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The Communist Party and Me

Earlier this year, I began writing about a blog local to my hometown, as well as a deranged city council member, who, as I correctly predicted, is about to be “former,” his fate decided in recent elections. In retaliation, the blog and councilmember either googled my name or read the “about me” section of this website. Uncovering a non-secret, they found that I was at one time a member of the Communist Party USA, as well as the leader of its New York District and a member of its national leadership. Perhaps I was being petty, and perhaps my silence made my innocent past seem sinister, but I simply didn’t want to dignify these hideous people with a response, so I only wrote that they were right, and that the membership was in the past. Now that the council member is, for all intents and purposes, gone, and the blog is no longer relevant, I do think it’s useful to step back and reflect on what kept me in the CPUSA all that time. For those of you who’ve asked (and for those of you who asked why I left), you might be interested in reading. This blog was, after all, originally meant in part as a place for me to reflect on and process that past – the mistakes and lessons.

Below are some of the most important aspects of my time in “the Party.”

Socialism

I can’t say that I was attracted to the CPUSA by its vision of socialism – there wasn’t one. Or rather, there wasn’t just one. The majority of members had thankfully rejected the idea that the Soviet Union had been a positive example of socialism after its 1991 collapse, and everyone seemed to have their own understanding of what a future society would look like: a few still clung to the belief that a command economy was the way to go; some took inspiration from China and Vietnam and their market economies; others saw Venezuela as inspirational; and still others thought America’s better future would be unique.

While it didn’t draw me into the party, I did of course take inspiration from the idea that America and the world are progressing in a more humane, more democratic direction (democracy did matter: those members I was closest with recognized the appalling absence of democracy and many human rights in the USSR and other socialist countries), and that we could eventually have a society where big corporations didn’t have the power to challenge, and sometimes even direct the course of, the federal government. My friend Sam Webb, the party’s national leader for ten years or so (he resigned his membership as well just after stepping down from the leadership), put forward some of the most compelling ideas. Of all those I talked about the idea of socialism with, I found his to be the most infused with the American democratic ideal, and most aligned with our history. Like me, he saw socialism as something that had to naturally spring out of the American revolutionary tradition of 1776, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King

I saw socialism as the outcome of the American revolutionary tradition.

Jr., and so on, and came to see the election of Barack Obama as an important marker of that progressive movement. Just over a decade ago, he published his “reflections” on what socialism might look like (available on his site here, or here as a pdf). They were controversial, as they were cautiously more critical of Soviet socialism than anyone had previously been, but they were inspiring to me at the time.

History

The American Communist Party had for many years two personalities. The popular image of it as a loyal lapdog of the Soviet Union, a propaganda organization that the USSR paid for, wasn’t entirely wrong, but it also wasn’t the whole picture. Despite acting as a propaganda agent for the Russians (I can’t help but add: this is a job that now falls to the American president), the CPUSA played a hugely positive role in fighting for much of the progress that occurred in the U.S. across the 20th century, especially in the areas of racial equality and women’s equality.

For a small glimpse at the party’s work in fighting for racial equality, check out Robin Kelly’s excellent Hammer and Hoe, which tells of how the CPUSA worked to overthrow the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama.

Being a member of the party meant that I was able to meet people, actual activists, who had participated in this history. Probably this is what kept me involved for as long as I was. Where else could I have met a woman like Grace Bassett, who I got to know well? An extremely humble person, one would have to talk to her for a while before she mentioned that she was, in the 1930s and 1940s, registering African Americans to vote in the South, and was the New Orleans leader of the famous Southern Negro Youth Congress. I also got to meet and know Dorothy Burnham, a biologist and Brooklyn College graduate (she enrolled in 1932), who in 1940 moved to Birmingham to work for SNYC.

