Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Do Communists Need a Name Change?

Communists need a name change. We do. That name has been so maligned, so distorted that it's impossible to do anything about. I mean the negatives were so great, that despite the positives, and there were many, we are just beat over the head with it and it doesn't matter. There's such a knee jerk reaction. It's never going to work.

So ranted one of the international delegates at the SACP Congress over coffee the other day. It was a little surprising considering he came from one of the more "staunch" European parties.

But he has point. While "COMMUNIST" is a universally recognized brand name, it's negative connotations are also universal.

Or are they?

Events at the South African Communist Party Congress began Wednesday with a panel on socialist developments in Latin America. Representatives from Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil presented views on the sharp left turn taken by Latin American countries. There the Communist movements a experiencing an upsurge in growth with the Communists of Brazil participating in a 11-party coalition government led by the Lula's Workers party. In Venezuela the CP has also more than doubled its size in the last years. Venezuela is also in the process of creating a new socialist party under Chavez's initiative. And of course Cuba enjoys near mythic status on the left, because of the enormous personality and contribution of the aging Fidel Castro. But that's not all, or perhaps even most of it. Cuba has marshaled victory after victory on social issues, with great strides being made in medicine, education and the environment.

By the way, South Africa's Communist Party according to convention documents has also experienced a spurt in growth with over 55,000 members filling its ranks. The number of women delegates was really striking at this Congress in stark contrast to previous meets.

So obviously in some place "brand name" is not such a big problem.

I suggested as much to the troubled speaker, pointing not to Latin America or South Africa, but to the good old USA, where trade union anti-Communist clauses have been gotten rid of now almost a decade ago and where Communists gain growing recognition and respect in peace, labor and civil rights struggles. Which is not to suggest everything is honky dory, but rather that a change has been made in the public's attitude.

I asked my new friend whether it might not be more a generational issue: with the Cold War born baby boomers being most problematic but with younger people more open. At least that has been my experience.

The assembled comrades, all of who were English speaking, paused to think about it. I wonder what blog readers think?

Upcoming international panels will be on the experiences of parties in government; building left networks in Africa and the role of progressive forces in dealing with the Middle East crisis.

One very positive European experience is in Cyprus, where the Communist of the EDON party are the biggest party in the country. They recently won the mayor's office in Nicosia, the country's capital. The experience of EDON suggests, that the name question isn't really a principled issue as the Cypriot Communists have a long proud and principled ideological history.

To me, I think a bigger problem than the name problem is narrow, sectarian and dogmatic practices masquerading as "science" under the banner of Marxism-Leninism. Knee jerk reactions to name will lessen as communists gain confidence, come out of the closet and participate in membership and circulation drives. From this point of view, those who are the most "left" are precisely those who are least willing to be known in public for what they are. And they are all baby boomers and older. But again, I wonder what folks think.

--joe sims


Anonymous said...

I am a member of UFCW local 655 St Louis and it has cost me a job or two being a open communist

Brendan Dieffenbach said...

I have taken to calling myself a socialist as of late for two reasons: First, I am a realist, and I think that bringing about a more socialistic United States within the next fifty years is a reasonable, if ambitious, goal. However, I do believe that society functions best when people live and behave communally. However, this would require a massive restructuring of both North American society and cultural mores, which makes it an infeasible goal within our lifetimes, I think. So I describe myself as a communist in the long-term, and a socialist in the short-term. Secondly, I do find, as the delegate you speak of might suggest, that calling oneself a socialist (as opposed to a communist) does soften the blow to one who might not be wholly receptive to Marxist sentiments. It's a tactical action, which often gives me a better chance of sharing my views with someone who would otherwise be dismissive of my positions. I would say that I call myself a socialist more so for the former reason than the latter. I think the delegate in question raises some valid points. As an intern for the Secular Student Alliance, I have found that there are fundamental differences in how believers and non-believers perceive you depending upon what label you apply to yourself. "Atheist" often comes off negative and unfriendly. "Humanist" is far more agreeable and positive, but not all atheists are humanists. "Freethinker" is popular within the movement, but can be patronizing to theists. And "Bright" tends to strike secular and religious people alike as haughty and insulting. So I see the delegate's point. However, as you say, there is a growing feeling on the continent that the label of "communist" is gradually losing its Cold War era baggage, and to "take it back" would represent a very positive step for our movement. Cheers, you commie.

eddie said...

acceptance doesn't mean approval. the plain reality is our name hangs two strikes on us before we ever come up to the plate. if we want to be listened to with respect and become a genuine factor in our country our name must be changed. eddie stinson

Anonymous said...

In contrast to "mocommunist," I've been an open communist as an organizer in the labor movement and it has earned me respect from at least two of my employers. (Maybe Seattle is a little more tolerant of communists than St. Louis?)

However, even if I hadn't had this experience, I would still be against changing the name, I believe Marc Brodine summed that up in the People's Weekly World quite well in 2006:

Todd Tollefson

Miles said...

