Discussion on the Status and Role of the Party.

August 11, 2004

Sam Webb’s report to the expanded National Board meeting of June 26 and 27.

For a while now, it has been apparent that a discussion of the status and role of the Party is necessary. One could even argue that it is overdue.

Whatever the case, lets be glad that it is on our agenda today. We wont settle everything in this discussion, but at least we will begin a much-needed discussion and, in doing so, lay the ground for further discussions and decisions in the National Board and in other collective bodies of the Party.

Obviously, this subject wouldnt be on the agenda if we were doing everything right. But, having said that, we are not in a crisis either. We are not tumbling out of control down a slippery slope.

And yet unless we make some corrections in our methods of work, political priorities, and theoretical understandings, we will both diminish our role in class and democratic struggles and miss opportunities to enlarge the size of the Party and YCL.

This isnt the first time that we have discussed the status and role of the Party. In one way or another, they inform most of our discussions. Almost two years ago to the day, for example, we organized a national conference on clubs and club life.

But what makes this discussion different is that we will give singular attention to one particular aspect of the Party.


Yesterday we discussed the political imperative of defeating the Bush administration. Had we more time we would have put the Bush administration and its policies in a larger historical context.

In the 1970s, we arguably entered a new era of world development. In the early years of that decade, the defeat of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, the collapse of monetary system established at Bretton Woods, the slowing down of the world capitalist economy, among other things, signaled the beginnings of a crisis of U.S. hegemony across global space.

But by decades end, the U.S. ruling class had recovered from the shock and embarked on a many-sided counteroffensive to regain the initiative and restore its political and economic dominance at home and worldwide.

Military escalation, counterrevolution, and neo-liberal policies over the next quarter century were the favored instruments employed by U.S. imperialism in pursuit of these aims.

In the course of this fierce offensive, the socialist, anti-imperialist, and democratic movements experienced some serious and unexpected defeats on every continent. None was more far-reaching than the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left no counterweight at the nation state level to U.S. imperialism.

Despite these devastating setbacks, old and new social forces and movements in our country and elsewhere regrouped and battled capitalist globalization and the political ascendancy of the right wing.

If victories were few in coming, labor and peoples forces did nonetheless gain appreciably in strength, unity, and understanding on the global stage. And in the belly of the beast, much the same occurred as the new labor movement, the racially oppressed, women, and their allies fended off the worst features of the ultra-rights agenda and the Battle in Seattle electrified the world.

With the theft of the presidency in 2000, thanks to thugs in Florida and goons in judicial gowns in Washington, Bush triumphantly entered the White House, thereby completing a takeover of all three branches of the federal government by neo-conservatives whose unconcealed mission was to radically reshape the political landscape of our country and the world.

In the early going, they met resistance at home and worldwide, but when jetliners struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the atmosphere and initiative shifted dramatically in their favor.

To no ones surprise, the neo-conservatives pursued a reckless agenda that in the early going encountered little public dissent from the nations main democratic movements. But this soon changed to the great consternation of the Bush administration and the extreme right, in large part because Bush and his neo-conservative advisors, filled with an arrogant and reckless spirit, overreached and misplayed their hand.

Most dramatically, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in opposition to the Iraq war before the invasion, which in combination with millions worldwide broke the veil of silence surrounding Bushs agenda of world domination and gave courage to many millions more. Since then, opposition from nearly every quarter has surfaced to the point where Bushs reelection chances, which seemed a sure bet a year ago, are now much more problematic.

In the course of this protracted struggle stretching back to the Reagan years, a loosely constructed all-peoples front has taken shape. Despite its embryonic character, this front has become a major player in the political life of our country. No victories of any consequence at this stage or at a later stage of struggle can be won without assembling the class and social forces that constitute this broad political formation.

For more than two decades, this front, coalition or movement (call it what you like) in which labor, the racially oppressed, and women constitute the core, has been the apple of our eye. Perhaps that expression gives a wrong impression, because we have not been observers of this developing coalition.

Indeed, we have been active participants and to this day contribute in a positive way. Name an arena of struggle and seven times out of 10 we are there and making a helpful contribution, sometimes a singular contribution to this movement.

