Taking a New Look at Party Structure: Re-Tooling for the 21st Century

BY:Roberta Wood| September 11, 2013
Taking a New Look at Party Structure: Re-Tooling for the 21st Century

PHOTO: Founding Convention of the Communist Party of America, Chicago 1919.

The structure of an organization should be fashioned taking into account the conditions and the job at hand. All organizations – if they last long enough – have to make those adjustments. We haven’t done that organizational reassessment in a long time. It’s not hard to understand why. For a lifetime, this organization has been under attack, on the defensive.

It’s been a long time since we’ve examined our structure. Why?

From the end of the 1940’s when communists were labeled “enemy foreign agents,” hundreds were indicted, our leadership was jailed and deported and thousands lost their jobs and were blacklisted, through the Cold War and the 50s it’s been hard to take time to look at our structure. [It’s important to note that despite the fierce attack, we were able to be an integral part of the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement, the union rank and file movements, partly by hanging on tightly against all odds to our traditional structure] and we survived. Next came the ideological assault of the Reagan – Bush era, the demise of Soviet Union. We didn’t grow then, but we survived and we actively fought in every struggle. In every decade, even when we lost many members, we always brought in new members. Who can argue with success in the face of those odds?But we’re now in a different era. Growing is on our agenda. It’s high time we look at our structure. But before we do, let’s look a little further back in our history.

A structure corresponding to how people lived and worked 

Our Party was founded in 1919 not just in response to a good idea but to developments in the working class and capitalist production. The United States had just changed from being predominantly agricultural to predominantly industrial. As agriculture became mechanized it took a much smaller work force to feed the nation. People left the farms and plantations and new immigrants flooded industrial centers. They manufactured products that previously didn’t exist or had been made at home. At first work places had been small shops. This was the world the Communist Party was born into. Its organizational structure was based on federations organized around foreign language newspapers. 

Getting off the margins and into the mainstream.

The baby CP, with just a few thousand members, criticized itself for being a debating society. They realized they had to get off the margins and into the mainstream. In 1925, scarcely five years after the party’s founding, these brash young revolutionaries restructured their organization around the principle of “industrial concentration.” Their stated goal was to transform their new organization from being an internally oriented propaganda group to a party of mass action. They knew they had to be rooted in the working class – at the very places where workers were exploited. So they set up two kinds of clubs: shop clubs and street clubs. With shop clubs they set out to anchor the Party in the core industries of the economy, mines, steel mills, auto plants, rubber, etc. This strategy reflected the use of Marxist analysis to see what was happening to the working class. They focused on the newly emerging giant factories. 

While many women were in the paid work force, many were not. But since most workers lived in the neighborhoods adjoining their plants, street clubs were well-placed to participate in the neighborhood churches, union halls, fraternal associations, schools and so on. Newspapers, word of mouth and public meetings were the main forms of information at that time and the party used all three of these methods of communication. 

So, the shop and street branches reflected how people of that era lived and worked. It was a strategic policy to magnify the influence of a small number of members to move and influence the entire working class. 

What a great strategy that was! Because it responded to the emerging new ways that people lived and interacted, in just a few years they were on the wave of the future. As mass production became the dominant mode of production, hundreds of thousands of workers were hired in auto assembly lines, including a great migration of African American sharecroppers and a significant wave of Mexican immigrants, alongside European immigrants and rural white farmers and share croppers. The Ford Rouge plant in Detroit employed 100,000 workers – it also had a network of communist shop clubs! Chicago’s stockyards employed 50,000 in a one square mile area including a great number of African American workers. Similarly the seven steel mills strung along Lake Michigan from Chicago to Gary employed 200,000. Giant textile mills in Georgia and North Carolina brought together thousands of workers as did copper, silver and zinc mines in the Southwest. 

