Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Socialism and the Emerging Progressive Majority: Report on the 6th CCDS Convention


Photo: Helmut Scholz of Die Linke, Germany; Chris Matlhako of the Communist Party of South Africa, and Angela Davis of CCDS.

It's Our Time to Move!

Socialism and the Emerging Progressive Majority

Are Key Topics at Symposium and 6th CCDS Convention

By Carl Davidson

What are the best ways to unite the progressive majority in our country around a depression-busting platform for peace, democracy, and justice? How do we do it in ways that both clarifies the vision and strengthens the components of socialism for the 21st century?

These were among the key questions 255 activists wrestled with for four days at a public Symposium followed by the 6th National Convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) at San Francisco's Whitcomb Hotel July 23-26. Judging from the enthusiasm and solidarity expressed during the many plenary sessions and workshops under the banner of "Building the Progressive Majority and a Socialist Future," participants found a few solid answers and a fired-up fresh start on a new round of organizing in the period ahead.

Symposium: 'Capitalism in Crisis: Socialism for the 21st Century'

A day long symposium around the theme "Capitalism in Crisis: Socialism for the 21st Century," sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence Education Fund opened the 4 days of programs on July 23rd.

Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley, CA opened the panel on "Building the Progressive Majority in the Age of Obama" by introducing Jack O'Dell's Democracy Charter. The Democracy Charter was the result of a decade-long project spearheaded by O'Dell, an advisor to both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. It is modeled on both the 1955 Declaration of the Bandung Conference against colonialism and the Freedom Charter proclaimed by the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa the same year. It outlines thirteen points for a "Second Reconstruction" in the U.S. of far-reaching and all-sided democratic reform - politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

"At the very heart of the unfolding struggle for democracy today," says the Democracy Charter, "are the issues of race, class, and gender in relation to power and decision-making. This has been a fundamental reality since the birth of this Republic." At its founding, the U.S. has "rested upon four pillars" - the genocide of Native Americans and the seizure of their lands, the enslavement of Africans and "affirmative action" for slave owners, the military seizure and annexation of one-third of Mexico, and "the exploitation of a wage-labor of the working class among the new immigrant population. "The position of women is self-evident" within all these pillars, "especially since they were denied the formal democratic right to vote until 1919."

The panel featured responses to the "Democracy Charter" by Bill Fletcher, Jr., editor of Black Commentator, Michael Eisenscher of US Labor Against the War, Jacqueline Cabasso from Western States Legal Foundation, Frank del Campo from the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Steve Williams of People Organized to Win Employment Rights. Bill Fletcher, Jr. cast the Charter as a political and social guide for mass struggle.

"If we just look at these 13 points as a laundry list that needs additions or sharper definitions," he declared, "we're missing a key feature. What Jack O'Dell has done here is deliver a polemic against postmodernism, the whole trendy effort to deny the importance of strategic aims, to consign our efforts to private and disconnected stories. He reaffirms the rootedness of our unity and our common goals, here and internationally."

One recurring theme throughout the four days was "left unity." This was evident in the lineup of speakers for the Symposium roundtable conversation on "Building the Left and the Progressive Majority." In addition to CCDS leader Mildred Williamson, the panel included Judith LeBlanc of the Communist Party USA, Joe Schwartz of Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Rubin of Solidarity, Jamala Rogers of Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and Linda Burnham. The panelists discussed the importance of building the left within the current upsurge, working for left unity in struggle against the right, and the tactical issues that arise in uniting the progressive majority. The enthusiastic response to CCDS' invitation to this panel was an indicator of the seriousness of the question of left unity among these groups.

The Symposium ended with "Building Socialism in the 21st Century - An International Evening." The session opened with South African freedom songs by the popular choir Vukani Mawethu. Angela Davis moderated by stressing the importance of international solidarity in winning her own freedom in the U.S. Eric Mar, recently elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, welcomed everyone and presented a resolution from the Board of Supervisors in tribute to the work of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

The presentations from the international guests gave a picture of both the successes and problems of their various struggles, placing the conference deliberations in a wider, global context. Both Chris Matlhako from the South African Communist Party and Marcos Garcia from the Venezuelan Embassy in DC gave a picture of protracted battles against neo-liberalism and their efforts to build and maintain unity on the left in their countries.

