The following article was originally published in LRP Bulletin, Fall 2014

Pitfalls of Left-Wing Electoralism –

The Green Campaign: a Diversion from Working-Class Struggle

The Green Party made significant gains in the 2014 New York State election. Its candidates for governor and lieutenant governor – Howie Hawkins, a socialist and a perennial Green candidate, and Brian Jones, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) – drew 170,000 votes, just under 5 percent of the total.

Though far behind the candidates of the major capitalist parties, Hawkins/ Jones did succeed in beating the Working Families Party, a fraudulent operation that claims to be independent and pro-labor but almost always supports Democrats, right and left. This year the WFP backed the despicable incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo, despite his anti-working-class record over the past four years.

The Green Party’s success in New York follows the victory of Kshama Sawant’s socialist campaign for City Council in Seattle last year. These results have encouraged many on the left to see a growing opportunity for challenging the Democratic Party electorally from the left. Sawant and Hawkins have already pointed to the potential for an “independent left ... third-party presidential campaign beginning next year.”[1] So it is important for revolutionary socialists to assess the Green Party and its campaign.

Hawkins/Jones – a Retreat from the Sawant Campaign

Unfortunately, far from building on the Sawant campaign’s success in advancing a working-class challenge to the capitalist class’s two parties, the Green Party campaign was a wholesale retreat into bourgeois electoralism.

We will elaborate these points below. But first we want to spell out our view on why it is important for socialists to engage in electoral activity.

The only hope, as we see it, for humanity to escape from capitalism’s ever-worsening poverty and oppression, wars and environmental catastrophe is for the struggles of the system’s victims to culminate in revolutions led by the working class – revolutions that overthrow the capitalist ruling classes and build a socialist world of freedom and abundance for all. A vanguard organization of Marxists is essential to spread awareness of the socialist vision and offer revolutionary leadership in the working class’s day-to-day struggles. But the masses will only come to see the need for revolution based on their own experiences of fighting to defend their interests and reforms through mass struggles. As Marxists, our entire approach to the struggle against the injustices of capitalism is therefore centered on advancing workers’ and other poor and oppressed people’s consciousness of their distinct class interests and their capacity to fight for them through building their own mass organizations. Only by such means can the principal victims of capitalism begin to take control of their destiny.

Accordingly, as revolutionaries we seek to actively participate in every possible experience of struggle, including elections. Marxists recognize that under capitalism, elections for government offices cannot bring about the vast changes that workers need – that behind the government stands the state of police and soldiers ready to defend the capitalists’ grip on power. Nevertheless, running in elections and winning public offices can provide platforms to publicize, explain and advance the programs and organizations of working-class and oppressed people and test revolutionaries’ warnings that the ruling class will not concede the masses’ demands for reform peacefully. If a political party arose out of working-class struggles and was seen to represent their cause, its electoral campaigns would offer a precious opportunity for workers to both assert their class interests and also test whether the leaders and perspective of that party really represent their interests and struggles.

That is why we supported Kshama Sawant’s campaign in Seattle. Sawant’s organization, Socialist Alternative, has a miserable record of capitulating to reformism and the trade union bureaucrats who inevitably compromise workers’ interests. Along with its international tendency, the Committee for a Workers International, it also has a history of capitulating to imperialism, as in its defense of the racist colonial-settler state of Israel. But while openly explaining these criticisms, we supported voting for Sawant because her campaign was built on independent struggles and organizations of the working class that provided a basis for working-class people in Seattle to continue their struggles while testing whether Sawant and her comrades could be trusted to lead them. [3]

That’s also why we did not support the Hawkins/Jones campaign. The Green Party campaign did not even claim to stand for the interests of the working class against the capitalists. On the contrary, it advanced the Green Party and its vision of reconciling the interests of the working class with capitalism by means of pro-worker reforms. It thus spoke to and encouraged the illusions in liberalism held by middle-class progressives and more professional workers like teachers. It appealed to those who hope to find a new vehicle for reforms now that the Democratic Party has proved so loyal to capitalist austerity and war-mongering.

The Greens’ mild reformist perspective could never connect with the rebellious desperation of the most exploited and oppressed workers and other poor people who share the bitter experience of the struggle to survive in this unforgiving and violent capitalist society. The Green campaign was a diversion from the cause of working-class struggle. Indeed, by promoting the growth of a third capitalist party, it aided the construction of a potential new barrier to that struggle.

