Interview with Charlene Mitchell
Charlene Mitchell is an African American. A former leading member of the Communist Party of the United States and CPUSA Presidential candidate, she is currently involved fulltime with the Committees of Correspondence. She has also had a long association with the anti-apartheid solidarity struggle and other anti-racist struggles. In 1992 Charlene Mitchell visited South Africa with Angela Davis. In the course of 1992 the CPUSA suffered a major blow when Mitchell, Davis and numerous other leading members left the party. In this interview with The African Communist (conducted by Raymond Suttner on 23 July 1993), Mitchell traces the background to the crisis in the CPUSA. The African Communist attempted also to interview a representative of the current leadership within the CPUSA, but we were told "it would be pointless".
AC: Comrade Charlene Mitchell, after many years as a leading CPUSA member you have left the party, along with others, including Herbert Aptheker, Angela Davis, Gill Green, Michael Myerson, to cite a few names that are familiar to me. Could you please give us some background to the crisis in the CPUSA?
CM: Well, of course we can't go back all the way into the history of the matter, it would be like trying to write a book about the Communist Party in the United States. But it is important to say that there were some very serious problems that developed with the changes in leader-ship in the Communist Party after the death of our party chair, Henry Winston.
Comrade Winston acted as a brake between the membership and the top leadership. When the top leadership got too top heavy, cde Winston would call a halt and insist, you know, that we have to discuss whatever was unresolved. I don't want to make out as if his death was THE only important thing, but it set in motion certain events...all of which related to the question of democracy within the Communist Party.
Directly related to the absence of inner party democracy was our inability as a party leadership to discuss and deal effectively with a number of critical strategic questions related to the approach to mass movements and the relationship with mass movements; the question of electoral politics; the relationship of the class struggle to the question of the struggle for African-American equality; the question of the relationship to the working class itself and to its organisation, the trade union movement.
So, after the death of cde Winston a number of questions came to a head.
International developments also began to impact on our party. You will recall the change in leadership in the Soviet Union with Andropov, there were signs of a new openness. In our party ranks there was a general acceptance, a joyful acceptance of the direction in which it seemed Andropov was travelling. But the sense that now we could open a little more in our own party, also set off the question: Well if we can do this now, why should we have not done it before?
Questions began to emerge around some of our own policies, around the policies in the Soviet Union, and policies in the rest of the socialist world. But all of this discussion took place on a very low level, very quietly, but it was part of the whole background of the international discussion. The question of the two Germanys and whether there should be a single Germany was a hidden discussion. We never really got to discuss it openly within the leading party structures. When the Wall came down and Gorbachev made his point welcoming reunification it was felt, officially, that it was a betrayal of the socialist movement. But there had never been any real discussion about it, it was just labelled a betrayal.
You're saying that international events in the socialist world high-lighted a lack of glasnost within the CPUSA, a failure to open up discussion on matters that were crucial to the party?
I gather cde Joe Slovo's pamphlet, "Has Socialism Failed?" was regarded as "unhelpful" by the top leadership...
Definitely it was regarded as unhelpful as far as some of our leadership was concerned. But it is that kind of an article, that kind of an opening up of discussion which made an important contribution. Whether one agreed or didn't agree, or agreed partially or not so much with comrade Slovo was no longer the question. The question was that he posed questions that deserved discussion. But instead of encouraging discussion, the top party leadership dismissed Slovo's views as anti-socialist, anti-marxist, anti marxist-leninist.
It was an essential discussion, but the top party leadership in the CPUSA tried to stifle it for as long as possible. So that by the time that this discussion opened broadly...I should say that Slovo's article was not circulated officially within the party, it was circulated circuitously you know, people xeroxed it all over the country and sent it, and so on. (Which is another way of not understanding today's modern communications, and modern technology, because the top leadership should haveknown that it would have been transmitted across the country.)
But even this kind of debate was perhaps not the most central. Theoretical matters are important, but a party might have some time to get itself together and come hack and discuss unresolved theoretical questions.
But at the same time that all this was going on, there was also discussion on two questions directly affecting the day-to-day existence of the party.
One had to do with the character of the US labour movement. Many of us argued that there were fresh winds blowing within the labour movement, and that our old concept of a left-centre coalition within the union movement was no longer a correct way of placing the issue. That there really was no centre any more within the trade union movement, that most of the rank and file and the good leadership was going towards the left. A coalition between the left and the centre could no longer be the main aim of the policy.
