The New Red Menace: Obama and the Crisis of the Communist Party

Toward the end of the 2008 presidential election season, one of the McCain campaign's favored talking points aimed to undermine Obama's rising popularity by recalling his lack of experience in politics while implying that the Senator from Illinois had something to hide. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" Mccain asked time and again. The query became something of a political refrain among Obama's political opponents on the right, and one can still see its lingering effects in the obsession, among some, with the question of the president's birthplace. For many others, however, there is no longer any question as to who, or rather, what, precisely, the president is: Obama is a left-wing radical, a Socialist, a Marxist, an anti-American Communist, who "pals around" with terrorists. Such assertions are, of course, dismissed outright by liberal and progressive Democrats, who have been continually frustrated by the Obama administration's unwillingness or inability to deliver the "change" they believe he promised them. Indeed, some of them have even begun calling for third party agitation, adding to the growing left-wing opposition to the Democratic majority. Ironically, however, the leadership of the Communist Party sees things somewhat differently.

In a presentation on 'American Communism' for a lecture series organized by the Chautauqua Institute earlier this summer, the National Chair of the CPUSA, Sam Webb, sketched out his vision for the future of socialism in the United States, and the role to be played by the Communist Party in 21st century American politics. He argues that dedicated Communists must reject what he calls the "mentality of marginalization" and adapt to changes in both the structure of global capitalism and the face of US government:
Since the beginning of this decade, the Communist Party has been reconfiguring its theory, politics, structures of organization, and, not least, finances to the turbulent times in which we live. We did so because we had no other choice. Necessity was the mother of invention . . . We are shedding, what I call, a “mentality of marginalization" . . . Because of the new political landscape, the left has an opportunity to step from the edges into the mainstream of U.S. politics. It has a chance to become a player of consequence; a player whose voice is seriously considered in the debates bearing on the future of the country; a player that is able to mobilize and influence the thinking and actions of millions . . .

So far Obama’s presidency has both broken from the right-wing extremist policies of the Bush administration and taken steps domestically and internationally that go in a progressive direction. At the same time, the administration hasn’t gone as far as we would have liked on a number of issues. He is neither a socialist nor a revolutionary despite the incessant claims of the far right. All in all, however, the new President in deeds and words – and words do matter – has created new democratic space for peace, equality, and economic justice struggles. Whether this continues and takes on a consistently progressive, pro-people, radical reform direction depends in large measure on whether the movement that elected him fills and expands this space . . .
Clearly, Webb foresaw the possibility of a backlash against his reform-minded position among the more radical party rank-and-file. He continues:
“What’s all this talk about reform?” you may be asking. “Aren’t you a communist? Isn’t socialism your objective?” Yes, socialism is the objective of the Communist Party and—according to recent public opinion polls—it is increasingly attractive to the American people . . . President Obama and progressive Congress people can’t be the only change agents and will be change agents only up to a point. Our responsibility is to support them, prod them, and constructively take issue with them when we have differing views. But more importantly—and this is the heart of the matter—we have to reach, activate, unite, educate, and turn millions of Americans into “change agents” who can make the political difference in upcoming struggles.
The history of socialist thought may be understood in terms of the long-standing debate between reformists and revolutionaries. That dynamic is, apparently, no less operative today than it was a century ago. In two articles on 'The Crisis of the CPUSA' for Marxism-Leninism Today, Edward Drummond argues that Webb's reformist strategy represents nothing less than a plan for the liquidation of the party, accusing its leadership of opportunistically "tailing" the Democrats:
Mounting evidence shows that Party liquidation – the dismantling of the CPUSA -- has begun in earnest . . . “Tailism” is to follow the political line and to accept the ideological leadership of a section of the capitalist class. It is a form of class collaboration. Up until spring 2008 the foremost manifestation of the present opportunist Party general line has been 1) to tail the Democrats by dropping any CPUSA struggle for political independence, and 2) to tail the Democrats specifically on the Iraq War, uncritically endorsing them as the vehicle for ending the war.

Since 2008 when Barack Obama emerged as the leading candidate, the CPUSA controlling group has tailed the Obama campaign and now the Obama White House . . . The ideological unity of the party is a thing of the past. De facto there are two trends, the dominant one, is that of the rightward-moving top leadership. The other trend, struggling, is the Marxism-Leninism of many members and leaders . . . it is a plea to continue the tail Obama CPUSA general line that Webb has been pursuing since Obama emerged as Democratic front-runner in early 2008. Before then, the tailing of the Democrats took the form of all-out, uncritical electoral support for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, supposedly as a way of ending the Iraq War and reversing attacks on the US people by ending Republican ("ultra-right") control of the White House and Congress. The Democrats came into office in 2006 and 2008 all right, but neither the wars nor domestic attacks on working people have let up.
Late last week, Webb responded to Drummond's critique in the classic Communist style, so much so, in fact, that one wonders whether it is not rather a clever parody. From the 'Official Site of the National Board of the CPUSA':
If I ever find out who this Edward Drummond guy is he will be immediately expelled from the CPUSA. This ultra-leftist had the nerve to try to instigate an uprising against my leadership. This is an outright attack on me personally and my very good leadership abilities. I order this insubordination to cease and desist immediately. Let me be clear; there is no crisis in our Party. Membership is holding firm or at least it is not dropping as rapidly as the U.S. economy is shedding jobs. All members are fully satisfied. Don't believe anything you read or hear it is lies, all lies.
Sam Webb
National Chair, CPUSA

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