Mar 31, 1981
In the 1980 U.S. presidential election, the 43,871 votes in 24 states and the District of Columbia for the Communist Party (CP) ticket of Gus Hall and Angela Davis were too few to indicate a real impact of the CP on the political scene. In fact, this total was less than that of the CP’s 1976 presidential ticket, which received 58,992 votes in 19 states and the District.
While these vote totals are not very impressive by themselves, they are worth noting because, prior to 1968, the CP had been absent from the ballot in every presidential election since 1940. In the late 1960s, the CP’s attitude toward participating in the elections apparently began to change. Since then, they have put considerable resources towards their campaigns. They have tried to put themselves forward in their own name, rather than simply being the left-leaning supporters of the Democratic Party.
Starting with the election of 1968, the CP has apparently taken a greater and greater distance from the Democratic Party. In 1964, the CP had clearly supported the Democratic ticket under the slogan, “part of the way with LBJ,” claiming that Goldwater represented the threat of fascism. But in 1968, the CP officially presented itself as a separate party with its own presidential ticket on the ballot in 2 states. Nonetheless, its propaganda and activity during the campaign did not particularly focus on the CP’s candidates. It called for the “widest unity for peace,” and for an “anti-monopoly coalition” to break with the “2-party political strait-jacket.” It openly supported Democrats who opposed the war in Viet Nam, Eugene McCarthy’s independent campaign and a variety of other campaigns, such as those of the Peace and Freedom Party.
Although in 1972, they went a step further by calling for a vote for the CP candidates as the best form of protest, the CP’s campaign was still focused around a slogan like, “Dump Nixon.” And the CP’s newspaper, the Daily World, featured articles and editorials speaking favorably (although with criticism) of McGovern. The CP also emphasized the need to build a strong “anti-monopoly coalition” to keep the pressure on McGovern if he were elected, and to vote for the CP.
In 1976, the real shift became evident. For the Daily World openly criticized Carter along with Ford, attacking the Democratic candidate’s “Cold War rhetoric,” his comments on preserving “ethnic purity” and his ties to George Wallace. In 1980, despite Reagan’s extreme- right image, the CP continued to attack Carter harshly, characterizing the Carter/Reagan choice as “the evil of 2 lessers.”
Has the policy of the CP really changed? Has it broken with its policy of supporting the Democratic Party and other bourgeois politicians?
Certainly there has been a change.
During the New Deal period of the 1930s, its policy was to support the “progressive” bourgeois politicians led by Roosevelt. The CP opposed Roosevelt in the 1940 election, but only because of the circumstances internationally of the Hitler-Stalin pact. This episode was short-lived. Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the CP urged adherence to the war-time no-strike pledge among the workers and advocated that black people postpone the struggle against racism until fascism was defeated. The CP even dissolved itself officially in 1944, in a display of patriotism and solidarity with Roosevelt. Then in 1948, although the CP had officially reconstituted itself, it chose to put its resources into the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace rather than present itself again to the workers as an alternative to the Democratic Party.
During this period, although the CP never became a mass party, nonetheless it had won a certain influence with a part of the working class and the black population.
With the repression of the Cold War period, the CP lost most of its militants and its influence in the working class. Those militants who stayed with the CP functioned only as unionists or members of the liberal organizations tied to the Democratic Party. In 1958, the CP stopped publishing a daily newspaper. The party nearly ceased to have a public appearance.
Certainly to be driven underground with a sharply reduced membership and following was not the choice of the CP, although it was in part a consequence of policies they had followed earlier. But even under circumstances of repression, when a party of the working class supports a party of the bourgeoisie, this is a question, not of necessity, but of political choice. Nonetheless, this was the policy choice of the CP in the “bad” days of McCarthy just as it had been in the “good” days of Roosevelt.
During the 1950s, the CP saw almost no chance to present itself openly. It ran a few candidates on independent tickets. It attacked the policies of the Eisenhower administration and of J. Edgar Hoover as the “Hitlerization of America.” But in general it saw support of Democratic candidates as the only real response it could have.
So, this policy of the CP of tailing the Democratic Party is a long standing one, with many twists and turns. Now, in the 1970s, the CP says it has made a change. And yet it has not really critiqued its long-standing policy. It has not repudiated its history of ties to the Democrats, particularly that of the 1930s and 1940s. At best, it criticized its electoral policy and that criticism was made only on an organizational problem – that support for the Democrats tended to liquidate the CP. For example after 1972, Gus Hall denounced the “lesser evil” attitude toward the Democratic Party because it led many CP militants to vote for McGovern rather than their own candidates!
