A version of this statement was distributed at conferences and events in early July.
Faced with the dismal prospect of yet another presidential election year dominated by blatantly capitalist candidates, this time including would-be dynastic rulers Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, two socialist-led conferences in May took up the possibility of building a left-wing alternative. One gathering in Chicago was labeled the Future of Left/Independent Politics; the other, just weeks later, was the annual Left Forum in New York which featured several well-attended sessions on left-wing electoral politics.
One source of inspiration for the growing interest in left electoral campaigns was the victorious 2013 campaign for a city council seat in Seattle by Kshama Sawant, who ran openly as a socialist. Her election showed that decades of falling living standards have weakened the grip of anti-communist propaganda on the working class in this country and that growing numbers are ready to vote for a candidate who openly denounces capitalism and supports struggles against it. Internationally, the participants were further encouraged by the rise of new left-wing parties in Europe and especially by the anti-austerity coalition Syriza, which took over the government of Greece following elections early this year.
Syriza grew out of mass working-class struggles, including general strikes against capitalist economic attacks, only to find its leaders attempting to compromise with Europe’s imperialist banks in a struggle that is today far from over. But the ideas for a left electoral campaign being promoted by the major left-wing groups in this country effectively ignore the signs of the potential for explosions of struggle by working-class and poor people here, and they ignore the dangers of those struggles being betrayed by reformist politicians who will sacrifice the masses’ demands when they threaten the capitalist class’s power and economic interests.
For the first time in decades, National Guard troops have twice been called to occupy urban areas to quell popular uprisings. The rebellions in Ferguson, Missouri and then Baltimore, Maryland by mostly young working-class and poor Black people were sparked by racist police killings. But they also expressed broader anger and desperation, especially among Black and Latino working-class and poor people that has grown since the 2008 crisis on Wall Street. The government rescued the big banks with trillion-dollar bailouts and abandoned the working class to home foreclosures, unemployment and cutbacks in social services that hit people of color the hardest.
The Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions, and the whole Black Lives Matter movement of mass protest that swept the country, have thus shown the need for Black and Latino working-class people to struggle against the uniquely oppressive racism that they face. And they set an example that the whole working class can learn to follow; they turned to mass struggle to defend their interests against injustice. Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement has already encouraged greater protests against cutbacks like school closings, and the ongoing campaign for a living wage.
However, the left proposals for an electoral alternative ignore the significance of the recent rebellions. Besides expressing empty words of solidarity, the main socialist groups involved – Socialist Alternative (SA), the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Solidarity – simply continued their old strategies of building a left electoral campaign organized around the promotion of various reform policies that is effectively divorced from mass struggles, especially those of the most oppressed sections of the working class.
The proposals for an electoral alternative to the mainstream capitalist politicians – by socialists who claim to be committed to working-class revolution – also fail to link the struggles with the need to overthrow capitalist state power. We revolutionary socialists of the League for the Revolutionary Party promote the traditional Marxist perspective that the ruling class rarely concedes major reforms unless mass struggles threaten their fundamental interests and power. We stand for the biggest and most united struggles that will test the promises of reformist politicians and union and community leaders; we also explain that the experience of such struggles will expose the reformists’ loyalty to the system and prove the need for socialist revolution by the working class.
Instead, the socialist electoralists follow the perspective that a distinct stage of struggle for reforms is best advanced by the promotion of a reformist leadership today, and that only after this can there follow a stage where revolutionary solutions and leadership are necessary. This perspective means that to one extent or another, they fail to fight for independent working-class struggle and political organization today. At both May conferences the words “left” and “independent” were deliberately blurred in order to encompass a wide spectrum of political views. Participants included those who keep at least one foot inside the “lesser evil” Democratic Party (DP), as well as those for whom independence means above all keeping out of the DP. They all hailed the spirit of cooperation among their disparate forces.
