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International Socialist Review, Spring 1958


Harry Ring

The Struggle in the Communist Party


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.2, Spring 1958, pp.52-55.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The rank-and-file desire for party democracy and regroupment of socialist forces in America keeps the fire going under the old-line Stalinists

* * *

A WORKING CLASS party sympathetic to the Soviet Union, but exercising ideological independence; or an isolated sect functioning as a pliant instrument of Kremlin foreign policy? This is the alternative over which members of the Communist party have fought for the past two years. This is the issue that continues to divide their steadily dwindling ranks.

The division is the product of a crisis that has racked the Communist party since the Khrushchev revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the Russian CP. The persistence of the factional struggle is unique in the history of the American CP. In France and Italy, where the Stalinist parties have substantial mass support, the crisis following the Twentieth Congress was “resolved” – for the time being – through reassertion of Stalinism. In Great Britain and Canada where popular support was lacking, the party bureaucrats met the crisis by driving out all oppositionists, heedless of the fact that this reduced their parties to hopeless Stalinist sects.

In the American CP, the wing of the leadership headed by William Z. Foster has fought grimly, with no holds barred, to end the crisis in the same way, seeking to reconsolidate the battered organization on the old platform of blind apologetics for the Kremlin bureaucracy.

This has not been easy. Sentiment for independence has been strong in the CP since Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s real role. Consequently, the Foster faction has remained a minority. Despite this fact, they have been able to pretty much call the tune at each stage of the fight over policy.

First there was the experience of the opposition under the leadership of John Gates, editor of the now defunct Daily Worker. The Gates grouping started out with full control of that paper and a heavy majority in the New York organization, which constituted a good half of the party. Gates had significant support in other areas as well.

But Gates followed a fatal course. First of all, under pretext of seeking to deal with American realities, he projected a program of reformism and revisionism which lent substance to Foster’s demagogic pretense of being more “revolutionary.” Some of the best rank-and-file workers in the Communist party lined up behind Foster because they considered him to be the lesser evil. Even where Gates was correct as against Foster, he failed to maintain his positions firmly. This led him into a blind alley. Top leaders of the faction, including Gates himself, finally declared it hopeless to try to change the party and quit in disgust. A majority of the New York state leadership, according to a National Committee report, simply walked out.

The Daily Worker, already badly affected by fast shrinking circulation and income, was given the death blow on January 13, 1958. The Fosterites then took over the weekly Worker, converting it into their faction organ.

Yet rank-and-file pressure for ideological independence and party democracy continues to plague the Fosterites. Since Gates left, a new and perhaps more substantial opposition has developed. This tendency first registered its views at the December 1957 meeting of the National Executive Committee, a subcommittee of the National Committee. At that meeting, a Fosterite motion to endorse the Moscow declaration of twelve Soviet-bloc Communist parties was defeated by a vote of eleven to seven.

Opponents of the resolution correctly viewed it as part of a drive to reconstitute the subservience of all Communist parties to the Kremlin. They also rejected the resolution’s pronouncement that “revisionism” is the “main danger” facing the various organizations. They declared that endorsement of the resolution, with its implicit recognition of the supremacy of the Russian party, would violate the stand taken by the last National Convention in favor of “equal status” for all Communist parties.

At the same meeting in December a sharp debate occurred between Party Secretary Eugene Dennis and Organization Secretary Sid Stein. Dennis and Stein had previously been co-leaders of a grouping dedicated to a “two front” fight against Gatesite “liquidationism” and Fosterite “ultra-leftism.” The text of the Dennis-Stein debate, as published in the January Party Affairs, a CP bulletin, indicated that Dennis had in fact lined up with the Fosterites, despite his protestations about the need for a “center” course.

Stein, on the contrary, appeared to be expressing the views of a significant section of the party. His arguments against Dennis followed virtually point for point a resolution presented to the National Committee with the unanimous approval of the party’s influential Northern California District Committee.

This resolution assailed the Foster-ites as “dogmatists” – a term designating their unmodified Stalinist orthodoxy. It attacked the still-continuing bureaucratic practices and demanded “democratization” of the organization. It declared that the party crisis could only deepen unless recognition was given the right of the membership to formulate party policy instead of blindly accepting everything handed down from above. The resolution also insisted on the right to criticize the regimes in Soviet bloc countries if necessary. Particularly significant was the declaration in favor of active participation in the process of socialist regroupment now going on in this country.