Due to the policy of industrial concentration, clubs and comrades the party had focused on in these industrial communities had networks and knowledge that laid the basis for the party’s invaluable contribution in the great task of organizing these unorganized industries. And of course the size and influence of the Party itself grew.The party’s structure in that era corresponded to the way working class family life was structured, and the rhythms of that life.

Basing our organization on the concrete conditions of working class life today

What do we learn from this? The lesson is not that we must hold fast to our organizational method of shop and neighborhood clubs! 

I believe what we must take from our history is the necessity to study concretely the conditions of working class life today and to base our party organization on that. That’s how we will make the party an effective organization. 

So here’s some thoughts on that: In the last several decades, production has undergone a change that is just as dramatic in methods of production as those in our Party’s early years. This change in production has transformed the structure of working class life and its rhythms. 

Consider: Once farmers made up ½ the US population. Today only 2% of the workforce feeds the nation. The manufacturing work force is in the midst of the same kind of trend. The U.S.’s industrial output has not decreased, only the workforce involved in it has. Meanwhile, new areas of work have opened up, creating products that didn’t exist for humans earlier. For example, today 50,000 steelworkers nationwide roll more steel than the half million steelworkers produced when my mill shut down in 1980. Only one in ten of my co-workers’ children work in the mills. Where are the other 9 of those 10? The children of those half million steelworkers are now employed in health care, education, fast food, in call centers as well as high tech. We can’t ignore these workers and their industries.

There are 4 million American workers involved in the fast food industry. In a gigantic shift from the mid 20th century, the fast food industry feeds America, just as the packing house workers who numbered half a million became an integral part of the food chain in the 1920s and 1930s. 

People used to go home to eat after work before going out again to a meeting. Today, some of us may eat at home, but nobody goes home to eat. . And for the most part, workers no longer live in neighborhoods linked to their workplaces. That’s why many unions and other organizations that used to meet at 7:30 or 8:00 changed their meetings to 6 pm. Our challenge here is that the fast food workplace is spread across the country in pockets of 50 workers every mile or so. And they have integral ties to others, like the Immokalee tomato harvesters have shown us. You could say that the entire world is one big integrated factory.

Health care is another industry that pretty much did not exist 100 years ago. Now health care accounts for 15 million jobs, including 4 million in nursing homes, and 1 million as home health care aides.

There are 2.1 million call center workers – another industry that did not exist decades ago.How does this affect our organization? Take a look at the occupations of the folks who joined the Communist Party on line this week: engineer, grocery clerk, grant writer, home health care worker, student, unemployed, customer service, electrician, student, teacher, rancher, WalMart associate, tech worker, writer, organizer, unemployed, waitress, lab tech, unemployed, student, small business owner, unemployed, Walgreen’s employee, truck driver, programmer, graphic artist, Subway worker.

21st Century points of engagement

The Communist Party, as an organization of the working class, in order to root ourselves in the working class and to make our organization one immersed in action, must find new ways, along with the traditional ones, of finding points of engagement for our members, new and old. 

It’s easier to sign up new members than to keep them. To keep them we have to find a way for them to contribute their efforts. We need to build collectives that naturally focus on the struggle of workers at their 21st Century work place, that speak their language, that respond to their struggles. We still need an organizing strategy, but it must be an “industrial concentration” for the 21st century. We need to stretch our concept of the word “industry.” The goal of this strategy still must be to magnify the influence of a small number of communists on the whole working class. 

Focusing attention on big factories is still important but there are only 15 workplaces in the entire U.S. with workforces of more than 2500, so, for a strategy, we need more. Our strategy cannot be divorced from workers’ work experience – that is where we experience exploitation, but we have to find forms that correspond to the realities of how workers’ lives are structured. 

To transform our industrial concentration policy means to get ready for the battles coming up to organize the unorganized industries, to inject confidence, strategy, unity and international solidarity. Here are some facts that call for our attention: the vast majority of our country – maybe 90% – is working class; of that barely 10% are unionized as yet; and from coast to coast, workers are reaching out to organize with courageous and innovative methods.

