Introduction to the National Leadership Seminar

September 22, 2001

Perhaps the place to begin is to say a few words about what motivated
us to organize this seminar.

Actually, the idea is not a new one. It has been gestating for some
time. But it wasn’t until the time of the National Committee meeting in
March that it got a fresh lease on life.

The reasons are simple enough. First of all, the idea of bringing together
district leaders seemed to fit with other proposals to deepen the collective
and democratic life of the Party. Since the National Committee meeting,
we have opened up some new channels of communications so the idea of a
national seminar seemed to be a logical extension of this process.

Secondly, a seminar of district organizers and leaders made uncommonly
good sense because you are the key link in the leadership chain of our
Party even if we don’t always acknowledge and act on that basis.

Nevertheless, it is true. You make the Party go. You enable the Party
to make sound assessments of and tactical adjustments to new conditions
of struggle. Your initiative is crucial to the on-going process of building
the Party and the People’s Weekly World.

Where we have a district organizer and a functioning district leadership,
the Party responds in creative ways to new opportunities for broad mass
actions and Party growth. By the same token, where districts are without
a district organizer or without a functioning district leadership, new
political opportunities are frequently missed. I wish I could say that
such districts are as rare a typhoon on Lake Michigan, but that would
be bending the truth.

Of course, responsibility for this lies as much with the National Office
and National Board as with the districts. For too long the political and
organizational status of the districts and clubs was not on our radar
screen. We have to change this method of work if the Party as a whole
is to fully respond to the altogether new political situation that is
taking shape in our country as well as around the globe. But to overcome
this shortcoming, we need your input and help at this seminar.

Finally, we strongly felt that it would be useful to bring you together
to discuss some longer range theoretical and practical questions – questions
that we might not examine in the normal course of our day-to-day work.

Normally, we don’t have the luxury of time to reflect on this or that
question. Instead, we are always moving from one event or one mobilization
or one campaign to another with barely a moment to catch our breath.

I guess that’s the nature of leading the Party, and especially at the
district level, in busy times, but sometimes it is necessary to pause
and step back for a moment from the pulls and pressures of day to day
events. Hopefully, this seminar will allow us to do precisely that and
reflect on some fundamental questions of long term significance to our
Party and the working class movement. In doing so, we will help the entire
Party to get its bearings in a fast changing political and economic environment.

In other words, you aren’t here to receive marching orders on your already
full plates. But rather we hope that this seminar is a venue where we
can get your thinking in a relaxed setting on a range of fundamental questions.

Now, as paradoxical as it sounds, one could legitimately argue that
the discussion of longer-range questions at this seminar is shortsighted.
Shouldn’t our focus be on the 2000 elections? After all, Election Day
is roughly five months away and the outcome will go a long way in determining
the quality of life for tens of millions of Americans for years to come.

That argument would resonate more with me had we not had substantive
discussions in our leadership bodies on the 2000 elections and had we
not reached a consensus on our political and tactical approach to this
crucial arena of struggle.

But that is not the case. We had an exhaustive discussion and with but
a few exceptions, we are united in our approach. The main problem now,
however, is to apply our policy at the grassroots level. But that problem
– and it’s an immediate problem – is best solved at the district and club
level – albeit with the help of the National Center and leadership.

To that end, we discussed at the National Board meeting on Thursday
of this week a series of initiatives that will help to move the Party
at every level into the practical aspects of the 2000 elections.


At any rate, let me proceed to the main purpose of my opening which
is to discuss some theoretical issues, based on my opening at a recent
meeting of the National Board. I hope all of you had time to read it.
The questions that I raised are far from academic in my opinion, but rather
have a substantive bearing on our political and practical work in the
short and long term.

I already received some reactions to my opening. But instead of trying
to respond to them, I would like to elaborate further on some of its main

But before I do, I first want to say a word or two with regard to what
prompted me to make this opening to the National Board. For some time,
a skeletal version of it had been gathering dust and resting undisturbed
in my paper tray at work, of little interest even to the mice that I suspect
scamper around my room between midnight and dawn.

And it might have remained that way for I felt no compelling reason,
no tug to fill out and tidy up the document. But then the ‘Battle in Seattle’
happened, to be followed by a rush of events and mass actions in the spring
of this year.

First, the farmers and their allies assembled in Washington in the middle
of March. Then tens of thousands marched in Charleston, South Carolina
and Atlanta, Georgia against racism and for affirmative action. Then,
thousands of unionists gathered in Mansfield, Ohio to support the locked
out and courageous workers at AK Steel. Then, tens of thousands gathered
in Washington to protest globalization. Then a half million assembled
in our nation’s Capitol for Earth Day. Then another half million came
to the footsteps of our capital to demand gay rights. Then moms and their
allies assembled in front of the Washington Monument to protest the gun
lobby and congressional stalling on gun legislation.

