Earlier this year, a sizeable portion of the US Communist Party broke from that organisation, charging that it was unwilling or unable to break with its Stalinist heritage. They regrouped in "Committees of Correspondence" to discuss among themselves and with others the future of socialist politics in the United States. The committees held a national conference in Berkeley, California, July 17-19. MAX ELBAUM, managing editor of the progressive magazine CrossRoads, reports.
Mobilising close to 1400 people to discuss "Perspectives for Democracy and Socialism in the '90s" might have provided energy enough for one weekend. But an even more powerful jolt struck halfway through the gathering.
Sometime late Saturday afternoon, the cumulative impact of an open atmosphere, provocative plenary presentations and a sense of collective possibility began to hit home. The result: hundreds of activists who had come to Berkeley eager to exchange ideas but extremely reluctant to join (much less help lead) any organisation-building effort changed their minds.
Even before the end of Sunday's "organisational business" plenary, it was apparent that something more than another forum for left dialogue was lurching into existence. More than 300 new affiliates had joined the Committees of Correspondence.
Though the process of amendment and voting was horrificly frustrating, the body managed to approve an initial statement of unity and temporary organisational structure. And — though again the procedure left much to be desired — the delegates elected almost a dozen prominent unaffiliated socialists as well as 24 former
CPUSA members to leadership positions; the 35 people chosen included 70% activists of colour and 60% women.
Bottom line, those assembled successfully launched an "interim organisation" whose purpose is to reach out further, hammer out a political perspective and formally found a new socialist and activist organisation in 18 months.
Along the way there were a host of problems, but the conference marked a watershed in current efforts to regroup and renew the US left.
First, the assembly made a decisive break with top-down and ideologically monolithic models of organisation. Such undemocratic forms had been the immediate legacy not only of those who recently left the CPUSA, but of many other participants who were veterans of other "vanguard" organisations.
Second, the weekend achieved a significant meshing of activists from diverse currents of the socialist and Marxist left. The section coming out of the CPUSA (itself increasingly diverse politically) certainly remains the largest single component. But a definite political broadening occurred, such that activists from other tendencies now share a major role and stake in this effort.
Third, the size and spirit of the gathering, and the obvious determination of so many activists to make this process work, gave the vast majority of those present a powerful ideological boost. For the first time in years, hundreds of people with differing political views walked away from a meeting with the feeling that they might be able to unite and rebuild a relevant socialist left.
Translating these gains into a durable organisation will be anything but easy. It remains to be seen if the general desire for "new approaches" can be transformed into a coherent vision and viable
strategy; if democratic sentiments can be turned into a functioning democratic organisation; if fragmented activism can be galvanised into actual collective work.
Above all, the new effort must find ways to overcome the gap that has developed between the "organised left" and the most vital centres of energy in today's popular movements, especially among youth.
Effectively tackling these challenge will require a degree of theoretical and practical creativity (as well as a few breaks from "objective conditions") that determination and left unity alone cannot produce. Additionally, approaches that were positive for this particular conference (such as reluctance to assert any clear political focus, an obvious over-reaction to the undemocratic sins of the past) will increasingly prove counterproductive.
Fortunately, there is no hint that the central activists in this process are thinking in "quick fix" or "easy answer" terms about these dilemmas. Instead, they are relying on the immense wealth of experience and talent assembled to work out, over time and through trial and error, sensible ways to move forward step by step.
The conference itself was actually two interrelated events. Friday evening and Saturday were slated for dialogue and debate. Plenary and workshop leaders reflected a huge range of left opinion, and no resolutions or motions were put on the agenda.
Sunday was reserved for decision making about the future of the Committees of Correspondence, like the previous days open to all, but with voting restricted to those who had signed on.
About 400-600 people came from outside the Bay area. Thirty states and several other countries
were represented, with the largest out-of-town delegations coming from New York (150) and Los Angeles (50).
Between one-quarter and one-third of the total participants were activists of colour, though at times in the plenary sessions the percentage dropped as low as 10% or 15%. African Americans were much better represented than Latinos, Asians, Native Americans or Arab Americans.
Special meetings which drew many but not all the labour activists present numbered upwards of 300.
Women made up at least 50% of the gathering. Extensive efforts to involve youth made the age composition better than at many left conferences but still far from ideal: at most 15% of those present were under 30, the majority were between 30 and 55, roughly a quarter were from the generation radicalised in the 1930s and '40s.
Examined from a "map of the left" angle, the conference brought together four main constituencies: former members of the CPUSA; veterans of other attempts to build a "revolutionary vanguard"; activists from the democratic socialist tradition who are interested in cooperation with people historically to their "left"; and independent activists whose main identification is with a particular social movement rather than a particular ideological stance.
One of the conference's main successes is that individuals coming from each of these sectors won election to the leadership.
[Editor's note: Readers familiar with the US socialist and environmentalist Peter Camejo from one of his tours of Australia will be interested to know that he was elected to the Committees of Correspondence leadership.]