That was a discussion that only took place in trade union circles. It was not a main discussion within the party. But even if it had been, no-one would have challenged the old position, because to have challenged it would have been to be "anti-working class" leadership.
The other issue, closely related to the first, was the composition, the new composition of the working class in the US. In the midst of the scientific technological revolution, there has been the growth of what we call the Rust Belt in mid-West (the Rust Belt meaning all of the industrial areas that have been shut down, like in Cleveland, Akron, Chicago, Gary, Indiana, just whole areas of the country). Now this Rust Belt had been the heart of industrial trade unionism in the US. And it was being shut down rapidly, with industries moving to other areas of the country. There has been an absolutely dramatic impact on trade unions. In the US today less than 15% of the work force is organised into trade unions.
Well, not to see that as being a major problem, and not to have a discussion about what you do about that, beyond the slogans of organising the unorganised, not to take note that something fundamental was taking place here, was a disaster. So, that's what I mean when I say that the shutting off of discussion on international questions reflected a more immediate shutting off in terms of our own questions in the United States.
Matters were coming to a head and the death of cde Winston was a blow to the party's ability to open up discussion. On several organisational questions, for example, he would do his best to get more openness into discussion.
For instance, when the demand was made that we tell the size of our membership...(the political bureau never knew how many members were in the party!! We never knew what the exact clues payments were!) When we asked the question, they would say we've recruited 500 members. Cde Winston would say: How many initiation fees do we have? We don't know. Well how do you mean you've recruited 500 members if you don't have 500 initiation fees?! That's not important, these people were all at a meeting and they said that they were interested in joining the party, therefore they must be in the party. I mean those kind of organisational problems, which represented the failure to keep, not only the membership, but even the leadership, abreast of what the problems were.
Hang on, at what level was this occurring? In other words, it's hard to understand, at the PB level someone makes a report as an organiser, or whatever..
...the organisational secretary...
...and the organisational secretary, cannot be held accountable for his/her job, did the organisational secretary fall under the general secretaryship..?
Well, yes, the general secretary of course was the highest, there was supposed to be, in our party, an equal relationship between the chair and general secretary. That was not always the case, but ... the organisational secretary was responsible to the political bureau...
Yet there was no way of compelling the information from the individual?
No, the underlying thesis was that the less we knew the better we worked. And a lot of it was excused by invoking the McCarthy period, that our numbers were wanted by the enemy, and so on. So that was a major problem in terms of honesty. Most comrades felt that we had far more membership, and therefore that we could call on more resources than we could. To be able to call on 20 000 disciplined members is a lot more than being able to call on 3 000 not necessarily disciplined members! This kind of information must obviously impact directly on your own strategy. When we were asked by the party membership to be more evident in certain movements, we couldn't do it because we didn't have it to be there. But most of us didn't know why.
But we also couldn't do it because we didn't see the importance of it, of working in mass movements.
After the death of cde Winston building the party was everything, and if one did not build the party, one was not accomplishing anything at all. The question was not: How do you build the party? It was all more mechanical than that. The main question was to go out and ask people to join the party. Not what the party did to attract people to it. The idea was to have parlour meetings, living room meetings, or passive street corner meetings, or whatever. But our activity within the mass movement that would bring people to us was nothing. Yet, the times that we have recruited the most people and had the most impact was when we were most active in the mass movement, around the Angela Davis case, around work in the anti-Vietnam movement, you know, within the Peace Movement itself, this was the time that we had recruited more people than ever before.
So these were some of the real questions that were up for discussion. Now, the Stalin type organisational structure was very much in operation, not only in our party, all around the world. But in our party it was more one-man leadership that really began to take hold.
It, took hold so firmly that we would not hear, the PB would not hear an outline of the report to the National Committee before the report was given. On the basis of, well, we've been discussing these things for a long time, so you people know what's going to be in the report!! But then it would be given as a collective report, and it was not a collective report, and then after the report the age-old summary would be given, and the report and the summary would be adopted and that would be the line of the party. But there was never any real debate of that line. The debate was: how to carry out that line. The debate was: what didn't we do to carry out the last part of the line as summarised in the last National Committee meeting? You know, that kind of thing. And so this lack of democracy was undermining the party, because you can't have a structure that really works (unless, perhaps, it's an army) if people don't have some input into it.
When cde Winston died, and cde Gus Hall became chairperson, the general secretary's post was...