Helmut Scholz, a leader of Die Linke (The Left Party) of Germany, described the unity efforts between groups in East and West Germany that brought together its forerunner, the Party of Democratic Socialism, made up of the former East German Communists, and groupings of Left Social Democrats from the West. Their common task now, he explained, was making sure the burden of the capitalist crisis was not placed on the working class. Jackeline Rivera, an FMLN deputy to the legislature of El Salvador, was warmly received. She revealed how, in their recent electoral victory, the FMLN saw two left groups break away, and the national unity efforts that followed.

"This was really an amazing discussion," said one CCDSer. "I never expected them to go into these internal matters so frankly. But it really is necessary for reaching both a clearer picture and a higher level of unity." Appropriately, the evening included a reading of solidarity messages to CCDS from Cuba and Vietnam, and a rousing singing of "The Internationale."

"Wow, what a night!" declared East Bay activist Felicia Gustin. "An international forum on building socialism in the 21st century - moderated by Angela, with all these international guests ... talk about food for thought!"

Convention: 'Building a Progressive Majority and a Socialist Future'

Three days of workshops, discussions, debates and decision-making by CCDS members followed the Symposium. The convention was a critical step forward for the CCDS in a number of ways. It needed to adopt a new basic statement of its "Goals and Principles" to replace an original statement written when the group was founded in 1994. It especially needed to take its bearings in the new political situation following the election of Barack Obama - most of its members worked for Obama's election in one way or another, but a significant minority also worked for third party candidates.

It also needed to select a new leadership, since the four current co-chairs were retiring or stepping down. Finally, it needed to expand the participation in the organization of the younger generation on the left. Similar to many left groups with roots going back to the 1930s, CCDS has a wealth of experienced leaders reaching back 50 years, but lacks adequate membership among radicals who came into politics in the last two decades.

As the delegates and participants assembled in the well-maintained century-old grandeur of the Hotel Whitcomb, CCDS's strengths became evident. In addition to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, delegations arrived from the coal regions and river towns of Kentucky, from the rustbelt mill towns of Western PA and Ohio, from the heartland of central Indiana, Chicago and Detroit, from the Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia in the Deep South, as well as New York City, and New England. Many are leaders in the African American community and most of the major trade unions. Women were on a par with men, and it was clear that CCDS was an organization with deep roots in the working class and many of the key social movements of today. A few fresher, younger faces, attending a gathering like this for the first time, offered a toe-hold for future connections and growth.

The Goals and Principles Document

The overall theme and key topic of the 6th Convention was assessing the 2008 election and building the progressive majority in the new Obama period. The importance of the interconnection of race, class, and gender within the wider class and democratic struggles has been a key feature of CCDS since it held its first gathering in 1992 in Berkeley, CA. CCDS was the organizational expression of a growing democratic socialist trend that broke from the CPUSA and drew people from other left organizations into its ranks as well.

"Obama's election and the movement around it," states the new CCDS core document, "underscored the inseparable connection of issues and constituencies in the progressive majority rooted in race, class, and gender. The backbone of that majority is the combined force of the working class, communities of color, women, and youth. Articulation of the needs and demands of those constituencies in the first place is essential to advancing and consolidating the progressive majority."

The next morning the delegates got down to brass tacks. They had a nearly twenty page declaration of the CCDS "goals and principles," to discuss, debate and approve. The draft document, posted and debated on the web for the preceding six months, had been through three revisions, and already reflected many compromises and clarifications.

Mark Solomon, an outgoing co-chair from the Boston area stressed how its core idea, the strategy and tactics of developing and unifying an emerging progressive majority, both inside and outside the electoral arena, had come to life in the course of the Obama campaign and the movements around it. While neo-liberalism had taken blows by both the outcome of the election and the financial crisis, they were far from defeated, especially in view of the rise of rightwing populism.

CCDS is still part of the ongoing alliance of pro-Obama forces at the grassroots; now we have the further task of maintaining unity against the far right in both the 2010 and 2012 elections. At the same time, Solomon explained, we had our own independent views to advance. The deep crisis of capitalism was not going to be solved in any fundamental way by the neo-Keynesians on Team Obama, even as we supported some of their initiatives, such as green jobs.

