Q: After 1929, in the midst of the Great Depression, America still retained a capitalist system. Although certain socialist-type policies such as welfare were implemented, no sweeping changes were made in an economic system that could have easily been seen at the time as a total failure. Why do you think radical changes advocated by socialists and communists failed to come about during this period?
A: Some of the radical changes advocated by our party and other left-wingers did come about during the 1930s, and resulted in some lasting improvements for workers, and society as a whole — Social Security, unemployment insurance, organizing of mass production workers into unions, increased social welfare programs, some government funding for the arts, and many others. All are now under attack by right-wing politicians.
These were reforms, not revolutionary changes. Some on the left pose these as mutually exclusive alternatives. Our party feels that the only way to get to revolutionary change is by involving workers and their allies in struggles for immediate needs and for social reform. That experience can lead to a consciousness of their own power and an awareness of the limits the capitalist system places on real solutions. So, at the same time as we seek to educate people about the need for a fundamental change in the system, our party fights to involve workers in struggle for reforms and to bring them immediate tangible improvements.
Why didn’t the U.S. have a revolution in the 1930s? My father thought in the early ’30s that capitalism couldn’t survive another 10 years. Many capitalists feared an imminent socialist revolution. Many workers concluded that a revolutionary transformation of the system was necessary. But never a majority. Some concluded that change was needed and found adequate change in the New Deal. Many more were overwhelmed by the crises and expended all their energies on survival, never turning to politics, struggle or organization.
If communists and socialists had found better ways to cooperate, if the system hadn’t successfully made important concessions, if racism and anti-communism hadn’t blocked the development of greater unity, if more people had felt that they had exhausted all the political openings in the system, if … if … if …
We can say in hindsight that more people “should” have perceived capitalism as a total failure, but millions of people have to come to that conclusion themselves. A party can teach, participate, lead, organize, but it can’t make people ready for something they are not ready for.
While an economic crisis leads more people to conclude that changing the economic system is necessary, that doesn’t automatically create a revolutionary situation. We don’t think that “the worse the better,” that the worse a crisis, the quicker people get radicalized. Desperation, crisis, even social collapse, aren’t the path. Workers have the power to transform society only if a majority of workers and their allies are conscious of that power, only if the struggle and the organizations of workers have matured.
A revolution is a fundamentally democratic process, requiring in our country the active participation of millions. A revolution can’t be the act of a conspiracy or a coup, the way right-wing counterrevolutions can be.
We invite readers to submit questions about the Communist Party USA, its basic policies and a Marxist viewpoint on current social issues. The answers are provided by Marc Brodine, chair of the Washington State Communist Party. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.