We owe it to the millions who have died in those historic events that now cause knee-jerk reactions to redeem the name communist. We also owe it to the millions who have suffered and whose suffering has gone unrecognized under capitalism to continue calling ourselves communists.

This isn't a marketing decision, we are talking about the world wide global struggle of workers to attain autonomy. And that's called communism.

Joseph M. Cachia said...

Definitely not! It is my sincere pleasure and pride to be known as a true communist and would be ashamed to be called by any other name but a communist.

J. M. Cachia Malta

Anonymous said...

You wanna quit calling yourselves Communists? That's fine; you never were Communists in the first place. But I know where I stand, and it happens to be with Lenin, as a Communist, which is exactly what I've always been and will always be.

Anonymous said...

I am using anonymous simply because I can't post under my own name, Norman Markowitz, because of the technology of this blog system We should not abandon or reject the use of the word Communist, particularly Americans and South Africans, both of whom have suffered special oppression because of our ruling classes use of that term.
Nor should any party in the world which uses the name(there are some of course that for a variety of reasons have never used the name, calling themselves Workers parties, or Peoples Democratic Parties or other names) abandon the name. It would be as others have said, a denial of our history and the millions who have fallen to make revolutions and fight against fascist and other tyrannies.

Changing the name won't really prevent ruling classes from harassing our members if we act as Communists, that is fighters for the working class against capitalism.

We will be more effective as Communists by making the name represent what we do positively, by proving to the working class that the anti-Communist propaganda is anti-labor, anti-people, anti-them, then by changing our name. The argument for changing the name reminds me a little of those leftwingers who argued that the CPUSA should have tried to remain "neutral" on the cold war and criticized both the United States and the Soviet Union "even-handedly" and that this would have prevented the McCarthyite persecutions. I don't think so.
Changing the name of the party is an example of "hiding the face" of the party, the term that was used in the past in the movement. It is something that you may have to do if you are living under an open dictatorship but it is something that you don't or shouldn't choose to do.

Those who historically have pushed for that kind of position have pushed really to abandon the core concepts of Marxism-Leninism that are the basis for Communist parties, to either transform the party into a pre-Communist social democratic party or even as Earl Browder, who continued to use the name Communist because of its positive connotations at the end of WWII, to transform the party into a "political association," or pressure group like, in my opinion, Britain's influential, but non Marxist socialist Fabian Society at the the time.

Apartheid in South Africa used the "Suppression of Communism Act" as a foundation for its brutal racist dictatorship. The Taft-Hartley law, which had devastating effects on the labor movement, and the Smith and McCarran Internal Security Acts, which had devastating effects on the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of all Americans, were presented in the name of anti-Communism.
We should not "honor" the enemies of the working people, of peace, and of international justice justice by giving them what they want and changing or hiding our name.
Norman Markowitz

Anonymous said...

What happened to the idea that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Or are we dogmatically insisting that a rose is only a rose if it calls itself a rose? Do we stand with Lenin because we say we do, or because we struggle for socialism? What does "standing with Lenin" even mean? Sounds like empty and archaic rhetoric to me.

David Simbirsk said...

When did Karl Marx write The Something Else Manifesto?

Doug said...

I just say I'm a socialist and let my friends, co-workers and family try to figure out that I'm really a communist.

Jennifer said...

That's really funny. Maybe you know that the American Nazi Party changed its name to the National Socialist Movement, desiring to drop the use of the word "Nazi" as it carried too much "historical baggage". They still wear brown shirts and swastika armbands, and they're still Nazis, but they don't want to be associated with the word. Why should we ape their pointless tilting at windmills?

Are we still communists, or are we something else? Aren't there already more than enough Marxist and pseudo-Marxist factions using various names, mostly forgettable or at best confusing to the mainstream media? Isn't being the Communist Party USA and having that name one of our strongest points in attracting interest and publicity? It just seems to me that changing our name to something else would render us indistinguishable from at least a dozen or so other minor parties in the eyes of the popular press, and likewise the public at large.

john m. said...

Frankly, I don't care what you call yourselves, but part of the negative baggage that comes with the name "Communist" is an association with the Soviet model, and not the heroic defeat of Hitler, but the suppression of dissidents, lack of due process, the gulag, KGB surveillance, summary executions, torture and the show trials.

Deal frankly with THAT baggage, and then call yourselves what you want. Attempts have been made over the years, but those wanting to confront that baggage, as happened after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and later Czechoslovakia, have generally ended up being driven out of the party. The fact that this post appeared and is generating some discussion hopefully signals a new day and not just another abortive "thaw."

Michael McGraw said...

As one of those baby boomers that Joe seems to think that are flinching when the word Communist is used I will only say that I do not have a problem at all in calling myself or of being called a Communist(which I have from co-wokers). Onwards with the enlightenment!!!

