Do Marxist Principles Permit Us to Be Greens?

by Mark Lause (State Committee, Green Party of Ohio) on March 22, 2015

mark lause

Mark Lause and Jill Stein talk about Green issues

If I had a dollar for every time I heard somebody say that they wouldn’t support the Greens because they were “a bourgeois party,” I’d probably be able to buy my very own state legislator . . . or, at least, a cheap city councilman.

While this assertion seems usually intended to kill the subject, I think a more refined understanding about the class nature of political parties among American Marxists is worth the risk of a discussion.

Not that this is easy in 21st century America. Unlike countries where citizens actually hold members in political parties, working people who are not officeholders or functionaries of an American party are only “Democrats” or “Republicans” in the sense of being consumers drawn to a party’s image. All things being equal, they and their class can no more “own” their party than they can the company that made the car they drive. We know which class owns that company.

So, too, in other countries, historically vibrant labor movements have had a direct association to a political party. In contrast, the generally miniscule trade unions in the U.S. haven’t even explored the idea of independent working class political action seriously for ninety years or more.   It’s true that the Democrats claim to represent workers, but so do the Republicans–and the sources of money and leadership clarify the class allegiances of both parties. Any Marxist worth the term–any real materialist of any sort–knows better.

You just can’t have a workers’ party without workers.

On the other hand, what we do have in the U.S. is a bourgeoisie. Over generations, sections of the managerial elites in government form parties in the service of those willing to finance their campaigns. These parties then compete over who can best hoodwink enough of the voting public to get a mandate to govern. So, you have a section of the bourgeois supporting the Republicans and another section supporting the Democrats. It seems obvious that is what makes them “bourgeois parties.” They have a section of the bourgeoisie engaged in its leadership and promotion.

You can’t really have a bourgeois party without the bourgeois.

The Green Party finances its campaigns on a shoestring. Their candidates are not full time politicians and almost always are working for a living while running for office. And whatever campaign workers there are contribute their time and efforts. No materialist can look at the Green Party and say with an honest face that they’re seeing the bourgeoisie or any part of it.

However, it is unclear as to what extent any of this has to do with materialism.

After all, when pressed, those who denounce the Greens as a “bourgeois party” often make the same sweeping charge against any party that does not include “socialist” or “labor” or some variation of this in their title. (This includes the Peace and Freedom Party which explicitly declares itself a socialist organization but doesn’t place this label in its name.)

Or–more generally–“bourgeois” is said (erroneously) to describe parties seen as insufficiently “socialist.” Certainly, the Greens are not an explicitly socialist party, as is the PFP, but the dynamic of Green politics clearly aims the direction of greater democracy, an extension of democratic rights into the economy, and the necessity of a democratically planned economy. True, some libertarian currents pretend to believe that the capitalist marketplace can address global warming, the present mass extinction event, and the low priorities–if any–accorded consideration of the natural world implicit in the modern industrial life. However, any Marxists recognizes that these problems scream for planning, socialism and democracy.

More than this, Marxists understand the dynamic of mobilizing people to fight on behalf of those issues. It is apt to recall the position Marx and Engels took in the Manifesto (as well as other works) on this question. They boasted that their followers “do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” None of those “existing working-class parties” to which they referred–“the Chartists in England and the Agrarian Reformers in America”–explicitly advocated the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist order (though the Blanquists, who are sometimes included, certainly did advocated the toppling of the French government).

Marxists do not make “any sectarian principles” as a barrier to keep us from struggling right alongside all workers who are willing to fight the system now and on the terms around which they are ready to fight.

More than this, I have been involved in situations where socialist candidates could have had the Green endorsement for the asking. However, they deigned to ask for it. When asked for an explanation, those socialists gave the same answer as BP after punching a hole in the Gulf of Mexico.

What roots Marxists–and this is according to Marx and Engels –are concerns that grow directly from the needs of the working class as a whole–regardless of nation, race, gender, industry, etc. Our job is not to stand across the street yelling at people until they pass resolutions calling for the abolition of surplus value. Nor is it to cross the street and stand with them while yelling at them.

Rather, what distinguishes the Marxists is the consistency of our efforts to generalize the concerns that move people around specific questions to the wider issue of class and power. Greens understand that national borders have come to mean little in the effects of an irresponsible environmental policy. They have always been very good in striving to reflect gender concerns in their candidates and leadership. And their international vision includes a deep anti-imperialism.

