Mistakes Were Made: A Talk With the Head of the Communist Party USA
The United States of America has a Communist Party. John Bachtell is its national chairman. We spoke to him about American politics, the mistakes of the Soviets, and communism’s “branding problem.”
Bachtell grew up in Ohio, with parents active in the civil rights and antiwar movement. He became interested in communism in college, and has been a member of the party since 1977. All the while, he’s been involved in political campaigns as well. We met him last week at the Communist Party USA’s headquarters on 23rd street in Manhattan to hear what modern American communism is all about. It’s not your daddy’s communism.
Gawker: Your involvement in electoral campaigns is mainly organizing for progressive Democrats?
John Bachtell: Yes, mainly progressive Democrats and independents at every level, whether it be city council, state rep, Senate, Presidential. I was really active in both Obama campaigns. Actually I was his precinct captain for his Senate campaign in Illinois.
Gawker: Do people ever reject your help because they don’t want the Communist Party associated with their campaigns?
JB: Not usually. I tend to be more tactical, so it doesn’t really become an issue. I don’t make it an issue—we don’t make it an issue. We’re all about coalition building in the electoral arena... It’s hard for us to run candidates that are not within the framework of either the Democratic Party, or independent politics.
Gawker: How has the party changed in the nearly 30 years you’ve been in it?
JB: I think we have gone through a lot of different changes. Unfortunately I think we’re a little smaller now than we were back in the 80s. There were huge setbacks that took place back in 1991, and that had a big impact on not only the Communist Parties around the world, socialist parties—it had a big impact on the labor movement. I don’t know that people fully appreciate the extent of that setback to mass movements. But certainly it had an impact on our party, and I’m not sure we’ve fully recovered from it. At the same time, it prompted us to embark on a very deep examination of our politics and organization, and since then we’ve been embarking on a lot of changes. We call them transformative changes that modernize the party, that make us a party of 21st century socialism, that bring us from the political margins into the political mainstream.
Gawker: And by that do you mean focusing more on coalitions with more mainstream movements on the left, or what?
JB: It entails first of all rooting ourselves in the political and economic realities of today. Our main strategic concept that we’ve been working with since 1980 is the rise of the right—the extreme right—its domination of politics in the US. That all rose with Reagan and the right wing takeover of the Republican party. And that’s been with us since then. We’ve seen it as recently as the last election cycle and everything that’s come out of that, and the domination of state governments by extreme right wing Republicans, and what they’ve been able to do on worker rights, women’s rights, voter suppression, and a whole bunch of different things. There’s a real threat to basic democratic rights as we see it. We were one of the very first organizations to sound the alarm and call for a very broad multi-class united front against the extreme right. And I think that’s been validated. Now it’s a very broadly accepted concept. But the extreme right’s not gonna be defeated without a multi-class movement that involves those sections of Wall Street that don’t go along with the Koch brothers; that also involves the labor movement, communities of color, women’s organizations, youth and students, and all the Democratic movements, immigrant rights, gay and lesbian rights, seniors, you name it. All have to be part of this. Otherwise we won’t be able to advance to any other stages of struggle in this country.
Gawker: What’s been your impression of the Obama administration, and Obama’s record?
JB: When he was first elected we thought that perhaps his presidency could be a transformative moment for the country. I think we underestimated the degree of opposition from the Republicans and sections of Wall Street and monopoly capital. They thwarted him at every turn, and there were also divisions within the Democrats as well. So it was really hard for the administration to do some of what they wanted to do. Nevertheless, we felt that he could have gone further than he did, particularly economically, but the fact is that the Republican obstruction has been full court obstruction of everything...
Now you have a shift in mass public opinion that’s gravitating on a lot of key issues in a very good direction: majorities in support of taxing the rich, in support of immigration reform, you name it. I think that is in some ways allowing the administration to bypass Congress and use executive authority to move forward.
Gawker: Is growing the party an important goal for you? Is recruiting younger people into the party important to you?
JB: I think as part of the process of building this broad people’s coalition, we see rebuilding the left—because a broad left is a necessary part of that. I think in a lot of ways the organized left is marginalized. Its voice has not been fully heard, except now through the Sanders campaign you’re seeing signs of it... but in a lot of ways the left has not been able to speak very broadly to the American people. And so I think rebuilding the left as a viable force, and also our party as a mass voice for socialism in the country, is needed to put forward much more advanced solutions.
