Ho Chi Minh wrote that “revolutionary morality consists, in whatever circumstances, in resolutely struggling against all enemies, maintaining one’s vigilance, standing ready to fight, and refusing to submit, to bow one’s head. Only by doing so can we defeat the enemy, and fulfill our revolutionary tasks.”
This is the essence of the mission of a party: to act consistently in combating the enemies of liberation, and to serve the people with the same amount of diligence. When a party fails to do these things, it loses power, as happened to the Soviet Union’s ruling party after it abandoned the state as an instrument for class struggle. The root of this fatal mistake was that it repudiated the theory which had been laid down by Stalin and Lenin, and embraced what Xi Jinping has called a “historical nihilism” of refusing to let lessons from the past inform one’s actions. So is the case for the Communist Party USA, the organization that’s often treated as the default option by newly radicalized communists looking for something to join.
Rebranding Kautskyism for the era of the new cold war
This is not intended as an attack on anyone in the CPUSA who’s a principled Marxist-Leninist, who supports Russia in the present anti-fascist conflict, who doesn’t vote for Democratic presidential candidates, who seeks to engage in the armed militancy required for building a serious cadre, who—most importantly—is willing to honestly look at their party’s flaws rather than uncritically defend it. If anything, this is a gesture of sympathy towards these types of CPUSA members. Because they’ve been persuaded into joining an organization that’s not compatible with their goals.
A party need not be democratic centralist to advance the communist movement, as evidenced by my own organization the Peace and Freedom Party. What makes the CPUSA’s lack of democratic centralism have it function as a liability to the communist movement, rather than as an asset for the movement like the PFP, is that the CPUSA adopts the superficial aesthetics of a Bolshevik org while acting inconsistently with how a Bolshevik org would conduct itself. Unlike the PFP, the CPUSA quotes Marx and Lenin, which comes with the implication that it seeks to be a Leninist org. But while laying claim to this role, it distorts the meaning and nature of a Leninist org.
A Leninist org doesn’t lose control over its official publication People’s World, leading to this publication promoting CIA atrocity propaganda about China, calling to vote for Biden, and repeating the neocon narrative that Russia is the biggest threat to world peace. (The latter article was written by former CPUSA chairman John Bachtell, showing how deep this liberalism has historically run within the party.) A Leninist org doesn’t have a current chairman, Joe Sims, who uses anti-communist atrocity narratives to justify omitting Stalin and Mao’s contributions to theory from the party’s analyses. Even more importantly, a Leninist org doesn’t have a current chairman who directly repudiates Lenin’s theory; Sims retreads Kautsky by arguing that there’s a contradiction between the class struggle, and what Sims calls the “all-class democratic struggle.”
His full quote is “The history of Communist Party shows an ongoing tension in balancing class and all-class democratic struggles.” Those who agree with this statement may say Sims is merely repudiating class reductionism, but this isn’t what he’s doing. He’s obfuscating the reality that the struggle for democracy, and the struggle for proletarian power, are one and the same. The overlap between these two categories has nothing lacking, as Kautskyists like Sims would have you believe. Their overlap is 100%, because bourgeois “democracy” is necessarily compromised and proletarian democracy is the genuinely democratic alternative to it. This error within the CPUSA’s thinking must be stressed because it’s the point of origin for every other detrimental thing it does, including its publication’s pro-imperialist narratives on geopolitics.
I point to People’s World’s statements as evidence against the CPUSA’s credibility not because every CPUSA members shares its stances—as I said, plenty of actual Marxists have been drawn to the org—but because the fact that this is an issue in the first place reveals the fundamental structural flaws in the party. Ironclad discipline, in which these kinds of feuds are avoided, is instrumental for a Leninist party. And because the CPUSA’s leadership takes the Kautskyist stance, it doesn’t prioritize that kind of discipline. The PFP doesn’t have a publication that’s promoting liberal propaganda, despite the PFP also not being democratic centralist. This is because the PFP chooses not to be democratic centralist due to its role as a mass org, whereas CPUSA chooses not to be due to its explicit rejection of Leninist analysis. The PFP doesn’t pretend to be something that can become the vanguard, whereas the CPUSA does. With this inconsistency between what CPUSA says it is and what it actually is, no wonder it’s spawned a liberal platform that’s centered around deradicalizing communists.
