By Max Elbaum
CLEVELAND — The most polarised and dramatic Communist Party USA convention in at least 35 years ended in two starkly different ways here on December 8.
In the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton City Center — guarded by numerous party security personnel and contingents of Cleveland police — the party leadership proclaimed a great triumph in saving the CPUSA from traitors to the party and working class. No press, foreign dignitaries, guests from mass movements or even elected delegates with contested credentials were allowed in.
The "enemies within" were 900-plus party members (approximately one-third of the organisation) who had signed an "Initiative to Unite and Renew the Party", a call for internal democracy and updated politics drafted by prominent party dissidents.
Before the victory proclamation, the 500-odd delegates granted seats had reaffirmed, by a roughly 2-1 margin, positions offered in party chair Gus Hall's main report: Marxism-Leninism, democratic centralism, the party's focus on the revolutionary role of the industrial proletariat and the Communist Party's vanguard status.
They endorsed Hall's view that there were no systemic problems with the structure of socialism as it existed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before 1985 and that the collapse of those countries was due exclusively to errors in leadership policies since then. The convention elected a leadership slate that excluded all dissenters.
People's Weekly World associate editor Carl Bloice unfavourably compared the US party's gathering with that of the South African Communist Party, held the same weekend. He said the two events were "worlds apart", the reason being that "they are willing to face up to the problems, and we were unwilling to".
Two hours later, in a room across the street, some 200 seated and unseated delegates voted to set up a network of "Committees of Correspondence" to facilitate communications and organising among party reformers.
Ad hoc spokesperson John Case, a just-ousted National Committee member from the party's Eastern Pennsylvania district, told the Guardian, "This decision was based upon our commitment to renewing the struggle for social progress and socialism and putting an end to the undemocratic practices which have caused so much damage in the Marxist and Communist movement. We need the input of all the members of the CPUSA, and of people in other movements, at each step."
Charlene Mitchell, chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and until the convention a member of the party's National Board, said: "What you had in this room were comrades who a party that reflects the opinions of the people in it. They came from all over the country in an effort to make the process work and were unable to affect it."
The committees are not an alternative party or party-organising committees. Some founders intend to leave the party; others will stay as long as they can. Tentative plans include establishing a publication, district by district meetings to map out concrete work, including the 1992 elections and the upcoming Mayors' March on Washington, and a national conference. Further discussions with party members of all points of view and interaction with others on the left are also on the agenda.
The gathering that produced the committees ranged in age from people in their early 20s to those in their 80s; it was more than half women, roughly one-third people of colour and over half trade unionists. The party convention as a whole contained more older people and full-time party functionaries but was otherwise similar.
Split building for years
The polarisation between two approaches to the international crises of communism had been building inside the party for several years. Criticism of party leadership and policy was not limited to lack of internal democracy or failure to face up to the crises of socialism.
The other central themes were criticisms of backsliding on the issue of the centrality of African-American equality to all social progress and of a drop-off in mass activism. (Critics have also taken the party to task for ignoring the women's movement, the lesbian and gay movement and the peace and environmental movements, but those criticisms were not at the heart of the past year's debates.)
Virginia Proctor — 51 years in the party, her mother a secretary to Industrial Workers of the World leader Bill Haywood, her father a Wobbly who joined the CP — said, "To me, this has always been the party of unity between black and white. This is the party that understands the concept of the national question. When you lose that, you've lost everything the party stands for."
For the last year, the leadership has labelled those who raise criticisms as factionalists. Hall and those around him saw no need for any basic re-examination of policies in response to recent world economic and political changes. From his perspective, the criticisms were just "right-opportunist abandonment of class-struggle positions".
Angela Davis dissents
On the basis of the "factionalism" charge, in several states anyone who signed the Initiative was barred from being a convention delegate. In several districts where pro-Initiative members held the majority, significant numbers of elected delegates were barred from the national gathering on technicalities. Angela Davis, probably the party's most well-known member, sent a message to the convention saying she could not be present because of illness and the need to care for a friend dying of AIDS. She wrote that she had signed the Initiative because "the Communist Party will become ever more rapidly obsolescent ... if it is afraid to engage in rigorous self-evaluation, radical restructuring and democratic renewal."
Geoffrey, an African-American editor of a trade union paper in New York, summed up much of the feeling among the committees' founders: "What happened across the street is that Gus Hall and his group turned the CP into a sect ...
"All groups on the left", he continued, "including those identifying as anti-Leninist, are organised along the lines of ideological purity ... if you think differently, if you disagree with the leader, there's no place for you. I would hope that we put ideological purity in the grave ... It has been an excuse for murder. Socialist pluralism must replace it."
According to many delegates, the most dramatic moment on the convention floor came when historian Herbert Aptheker — a party member for 54 years — took the floor.
"To speak of a systemic source of the crises in Eastern Europe and the USSR is to insist that the nature of the governing parties was the basic source", Aptheker declared. "They were authoritarian, domineering, brutal and guilty of colossal crimes ... It is that authoritarian, anti-democratic and eventually anti-humanistic distortion that must be combated. Our party must learn these lessons, must give up denial, must transform its character."
According to Jack Kurzweil, a delegate from northern California, "Herbert closed by invoking the spirit of [William Z.] Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, [Pablo] Neruda and Lenin and [W.E.B.] Du Bois. Most of the people from northern California were in tears. When he finished, people from our delegation and New York and other districts — we had been seated on the edges of the hall — just stood up and cheered, chanting, 'CPUSA, CPUSA'. But the people in the middle, many with eyes downcast, just sat. In effect, when that happened, the convention was over. After that, there's nothing more."
[Abridged from the US Guardian.]