And in the midst of all this a mass outpouring of support for a state
holiday in California to honor Cesar Chavez, the great Mexican American
trade union leader was cresting into a tidal wave.

The confluence of these events and what they foretell for the future
made me wonder if our concepts of class are too narrowly constructed to
allow us to understand and influence the new political patterns that we
see emerging in our country. This intuitive feeling prodded me to revisit,
rethink, and fill in my sketchy thoughts on the Marxist category of class.

But far more important than my personal journey into the realm of theory,
the groundswell of mass actions convinced me that the leading collectives
in the Party needed to re-examine some of our assessments and theoretical
concepts against the background of this broad mass upsurge and the contemporary
world in which it occurs. To me this conclusion is undeniable.

Another equally undeniable conclusion is that a party whose theoretical
concepts lag behind the changing contours of political, economic, and
social life will eventually pay a price, sometimes a heavy price for this
deficiency. The price paid by the German people and their working class
parties, for example, for not properly analyzing the rise of the fascist
threat is too painful to think about.

To be sure, we aren’t stagnating ideologically and theoretically, but
we are not up to speed either.

Therefore we have to pick up the pace, but we can only do that collectively.
We can’t, and frankly we shouldn’t, rely on a few comrades to do our theoretical
thinking. Every communist and especially every communist leader, like
you, has to help in this regard.

We should take a fresh look at both the world in which we live and the
Marxist concepts that allow us to analyze this world. We shouldn’t be
satisfied with old assessments, landmarks, and analytical tools, sculptured
in fine detail by a different era and perhaps no longer providing a serviceable
guide for our work in present day conditions.


Before anybody’s alarm bell goes off, I should say that I am not suggesting
that we trash the fundamental concepts that guide our theoretical and
practical work, but rather that they be brought into line with present
day developments. For that to happen our fundamental concepts have to
be open-ended rather than closed, able to absorb new experience, and pliant
enough to be modified by new conditions of struggle.

Or to put the matter differently, if we say that the terrain of struggle
has undergone a seismic shift then doesn’t it follow that we have to adjust
our concepts to this shift? Don’t we have to think outside the box with
regard to some new problems and developments?

Of course, to think outside the box, we have to create an atmosphere
which encourages comrades to think in a fresh way and allows for differences
in views.

Perhaps, we have some different opinions on this matter. So let me state
mine: I don’t think that the atmosphere in the Party’s leading collectives
is friendly enough to thinking that departs from our traditional views
and assessments on a range of questions. Instead, we have a tendency to
quickly pounce on comrades who challenge our positions on one question
or another.

This has to change. We don’t need an atmosphere in the Party that makes
comrades sheepish, even fearful about expressing views that they think
might go against the collective grain or the thinking of one or another
Party leader. Comrades should feel able to express their views on matters
big and small. Let’s face it: we won’t explore new questions and developments
if the atmosphere in our collective bodies is arbitrary, undemocratic,
and resistant to new class based thinking.

Apart from seriously undermining the Party’s ability to politically
gauge new developments and make appropriate changes in its work in the
broader movements, an unfriendly atmosphere also gnaws away at comrades’
confidence in the Party’s leadership and makes the Party much less inviting
to our new friends in the labor and people’s movements.

In fact, our new friends will be attracted to the Party not only to
the degree that we are engaged politically with broad forces, but also
to the extent that we possess a lively, stimulating, and democratic political
and ideological life. One indelible impression that I retain from my experience
in Michigan is that autoworkers love to talk politics and exchange opinions
and they would expect no less than that from any Party that they joined.

The legacy of the bitter struggle for socialism in the last century
at a global level and the bitter fruit of McCarthyism and the Cold War
in our own country not only damaged not only our image and our relations
with the broader movements, but also distorted in some ways the internal
life of the Party. That period, however, is over by and large.

We live in a new century with new political possibilities. To respond
to them, we have to adjust our concepts, our policies, and our internal
culture. This is daunting, but it is exhilarating as well. Needless to
say it will keep us busy for some time to come.


Another theme that I would like to elaborate on is that of class. As
I indicated in my opening to the National Board, I feel that our understanding
of class concepts is too rigid, too static, and too closed. Class concepts
should be open ended and elastic.

The class struggle is the fundamental relationship of capitalist society
and its shadow penetrates – sometimes directly, other times more indirectly
– nearly every area of social life and struggle. This is undeniable.