This was not the only manifestation of renewed opposition to the Fosterite line. In the Southern California district a document expressing views similar to those of the Northern California resolution was circulated among the membership. The twenty-two signers of this statement of views are reported to represent the bulk of the leading cadres, including organizers and heads of trade-union fractions. Most of the signers are members of the Los Angeles Executive Council of the party.

These views found their reflection in the West Coast weekly, the People’s World. Along with four candidates tied to the capitalist parties, the editor endorsed the candidacy of Jack Wright, Socialist Workers nominee for the Seattle City Council in the February primaries.

This action breached the thirty-year stand of the Communist party that Trotskyism is a “main danger,” not to be supported in any way, under any circumstances. The endorsement, of course, did not signify agreement with the program of the Socialist Workers party. The support of capitalist party candidates in a suggested “coalition” has been consistently opposed by the SWP as class collaboration. The editorial support of Wright did reflect, however, the growing sentiment of readers of the People’s World for independent socialist electoral activity.

It was an indication, too, of the growing realization that the Communist party has no prospect of getting off the ground with the Fosterite line of “go-it-alone and let the rest of the radical movement be damned.” The CP cannot win the ear of union militants who largely regard it as an agency of Kremlin totalitarianism, and it will get a hearing from the radical public, where its prestige and influence are now almost nil, only if it demonstrates willingness to participate democratically in the regroupment process.

The welcome shift of the People’s World also reflected the growing recognition among many CPers that the old Trotsky-baiting is now out of order.

A generally more positive approach to regroupment, particularly as it relates to attitude toward the SWP, is apparent in other sections. For example, in the December 1957 Party Affairs Minnesota party leader Carl Ross wrote.

“... new currents of broader left discussion are emerging in which we must of necessity participate and meet on ideological grounds the Trotzkyist views, among others, whether or not we ourselves might consider them a constructive part of the socialist current.”

To this Ross adds:

“It used to be written in our party statutes that members should not associate with Trotzkyites. We have members today who reject such views of ‘sheltering’ them from contact with anybody as insulting to their intelligence. It served no useful purpose in the past. It led to the party voluntarily and mistakenly cutting itself off from many good people.”

Discussing the possibility of united action in the radical movement, Ross, while repeating some of the ancient anti-Trotskyist nonsense, says significantly, “Certainly it is wrong to boycott a useful campaign because it may be led by Trotzkyites.”

This is contrary to the position of the Fosterite leaders who have obstinately balked at common discussion and united action with other radical tendencies, especially the SWP. When the American Forum for Socialist Education was organized under the inspiration of A.J. Muste, the CP participated mainly through the unilateral action of the anti-Foster wing. While the Fosterites have not openly condemned the American Forum, they have refused to support it and have spread the charge in the party that the move toward participation in its activities is part of a design to liquidate the CP into the social democracy.

The hostility of this faction toward regroupment was expressed most clearly when a United May Day celebration, including all the radical groupings outside of the State Department socialists and their allies, was organized in New York in 1957. While the Gates wing participated with official CP approval, the Foster faction organized a dual meeting in the Bronx, featuring Ben Davis as the speaker.

The end result of such a course was foreshadowed by the attendance at the two meetings. Fifteen hundred people turned out for the united rally while about a hundred appeared at the Fosterite meeting.

Application of the old-line Stalinist approach paid off in a scandal for the CP in the November 1957 New York city elections. The party backed the Liberal party endorsement of Robert Wagner, the witch-hunting mayoralty candidate of the Tammany machine. Supplementing this, an official effort was made to discredit the editors of the National Guardian and various prominent radicals who endorsed the Socialist Workers ticket. Such support was made out to be “objective aid to counter-revolution.”

The contention that supporting a capitalist politician aids socialism and supporting socialist candidates aids counter-revolution did little to refurbish the CP’s moral and political standing in the radical movement.

Despite the derisive laughter, the Fosterites are hewing close to the Moscow line about Trotskyism being a “main enemy.” One of the first indications of their editorial policy in the Worker, when it came under their full control, was an announcement of refusal to accept a paid advertisement for a public meeting of the Militant Labor Forum featuring a lecture by the distinguished economist and militant civil liberties fighter, Dr. Otto Nathan, on the struggle for peace. The Worker declared that because of its opposition to “the Trotskyite group” sponsoring the forum the advertisement was unacceptable.

The deepening recognition of the unfavorable consequences of such a course is one of the principal sources of the opposition to the Fosterite line. Consider what has happened to the CP in the two years since Khrushchev broke up the cult of Stalin and the Polish and Hungarian revolutions exploded.