Through membership, I got to know people who had helped found the United Steelworkers, who had been there for the founding of the CIO, which eventually merged with the AFL to create the AFL-CIO. I met people who joined the army to fight fascism in World War II. I was honored to have met people who had gone to Spain as part of the “Lincoln Brigade,” a group of Americans who risked their lives to fight against the first fascist government to ever exist, that of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

I enjoyed a long friendship with Danny Rubin, who J. Edgar Hoover at one point called “the most dangerous man in America” for his work organizing youth. Danny and his wife Dorothy were decades older than me – when I first met him he was probably in his 70s, and I in my 20s – but he treated me as an equal and we became friends. I’d stay at Danny’s house for hours, questioning him and listening to his stories: he himself had gone to the American South, using what is now called his white privilege to go undetected (sometimes), delivering notes between activists, including those who planned the famous lunch counter sit ins. Of course, he eventually became known as a communist to the FBI, and his stories of being followed across the Southern states (and elsewhere) were harrowing. I learned of and from his work organizing people, like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, to also go down to the South. He told me stories of the threats that any progressive during those days endured, but that he experienced more harshly: he was called to testify before Congress on his membership in the CPUSA, and, when he plead the Fifth Amendment, he was nearly sentenced to prison at Leavenworth. Only a Supreme Court decision saved him from doing time.

I met many other people who were beyond impressive: Estelle Katz, Angie Lebowitz, Gloria Freedman in New York City. I met international guests, including those who helped to lead the struggle against the evil apartheid system in South Africa (where even now, the Communist Party, the African National Congress, and the trade union movement are in alliance, and the CP can be credited for helping to keep South Africa from moving down the same path as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), people fighting for democracy in Iraq and Iran, Jews and Arabs from the Middle East who were working together, on the ground in Israel and Palestine, to bring peace, and so on.

I met many other great people, some of whom I still am in touch with and consider friends.

The work

Aside from (some of) the people I met, the work I actually did kept me around. This has to be understood in relation to what most of those in the leadership (at the time) of the CPUSA considered to be the way of building socialism. We didn’t see it as something to be imposed from above, or something that we could just talk ourselves to (the way many on the left still do) by convincing people of how good it was.

Building progress meant working to defeat the most anti-democratic sections of society, which were given political life in the Republican Party most often. It also meant building up the strength of four key groups: the working people (who needed to be organized as much as possible into the labor movement – we saw the labor movement as a natural ally), people who are racially and nationally oppressed, the women’s movement, and the youth. Of course, we also saw the need to empower and support other progressives and progressive movements, but these four sections of the population we saw as key to dramatically bettering society. (Disclaimer: I still do.) While what it would look like was unclear, socialism at its most basic meant that these groups, the overwhelming majority of the population, see their position strengthened. It was our job, then, to fight to help organize and empower these sections of the population.

While many on the left tend to see their work as saying bad things about the Democratic Party or electing more progressive candidates, we saw it as strengthening this grouping, which is in coalition with others (more liberal sections of big business, etc.) in the Democratic Party, and defeating the other coalition, that of the far right in the Republican Party. Consequently, I ended up working on many Democratic campaigns during by time in the CPUSA: John Kerry’s, Barack Obama’s twice, Kirsten Gillibrand’s, Fernando Ferrer’s (he nearly beat Michael Bloomberg to become mayor of NYC), and a host of others known mostly to NYC residents. I am proud to say that I wrote the first official document in the CPUSA calling for support of Barack Obama in the primaries: I wrote this as chair of the party in Brooklyn, in 2007.

I also was able to spend my days working on issue-related work as well: against the Iraq War, on the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and other immigration issues, against ultra-gentrification with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, with the Kings County (Brooklyn) Democratic Party, and so on.

There were of course party-specific activities, including a discussion on “the role of the Communist Party.” Sam Webb, Danny Rubin, I, and other people I agreed with argued that its role wasn’t to try to push the country to the left, but to take the struggles that were already happening on the ground, and to try to put forward strategy and tactics that would win. For example, during the fight for Obamacare, we broke with much of the left, who were pushing for Medicare for All and criticizing Obama. Instead, we argued, Obamacare was the most advanced demand possible, and it had the support of the vast majority of the core forces (described above), so we needed to fight hard for it, and to put forward what we saw as the best strategy for winning it. Thus, the role of the party was to help to ensure unity against the main enemy, the “ultra-right” (generally, the Republican Party), as well as to build on the ground the organization of the core forces.