But there are times when the intricate relationship between the class
struggle and other social struggles is unduly simplified, turned into
a reductive relationship in which class is the sole determining factor
of historical development and social change.

At this moment we should see the growing intensity, scope and role of
the class struggle, but in close connection with the reciprocal influences
on it coming from other social struggles and movements.

After all, emerging today is an extremely broad, developing, and varied
movement. It is multi-layered and multi-form. Millions from different
walks of life are joining struggles for the first time in their lives.
New organizational bases are surfacing and mobilizing broad sections of
the American people. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the
million-mom’s march which I mentioned earlier.

This emerging loosely constructed movement is distinctly anti-corporate
and anti-far right. Some currents especially among the youth are militantly
anti-capitalist. It thinks globally and increasingly acts on a national
and global stage. And, labor, in a way not seen since the 1930s, is an
integral and leading component of this broad-based coalition.

Perhaps no one appreciates the diverse nature of this movement more
than the new leadership of the AFL-CIO. Since their watch began in 1995,
this leadership has shown unusual understanding of the entangled nature
of class and social struggles.

From what I observe, the approach of the new labor movement is to reach
every potential coalition partner – both the familiar and traditional
and the unfamiliar and non-traditional. Indeed, the interactions of labor
and its growing array of allies are more entwined now than at any time
that I can recall

To be more specific, the new labor movement is renewing relationships
with old allies, like for example, the African American and Mexican American
people, while at the same time reaching out to new political actors, particularly
women, youth and students, immigrants, environmentalists, academics, gay
activists, seniors, sections of the radical community and so forth.

Frankly, we should emulate not only their approach to coalition building,
but also their understanding that the outcome of labor’s struggles is
bound up with the struggles of other social forces.

Our alliance policy in my opinion has been too narrow and too insular.
I don’t want to overstate this, but we sometimes tend to be suspicious
of any movement or grouping, including the new leadership of the AFL-CIO,
that don’t have what we consider full-fledged, bona fide working class

Some might ascribe our coalition weaknesses to a shortage of comrades
to assign to these movements. Others might say that the shortcomings are
the result of faulty implementation of our policy at the district and
club level. But this is unconvincing to me at least. These weaknesses
stem from rigid and static concepts of class in my opinion.

We tended to look for pure forms but, not surprisingly, we seldom found
them because life at best only approximates abstract theory. Instead we
found movements mixed in their social makeup and political outlook that
we dismissed, usually by labeling them middle class, petit bourgeois or
social democratic. While this was self-satisfying, it also isolated us
from forces that were moving into struggle.

Moreover, many of these movements, I suspect, brought into struggle
substantial numbers of non-traditional sectors of the working class, sectors
that the labor movement and ourselves should establish relationships with,
which, by the way, is precisely what the new labor movement to its credit
is now doing.

The class struggle neither stands by itself nor appears in pure forms.
It is melded into a larger social process with which it interacts. Unless
we see matters in this light than we may well repeat the standoffish and
sectarian mistakes of the past and fail to take full advantage of the
new period, which we are entering.

Therefore we have to adjust our thinking as well as our practical activities
to this new political situation. We have to mix it up. We have to strengthen
our relations with the movements of the racially oppressed, the women’s
movement, the environmental movement, immigrants, the youth movement,
the new movements for political independence, the gay movement, the senior
movement and, above all, every sector of the labor movement. If we do,
and I sure we will, our unique contribution will be felt by millions of
working people and their allies in the period ahead.


The transition to socialism – not to mention its construction – is a
complex process fraught with difficulties and contradictions. The experience
of the 20th century amply bears this out.

At the Ideological Conference speeches by Evelina, Elena, and John persuasively
argued that a broad, working class led coalition is a political prerequisite
for socialism. Without the amalgamation of a broad array of forces, Bill
of Rights socialism, they said, will not see the light of day.

From this proposition, I would argue, two further observations follow.
First, the formation of broad coalitions that will eventually fight for
socialism is a task for the present not the future. It is silly to think
that our coalition partners are going to suddenly join us on the eve of
a socialist transformation.

Such coalitions, however, will coalesce around the struggles for people’s
immediate needs rather than a socialist future. In the course of these
struggles, everyone will not only gain in political understanding, mutual
confidence, and unity, but also, we hope, come to see the necessity of

‘It would be a radical mistake,’ wrote Lenin, ‘to think that the struggle
for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist
revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the
same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice
full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over
the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle
for democracy.’

In other words, in the absence of a long and persistent struggle for
people’s political and economic needs by a labor led, broadly based people’s
coalition, socialism will remain an idle and quixotic dream.