Moreover, if the CP openly attacked the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1976 and 1980, this did not amount to a break with the Democrats in general. During the 1976 campaign, a report by CP general secretary Gus Hall to the CP Central Committee said, “Eugene McCarthy’s forces represent some of the forces of independence towards the Left; Ronald Dellums and John Conyers also represent such forces. We must strengthen our relationship with such forces.”
In addition, the CP gives almost unqualified support to black Democratic politicians. At the height of the 1980 campaign, the Daily World wrote, “Because of the struggle of Black people for liberation, Afro-American elected officials have had a clearer mandate to serve the national and class interests of their constituents. Thus the growth in numbers of Black elected officials most often strengthens the peoples’ anti-monopoly front.” The Daily World has also continued to report favorably on some liberal Democrats who speak out in favor of détente, criticize Reagan’s budget and so on. In fact, this policy is not different from what the CP put forward in the 1930s.
It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that if we have seen a change in the CP’s behavior since the late 1960s, it is not a question of a change in its basic policy.
But then what particular circumstances precipitated this change?
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the CP in the mid-1960s was that it had nearly disappeared. Partly under the blows of repression and partly as a consequence of its own policy to bury itself in the Democratic Party and union bureaucracies, the CP had nearly disappeared – at least publicly.
It was not just a question of the elections. For what the CP did in relation to the elections, was nothing but a reflection of its basic policy. The CP did not have its own place to take in the political scene, because it was an appendage of the Democratic Party and of the trade union bureaucracies – or at least to the extent that it was allowed to be. It did not really have a reason for its own independent existence: it could give no reason to its militants why they should remain inside the CP; it could give no reason to new people why they should come into the CP.
The CP was, in fact, by far the largest organization on the left. With a number of thousands of militants, it nonetheless had less of an apparent existence than did the much smaller leftist organizations. This was the situation which the leaders of the CP confronted: that the party might even disintegrate.
They chose to deal with this problem by appearing again on the electoral level.
The political situation in the late 1960s offered them what appeared to be a favorable situation. In the first place, Supreme Court rulings had lifted some of the most repressive Cold War legislation. Secondly, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement provided a large politicized milieu which was open to leftist ideas.
They tested the waters carefully. In 1968, they began publishing a daily newspaper again, and they won places for their presidential ticket in 2 states. Since then, they have put considerable resources into their electoral campaigns. They have appeared on the ballot in more states each time, which, because of the specifically anti-Communist-Party laws, involved law suits, and, because of the restrictive electoral laws, involved mass petitioning drives in many states.
The increase in activity to make the CP more visible has not been limited solely to electoral campaigns. While we don’t know exactly how much the membership has grown, we know that the CP has reported a steady increase in the circulation of its newspaper, which reflects some combination of recruitment and continuing militant effort. Their trade union militants have presented themselves in a slightly more open fashion in the last years. For example, many are now featured in the pages of the Daily World.
But the CP’s turn to a more independent appearance has not been made without difficulties. In Illinois in 1972, for instance, the party leadership had to openly insist that every member participate in collecting petition signatures, in reaction to resistance from some members, including trade union members who objected that they would risk compromising their cover. But for the party leaders, the problem was precisely to overcome the old habits of burying the identity of the party.
It seems that they have succeeded in overcoming these obstacles. A small party which was not willing to present itself publicly as late as the mid-1960s places itself today on the ballot in nearly half the states.
Whether the CP develops a real influence in the working class remains to be seen. But certainly it has features which are likely to give it an advantage over the leftist organizations. It has a certain number of worker militants who have had an influence in the plants and in the unions for a long time. It has established a certain credit among black people because of the militant reputation of Angela Davis. And the very name of its party, Communist, which the bourgeois state has seized on to attack it in the past, may draw workers to it in the future when they are fighting and looking for an organization which stands in apparent opposition to their oppressors.
Whether the CP will develop its influences, of course, depends on more than just these factors. But certainly these factors can aid it to regain its pre-eminence in the left.
It would seem today, that the CP leaders have decided to try to do this by taking a certain distance from the Democratic Party. This distance was taken on the electoral level, primarily and then, not even fully.
If it succeeds, if it gains a new place for itself and a new hearing in the working class, it may once again play a role to lead the struggles of the working class into a dead end, just as it has done in the past. And if it does that, it will do it with the same policies as in the past, those policies that tie the working class to the bourgeoisie and some of its politicians.
If the CP succeeds in reasserting itself, it will once again play the role of a Stalinist party, which is tied to the Soviet bureaucracy, that is a class-collaborationist role.