Nevertheless, the hoped-for unity of the left was shaken when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – nominally a socialist and “independent” – announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination just before the Chicago conference. Sanders’ move, the first time in his political career that he is running openly as a Democrat, has divided the left-independents into three broad, partially overlapping, camps. They are, from right to left, 1) supporters of Sanders’ Democratic Party effort; 2) those who reject the Democrats but still urge him to run as an independent and would back him if he did; and 3) those who oppose Sanders because they know he’s against an independent campaign. All enthused over the Green Party, whose liberal program explicitly swears allegiance to capitalism and whose membership is overwhelmingly based among the middle class. Many in the three camps are likely to re-unite after Sanders loses and support the Greens as the most viable left alternative.
We will examine the views of representatives of these left-electoralist camps and show that all three reject the principle of working-class independence from all pro-capitalist parties that Marxist stand for as a step toward constructing the revolutionary party our class desperately needs.
Since Sanders is the main point of division on the electoralist left, we take up his campaign first. He says that he is running to win, but everyone knows he can’t. The Democratic Party is controlled by Wall Street money, and the ruling class doesn’t trust a candidate who offers too many concessions to working-class and poor people. And on paper, some of his “progressive agenda” does just that. His platform includes raising the minimum wage to a living wage, guaranteeing women workers equal pay for equal work, providing quality education for all from child care to higher education, supporting union organizing, rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure and thereby creating jobs for vast numbers, making the U.S. lead the world in reversing climate change; strengthening Social Security and extending Medicare to a single-payer health care system for all, and paying for all this with a progressive tax system.
His reform agenda allows Sanders to claim to be a socialist. And if it sounds too good to be possible, it certainly is so, in a society ruled by big capitalists who profit from the exploitation of the vast majority. Sanders’ campaign dodges the question of how far-reaching reforms can be won under this system. It would take a massive class upheaval to achieve even part of what he calls for.
That omission explains why the Democratic establishment tolerates Sanders’ candidacy. His campaign may compel Clinton to move a bit to the left in the primaries – indeed, she is already coming out with some populist talk. But that is the extent of the “political revolution” he says his campaign is about. His real purpose is to rope his enthusiasts into the Democratic Party so that they will vote for Clinton in the end. Then Clinton or whoever is nominated will move rightward after the nomination, and if elected will carry out next to nothing of Sanders’ agenda, no more than will any Republican.
Sanders denounces the Republicans for the corporate capitalism they promote. But he does not admit that much of the neo-liberal economic program was instituted under Democrats, from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. Indeed, despite his standard ballot designation as an “independent,” Sanders has been for all practical purposes a loyal Democrat; his running for the Democratic nomination is not an aberration. He has consistently voted with the Democrats, joined their caucus in Congress and endorsed their candidates. In Vermont he supported the supposedly progressive governor Peter Shumlin, who like all Democrats in executive office threatens layoffs of unionized workers and who abandoned Vermont’s single payer health plan this past winter. Sanders has also helped finance not-so-progressive Democrats like oil industry stalwarts Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, along with the tobacco industry champion Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Sanders calls for some economic reforms that favor the working class. But he is noticeably cold to the issues facing the most oppressed sections of our class. He poses as a champion of immigrant rights, but he supported the latest incarnation of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which on the whole constitutes an attack on immigrants by denying citizenship rights to the great majority of undocumented workers and by bolstering the murderously repressive enforcement of the Mexican border. On the issue of police murders of unarmed Black people, Sanders has refused to condemn the cops, much less to discuss the repressive role that police are required to play in capitalist society. Interviewed on CNN after he declared his candidacy and when the Baltimore protests were very much in the news, the strongest words he could come up with for the police killings like that of Freddie Gray were “inappropriate” and “unacceptable,” and he chose to sympathize with the cops: “I was a mayor for eight years, being a cop is a very difficult job.” Indeed, one key to his winning election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1980 was his support for and by the local police “union.”
Moreover, Sanders the “socialist” is a supporter of imperialism, although occasionally somewhat critical of specific acts. He voted for Bush II’s resolution that authorized the Afghanistan war. And although he voted against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he repeatedly supported funds for the colonial occupations of both countries. And when Israel mounted its latest mass murder of civilians in Gaza in 2014, Sanders went along with Israel’s aggression by citing its “right to ‘self-defense’.”
