No organization or institution can long exist in a condition of stasis. Organizations in general and political parties and social movements, in particular, have to adjust to new conditions.
And the reason is simple: change is constant and organizations and institutions must, if they want to remain relevant, change in the face of changing conditions.
For more than a decade, the Communist Party USA has been reconfiguring the way we work and develop our analysis.
Not everything has turned out as we hoped. There were mistakes, false starts, results that fell short of what we expected, and many things still have to be attended to.
On the whole, however, party members and leaders challenged conventional wisdom, gained experience, and adjusted our policies and style of work to new conditions of struggle.
Had the party been imprisoned by past experience, conventional wisdom and old methods, we would have been left in history’s rear view mirror. A glance at the past reveals that the political landscape is littered with political and social formations that didn’t adapt to new realities.
But, to our credit, the Communist Party chose change and innovation. We eagerly searched for new angles of looking at, thinking about, and reshaping the world.
Such an approach is, not only consistent with, but an imperative of Marxism. Otherwise, this science and art of social change and revolution loses its capacity to assist people in their desire to re-imagine and remake the world – not in some sort of utopian way, but in a way that meets the expanding requirements of a good life at the beginning of the 21st century.
Marx and Engels developed an analytical structure and methodology that enabled the working class to comprehend and change the world, but they never claimed the “last word” on any subject. Theory for them was modified by experience, not something to be memorized and repeated no matter what the circumstances and conditions.
Near the end of his life, Frederick Engels, in an effort to counter a dogmatic interpretation of historical materialism that was fashionable in the socialist movement of that time, wrote: “All history has to be studied afresh.”
A decade or so later, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, wrote:
“A Marxist must take cognizance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity.”
In other words, Marxism should have no affinity for lifeless schemes and timeless slogans that squeeze the complexity and novelty out of the process of social change. Repetition of abstract formulas, which are disconnected from the historical process and the real dynamics of struggle, is of no value.
In recent decades, the world has changed in unexpected ways. The collapse of the Soviet Union signaled a historic defeat for the socialist project. The struggle for socialism continues, but in very different conditions.
Moreover, other seismic shifts of a political, economic, cultural and technological nature have created new fault lines across the globe, culminating in a world crisis of capitalism and the decline of U.S. imperialism.
One could say the world is leaving one era of development and entering a new era.
These new realities should turn Communists’ theoretical eye, as well as practical activity, toward what is new; toward breaks, as well as continuities, in development; toward fresh forces and inescapable challenges, such global warming and deep poverty.
Keeping a pat hand in poker (that is, playing the cards you are dealt) sometimes makes good sense, but it is a poor strategy for any political party, and especially a party of socialism that aspires to be a leader of a broader movement in a changing world.
“The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone could have expected.
“To ignore or overlook this fact would mean taking after those ‘old Bolsheviks’ who more than once already have played so regrettable role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality.”
In view of what has occurred over the decades of the 20th century and the first decade of this century, can we do any less than bring a fresh eye and practice, informed by a critical Marxism, to the contemporary world?