Convention Discussion: Organizational status of the Communist Party

BY: John Bachtell| May 29, 2014

Submitted for discussion by the National Board of the Communist Party. This contribution was originally a report to the National Board.

This report is shaped primarily by experiences as a district organizer and co-chair of the Membership Committee.

It does not cover every aspect of our work. For example, even though the People’s World is at the center of our work, I will only touch on it briefly.

It will focus on Party structure, leadership and membership status and  engagement.

The context for examining the organizational status is efforts to put People’s World at the center of our work, planned membership growth, modernizing the Party and continuing to adapt to the mass communications revolution affecting politics and organizing.

Party structure

The main decision making structures of the Party, the National Committee (NC), National Board (NB) and Coordinating Committee function regularly and take up most questions in a timely manner.

Although we made a mistake by not taking up the strike of fast food workers occurring in 150 cities today (May 15) and mobilizing the membership.

The yearly membership conference is still a work in progress, but seems to serve an important purpose in the life of the organization and allow for wider participation.

We concluded the NC is too big and doesn’t meet often enough to fulfill its function as the leading body. However, the NC has taken up important issues in a timely way, particularly electoral work and charting tactical shifts.

The NB meets twice monthly for about three hours and takes up a range of political and organizational issues. But like the NC, perhaps there is a way to more efficiently organize the meetings.

Likewise the CC meets weekly for approximately an hour and mainly addresses organizational and personnel issues, messaging, coordination with PW editorial board, mobilizing the Party, proposes the board agendas and takes up urgent questions between NB meetings.

NB and CC decisions are recorded and sent out. This is an important practice for transparency and while we don’t collectively review decisions, my guess is we probably carry out 80-90% of our assignments.

Besides preparations around NC meetings and reacting to events, we should devote more time to political discussions in the NB to evaluate political trends and developments or discuss new theoretical challenges. This is difficult because of time restrictions and holding long meetings via teleconference.

Developments in the labor movement, political action, equality struggles and economics garner the most consistent attention. We have begun to address environmental issues more regularly, but it’s still inadequate.

We try to include regular reports on Party work.

We don’t pay enough attention to health care, seniors issues, housing, public education, various national questions, women’s and LGTBQ equality, foreign policy issues, etc.

Membership engagement and development

We agree the richness of the discussions and those taking place in the NB, NC and national conference are not sufficiently conveyed to the membership.

One of our biggest challenges remains getting our politics and results of our discussion in leadership bodies and commissions out to our membership, the democratic movements we are a part of and the public.

The main way is through published reports which are posted on the web sites, Facebook and circulated via email to the membership.

We need to consider broadcasting more parts of the meetings, recording presentations for podcasts, including in the commissions. Too often wonderful presentations are made and then wasted because they are not recorded.

We actually don’t know how much of the membership and the broader circle around the Party are up on our current thinking. My guess is a lot of our members don’t read or digest the reports.

How much of our thinking, either reports or PW articles are shared with our allies, mass leaders, elected officials on district level and national level?

We need to study this, perhaps survey the membership or look at what is being done in a few districts.

We should take a closer look at the experience Sam Webb had around his “Taking Care of the Future in the Movements of the Present” article, which he used to kick off the convention discussion and then followed up with a tour of some districts.

The same method was used by Scott Marshall around Big Picture Trade Unionism.

However, as our membership grows, and taking into account its geographic dispersal and our limited staff, we need to develop our use of modern communication methods to interact and engage the membership and public, including online and through cell phones, podcasts and videos.

Besides reports and think pieces in the People’s World, our politics are also conveyed through the monthly teleconferences and google hangouts and occasionally through deeper educational discussions via teleconference organized by Dee Myles and the Ed commission.

We should draw some lessons from the tremendous experience we are having in the convention discussion and the variety of forms we are using, especially the google hangouts.

For example, the “Taking care of the future” presentation has gotten over 2500 views; while the socialism video has gotten 400. This could be boosted with a conscious effort to share and promote.


Other structures include commissions, districts and clubs. I will not evaluate them since reports are being given. But the functioning commissions include Labor, Political Action, International, Economics and Education.

The Religious Commission and Environmental Working Group have been functioning sporadically.

We are discussing expanding the commissions to include new, younger members for new voices and political and leadership development.

I wonder if we effectively utilize the fine contributions and discussion that take place in the commissions. Do the bulk of the conversations and experiences stay in those bodies?

Joelle Fishman and the Political Action Commission issues a newsletter with important information and tools, the economics commission has a listserv of sorts and at one time the Labor Commission had its Labor Upfront electronic newsletter.

District Organization

We have established districts with stable, functioning leadership cores and one or multiple clubs in CT, NY, E PA, MD, FL, TX, OH, MI, IL, MN/DK, MO, NJ, S CA, N CA and AZ.