"Obviously, this brings us to the question of socialism and our socialist tasks," Solomon concluded. "This is where we think our best future lies, but for that section of the document, I'm going to turn the discussion over to Carl Davidson."

"We have two sets of tasks," I started off, "our mass democratic tasks and our socialist tasks. They are interconnected, but they are not the same. At the same time, we have to advance both of them well for both to thrive."

I elaborated by describing the problem of "last paragraph socialism," i.e. the practice of writing an article or giving a speech about one or another outrage or abuse of capitalism, and then tacking on a sentence or two at the end, proclaiming that we needed socialism. Our socialist tasks required more serious intellectual work to rescue socialism from its crisis in the last century and bring it into the present as a renewed force. This meant engaging the most advanced fighters in a process of revolutionary education and study groups, to intimately connect this work with a practice learned from working class struggle. It also meant think tanks to develop serious policy proposals on a range of structural reforms that could both engage the crisis and serve as bridges pointing to a socialist future. Finally, these tasks were not for us alone, but required collaboration with other socialist and left organizations.

The discussion was lively, with a range of amendments being offered, most of which were accepted as friendly. One exchange was around the matter of CCDS as a 'pluralist' organization, which was in its 1994 founding document, but initially missing in this one. CCDS has always been a group with a variety of trends, with no effort to impose any "democratic centralism of the old type." The new document wanted to limit the diversity to those trends within socialism and with a Marxist perspective. After some back-and-forth, "pluralism" was accepted, but within the new framework.

CCDS's attitude toward organizing a new third party, which was also more prominent in the founding statement, was debated. CCDS has a long-standing "inside/outside" policy on electoral work, which has only been defined in a general way. For a large majority of the organization, this meant working to get Obama elected in various ways. Some worked within the Democratic Party organization and others worked for Obama in independent organizations. A number of CCDSers were opposed to any Democrat and worked for Cynthia McKinney in the Green Party or the Peace and Freedom Party in California. Still others worked for the Working Families Party in New York where, because of its more progressive election laws, they could vote for Obama on the WFP ticket. Since Peace and Freedom and the Greens often have ballot status in California, third party activity is more prevalent on the West Coast.

Judging from the positive reports from the delegates' experiences with the election, as well as the documents and resolutions passed, it's clear most of the organization will be engaged in the Obama alliance, although from an independent and critical position. For those members deeply connected with the labor movement and the movements of oppressed minority communities, most will work on strengthening the left-progressive pole within the Democratic Party at the base. This will heighten the struggle against the "Blue Dog" Democrats and others collaborating with the unreconstructed GOP neoliberals. Strategically, this position is consistent with preparing the conditions for supplanting the Democrats with a popular and working-class alternative, although not always viewed as such by third party proponents. But it's also clear that the prospects for such a breakaway and wider alliance are not imminent.

"We have our platform and Obama has his," said one delegate, summing up. "They overlap, but they're not the same. We support him where he's right and we oppose and pressure him where he's wrong--and we certainly defend him against the racist assaults from the far right."

Other suggested changes dealt with strengthening arguments on climate change, adding a section on immigrants rights, clarifying the nature of civil and human rights generally, and questioning aspects of the nature of markets under socialism.

The orientation on socialism in the document will distinguish CCDS in a number of ways. First, it places the organization within the wider trend of "21st Century" socialism arising in Latin America, Europe and elsewhere. Second it places winning the battle for democracy at the center of the transition to socialism and socialist construction, especially equality for women and among nationalities. Third, it affirms a pragmatic orientation toward both markets and planning in the 'mixed economy' characteristic of a
transitional society. Fourth, it insists that 'Eco-Socialism' and the transition to a green energy economy is by far the best approach for any socialism in the coming period of climate change. Finally, it sticks to the organization's long standing tradition of socialist internationalism.

One new section deals with the importance of the "solidarity economy," such as worker and community cooperatives. These were discussed both as important structural reforms under the existing order, as well as features of a new socialism. This point serves to distinguish the CCDS as an ally of the worldwide solidarity economy movement, and a wave of new worker and green cooperatives in the U.S.

