Ever since Sanders suspended his campaign and endorsed Joe Biden, calls for building a new third party have grown. In fact, support was growing long before that. A poll from last year says that 38% of Americans want a third major political party, and #DemExit was trending after Sanders’ ignominious defeat on Super Tuesday. However, the world is full of “new left parties” — and while some of them have brought progress to the working class and the oppressed, others have transformed into instruments for the bourgeoisie to attack the working class.
Fresh from their fervent work in support of the Bernie Sanders campaign, groups on the U.S. left have begun to change their tune. Socialist Alternative has called to build “our own party completely independent of corporate money that will fight alongside our movement, instead of against it,” and at Red Wedge Magazine, DSA members Adam Turl and Saman Sepehri call for a party “open to all socialist tendencies willing to make working-class unity and political independence a top priority.” Turl and Sepehri even list several national leftist groups and publications they think can make it happen, along with all independent socialists who “reject the Democratic Party.” Of course, groups like Socialist Alternative have spent months canvassing for a Democrat, it remains to be seen how strong the resolve for building an independent party really is.
These are just two examples of growing organized support, but the idea of a new party is no doubt finding new resonance among young socialists and others who have previously felt resigned to the two-party system. But what kind of new party? Let’s learn from international examples so that we do not make the same mistakes now.
1) Green Party
Many Sanders supporters refuse to vote for a right-wing Democrat. So who to support, then? Some eyes are turning towards Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s presidential candidate. There is even a petition calling on the DSA to endorse him. But is the Green Party an alternative to the rotten politics of the Democrats?
Throughout the world numerous Green Parties emerged in the 1980s as a way for different social movements to gain an institutional footing. Environmentalists, feminists, pacifists, and other activists streamed into parliaments through Green Party tickets.
Over the last three decades, the Greens have been incredibly successful in joining governments. But they have not been successful in implementing any part of their professed principles. Quite the contrary: in Germany, it was Greens in coalition with social democrats who introduced the most massive social cuts in the country’s history, combined with the first foreign war of aggression since 1945, supporting the NATO war against Serbia in 1999.
In Austria, the Greens are currently working in a coalition with the right-wing government of Sebastian Kurz. In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the Green prime minister is the protector of the car industry, making sure that diesel motors keep getting produced — a clear betrayal of the ecological principles Green parties espouse. While the Greens have pursued some good initiatives, at the end of the day, they will always end up allied with capital, because their program has always been one of administering capitalism in a more “ethical” way, rather than one of resisting and overthrowing the inherently unethical system.
The Green Party of the U.S., of course, has never gotten anywhere near government power, but it has the same program of trying to make capitalism more “social” or “sustainable.” Even the 2016 changes to the Green Party platform, which were then heralded as a shift for the party towards “ecological socialism,” clearly maintain the market system: “We call for an economic system that is based on a combination of private businesses, decentralized democratic cooperatives, publicly owned enterprises, and alternative economic structures.” In this vision, private property and individual profit are still literally given first priority.
The Greens’ idea that society can create a more democratic market economy is simply utopian. How can an economic system be democratic if society’s wealth remains in the hands of a handful of billionaires? And how can we impose any controls on billionaires if we do not confront the state that protects them? Given the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing, nothing short of a planned economy at a worldwide scale can protect humanity from the catastrophic impacts of global climate change.
If the Green Party wins even a sliver of electoral success, there is no reason to expect it won’t go the same way as its European sister parties. Even though Howie Hawkins is certainly on the left wing of the Green Party, this is by no means a model to follow.
Further reading: The Green Party: The Green Party: A Washed-Out Strategy of the Left
2) Democratic Socialist / Social Democratic Party
The social democratic parties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were once revolutionary organizations, inspired by the ideas of Karl Marx. Looking at the social democratic parties of today, the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi pop to mind: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The official International of these parties once included Egypt’s long-term dictator Hosni Mubarak and currently counts the Trump-appointed “interim president” of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, as a member.
These parties might call themselves “socialist” or “democratic,” but around the world they have been responsible for neoliberal austerity policies, such as the measures implemented in Greece during the 2009-2012 financial crisis. As a result, many of these parties have collapsed, with France’s Parti Socialiste or Greece’s PASOK going from mass parties that led their respective countries for decades to empty husks of their former influence. As the parties tried to compromise to please everyone, they satisfied no one: the crisis of the extreme center.
The decline of social democracy began with World War I, when these parties betrayed their internationalist principles and declared their loyalty to their capitalist states. Since then, they have become parties willing to govern in the interest of capital. Given the corruption and treachery of the Second International, it was progressive that the DSA broke with its former sister parties.
But what is the alternative? Some — such as Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine — will say that we need to go back to a “pre-1914 SPD.” But that is a bit like wanting to own a cute little tiger cub without wanting to deal with a 450-pound cat. It was precisely the inconsistencies of the social democracy before 1914 that led it to commit a historical betrayal. They had attempted to strike a balance between reform and revolution, and allowed a monstrous bureaucracy to take over the workers’ movement — a bureaucracy loyal to the capitalist state. This experience proved why we need revolutionary parties that do not make compromises with reformism.
A social democratic — or “democratic socialist” — party in the United States that aims to win elections and implement reforms in the interests of working people will face the same contradictions as its sister parties in Europe: capitalist states are in constant, fierce competition, and benefits granted to workers in one country will make other countries more competitive. It is this pressure that led “democratic socialists” all over the world to implement neoliberal policies.