Gawker: It does seem like in previous generations, big, organized left wing groups like yours were more popular, but they’re not as much now with the younger generation, even though the left wing sentiment is still there. Why do you think that is?
JB: Obviously the McCarthy period had a huge impact on the left, and really isolated the left in the country in the 50s. The 60s began to bring the left from the margins back into the conversation again. But the rise of the extreme right in the 80s, which was connected in a lot of ways to a whole restructuring of capitalism and the beginning of globalization, there was an ideological component that went with it, that really once again made left ideas not viable, or worthy of public discussion. Shunted them to the side. Mass media was part of that. So there was no way to gain entry in a big way. Having said that, I think the left also did a lot to isolate itself, and in that context spoke to itself and not to broad masses. I think that we fell into that as well, even though we tried to find ways to modify our message. I don’t think we were effective enough in that. And that takes me to today, because I think in a lot of ways that’s still true: the left speaks too narrowly, to too narrow of an audience.
Gawker: Do you feel that the Communist party has a branding problem, for lack of a better term? Is the stigma that goes with being the Communist party still a stumbling block?
JB: I don’t think you can conclude anything other than that. I think we have a branding problem, and even though there’s been a decline in anti-communism in the country, I think we are still in many ways associated with the Soviet Union and with that whole era of global socialism. The early part of the 20th century. Some people may see us a foreign import, even though we’re deeply rooted in the revolutionary democratic traditions of this country. And that’s something we have to grapple with.
Gawker: You’ve written about your commitment to work with Democrats and the Democratic party. Is that just a nod to political reality? And if that’s a transitional strategy for you, what’s the long term strategy?
JB: We see the long term movement towards socialism as necessary, but it’s not inevitable. Because with global climate change and the danger of nuclear weapons humanity may not survive. So it’s really up to the will of humanity to figure out a way forward. But we do see the struggle in the United States as going through a number of stages. The current one, as I said, is to defeat the extreme right. It also overlaps with another more advanced stage of struggle, which is the struggle against monopoly corporations and the capitalist class as a whole. But we do see building a very broad majority people’s coalition—you can’t win any fundamental change big majorities. That’s what history shows us, so that’s what we’re all about.
Gawker: What do you think accounts for the success of the right, which you say you’ve been grappling with since the 80s?
JB: Well, you’re dealing with some extremely powerful forces that have unlimited resources, and they’re not only able to fund movements, but whole institutions, mass media, and so on. So they’re extremely powerful, and you can never underestimate what they’re capable of doing. And I think it’s also related to what we were talking about earlier: during the rise of the right, they were basically able to shut out the alternatives. They were able to shut out the voice of the left. So that’s why they were able to ideologically dominate political discourse in the country, and then were able to influence how people thought at the grassroots.
Now, we’re facing this long term economic stagnation in the country, and this is the new normal. Mass unemployment; huge wealth disparity, and increasingly so; the only means of economic development is through external stimulus, and so on; and declining living standards. So you have a lot of scared people. People are really scared. So a lot of people are open to easy solutions. So you start pouring in racism, and xenophobia, and homophobia, and so on—people buy it, if there’s not a counter to it. Then I think we have a problem where a lot of people, it’s easy for people to think they can get outta this thing on their own. Individualist solutions. They don’t see collective struggle. And I think that’s an important lesson we all have to learn: that any change in this country is going to be collective struggle. Masses in motion...
There’s a lot of great things that are happening. With the labor movement. Just in the last year, we’ve had an incredible conversation around the country about racism, and institutionalized racism. Black Lives Matter has played an important role. We’ve had these incredible developments around marriage equality, and gay and lesbian equality. These are really sea changes in public opinion in a lot of ways. And they harken to possibilities for the future.
Gawker: When it comes to economic inequality, do you feel your party has some special insight on that issue? What would be your (near term) prescription?