David Simbirsk said...

This conversation needs to end. The party needs to use its time for something constructive, such as educating the vanguard of revolutionaries in revolutionary tactics. Intellectual debate of moot points does absolutely nothing to further the party's aspirations.

Joel said...

Regarding David Simbirsk's comments:

I don't think it is incumbent on one person to unilaterally declare a discussion ended.

I think the readers here have raised a lot of interesting points on all sides.

The question of the movement's name is raised frequently by people who are interested in the party's current work but not in the international movement's history or its reputation.

"Communist" is often a barrier for good people to joining the movement.

And the refusal to discuss such issues in public or to become hostile when asked to do so isn't helpful.

I believe there are plenty of examples where communists have adopted names that don't use the word but continue to do excellent work and to be a vital force.

But when they are described by their friends or enemies, the word communist is inserted to clarify. E.g.: when people talk about the Palestinian People's Party, the word (communist) will often be used.

Here in the US, if the CPUSA decided to call itself something else like, the People's Progressive Party, you can bet, the ultra left and Republicans and other anti-communists alike would still call us "stalinists" or communists.

While I think the party has gone a long way to repudiating stalinism and the worst violations of human rights and socialist legality and principle that have been committed by parties calling themselves communist or socialist in the past, those appear to be things that will long be identified with the word communist.

But the struggle to end war and imperialism, racism, sexism, homphobia, exploitation, and divisions among people are things also associated with the word communist. I think time and work and continuing to have open discussions is our best path forward.

john M. said...

Amen to Joel! Part of the reason I submit comments occasionally to this rather quiet forum is because I feel strongly that the left needs this Party. If the CPUSA fails to again become a meaningful progressive influence in American political culture, (and let's not fool ourselves, right now it isn't) then the American left will continue to be rudderless. Things that prevent the growth and renewal of the party need to be dealt with openly and honestly. The mindset that says "this discussion must end" is the same one that has allowed the party to slide into irrelevance over the past several decades.

Joel said...

Another way of looking at the question:

When Republicans and the KKK and like-minded groups attacked civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, what did they call them? socialists? workers party members? liberals? Nope. They called the Communists.

In the Senate recently, when debating the Employee Free Choice Act, what did right-wing Sen. Saxby Chambliss say? The bill is supported by the socialist? progressives? liberals? Nope. He denounced the bill for being supported by communists.

The "gay agenda" is supported by communists. Affirmative action is communist-inspired. Hugo Chavez is communist supported. Global warming is a communist plot. John Kerry was a communist dupe (as are Hillary, Barack, John Edwards, etc.). Evolution is communist ideology. Anything that will improve the quality of life of working families on a large scale, according to the right wing, is communistic.

Nothing like "brand name" identification.

Lawrence Albright said...

By Lawrence Albright

I want to applaud Joe Sims for raising the very provocative and always timely issue of whether Communists need a name change. In the nearly thirty years I have been active around or a member of the Communist movement, I have routinely heard suggestions from some very capable activists along the lines of: "Well, I would join IF your Party had some OTHER name." Or, "Don't you think you would be more attractive to activists IF you used some OTHER name?"

These people would perhaps be as thrilled by a name change as others in our ranks would be horrified. I find myself in complete agreement with Joe when he writes, "I think a bigger problem than the name problem is narrow, sectarian and dogmatic practices masquerading as 'science' under the banner of Marxism-Leninism. Knee jerk reactions to name will lessen as communists gain confidence, come out of the closet and participate in membership and circulation drives."

Personally, I like the name Communist. True, it has some connotations in the public mind that are negative; anti-Communism in the United States, from the Cold War to the present day, has all the features of a cottage industry combined with a fervent pseudo-theism. But the word "Democratic" has also been similarly subjected to negative forces, and I don't see the Democratic Party changing its name to the Liberal-Center Party.

Joe is ultimately correct when he suggests that name isn't a definitive issue; the CPUSA wasn't always the CPUSA, and many Communist parties and movements use something other than "the 'C' word" in their names. Anti-Communists will always call a red a red, no matter what name is chosen. On the other hand, I foresee the mainstream media touting any dropping of the word "Communist" as suggesting we've given up on socialism and communism.

In the last analysis, the name is a type of brand. You can call it "Dial" or you can call it "Irish Spring," and it is still soap. What really counts is the politics; the unity and focus of our organization and our efforts to organize and mobilize people against the ultra-right, and for a brighter future.

Doug said...

Can you imagine the field-day the right wing nuts would have with a name change?
'old wine in new bottles...'
'a leopard can't change it's spots..'

My answer is no.
My attitude is YES to changing people's feeling about the party.
The core values that we believe in are what's important.

Social, religious and political movements have always been hijacked by extremists with a personal agenda of power. Let us condemn those that have acted that way. And , let us pledge that we will remain vigilant and never let that happen to us again.