Convention Discussion: What's the difference between the CPUSA and progressive Democrats?

This article is part of the discussion leading up to the Communist Party USA's 29th National Convention May 21-23, 2010. takes no responsibility for the opinions expressed in this article or other articles in the pre-convention discussion. All contributions must meet the guidelines for discussion. To read other contributions to this discussion, visit the site of the Pre-Convention Discussion period.

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A certain question has arisen relatively often during this discussion period: "What is the difference between the Communist Party USA and progressive Democrats?" Superficially, that is a good question, superficially: the CPUSA has worked to get Democrats elected, fought for health care reform with the public option, and embraced most of what organized labor has been doing.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned question is often asked rhetorically, so that the person asking can go on to say that our main contribution has to be to introduce the ideas of Marxism and of socialism, or that we should protest or condemn "the other party of capitalism." But if we were to fully embrace that strategy, we could then ask, "What's the difference between the Communist Party USA and the Workers World Party (or any number of the myriad socialist groups, which actually are hard to tell apart from each other).

The question could go further and ask why we've sometimes come out "further to the right" of the progressive Democrats. In 2006, we supported a supplemental budget bill that would have given Bush the money he needed for the Iraq war, but that attached a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, for example.

Then the question arises: If our role isn't to (only) go around talking up the need for socialism and pointing out how bad the capitalist system is, and it's also not to go further "to the left" of the progressive Democrats, then what is it? What's the point of the organization?

The most important thing that the Communist Party has to offer is strategy, based in Marxism. Everything else is secondary to that. Even talk of socialism, while important, isn't helpful unless it's in the context of short- and long-term goals, and what needs to be done now to move forward.

This strategy is outlined in the CPUSA program, "The Road to Socialism." Instead of simply pointing out the problems of capitalist society, and the need for something better, it is a nearly 90 page discussion of the various contending forces in society, how they are arranged right now, what the current power relations are, and, out of all this, what is the way to move forward towards the goal. Out of this study, the idea that there are three stages, three strategic battles that have to be fought and won, came to be embraced. With each stage of battle, there is, singled out in the document, a core enemy, an enemy that needs to be battled at the local, state and national level, and, on the other side, all of the forces that can be brought together to defeat that enemy (needless to say, the working class is always at core of these forces).

This strategic line can help to provide good tactics, and the clarity to actually win fights and move forward, in any given struggles. Also, the strategic line is based on a real understanding of society-not how we would like things to be. We know that, given the balance of forces in society, we're nowhere near a fight for socialism, and trying to move people to fight for that, or for some sort of strongly anti-monopoly program, would be a losing battle. Between here and there, there's another battle to win.

A concrete example of the usefulness of this strategy: we said that the fight for health care reform, along the lines Obama and groups like Health Care for America Now outlined, was the only step forward actually possible, given the alignment of forces-where the labor movement is, the makeup of the Senate, grassroots groups-ready to fight. Consequently, the CPUSA embraced that struggle, to the chagrin of some who thought that this was a sellout of the Single Payer movement. But, as we've seen, this is where the real fight was.

We were right about that, but what did we add? Firstly, we fought to bring people on board. As I mentioned, a number of people on the left didn't agree with this position. Secondly, and more importantly, we were able to use our strategic line to argue for what is right, to keep in perspective the real enemies. If Obama didn't do this or that, we argued why this was the case, and made it clear that he is not the enemy, at least not now; the real enemy is the Republican ultra-right. The Blue Dog Democrats, as odious as they can be, aren't the enemy either. In this and all other struggles currently, we make the point that targeting them-Obama, the Blue Dogs, etc.-simply lets the tea partiers, the CPAC people, all these types, off the hook and dilutes the movement forward.

 The previously mentioned argument around funding for Bush's war in Iraq is another example. We correctly calculated that we couldn't-and can't-get Congress to simply cut off war funding, and to fight for that would be divisive to the anti-war movement. The best possible step forward was to restrain the Bush administration, and thus weaken them. In all areas, this strategy, with modifications based on local particularities, bears fruit: What is the best next step for normal U.S. ties with Cuba? To alleviate the miserable economic conditions workers in this country face? In the battle against racism? Etc.

The strategy is pro-active, as well. Having looked at the current troubles, and the demoralization that has occurred since the 2008 elections, our line is even more important: Obama and the Democrats are not the enemy; they represent better possibilities for working people than the Republicans. Still, we argue that the role of labor and its closet allies (those who are racially and nationally oppressed, women, young people) has to be increased, and that the grassroots activity on the ground needs to be increased in order to help the Democrats secure at least their best agenda; so doing would both guarantee a real defeat of the extreme right at the ballot box later in the year, and also lay the groundwork for further stages of struggle.

If there were a bigger Communist Party, even of just 10,000 members, we would likely have seen health care reform pass much easier. We would likely see the Employee Free Choice Act passing soon, and so on. Building these struggles is the best way to build the party, and, conversely, building the party is the best way to build these struggles forward, past the 2010 elections and towards an anti-corporate fight. Without an organization fighting for a good strategic line, the movement could go anywhere, but likely nowhere.

In some ways, the fact that people confuse us with progressive Democrats is good; it means that we've tapped into mainstream sentiment; we're not off in left field. I didn't join the Communist Party because of some socialist dream; I joined because I want to be involved in a fight to better society, and the Communist Party seemed, and still seems, the best vehicle for that. The fact that socialism is the outcome of such a fight is incidental to that fact. The case should be the same for the vast majority of people that we will recruit, if we play our cards right.