Why we need the Communist Party USA

Fighting for reforms is an essential feature of the battle against capitalism. However, without the conscious, purposeful activity of a revolutionary working-class party, this essential work will only remain in the arena of reforms, that is, it will not touch the power of capital.

I was reminded of this recently when speaking with a comrade about activists who were once engaged in the communist movement. “She or he is doing great work,” I’m often told. And knowing the individuals concerned, I’m sure that’s true. “But that great work,” I thought, reflecting on the conversation, “will not by itself result in fundamental change.” It will not touch the power of capital.

This is one of the main and, perhaps, most controversial points made in What Is to Be Done?, one of the key works by Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin. Trade union activity, he argues, left to itself, will lead only to trade union consciousness, a narrow focus on wages and benefits absent broader political struggles.

And what’s true for union struggles is also potentially true for other issues, be they housing, police murder, health care, the environment. Each, engaged only in its individual sphere of activity, vital as they are, will be unable to see beyond their singular orbit, that is, to anti-racist, anti-sexist, or even anti-corporate consciousness.

Here, however, important qualifications must be made; first that anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles, all independent and valid in their own right, are oftentimes significant points of entry to the revolutionary movements for those affected. Second, due to the existence of a racial- and gender-based social division of labor, both objectively have enormous revolutionary potential.

Still, the point remains, and it was for this reason that Lenin argued that socialist consciousness must be introduced from “outside” the working-class movement. By “outside,” Lenin was referencing the fact that the communist worldview originated as a science and art, a living body of knowledge and practice, produced initially by intellectuals organized in political parties and movements that came to the aid of the workers’ movement.

I struggled with this “theory must be brought from the outside” concept for many years. Why in this late day and age should workers need the intervention of a science initially produced by middle-class intellectuals, I reasoned? Won’t that lead to middle-class domination of the workers’ movement? Indeed, can’t we produce such theory ourselves? And moreover, isn’t that one of the goals of the communist movement, to produce working-class intellectuals?

I imagined that this was at least in part a problem of history and thought that, particularly with the introduction of the public school (a product of Radical Reconstruction, by the way), education, once the sole province of upper and middle classes, is today working-class property as well. Now we can produce our own theory, I concluded. And I still think so.

Problem solved? Not necessarily.

Lenin was making another more profound point, as suggested above, a point about the very reason for being a communist party: socialism does not arise spontaneously. It requires the conscious intervention of conscious forces.

The working-class intellectuals leading the Communist Party USA (principally Gus Hall and Henry Winston) in the 1980s understood this and popularized Lenin’s idea. They called it the “communist plus,” that is, the unique thing that Marxists add to all struggles. It’s the very thing, the very quality that, without its use, social revolution will not occur.

That term “communist plus” is now coming back into use after years of being set aside. This is a really important development.

By communist plus is meant “added value”; plus means employing a class analysis; plus means seeing that it’s all interconnected; plus means fighting for unity. A class analysis means understanding that capitalism’s problems are rooted in a system of economic exploitation—everything is based on making the most money and profit possible, no matter what. That said, a class analysis is the beginning of understanding, not the end of it, as some one-sidedly seem to think.

Yes, economic issues permeate questions surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, age, the environment, and many others dynamically, each influencing the other and all impacting each. Indeed, capitalist society is complex and grows more so with the passing of every day. That’s why with the plus we understand that all social life is interconnected (so is all life in the natural world of which we are a part).

How? One connection is economic: The racial and gender wage gaps are clear examples of this. As a whole, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women are paid less than whites for the same work. Why? Holding down the wages of one section of the class means more money in the bosses’ pockets. It’s a source of extra profits.

And that’s where the fight for unity comes in. It’s self-evident that you can’t build solid working-class unity unless you stand for equal wages for everyone; that’s why the bosses continually pit sections of the class against each other. Undocumented immigrants, for example, are routinely accused of taking away jobs.

But building unity also requires a deeper look; it’s not just dollars and cents. Students of Marxism-Leninism should beware of economic determinism, that is, the idea that class determines everything. It doesn’t.

The plus allows us to understand what are called “all-class” issues under capitalism. For example, all Black people confront racial discrimination regardless of class; driving while Black is an example. All women suffer from sexism and face discrimination because they are women. Marxism approaches these struggles as “special questions,” and there are many of them—for example, youth, the environment, seniors, peace, etc.

Of course, class “intersects” forcefully here, but it’s not the only issue. Some of these all-class issues, like race and gender, are expressed by an insistence on equal rights. “Treat us equally” is the common demand, “We will not accept less!”

Because these demands involve rights in a capitalist society, for example, the right to vote, or the right to fair housing, even the right to self-determination, Marxism thinks of them as “bourgeois” democratic struggles. No one should conclude, however, that because they are bourgeois democratic struggles they are any less important—no!

Why? For one thing, they have powerful working-class content. Ninety percent of all people of color are working class. And today, an overwhelming majority of women are workers. This is equally true for LGBTQ people. And while Communists are for equal rights in general, we are particularly in favor of equal rights for the working classes of all the oppressed peoples and genders.

Second, these struggles give the working class valuable organizing experience; when successful, they show workers that positive change is possible and help workers gain confidence. Indeed, they have the potential to draw the working class into the deeper struggle for socialism. In fact, a successful struggle for socialism is impossible without insisting on these democratic demands in the here and now.

Third, these democratic struggles attempt to dismantle systems of institutionalized racism and sexism. We emphasize the word systems because their impacts are everywhere you look: in the criminal justice system, health care, housing, education, and in the labor market. Building working-class unity means pushing these issues to the forefront.

Hence, the communist plus demands of us a general critique of the capitalist system in everything we do: in organizing, in writing, in creating. It demands that we look under the hood, deeper into the inner workings of the system, and point out as we go the systemic causes of the hardships people endure. This allows discovery of points of unity, a way of connecting reforms, seeing their interrelations, and thereby both deepening and broadening the struggle.

And that’s the whole point of it all. So yes, the road ahead will be paved by fighting for reforms, address the day-to-day issues facing our working class and people. Today, as people form miles-long lines at food banks, face eviction and loss of unemployment insurance at year’s end, we fight alongside them. It’s our job to continually connect these issues to the socialist goal, to the fight to overcome the vast power of capital—that’s the “plus” Communists add.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.