Such outstanding figures as Howard Fast, Joseph Clark and John Gates have left. Dozens of less prominent members of the apparatus have quietly departed. Thousands of key cadres have stopped paying dues. In fact, whole sections of the party have literally disappeared since the Twentieth Congress. In a report to the National Committee last July, Sid Stein stressed the need for “special attention to cities where the party has completely collapsed – like Springfield and Lawrence in Massachusetts, Cincinnati, Akron, Youngstown and many others across the country.” Since last July the trend has not abated; instead, it has continued at an accelerated pace.

In 1956 the party membership was down to a claimed 17,000 from its World War II peak of about 75,000. Today, the top estimate is 10,000 and it is more generally agreed that 7,000 is a high figure.

Was it the worst elements who left the party in droves? Stein replies:

“They are not all middle class or professional people. Large numbers of them are workers and many are workers in basic industries and active people in mass organizations ...”

Further losses during this two-year span include the dissolution of the shattered Labor Youth League, the closing of the Jefferson School in New York, the reduction of the Daily Worker and People’s World to weeklies. A further gauge of what has happened to the CP is the change in its fund-raising capacity. In March 1957 a three-month drive was opened to raise $100,000 for the press. The drive was finally called off after eleven and a half months, still $14,000 short of the goal. The printer’s bill for the Daily Worker was admitted to have been long unpaid.

The extent of the disintegration becomes even clearer when viewed in the light of admissions about the condition of the party prior to the Twentieth Congress. For example, here is a picture of the New York party, where about half the membership was then concentrated, as presented by the Organization Secretary in July 1956:

“Over the last ten years we have lost more than two-thirds of our membership ... Of our present membership one-third are industrial workers. No more than 30-35 percent attend meetings even on an irregular basis. No more than 20-30 percent engage in sustained activities. Our party keeps getting older – two-thirds of our present membership are over 40 years old, with no recruiting taking place.”

(In his series of articles in the New York Post in January 1958, John Gates estimated that the present average age of the membership is “well in the 50s.”)

What is the level of activity in the New York organization today with the Fosterites in the driver’s seat? They have spread the word throughout the country that since they took over in New York things are rolling again. And if information is limited to what appears in the Worker, it really looks like things are humming. In January, for instance, the Worker announced a study program that included nine classes, a Friday night Review of the Week and a Sunday Forum.

Here are some facts indicating the true state of affairs: A Sunday forum celebrating Negro History Week, with W.E.B. Du Bois, the distinguished historian, as speaker – 50 present. A forum with party leader Robert Thompson speaking on the Twelve-Party Declaration – 35 present. A

Review of the Week featuring the recent United Auto Workers convention – 9 present, including the speaker. A lecture on Lenin – 10 present. A Saturday morning class for teenagers; fifteen minutes after starting time – the teacher and one lone pupil.

Intent on resurrecting the party as it was in the days of Stalin’s infallibility, the Fosterite leadership understands that free discussion is incompatible with kowtowing to whatever clique in the bureaucracy happens to be wielding power in the Soviet Union. That is why they so stubbornly oppose all the efforts to democratize the Communist party.

In the crisis that followed Khrushchev’s revelations, rank-and-file members of the Communist party were permitted to speak their piece in the Daily Worker and in the discussion bulletins. Their right to organize factions was not conceded but they were permitted to blow off steam for the first time since the Trotskyist Left Opposition was expelled in 1928. The pent-up grievances that poured out were forcefully summarized in a letter from a group of Communist party steel workers in Gary, Indiana, published in the Worker of December 2, 1956:

“... for the past many years there has been an absence of conventions, of democratic selection of leading people, of the ability of the members to disagree, and most important of all, an absence of leaders consulting with comrades of the branches and learning from these comrades who are in daily contact with the people. From where we sit we see a cleavage in the thinking between the full-time leadership and the rank and file which is so great as to in effect give us two parties.”

But Stalinist bureaucratism was so entrenched in the party that two years later – two years of the biggest shake-up in party history – Eugene Dennis, in his debate with Stein, was moved to confess:

“We have continued to suffer also from the deep-rooted evil of bureaucracy. There continues to exist strong criticism by our members that leadership and membership are still separated by a gulf and that the leadership still fails to promptly take the membership fully into its confidence, and that arrogant attitudes to the membership persists on all levels of party organization. Such complaint is unfortunately justified.”

