Organize the unorganized! — and then keep them active with plans of work!

BY:Justine Medina, Ethan Darbee And Adam Hart| June 3, 2024
Organize the unorganized! — and then keep them active with plans of work!


This piece is a contribution to the Pre-Convention Discussion for our 32nd National Convention. During Pre-Convention Discussion, all aspects of the party’s program, strategy, and tactics are up for consideration and debate. The ideas presented here are those of the author or authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Communist Party USA, its membership, or their elected leadership bodies. — Editors

“At present the degree of activity of our membership is very low. Only a comparatively few members are really active. They carry on the life of the Party. This is an unhealthy condition. The mass must be brought into the Party work. The fate of our Party depends upon this.”

When William Z. Foster wrote these words almost 100 years ago, there were somewhere around 17,000 members of the Workers Party of America recorded. Though, as Foster notes, the vast majority were inactive, mostly connected to the Party through paying dues.

23 years later, in 1947, with Foster as Chairman, the Communist Party USA had over 75,000 members. And much more importantly, that 75,000 membership was highly organized, disciplined, and activated. They were leaders in generation-defining movements to organize Black workers and tenant-farmers in the south, build public housing and feed millions during the Great Depression, led integrated fights against Jim Crow and struggles against legalized lynchings, mobilized unemployed masses to force politicians to create jobs programs. They fought in the Spanish Civil War and helped defeat the fascists in World War II. Crucially and impressively, those members helped build and lead the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the progressive fighting labor federation that consisted of nearly 4-million workers, into organizing the biggest general strike of wage-workers in U.S. history. They weren’t just paying dues, they were organized; and that organization terrified the bosses to the point of the capitalists triggering one of the fiercest anti-labor and red scare campaigns in history.

Foster spent a lot of time thinking and writing about organizing – most famously, organizing the unorganized working masses. But Foster did not just think about organizing the unorganized masses in the arena of labor, but also into, and quite crucially, within the Communist Party as well.

The fact is the CIO and Communist Party USA (CPUSA) grew together. By the end of the 1920s, as a result of the first red scare, the CPUSA had about 6,000 members. Eight years later, the year of the CIO’s historic UAW Flint sit-down strike, there were 38,000. They had been recruited and developed actively and with purpose, many from the labor movement, but many from other areas of struggle as well. What is critical to remember is that in all areas of struggle, the organization of Party membership was built intentionally. As Foster noted, “Organization does not happen; it is made to happen.”

Today, 100 years later, there’s a lot we can learn from those early Party-building days, whether the early 1920s, or the first surge to rebuild in the early 1930s. We are in a time of rebuilding our Party. Accounting for the U.S. population, for a mass organization we are still relatively small in recorded numbers, I estimate somewhere around 15,000 members. But still, this is a leap for Party membership compared to what it was even five years ago. In this renewed period of socialism in the United States, we have grown rapidly, working hard to keep pace under structures and methods that weren’t built for organizing 15,000 people.

In this exciting growth, our members have been central in organizing new unions at Starbucks and Amazon, they have held grassroots leadership in some of the biggest street-protests in U.S. history, organized coalitions around the country to pass abolitionist and housing reforms, and have culturally reinvigorated the idea of being a communist. We’ve redoubled our efforts in the movements for international solidarity and strengthened connections with comrades from Cuba to Vietnam. Nationally, we’ve developed our education and propaganda arms, focusing on Party program development and understanding through Party schools, political statements, panels, and discussions. We have re-formed national committees and, with a lot of initiative and a little bit of guess-work, are attempting to reorganize ourselves. In particular, there has been a big focus on collective action at the grassroots level, at the club levels where membership has swelled, with individual members involved as leading figures in labor, housing, peace, and other struggles.

It is undeniable that our members who are active are doing inspiring and amazing things, but this level of activity will only get us so far as a Party. Our national leadership, including comrades Co-Chairs Joe Sims and Rossana Cambron, are upfront that probably our biggest struggle overall as a party is activation and organization of all this new growth into the Party. As scientific socialists, we should not just acknowledge this amorphously, we must be specific, and objective in our analysis, and name concretely both where we are at and where we need to be. The hard data tells us that at most only 10% of Communist Party membership is activated in even a small way.

This is a problem, but it is far from an unsolvable problem. In fact, it is a very common problem in any major organizing project in the United States in 2024. Many membership organizations today are little more than vast email lists, and many labor unions routinely turn out less than 10% of their members to participate in leadership elections, let alone attend recurring meetings. When new or renewed leadership from the grassroots of these organizations work to revive them, member participation is the first thing they focus on. And when they are even slightly successful – seen in the historic contracts built from internal reform efforts of UAW and the Teamsters, or the building of new unions at Starbucks and Amazon – they get there by focusing on building participation, and they know whether they’re going to succeed (and when to move ahead with different stages of their plans) through scientific analysis of the material conditions.

Even the recent major popular movements that have had large semi-spontaneous elements – such as the George Floyd uprisings, the historic ceasefire mobilizations against the genocide of Palestinians, and the mass pro-choice movement carried out at the ballot box to defeat anti-choice candidates and polices – measure their historic nature through looking at turnout numbers.

But as Communists, we know we cannot leave the organization and mobilization to spontaneity and post-hoc analysis of data. We work to make history consciously; we work to progress. Thanks to our hard work and development over the past five years since the last national Party convention, among our cadre we can now find people with the necessary experience and skills needed to start the process of democratic-centralist organization of a large collective. Among very close friends of the Party are brilliant labor and political organizers who would be thrilled to be intentionally recruited for this mission of Party organization. Further, we have the objectively-measurable skills and experience among our cadre and leadership to train and direct new members to develop these skill sets, this experience, these various paths that we need to be on to become a disciplined, activated, and fully organized Party.



    Ethan Darbee is an activist for socialism.
    Adam Hart is an activist with the CPUSA

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