The Hawkins-Jones campaign was therefore a step backward from Sawant’s. But even though the ISO was prominent in the former, we don’t believe that there is a principled difference between Socialist Alternative and the ISO on electoral strategy. SA has backed many a Green Party candidate, including Hawkins and Jones, and now Sawant and SA arepushing for an “independent” 2016 presidential campaign by Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator from Vermont. [4] That proposal would mean a further step backward, since Sanders, though he is nominally independent of the two major parties and labels himself a “democratic socialist,” is in fact a Democrat in all but name, financed by them and caucusing with them in Congress as a firm supporter of capitalism in general and U.S. imperialism in particular.

Working-Class Independence

Opportunities for successful left electoral campaigns have opened up because of the growing disenchantment with the Democratic Party among its traditional base of supporters. The long downturn in the capitalist economy over recent decades has driven both Republicans and Democrats to increasingly attack the working class’s living standards and to roll back concessions granted in the past to Blacks, Latinos and women. The Republicans’ open championing of the interests of big business wins them the support of small business people and others who still hope to find success in capitalist America. As well, their promotion of religious conservatism appeals to people fearful of deepening social crisis. And their barely concealed appeals to racism win them votes from those white workers who are not appalled by such demagogy and are reassured by the idea that even if their living standards are falling, Blacks and Latinos will remain beneath them.

But the Democrats’ are no alternative: their record of presiding over capitalist austerity has exposed their false claim to be the friends of the working class and people of color. Hopes in the Democrats were revived by Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. Millions celebrated his election with the expectation that he would address the widening gap between rich and poor and the continuing injustices of racism at home, and end the United State’s war-mongering abroad. Instead, Obama bailed out the banks that triggered the financial crisis on Wall Street and abandoned the working class to drown in underemployment and debt; he has responded to America’s regular racist atrocities against Black people with empty rhetoric; he has targeted immigrants for record deportations and persecution; and he has expanded Washington’s murderous program of drone assassinations and bombings in the Middle East and begun to increase again the numbers of American troops in Iraq. The Democrats’ smashing defeat in the 2014 Congressional elections was due in great part to its electoral base’s discouragement and poor turnout at the polls.

Marxists have always recognized the terrible problem that the American working class faces at election times: that it only has a choice between the two major parties of the capitalist class. The absence of a mass party that the working class considers its own means it cannot use the electoral arena to advance its various forms of class struggle.

In the past, at times of rising class struggle, when workers’ efforts to defend and improve their conditions posed the need for fighting for their interests not just locally or though trade unions but society-wide, Marxists have raised the call for the creation of a united workers’ party based on the masses’ organizations of struggle. In such a party, revolutionaries could seek to use the experiences of struggle and elections to prove the need for revolution.

Trotsky, for example, in the late 1930’s, supported calls for the creation of a labor party in the United States, a party based on the unions which had grown tremendously through the militant strikes and workplace occupations of the Depression years. Trotsky expected that the fight for an independent working-class party under these conditions could give revolutionaries an opportunity to convince growing numbers of workers that the party would have to adopt a perspective of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But advocating a labor or a broad workers’ party, rather than an explicitly revolutionary party, is not always justified; such parties are not always a necessary stage toward raising workers’ consciousness of the need for a revolutionary party. In many instances they can become just another barrier, like the British Labour Party, the Brazilian Workers Party or several European socialist parties.[5]

In recent decades, levels of working-class struggle have dropped to their lowest point in history, thanks to a trade union bureaucracy that has strangled every effort toward working-class action. Instead it has directed all hope toward voting for and lobbying the Democrats. Some socialists and other leftists continue to call for a labor party under these conditions, despite the fact that the demobilization of the working class means that the pro-Democratic Party trade union bureaucrats’ grip on power would go unchallenged. Calling for a mass workers’ party at a time of rising working-class struggle could enable revolutionaries to help prove to workers that only a revolutionary workers' party can really lead the way forward. But calling for a labor party at a time of little struggle means promoting a reformist party that could only be a barrier to the progress of workers' struggles and to the building of the vanguard revolutionary party they need.

Other socialists have given up on fighting for a workers’ party. Rather than dealing with present-day conditions and joining patient propaganda for a revolutionary perspective combined with practical involvement in the day-to-day struggles of the working class, they now say that any sort of breakthrough to the creation of an “independent third party” on the left will do; and that the Greens are a possible vehicle for this. But in this society there is no escaping the pressures of capitalism – either a party sets itself in opposition to the system and bases itself on the only class with an interest in overthrowing it, or else it must succumb to the pressures of capitalist interests. This explains the record of every non-working-class “third party” created in recent years internationally, and the Greens are no exception.