When you pretend like worker struggle can under any circumstances represent something detrimental to the “democratic” struggle, you’re naturally led towards rejecting the concept of proletariat dictatorship, i.e., workers’ democracy. This is because once you’ve embraced Kautsky’s analysis on what “democracy” means, you treat the necessarily truncated version of “democracy” the capitalists have created as something under which socialism can be achieved. You become satisfied with a practice that exclusively serves electoral efforts within the confines of bourgeois “democracy,” rather than one that works towards overthrowing the capitalist state. Communists use bourgeois electoralism as one among an array of tools for strengthening the movement, for educating and mobilizing the masses with that revolutionary end objective always in mind. Not as an end in and of itself.
Communists are aware that socialism can never be achieved while playing by the rules the bourgeois state sets down for us, and that therefore those who advance Kautsky’s strategy are not truly working towards socialism. They’re working towards opportunism. As Lenin wrote, “Our politics must be working class politics. The workers’ party must never be the tagtail of any bourgeois party; it must be independent and have its own goal and its own policy.”
When you’ve embraced Kautskyism, you inevitably do exactly what Lenin warned against doing. You don’t view overthrowing the state as a priority, other than maybe in some non-committal abstract way. So you don’t implement the democratic centralist disciplinary model that’s necessary for making a party qualified to lead a workers state. You don’t even treat a workers state as being necessary to bring about, as your ultimate priority is to perpetuate an endless cycle of opportunistic electoral campaigns. This naturally leads towards tailing a bourgeois party like the Democrats, because under the Kautskyist framework of “who said anything about overthrowing the state,” voting for Biden to superficially appear more “progressive” is seen as an acceptable option. If all that matters is appealing to the broadest possible base of “progressives,” and Lenin’s practice of lifting the people up to the level of an ideologically trained cadre member isn’t needed, voting blue is optimal.
In our context of an imperialist propaganda war against existing and historical socialist states, as well as against Washington’s geopolitical rivals in general, this opportunistic mindset can be rationalized by believing imperialism’s atrocity narratives. History’s examples of workers democracies have supposedly been too “authoritarian,” so it’s not necessary to quote Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, or other theoreticians who have a bad reputation among the liberals you seek to appeal to. You should merely quote Marx, Engels, and Lenin, even though your party rejects the analyses of these thinkers by taking the Kautskyist stance.
When such an analysis on Russia and China is made from within the imperial center, it necessarily takes on a chauvinist characteristic; the anti-imperialist struggles these countries have been engaging in throughout the last century are disregarded, in favor of vilifying narratives about “Stalinism” and the “totalitarian” Communist Party of China.
Sims doesn’t use these more hyperbolic labels to describe the USSR and the PRC, but his embrace of the banal liberal distaste towards them enables the most explicit anti-communist propaganda. And it mirrors the view that Bachtell has towards Washington’s rivals, in which as soon as a country challenges U.S. interests, it’s categorized as a menace. Anti-Leninism directly informs the new cold war’s guiding ideology, in that it’s necessary for the cold warriors to demonize Leninism to support their arguments about “imperialist” Russia and China. A Leninist analysis shows the U.S. and its wealthiest allies to be the only imperialist powers in modern times, so Leninism must be discredited. The way in which petty bourgeois radicals do this is by putting forth the original anti-Leninist ideology Kautskyism, and hoping people accept Kautskyism’s reformist distortions of Marxism rather than developing towards a revolutionary stance.
That stance requires principled anti-imperialism, which is equally unacceptable to the bourgeois radical. So it becomes necessary to preemptively dissuade people from anti-imperialism by repeating the State Department’s narratives about the “free world” being under attack from “autocrats.”
