On the Webbite tendency in CPUSA

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by Anonymous CPUSA member
Published: 2022-07-07 (last update: 2024-02-27)
15-25 minutes

Gus Hall (1910-2000) was leader of the CPUSA from 1959 until his death in 2000. Hall was known for frequently taking a staunch Marxist-Leninist stance and led the CPUSA through a number of difficult times. In late 1991, a group of reformist members of the CPUSA known as the Committees of Correspondence led a push to move the party away from Marxism-Leninism. This faction was defeated and as a result left the party. This, along with the dissolution of the USSR and fall of the Eastern Bloc socialist countries all in quick succession, resulted in a weakened communist party. The party remained under the leadership of Hall through this period, but as his health deteriorated he stepped down from the position in late 2000 and was replaced by Sam Webb, who was 55 at the time.

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This essay is written by a CPUSA party member who requested anonymity, asking for it to be published on ProleWiki.

Historical Context

Gus Hall (1910-2000) was leader of the CPUSA from 1959 until his death in 2000.[1] Hall was known for frequently taking a staunch Marxist-Leninist stance and led the CPUSA through a number of difficult times. In late 1991, a group of reformist members of the CPUSA known as the Committees of Correspondence led a push to move the party away from Marxism-Leninism. This faction was defeated and as a result left the party.[2] This, along with the dissolution of the USSR and fall of the Eastern Bloc socialist countries all in quick succession, resulted in a weakened communist party. The party remained under the leadership of Hall through this period, but as his health deteriorated he stepped down from the position in late 2000 and was replaced by Sam Webb, who was 55 at the time.[3]

The Webb Era

The Webb era of CPUSA, which formally lasts the duration of Sam Webb’s leadership from 2000-2014, resulted in the strengthening of an ideological trend called known by some as Webbism or the Webbite tendency. Webbism is ideologically marked by the capitulation to liberalism and capitalist realism, heavy individualism, the abandonment of materialist analysis, and the elevation of positions to maintain a monopoly capital-dominated coalition over working-class interests. Materially, Webbism is marked by prioritizing “party unity” in the interests of party leadership over working-class struggles and politics, the prioritizing of personal relationships within the party and within party leadership over the well-being of the party, class collaborationism under the guise of a popular front,  the consolidation of party resources in regions that are ideological strongholds of the Webbite faction such as New York and Chicago, the alienation from more revolutionary sections of the working class, and material splits within the party itself.

During the early Webb era, a number of those who had left CPUSA for its Marxist-Leninist positions under Gus Hall’s leadership returned, which further strengthened the reformist wing of the party. Likewise, throughout the Webb era, CPUSA leadership aligned with Webb purged a number of individuals and local-level clubs that criticized the liquidationist turn the party was taking, including enough Houston party members that a separate organization was started out of those removed from membership.[4] The Webbite effort to turn CPUSA into more of a social group than a structured party resulted in lax and selective enforcement of democratic centralism and other sources of party structure, as well. Some claim that what Webb was doing wasn’t clear to many until it was too late, but by the point there was any form of pushback much of the damage had been done.

Webb was not alone in his attempt to liquidate the CPUSA. C.J. Atkins, current managing editor of People’s World, board member of International Publishers, and a leading CPUSA figure, wrote a piece in 2010 entitled Living in an Era of Change, in which he called for dropping the name “Communist Party” from CPUSA.[5] In the piece, he also attacks Stalin, Mao, and others, calls for working closer with the Democratic Party, and takes an openly liquidationist position in saying, “It is my belief that we could be more effectual operating as a socialist and working-class political organization which does not present itself as a “party” as such.” In the comments section, he states, “Personally, I think that the reform vs. revolution debate is long passed its sell-by date in the United States (think circa early 1900s). It is stale and unproductive. I don’t think there is any way to a better, more progressive (and socialist) U.S.A. that does not go along the path of reforms.”

