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As Communism Falls Around the World, Local Radicals Vow To Stay the Course

By Michael P. Mann

It's over, finished, kaput.

According to many pundits, the "End of History" has arrived. The ideological battle between socialism and capitalism is over, and the West has won.

In short, they say, communism is dead; Marxism has breathed its last.

The evidence is everywere. Socialist governments are collapsing all across Eastern Europe. The Sandinistas have been voted out of power in Nicaragua. And Mikhail S. Gorbachev continues to dazzle the world with progressive reforms in the Soviet Union.

But members of the American radical left are not giving up the fight. Defying the skeptics, die-hard representatives of communist parties in the greater Boston area say the movement is alive--if not well--in this country and around the globe.

"I think we're in an overall favorable position," says Kathy Lawrence, a spokesperson for the Boston chapter of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). "This is a time when there are immense dangers and immense opportunities."

But Lawrence's optimism is guarded at best. Like many local communists, she appears to have been left somewhat disoriented by the rapid collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

On the one hand, Lawrence says she is glad see the workers in revolt. The oppressed proletarian masses are finally asserting political power and demanding radical change, she says.

She says she is even glad to see it happening in the Soviet bloc. Her party disowned the Soviet Union and its satellites 30 years ago when Nikita Khrushev began his program of reform, thus turning his back on true communism, she says. Lawrence says she feels no tinge of regret at the downfall of East Bloc regimes.

But while it may be the right play, it's really the wrong stage with the wrong actors. According to conventional Marxist theory, if workers should be rebelling anywhere it should be in the highly developed capitalist nations of the West.

"Basically we welcome what is happening in Eastern Europe, but not at all in the terms the Western press has put it," Lawrence says. "But rather in terms of how revisionism has been exposed."

"The Western press has called it the death of communism, but it's the death of phony communism," Lawrence says. "The people there see themselves as rebelling against communism, but they're not."

Not all sects can match the semantics of RCP, however. Still wedded to a doctrine of firm support for the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, other self-described communists are not giving up support for the discredited regimes.

The Workers World Party (WWP), for example, now finds itself in the highly unpopular position of opposing reform and democratization on the continent.

"Perestroika is a disastrous step in the wrong direction," says Bill Doares, a member of the WWP National Committee, in reference to the Soviet leader's reform program. "The working class has been disoriented in these countries by their leaders and the abandonment by the Soviet Union."

"These are grim times for socialism, when we find that these countries have abandoned it," Doares continues. "But there are good and bad times for everything."

As the different interpretations of Eastern European reform suggests, the far left in the U.S. is deeply divided over Marxist theory. Some embrace Josef Stalin, others Leon Trotsky. One group rejects both and says only Lenin correctly interpreted Marx.

The RCP, for example, says that it follows the teachings of Lenin, Marx and the late Mao Zedong, former chair of the Chinese Communist Party and author of the infamous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early '70s.

So, the RCP does not regard any existing nation as truly communist. The Soviet Union left the fold in the 1960s under Krushchev, and China itself fell from grace with the rise of China's current leader, Deng Xiaoping, Lawrence says.

Another communist sect, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) looks back even further to pinpoint the end of true communism. Gary Springston, an ISO spokesperson, says that for all intents and purposes, socialism disappeared with Lenin's death in 1924.

And local Spartacists are similarly dissatisfied with contemporary communist regimes. "The one model we look to is the workers' revolution in 1917," says Lisa Martin, a spokesperson for the Spartacist League. Although her group supports the planned socialist economies of the world, it does so only for lack of better alternative, she says.

The theoretical split among socialists began shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. "The source of disagreement in the Marxist left today is over the question of Russia," explains Springston. "How you define that is how you define socialism."

While the Soviet experience has inspired some Marxists, it is regarded as horrific by others. Admirers point to that nation's industrialization, military might and relative economic equality as signs of success. But detractors suggest that Soviet leaders have been unfaithful to Marx and simply cruel.

Stalin, for example, ordered the liquidation of an entire class of Russians in order to bring about industrialization and agricultural reform. It is estimated that millions of people died during his purges, with millions more interned on work camps.

But some local communists say they can see a justification for Stalin's measures. "We uphold Stalin," says Lawrence. "He made some very serious errors, but he did them in the context of trying to implement communism."