Nevertheless, American Greens need every kick in the ass we can give them to move away from being a party of aging white Baby Boomers towards a party that engages the young, who disproportionately account for the Green voting base. And to make a top priority of recruiting African-Americans and Latinos. There is also the need to establish venues that create an engaged Green membership that permit it to educate itself on any issues that concern them.

These are the kind of issues that should concern Marxists, not trying to get the Greens to embrace our terminology and traditions as a prerequisite to our joining with them on the electoral front.

In the end, though, the largest group of those self-described American “Marxists” who see some invisible class line between us and the Greens are the same ones who can’t abide the PFP because it doesn’t have “socialist” in its label.

Certainly, we can appreciate that it’s much more comfortable for those using an electoral campaign to get out socialist ideas to express those ideas in the familiar language of the last century, though it may not be widely understood by those we want to address. We even understand that those wanting to wage such campaigns can make it even easier on themselves if they insist that they can only support a ticket explicitly calling itself “socialist.” There is a practical argument for this, in that the totals might provide a measure of the political strength of good old-fashioned socialism in one incarnation or another.

To make this a point of principle, though, simply smacks of magical thinking–the idea that if we have to use the right words in the right order, we will finally turn American capitalism into a pumpkin.

It seems obvious, though, that more basic and visceral considerations weigh more than merely theoretical arguments. That is, those who argue most stridently for only supporting explicitly “socialist” campaigns running on a self-labeled “socialist” ticket have also historically deigned to support socialist campaigns by any but their own group.

I also got the abstract idea that elections are a way to gauge our strength. I just don’t know how to do it for these numbers. The 2012 presidential election included:

American Labor / Peace and Freedom Rosanne Barr 67,450

Socialism and Liberation

Peta Lindsay 9,403
Socialist Stewart Alexander 4,430
Socialist Workers James Harris 4,117
Socialist Equality Jerry White 1,279

I’m sure I’m probably missing a few others who made splashes that were even more microscopic. For example, I found no totals for Stephen Durham of the Freedom Socialist Party.[*]

So, how does anyone seriously try to break down the meaning of such numbers?

Remembering that most election reporting processes don’t even bother reporting the rather large number of ballots for Vermin Supreme, Mickey Mouse, or Jesus, enough do slip through into the local election reports to hint that nationally, it’s a fair bet that Popeye won more votes than the Brother White.

Indeed, with 130 million voting, it seems a statistical certainty that a certain portion of them could have sneezed at the last minute sneeze, randomly adding a similar cluster of accident votes to every line on the ballot. That, party members, and family members might account for most of what went to Alexander and Harris.

Arguments that Marxists can principally support only support explicitly self-labeled socialist campaigns coming from these quarters might carry some weight if they actually took this advice themselves and did not run against each other.

True, the real life Green Party–a mix of hundreds of thousands of people among which white collar and professional workers predominant–is nowhere as enticing as the mass party of blue collar workers storming through our imaginations waving red flags and struggling–an an old Spartacist League acquaintance used to say–“for proletarian clarity amidst the factional frenzy.”

Perhaps, as Marxists we need to fall back on the insights of the Manifesto. Our principles do not require us to raise great sectional barriers between us and the rest of the working class. Quite to the contrary.

We will struggle with the masses where and when they are willing to struggle. There are hundreds of thousand of people voting against the profit system in defense of the environment, of labor’s rights, of gender equality–and supportive of mobilizations of power beyond the electoral arena.

However, acknowledging that there is no point of principle or line of class that precludes Marxist support for or involvement in the Greens is only the first point of our concern.

Once we agree that Marxist involvement with the Green electoral project is a matter of strategy and tactics rather than principle, we can finally move on to a productive and fruitful discussion what criteria should inform those strategic and tactical considerations.


[*] Justice Party (Rocky Anderson) got 43,106.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean Thompson March 24, 2015 at 6:49 am

His final point, ‘that Marxist involvement with the Green electoral project is a matter of strategy and tactics rather than principle’ is an important one – and relevant not just in the USA.


David Hernandez March 25, 2015 at 4:15 pm

For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of hernia surgery (a whopper!), you don’t know what you’re missing. I’m still groggy from the multi-pain killers, so please forgive if I sound a bit nutty. Even before my present state, all these subtitles of subtitles and sub-divisions of sub divisions seem more confused than the anointed ones. And there’s always the risk of discussion, because we don’t even know that there wouldn’t be risks if we entered a discussion knowing that discussion should not be an all-out war but another opportunity for educating ourselves in honest, objective conversation.
I’m always suspicious of people waving absolute truths. We keep hearing about reds, greens, blacks, and rainbow coalitions, and we are yet no more enlightened than we were before the “discussion” began. Rainbowers kept yelling bloody murder ’cause of discrimination, and they discriminate more than the others. We hear of H. D. Thoreau running off to be totally alone in pristine nature but carries along with him a ton of books and libraries within reach “not out in pristine nature.” And then there is the chap who is going to doubt everything, so we can start truth with a clean slate, Rene Descartes. He starts doubting everything but the very first he should have doubted, God, the very thing that kept us buried under the dregs of the Dark Ages.
But why bother with such trifles when we have such weighty things like reds, greens, blacks, and rainbows to sort out? Just thought a spanner might help the mess in the modern works. From an old pal still muddling along — David


Randy Erb April 2, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Mark would have a point IF there were masses of workers who were protesting the degradation of the environment and voting Green. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and in fact, great masses of workers hate Greens since they reflect the concerns of weekend hikers, nature enthusiasts and upper class concerns. That there are contradictions within the movement that would possibly force a show down with capitalism some time in the future is speculation. In fact, most workers are more concerned with their ability to own guns and hunting than Green politics. There are even worse situations where the mass of workers hate the Greens for their position on the oil pipeline being built. Think you can or should convince the oil workers to shut down their refineries to slow global warming? In fact, the Greens are more concerned with tangential issues and do not build a bridge into the working class.

In some cases, the Greens go so far as to support scabs and their “right” to work during strikes. In fact, many of them will be the strike breakers since they are mostly white collar and will be forced to take jobs in the plants during any labor dispute. I had a discussion with one green supporter who loves illegal immigrants and pointed out to her that the illegals are scabs and driving down wages of US workers. Her response was that they are only trying to better their lives by working here illegally. I told her the same can be said of scabs during a strike. Does that mean we should support the right of scabs to break strikes? She said yes. This illustrates the problem in such cross class parties First off, the components have clashing priorities and a different relation to capital. Second, these middle class white collar types have a different social view and place which makes them not suitable for leadership or attracting large number of workers.

Now if by some chance the Greens DO recruit masses of workers, I think that entering it would be good. But if you wish to break workers from the Democrats, you are going to have to speak to their main concerns and to their interests. Not that of white collar professionals who hate to see their weekend places despoiled as their main motivation.


Tom MacMillan May 11, 2015 at 3:22 pm

@Randy Erb, If you consider undocumented workers ‘scabs’, then you have a long, long way to go before you realize who the enemy of the working class really is.


Randy Erb May 11, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Tom As Jay Gould was reported to have said, I can hire one half of the working class to kill off the other half. Just because a person is not a capitalist does not make them an ally in all things. In fact, the ruling class has to use workers against workers to maintain their rule. So scabs are also workers who are just trying to get ahead and make a living like the rest of us. As long as those workers are taking less money, and lowering wages for us all, they ARE scabs. I guess you would not be nasty to them as they cross a picket line? In FACT, the illegals have done worse than the moral crime of strike breaking, they have actually committed CRIMES in the process. They have committed the crime of illegal entry into the US which in many cases is a felony. Then they committed the crime of perjury, forgery, fraud, ID theft, etc. if they have an on the books job. ALL of those are felonies, so I have to ask, how many felonies does an illegal get to commit before they should be prosecuted? Why should there be a two tier justice system in which illegals get a pass on laws the rest of us must obey?

The fact is that illegals drive our wages down, even the CBO study admitted as much and that it would hurt the lower tier workers for at least ten years. In meatpacking they drove wages down from $19/hr to an average now of $9/hr. When ICE did a raid on the Swift plant in CO, they took out 200+ illegal workers. The company then had to give a $3/hr raise to all the workers to get enough workers to replace those who were gone. The union protested the ICE raid! I did not read if they protested the raise that was forced on the company too.

I am struck by the racism that shows in the concern for illegals and not US workers, who are for the most part black, and brown. The upper classes like the cheap maids, nannies, gardeners, etc.. that illegals provide, and they can care less about our own people of color who are bearing the brunt of this illegal workforce. It is also the lower paid jobs which are getting screwed the worst too, yet no concern for our fellow citizens. I doubt that there are too many of our folks on this site who work in those kinds of jobs, so who cares?

As long as a class of people is doing the bosses orders, and furthering their interests, they are scabs, and thus my enemy since they are the foot soldiers engaged in warfare against me and all other workers. They are simply Gould’s dupes who are making war on the US working class.


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