Joe Sims, current CPUSA co-chair, rebuffed these calls to drop the word “communist” from the name in 2010, but agreed with a number of points that Webb would go on to make regarding party membership and other topics.[6] In 2008, Sims wrote a four-part series of “10 Best and Worst” things about Marxism. In part 1, some of the worst includes, among other things:[7]

  • Dictatorship of the proletariat (“Probably the worst phrase uttered by a political theorist ever. Who wants to live in a dictatorship? Even if I agreed with it conceptually, (which I don't), the Machiavellian in me has enough sense not to repeat it. Indefensible. And by the way, working-class “hegemony” (whatever the hell that means, sorry Gramsicans), aint much better.”)
  • Single party state (“Related to but not necessarily derivative from the “proletarian dictatorship,” the one party state became and remains the model of “existing socialism” (whatever existing socialism means as the old model with one or two exceptions, no longer exists). Created to facilitate a forced march and manage popular consent by controlling the flow of information, it became a substitute for democratic decision-making, ideological struggle by convincing and consent instead of directive and decree. Internet has rendered completely useless. The single party state is doomed.”)
  • Socialist Market economy (“At best utterly confusing to most and a euphemism for capitalism at worst causing the term “capitalism” to almost disappear from the socialist/capitalist lexicon, replaced by the “market.” It has created a huge ideological fog leaving many to scratch their hands and wonder what were we fighting for anyway? Sweden is not my model!”)
  • Negation of the negation (“Most people have no idea what the heck that means, in dire need of reformulation, so people can at least understand it.”)

The other posts can be found here:

http://paeditorsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/this-weeks-ten-worst-and-best-of.html

http://paeditorsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/third-edition-worst-and-best-of-marxism.html?m=1

http://paeditorsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/worst-and-best-of-marxism-4.html

In 2010, current CPUSA Labor Commission chair John Case wrote in an article on Political Affairs entitled Reflections on the 29th Convention of the CPUSA that also calls to reconsider the name “communist” in CPUSA.[8] In a comment under another article, he wrote, “So, I think both Joe's and Thomas's agreement on elections priority simultaneously undermines their resistance to name change. I am not against a stepped process. I think name change without and unconnected to a big push by the Left off the political sidelines would be meaningless. But it seems doubtful in the extreme to me that we can do our duty in 2012 and beyond, as we must, and not subordinate names and -- tactically speaking -- everything else -- to that consideration.”[6]

The Webb era both in early and later years saw significant consolidation of party assets into a handful of CPUSA districts, particularly New York, Illinois, and Ohio, and in particular saw the positioning of Webb’s allies in key places where the party’s material assets were concerned such as the party newspaper and social media. Not only were material resources consolidated, but even promising members from other regions of the country were brought into New York in order to groom them for national leadership and keep them away from contending ideological groups that make up most of the rest of CPUSA across the country. This consolidation has had a lasting effect, and to this day People’s World and national CPUSA social media are still run by Webb’s former allies.

Webbism Formalized, Open Liquidationism Exposed and Challenged

Though the first decade of the 21st century, Webb’s liquidationist approach was generally treated as simply adapting to new conditions by many of the remaining leadership. A significant number resigned in response to the direction the party was taking, and along with this, Webb’s purging of ideological opposition, and the promotion of like-minded members, the Webb era saw the Webbite faction and Webbism more broadly become the dominant trend within leadership at the national level.

In 2011, Webb published Party of socialism in the 21st century: what it looks like, what it says, and what it does.[9] In it, he claims a number of things, including that Marxism-Leninism is dogmatic, that CPUSA should unequivocally condemn Stalin, that membership standards and requirements should be lowered, that the party should be “internet-based,” that dues enforcement and meeting attendance might be too high of expectations, and a number of other things. The piece was widely panned by communists around the world, who lamented the trajectory of the CPUSA at the time and encouraged American communists to fight the Webbite line that was dominating the party at the time.[10]

In 2014 in preparation for the CPUSA National Convention, Sam Webb doubled-down on his positions and called for an open alliance with the Democratic Party.[11] He then justified his positions by claiming the Gus Hall and Henry Winston were those who started these initiatives. In this 2014 piece he also advocated advocated abandoning the term “Marxism-Leninism” and claimed that he disliked the label “scientific socialism,” as well.

However, at this point the pushback against Webb’s line was strong enough from various sectors within CPUSA, even among Webb’s allies, that Webb was not able to maintain his leadership position over the party. At the 2014 CPUSA National Convention Sam Webb stepped down as the party leader and resigned his membership in 2016 due to ideological differences with the party.

The defeat of Sam Webb’s outright liquidationism was an incomplete success for CPUSA, however. Many Webb-era leaders hold leadership positions today, and by the end of the Webb era, the CPUSA had stopped printing its newspaper, People’s Weekly World, changed the nature of the party’s theoretical journal, Political Affairs (which would also later close during the Bachtell era), and even handed over the CPUSA archives to New York University.[12] This, alongside a significantly smaller and weaker membership, meant a much weaker party than at any point in history.