False Appeals to Marxism

How do Hawkins and the ISO reconcile the Greens’ non-working-class character and capitalist program with their socialist views? Both have turned to the writings of Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, and his writings about the campaign for New York City mayor by Henry George in 1896 on the “United Labor Party” ticket. Hawkins quotes Engels advice to revolutionaries in New York at the time:

“The first great step of importance for every country entering into the movement is always for the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party. That the first program of the party is confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also transitory ones.”[6]

Indeed, Engels was scathing about Henry George’s programmatic schemes. But he urged revolutionaries to support the George-led Labor Party campaign because it was an independent campaign of the working class that would allow workers to learn that George did not really stand for the interests of the class his party claimed to represent. He added that the working class has to learn through its own mistakes:

“The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction.”

Hawkins also cited the American labor and socialist leader of a century ago, Eugene V. Debs, who vowed in 1920 that he would support “a genuine labor party,” even if its platform was not everything that socialists desired. But Hawkins then ignores the fact that both Engels and Debs insisted that the party be a “distinct workers’ party” (Engels) or “a genuine labor party” (Debs) before considering supporting it. The Green Party is nothing of the sort, neither in Nader’s day nor today.

So in order to claim that voting for the Greens is the right policy for a Marxist socialist (not to speak of running as their candidate), Hawkins has to ignore the fundamental condition insisted on by the socialist leaders he enlisted in his cause, namely that the party be a distinct, genuine working-class party, independent of the capitalists – not just independent of the two main capitalist parties, the Republicans and Democrats, but of the capitalist class generally, including its minor parties. Hawkins brought up the need for working-class independence only to bury it.

Ever since it decided to hop onto the Nader bandwagon in 2000 and 2004, the ISO has also misrepresented what Engels said about Henry George. Joel Geier of the ISO claimed the same Engels statement as a precedent in 2000, even though he admitted that “Though Nader addresses workers’ concerns, he is not building or advocating a class party, nor is his appeal to workers that they should be a self-active class.” As we noted in response, “That alone invalidates the Engels comparison” to Nader or the Greens. [7] This year the ISO reclaimed Engels’ authority for the Green campaign:

“In the 1880s, Frederick Engels encouraged the small socialist groups that existed then to get involved with the campaign of the middle-class reformer Henry George, who ran an independent campaign, backed by the unions, for mayor of New York City, against the Tammany Hall Democrats and the Republicans. To Engels, who wasn’t that enamored of George himself, the campaign presented socialists with an opportunity to raise class demands within a wider political arena.”[8]

Here, the ISO presents an utterly misleading picture of the George campaign, as if it was one of a lone bourgeois reformer backed by the unions rather than one of an independent labor party. Indeed, avoiding quoting what Engels actually wrote makes it easier for the ISO to try to present him as an opportunist in the ISO’s image.

Both Hawkins and the ISO evidently felt obliged to address the traditional Marxist position on working-class political independence, but both then put forward their opposite cross-class position without a direct argument against the Marxist one. Instead of trying to come up with an argument that the working class can advance its movement through cross-class political parties, they relied on the fear that otherwise socialists would be isolated. Hawkins said, “Socialists will be more effective arguing their perspectives from inside than preaching at it from outside”; while Geier warned against using the limitations of the Greens as an “excuse to stand aside.”

But even the ISO believes that it is important to stand aside from some struggles. Revolutionaries must indeed preach from the outside at times – for example, when workers are supporting pro-capitalist political parties or actions (as many are initially when the U.S. goes to war under a blaring trumpet of militarist propaganda). The ISO and Hawkins agree on “standing aside” when workers opt for voting for Democratic candidates, even though many on the left do choose to vote for Democrats as a supposed “lesser” evil. They just choose to oppose the Marxist tradition less consistently.

Marxists have long opposed supporting bourgeois third parties in the U.S., even if that means isolation from mistaken working-class activists. One example goes back to the dissolution of the campaign for a labor party in 1924 into the campaign of the Republican “progressive” La Follette. Although Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International at the time, supported the move, Trotsky condemned it, saying that “to play the role of solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive voters’ for the Republican Senator La Follette is to head toward the political dissolution of the party in the petty-bourgeoisie.”[9]

In 1948, when the now-reformist Communist Party supported the presidential bid of Henry Wallace, a Democrat who had served in the Cabinet and as vice-president under Roosevelt, the Socialist Workers Party opposed that move as a class betrayal. In words that today seem directed against socialists supporting Nader or the Green Party, the SWP’s James P. Cannon explained:

“It has been argued that ‘we must go through the experience with the workers.’ That is a very good formula, provided you do not make it universal. We go with the workers only through those experience which have a class nature. We go with them through the experiences of strikes, even though we may think a given strike untimely. We may even go with the workers through the experience of putting a reformist labor party in office, provided it is a real labor party and subject to certain pressures of the workers, in order that they may learn from their experience that reformism is not the correct program for the working class.

