Convention Discussion: Flexible Structure, But Clear Structure

BY: Marc Brodine| February 20, 2014

Submitted by Marc Brodine of Washington

Our Party has been experimenting with membership, form, structure, and communication over the last decade. In most respects this experimentation is good, beneficial, and needs to continue.

A big part of this helps us to adapt to the technological changes that surround us. New technology and the way people adopt it change the way demonstrations are organized, campaigns are run, and even how decisions are arrived at. All this means that we have to change also, without succumbing to the illusion that new technology changes everything or is the answer to all problems.

In our state (Washington) we have over the years simplified our organizational structure to accommodate to changes in membership. When we lose members to attrition as older comrades pass, we need less structure, fewer levels of structure, and a more flexible approach that enables us to do as much as we can without burdening ourselves with needless sets of internal committees and layers. These layers of committees can end up detracting from our work rather than facilitating it.  

I think this is true across all levels of Party organization. Working groups, task forces, temporary committees, “virtual” clubs, cross-fertilization of ideas and practices, all help us change as times change. Maintaining structure just because we have always done it that way, because we resist change, or because we reify form over content does not help us grow and become larger and more effective.

However, there are some aspects of our “traditional” structure that we need to approach with caution before we change them. I’m particularly concerned about any changes in the definition of what constitutes membership.

We need to welcome new members, to remove obstacles to their membership, to respond to new situations and challenges with flexibility. We need to attract new members, youth from new generations, people in the large areas of our country where we do not currently have an organized presence. We need to acknowledge the real circumstances these new members face, like difficult work schedules, that get in the way of clubs operating like we were trained to expect. Our working class has more part-time workers, more shift workers, more “non-traditional;” work schedules, more people who work multiple jobs, more people who are working and going to school, more people who are forced to work in order to have health care or to provide for their children. We must be flexible enough to welcome them all into our Party.

But there have been a few times in our history when we have engaged in sharp internal battles, and in some of those it matters a great deal who is considered a member and whether or not they have a vote on crucial issues. We need to consider the potential for these kinds of struggles before we casually jettison membership rules and expectations in the name of change. Once we are in the middle of such battles, it is difficult or impossible to reimpose old rules without being undemocratic.

As a practical matter, in most clubs and committees, we actually use a relaxed form of consensus almost all of the time. Most decisions are unanimous or nearly so. If they aren’t, in many cases we continue the discussion.

However, when it comes to basic decisions about the Party as a whole, about the direction we are going to take, we should not be so flexible that we define ourselves out of existence.

For example, in 1991, at our state convention, a few former members convinced a group of inactive members to pay up their back dues, in some cases covering years. They did so in order to pack our convention and attack the proposals of the existing leadership. We took the position, confirmed by the National Committee after an appeal, that people who had not been members in good standing couldn’t instantaneously resume good standing and full voting rights just by writing a check. The Party Constitution stated that full voting rights accrue to members in good standing, but if they have not been in good standing for several years, namely by paying dues and being as active as feasible, payment of dues did not automatically change their status. Many had not been members in good standing for more than six months, and so we did not let them vote on our delegation to the national convention or on our incoming leadership.

A few challenged this, noting correctly that in most circumstances we welcomed people, welcomed their input and even their votes on whatever was being discussed. The National Committee upheld our position, agreeing that this was not a club vote on a leaflet or a fund drive goal but was a vote with repercussions for the existence of the Party.

Of course, during most conventions, such fundamental questions are not up for a vote, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are. We should encourage flexibility to enable us to change our organizational structure and culture as times change. I don’t believe, though, that we should open ourselves to factions, to internal battles, to endless debates, to enshrining the minority with a veto over our ability to make majority-rules decisions when necessary.

We need a flexible democratic centralism, one with both more democracy and more centralism, each applied where appropriate. We need to acknowledge that there is a tension between these two essential elements of our organization, and hopefully deal with the ambiguity and conflicts so that it can be a creative tension, not a rigid straightjacket. We need the widest possible democratic discussion and involvement in decision-making, combined with the greatest possible unity of action. And we need clear rules about who is a member and what voting rights they have before we are embroiled in endless internal conflict.

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014


    Marc Brodine is Chair of the Washington State CPUSA. A former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and answers many web site questions. Marc is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change.

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