While the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign has re-oriented a section of the socialist movement around his candidacy, and indirectly the Democratic Party, some of these groups recognize the need for a Plan B if Sanders loses. Usually, this Plan B points to the Green Party, currently the largest and best organized party to the left of the Democrats in the United States. Socialist Alternative, which is probably the most well-known socialist organization to support Sanders, has consistently supported Green Party candidates in the past (even against other socialists), and assuming Sanders both does not get the Democratic nomination and does not run as an independent, then it seems overwhelmingly likely that Socialist Alternative will shift its support to the Green Party in the general election.
Although this could raise an interesting question of what’s more important in terms of developing political consciousness – a self-described socialist running as a Democrat1 or a non-socialist left-winger running independently of the Democrats2 – the hope is that a large enough section of Sanders supporters will desert the Democratic Party in an effort to build some sort of political alternative. With the possible exception of supporting Sanders directly, this perspective is held by some other groups as well, with the International Socialist Organization, some in Solidarity, and others arguing for the Green Party as the organization most effectively able to take up the mantle of a left-wing challenge in elections.
However, oftentimes little is said about the politics of the Green Party itself. To the degree the Greens’ current position as a progressive, but nevertheless non-socialist and non-working class party is acknowledged, usually not much is offered in terms of perspectives on how to overcome this in any direction. In this sense, it’s refreshing to read a piece from a group called Project for a Working People’s World (PWPW), which openly places its decision to join and work inside the Green Party in the context of an effort to turn it into a socialist party.3 The PWPW comrades correctly note that, while the Green Party is currently not a socialist party, neither is it a party committed to the maintenance of capitalism; rather, its program and class composition are somewhat muddled.
Following from that, it is argued, a coordinated campaign to win the Green Party to socialist politics, and transform it into a workers party, is not necessarily doomed to fail. The specific pieces on the group’s website are still light on perspectives or strategies on how to make this happen; fortunately, history can provide some suggestions on how this strategy could turn out. Unfortunately, at least for the PWPW comrades, this history doesn’t suggest positive results for this strategy. More often than not, socialists entering into, or forming alliances with, non-socialist parties usually results in the socialists either being co-opted or disoriented by groups to their right. In the case of ecologist and Green parties specifically, which in many countries were formed by socialist and communist activists of the New Left, the forming of such parties ultimately became yet another step on the road to abandoning socialist politics altogether.
Finding examples of socialists entering into a non-socialist party to win it – or at least a significant section of it – to socialists politics is possible, but it requires going back to the latter half of the 19th century, when the workers’ and socialist movements were in their first period of ascendancy. Even here, only two examples come forward – those of the Saxon People’s Party (SVP) in the 1860s in what was to become Germany, and the People’s Party in the US in the 1890s.
In the former case, the Marxist wing of the German workers’ movement around August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht had actually founded the SVP as a non-socialist party, but were soon able to dissolve the organization into the Social-Democratic Workers Party within a few years of its founding. In the latter case, the People’s Party in the US was also more of a way station for the socialist movement than a long-term home (as has been noted before in this paper.)4 There, newly minted socialists that had been radicalized by labor struggles of that decade attempted to use the People’s Party as a vehicle for independent working class political action, but were largely thwarted by those in the party that preferred a shorter-term, more populist political project, as well as alliances with openly bourgeois parties! While it should definitely be noted that a number of People’s Party activists did end up in the Socialist Party of America over the next decade as the People’s Party slowly disintegrated, in both the US and in Germany these experiences were more episodes in a wider movement towards the formation of a socialist party in those countries rather than long-term organizing perspectives.
With this in mind, the PWPW comrades also miss the likely importance of the convergence of different socialist groups into a future party. Again, in both Germany and the United States, the eventual party that came out of these initial struggles (the SPD and SPA, respectively), were themselves fusions of multiple socialist organizations around a common program. Unfortunately, the few times the PWPW comrades avert to other socialist organizations, it is mainly to deride them as irrelevant sects with no influence in the wider working class.
Thus, PWPW seems to fall into an all-too-common trap of projecting themselves as the principal or only socialist grouping that will be involved with the building of a future party, thereby ignoring or dismissing any efforts that attempt to promote united action, political discussion and party-building among those who are already socialists. While attempting to transform the Green Party into a socialist party and working to unify existing socialist forces are not necessarily contradictory paths, the focus on the former to the apparent exclusion of the latter ignores a significant dimension of the problem of socialist politics in the US today.
1. This, of course, leaves aside the question of Sanders’ actual politics.
2. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2012 candidate and likely nominee this year, has yet to publicly call herself a socialist, and none of the other candidates seem to do so either.