It was Stein, however, who indicated the root of the problem. Tying the issue of bureaucratic practices to that of political subservience to the Kremlin, he said:

“The source of bureaucracy in the Communist Party is the idea that some one can do your thinking for you. That there is a Pope. That there are Cardinals – that’s the source of bureaucracy. Once you accept that idea then there can be no democracy! There can be no free discussion. There can be no majority rule.”

“Small wonder,” Stein bitterly added, “that thousands of our comrades are leaving us since the convention and hundreds of our cadres are fed up to here.”

Does the Fosterite wing of the leadership view the continuing exodus with concern? Stein aptly summarized the situation when he scored the attitude of Foster and Davis: “Minority or majority doesn’t matter. The minority can drive the majority out of the party and has been doing it for ten months.”

The significance of these words is worth noting. Experience has demonstrated that compromise with the Fosterites adds strength to their policy of driving out the majority. The National Convention is a graphic case in point. As Stein noted, thousands have left the party since then. Inasmuch as the convention registered a serious defeat for the Fosterites, how is this to be explained?

At the convention the Kremlin effort to stampede the party into the Foster corral failed. The intervention came in the same crass form used to dump Earl Browder in 1945 – a letter from Duclos, leader of the French CP. Duclos branded the views of the anti-Fosterites as “a dangerous departure from Marxism-Leninism” and crudely lumped their position with the outlook of John Foster Dulles. Despite Foster’s plea to accept this “sage advice,” the Duclos letter was given the brush-off.

By a two-to-one majority, the delegates adopted a resolution declaring the party’s intention henceforth to interpret Marxism-Leninism for itself. This vote came after Max Weiss, reporter for the resolutions committee, emphasized that adoption of the resolution meant a decisive break with past practice under which the party “tacitly assumed that the interpretations of the principles of Marxism-Leninism as made by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was ipso facto valid and that all we had to do was to creatively apply their interpretations to our conditions.”

However, before, during and after the convention, Gates made a series of basic concessions to Foster in the vain hope of avoiding a showdown fight. The result of these concessions might have been foreseen.

In advance of the convention, Gates joined in the attempt to bury the differences in the top leadership. He supported a weasel-worded “united” draft resolution that could be interpreted by either side as presenting their line. He followed this by capitulating at the convention on the crucial issue of the suppression of the Hungarian revolution. This took the form of a wretched agreement to “neither condemn or condone” the brutal Kremlin assault on the Hungarian workers. Finally, after speaking out, as a socialist must, against the refusal of the Khrushchev regime to take up the question of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Gates voted for a resolution which averred, without a shred of evidence, that abuses against Jews in the Soviet Union were being corrected and that their rights would soon be restored. The complete text of even this whitewash resolution has not been made public to this day. Gates permitted it to be buried along with a lot of other good intentions.

These persistent efforts to soften the struggle against unreconstructed Stalinism signified the negation of the convention decision to “interpret” Marxism-Leninism independently. The consequence was the mass walkout from the party.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that compromise with the Fosterite leaders serves only to cripple the struggle for independence and democracy in the Communist party, there are indications that the new leaders of the anti-Foster grouping have not fully absorbed the lesson of Gates’ debacle.

At the meeting of the National Committee in February, the divisions were so deep that only nine members could be elected to the new fifteen-member National Executive Committee. Despite the profundity of disagreement, a new “compromise” resolution on the Twelve-Party Declaration, drafted by Dennis, was adopted, reportedly by unanimous vote.

As with the “united” convention resolution, such a compromise can only further strengthen the hand of Foster, who continues to push his pro-Stalinist line with fine contempt for any “compromise” agreements.

What then lies ahead for those members of the Communist party who wish to make a meaningful contribution to the struggle for a socialist America? The answer lies in the possibility of breaking through the self-defeating compromises that block discussion of the basic causes of the crisis in the CP – a discussion that has, in reality, been thwarted throughout.

Such a discussion involves, first of all, a Marxist evaluation of the economic and social basis of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and the causes of its rise to power, which none of the faction leaders have undertaken.

It involves, in this country, a Marxist examination and criticism of the class-collaborationist policy of “coalition” with the Democratic party which the leaders of all the factions support. It involves active participation in the twin aspects of the re-groupment process; that is, democratic discussion of the great issues confronting the socialist movement and energetic support of united actions to advance that movement.

This is the indicated road for all those in the Communist party who want to help bring about the unification of revolutionary socialist forces in this country.

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