Panels and Workshops

The "Building the Progressive Majority: Race, Class and Gender" plenary discussion began a series of panel and workshop discussions. The plenary panel consisted of reports highlighting work of CCDS activists in the South, in the Heartland "rustbelt states," on the West Coast and New England and the East Coast. Randy Shannon's report on Western Pennsylvania and the dire conditions in the wake of de-industrialization was particularly moving. He described independent political work with groups like Progressive Democrats of America in raising the consciousness and unity of the working class and Black community, and then in turn ally with forces like the Progressive Caucus in the Congress to defeat the right and advance progressive planks in Obama's economic package. He stressed the importance of ending the wars and health care reform, especially HR 676 "Medicare for All."

Zachary Robinson and Shafeah M'Balia reported on work in the South, and the special role played by democratic forces opposed to the right wing. They highlighted a multi-racial, grass roots people's charter movement initiated by the NAACP in North Carolina that parallels the "Democracy Charter" and mobilized thousands to march on the capital in Raleigh earlier this year.

Paul Shannon of the American Friends Service Committee reported on the Boston Majority Agenda Project, a coalition effort to develop a call and action program for the progressive majority in Boston.

Karl Kramer discussed the immigrant rights movement and its interconnection to the battle against racism and for workers rights in the Bay Area. The question of undocumented workers' impact on the labor and social movements was the most discussed issue following this panel.

The most active participation in the convention by those attending was in two rounds of workshops, Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. The topics of the first round included the peace movement and the economy, labor, socialist education, climate change, and youth organizing. The second round included international solidarity, culture, the Southern struggle, elections, economic and social justice, and human rights.

One of the more significant was the labor workshop. It pulled together more than 45 activists working in and around many of the major unions in the country. Four veteran activists in the labor movement: Bill Fletcher, the former Education Director of the AFL-CIO; David Bacon, labor and immigrant rights journalist; Maria Guillen, SEIU; and Frank Hammer, former UAW local union president from the Detroit area spoke.

A key issue addressed by the workshop was the struggle of US workers against global neo-liberal policies of capital. Hammer said that "in a world of globalization we are all foreign workers." Key issues in the struggle against neo-liberalism highlighted by the workshop are the right to organize and defend against union busting, union democracy, the plight of undocumented workers, and the need for broad forms of struggle by workers such as working people's assemblies, unemployed councils, and municipal movements.

There was also discussion of the influence of neo-liberalism on union leadership. Referring to this problem, David Bacon stated that "we cannot defend ourselves if our only goal is to be at the table." Bill Fletcher called on the left to develop an approach to educating rank and file workers. He said the current policy of attempting to reform neo-liberalism is insufficient. Maria Guillen also raised the question of the fight for union democracy and posed the question "Where is the union leadership problem coming from?"
Another dynamic workshop dealt with youth and student organizing. Nestor Castillo, a Bay Area solidarity activist chaired, while Pete Sherman of Young Workers United, Camille Williamson of Chicago's Southwest Youth Collaborative, and Keith Joseph of the New Brunswick NJ Democrats for Change made presentations.

"It's time to get beyond a protest mode and start posing the question of power," said Joseph. His group in New Jersey, mainly activists fresh from the Obama campaign, had run 50 candidates challenging all the Democratic Party positions in the area, and to the shock of the entrenched old guard, won 23 of them. All the youth stressed the importance of the new multimedia forms of communication and tools for organizing.

Tough problems were posed in the workshop on the peace movement and the economy. Moderated by Marian Gordon, the presenters were Michael Eisenscher, Mort Frank of CCDS in Philadelphia and Judith LeBlanc of United for Peace and Justice. Eisenscher paid special attention to the need for labor solidarity between US workers and Iraqi trade unions, while LeBlanc emphasized connecting anti-war campaigns with the economic crisis. Mort Frank did an in-depth analysis of the best ways to propose cuts in the defense budget, stressing the most deadly weapons actually being used.