In many organizations, comrades find themselves in leadership positions, so many in fact, that it is draining the Party and YCL of cadre that it needs for its own functioning, something that I will speak about later.

In all this, our mass relationships have grown both in quantity and quality in recent years. Pound for pound and person for person, we have been the most effective political organization on the left over the past few years.

I made this claim in recent conversations in Havana and Chicago, but I made it with no sense of exaggeration.

Of course, we should not get dizzy with success. It speaks more to the weaknesses of the left than to the strengths of the Party and YCL at this moment. Everyone at this meeting is well aware that there is plenty of room for improvement and growth. Our relations with the labor movement – not to mention the other core components of the peoples front – still could be even better with just a little more initiative on our part. There are far too may openings that we miss for us to feel self-satisfied.

Nonetheless, we have made considerable progress that we can take some pride in.


Why, someone might ask, do we assign such a high priority to mass struggles and mass connections? The answer is simple enough. Mass struggles are the locomotive of social change and social revolution, and, therefore, they are the ground floor of communist politics. Disconnected from mass struggles, turns communists into hollow shells, into Monday morning quarterbacks, into ineffective windbags.

Lenin said, the task of the party is not to invent some fashionable method of helping the workers, but to join the workers movement and to assist the workers in the struggles, which they have already started themselves.

In these struggles, workers and their allies accumulate experience, gain a deeper appreciation of the configuration of class and social forces, and come to understand the requirements for broad unity, especially multiracial, multinational unity.

They also begin to politically imagine as well as see the necessity of a more just world. The depth of this acquired political knowledge, however, depends in no small measure on the quality of the union between the working class and the communist and other left forces.

According to classical Marxism, in the course of spontaneous – and even not so spontaneous – struggles, the working class and people can win victories and deepen their political understanding, but they do not necessarily acquire fully rounded class and socialist consciousness.

In other words, experience in struggle alone does not automatically translate into a revolutionary outlook. It is essential, to be sure, but an understanding of the laws of capitalist development, of the material roots of racial and gender oppression, of the complicated trajectory of the revolutionary process, of the role of the working class and of diverse social forces at each stage of struggle, and of the necessity of socialism, requires more than experience.

It also demands the presence of a substantial contingent within the working class and peoples movements that employs Marxist concepts and methodology and many, many more who are influenced by Marxism.

Consider for a moment the anti-globalization movement. While it is advanced in many ways with some sections explicitly anti-capitalist, it does not possess a deep understanding of the role of the working class, the necessity of unity of labor with the racially and nationally oppressed, and the nature of imperialism. Nor does it see socialism as a political alternative to capitalism.

In short, class and socialist consciousness is not a reflexive, spontaneous derivative of struggle. It isnt a product of the laws and pressures of objective development. It isnt involuntarily belched up from the bowels of capitalist society.

To the contrary, it is politically constructed by an ever-widening section of the working class and people who embrace revolutionary Marxism and are actively engaged themselves. To put it another way, the formation of a class for itself, to use Marxs phrase, is a contested process with competing trends and forces both within the working class and peoples movements and between the same movements and their class adversaries who have at their disposal the institutional mechanisms of capitalist society, including the state itself, all of which veil exploitation, racism, and the limitations of capitalist democracy.

Needless to say, the outcome of this contest will go a long way – dare I say constitute a decisive factor – in determining what our world looks like, provided we have a world, as we move forward in the 21st century.

Given this situation, we cant stand aloof from these struggles. At every stage of the revolutionary process, at every stage of the democratic struggle, understood in the broadest sense, we have to be presente, fully, completely, wholeheartedly, but – and this is a BIG but – with an eye not only to building the movement and winning victories, but also, and no less importantly, to deepening political consciousness and enlarging the communist forces in these struggles.

Lenin once said in the opening years of the last century that a small party with a correct strategic policy and the sympathy of millions could lead a revolution, but he never made a virtue out of smallness. He was a big thinker. In fact, in the debates in the Communist International two decades later, he argued in his own inimitable way for the building of mass parties in the core capitalist countries.
Obviously, Lenin – and Gramsci as well – appreciated the fact that given the ebbing of the revolutionary situation in Europe, the new terrain as well as the traditions of these countries would require new forms of struggle and much bigger parties.