Furthermore, the question of how to even create such a party in the U.S. is fraught with difficulties and contradictions. Working people cannot “realign” the Democratic Party because it is by its nature a party of the ruling class. And all talk of a “dirty break” strategy — the idea of working in the Democratic Party now while preparing to break with it in the distant future — has noticeably disappeared as Jacobin and others fail to break with the Democratic Party even under the best circumstances for the Left seen in several decades.
That is why this kind of reformist model is no alternative to the Democrats.
Further reading: Revolution or Attrition: Reading Kautsky Between the Lines
3) Neoreformist Party (Syriza, Podemos, etc.)
After social democratic parties became aggressive agents of neoliberal reforms, a whole generation of young people grew up with no illusions in social democracy. Quite the opposite: they had to watch as social democratic governments gave them precarious jobs, educational debt, and insecurity. Huge protests against this misery emerged in Greece in 2010 (against austerity measures) and in the Spanish State in 2011 (where protesters used the slogan “they do not represent us”), occupying squares and demanding real change.
The anger behind these protests was channeled into votes by neoreformist parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish State. Syriza emerged as a “coalition of the radical left” around an old “Eurocommunist” (Stalinist-reformist) party with some support from more left-wing groups. Podemos, on the other hand, was started from scratch by some young university professors with a TV show.
They proclaimed they would be more democratic and fundamentally different than the old reformist parties, the same ones that had degenerated into neoliberalism. But the main difference between the neoreformists and the parties of old was that, in contrast to old social democracy, these parties never had anything resembling a mass base. Instead, you had charismatic media figures presiding over an electoral apparatus.
Syriza came to power in early 2015. Forming a coalition government together with an extreme-right partner, Syriza promised an end to the austerity imposed by the Troika and got enthusiastic support from reformists around the world — this government, we were told, would transform Europe. Instead, Syriza ignored the massive referendum by the Greek people against accepting the Troika’s terms and implemented the neoliberal program demanded by the EU’s leading powers itself. After four years, it opened the way for the conservatives to return to power.
Podemos, for its part, joined the Spanish government at the end of last year — an imperialist government that denies the right of self-determination to the Catalan people. Podemos has since participated in quelling the mass uprisings of the Spanish people, and joining forces with the government of the Spanish State means supporting their violent repression of Catalonia’s demands for independence.
Both these cases show that neoreformism is just a digital version of the old reformism, and represents no alternative to politics as usual.
4) New Anticapitalist Party
In addition to these examples, we can also look to Spain’s neighbor, France. Back in 2002, a 27-year-old Trotskyist postal worker got more than a million votes in the French presidential election. Olivier Besancenot was one of the country’s most beloved politicians, which helped his organization the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) reach a mass audience. The LCR had only a few thousand members but was reaching millions, and it decided it needed to abandon its Trotskyist heritage for a broader “anticapitalist” project.
The result was the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), founded in 2009. Up to 10,000 people signed up for the new party. It had an activist profile and was immediately a visible force in national politics, but it lacked a clear delimitation in terms of program or class. The NPA’s leaders hoped to occupy all the space to the left of France’s decrepit social democracy. However, they did not have a clear strategy for the working class winning political power, so many of their members were forced to negotiate with reformists about a “government of the left.”
This lack of a strategy meant that the NPA has lost strength over the years. Nonetheless, it remains a very progressive force in national politics, with the anticapitalist factory worker Philippe Poutou as the NPA’s presidential candidate. When the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen was trying to present herself as a populist, Poutou could remind viewers at the presidential debates that Le Pen is a millionaire and just as corrupt as all the other bourgeois politicians. Based on this mixed balance sheet of the NPA, Trotskyists in the party, grouped around the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR), are drawing the lesson from this and calling for a revolutionary refoundation of the NPA.
The lesson from this is that while broad coalitions of united socialists can accomplish some good, a vague orientation of “anticapitalism” is not enough as a political basis. A new socialist project needs to be based on agreement on a strategy for beating capitalism, not just a theoretical opposition.
5) Party Based on Class Independence
We have seen four different kinds of new left parties that failed to offer any kind of real revolutionary alternative. To end on a positive note, we should mention one example that stands out internationally: the Workers Left Front (FIT) in Argentina.
The FIT was founded in 2009 and has gotten up to 1.2 million votes. It is a coalition of three (and now four) revolutionary socialist organizations based on a program of class independence and struggle for a workers’ government. The FIT remains independent of all bourgeois parties and reformist forces.
Members of congress from the FIT don’t take more than a workers’ wage — the rest of their salary goes to a strike fund — and they are always in the front line of workers’ struggles, opposing police violence. Workers, like the sanitation worker Alejandro Vilca from Jujuy, are among the FIT’s most prominent representatives.
The FIT shows that it is possible to reach a mass audience with a revolutionary socialist program of class independence. In the United States, we need to look for ways to create such a force, based on the experiences of the Left and the workers movement in this country. We need to work together to build up such a force that is based on the working class, and independent of all wings of the exploiters; supporting all struggles of the workers and the oppressed; and with an openly revolutionary program in opposition to reformism.
As Left Voice, we will support all steps toward a new party of the working class. We want to have this discussion with all organizations of the Left — including all wings of the DSA — that see the need to break with the two parties of capital and take steps to building up our own party. This is more vital than ever given the collapse of Sanders’s campaign inside the Democratic Party, together with the initial struggles by sectors of our class against the effects of the pandemic. We will not make our program a precondition for participating in a campaign for a new party. However, we will argue for a revolutionary socialist program every step of the way, because international experience shows that is the only program that resists being coopted by capital.