The tradition and theory of Marxist-Leninism has served the Communist Party USA well. CPUSA chair Sam Webb’s comments (PWW 4/16-22) appear to reflect a retreat from the theoretical foundations of communist activism.

The idea of a vanguard party is not only slighted in Webb’s article, but replaced with some amorphous notion of an “assembly of forces” loosely gathered around “core constituencies.” Elsewhere, Webb has criticized vanguardism as elitist. But this distorts the meaning of the term. A party establishes itself as a vanguard by projecting advanced ideas that rally the working class to move beyond a defensive posture and draw masses to the idea of socialism. A vanguard party is not merely a doorstop for more popular bourgeois parties or a cheerleader for the labor movement, but a catalyst for moving beyond the pseudodemocratic electoral system and the limitations of business unionism.

Webb would have us believe that now is not the time for the CPUSA to be the “advanced guard” on the political stage. Instead, he places the struggle against the Bush administration as paramount, overshadowing every other struggle: “it is the main form of the class struggle at this moment,” he writes. The Bush administration is the vanguard of neoliberalism, imperialism and predatory capitalism. No doubt about it. And other bourgeois forces are in contention, looking to advance Capital and imperial dominance in a more gradual, less short-sighted, more prudent way. But that is not the role of communists. Only communists can lead the opposition to all forms of capitalism and imperialism. Without a militant, revolutionary, and partisan party for socialism, there is only a quarrel over the best form of capitalism.

The vision outlined in the article promises that when the Bush business is finished, we can renew our commitment to socialism. This is a highly unscientific, historically unfounded picture of social change. Our party has grown, not after the worst reactionaries are routed, but in the course of fighting against them and for reform. Workers are attracted to our party when they recognize that we fight for higher values, greater goals, and not for individual satisfaction, advancement or prestige. It is exactly our commitment to socialism that inspires others to put aside pettiness and individualism to fight for a greater cause.

Webb appears to oppose, even deride the idea of revolution — a “Great Revolutionary Day,” he mocks. The CPUSA was founded and sustained as a revolutionary party, dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. It is a caricature to portray revolutionary change as apocalyptic or predestined. Revolutionary change becomes possible as the result of enormous organizational effort to educate, activate and lead masses of working people. Its character will be shaped, not by some model, but by circumstances and opportunities. Like William Z. Foster before us, we are wary of ideas that set the USA apart from the laws of social change.

Movements in other countries also face the Bush administration and its rabid imperialism. Are they wrong to choose a revolutionary path? Should the Venezuelan people put aside their hopes for a just society to form a more agreeable front against Bush? Should FARC lay down its weapons to foster unity with other anti-Bush forces? Should the Cuban people accede to the cynical human rights groups that attack it in the Western, monopoly press so that the heralded anti-Bush coalition will be appeased? We think the struggle against capitalism and imperialism should be intensified in all its forms, not dampened to meet some lowest common denominator.

At the center of Webb’s disturbing portrait of 21st-century communism is a docile CPUSA that fears upsetting the institutions that claim to speak for the working class — the Democratic Party and the trade union establishment. While Webb is quick to point out that “the ruling class isn’t one undifferentiated, homogenous social class,” he seems to forget that the working class, the Democrats and the AFL-CIO are not monolithic either. Nor does he seem to find a place for class struggle within these groups.

Much of this is justified by likening the current struggle against the ultra-right to the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. As with that period, the thinking goes, the CPUSA should advocate a “united front” and extend an uncritical hand to all who oppose Bush. But this is a misunderstanding, a distortion of the position communists — the Comintern and its leader Georgi Dimitroff — took in 1935. Dimitroff explicitly denied that the united front replaced proletarian revolution. Nor did united-front tactics require communists to put aside education and agitation for socialism or criticism of bourgeois parties. The Comintern’s 7th Congress affirmed that communists were to continue “their independent work in the sphere of communist education, organization and mobilization of the masses.”

We wish to see that tradition sustained and expanded in the CPUSA.

Coauthored by Thomas Kenny. The authors are readers of the People’s Weekly World.