Even earlier, Engels made much the same point perhaps with a little different emphasis and in different circumstances in an article written shortly before his death:

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must have already grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul.


Our task then is interrelated, that is, to build the Party and YCL as we engage in building the broader movements. We dont do this as outsiders; we are not simply partisans of the working class, but a legitimate current within the working class movement, admittedly small at this moment, but its here that our roots, history, theory and ideology are found.

Like the Manifesto said,
Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only,

1.In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries, they point out and bring to the forefront the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development, which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, the Manifesto goes on to say, are, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

So the question for this meeting is: how are we fulfilling this role? Are we combining our work in the mass movements with the all-sided building of the Party and YCL and their publications? Is the growth of the Party, YCL, and Peoples Weekly World keeping pace with the new streams that are coming into the theater of struggle? Does our energy to strengthen the political and organizational capacities of the Party match the energy that we expend deepening and extending our mass relations? Are we taking care of the movement of the future in the struggles of the present?

I am not in a position to give a definitive answer to these questions. Thats a task for the collective. But I will say that there are signs that should cause us concern. To name a few:

First, the Party is growing either very slowly or not at all. Our membership is roughly 2,500. Second, the PWW circulation has been relatively flat, both in terms of subs and weekly bundle orders.

Third, the approach to literature and internal and mass educational work is inadequate.

Fourth, web work is very limited.

Fifth, the relationship of the Party to the YCL at every level needs some repair.

Sixth, attendance at leadership meetings at the national and district level is spotty.

Seventh, the functioning of our national center leaves much to be desired.

Eighth, few comrades are volunteering to assume full time positions in the Party and YCL.

Finally, the revitalizing of the club structures is proceeding slowly. I could go on, but I have said enough to demonstrate that there is a gap between our mass activities on the one hand and our political and organizational capacity and growth on the other.

How do we explain this gap?

An immediate answer is that our responsibilities swamp our size and something has to give. And usually what gives is shoring up of the political and organizational capacity of the Party and YCL. After all, we cant do everything. Havent we all said this at one time or another? And its not a lame excuse. Nearly all of our comrades work hard and long in whatever their assignment is.

Nevertheless, we cant be satisfied with this answer. For it offers no solution, no way out of this dilemma, no way of closing this gap.

Another explanation is that our political priorities are mistaken and our work poorly structured. This, too, has merit. In fact, it has a lot of merit. Usually, our collectives and comrades are either bogged down with administrative details or hopping from one mass mobilization to another.

For example, both the National Board and the Organization Department could function much better than they presently do and I have to take a good share of the responsibility for the weaknesses of both of these collectives.

I could easily explain away my responsibility by claiming that the rush of events and constant pressures from many angles keeps me from giving either collective the required attention, but that would be a copout.

And the issue isnt that they dont function regularly, because they do The more salient issue is: do these collectives function in a way that fuses together the two sides of one strategic task – the building the Party, YCL, and our publications in neighborhoods and shops and on campuses in the context of deepening our involvement in mass movements and struggles.

Still another explanation is that our cadres are poorly deployed. This strikes a chord as well. How can we explain that Michigan has been without a district organizer for years? Or how can we explain why are most capable and experienced comrades are not club leaders?

A final explanation is that comrades gravitate toward coalition activity where they feel productive, see results, and earn kudos. In their minds, the Party possesses a great history, many capable people, and astute politics, but its membership so small, the problems so intractable, and the work so tedious and so unfulfilling that their energy, they decide, is better expended elsewhere.

Each of the just mentioned explanations should be explored further, but we would make a mistake if we left it here.

To get a full picture, we also have to ask if some mistaken ideological and political concepts inform our political practices.

I would say YES.

One mistaken concept is that the working class and the wider movements are capable on their own of developing the political and organization capacities to traverse from one stage of struggle to higher, including the socialist, stage.

What follows is that there is little need to organize grassroots based, mass Communist Party and a mass newspaper.

If communists have any role, it is to strategically deploy themselves in either the broad democratic organizations or left formations where they can bring their tactical wizardry to present-day struggles.