International

The Communist Party maintained relationships with communist parties in most countries around the world. While the Soviet Union imposed an ideological rigidity, its collapsed left all the parties to come up with their own paths forward. Some, like the Communist Party of Greece, became insane, and embraced a rigid, Stalinist orthodoxy (they hated the CPUSA’s leaders). Others, like the Japanese Communist Party, and the Iraqi Communist Party, were more realistic/sane. It was always interesting meeting the foreign representatives, though, at conventions and other such meetings. I particularly enjoyed the Vietnamese communists, who were really interested in developing their economy and repairing relations with the United States after the terrible war. During that war, the CPUSA played a difficult role: it supported Vietnam’s right to free itself, but also argued against those on the left who demonized American soldiers. For the CPUSA, the American soldiers were victims of that war, as were the Vietnamese people.

It was fascinating for me to talk with these different representatives from around the world, from both ruling Communist Parties, parties that were elected into office in democratic countries (including the Communist Parties in India, France, and South Africa (Nelson Mandela was reportedly a member), and the Democratic Party of Italy), and those who were either small and oppositional or underground, like the Tudeh Party of Iran, which is pushing for democracy in that country. I felt honored to meet members of the Iraqi Communist Party, who after decades in opposition to Saddam’s dictatorship published the first newspaper after he and the Ba’ath Party were overthrown, and who cautioned the anti-war Western left against slipping into anti-Americanism).

Leaving

I think the strategy described above had, perhaps, a minority support amongst the party membership. While there were some people I call “the Stalinists” – those who still thought the Soviet Union was just great (even though the Soviet people obviously didn’t) – there was a relatively large grouping of people who were more like much of the regular American left: they always thought we should be pushing everything “to the left,” and believed that to be the role of the party. Many also bristled at our support of Democratic candidates. Even those who supported the strategy generally often argued that I and those I agreed with were part of some sort of “right faction” that was fusing with the Democratic Party (and so I have…)  If you search, you’ll find a list online that some disgruntled member posted, showing the “ten worst communists,” and including me, and several of the people mentioned here.

I thought for years that, eventually, we could get rid of the communist label – which, to me, dredged up memories of the Soviet Union and all that. Many of the older generation associated the term with their own fights: against fascism, against racism, and so on. But even as they left the scene, others, people who read Lenin as if he were a religious prophet, were vehemently opposed to changing the name. And unfortunately, the name attracted a certain type of people, those you might imagine: people who hated everything, wanted revolutions, who hated America, and so on. Those members didn’t generally stay – usually they became enraged that we supported Obama – and went off to some other left organization, like Workers World or Socialist Alternative.

For years, that “communist” label bothered me, and I pinned my hope on the ongoing discussion about changing it. (We also weren’t really a party in the electoral sense, and there was some discussion of changing that part of the monicker as well.) Still, it was to no avail. Eventually, I tired of the ongoing fight, and decided that the organization’s culture wasn’t, as I had been hoping for years, really able to change in such a way as to cast off everything Soviet and backwards. I didn’t see, and I don’t see now, how such an organization could ever lead many people. Many of the people that I respected in leadership left as well, and some kept trying until they passed on. Some stayed and are still fighting the good fight. I wish them luck, but not with much hope.

What I took away

A Worcester, Mass., blog and a soon-to-be-former city councilor accused me of trying to infiltrate Worcester with my “communist ideas.” Stupid. But I did take away some things from my years in the party:

Hard work: Some were surprised that I spent as much time as I did on the local Worcester elections, doing as much door-to-door work as I did (both weekend days for months, and then some evening work). But this I learned from people like Danny Rubin: educated as a lawyer, he spent his whole life working for low wages, doing all that he could to make the world a better place. And that meant doing things that weren’t necessarily glamorous: while he did attend huge meetings of world leaders, he thought his most valuable work was on the ground organizing. At the end of his life, he was spending hours every day organizing party members and allies to go and work for NYC city council campaigns, or Congressional races, or whatever else needed to be done. His frustration was that he was older, and unable to get out and do these things himself.