“But we do not go through the experience of class collaboration with the workers. ...The party must be educated and re-educated on the meaning of class politics, which excludes any support of any bourgeois candidate, and requires even the most critical attitude toward a labor party when we are supporting it.”[10]

Another supporter of the Hawkins-Jones ticket, the left blogger Louis Proyect, quoted Marx and tried to enlist him in the Green cause:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. ... The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”[11]

Here Marx not only calls for working-class electoral independence, as does Engels; he also specifies that the workers’ candidates should advance “their revolutionary position.” Obviously the non-revolutionary Green Party could not do anything of the sort. But neither did the ISO, for all its revolutionary pretensions and citations from Marx and Engels. The efforts to find revolutionary credentials for supporting the Green Party all fall flat.

Should Revolutionaries Run Reformist Campaigns?

Brian Jones had a great opportunity at the beginning of the campaign to put forward a different approach. Since he is a leader of the nominally revolutionary ISO, an interviewer asked him if he saw a contradiction between supporting the ISO “which seeks to abolish capitalism” and supporting the Green Party “which seeks to reform the capitalist system instead of calling for it to be ended.” His reply was that “There’s only a contradiction if you think there’s a contradiction between reform and revolution.” [12]

The problem with this attitude is not that there is anything wrong with fighting for reforms: revolutionaries should be engaged in the thick of such struggles. But the Green Party and its candidates work in the spirit of reformism: the idea that reforms are enough, that capitalism doesn’t need to be overcome. In contrast, revolutionaries enlist in struggles for reforms in order to show their fellow workers and other allies that capitalism, especially in times of economic hardship like the present, will not tolerate deep-going or long-lasting reforms.

Revolutionary socialists have often supported campaigns that were limited to reform programs. But in doing so they take pains to point out that reformism doesn’t work and that electoralism is no answer. For them, a reform campaign on a working-class basis may win partial or temporary gains, but above all it is a promising way to reach more eyes and ears and draw attention to the need for a revolutionary working-class party. But that is not what the Hawkins-Jones campaign did.

While the Greens at times say that movements, not just elections, are necessary, there are plenty of campaign statements, like that of Hawkins and Jones, that solely focused on the electoral arena and what the New York State government could do were they in office.[13] They give no warning that the capitalist class realizes that a far-reaching reform program would threaten their power and their right to rule, and that they would act accordingly. Even though it could be argued that some of the Green demands have revolutionary implications, the campaign and its supporters do not even mention this, much less draw out what it means. Whatever the socialists might have in the backs of their minds, they are running a reformist and electoralist campaign.

The ISO prides itself on its emphasis on the Marxist idea that only the working class can emancipate itself, in contrast to so much of the Marxist left that capitulates to Stalinism and other forces outside the working class. But in its commentaries on governmental elections, this idea disappears. Sometimes, as in Geier’s article from 2000, the class limitations of the Greens are brought up – only to be ignored. But more typically, as in their recent writings on the Hawkins-Jones campaign, any hint that something different is needed is dropped. The ISO’s political method trains would-be revolutionaries to abandon principles in deference to popular moods, to denigrate the role of theory (e.g., by not dealing with the difference between a working-class based party and a cross-class one) and to avoid criticism of the political campaigns they support.

Those who are convinced that socialist revolution is the only solution, and that to get there the working class must build its own revolutionary party, have to seize every opportunity to make that vision clear. The many socialist individuals and organizations who enthuse over the Hawkins-Jones campaign have instead opted to build a party that is a diversion from working-class independence and class struggle.

The following originally appeared in LRP Bulletin (Fall 2014) as a companion piece to the above article.