The Bachtell Era

Sam Webb was replaced by John Bachtell at the 2014 Convention. Bachtell joined CPUSA in the 1977[13] and in the 1980s was leader of the Young Communist League. He became Illinois District Organizer in 2001 and Party Chair in 2014 and in 2008 and 2012 Bachtell was active in the Obama presidential campaigns.[13]

John Bachtell, though not as extreme in his liquidationist views as Webb, was part of the general Webbite milieu. Bachtell has been instrumental in the Webbite effort to consolidate party resources in the hands of like-minded reformists. John Bachtell is President of Long View Publishing[14] and People’s World, the CPUSA-affiliated newspaper, is published by Long View Publishing Co., Inc.  Bachtell has used his position at People’s World to promote various reformist and imperialist views, most recently in March 2022 when he advocated imperialist positions regarding Ukraine and Russia.[15] Accusations of mismanagement of People’s World resources and poor management of personnel, particularly during the Webb and Bachtell eras, even go beyond strictly political questions.[16] Bachtell is also on the International Publishers board of directors, as is Joe Sims, C. J. Atkins, and Roberta Wood, all of whom have demonstrated Webbite leanings in the past.[17]

Under Bachtell, reformist language continued to be used, tailist actions and use of party resources/personnel to support bourgeois candidates remained common, and the right-wing of the party continued to suppress attempts to put CPUSA back on track. In 2015, CPUSA dissolved and absorbed into the party its youth branch, the Young Communist League, officially because “the YCL organizational form didn’t fit with the new forms of activism of the today’s young generations.”[18] However, those opposed to the dissolution and merger claimed that this was because the more radical YCL was challenging the reformist approach of the CPUSA leadership.

In 2017, the late Bachtell era, CPUSA members Chauncey Robinson, Roberta Wood, Scott Hiley, and Cori Marshall had a post debating the relevance of the hammer and sickle and whether or not it should altogether be abandoned as a communist symbol.[19] Also in 2017, Bachtell signed on to The left we want to build: Breaking out of the margins, which called for an “inside/outside strategy” in regards to the Democratic Party.[20] This document was signed on by some in the Committees of Correspondence, the social democratic group that split off from CPUSA in the 1990s, among others.

In 2018, John Bachtell, in an overview of China’s path to socialism in which he both praises and critiques China, states in regards to political changes he thinks China needs, says, “Personally, I can’t see not allowing a multi-party electoral system, because there are a variety of class and social forces already in existence (although the Chinese have a system of multi-party consultation).”[21] In short, he claims that the CPC should allow antagonistic class forces to compete for political power in a multi-party electoral system.

Sims-Cambron Era

At the 2019 CPUSA National Convention, John Bachtell was replaced by Joe Sims and Rossana Cambron who took on co-chair positions. 2019 also saw an improvement in the CPUSA program with restoration of various Marxist-Leninist tenets, as well as a drive to restart the Young Communist League. However, unlike Sam Webb, who left CPUSA after his era of pushing the party toward reformism, Bachtell stayed in national-level leadership and continues to promote his agenda.

The election of Sims and Cambron was seen by many within CPUSA as a further move away from Webbism and spurred on in part by the large wave of new members largely due to the Bernie Sanders campaign and election of Donald Trump. This trend away from Webbism continues as more members join the party, but the Webbite faction still controlled various parts of the party at the national level. This was the result of almost two decades of strategic liquidation of party assets and consolidation of others into Webbite-friendly members, regions, and internal organizations such as John Bachtell, the New York District, People’s World, and others.

People’s World in particular has become one of the Webbite strongholds in CPUSA, but this was challenged early in 2022. On March 23, 2022, John Bachtell had a pro-imperialist article published in People’s World.[22]  The article was posted on the front page of People’s World and repeatedly liked by the People’s World Twitter account, which some claim Bachtell runs. However, the article received significant backlash from CPUSA membership and critics outside the party to the point that the article was removed from the front page and leadership was forced to clarify the CPUSA stance on imperialism. Despite membership calls for his resignation or at least removal from leadership positions, John Bachtell remained a leading party figure with influence within the party, president of the publishing company that owns People’s World, and on the board of CPUSA’s printing company International Publishers. Nonetheless, the membership was able to make concessions from one of the right-wing Webbite bases of power, a significant accomplishment given the level of entrenchment of the faction within it.