His labels aside, Sanders is nothing more than a traditional liberal Democrat who hearkens back to the time before the party swung rightward, before capitalism’s long economic stagnation that required a stepped-up attack on the working class. He imagines a moderately humanized capitalism that he labels socialism, downplays the racism that capitalism uses to divide the working class, and defends the basic interests of U.S. (and Israeli) imperialism. No wonder he has endorsed every recent Democratic president and nominee – even though they all call for and carry out policies opposed to the reforms he nominally stands for. Likewise the ultra-corporatist Hillary Clinton, whom he hails as “a good friend of mine.” He will be perfectly consistent when he supports her in the end.
Sanders’ pro-capitalist record hasn’t prevented some leftists from supporting him. Not surprisingly, various fellow non-revolutionary “democratic socialists” are among them. But so is Socialist Alternative, which ran Kshama Sawant for the Seattle city council two years ago. Because the Sawant campaign was based on mass struggles (for a $15 minimum wage among other demands) and positioned itself as an alternative to the capitalist parties, we in the League for the Revolutionary Party argued that revolutionaries should critically support it, despite SA’s wavering record on working-class independence. This year SA has once again compromised that principle by backhandedly supporting Sanders’ Democratic Party campaign.
To do so they have had to conceal some i truths. For one thing, SA echoes Sanders’ claims that he is running a working-class campaign: “Socialist Alternative welcomes Sanders’ decision to run for President to help create, as he says, ‘an independent voice, fighting for working families’ ... . His campaign will ... widen the spectrum of political discussion, injecting some working-class reality into the increasingly surreal and narrow parameters of official debate.”
Yes, Sanders raises some working-class issues – while undercutting others. And by doing so as a Democrat, he counters those he claims to champion by tying them to a capitalist party that cannot implement them. While it is the role of the Democratic Party to promote such illusions, the job of socialists is to expose them, not promote them. That is why SA’s support for Sanders in the Democratic primaries is phrased very deviously. They write in the same article:
“Join Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative to make sure this historic opportunity is not squandered. We will be campaigning with Sanders supporters against the corporate politicians while politically arguing for Sanders to run all-out through the November 2016 election, as a step toward building an independent political alternative for working people.”
So SA won’t say openly that it is campaigning for Sanders, only that it is campaigning “with Sanders supporters.” But his supporters are campaigning for Sanders inside the Democratic Party, so where does that put SA? At the Left Forum, both Sawant and Calvin Priest, speaking for Socialist Alternative, insisted that SA does not endorse Sanders as a Democrat. “But we won’t let him off the hook,” he added, which is why SA wants the left to be ready to get his supporters to walk out of the Democratic Party and into an independent campaign. SA writes:
“The real mistake for those who want to build an alternative to corporate politics is to abstain, or simply criticize from the sidelines. If we are absent from the Sanders campaign, the concrete effect will be to help to facilitate the corralling of Sanders’ left-wing supporters behind the eventual Democratic nominee.” 
No, by participating in the Sanders campaign SA is helping to corral Sanders’ supporters into the Democratic Party. Their claim of non-endorsement is an evasion, a transparent and dishonest cover that allows them to claim they are champions of “independence.” They are playing the same game as typical capitalist politicians, talking out of both sides of their mouth rather than telling the unvarnished truth about what they are up to.
Political activity in the Sanders campaign inevitably leads to the dampening of participation in mass struggles. Concretely, what will happen the next time a cop kills an unarmed Black person and mass protests arise? Will Sanders supporters join the protests, even though Sanders will not support them (he hasn’t so far)? Or will they counsel caution, since participation in angry protests might harm Sanders’ campaign? SA tells the Black Lives Matter movement that the way forward is to “build a multiracial working class mass movement, independent from corporate politics.” Working for a Democratic politician runs precisely counter to that goal.
The two-faced strategy of working for left-talking candidates in the Democratic primaries, while refusing on principle to vote for Democrats in the general election was not invented by Socialist Alternative. It was pioneered in the 1950’s by the Independent Socialist League led by Max Shachtman. In the name of “independent labor politics,” it called for supporting “candidates from the ranks of labor and responsible to it even in the Democratic Party.” This open crossing of the class line into one of the major parties of the capitalist class was a key step in the evolution of Shachtman and his organization from Trotskyism to the right wing of the Democrats.