Promoting Khrushchev’s historical nihilism
Kautsky isn’t the only revisionist whose ideas align with the CPUSA. The other major one is Khrushchev. Another argument Sims makes for why he doesn’t believe U.S. communists should quote Stalin or Mao is that their writings supposedly have nothing meaningful to contribute to the American communist movement. Like a politician would, Sims pivots towards flowery, uplifting language upon making this factually dubious statement. He talks about us needing to figure out a program for our own, unique situation, rather than trying to simply copy programs from other places and times. As if Stalin or Mao wanted U.S. communists to be dogmatists in such a way. Sims is making a strawman to discredit the revolutionary stance Stalin and Mao represent. His call to disregard the lessons that the most successful past communists have provided for us, disguised as an optimistic rallying cry for inventing something new, is precisely what Xi warned about when he described the errors of the Khrushchev revisionist camp. Which is more plausible: that Stalin and Mao’s writings have absolutely nothing of value for American communists to study, or that the CPUSA is being intellectually dishonest?
We know why the CPUSA has repudiated Lenin: because it wants to present its opportunism as some bold new innovation in socialism by leaving behind Lenin’s practice of working towards the state’s overthrow. But why has it also repudiated Stalin and Mao? Aside from that optics priority, it’s clear they also have ideas that organizations like the CPUSA don’t view as desirable. And these aren’t the ideas which Stalin and Mao deserve principled criticism over, these are their correct ideas.
These are the ideas of theirs that build upon the ideas from Lenin which CPUSA has repudiated. We can see this from how Sims says he avoids quoting Stalin or Mao not just because of their real or exaggerated mistakes, but because of the “programs” of their governments. I don’t expect Sims to ever specify which parts of these programs he sees as bad, as he uses the rhetorical tactic of being vague in his critiques of existing socialism and then diverting towards high-sounding language. But given the CPUSA’s repudiation of Lenin, here are three quotes from Stalin, Mao, and Kim Jong Il respectively (as I consider Kim to also be a relevant theorist) which are based within the Leninist analysis CPUSA opposes:
The question of the proletarian dictatorship is above all a question of the main content of the proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution, its movement, its sweep and its achievements acquire flesh and blood only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat is the instrument of the proletarian revolution, its organ, its most important mainstay, brought into being for the purpose of, firstly, crushing the resistance of the overthrown exploiters and consolidating the achievements of the proletarian revolution, and secondly, carrying the revolution to the complete victory of socialism. The revolution can defeat the bourgeoisie, can overthrow its power, even without the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the revolution will be unable to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie, to maintain its victory and to push forward to the final victory of socialism unless, at a certain stage in its development, it creates a special organ in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat as its principle mainstay.—Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism
The dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie are both dictatorships exercised by one class over another. But the dictatorship of the proletariat is the revolutionary dictatorship exercised by the proletariat and the broad masses of the people over the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes. It is the dictatorship exercised by the overwhelming majority over a small minority. On the contrary, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is a counter-revolutionary dictatorship exercised by the bourgeoisie over the proletariat and the broad masses of the people. It is a dictatorship exercised by a small minority over the overwhelming majority.—Mao, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is Dictatorship by the Masses
In recent years socialism collapsed in several countries, mainly because they neglected class education and abandoned the class struggle. After assuming state power, Khrushchev weakened the function of the dictatorship of the state as a weapon of the class struggle. As a result, socialism could not be defended in the Soviet Union. Since socialism collapsed there and the Soviet Union itself was broken up, those who schemed against Soviet power in the past and their descendants have become parvenus, and those who fought in defense of Soviet power and their descendants have become beggars and unemployed. Historical lessons show that for a working-class party to neglect class education and abandon class principles amounts to digging its own grave.—Kim Jong Il, Let us make our country, our motherland, ever more prosperous, true to the great leader comrade Kim Il Sung’s intention
I’m sure you notice the theme: these thinkers all affirmed Lenin’s conclusion that putting state power into the hands of the proletariat via revolutionary overthrow, while suppressing the bourgeoisie’s ability to hold power, is the route towards socialism. If pressed on whether they believe this, I’m sure Sims and the CPUSA’s other sources of revisionist influence would say yes. But they would only mean it in the vague sense that they support the general idea of empowering the workers, not in the concrete, Leninist sense of seeking the state’s overthrow as one’s indispensable goal. We know this because we can see the CPUSA’s practice, and it’s consistent with a party that doesn’t want to take action beyond reformism and tailing the Democratic Party. I’m sure CPUSA’s leadership would protest that they also seek to assist in actions like protests and strikes. But these actions won’t lead to socialism if they’re turned into Democratic rallying tools, rather than used to mobilize towards an actual revolution.