I can’t tell you how irritating it is to me to listen to people chatter on about the necessity of fighting the so-called “corporate Dems” or about this or that improvement that needs to be made – and then find that the only thing that they’ve done is go to a meeting. Organizing requires…organizing.

Organization: For a better world to actually come forth, there has to be some kind of organization pushing for it. Such an organization does not exist now, but we need something that combines the dream of a better future with real, concrete strategy. And that strategy has to include a conscious fight to empower working people, the racially and nationally oppressed, women, and youth. Further, that organization absolutely has to be multiracial: black and white and everyone have to be working together against oppression. (Young people, probably, need a different organizational form…but that’s another post.) And that organization is not the enemy of the Democratic Party, certainly not now, and most likely not ever. There are organizations doing important work right now, of course: the National Organization for Women, the AFL-CIO and the unions who are unfortunately not affiliated with it, the NAACP, United We Dream, the U.S. Students Association, to name a few.

Strategy: This is so incredibly important, and it’s missing on much of the left. We can’t simply say what we’re against; we have to figure out what we’re for. We also have to know our allies. So many times I’ve heard Democrats, either the party as a whole, or centrists, being demonized as enemies. They’re not now, and they might never be (we know that centrists, as times change, often grow with those times – look at Lincoln and his conversations with Frederick Douglass). The fight isn’t to challenge the party or the individuals, but to build up the core forces. At the same time, in the current period, it is important not to alienate other members of the coalition currently making up the “big tent” of the Democratic Party.

Racism and sexism, etc.: These things have to be fought. Some on the left, especially now, see the fight for economic rights and for economic justice as primary, and believe that solving economic injustice will solve problems of racism, sexism, ets. That’s not the case, though, as we’ve seen over and over again. The fight for equality has to be co-equal to the fight for economic rights. Communists were understanding what’s now called “intersectionality” since Lenin changed Marx’s “Workers of the world, unite!” to “Workers and oppressed of the world, unite!” For progress to occur, white people have to fight racism, men have to fight sexism, old people have to fight for the rights of youth, and so on. While current privilege theory argues that this is a moral responsibility, I would argue that this is also that doing so is in the interests of white working people as well.

The Communist Party USA formed in part as a breakaway from the Socialist Party. While around the world Communist Parties broke off of socialist parties due to the latter’s support for World War I, things were different in the U.S. The American Socialist Party was opposed to the war – but they were terrible on racial issues. A desire to fight racism directly was part of the reason the CPUSA was formed. (An old timer, perhaps Grace Bassett, once told me that, during the 1930s in the South, if you saw a white and black couple, you just assumed that they were communists.)

Youth: I puzzled at first as to why such a small organization as the CPUSA would have gone to the trouble to set up a separate youth organization, which it did many times over the years (often at the behest of Danny Rubin). The argument, which originated with Lenin, was that young people, one of the core forces of progress, interpret the world differently and have to “invent” their own path forward. There are certain material realities they can’t change, but culturally and organizationally, they have to figure things out for themselves. 80-year-old Danny was emphatic that young people have to not only be taught, but also have to be respected and encouraged – and trusted to figure things out the right way.

In conclusion

So there it is: the ballad of Red Danny. It’s maybe more interesting than you thought, or maybe less interesting. I’d appreciate hearing your ideas, so feel free to comment or email.

P.S.: I recommend reading Sam Webb’s blog, which invariably has good advice for the American left. Just recently, he posted an article on the October Revolution, the 100th anniversary of which was November 7. Speaking of which, The New York Times published over the course of the year an excellent series of articles in their Red Century series, which explored communism and Communist Parties in the U.S. and around the world.

Image: A portrait of me by artist Yevgeniy Fiks, from his series on the Communist Party USA. Just as I would no longer join the Communist Party, I would no longer wear such an ugly shirt.

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