Socialist Alternative likewise claims to be extending, not violating, the principle of class independence. Here they explain their method as carried out in the Sawant campaign:
“Socialist Alternative used what we call ‘the transitional method’: We connect with the consciousness of everyday people, meet them where they are at, and then point a way forward to help social justice movements achieve victory. The transitional method also entails linking demands for basic improvements in workers’ day-to-day lives with the need for a fundamental restructuring of wealth and power in society along socialist lines.” 
That is, SA imagines that it is following the method of Trotsky’s Transitional Program. But that method is to construct a bridge from workers’ present consciousness to the socialist program of doing away with capitalism; towards that end, the Transitional Program advocates demands that a working-class state would carry out. The point is to prove visibly that the present government and state power are fully in the hands of the workers’ class enemy, the capitalists.
SA’s method is not socialist or transitional. For example, in their article on the Sanders campaign, they claim that his financial program is a partial step forward.
“Sanders’ platform points in the right direction, but as socialists we would go further. For example, Sanders calls for breaking up the huge Wall Street banks, a radical reform which we would support. But far better would be to bring the big banks under democratic public ownership.”
This runs counter to the socialist program. Breaking up the banks might be a popular slogan because people rightly hate the wealth-flaunting financiers who impose austerity on working people. But it is not a socialist demand: it points away from a social struggle to bring the banks under the control of society. The problem with the banks today is not their size but which class owns them. A workers’ state would expropriate the capitalist banks and organize them into a state banking system that would grant cheap credit for useful enterprises and safeguard the savings of depositors. Sanders’ demand is meant to make the capitalist system seem reformable, and SA’s half-embrace of it shows that they are willing to muddy socialist principles by opportunistically endorsing a populist, small-time capitalist proposal.
The Chicago conference was animated by the ISO, Solidarity and SA, who enthusiastically praised it afterwards for its spirit of cooperation. But that means mainly that the organizers of the conference were so eager to get along with those who are for organizing inside the Democratic Party that they didn’t try to argue out their differences. Indeed, conference endorsers included Jacobin magazine (which favors Sanders), the Richmond Progressive Alliance (which includes Democratic Party supporters and withdrew its mayoral candidate in the last election to help a Democrat win), and the Vermont Progressive Party (the largest electoral organization attending, which cross-endorses Democrats consistently).
So contrary to what its sponsors claimed, the conference did not represent a clean break from the two-party system. Moreover, despite claims of holding an “exchange of views” on how to achieve independence, there was no organized debate or discussion of the Democratic Party question, much less over the Green Party. The point is not that common work between different political groups is wrong, but that if there are important differences, they should be discussed openly and debated.
Paths diverged after the conference. Bernie Sanders sent it his greetings, and a number of conference organizers and endorsers, mainly affiliated with the Green Party and Solidarity, wrote a craven response to Sanders’ suggestion that his campaign and the conference had similar aims. The writers rejected supporting him in the Democratic Party but promised in advance to welcome “you and your supporters back into the movement for independent political action after the Democratic primaries are over.” Sanders, however, has vowed to back the party nominee, since he doesn’t want to run as a “spoiler” who might draw enough votes to allow the Republican to win. Given that commitment, suggesting that he might run against the Democratic nominee means that these writers, like Socialist Alternative, are promoting an illusion and a lie. Pretending that he might run as an independent is only protective cover for endorsing a politician who has gone further than previously in demonstrating his loyalty to the Democrats.
Socialist Alternative did not sign the letter, presumably because it does support Sanders’ Democratic campaign as long as it lasts. The ISO also did not sign, because they understand correctly that his aim is to buttress the Democrats, not build an independent alternative. Nevertheless, they seem to regret his decision not to run an independent campaign. “He’s really electrified a layer of newly-radicalizing activists and people on the left,” but “he’s making a mistake in running inside the Democratic party,” an ISO spokesman said, “because he is trying to win the nomination of a party that opposes everything he stands for.” That last clause assumes that his rhetoric rather than his record represents what he stands for. And from his class point of view he is making no mistake. And if his campaign is so electrifying to radicals, then it is helping the Democrats win over leftish voters uncomfortable with the Democrats’ rightward turn of the past four decades.
The Sanders campaign is not the only one that has recently drawn people who see themselves as revolutionary socialists into the Democratic orbit. Just before the Chicago conference started, Jesús “Chuy” García was defeated by Rahm Emanuel in the run-off “non-partisan” election for mayor of Chicago. The chance to defeat Emmanuel, who had become a national symbol of austerity and dubbed “Mayor 1%,” led many on the left to support García. The problem was that García himself is a Democratic Party politician who supports austerity policies and was explicitly pro-cop in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nevertheless, Socialist Alternative gave Garcia the same kind of back-handed endorsement it later gave to Bernie Sanders: “Working people will be using a vote for Chuy Garcia on April 7 to get rid of Emanuel.” SA added, “Unfortunately, Chuy Garcia is not a candidate who promises fundamental change.” Nevertheless, SA pretended that Garcia could carry out serious change and proposed a program for him. It included: “Full funding for education and jobs, paid for by taxing big business and the super-rich, who are profiting off of racial and economic inequalities; Rent control and new affordable housing so that no family in Chicago pays more than 1/3rd of their income on housing and no one is homeless; An immediate $15/hour city-wide minimum wage, paid sick days, paternity and maternity leave and an end to all forms of employment discrimination; A vow to turn the Chicago Mayor’s Office – the third largest city in the US – into a bastion against all cuts imposed from the federal or the state government, to stop privatizations, restore and implement full union rights and put people over profits.”
As with Sanders, SA justified their quasi-endorsement by suggesting that Garcia could promote such a program. That is, their position is based on a lie.
The ISO, in contrast, opposed endorsing Garcia: “There’s little reason to expect that Garcia would take a different approach as mayor of Chicago, which faces its own looming pension shortfall after decades of underfunding, as a result of a tax structure that soaks workers and the poor while favoring the big financial and real estate interests.” The ISO specifically criticized the Chicago Teachers Union, the largest union in the city with a reputation for recent militancy, for endorsing him: “In effect, the CTU is enabling a candidate, who, if elected, can be expected to balance the budget on the backs of teachers’ unions and others.”
But the ISO has a huge problem: Jesse Sharkey, a long-term ISO activist, had been elected vice-president of the CTU on the CORE slate headed by Karen Lewis. Last year Lewis was planning to run for mayor and looked to have a good chance to win. But she got seriously ill and had to go on leave, leaving Sharkey in charge. At that point the CTU leaders engineered the endorsement of Garcia, warmly and uncritically embraced by Sharkey: “Garcia is dedicated to making Chicago work for all of its residents and he will be a strong advocate for public school educators, our students and their families. Chuy has spent his life working as an advocate for economic development, equity and growth in areas that have long been ignored. As mayor he will put the focus back on neighborhoods and the diverse people who live within them.” On top of this, the CTU, which under Lewis and before had often backed Democratic politicians, also endorsed the austerity-pushing Democrat Pat Quinn for Illinois governor.
What did the ISO say or do about Sharkey’s open betrayal of ISO policy against endorsing Democrats? After some delay they published an implicit critique of his endorsement:
“In an interview following the election, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said, ‘As the Democratic Party has governed to the right and taken on tax cuts for the wealthy and public coffers shrink, there’s a big space that has opened up to the left and candidates are saying, “My opponents are corporate Democrats”.’
“Yet a look at García’s record – and close attention to what he’s saying on the campaign trail – makes it clear that even if he ousts Emanuel, García will continue administer the type of austerity policies that triggered the electoral backlash against Emanuel. In effect, the CTU is enabling a candidate, who, if elected, can be expected to balance the budget on the backs of teachers’ unions and others.” 
But they did not mention that Sharkey is (or was?) affiliated with the ISO. And there was no criticism, much less denunciation, of his role. When asked about this contradiction at the Chicago conference, they gave no answer. This is an ultra-cowardly evasion. For any union leader to campaign for a boss who would cut their throats is a betrayal of the workers he represents. For a socialist to do so is doubly shameful and besmirches the name of that cause.
The point is not that one cannot be in a coalition with people who support the Democrats, but joint work with those with significant political differences – especially over supporting a party of the bosses – is precisely what makes clear lines of demarcation necessary. How could the ISO hope to convince CTU workers that the Democratic Party is their class enemy, and convince them that the issue is of critical importance, if its most prominent supporter in the union is campaigning for a Democrat for mayor? Workers would either think that the difference is not important or that the ISO doesn’t mean what it says.
In a response to an article in their newspaper, Socialist Worker, critical of Sharkey’s role, ISOers wrote that “It’s hard to square their alarm about what we wrote with SW’s long and established record on the question of the Democrats and labor in general, and the CTU in particular.” But in fact the ISO has always downplayed the Lewis leadership of the CTU’s consistent endorsement of Democratic politicians, and that Lewis herself before her illness was fund-raising for her potential campaign as a Democrat. It is indeed true that no one could read Socialist Worker regularly and not be aware of the ISO’s opposition to the Democratic Party as a party of the bosses – but on the other hand, no one could read it and not be aware of the consistent support of the CORE leadership of the CTU for the Democrats, including that of their own supporter Sharkey.
In sum, the ISO has no consistent argument against engaging in left-wing campaigns in the Democratic Party, because its objection is to the two-party system, not the capitalist character of the DP in itself. And the ISO has shown that their opposition to the Democrats is worth less than their connection to the CTU leadership, a wing of the labor bureaucracy. Theirs is a classic case of opportunism – sacrificing fundamental principles in order to take apparent advantage of short-term opportunities.
The U.S. working class always faces an insoluble problem at election times: the only parties that have any chance of winning and therefore of governing are the two major parties of the capitalist class. In the absence of a mass party that the working class can consider its own, our class cannot advance its struggles or interests through the electoral arena. Class independence has been a fundamental principle of the working-class movement since its beginning. Thus Karl Marx advised a meeting of English workers in 1850 that
“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.” 
Nearly a half-century later, the need for an independent class party was pointed out to U.S. socialists by Frederick Engels, Marx’s political and literary partner, in 1896:
“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.” 
Never have genuine Marxists stood for blurring the fundamental class divide. If it had a party of its own, the working class would no longer have to look to the benevolence of bourgeois politicians for whatever needs can be solved through legislation. Of course, we now know that working-class parties include reformist and counter-revolutionary defenders of capitalism like the British Labour Party or many socialist parties in Europe and elsewhere; for that reason Engels’ statement has to be qualified. But the central importance of class independence remains. Moreover, the struggle to create and build a class party, coupled with other forms of class struggle, helps show workers that their interests and those of the capitalists are fundamentally incompatible. And in the course of the struggle, revolutionary socialists would hope to convince their fellow-workers of the need for a revolutionary party aimed at ending capitalist rule and establishing a workers’ state.
In the late 1930’s when there was a wave of strikes and factory occupations that built the trade unions into a massive fighting force, the U.S. Trotskyists supported movements for the creation of a labor party. They saw that the class struggle had achieved all it could in the trade-union arena and now needed to advance to challenge the capitalist state. They explicitly argued that a fight for an independent working-class party would give them opportunities, not just to win gains under the existing state but to win fellow-workers over to the perspective of socialist revolution,
Since then, most of the organizations in the U.S. claiming their roots in Trotskyism have calcified that method and have declared for building a labor or broad workers’ party at all times, even in the absence of mass labor action. Without such struggles, such a labor party would be led by trade-union bureaucrats with a thoroughly pro-capitalist, reformist (and therefore counter-revolutionary) outlook. But it became orthodoxy to believe that a mass labor party was a necessary step in the building of a revolutionary working-class party. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party disagree: whether to advocate a labor party is a tactical question that depends on circumstances, above all a mass working-class struggle which militant union officials appear to be leading and promoting. But at other times such parties would be simply a barrier, both to the struggle and to the raising of workers’ consciousness of the need for a revolutionary party. This is especially true today, for in the past half-century the degree of class struggle in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest point in history, thanks to the trade union bureaucracy that strangles every effort toward working-class action and instead offers no hope other than voting for and lobbying the Democrats.
Today many socialists have given up on fighting for any working-class party, much less a revolutionary one. Rather than working on patient propaganda for a revolutionary perspective, combined with involvement in the day-to-day struggles of the working class, these “independent-left” activists say that any sort of third party on the left will do; the Green Party is the vehicle that many have put their hopes in.
The notion that “independence” means not class independence of the workers from the capitalists but rather just independence from the two major capitalist parties also dates back to the tradition of Max Shachtman. In his rush rightward, in 1958 Shachtman reasoned that since the labor unions were wedded to the Democrats, then the way to build a labor party in the U.S. was to join the Democratic Party and “realign” it to the left. Left-wing Shachtmanites, led by Hal Draper, refused to follow their ex-mentor into the Democrats. Further, by the 1960’s the labor leadership was thoroughly reactionary, and radical hopes lay with the rising civil rights, later Black liberation, struggle and the movement against the Vietnam War centered on college campuses. So when Draper and his allies founded the Independent Socialist Clubs, their call for independent political action could not rest on labor alone: “We stand for the advocacy of independent political action in opposition to both old parties, Democratic and Republican, by the labor and civil rights movements and other progressive forces, looking to the building of a new party.”
In 1968 the ISCs were instrumental in building the middle-class-based Peace and Freedom Party on a “minimum radical program” – one that dropped all mention of a working-class party and focused on opposition to the war on Vietnam and support for Black militancy. Draper wrote: “The ‘revolution’ that is on the agenda for Peace and Freedom today is not yet overthrowing the whole System, but something a little more modest for the day: viz, overthrowing the two-party system ... and establishing a new force on the left in American politics.” But without a working-class base, Peace and Freedom’s momentum could not last. It was derailed by Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose “crusade” for the Democratic presidential nomination on an anti-Vietnam War platform drew many radicals back into the Democratic orbit. Bernie Sanders’ campaign today is driven by similar needs.
It is no coincidence that several leaders of the ISO and Solidarity today can trace their political ancestry back to the Peace and Freedom Party. The current “independent left” trend represents a step backward even from that. The PFP forged an alliance with the Black Panther Party, a major militant force in the Black liberation struggles of the day, and ran several of its leaders as candidates. Today’s Green Party takes positions in support of the rights of oppressed people, but it has no connection with the Black Lives Matter or the immigrants’ rights movements, no more than does Sanders. And both Sanders and the Greens are far from being as opposed to imperialist interventions as was the PFP.
The Green Party is a dead-end for the working class: it is not a working-class party in social composition, and despite the presence of avowed socialists in the midst, it stands not for even the mildest socialism but for a reformed “stakeholder” capitalism. It is notable that Ralph Nader has expressed enthusiasm for Sanders’ campaign. Nader has been the best-known Green Party candidate and spokesman (even though he was never formally a party member); in 2000 he drew over two percent of the popular vote for president nationwide, a significant figure for a little-known third party not backed by billionaires. His goal was to “save corporate capitalism from itself,’ and he longed for a return to the liberal (but racist and imperialist) Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Howie Hawkins, a member of the Solidarity organization, a frequent candidate on the Green line in New York State and one of the signers of the futile letter urging Bernie Sanders to run as an independent, often tries to claim the authority of Marx and Engels for his form of non-class independence. In opposition to Sanders’ campaign, Hawkins quoted Engels as above in order to say that “Sanders is not helping the working class to organize, speak and act for itself.” Of course not – but how then is building what Hawkins himself has termed a “cross-class coalition” helping the working class speak or act for itself? In the light of what Marx and Engels actually believed, Hawkins’ citing them as precedents for his own cross-class bloc is an insult to the intelligence of his readers as well as an injury to the interests of the working class.
Like many left-independents, Hawkins denounces the Democrats as a “corporate party” – which it is, since it represents and defends the major institutions of financial and industrial capitalism in their exploitative and imperialist activities. The Greens in the U.S. attract little if any corporate support; they generally speak to the issues of their voting base: “well-educated people in the service professions. But where they have reached state power they too defend big capital and imperialism. The German Greens have enforced austerity policies and supported the U.S.-led wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.
And now, just a few days after the Left Forum, the Greens internationally achieved a new triumph. The U.S. Green Party announced that on June 3 Latvia’s parliament elected Raimonds Vejonis of the Green Party as the new president. In addition to advancing their environmental agenda, Greens can be proud that the former defense minister will use his new post to boost defense spending and push to get more NATO forces in his country. No surprise, given that Vejonis was the candidate of the Union of Greens and Farmers, “a center-right party that is part of Latvia’s ruling coalition.”
This right-wing, pro-U.S. imperialist outlook is fully in keeping with Green policies. The more radical wing of the U.S. Green Party criticized its presidential candidate in 2004, David Cobb, for favoring the extension of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. “We can’t just cut and run,” he said, without waiting for United Nations “peacekeeping” troops to arrive and take over. But Cobb was going only slightly beyond Green policy. The more recent 2012 party platform calls for “U.N.-sponsored, multinational peacekeeping and protection” in the Middle East, acting under the control of the Security Council. But as we pointed out in our article on the Greens cited above, “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 Greens’ capacity to support imperialism while talking out of the left side of their mouths is not their problem alone. Many social-democratic and labor parties have done so too. Such policies fit with the ideologies of reformism and populism, the notions that capitalism can be fixed to become genuinely democratic and peace-loving in the interest of “the people.” That is a grave illusion. The profits of the imperialist corporations depend on exploitation and super-exploitation at home and abroad. To champion a democratic and anti-imperialist program requires a party in no way tied to the interests of capitalism.
As we previously wrote of the U.S. Greens:
“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.” .
Bernie Sanders’ campaign aims to divert potential struggles against austerity and repression into the passive electoral arena. But the Green Party is no alternative. It has a similar program, yet will divert few class-based struggles either, since it is not involved in many. Socialists who champion it, however, will confuse activists about the centrality of working-class independence. And they will tie many would-be revolutionaries as well as themselves to a pro-capitalist party and to a soft-speaking but hard-line international supporter of the American imperialism they profess to hate.
1. For more specifics on Sanders’ platform, see Bernie Sanders Lays Down the Gauntlet” by Robert Borosage.
2. “The Vermont senator has given out more than $200,000 through his two PACs, Friends of Bernie and Progressive Voters of America. The PVA, in turn, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to embattled red-state Democrats like Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana” (www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/03/bernie-sanders-is-showing-us-the-socialist-way-to-run-for-president.html).
3. See among other articles on our web site, our 2015 May Day statement Imperialism Means Barbarism at Home and Abroad.
4. For example, reddebtthirty.wordpress.com/2015/05/02/look-at-this-democrat-bernie-has-no-answers-for-blacklivesmatter
5. www.dailydot.com/politics/bernie-sanders-burlington-mayor-first-win-hillary-clinton-2016/. On police “unions” see No Justice, No Peace! Jail Time for Racist, Brutal Police! (Revolutionary Transit Worker – Supplement, March 11, 2015).
6. For a sample, see the articles and comments in May on the New Politics website.
7. See Imperialism Means Barbarism at Home and Abroad.
8. “Bernie Sanders Calls for Political Revolution Against Billionaires,” by Philip Locker; Socialist Alternative, May 9, 2015.
9. From the debate between SA and the ISO, “`What should the left say about Sanders?”; at both socialistworker.org/2015/05/20/what-should-the-left-say-about-sanders and www.socialistalternative.org/2015/05/20/debate-what-should-left-say/.
10. Labor Action, October 18, 1954.
12. Ashley Smith, interviewed at therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content& task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=13893.
19. Marx, “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League.”
20. Engels, letter to Florence Wischnewetsky, December 28, 1886;
21. See our articles The Labor Party in the United States and No to New Reformist Parties!
22. Statement of Principles of the Independent Socialist Club (October 1964)
23. Independent Socialist Special Pamphlet Supplement, June-July 1968.
24. The Greens, Capitalism and Imperialism
26. Nader: Saving Capitalist America from Itself This article spells out Nader’s reactionary national chauvinism and the consequent contemptuous attitude towards immigrant workers.
27. The latest is at socialistworker.org/2015/05/26/bernie-sanders-is-no-eugene-debs
28. Hawkins on cross-class Greens: www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45c/069.html.
29. Hawkins, “Introduction” to Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate (2006), p. 41.
30. The Greens, Capitalism and Imperialism
31. (a) www.gp.org/index.php;
33. The Green Campaign: a Diversion from Working-Class Struggle