The other observation that I want to make is that the Party will cooperate
as well as compete for the working class and popular support with other
movements, organizations and parties on the left. The old concept that
the Party would assume sooner or later the position as the sole and unchallenged
leader of the working class and people’s movements is outdated. This was
a product of the building of socialism in conditions of backwardness and
the force of the Soviet experience.

It is highly unlikely that the revolutionary process in the future will
provide an open and uncluttered field in which the Party by itself leads
the working class and its allies to victory. This goes against the grain
of historical experience.

A more likely scenario is that an array of left led formations, including
the Party, will lead such a process. Wasn’t this the case in Chile, in
Portugal, and even in Cuba? Isn’t it even more likely in the major capitalist
countries, including our own?

Thus, we would be wiser to see the Party as a militant and advanced
section of the working class acting in concert with other left and democratic
forces. We should reject the notion that everybody else on the left is
a pretender who will eventually acknowledge our role as the undisputed
leader as we proceed to usher in a socialist future.

Setting aside the ultra left who are incorrigible in my experience,
we should have relationships with a range of formations on the left. To
be sure, we aren’t going to see eye to eye with them on some issues. But
that shouldn’t prevent dialogue and joint actions to the extent possible.

Such a view doesn’t take away from our unique role in the revolutionary
process in the least. Moreover, in my opinion, it is consistent with the
views of Marx and Engels.

‘The Communists,’ they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, ‘do not form
a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no
interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to
shape and mold the proletarian movement.’

‘The Communists’ they continued, ‘are distinguished from other working
class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletariat
of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the
common interests of the entire proletariat independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working
class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere
represent the interests of the movement as a whole.’

‘The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most
advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country,
that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically,
they have the over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of
clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate
general results of the proletariat movement.’

Thus, communists have some distinct advantages or, as we say, a unique
contribution to make, but they make this contribution in cooperation and
competition with the other left formations.

Moreover, whether we become the leading force of this broader coalition
depends on what we do politically and practically, on how we creatively
develop and apply our theory and policies to changing conditions. Leadership,
in other words, has to be earned.

Such an approach would suit us well today. We have a militant tradition,
rich and varied experience, and a scientifically grounded working class,
revolutionary outlook. At the same time, there is much we can learn from
our coalition partners.


Our policy of industrial concentration as I suggested in my opening
remains a cornerstone of our Party’s work in the labor and working class
movement. We have conceptualized our policy usually along two lines.

On the one hand, we say that the aim of concentration in industry is
to build the Party among industrial workers. And, on the other hand, we
argue that the purpose of our concentration policy is to focus on the
struggles of workers in basic industry.

But aren’t both conceptions of our concentration policy somewhat narrowly
constructed? Lately I’ve been saying that the aim of our concentration
policy is to bring the political and economic weight of mass production
workers, including in the new mass production industries like hi-tech,
to bear on the struggle of the whole working class and people. In the
course of which we should fight and struggle and plan to deepen class
consciousness and enlarge the ranks of the Party among workers.

Perhaps I’m going out on the limb, but I think that this conception
of our concentration policy is somewhat like Lenin’s. At the end of my
opening to the National Board, I chose a brief quote from Lenin that I
thought captured his view of the special role of mass production workers.
I want to do that again, but this time I give you a fuller text.

‘Social Democracy,’ Lenin wrote, ‘has fought, and is quite rightly fighting,
against the bourgeois democratic abuse of the word ‘people.’ It insists
categorically on the need for complete class independence for the party
of the proletariat. However, it does not divide the ‘people’ into ‘classes’
so that the advanced class will become locked up within itself, will confine
itself within narrow limits it does that so that the advanced class, which
does not suffer from the half-heartedness, vacillation, and indecision
of the intermediate classes, should fight with all the greater energy
and enthusiasm for the cause of the whole people, at the head of the whole

This I believe provides a framework for our concentration policy. Furthermore,
with the upsurge of the people’s movements combined with the new militancy
of labor, the grounds for our concentration policy seem so much better
than in earlier decades.

Of course, the bringing of mass production workers to the fore of the
broader struggles of labor and the people’s movement is never easy even
in the best of circumstances. Witness the present difficulties with regard
to the elections because of the anti-China campaign promoted with a special
vigor by some of the main industrial unions. I called the campaign a bump
in the road, but it’s become a bit more than that although I think that
these same unions will get back on the track of defeating the extreme
tight in November sooner than we might think.

I could go on, but I’m sure by now that you’re getting tired of listening
to me and besides this is your seminar not mine.

So let’s start the discussion.


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