As demonstrated in the state conventions and PW events, many districts have fostered good relationships with the labor movement and other progressive forces.

In most cases we are very thin on politically developed leadership, in some cases we have aging district leaderships with no younger cadre being groomed, which we need to address in the coming period.

Districts that are fledgling include CO, TN, NH, VT, MA, RI, NC, SC, GA, OR, VA, WI, UT and WA which are at various stages of being reconstituted.

In most cases the activity revolves around one club. In some cases there are statewide teleconferences, statewide outreach and an occasional physical meeting. We need to develop leadership cores.

We have members but no organization in WV, AL, LA, WY, NE, ID, AR, AK, HI, MT and KY.

Leadership development

We need to continuously address leadership development of our national staff, NB, NC, district, club and commission leaders. Our leadership core is too small and thin. We need to identify and expand that potential leadership pool.

We need to deepen Marxist understanding along with training our staff and district leaders to have a modern skill set in organizing, fundraising, communications, etc.

Just like many of us first learned to use a mimeograph machine when we joined, now we have to learn google hangouts, twitter, tumblr and gmail filtering.

I think we have some good experiences we can draw from with weekend schools and staff skill building sessions. Perhaps we can take a lesson from the MOOCs and develop training modules.

Party membership

According to our figures 2,700 people joined the CPUSA online since 2010 including 428 in 2010; 632 in 2011; 448 in 2012; 564 in 2013 and 241 in 2014 to date. We have some unaccounted for and some attrition, but these are our best figures.

Some of the rate of loss stems from how we engage, our politics, provide Marxist education and tools for activism.

We are able to more effectively consolidate if new online members are integrated into existing local Party organization or if we are able to get them active online.

Of course this does not include those joining directly through our work, those we are recruiting one on one. A substantial portion of these are activists with a base of experience. Many of these will provide the political foundation, stability and leadership to the organization. We must continue to organize growth among activists.

Many of these online new members are not connected to movements and struggles and organizations when they join. They are outraged and they want to get involved and do something. They are looking for alternatives, many have read some Marxism, are reading a lot of politics, and find the CPUSA online and think we have the best politics. For many, joining the CPUSA is their first political act.

Many write they have been Marxists for years but something prompted them to join. They are responding to many things, primarily the vast inequality of society, greed of capitalism, etc.

There are a substantial number who join online who are connected: union members including SEIU, Teamsters, UAW members, public school and university teachers, construction workers, fast food and other retail workers, clergy and people of faith, and sizeable number of students.

Many are activists in organizations including NAACP, local peace and justice and LGTBQ groups.

Because of the sheer number of students who have joined we need to take steps to pivot our work to the campuses and universities in our approach to the young generation, and build the Speak Progress Program and connect with campus struggles, etc.

Of course some also join the Party for the wrong reasons – they are attracted to a caricature of the Party, misconceptions about socialism, looking for all things Soviet, enamored with violence, etc. Again the discussions, modernization, change of image, terminology, will have to continue to address these issues.

Membership outreach

The membership committee and People’s World has a system in place to call these new online members as soon as they join and then refer them to the districts.

We find if we are able to reach them right away and connect them, they are more likely to respond. Online community builders call it the 24 hour rule.

We primarily reach members via telephone, but we find others prefer text and Facebook.

My estimate is we probably reach 30-40% due to our understaffing. And especially with the convention organizing over the last 6 months we have fallen even further behind and didn’t take steps to ensure the calls were made.

Some organization strategists believe that membership falls into three categories: those who are inactive, those who are more active and engaged and those who respond to just about anything.

About 80% of the work in any organization is usually done by 20% of the people. So with that in mind, we shouldn’t stress if a section of those who join doesn’t respond. We have to have a much more flexible concept of membership.

Our goal is finding those online joins in the latter two categories and engaging with them. These are the potential leaders. We need to make it clear there are opportunities to become more involved.

We have been collaborating with Joe Sims to sign the online joins up for the PW share campaign. There are approximately 730 sharing who get notices via Facebook, email and text.

This is an immediate way to involve them and our most consistent form of engagement.

John Lease is heading up the New Roots Council and plans on moving it from a teleconference based meeting to a google hangout format. The council will also launch its own webspace connected to the CPUSA website with a message board and create a permanent file of resources for those organizing or participating in new clubs.

Emphasis is also being placed on how individual members in isolated areas can be activists via social media.

Building online communities

But the reality is approximately 75% or more of our members exist outside our traditional organizational structures. The majority may never be active in traditional clubs and therefore we need to develop new forms that address this reality and still provide politics, education and tools for them to be active.

We can’t be restricted by traditional forms, even as we modernize and adapt current structures.

We need to build an online community among this section of members, a community that is engaged and interactive, especially around the People’s World.

Our membership engagement through online community building is very undeveloped. We need a larger collective that works on online community building.

This underscores the need for providing regular political, strategic and tactical leads, Marxist education and tools for activism and revamping our website for this purpose.