Like the labor movement, we need to figure out how to tap into workplace solidarity in a new way. And as an organization, we need to adjust our structure to grow that – to stretch ourselves to build a structure that corresponds to how people live and work. 

So far the structure of our organization has not really accommodated new forms, new collectives and on-line organization. Even our constitution focuses on two types of clubs – shop clubs and neighborhood clubs – and a vertical organizational chart, from the national convention down to two types of clubs. We haven’t examined that in many years. 

Let’s zero in on three questions:

  1. There is a steady stream of new members who want to join the Communist Party? What are the points of engagement for folks who want to join our movement and aren’t in a position to relate to clubs? How do we incorporate them?
  2. How can we expand our Party to take in the best fighters and thinkers from working class struggles?
  3. How do we make action the central characteristic of all of our collectives including our clubs?
1. Let’s talk first about new members who are joining online. 

Most of our new members come to us on line and the majority of the new members who join on line are not in situations to join existing clubs. 

Who are these folks? They live in Nebraska and Louisiana and Utah or New Hampshire, or upstate New York or even in a far-flung suburb of your city. 

Why do they join? Because they are outraged by capitalism’s injustices. These new members aren’t all the same – some are satisfied to merely declare themselves in opposition to the greed and inhumanity of capitalism. Nothing wrong with that! 

Some want us to help them find the words to explain to family members and co-workers the complicated truths they feel in their hearts, whether it’s the narrative explaining why socialism can work without the profit incentive or just explaining simply why the deficit is not the main problem. 

Then there are those who have made up their minds to devote the rest of their lives to the struggle. They’ve made a decision to become active in political struggle. They’re chosen us to guide them. Awesome responsibility! 

In the traditional party structure, the first step has always been to put someone in a club. But when we couldn’t see how to get the new member to a club meeting we just didn’t know what to do with them. 

New Members Committee hits the ground running

In response to this challenge, just a few years ago the NEW Members committee was established, headed by Esther Moroze, Bill Davis and John Bachtell. Many of you have been in touch with them. And they’ve already turned this situation around. The committee has set up mechanisms to reach new folks. 

I have included in this report some of the remarks of the panelists who participated at the National Conference.

John Bachtell, co-chair of the New Members committee described the committee’s work:We’ve worked for a basic change in attitude toward online joiners. We’ve learned a lot about how to use the social media to contact and engage new members:

  1. We need to reduce the time between joining and contact. Presently five comrades share the responsibility of phoning the new joiners the same day their applications come in. We welcome them, answer their questions , get to know them better – their activities, involvement and interests – and try to connect them immediately with districts and clubs where possible. We’ve found that the longer we wait, more likely they will drop away.
  2. We encourage new members to get connected immediately in struggles and movements. Many are already active, but many others are not. Joining the Communist Party is actually their first political act. 
  3. We give them something to do immediately – join the peoplesworld.org share campaign, get connected to cpusa.org and peoplesworld.org and “like” them, write for peoplesworld.org, pay their dues.
  4. We have begun to better understand the interests and skills of new members. We need to keep building commissions, committees and interest groups such as the Academic interest group, Environmental Working Group, Labor Commission, Religion Commission, Political action Committee, Art and Culture Commission, Veterans group, social media, writing for peoplesworld.org. In general, we need flexible forms.
  5. State/city organizing projects – we are now organizing clusters of new members in unorganized areas.
  6. New Roots Council is working on monthly phone conferences to identify and train new organizers. 

Another one of the panelists, a new member from Texas, described how she had been working with the New Members Committee to call new members in the South: “Before I call a new member I go online and try to find activities going on in their area – immigrant rights rallies, labor support actions, Jobs with Justice activities, etc. I stay in touch and email to keep them motivated and hear what they’re up to if anything new is going on in the area and let them know if I hear of anything.”

