Now that Bernie Sanders has given his full-throated support to Hillary Clinton, the sections of the left that backed his primary campaign – and those that didn’t – are grappling with how to advance socialist ideas and organization in an election climate marked by an almost apocalyptic narrative between the major party candidates.
On the one hand, we have that section of the left whose project is to transform the Democratic Party into something like the social-democratic parties that exist in much of the world – that is to say, one organizationally based on the workers’ movement in one form or another, even if on a program of running capitalism in a friendlier way than the open bourgeois parties. In recent decades, the scope of this project has narrowed considerably. Groups like the “official” Communist Party USA and the Democratic Socialists of America only occasionally make the case in their press that the Democrats can be transformed in this way. The majority of their agitation focuses on putting the Democrats in power in order to pressure them for pro-worker concessions… or, more banally, supporting the centrist party to keep out the ‘greater evil’ Republicans. The experience of the Bernie Sanders campaign, whose platform of relatively mild reform was sabotaged at every turn by the party establishment, is the best demonstration in recent memory of where this project ends up.1
Even among those of us who advocate some form of independent politics, there is wide divergence over what “independence” looks like and what end it serves. While constrained by the fear of a Trump administration, the widespread disgust with the political establishment and the reluctance felt by segments of pro-Sanders activists to support Hillary Clinton offers real potential to left-wing third party challengers. Many of these “Bernie or Bust” supporters have joined the Green Party’s camp. In fact, while Stein’s poll numbers (between two and four percent2) are pretty dismal by mainstream party standards, her campaign has galvanized the left in a way not seen since Ralph Nader’s run in 2000.
The Green Party’s status as the default home for left-wing protest votes in a country without a mass workers’ party, combined with the momentum Jill Stein has from her previous run in 2012 – not to mention her active promotion of herself as the natural successor to Bernie’s ‘political revolution’ – has brought much of the organized left into the fold. It’s not difficult to see why this model is attractive. For those who want to use the Greens as a step toward a new class-based formation (or in at least one case, transform the Greens into that formation),3 they offer the largest pre-existing infrastructure, can boast of at least modest electoral successes, and often collaborate at a local level with various left groups in activist work.
But this approach is unlikely to produce what sections of the left hope it will. While Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative have all enthusiastically joined the Stein campaign, the latter offers perhaps the most developed strategy to justify it. In the latest Socialist Alternative, Joshua Koritz calls for a “new party of the 99% that bases itself on the interests of working people.” This would be a broad party, in which the Greens can play an “important role” alongside sections of the labor movement, Black Lives Matter, student groups et cetera. Elsewhere, S.A. City Councillor Kshama Sawant highlights the similarities between Stein’s and Sanders’ platforms and argues that the bigger the vote for Stein in 2016, the better positioned we will be for this new party.4 Socialist Alternative has even converted its pro-Bernie front group ‘Movement4Bernie’ into ‘Movement for the 99%.’
Leaving aside the muddled, popular front-esque nature of the ’99%’ formulation (which groups together the working class with the petty-bourgeoisie and even some of the outright capitalist class), and whether or not we actually need a broad reformist party (as opposed to a revolutionary party organizing a politically substantial minority), the Greens are unlikely to be the stepping stone these comrades want them to be.
The Green Party is to the left of the Democrats, but it is not and does not claim to represent the working class’s interests as a class – even within the confines of capitalism. The ‘anti-capitalism amendment’5 ratified by the national convention didn’t change that; nowhere is the working class so much as mentioned, much less understood as the historical agent of social change. It is a middle-class party, and its organizational structures reflect this. Many politicians enter the Green Party to bolster their progressive credentials, then defect to the Democrats after having won office.6 Elected Greens at the local level commonly govern no further to the left than Democrats. There is no means to hold representatives accountable to the platform or the party, no means to overcome the status of satellite to the Democratic Party, and little political will to change either of these things. In practice, campaigning for the Green ticket tends to build the profile of the Greens rather than open up the possibility of furthering socialist politics.
Although a large share of the U.S. left is bound up with Jill Stein, there are those running agitation and propaganda campaigns for an avowedly socialist candidate. In fact, we have an embarrassment of riches in a sense. There are six competing socialist campaigns for president, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (Gloria LaRiva / Eugene Puryear), Workers World Party (Monica Moorehead / Lamont Lilly), Socialist Party USA (Mimi Soltysik / Angela Walker), Socialist Workers Party (Alyson Kennedy / Osborne Hart), Socialist Equality Party (Jerry White / Niles Niemuth), and Socialist Action (Jeff Mackler / Karen Schraufnagel – as an aside, in previous elections Socialist Action has given blanket endorsement to other left organizations.)
On a positive note, these campaigns are starting from an essentially correct premise: that elections under capitalism are an arena of struggle which revolutionaries should not ignore. General elections are an opportunity for party-building and spreading socialist ideas to a wider audience than what is typically possible. But these campaigns’ potential impact is limited on both counts. As far as program goes, they are largely limited to economic ‘bread-and-butter’ demands that, while useful minimum reforms for our movement to fight for, don’t present a systemic alternative to capitalism. For example, the PSL’s ten point election program7 makes demands for free health care, the right to guaranteed employment et cetera but fails to make the case for the radical-democratic politics the working class needs if it’s going to take power and remake society. Programs fixated on economic demands at the expense of democracy fail to qualitatively distinguish between communist politics and the reformism of Sanders or Stein.
More immediately pressing than the demands themselves, though, is the fact that there are competing campaigns in the first place. Unfortunately, the left’s division into an alphabet soup of small groups extends into the electoral sphere. The division between these campaigns, which for the most part have very similar politics,8 comes down to the fact that they’re not party-building exercises so much as they are sect-building exercises. It’s a wasted opportunity that there is no socialist unity project this election cycle. A campaign uniting the disparate radical left organizations around a common candidate and platform, although it may not be much more of a vote-getter than the current arrangement, would do far more to build class organization – and lay the groundwork for a future party – than any individual campaign, or putting hopes in the Green Party, will. A united campaign’s impact would be felt both politically and structurally, even on issues as mundane as having more resources to overcome the restrictive ballot access thresholds many states set.
Still, socialist candidacies standing on a platform of working class political independence should be supported, ideally not just as an end in themselves but as a means to campaign for the kind of party we need. The vote share for the radical left as a whole will be squeezed both by the specter of Donald Trump and Jill Stein’s relative popularity, but working for the best possible result will help consolidate what support we can while laying the groundwork for the future. The Socialist Party’s Mimi Soltysik / Angela Walker ticket remains the best choice for class-conscious workers to give support while arguing for unity, electoral and otherwise, on the basis of class independence, internationalism and a commitment to radical democracy. Where this is not possible, support Gloria LaRiva (Party for Socialism and Liberation), Monica Moorehead (Workers World), or Mackler (Socialist Action) along the same lines.
- See http://red-party.com/tag/democratic-party/ for more on the structures of the Democratic Party.
- 4%, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on August 18. http://www.people-press.org/2016/08/18/1-voters-general-election-preferences/
- Except for the more cult-like organizations running, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Equality Party.