"The most Stalinist regime is more democratic and free than any capitalist country," says WWP's Doares in defense of the deposed and executed Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania. "What is dictatorship for one class is democracy for another class; what is democracy for the rich is dictatorship for the poor."

But whatever disagreements communists may have about Russian history or Marxist theory, and however differently they may view the recent mass demonstrations in Eastern Europe, they speak in unison on one salient subject: Mikhail Gorbachev.

"He is an imperialist," says Lawrence of the RCP. "He is in an imperialist country that leads one of the major war blocs in the world."

To the RCP, Gorbachev is just another ugly face. He is more objectionable than his predecessors, but like Khruschev and Brezhnev he is a traitor to the cause--a "revisionist."

The ISO views Time magazine's Man of the Year in a similar light. "We feel Mikhail Gorbachev is not fundamentally different from any of his predecessors," says Springston, who says he views Soviet-style "communism" as essentially capitalist. "I would compare Mikhail Gorbachev to Lee lacocca: He feels his corporation needs to be restructured," referring to the chief executive officer of Chrysler.

And the WWP, traditionally the most staunch supporter of Stalinism, views Gorbachev most harshly. "His policies can only weaken the Soviet Union," says Doares. "We hope that he will turn it around or that he will be kicked out and others will turn it around."

Back at Home

But Gorbachev's success in tearing down the old communist order could shake the faith of even the staunchest supporters of Marxism.

Then again, being a communist in the U.S. has never been easy. Even in Massachusetts, renowned for its liberalism, radical leftists are few and far between.

Two of the more vocal groups, WWP and the ISO, can claim local memberships of only about 20 people each. And although the parties are international, members say worldwide membership for either does not exceed 1000.

"Today I think we would have to say that the working class struggle, in this country at least, is at a low ebb," says George Axeiotis, a member of ISO. "And that's not pessimism, it's realism."

"It's important not to be pessimistic, but it's important to realize that without much influence in the working class, socialism can only grow at a moderate rate," says Robert L. Dahlgren, also a member of ISO. "And there isn't very much out there to show that it will be changing in the near future."

Although WWP members say they have made some headway into Local 8751, an AFL-CIO steelworkers' union, communists have generally not had much luck with the traditional revolutionary tactic of labor agitation. According to Lawrence, they are more often baited by unionized workers than they are welcomed with open arms.

So local Marxists have turned to social justice issues instead. Often supporting mainstream liberal causes, they have targeted racism, sexism, homophobia and poverty for eradication. They have also been active in the pro-choice movement, according to Lawrence.

And it was Gregory Lee Johnson, a member of an RCP-affiliated organization, who sparked one of last year's hottest constitutional debates by burning an American flag in 1984 outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas. He was arrested under a Texas statute, which was struck down in June by the U.S. Supreme Court in a highly controversial decision.

American communists say their other immediate goal is to educate the public. Although most parties rely on their newspapers to communicate to the masses--journals such as Revolutionary Worker and People's Daily World--they also hold public forums and discussions to spread their message.

All of which is in preparation for revolution in this country, area communists say. "Our ultimate goal is to eradicate the system of capitalism that we are living under," says Maureen Skehan, a WWP member.

"The only way we can do that is to build a multinational working class party," says Skehan. "So a day-to-day goal of ours is to educate and empower the workers."

Although local communists say they don't forsee such an uprising at any time in the near future, they add that it is important to prepare now for the inevitable showdown. The poor and oppressed of America will eventually confront the ruling class, they believe, and they intend to be ready to lead the battle.

"In this kind of a country you're going to have a fairly long period of political preparation, and then a fairly quick political revolution," says Lawrence.

And apparently it is not going to be pretty. Not all local communists advocate violent overthrow of the government, but the RCP is not shy about the means that will be necessary to bring about a classless society.

"We certainly say there's no way there will be a peaceful transition to communism," says Lawrence, whose party is affiliated with the Maoist Shining Path guerillas of Peru. "The people who are in power now are not going to give it up unless it is taken from them."

And for Americans who dismiss their revolutionary language as the irrelevant rhetoric of an insignificant minority, local communists have a word of warning.

"There is no way of knowing when an uprising is going to happen," says Springston. "But what's happening in Eastern Europe shows that almost overnight the situation can change; what history teaches you is that when you least expect it, expect it."

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