JB: There’s a lot of great ideas being put forward that we totally support, and have actually been promoting for many years. Beginning with income redistribution in the country, taxing the wealthy and corporations, eliminating all the corporate welfare subsidies, ending privatization of public services and assets. We support the idea of a financial transactions tax. We’re of course for a massive shifting of the federal budget away from military spending and pouring that money into a massive project to rebuild cities and towns all across the country, a high speed rail system from coast to coast, a transition to a sustainable economy, completely divesting off of coal, and pouring money into healing the environment. Which we feel in the short term will generate millions or tens of millions of new jobs and put people back to work much the way the WPA did. I think one of the missing elements of this campaign—although [Bernie] Sanders talks about it—is a call for a massive public works program that will put literally everybody back to work in one way or another. And I think it’s possible. But it’s only possible with income redistribution in society.
Gawker: The biggest socialist foreign policy story now would be America’s relationship with Cuba. What’s your take on it, and on the Cuban socialist experiment as a whole?
JB: I think this is a really exciting time. The normalization of relations is long overdue. It’s something that supported by the Cuban people and the majority of Americans, so I think it’s a wonderful thing. I also think it’s an exciting time for the Cubans, because of their reinventing socialism and updating their socialist model.
I think that they recognized that the current model they were working under was not doing the job, was not leading to the kind of development that was necessary, and that in fact they were losing ground in a lot of ways. And I think one of the conclusions that they drew was that the model that they had, which was based on the Soviet model—centralized planning—was not and maybe never could have been conducive to the realities that they faced there. So they had to change. The had to. While they are not giving up their objective of building socialism, they realized that they had to find ways to have a number of different forms of social property and private property. They had to find a way to open up the doors to foreign investment, either wholly or in joint form. And they had to find a way to involve a much bigger section of the Cuban people in this process. So I think the whole movement towards cooperatives is a really important development.
But also this idea that you have to have incentives. And that I think was one of the fundamental mistakes—it was a mistake for the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries that collapsed, that they leveled income, and they didn’t see the need for rewarding work. So now you have the institution of wages at different levels, even though it’s within a range. Still, you have to have that. People demanded it, and they’re responding to it. And that’s an important lesson. We see that as part of our socialism as well.
Gawker: Is there an official policy on that for the Communist Party? I think a standard American view is that communism involves both centralized planning and hyper-equality, which strikes fear in people’s hearts.
JB: We see our socialism in the United States as being very unique. At the same time we have to examine the mistakes and errors that happened, including the overcentralization and the totality of the state sector and the leveling of wages and so on. I think most would agree those were big mistakes which compounded and helped to lead to the collapse, or was a factor in the collapse of socialism. We see, at least in the foreseeable future, a market much like we see today, but a much bigger state sector, and one in which the power of corporations and Wall Street is severely limited. And that actually the big corporations and the big banks are brought under public ownership. And that we reverse privatization and expand public assets.. but at the same time, we do see a need for the range of wages depending on a person’s contribution to society or their ability to produce. They should be rewarded for that.
Gawker: Is your vision for America a sort of Scandinavian model? Or is there another model, or precedent?
JB: I don’t think so. Although obviously we see this transition taking place through the electoral arena. We see a socialist coalition being elected, one that can institute these kinds of policies, including expanding public ownership. As I said, our aim is to curb the power of the biggest corporations in the country, and the wealthiest people. I think there will be a big role for small businesses, and farmers, and even middle-sized corporations. We’re not about advocating taking people’s personal property. That’s not anything we believe in. We call it “Bill of Rights Socialism,” by the way. It’s kind of an expansion of the Bill of Rights... making the right to a job part of the Constitution. The right to a free education, free health care, free child care, access to affordable housing and mass transit. All those things should be basic rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.
Gawker: How optimistic are you that some of these things are actually going to get done, whether in the next few years or in your lifetime?
JB: I’m really optimistic for the future. But I’m also obviously very alarmed by the dangers that we face as a country, as a world, and as humanity. We don’t have a lot of time. Especially when you consider global climate change and how rapidly the potential for destabilizing whole ecosystems [is growing], and how fast humanity could be obliterated, or at least large sections of humanity. So we have to work with urgency. We have to help much larger sections of people understand the urgency of the moment. And I think people are. How quickly is another question. But that’s part of the role of movements.
[Image by Jim Cooke]