2. How can we expand our Party to take in the best fighters and thinkers from peoples’ struggles? 

Comrades, we need leadership at every level, not just the top. We need a network with leaders – organizers – at every node of that network. We need more leadership and it can’t all come from inside. How can we expand our Party to take in the best fighters and thinkers from all the struggles of our class and people?. 

We have two jobs – incorporating new people and developing leadership. 

Developing leadership can’t always mean starting from scratch. So besides bringing new members into our organization we need to bring people who already have leadership skills, with networks they’re already a part of – from the unions, from election struggles, community and student organizations, churches, online groups, environmental groups. 

We have tremendous ties to folks like this. They’re people like us who believe that capitalism can’t be reformed, their goal is also socialism, they agree with our strategic approach, see the importance of class unity and fighting racism. Why aren’t they in the Party? Do they have to change? Or do we?

Also, we can’t have young people coming into an organization that feels like it belongs to another generation.

Don’t we need to fashion ourselves into the kind of organization that doesn’t feel like it’s going to pull new members away from work they are already involved in, but instead enhances it? Joining the Communist Party can’t mean people move away from the important work they’re committed to and the folks they’re working with. 

We need to build collectives that take into account our new members’ ties to mass struggles. Squeezing leaders of mass movements into our existing structure will not work. Let’s ask them, “What is the form in which you could join us in this movement? What are the collectives that will help your work and at the same time ramp up your contribution to the class struggle overall?”

This structure must accommodate these fighters from the working class. Are we revolutionary enough to allow them to change us as much as we change them? 

Honestly, I don’t think we’ve got a handle on this challenge yet, but this is a great time to start working on it. 

3. Putting the focus on action in all our collectives

There’s no question that the most stable core of our organization is our network of scores of clubs from coast to coast. Many of our clubs have been experimenting with new forms to become more action-oriented. 

Another panelist, Shelby Richardson, chair of the Chicago City-wide club described how the Chicago comrades are experimenting with a city-wide form, meeting monthly, that brings together both Party and non party activists and has the “critical mass” to provide excellent educational presentations. “Our clubs have to become more open, welcoming centers where learning and tactics for change are explored and applied,” Shelby stated.

Vic Viera, head of the YCL in Hartford, Connecticut, was another panelist. He reported: “When we recruit we look for the people who are actually going through the struggle.” 

We’ve seen that thousands, maybe millions agree with us, they’re interested in socialism. They want to join the struggle. We must build a structure that takes into account not only the new workplaces that workers make their living in, but also the online communities that they inhabit, smart phones, long commuting time, two-earner families.

We can’t do it without use of 21st century technology

One thing is for sure. This includes online work. I think we have to look at online collectives as REAL collectives. Social networks are a neighborhood too and I think we have to at least experiment with online collectives that reflect the same characteristics that every Party collective must have: struggle, development of leadership, putting people to work, Marxist analysis democracy, unity, internationalism, connection to the labor movement. 

And while modern technology has given us some tough challenges, it’s also given us some great tools. What bigger transformer, amplifier, connector could there be than the Internet? We need a serious attitude toward on-line communities. If they’re real human networks, then they have and need leaders and we need to figure out how to grow that leadership.

Our challenge is to build a Party up to the tasks ahead of us. Our party structure must match the patterns of how our class lives, works, and talks to each other. If not, no matter how much folks agree with us and want to work with us, they won’t be able to.I invite everyone to do some deep thinking about what it will take to make our party the home for those taking on today’s working class tasks. What is the structure that corresponds to how our class lives and works today?


    Roberta Wood, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party, is a retired journeyman industrial instrument mechanic. A lifelong union activist, she was a founding co-chair of the United Steelworkers District 31 Women's Caucus. She writes on labor issues for peoplesworld.org. A Chicagoan, Roberta is married to Steelworker retiree Scott Marshall. Scott and Roberta have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

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