The Greens, Capitalism and Imperialism

The Green Party’s dedication to capitalism is hardly hidden. It opposes “corporate capitalism,” but its program favors small business and what it calls “responsible stakeholder capitalism.”[14] Over the years its best-known spokesman has been Ralph Nader, its candidate for president in 2000. Nader ran an openly pro-capitalist campaign, aiming to save “American corporate capitalism from itself.”[15] At the time Howie Hawkins laid out the Greens’ class basis clearly, writing in support of Nader’s candidacy:

“Nader and the Green Party are not a strictly workers’ party. In outlook and composition, they are a cross-class coalition of ‘the people,’ the working class and the middle classes of self-employed professionals and small and medium business people, all allied against the corporate elite.” [16]

Nor are the Greens consistent opponents of the Democrats. They refused to re-endorse Nader for president in 2004, out of fear that a substantial protest vote for him could cost the Democrats the election (as his 2000 campaign was accused of doing). Instead the Greens ran a weak “safe states” candidacy and refused to campaign in states where they might take crucial votes from the Democratic candidate, John Kerry. Nader himself went further and endorsed some Democratic congressional candidates. When push came to shove, the Greens were not an alternative to the Democrats, much less a working-class alternative.

The main theme of the 2014 Green campaign was a “Green New Deal for New York.” In the campaign’s wording:

“We will establish as economic human rights a decent job, a living wage, quality health care, a good education, affordable housing and public transit, and sustainable clean energy. We will pay for it by restoring the progressive taxes and revenue sharing New York had in the 1970s, which would increase state revenues by about 20% while giving 95% of New Yorkers a tax cut.” [17]

Thus Hawkins and Jones expressed themselves in the language of Democratic Party liberalism.

Their “New Deal” explicitly harkens back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reforms in response to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, reforms that were meant to save the capitalist system in two ways: by regulating the economy to avoid economic crisis, and by derailing mass movements that could challenge capitalist state power.

Nevertheless, the basic reforms outlined above under the “Green New Deal” are desirable and indeed necessary. But the idea that these can be achieved under a rapaciously profit-driven economy (which is what any kind of capitalism is), and with a state power that defends it, is absurd. And that’s what is described by a program that calls for restoring the tax program of the 1970’s! It is criminal for socialists to run on a platform that maintains that such breakthrough programs could be achieved without social change far more drastic than electing Greens, namely socialist revolution. This is an example of Greens trying desperately, like Nader, to save corporate capitalism from itself.

In addition to calling for an absurdly reformed capitalism in the United States, the Green Party endorses a reformed U.S. imperialism abroad. It deplored the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but did not call for the ouster of U.S. military forces. And its general policy is to call for the U.S. to act under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council for global “peace-keeping.”[18] The Security Council is itself an imperialist-dominated institution under whose cover the U.S. often carries out its far-from-peaceful military interventions.

The U.S. Green Party has never held high office, but in Germany, its fraternal party, Die Grünen (The Greens), has often joined local and national governments; one leader, Joschka Fischer, was Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister from 1998 to 2005. In power the German Greens have served capitalism and imperialism loyally – enforcing austerity policies, helping to adopt the big-bank bailouts and supporting the U.S.-led wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.[19] Many Greens objected, but a party whose reformist political outlook does not explicitly stand against the class interests of capitalism is no obstacle to carrying out what capitalism requires.


1. Kshama Sawant and Howie Hawkins, Open Letter from Kshama Sawant and Howie Hawkins to the Left and Labor Movement, ; and Hawkins, “America just took a wrong turn. It’s time to take a hard left,” The Guardian, November 6, 2014.

2. See The Greens, Capitalism and Imperialism on this page.

3. See our analysis of the Sawant campaign, The Socialist Victory in Seattle: A Marxist View. This article also includes a discussion of the method of critical support.

4. Bernie Sanders for President in 2016?, April 16, 2014

5. See our articles The Labor Party in the United States and No to New Reformist Parties!

6. Quoted by Hawkins in A Green Perspective on Ralph Nader And Independent Political Action. Engels’ comment is from his letter to Florence Wischnewetsky of December 28, 1886, letters/86_12_28.htm

7. See Nader: Saving Capitalist America from Itself">8.

9. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, 1924. 1924/ffyci-1/intro.htm

10. James P. Cannon, “Summary Speech on Election Policy,” in the SWP’s Internal Bulletin, February 1948. See also his On the 1948 Wallace Campaign: “A Diversion & An Obstacle”.

11. Marx, “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” March 1850; cited by Proyect at


13. Check out Hawkins’ campaign platform.

14. In the Green Party’s 2012 campaign platform

15. Statement of Ralph Nader announcing his candidacy for the Green Party’s nomination for president, February 21, 2000

16. Hawkins, A Green Perspective on Ralph Nader And Independent Political Action, October 8, 2000. Brian Jones, however, now seems to claim (without justification) that the Greens are among the “ working-class parties around the world.” See

17. national_green_party_meeting

18. See again the Greens’ 2012 platform.

19. On the German Greens’ foreign policy, see