In a letter to The Organizer, Chris Townsend, a veteran trade unionist and former Communist Party member, reflects on his time in the Party, and how thoroughly revisiting mass organizational models from our past can help us develop our movement today.
On March 21, The Organizer published our transcription of an out-of-print Communist Party USA (CPUSA/CP) organizational manual. This text was passed along to us by Townsend. Since publishing, DSA members across the country have read and circulated the handbook widely and some comrades have even held discussion groups around the text.
I was glad to see the transcription and republication of “The Communist Party & How It Works: A Handbook on Its Organization and Function” in The Organizer. Such a manual for organized action is always in short supply, and I commend it to all serious Marxists.
I was first acquainted with the Party Handbook reprinted here about 1980, when I joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) as a young worker. I had begun my political life in the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1977, and then moved left into the CP when I went to work after high school. On the job I was introduced to a group of veteran Communists who at that time were in the leadership of my local union.
These women and men were impressive to me as a young radical; they were solid, well-read Marxists and keen tacticians in trade union work. Many were thirty, forty, and fifty year stalwarts of the labor and left movements. They were also adapted well to the reality of semi-legal communist work. Memories of the outlawing and repression of the Party were still very much alive in their minds. Many had lived through traumatizing personal experiences in the destruction of the socialist and communist movements that ran their course from the late 1940s, through the 1950s, and even up to that point in the early 1980s. For these activists Party work was not merely a hobby or a sideline interest—it was a lifelong dedication to the cause of working class liberation.
Over time I was trained by these old-timers to be a successful trade union and Party organizer. Youthful energy was part of that success, but a solid organizational guide to action was required to translate that energy into real gains and consolidation of those gains. Most of my tasks and assignments were guided by the Party Handbook in one way or another.
As Marxists our goal was to take up our position in the class struggle and wage the fight scientifically, and not just passionately. And I always saw my Party work and my trade union organizing as frequently similar if not identical in their organizational consistency. It bears repeating that trade union and communist or socialist organizing are not the same thing, but any experience with both will quickly convince you that the methods are frequently the same, the motivations often parallel, and the dangers of mistakes and setbacks eerily similar.
The handbook transcribed in The Organizer comes down from a long line of Party organizational manuals and handbooks, each one refined from the experiences with the previous edition. As the eventually unified Communist Party brought forward a wealth of experience and knowledge from the prior mass Socialist Party one hundred years ago, a series of organizational manuals and handbooks were produced.
Work in the community setting is detailed in the Handbook reprinted here, but over the decades numerous other handbooks were produced to guide communist work among farmers, in the trade unions and workplaces, among the youth, with African-Americans and the oppressed nationality groups, and among white collar workers. Various additional handbooks were also generated to promote a disciplined approach to Party fundraising, for electoral work, to stimulate the needed political education of the membership, and even on how to conduct successful underground functioning in order to survive what have been several intense periods of repression and illegality for our movement.
Today a re-visitation of the need for these assorted manuals of organization is obvious; the new waves of radicals emerging in the current crisis are frequently unfamiliar with much of the history that comes down to us. And while some of our history is not worth repeating, much of it is. We have the benefit of a gigantic and rich political inheritance from our movement, but benefit will only derive from serious study of it and a sober application of some of those lessons to our current situation.
For those relatively new to the socialist or communist movement, participation in an organization where you offer some degree of disciplined contribution to the task at hand may seem alien, or even undesirable. And while this organizational structure and discipline is not for everyone, there is no question that its practice magnifies the effect of the overall group mission many times. And in my forty-plus years of experience, disciplined and unified action is not just a preference or an attitude, it is scientifically required if the workers movement is ever going to succeed.
With each passing day it becomes obvious—at least to me—that the corporate dictatorship under which we exist will not ultimately be calmly voted out of office, nor will it allow itself to be reformed into the oblivion where it belongs. It is in this vein that I commend the Party Handbook to all who are studying and experimenting with forms of organization that will ultimately be effective in winning power for our movement. A familiarity with some of the past experiences in organizational structure and functioning is required if we are to find the key to progress towards socialism, all the more so in light of the steep odds stacked against us.
Chris Townsend is the Director of New Organizing for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). For 25 years he was a United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) International Representative, and later ran the UE Washington Office.