Whats wrong with this picture? Besides being wrong in theory and shallow historically, its practical effect is to diminish and distort the role of the Party. As I tried to indicate earlier, mass struggles are the sustenance of our partys activities, but our role consists of more than building the movement and staffing its organizational forms.

We want to build a particular kind of movement that has the political and organizational capacity to lead millions through various phases and stages of the revolutionary process in our country, a process that will undoubtedly be complex and protracted.

Another notion is that we are not unique, that we have nothing that special to offer. This too is mistaken. Why do I say this?

First, we bring a non-dogmatic Marxism to class and democratic struggles, although there is much more we could do in this respect.

Second, we have a strategic sense that allows for different stages and turning points in the revolutionary process.

Third, we have an appreciation of the main class and social forces that have to be assembled and unified at each stage of struggle.

Fourth, we understand that inequality and racism is the main obstacle to working class and all-peoples unity and labor in the white skin will never be free while labor in the Black and Brown skin is branded.

Fifth, we are aware of the international dimensions of the struggle and are internationalists. And finally, we are convinced that socialism is both necessary and possible.

Saying this doesnt mean that we trump other progressive, left, and socialist forces that will, Im sure, make an important contribution to the movement at every stage of struggle. But it does mean that because of our partys working class character, treasure trove of experience, accent on unity, and our readiness to apply Marxism in a creative way to the conditions of our country, we bring something to the plate that others on the left dont.

Whats missing, of course, on our plate is a big enough Party organized into live and active clubs at the neighborhood and workplaces. You may think I am making a fetish out of numerical size. Well, I dont think so. Nothing is more important.

Had we 10,000 members rather than 2,500, it would make a world of difference in what we could do. Had we 20,000 we could move and shake many of the battleground states.

Right now we cant keep up with the new streams and scope of the movement. And this problem will only grow worse as the struggle intensifies and enters a new complex stage.

Neither comrades strategically deployed in labor or other democratic organizations nor in left forms are a substitute for a growing Party at the grassroots. But you are probably thinking, who ever thought they did. They dont compete. They are complementary.

I would agree, but I would also add that a growing Party at the grassroots is the cornerstone of everything we do. Without it, our mass relations will lack depth, thus making it difficult to influence the thinking and actions of working class and racially oppressed constituencies as the revolutionary process advances.

Finally – and Im not trying to be exhaustive – another notion that inhibits our readiness to strength and grow the Party in an all sided way is that some comrades have resigned themselves to the proposition that socialism is either no longer a realizable alternative or only in the very longest run. Once this feeling – and I guess its more a feeling than a congealed ideological notion – it follows that the Party drops on your things-to-do list.

So how do we change all this? How do we strengthen the political and organizational capacities of the Party? How do we take care of the future in the struggles of the present? How do we begin to grow steadily, which I think is very possible now, provided we work at it?

This is what we have to discuss. I would like to offer some specific ideas, not so much because I am completely wedded to them, but more to get us to think practically as well as theoretically and ideologically.

Briefly, I would suggest the following:

Organize discussions in other collectives and commissions of the Party and YCL with an eye to changing our style of work

Allocate additional monies to the YCL for hiring three more staff members. Presently they are budgeted for five, but I would propose that we increase that to eight and that the additional staff members organize in the field. If that means that we have to layoff elsewhere for budgetary reasons, so be it!

Ask the PWW editorial board and the org department to bring a plan to expand the subscription and circulation base to a coming meeting of the NB.

Visit 200 readers of the PWW in the Midwest between now and November.

Examine how to structure the work of our leading collectives at the national and district level so that they systematically give attention to the strengthening of the political and organizational capacities of the Party.

Meet with the editorial board of Political Affairs to discuss how to integrate the magazine into Party life

Invest more in our educational work at the national and district level.

Organize a national tour of Party leaders to discuss our concept and vision of socialism.

Find and publicize our best practice experiences with respect to club building and recruiting.

Organize a discussion of our web and literature work.

As I said at the beginning, this is an opening, not a report. It is intended to stimulate a discussion, not answer every questions. Collectively I am confident that we can find the answers to this problem and in doing so move our Party on a new political trajectory. It would be good for us; it would be even better for our nation.

Thank you.


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