We need a lot more promotion of the People’s World, Political Affairs, educational videos and plugging people into national campaigns. Presently the CPUSA website is not adequate for this.

It also shows the need to go mobile because so many people, especially youth are consuming their information and action through their mobile phones.

We have made important advances in our communication work but we must constantly revolutionize what we are doing to keep up.

Modern forms of communication

The digital media plays the same role the print media did. But we have not fully won our veteran leadership to this idea. Not enough leaders and district collectives use the PW to build relationships, analyze key political developments, and distribute PW articles in a systematic way.

Another indicator of the depth of the problem is that most of our staff and district organizers either don’t write or rarely write.

The main forms of our communication with the party are the PW and Party website, Party and PW Facebook pages, email blasts to the CPUSA News and Views and PW teleconferences/google hangouts. We post an enormous amount on all these sites.

We need to better utilize other modern forms of communication, for example broadcasting or archiving more of the key presentations for posting on our website and facebook pages.

We need to better track state and local web pages and Facebook pages. There are only a handful of websites linked to the CPUSA website, the finest being Northern California and Wisconsin.

Mobilizing the Party

How well do we mobilize our members around key struggles? Ideologically, politically and organizationally?

It takes ideological and political repetition to conduct campaigns and it should probably be the responsibility of the commissions to oversee them, produce the materials, etc.

For example, the Fast Food workers which struck in 150 cities and globally on May 15? We have had discussions led by Sam Webb and Labor Commission and blasts have been sent out around Black Friday and other actions (although nothing was sent out for these actions).

But if you look at the Party website there is no place where members can easily go to get connected to this movement, learn more about it and get the tools necessary for action.

Take a look at the AFL-CIOs “Citizenship Now” campaign page. You can find an attractive link on the main page. On the campaign page you can sign a petition, watch a video and access an immigration tool kit.

Strategy, education, tools of activism

Email blasts are a basic part of the mobilization. The CPUSA News and Views list has 5,358 names. Of those sent out on the CPUSA constitution discussion, 11% were opened, on socialism 15% were opened and 18% “Why I am getting arrested to stop Keystone XL pipeline” were opened. Libero della Piana says these are very good open rates.

But we rarely send ideological pieces among the CPUSA blasts. Those are usually sent out in the form of PW articles. We are now archiving videos of the google hangouts and sending out links.

Content is being also posted on CPUSA website and Facebook page. The CPUSA and PW Facebook pages are by far our most interactive format for reaching our membership and the public.

We recently surpassed 50,000 likes on the CPUSA Facebook page, a milestone to celebrate. This was done with the aid of a targeted ad campaign.

The weakness of the likes is that about 40% or 15,000 are in the US. Nearly as many are in India. There are other imbalances in the demographics.

Just like the People’s World proved, we can grow the CPUSA likes among targeted audiences, correct imbalances through sharing, invitations and ads.

Contrast our likes with CCDS – 1,200 likes; DSA at almost 10,000 likes, ISO with 3,900 and Socialist Alternative with 6,800. So even with the 15,000 figure, which represents the likes in the US, our reach is bigger.

Even though its not an organization, the Jacobin Magazine has 42,000 likes mostly in US and among youth, which was achieved in a short time. The Democratic Party has 750,000 likes.

The CPUSA Facebook page is very lively in comparison to other groups, with lots of comments and interactions. We don’t know how many of our members engage on the page.

Of recent posts, the one on Lenin’s birthday reached 107,000 people while the one on Imagining Socialism reached 180,000 people.

The top US cities: 364 New York, 298 LA, Chicago 293, 156 Houston. To build these up, we will need a targeted campaigns in major cities to start.

Over half of these likes are young men 18-34, while only 11% are women 18-34 years old.

Contrast this with the People’s World Facebook with 63,500 fans, of which 53,000 live in the US. The PW has an average reach of 38,000 a week reading posts.

The PW balance is more in line with internet usage.

Of PW fans, 54% are men, 46% women, much better but still not matching all of Facebook users. Over 50% of readers are young people aged 18-34 years old, almost evenly divided between men and women.

The PW has 1500 fans in Chicago, 1085 in NY, 1025 in LA, 725 in Houston, 488 in Atlanta and 480 Philadelphia, 407 Detroit, 387 in St. Louis. Could be explained by sharing of staff, etc.

I realize this is like comparing apples and oranges, but the contrast between the sites also illustrates the need to continue to discuss and implement changes in the organization, our style, image, methods, etc. especially to understand the type of organization that fits the rising generations, women and those members and activists in their 30s and 40s.

We need to carry on a wider dialog with this demographic to understand what kind of organization they are looking for. We should  survey those who have left.

I’ll end here. But obviously the discussions will continue post convention and we need to take a deeper look at all aspects of what we are doing and the changes necessary to move forward.


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


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