The workshop on socialist education took up how best to organize a national network of socialist study groups, especially the need to find popular teaching materials for reaching younger audiences. One project proposed was to organize, together with other left groups, a track of socialist panels and workshops at the US Social Forum in Detroit next summer, where more than 10,000 young people are expected.

The most contentious workshop was on the CCDS approach to elections. Jonathan Nack and myself as co-chairs, urged the participants to focus on how their practical work in elections in 2008, whether for Obama or a third party, served to build a progressive majority, rather than the traditional clash on this topic. But people wanted to clash over the old arguments anyway.

"The task of socialists in any election," said Jim Smith of California's Peace and Freedom Party, "is to contend with the bourgeoisie for power, to pose the question of socialism and carry out education around it, no matter what the prospects for winning." By supporting Democrats of any sort, he continued, people would only make matters worse. With that gauntlet thrown, the debate was engaged.

"I defy anyone here," declared Al Fishman of Detroit, "to argue that it makes no difference or is not important that John Conyers is our Congressman from Michigan." He had no takers. Western Pennsylvania activists argued for taking up building Progressive Democrats of America as an independent formation in the orbit of the Democrats that could wage struggle with both the GOP right and the "Blue Dog" Democrats collaborating with the right. At the close of the session, however, everyone united on the need for election law reforms that would be more favorable to a true multiparty system.

A pivotal workshop of the convention was the session on "Developing a Democracy Charter for the South." A large assembly of activists from seven Southern states reported on grass roots work supporting labor efforts to organize, the people's charter and assembly movements, and work around immigrants. The workshop held an in-depth discussion with Janie Campbell, President of the Charleston, SC sanitation workers union, who spoke on behalf of the sanitation workers organizing around issues of health and safety and equal treatment of city employees. The sanitation workers have been protesting harsh working conditions and an unsafe working environment.

The workshop authored a resolution supporting the Charleston sanitation workers and a resolution drawing attention to the special role of the South as a base for reactionary militarism and anti-union policies. The workshop recessed and reconvened early on Sunday morning to develop a concrete plan of work to support the Charleston workers.

Special Events

Friday evening featured a special "Welcome Reception and Tribute to Charlene Mitchell." The Tribute to Charlene Mitchell drew participants from wider circles than the convention itself, due to her decades of work in a variety of movements as well as founding CCDS. Recently disabled by a stroke, from which she is steadily recovering, she followed the entire convention closely, her smile beaming encouragement to each speaker.

The event was chaired by CCDS Chicago leader Mildred Williamson and was sponsored by the Kendra Alexander Foundation, represented by Eric Quesada. Angela Davis, Hon. Claudia Morcom, Giuliana Milanese, and Carl Bloice recalled in loving and glowing terms how Charlene had mentored them and encouraged them through various battles, personal and political.

"If it hadn't been for Charlene opening my eyes to many things and encouraging me," said Mildred Williamson, "I wouldn't be here today, nor would I have been able to achieve many of the other things in my life." Carl Bloice, in addition to personal stories, told about the wide respect Mitchell has among communists and progressives the world over. "I have a picture on my wall at home," said Bloice. "It's of a hall full of Bulgarian communists, all smiling, and right in the middle is one Black woman, Charlene."

John Case, a radio journalist from West Virginia, said "Charlene Mitchell was the first African-American woman to run for President of the Unites States, which she did in 1968 on the ticket of the Communist Party of the US. She also played an historic role in the worldwide defense of Angela Davis in 1970. Charlene has mentored many people over her long life, this writer included. It was a joy to participate in the tribute to her. Viva Charlene!"

Celebrants at this event also enjoyed a photo compilation of memorable events in Charlene's long career and a moving cultural performance by the Billie Holiday Collective. Jim Campbell and Mark Solomon presented Charlene a memento from CCDS.

Internationalism was also the theme at an early Saturday morning breakfast with the international guests, who shared more informal comments and answered questions. Helmut Scholz of Die Linke was joined by French Communist Party leader Daniel Cirera in stressing the importance of the working class response to the economic crisis in Europe.

"Most of all," said Cirera, "we must remember that this is a political crisis. To be sure, its economic impact is severe, but I don't think the capitalists are without a way out. The question is who will pay for it, where will the burden be placed, and that is a matter of political will and mass struggle." Given the fact of globalization, all agreed the left and the working class had to find ways of acting in concert globally as well.