Was done away with..
So this was a structural reinforcement of this tendency as well..?
Yes, and then the other thing was that there was to be an executive of the PB. You have a PB that is the executive of the National Committee, and then you have an executive of the executive!
To an outsider, building socialism in the biggest industrial country of the world, connotes essentially a mass effort, even if the party is a small communist party, it's got to reach very, very far. From some of the examples you have given me, and other things I have read, in a sense the party leader-ship seems to have been very suspicious of broadening its ranks, or broadening its influence in fact, because the reciprocal effect of broadening influence is that others try to influence you. In some ways it's almost a caricature of what we used to say small trotskyite groupings used to do, this attempt to close off from all influences, safeguard the purity of some vision...
James Steele, who was on the Political Bureau and who has now left the party, used to make a statement in the PB when things REALLY got tight, he would say, are we willing to be a small fish in a big pond, or do we want to be the biggest fish in a small pond? ... But that was exactly the problem. If we couldn't speak on a platform, we didn't take part in it. If we were not considered the vanguard, at least by ourselves, whether other people did or not, it was not worthwhile. So, for example, there is a small Socialist Scholars Conference organised regularly in the US. Rather than trying to take part in one of the workshops and so on, if we couldn't be one of the main panel speakers, we didn't do it.
The concept of the unique role, the historic role of the party, and the concept of vanguard role, was one that we HAD it, that we automatically had it. To in any way act as if we were not permanently the vanguard was unthinkable. So you can understand the problem that presented.
I understand that some of the tensions within the party have also related to the race question?
Yes, this was another issue that came to a head when the National Committee discussed replacing Henry Winston and Gus Hall became the national chair. Our party has always had a leadership of black and white, and we fought for that. I believe that if that kind of leadership is not seen, then it shows that there is not the same interest in this question.
Historically the African American question has been a very special question, central to all democratic struggles in our country. Gus Hall, giving the leadership, began to challenge the centrality of this issue. He argued that the class struggle was central and nothing else could be central.
I am not suggesting that all of a sudden there was racism in the party, or that some people were mean, or anything like that. You had a situation where attention to certain questions that African American comrades felt were important, was downgraded.
We used to have a magazine, a party magazine, called Black Liberation. Gus Hall was opposed to the term "liberation", on the grounds that "liberation" was "tantamount to self-determination". He argued that liberation was for nations, it was an "inexact" term in the US situation. It was at that time that Angela argued that the concept "liberation" was a more total concept than just equality, that it meant that there was a whole cultural identity that had to be plugged for, that the African American movement itself was a movement and it brought through to African Americans the whole question of freedom and not just of formal equality (because that was the position of any administration, that we all needed equal opportunity, and that was as far as we needed to go.) But that was never won.
Could you provide some background to the formation of the Committees of Correspondence with which you are now associated?
At the party convention, as you might know, a number of party districts had been denied their full complement of delegates. It was also decided by the outgoing top leadership of the party that anybody who (like myself) had signed a document entitled "The Initiative to Renew and Unite the Party", could not be in party leadership. As a result of that decision, a number of people who had heretofore been members of the CC were not nominated by the leadership to be part of the CC (National Committee, as we call it)...
The leadership nominates?
Yes, this is the "slate" system. And everytime I, along with most of the PB, had been part of this nominating system. But on this occasion we were excluded, although I was a delegate. So all of the leadership that had challenged the remaining leadership was denied. People like Herbert Aptheker, Franklin Alexander, Angela Davis, Danny Ruben, James Jackson, a good healthy part of the PB, were denied nomination. After the convention was over, we came together to assess what had happened at the convention. We agreed that we needed to find a way to keep together people who were so absolutely frustrated they would be leaving the party. And there would be other people who (like myself initially) would be staying on in the party, but didn't know what to do in the coming months. Then there were others who had not necessarily been in the party, but who were very close to the party, and whom we wanted to keep abreast. So we agreed to continue a network, to tell people what was going on in different parts of the country.
Herbert Aptheker made the proposal to call the network Committees of Correspondence, a name that goes back to 18th century and the time of the American Revolution. So we held a meeting, I think it was in February of 1992, and agreed to call a meeting in the summer of 1992. At that point we thought we would have about 400 people at such a meeting, in the end there were 1300.
The Committees of Correspondence network is based around a newsletter, and our principle objective is to begin the patient task of re-building and reconnecting the left in the US.