Today

Currently, the Webbite faction within CPUSA is weaker than it has been since Webb’s takeover in 2000. The ideological trend since the 2019 Convention and arguably since the 2014 convention has been away from Webbism, and each subsequent leadership elected has reflected this. However, Webbism and the broader neo-Webbite, reformist coalition still remains strong enough to maintain its grip on key party assets and functions.

The biggest remnant of Webbite control is the divide between national leadership/those who controls party assets and the broader membership that constitutes the various local-level clubs and districts. The result of both the Webb era and Bachtell era liquidationist efforts and consolidation of remaining party resources in the hands of a few is one of the primary reasons why national leadership does not fully reflect the views of the membership.

With the weakening of the clubs and districts at the expense of consolidating resources along ideological lines came a disconnect between national party leadership and the general membership. Though clubs and districts have been rebuilding during the Sims-Cambron era, the destructive effects of previous leadership still remain, and the current leadership is also a product of these eras and have to answer to a National Board whose composition still contains significant Webbite influence.

The regional consolidation seen under the Webb and Bachtell eras is clearly reflected in CPUSA media and practices today, such as its weekly news show Good Morning Revolution, of which three of the four primary hosts are based out of northeastern states and two of them New York specifically. This is not only a product of Webbite thinking but also acts to reinforce it within the party’s leadership. Though there are occasional guests on the show, these guests, such as John Case, tend to be members who aligned with Webb during the liquidationist era. Others tend to be those who form what could be considered a neo-Webbite coalition which is forming in the post-Webb/post-Bachtell period. These include various social democrats, democratic socialists, eclectic thinkers, intelligentsia who lean reformist, and others who hold certain Webbite-leaning positions even if they don’t hold the full liquidationist positions of Webbism from the previous decade.

Good Morning Revolution is a good encapsulation of the neo-Webbite coalition - a former Webbite and Bachtell ally, two members of the intelligentsia, and a reluctant party leader who may or may not agree but is there nonetheless and along for the ride, all but one of whom the northeastern regions of the country where much of the party’s national resources were consolidated during the Webb era. Neither the Webbite faction nor intelligentsia are representative of CPUSA’s broader membership. Guests are also allies who either are/were Webbites, part of the intelligentsia, or play a role in suppressing anti-Webbite tendencies within the party even if they themselves don’t hold the ideological tenets of Webbism.

One example of this is New York District member Taryn Fivek, who while not being from the original Webbite coalition or holding many Webbite ideological positions, is a member of the intelligentsia, of petty bourgeois background, and actively helps national leadership suppress anti-Webbite tendencies that she disagrees with, such as the 2021 purging of a national-level YCL chat of anyone with an affiliation with the Center for Political Innovation and/or Caleb Maupin. As of November 2019, Fivek was still working with Workers World Party[23] and doing webinars with them as late as March 2020.[24] Her first piece written on the CPUSA website was in November 2020.[25] However, despite this recent change in allegiances, she is one of the only younger members that has been asked to participate in Good Morning Revolution.

It is telling that Good Morning Revolution rarely if ever has any younger CPUSA members from outside of the northeastern US (or outside this region in general) and definitely anyone of strongly differing opinions than those presented on the show. These regions and younger members tend to be opposed to the more reformist, Webbite positions put forward by national leadership. Aside from a few district leaders and the various members of the National Committee, the party’s national leadership does not regularly communicate with its membership, and when communication happens pushback is inevitable. This pushback, however, is often later mocked (usually by Sims), in party media such as Good Morning Revolution and sometimes even in official speeches to the National Committee, reinforcing that the remaining Webbite positions are not to be challenged.

The 2023 CPUSA National Convention is likely to be one of heated discussion and an ideological battlefield. While the remnants of the Webbite faction hold on to many of the party’s national-level assets, they are now in the minority in both leadership and membership. The vast majority of members who have joined over the last two convention cycles have been opposed to the reformist, Webbite line that often comes out of national-level communications, even if leadership will not acknowledge this.

Because part of Webbism includes loosening membership requirements, “membership” can be largely meaningless unless the local or district-level organizers are keeping track and setting standards, which is often discouraged by national leadership. As such, this opens the doors for national leadership to define membership as it suits them, and presents a possible opportunity for them to reject delegate numbers from regions that disagree with them. However, talk of the 2023 National Convention has not started publicly and this has not been discussed in the open.

