the name of the regional organization rather than the national organization. Fundamentally, though, and regardless of the outcome of these disputes, with the demise of the Stalinist bureaucracies both factions will be forced to rely on the correctness or their programs and the quality of their leadership in the working class. In other words, they’re in serious trouble.
Since the mid-1920s, the CPUSA has supported and covered up for every crime of the Stalinist bureaucracy— not only crimes of repression, but gross betrayals of the working class. For the proletarian internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky, the Stalinists substituted “socialism in one country,” which rationalized the class-collaborationist selling out of revolutions around the globe in a futile effort to gain peaceful coexistence with imperialism. If these betrayals left any doubt, the internal collapse of the system they were supposed to protect, coupled with the tremendous damage to the class-consciousness of Soviet workers who have been taught to identify socialism with Stalinism, has completed the practical refutation of this reactionary theory. Trotsky explained over 50 years ago that the Stalinist bureaucracy, despite the fact that it was at times forced to defend collectivized property with its own authoritarian methods would, unless overthrown by the working class, become ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state and eventually plunge the country back toward capitalism. The bureaucracy, in following first Gorbachev and now succumbing to Yeltsin is proving him right.
Both the CPUSA majority and the Committees of Correspondence, as the opposition is now called, are tied to their Stalinist past, and they both support the capitalist Democratic Party. At both conventions, many delegates wore Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign T-shirts. Both factions continue to wallow in the Democratic Party swamp. Both have publicly announced, for instance, their intention to participate in the Mayor’s March on Washington.
There is an alternative to all of this. Stalinism has reached a dead end, but Leninism lives on. The revolutionary tradition of Bolshevism was maintained by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Trotskyists gave their lives resisting the Stalinist perversion of Leninism, yet remained implacable defenders of the gains of 1917. Though many pretenders to the name of Trotskyism today have abandoned or blunted key aspects of the Leninist/Trotskyist program, the International Bolshevik Tendency carries on the politics that made the October Revolution.