I say reformism is the CPUSA’s consistent practice because the evidence of its support for Democrats goes beyond what People’s World—which supposedly opposes the party’s stances—has published. It extends to what Sims has advocated for, showing there’s fundamentally been no change to the party since the infamous right opportunist Bachtell left it. As the polemicist Comrade Ren has written:
CPUSA has two faces. The first is its Marxist Leninist terminology, which they tout among left wing parties. The second is their heavily revisionist and reformist practice. In the party’s article Five Myths About the CPUSA, they claim that accusations of revisionism, reformism, and endorsing Democrats are false. The last one can be proven to be a lie quite easily. The [current] chair wrote this article where he underhandedly implies that he is voting for Biden, but even more explicitly, the party has published articles with such statements as, “So I’m voting for Biden, and I urge you to do so too,” and “Literally, take a pen in your hand and mark your ballot for Biden/Harris and the other Democrats. Mail the ballot in. The other option is to go to your polling place. Give your name and address, get your ballot, place in the voting machine, and punch in the Democratic ticket.” And, “We are not yet in such a dire situation, and we still have the opportunity to defeat fascism through peaceful means, but it requires that we join with the tens of millions disgusted with Trump, the tens of millions who see, correctly, that the only way to defeat Trump and his minions at the ballot box is by voting for Biden.”
What can we call this, other than Khrushchev’s historical nihilism applied to our conditions? The only way to myopically focus on which choice in a presidential election is the more “progressive” option, while ignoring how voting for the Democratic candidate strengthens the state, is to not see the state’s overthrow as a priority. Which requires forsaking Lenin, and all the other successful revolutionaries who’ve followed in the example set down by Lenin’s social practice. It requires pretending like our conditions in the United States exist in a vacuum, without there being a historical frame of reference that we can learn from. That’s what the anti-communist “leftist” streamer Vaush did to justify voting for Biden. The difference is that Vaush is easier for Marxists to identify as a source of opportunism than the CPUSA, which hides its reformist nature behind communist-sounding language.
Given this context about what the CPUSA believes and does, the meaning behind Sims’ other repudiation of Mao becomes clear. This is the statement where he says Mao’s declaration that “power comes from the barrel of a gun” isn’t applicable to our conditions. Sims was not merely repudiating adventurism, or the dogmatic aspects of Maoism. He was repudiating the very idea of overthrowing the capitalist state, a task which invariably involves armed force to some degree. The Party for Socialism and Liberation also doesn’t see creating a people’s army as worthwhile, but for a different reason: it judges that a people’s army is not necessarily vital for overthrowing the state, which under our conditions will more likely be achieved with strikes as the primary tactic. The CPUSA rejects arms because it doesn’t seek to overthrow the state at all.
The PSL shouldn’t be uncritically looked to as the authority for what should be done, but its embrace of a Leninist analysis makes it a revolutionary org. The CPUSA is not a revolutionary org, it’s a tool for funneling support to the Democratic Party. For this reason, it won’t become the vanguard. But we still must combat its misleading ideas on what communist practice means.
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