Furthermore, CPUSA leadership officially rejects factionalism and then defines factionalism as anything that goes against the Webbite line. Because Webbites have control of key party assets, threatening the Webbite grip on power threatens the loss of these aspects and would potentially be a short-term setback for the party. Any openly anti-Webbite, anti-reformist, anti-revisionist opposition is labeled “factionalism” and risks being removed from the party and from national-level positions and committees. To make matters more difficult, though a number of clubs and districts across the country are likely on the same page, leadership discourages cross-club and cross-district communication under the guise of democratic centralism in order to prevent the formation of what they consider factions, or any group that doesn’t serve to maintain the Webbite hold on the party.

There are various factions that national leadership has expressed concern about in various party outlets, particularly those it labels “petty bourgeois radicals” such as Trotskyists, Maoists, and other ultra-left groups and, on the other end, “patriotic socialists,” which leadership considers a broader category than the groups that are often given this label online. None of these groups constitute a majority, nor would they if they were unified, and the largest ideological group within CPUSA membership by far is broadly Marxist-Leninist without any specific affixes or other ideological leaning within that label. The neo-Webbite coalition consists of trends smaller than most niche oppositional ideological trends, but are often well-connected within the party and have more resources they can expend.

However, despite its significant numerical disadvantage, the Webbite faction is very politically savvy when it comes to internal party politics. Many of the other ideological tendencies and factions, particularly those that consist of younger members, often come to these fights with an idealist lens and assume that because they have the a more correct line that they will win. The current influence and past two decades of Webbite control prove otherwise. For the Webbite faction to be fully removed from power and influence within CPUSA the various opposition forces will need to prepare and struggle appropriately and with an understanding of the Webbite faction and neo-Webbite coalition more broadly on both material and ideological grounds.

References

  1. https://web.archive.org/web/20171108081105/http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/17/us/gus-hall-unreconstructed-american-communist-of-7-decades-dies-at-90.html
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20070311011756/http://www.mndaily.com/daily/gopher-archives/1992/02/19/Party_survives%2C_but_as_a_shell.txt
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20170202182614/http://www.dkp-online.de/internat/amerika/usa/32200803.htm
  4. http://houstoncommunistparty.com/about/
  5. http://politicalaffairs.net/living-in-an-era-of-change/
  6. 6.0 6.1 http://politicalaffairs.net/extreme-makeover-goes-too-far/
  7. http://paeditorsblog.blogspot.com/2008/08/ten-worst-and-best-ideas-of-marxism.html
  8. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/reflections-on-the-29th-convention-of-the-cpusa/
  9. https://samwebb.org/party-of-socialism-in-the-21st-century-what-it-looks-like-what-is-says-and-what-it-does/
  10. http://marxistupdate.blogspot.com/2011/10/critiques-of-sam-webbs-cpusa.html
  11. https://www.cpusa.org/party_voices/convention-discussion-toward-a-modern-mature-21st-century-communist-party/
  12. https://www.cpusa.org/party_info/communist-party-usa-donates-archives-to-tamiment/
  13. 13.0 13.1 https://www.gawker.com/talking-politics-with-the-head-of-the-communist-party-u-1723918251
  14. https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-bachtell (Archived)
  15. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/putin-regime-emerges-as-the-main-danger-to-global-peace-and-security/
  16. https://kevincgustafson.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/for-james-how-the-cpusa-and-peoples-world-killed-my-comrade-and-friend/
  17. https://www.intpubnyc.com/board-of-directors/
  18. https://web.archive.org/web/20210302015517/https://www.cpusa.org/thank-you-for-supporting-the-ycl/
  19. https://cpusa.org/interact_cpusa/the-hammer-and-sickle-today/
  20. https://www.cpusa.org/article/the-left-we-want-to-build-breaking-out-of-the-margins/
  21. https://www.cpusa.org/party_voices/the-long-march-to-socialism-with-chinese-characteristics/
  22. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/putin-regime-emerges-as-the-main-danger-to-global-peace-and-security/
  23. https://www.workers.org/2019/11/44618/
  24. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N219VLAsID8&feature=emb_title
  25. https://www.cpusa.org/article/engels-200-struggle-for-socialism-in-the-real-world/