Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 22, 2008

A Most American of Communists

Libero Della Piana, chairman of the NY State Communist Party, appraises the presidential election.

Max Lakin

The Iron Curtain may have lifted long ago, but Communism is not dead in the United States. The Communist Party USA is the real deal, and they're a lot more progressive than the connotation-heavy moniker might imply. When Libero Della Piana, the chairman of the New York State Communist Party, talks about his party's work, he discusses civil equality, peace among men, and patriotism, conceits seemingly more at home in the Declaration of Independence than in the tenants of social feudalism and Cold War paranoia.

NY Communist Party Chairman Libero Della Piana
"A real political alternative to the two big pro-capitalist parties can't be built by running a candidate and getting a few percentage points nationally."

NY Communist Party Chairman Libero Della Piana

Gelf spoke with Della Piana about what it means to be a modern Communist in America, where the country's systems have failed, and what's at stake for the common man come Election Day. You can hear Della Piana and other political animals speak at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speakers Series on September 25 in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Communism is a pretty loaded word, even today. What drew you to the party of Stalin?

Libero Della Piana: I joined the Young Communist League at seventeen while a freshman at Brown University. I had dabbled in other leftist groups in high school in Salt Lake City, Utah (no, that's not a typo!). My parents came from the Civil Rights generation, and are both artists. My first political activities were the fight to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday in Utah and the movements in solidarity with the peoples of Central America and Southern Africa. I was steeled in the shanty towns of the 1980s (though I was a lot younger than most of the folks involved). I became involved in community organizing in college, a parallel and important political influence.

GM: Talk about loaded words. The "community organizer" meme has joined the list of partisan Go-To phrases, right up there with those god-forsaken pitbulls.

LDP: I think Giuliani and McCain were using the term as code for "radical" or "poverty pimp." They implied that Obama got out of college and ran around irresponsibly doing community activism instead of real work like TV sportscasting, I guess. The term has also been called a racial code, because community organizing is thought of as the purview of people of color (due to the color of poverty in this country). Later Rudy said not all organizers are bad, it depends on what you are doing. Then he went on to say Obama is from the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky, which he erroneously equated with socialism and building up the welfare state.
Ironically, Obama left community organizing because he felt it had limitations for deep change.
I think in that sense he is right. Community organizing from the Alinsky tradition is based on organizing community members to fight for their rights, but rarely addresses questions of structural change. This model is usually focused on "bread and butter" demands. Community groups certainly should fight to exercise the rights, benefits and entitlements they are due under the law, but at some point that's not enough. You have to make progressive policy to positively affect people's lives.

GM: Do you relent against American concepts of capitalism, i.e. The American Dream (whatever that even means now) in the classic sense of the ideology, or do you embrace a different kind of take?

LDP: Our party is deeply rooted in American traditions of radicalism from Thomas Paine to the Wobblies to the Civil Rights Movement. We are patriotic and committed to fulfilling the promise of the American Revolution: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We do believe, however, that capitalism has become a barrier to the great mass of American people achieving that promise. A socialist USA will not curb democratic gains, but rather, usher in a new era of social and economic rights for all.

GM: Communism is still somewhat of a fringe group today. As it is understood in the U.S., you guys were defeated in the Cold War, diluted by the Pure Glory of Democracy and the Unwavering Eye of Freedom, yada yada. Obviously it's not as cut-and-dry. What place does Communism have in latter-day America, and what does the term itself mean to you?

LDP: I think people forget that the Communist Party USA deepened democracy for all Americans during the McCarthy period. Our members lost their jobs, went to jail, even died because they refused to state their membership in the Party and to name names of others involved. We claim to have a society where there is freedom of opinion, but we really put ourselves on the line for that ideal. Our party stood up for the right of all people to private political beliefs.
And the Party is still relevant. We are not a large party anymore, but we have influence in certain segments of the labor movement and the peace movement and remain one of the most important groups on the Left. And we have new appeal among young people who don't even remember the Soviet Union. No other progressive organization, I think, left a greater mark on the country (from culture, literature, film, politics, race relations, etc.) than the CPUSA.

GM: Now, I have to ask about your name. Is it real or did you appropriate a romantic-sounding name when you turned 18? Set me straight here.

LDP: Libero Della Piana is my given name. My father is Italian-America and my mother is African-American. The Della Pianas come from a small town named Nocciano, in Abruzzo, Italy. Libero means "free" in Italian. I was named after an old friend of the family, an Anarcho-Syndicalist artist who died a few years ago. My name is quite a gift. I try to live up to it.

GM: Let's shift to mainstream politics for a moment. November can't come soon enough for many people, including most New Yorkers. Who are you stumping for, and what does the alternative mean?

LDP: Our party isn't running a candidate for President of the United States, although we have in the past. And we are not endorsing anyone either. But we believe that the right-wing domination of political life from main street to the White House demands that we unite broad sections of the public to defeat the right-wing candidates in November. The vast majority of working people, of African-Americans, students, etc will be heading to the polls to vote for Barack Obama. His and McCain's policies couldn't be more different. The differences between the two conventions couldn't have been starker. We have some big differences with Obama, but anyone who says there is no difference between the main candidates or that the outcome of this election doesn't matter is either being disingenuous or stupid.
A real political alternative to the two big pro-capitalist parties can't be built by running a candidate and getting a few percentage points nationally. We have to first shift the terrain of the politics of the country in order to even address questions like money in politics, voting rights, expanding the franchise and other essential voting reforms that would expand democracy and allow for a third party alternative to have a real chance. Plus, the movements aren't yet strong enough to set the agenda.

GM: Is either either candidate more in line with the Hammer and Sickle, in your view?

LDP: Politics is about what's possible. Barring collision by a meteor, McCain or Obama will be the next president. Between the two, Obama is dramatically better on issues of importance to working people, women, racial minorities, youth, seniors, you name it. He's no socialist (despite what Rudy Giuliani recently said), but he's worlds better than the alternative.

GM: Speaking from the broad swath of Communist policies, what has been the biggest misdirection this country has taken?

LDP: I think the idea that government is the enemy and that the market will solve all the problems is the biggest ideological lie and the underpinning of some of the biggest disasters in the country. The huge financial crisis and the resulting economic woes for working Americans is in no small way due to deregulation and market fundamentalism. So is the crisis in public schools, the eroding environment and many other fundamental problems.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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