Saturday was the evening of solidarity with Vietnam. It featured highlights of the recent CCDS sponsored tour of Vietnam and the ongoing crisis of Agent Orange. While full of enthusiasm, it had a more painful dimension. Earlier in the day, a powerful documentary film by Clay Claiborne, "Vietnam: American Holocaust" brought all the bitter horrors and memories of those years back to the surface. Claiborne was part of a CCDS Study Tour to Vietnam last year, and after presenting the film to the Vietnamese, they ran it on nationwide television.

Co-chaired by Vietnam veteran Paul Cox and Judge Claudia Morcom, the evening had a practical purpose: to launch a campaign for the US to make reparations to Vietnam for the ongoing impact of the mass poisoning of the population with Agent Orange. Morcom was one of seven international judges on the International People's Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange."

The veterans and their families and friends who spoke from the floor were choked with emotion as they offered accounts not only of what they had seen that happened to the Vietnamese, but also to the veterans who were poisoned, and birth defects on their children as well. CCDS joined the campaign by acclamation.

New Leadership and Veteran Advisors

The closing task of the convention was choosing a new leadership. Charlene Mitchell, Mark Solomon, and James Campbell, were veteran fighters shaped by the struggles of the generation of the 1940s and 1950s. They, with Leslie Cagan, the longtime leader of United for Peace and Justice, had decided it was time to step down. It is hoped that each will participate as members of the CCDS Advisory Board.

The outgoing chairs nominated Pat Fry, a labor activist from New York; Carl Bloice, a writer and former labor activist from San Francisco, Renee Carter, a physician from Virginia, and Carl Davidson, a writer and antiwar activist from Western PA. Taken together, their early years represent a number of important fronts in the battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and up to the present. It was a step in the right direction, even if a small one, of a more inter-generational leadership.

The convention also had the task of electing 15 members of a new National Coordinating Committee, the CCDS interim governing body. Fifteen additional NCC members are elected by direct mail ballot after the convention, a measure designed to give voice to members who cannot attend the convention and to help insure multi-racial and geographic diversity.

In the end, four new co-chairs were elected, unopposed, although they still had to meet a "50 percent plus one" hurdle in the balloting.

The fifteen new NCC members are Ted Reich, New York; Anne Mitchell, New York; Duncan McFarland, Boston; Mildred Williamson, Chicago; Steve Willett, Oakland; Karl Kramer, San Francisco; Marian Gordon, Los Angeles; Jae Scharlin, Berkeley; Juanita Rodriguez, Portland; Marilyn Albert, Cleveland; Harry Targ, Indiana; Janet Tucker, Lexington; Ira Grupper, Louisville; Zack Robinson, North Carolina; Erica Carter, South Carolina.

All in all, the convention was satisfied and united around the new leadership team that reflected the race and gender diversity of the working class. Most of all, it was upbeat, energized and hopeful that it had a new lease on life and the political unity and resources to move ahead.

"I'm very hopeful," declared outgoing co-chair James Campbell, an African American and veteran organizer living in South Carolina going back to the 1930s. "We have a very good and timely political orientation. We have some very experienced and capable leaders on a number of fronts. And most of all, we have these new younger people coming forward, especially in the South. We're in a position for major growth, especially in view of the terrible situations posed by the crisis. It's time to move!"


[Carl Davidson is co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and also a veteran activist of the antiwar movements and the solidarity economy movement. He is a writer and author and editor of several books on these movements available at . Clay Claiborne's documentary film mentioned here, "Vietnam: American Holocaust," narrated by Martin Sheen, is available at . Finally, MP3 Audio Files on CD of all the main Symposium speeches, and the presentations and discussions of the main Convention document are available from Joseph Woodard Multimedia at The text of the CCDS convention documents and the pre-convention discussion are at Finally, all socialist-minded people not in a socialist group are urged to invite speakers,
and/or join the CCDS by going to its main website, , where donations can also be made. Or email me directly at with any queries or comments. If you like this article, please make use of the PayPal button at]

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