Convention Discussion: Name change & my five stages of grief

BY: | June 4, 2014

Submitted by Teresa Albano, Chicago, IL

Changing the name of the Communist Party reminds me of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I coursed through these stages over several years. Not in a straight line, but like life and struggle, back and forth through the stages I went, sometimes feeling two or three of the emotions at once.

Most of my journey has been spent in denial and bargaining. “We do not need to change the name of the Communist Party. People need to know what we really stand for.” Or “It is not going to result in growth. Look at other left groups with socialist in their name – they are not growing either.” “Eventually people will see the light. Eventually people will come around to the truth.” After all, no other political party in the history of the United States suffered as much repression and slander as the Communist Party. I had confidence in that arc of history (that bends towards justice). People will eventually love us.

I thought about South Africa. After the South African people finally won Nelson Mandela’s freedom and defeated apartheid, almost overnight the story goes, the South African Communist Party, doubled its size. A party that was outlawed and faced even more repression than the CPUSA grew incredibly in a short period of time. Can’t something like that happen here? I wanted the grand moment. My idealism astounds me today.

Sometimes anger mixed in with denial. I argued with comrade Elena and then stormed out of the room. I would shoot down reasonable polemics, swatting sound words like they were flies. “It’s like a get rich quick scheme. A gimmick,” I would sneer.

When the idea of name change came up at a special national board seminar, someone asked the room full of comrades in a show of hands, who would be open to discussing the proposition. Hands went up around the room. Mine did not. When asked who would be opposed – I raised my hand. It was the only one raised. I felt very undemocratic at the time. Who can be opposed to talking about it? But I did because at that point I felt it a distraction from more pressing questions confronting us. There were struggles to deal with, battles to fight, a world to win! Who wants to spend time going around and around on name? Not me!

What we need is to rebrand ourselves, I bargained. “We have to break the stereotypes. We have to change our image. Then we can replace the negatives people have about ‘communism’ with the positive ones that we all know and love. Communists can be equated with commitment, community, stalwarts, unifiers, salt of the earth, savvy, tenacious – all things Americans admire. Let’s talk about rebranding.” I embraced this. I thought we could reclaim the Communist name, like the LGBT community re-appropriated the term “queer.” The CPUSA can rise from the proverbial ashes like the phoenix if we just refashioned our image.

I even sat on a short-lived committee to come up with rebranding ideas. I timidly broached the “elephant in the room” issue during one meeting. “How can we change hearts and minds on the word communist?” I asked. To which I heard a story about how this one comrade said at a meeting that he was a communist and then got into an interesting discussion with someone. The lesson? We just have to talk to people. Something shifted inside of me as I listened. I was transported back 25 years to when I first started working for the YCL, and I had my first conversation on the “C” word. How many conversations had I had since then? Hundreds – one on one conversations; thousands if you count public and media appearances. I, too, had thought the get-to-know-us, one-on-one conversations would have done it.

As I traveled backwards in time, I was catapulted simultaneously forward 25 years. Will we still be having this conversation 25 years from now? Will we still be saying “when people get to know us…?” Where are our 30-40 year olds who will be my age in 25 years? So many of them have dropped away, most of them, not out of political disagreement, but other reasons. In 25 years, it is these 30-40 year olds who will be in my place. While we have some younger leaders emerging it’s not enough. From my 30 years experience in the party (yes, it was July of 1984 when I signed the card and at that time you needed two sponsors to join, a requirement we dropped many years ago) I have learned that a Marxist political outlook – like a fine wine – takes time – and solid collectives – to mature.

When I joined the party there still was a Soviet Union and a network of national and local cadre who had been tempered in the 30s-40s, went through the tough years of the 1950s, and they were there to guide and council when the young radicals of the 60s and 70s came into the party. When I joined the party those young radicals already had years of experience and had become leaders in their own right.

Then the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism collapsed, parties – including ours – split. Time marched on. Comrades -seasoned by mass experience – died quicker than people to replace them. Yet we soldiered on. Today, new people join a party that has a much smaller collective of cadre than when I joined. And that smaller collective is getting older. If we don’t radically change this trajectory, we could face the same fate as other working class organizations whose time came and went. What would our foremothers and fathers say if we did not take this threat seriously and act accordingly? How would all their work and sacrifice be honored if we allowed us to go the way of the Luddites or the Wobblies?

Now I am worried. Like it or not – the great majority of people either think communist/communism is toxic, or they think it irrelevant. Realizing this is not giving up on struggling against anti-communism. We are unifiers and fight anything that divides the working class and people. We have to break stereotypes and unfortunately the name locks us into them. Too often the people who are attracted to the Communist Party are attracted for the wrong reasons. They romanticize violence and armed struggle. This is why I think there is a HUGE gender gap in the new members. Women of all races, ethnicities, ages – in general – are not attracted to this militaristic image.

When I read Elena’s “No more traditions chains shall bind us” I thought how revolutionary; how confident in comrades and the party! It was realistic, mature and forward looking. If so many people are scared, turned off, or indifferent to the term, why should we cling to it? We have majority ideas. People agree with our program. Shouldn’t we analyze what holds people back? Name is not a principle. Some revolutionary parties and movements chose not to have communist in their names.

It’s hard to plan for the future. It’s much easier to look in the rearview mirror. Too often I thought we were trying to “get back to” the 1930s-40s heyday. Now I have accepted that we have to look forward, soberly assessing how to get from point a to point b. Let’s have a reasoned and mature discussion and study, after which an extraordinary conference at the end to announce the results.

After a reasoned, mature discussion, we may decide not to change the name. That’s OK too. Having a public discussion on the name – along with surveying our 30-40 year olds on what they envision – will be transformative for us.

Acceptance is liberating. We could change our name and not only survive but thrive while upholding our working class, internationalist, revolutionary principles. It’s not the end of Communist ideals, but the beginning of a more robust fight for socialism, democracy and equality for all.

We are not alone in this struggle to update, to remain relevant and become a vibrant part of the fight against capitalism, corporate greed and the ultra-right. The labor and civil rights movements are remaking, rethinking and reorganizing along 21st century lines. Can we do no less?

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


Related Party Voices Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer