USA: Blazing the path for a new left party

By Bryan Koulouris & Ginger Jentzen Socialist Alternative (USA)

A rebellion has broken out, beginning in Minneapolis (where both authors of this article live) and spreading throughout the country. The uprising was sparked by a brutal racist police murder of George Floyd, and the underlying anger is based on deep injustices. A multi-racial movement of predominantly working-class people is emerging with Black youth at the forefront. People are fed up with racist police violence and the deeper inequalities inherent in this system. Minneapolis and many other cities in revolt have seen decades of rule by the Democratic Party establishment, who have offered nothing but deepening poverty, austerity, and bloated police budgets. 

Even the left of the Democrats, like Bernie and “the Squad,” have unfortunately offered little leadership in this dire situation of health crisis, economic collapse, and institutional racist violence. Bernie has called for more funding for police and endorsed Joe “shoot them in the leg” Biden, a corporate puppet and sexist creep. People are getting active and organized during this pandemic and in response to racist police violence, often conscious of the fact that the Democratic Party won’t save them. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have gained 10,000 members in recent months, and some of the “Our Revolution” groups founded by Sanders are leaving the Democrats to join “Movement for a People’s Party.”

Socialist Alternative has grown rapidly as well, and we’ve been the backbone of important broader initiatives in recent months that have helped push the workers movement forward; these include “Union Members for #justiceforgeorgefloyd” and “Workers Speak Out” as well as “Rent Strike 2020” and the Tax Amazon campaign in Seattle. At the same time, we’re conscious that a new mass party for working people will not arise just from the initiatives of revolutionary socialists, but rather from a much wider politicized movement of working-class people. There are early indications that millions of people could be moving in this direction in the coming  years, especially when we see the potential for explosive struggle against racism, climate change, and economic exploitation.

Millions of young people, progressive workers, and people of color throughout the country want to drive Trump out of office in November, and we sympathize with them. At the same time, virtually nobody is excited about the prospect of voting for Joe Biden. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, sparked debate when he said he’d be voting for Green Party Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, and the discussion spilled into The Nation and the New York Times. RoseAnn DeMoro, former leader of the National Nurses Union, tweeted that she will make fighting for a third party her life’s work, and famous Bernie surrogate Nina Turner retweeted it. DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus recently published an article entitled “Why Workers Need a Political Party.” These are indications of the coming debate about building a new political force for working people that can fight against the two parties of the billionaire class. 

Many questions loom large over this debate though: How can we build toward a new mass working-class party? Should we try to reform the Democratic Party instead? Is the Green Party an alternative? What should socialists do in the Presidential elections? 

The Lessons of History

The U.S. is the only advanced capitalist country to never have a mass working-class party in national politics. In most other countries, socialist, labor or communist parties in the past built substantial electoral support which amplified the effect of powerful labor movements. These mass parties were instrumental in winning a wide social safety net in Europe after World War II and other positive reforms. Perhaps more importantly, some of these mass parties became organizing centers for movements and had debates about how to bring struggles forward and win socialist change. These parties throughout the world have mostly shifted to the right in recent decades and made peace with capitalism, and many of the gains won through struggle have been overturned by the billionaire class. 

This shows that when capitalists grant reforms under pressure of a mass movement or a left party, they will aim to erase those gains when they see a political opening. This is one reason why we need a fundamental socialist transformation of society that breaks the power of the billionaire class once and for all. A new mass left party in the U.S. could both fight for meaningful reforms and be a space to debate the way forward for our struggles. While there were many attempts to develop working-class parties in the U.S., and a couple became substantial and important organizations, they never achieved the mass influence necessary to challenge the corporate lock grip on politics for a number of reasons.

The U.S. empire has been the dominant capitalist power worldwide, plundering large parts of the planet for corporate profits. These corporate super profits in times of capitalist expansion and economic boom gave the ruling class leeway to pay workers, especially white workers, higher wages compared to other countries. In the economic boom of the ’50s and ’60s, this also led to a big growth of the middle class and room for the capitalists to grant concessions to workers’ struggles, leading to a section of high-paid workers. These “safety valves” for capitalism are closing though; U.S. empire is no longer as dominant as it once was, and the economy has gone from recession to shallow recovery and now depression. The billionaires were also able to depend on racism to divide the working class, and while this is still a feature, the strength of racist ideology is weaker than at most points in the past, and a multiracial movement is developing against discrimination throughout the country. There will be openings in the coming years to develop a united multiracial struggle against oppression and a new political force that fights against the billionaire class.

2020 Presidential Elections

However, we still have a two-party duopoly in the U.S. controlled by the billionaire class. Despite the fact that both parties are controlled by big business, there are important differences between the Democrats and Republicans. The shift to the right in the Republican Party has increased at rapid pace under the Trump Administration. They are now more openly racist and sexist, whipping up smaller far-right forces and seeking to carry out reactionary policies. Trump’s belligerent and frequently incoherent approach in world politics has further isolated an already weakened U.S. empire, embarrassing sections of the U.S. ruling class. While the Democrats have been a timid and weak opposition, millions of union members, youth, oppressed people, and activists desperately want to see the end of the Trump regime.

Socialist Alternative is consistent in fighting against Trump, his administration, his policies, and the ideas he puts forward. From the protests immediately after Trump was elected, to the mass actions against deportations, the women’s marches, and more, socialists have been at the forefront of the fight against the right-wing agenda. While energetically building these struggles and protests, we pointed out that the Democratic Party offered extremely weak opposition to Trump, and that we needed a united working-class program and movement to undermine the right-wing agenda. 

This was shown to be correct in the impeachment proceedings when Democrats stuck to “Russiagate,” “Ukrainegate,” and procedural issues rather than mobilizing working-class anger against Trump’s real crimes of whipping up racism and sexism while overseeing rampant deepening economic inequality and destroying environmental regulations. This year, the Democratic Party leadership coordinated an assault on the Sanders campaign, putting up sleepy Joe “shoot them in the leg” Biden, instead of Bernie who could have defeated Trump. This shows that the billionaires who control the Democrats care more about stopping a working-class movement than driving Trump from office.

Socialist Alternative advocated in 2016 that Bernie should run “all the way” as an independent and form a new party of, by, and for working people. If he had taken our advice (and that of the over 100,000 people that signed our petition), then perhaps Trump would have never entered the White House! Even if Trump won a “three way” election in 2016 against Bernie’s new independent force, the working-class would have had a powerful tool and organizing center to fight back against the right-wing agenda with the beginnings of a new party. Instead, Sanders capitulated to the Democratic Party leadership, and now millions of people have lost faith in the prospect of reforming the Democrats into an instrument to stand up against exploitation and oppression. The current uprising is only increasing this mood.

Socialist Alternative is against the “lesser evil” logic that gives us the terrible options of a right-wing Trump administration and a billionaire controlled Democratic establishment. We sympathize with people who want to defeat Trump at the ballot box, but if a working-class alternative isn’t urgently built in the coming months and years, then right-wing racists will be main “opposition” to the inevitable attacks on working people that will come if the Democrats win control of the White House and possibly the Senate. A Biden presidency would be overseeing a political, social, and economic crisis in the interests of Wall Street, and would leave space for a right-wing movement potentially even worse than Trump. We can’t let this vicious cycle continue. This dire situation begs the question: “How can a new party emerge?”

The Green Party 

Since the 1990s, the Green Party has been the  most well known electoral choice to the left of the Democrats. Numerous Green Party candidates have been elected to local, county, and even state offices. Ralph Nader’s campaign for president as a Green in 2000 was a break-out left alternative to George Bush Jr. and Al Gore, who were seen by radicalizing workers and youth as a continuation of the neoliberal project attacking labor, environmental protections, and putting the needs of global capital ahead of working people. 

While the European Greens have benefited at the ballot box from the upsurge in the environmental movement, this has not been true of Greens in the U.S. who are traditionally more left than their European counterparts. In some cases the European Greens have entered into governing coalitions with ruling-class parties that have presided over environmental inaction and austerity. 

Since the days when Nader’s rallies were attended by tens of thousands of people, however, the U.S. Green Party has not been able to capitalize on the historic social movements that have developed. Despite a listed membership of over 200,000 they’ve been largely absent as an organized force – most notably in the FridaysForFuture student strikes against government inaction to address climate change – missing massive opportunities to grow support for their program by joining shoulder to shoulder with movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter. 

Of course, the vibrant movement around the Bernie Sanders campaign had an impact on the Greens getting overlooked. Both Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns, but especially the latter, spoke directly to the working class and energized millions of young people with an appeal to get organized against the “billionaire class.” He connected the campaign to strikes and protest. Although we have laid out our disagreements elsewhere on Sanders’ orientation to trying to turn the Democratic party into a “people’s party,” his campaign – and even more clearly, Socialist Alternative’s campaigns to elect Kshama Sawant – offer practical examples for independent electoral work based in movement building.  

In this respect, it’s positive that the Green Party consistently raises the need for independent politics and has a broadly left, anti-corporate program. However, in reality the Green Party has been unable to sink deeper roots in the working class – even with a historic strike wave in 2018. Disconnected from struggle, the GP all too often raises independent politics as the end goal unto itself. This approach risks sacrificing the interests of the working class to an annual get-out-the-vote effort. A purely electoral formation will not be enough to beat the billionaire class.

This fundamental flaw came to a head during the 2017 city elections in Minneapolis. Instead of backing the strongest anti-establishment candidate in Ward 3, Socialist Alternative’s Ginger Jentzen, the Greens endorsed and defended Samantha Pree-Stinson, who ran to the right of both Jentzen and the Democratic Party endorsed candidate, Steve Fletcher. Pree-Stinson received 10% of the vote, undoubtedly from some who genuinely saw voting for a woman of color as a way to combat the realities of racism in Minneapolis. 

When we approached the Green Party about the potential in the Ward 3 race to strike a blow against the status quo, they made it clear that the party only endorses and does not play an active role in a candidate’s accountability to the GP program. This was further clarified by the differences between Pree-Stinson’s campaign and positions taken by the sitting GP council member in Minneapolis, Cam Gordon. Gordon was one of the first to declare support for a strong $15 an hour without exemptions, but in the Ward 3 race, Pree-Stinson used the typical arguments deployed by anti-$15 big business lobby groups against the movement. Also, while Gordon spoke about strengthening renters’ rights and taking on corporate developers, Pree-Stinson claimed that our slogan, “Not For Sale” pointed to slavery – an utterly cynical interpretation of the anger in Ward 3 against politicians who have routinely sold-out to corporations and big developers in the back rooms of City Hall. 

Allowing a pro-corporate candidate to use the Greens ballot line wasn’t an isolated incident, according to the late Georgia Green Party co-chair, Bruce Dixon. Writing as managing editor for the Black Agenda Report, Dixon grappled with the internal weaknesses of the party, how the federated party structure led to a lack of internal democracy, and underlined the party’s inability to adapt to social movements like Black Lives Matter. The fight for independent politics alone doesn’t equip the movement with a program to win racial and economic justice. (See our latest article “City Hall Makes Big Promises in Response to Minneapolis Rebellion”) 

In this context, it’s a step forward that the Green Party looks set to nominate Howie Hawkins as its 2020 presidential candidate. Howie Hawkins identifies as a socialist and has a history in the labor movement. Socialist Alternative will be having a discussion within our organization about whether or not to support Howie and what to prioritize given the explosive struggles breaking out during this presidential cycle. However, it’s clear that the Greens are not the core of a new working-class party, and they would need to change their approach to be a significant factor in events. 

The Role of Movements

In U.S. society, political parties are often seen as merely electoral vehicles, which is aided by the entrenched two-party system. Time and again, history has shown what Frederick Douglass said in 1857 to be true, that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The left needs to break with thinking electoral campaigns, social movements, and workplace struggle are disconnected.

Even before the on-set of coronavirus, Los Angeles county was experiencing a 13% increase in homelessness from 2019. In April, Los Angeles reported an unemployment rate of nearly 20%. This picture is mirrored in many cities across the country. Unless there is an extension of unemployment insurance and top-up payments, hundreds of thousands of tenants will be unable to pay rent in the coming months given massive job losses at the onset of an economic depression. There’s an enormous cross-section of young people inspired to change the system to combat deep economic and racial inequality, and capitalism’s environmental destruction. It’s clear that these problems won’t be voted away, but can only be resolved by building a sustained movement with an organized, democratic structure that won’t stop short of winning fundamental change.

These struggles are already coming into conflict with the Democratic Party. New York’s Governor Cuomo became a national star with his daily coronavirus briefings, while at the same time having been an architect of the austerity that led to closing a staggering 15 hospitals in New York City alone since 2003. This contributed directly to the complete overwhelming of the health care system during the height of the outbreak. Cuomo is also using the crisis to drive through a massive privatization of public education alongside Bill and Melinda Gates. Wall Street’s tool, Joe Biden, still doesn’t support Medicare For Alldespite an estimated 27 million people losing employer provided health care during the pandemic – with 69% of all Americans supporting a Medicare for All system!

In order to win substantial victories, our movements will need to connect with an independent electoral expression. To win Medicare for all, we will need to take on the private insurance industry and the politicians that defend it. To win a robust Green New Deal, we will need to nationalize the fossil fuel corporations, dismantle and re-tool the energy grid with union labor, democratically run by working people in the interest of our planet. We must immediately tax big businesses, like Amazon, to fund social services and to build affordable social-housing. The billionaire class will not sit back when challenged, which means we must build the movement organized and strong enough to break up their power and build a society that puts the needs of humanity above profit. An unapologetically fierce movement-building strategy would be a vital contribution to a new working-class party.

Role of Socialist Left

Socialist Alternative in Seattle has shown that it is possible to win election after election after election running independent of the Democrats as an open and proud socialist. Kshama Sawant has been at the forefront of Seattle becoming the first major city to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage, helping build the movement of striking workers, unions, and community groups that spread like wildfire throughout the country. Socialist Alternative uses our elected office as a platform to build working-class struggle, like we’re doing now with Tax Amazon. 

While Socialist Alternative in no way thinks that we alone can pull together a new mass party of the working class, exemplary work and consistent political arguments by Marxists can assist in pushing history forward. In 1934, socialists and communists led three major local general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio that paved the way forthe mass labor uprising of the mid-1930s. Socialists leading successful struggles can become a “spark” for wider uprisings and developments in consciousness; so, even though a new party will need to involve much wider forces, small socialist and left groups can play a critical role.

Socialist Alternative is not the only left group that is rapidly increasing its membership and can play an important role in the formation of a new working-class party. Movement for a People’s Party (MPP) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have also both grown in the current radicalization. After two failed Bernie Sanders campaigns, some chapters of Our Revolution (OR) – including most prominently the Los Angeles chapter – are discussing disaffiliation from OR and the Democratic Party to join MPP. This is reflective of a wider development that could gain momentum in coming months and years. People have seen how the Democratic establishment blocked both Bernie campaigns and how extensive efforts to reform the Democratic Party have not resulted in many concrete changes. More and more struggles, including those fighting racist policing, austerity budgets and housing evictions, will come into conflict with the Democratic Party at the state and local level. In this context, MPP won’t be able to grow more decisively unless it orients toward mass movements rather than just discussion around electoral options.

DSA is both much bigger and more engaged with movements and the unions than MPP or the Green Party. With roughly 70,000 members, it also has democratic structures for its activists to have a say in its priorities and program. However, DSA-backed candidates usually run as Democrats, and there are virtually no mechanisms to hold their elected officials accountable to the organization. To its credit, DSA is refusing to endorse Joe Biden, and many DSA activists say they want a new working-class party. At the same time, most activists in DSA’s left caucuses think socialist candidates should run on the Democratic ballot line while advocating in general for a new workers party in the future. This strategy is sometimes called a “dirty break” or an “inside/outside” approach, and it is inadequate for providing socialist leadership in a period of deep radicalization and rebellion.

Advocates of the “dirty break” often point out that a large part of forces that can eventually be the base of a new mass left party are currently tied to the Democrats, including union activists, women’s rights organizations, and community groups. This is true, and any organization advocating for independent working-class politics needs an orientation toward these forces. But how can we win them over if we’re accepting that running as Democrats is a useful strategy? How can we win them over if we’re not running exemplary independent campaigns? How can we win them over if we’re not advocating that our social movements break from the Democrats? How can we win them over if we’re not willing to swim against the stream and advocate the strongest possible protest votes that can build the forces of independent left politics? The “dirty break” theorists often have weak answers to these questions, putting off these urgent tasks until an undefined time in the future.

The course of events, including further radicalization and mass movements, will push this debate on the Democrats and a new party to a higher level. Democrats will continue overseeing racist police violence, drastic budget cuts, mass unemployment and other deep injustices of capitalism in every major city. Struggles will erupt that expose the Democratic leadership as big business puppets. Especially if Biden is elected and leading U.S. capitalism in a period of economic depression and growing inequality, millions of people will be looking for a new political voice. If the left doesn’t get its act together, then a dangerous political vacuum will be there for the right to exploit. We need to urgently build a united campaign for a new party.

Unlike some small groups, we do not think that the socialist left with less than 100,000 activists in a country of over 330 million people can launch a new mass left party by ourselves. Instead, we need to engage with broader mass forces in struggle, point the way forward to victories, and in the process popularize the need to break from the Democrats and form a new working-class party. This could play a galvanizing role in pulling together a critical mass, including in the labor movement, to support the call for a mass left party. Socialist Alternative would be excited to work with like-minded activists in DSA, the Greens, the Vermont Progressive Party, the California Progressive Alliance, and MPP to bring about a campaign for a new left party that runs exemplary viable independent left candidates while building up struggles from below to fight against the injustices of capitalism. With the prospect of intense movements, uprisings, and rebellions in the coming months and years, a united campaign for a new left party could play an important role in helping to bring together the wider forces necessary to make this a reality. 

What Would a New Party Look Like?

A conscious campaign for a new mass working-class party would reach a critical mass to establish a new left force if some labor unions got involved. Organized workers have the potential power to shut down key sectors of the economy, and unions have thousands of activists as well as millions of dollars that could help in the establishment of a new party. While most labor leaders are tied to the Democratic establishment and rarely take a clear stand against big business, there are important unions with left-wing leaders and a class struggle approach. In a terrain of likely increased struggle, a campaign for a new workers party could aim to win over unions like National Nurses United, fighting teachers union locals, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communications Workers of America and others. Viable independent candidates from the labor movement, connected to workplace and community struggles, would also be a huge step in this direction.

While Socialist Alternative would advocate that a new mass working-class party adopt a clearly anti-capitalist and class struggle approach, there would be contending ideas and strategy in a broad formation. Some would likely advocate a focus just on elections and reforming the system without raising the need for socialism. In order to test out these ideas in a living struggle, a new left party would need democratic structures with the right of all different trends of thought to organize in favor of their ideas. 

In the years after the last economic crisis of 2008, many on the left internationally pointed towards SYRIZA in Greece as the model for a new party. This reformist left party was a tiny force before the crisis, but climbed rapidly in opinion polls as the Greek working class moved into determined struggle with general strike after general strike. This shows the potential for even a small and new party to gain support in the coming tumultuous events. Yet, at the same time, the experience in Greece shows the dangers of a reformist and electoralist approach. SYRIZA, after winning the national election in 2015,  ended up betraying the Greek working class, giving in to the dictates of the big banks, implementing a brutal austerity program. This led to it being driven from power by the right wing in 2019.

In the 20th century, mass working-class parties in many countries were able to build up a stable base over a period of decades. This was due to the fact that they could lead the way in winning positive reforms under capitalism for working people. Particularly in Western Europe during the long economic boom after World War II and with the threat of the Soviet Union, the capitalists were willing to grant big concessions to mass movements and left parties in order to prevent revolution and preserve capitalism. The leadership of big reformist parties were happy with this arrangement. As the experience of SYRIZA shows, things will not play out the same way this century. While socialists should fight for positive reforms, and the capitalists may grant some under the pressure of enormous mass movements, we live under a system in decay. A new party would be tested quickly by both mass struggle and intense pressure from a capitalist class that’s determined to exploit working people brutally and unwilling to make ongoing concessions.

In order to avoid the fate of SYRIZA and the defeats and misery its leadership helped inflict on the working class, a new left party would need a clear socialist program and a tested Marxist leadership. Through learning the lessons from the international workers movement and its history, a strong Marxist tendency can point the way forward for struggles in the here and now. Socialist Alternative, alongside our co-thinkers in the International Socialist Alternative, works to build a conscious force for international working class revolution. At the same time, we cooperate with others to build the wider movement necessary to fight the injustices of this rotten capitalist system and blaze the trail for a new party of the working class, poor, youth, and oppressed people.