When Regime Change Means No Change: A Short Reply to Matt Hoke

by Mark A. Lause on September 30, 2015

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Brother Matt Hoke’s essay on “Regime Change” retains problems I pointed out when it came before the editors at The North Star, and its appearance without addressing these rather requires sharing some of the more important political points with our readers.[1] Anyone a passing familiarity with the Green Party would balk at using “regime” in any association with what it does, much less complain that “conservative bureaucratic resistance” by Machiavellian Greens is holding back what would be the headlong rush of the toiling masses towards electoral socialism. Delving as deeply as a consumer satisfaction card at McDonalds, Hoke’s critique begins with a website graphic calling for things like “gender equality,” “grassroots democracy,” and “economic justice,” which he finds so insufficiently roly proly that it makes him “nearly vomit.” From here, his gif-based “analysis” becomes even more overgeneralized, oversimplified, and ultimately overgenerous, ascribing a solidity and power to the Greens that—in all but a few places in the U.S.—bear as much resemblance to reality as the Tea Party’s views of the Bavarian Illuminati. His warnings against the “probably futile” project of “lobbying within the Greens to transform them,” for example, seems to reflects the regrettably mistaken belief that Greens are organized enough to have a lobby.

To be fair, of course, Hoke isn’t really concerned with the Green Party, save as a prelude to his clarion “call to action,” presenting his radical new socialist alternative. In the face of this plan, “every single dollar, every single hour spent, every single person dedicated” to the Green effort as “a pointless dead-end.”

Well, I haven’t been a Green because I am satisfied with the party, and it’s never kept me from backing other independents, including the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader. I have been a Green because it’s been the best option we’ve had, so I’m honestly open to hearing a better one.

The Call to Action

Hoke proposes trashing the Greens in favor of an explicitly socialist political presence. With the promised drumbeat of “class war” rhetoric in our ears, visions of fluttering red flags, and the imagined strains of the “Internationale,” we read how ripe the voters are for our politics. If only we can find slogans that won’t make Hoke vomit, the toiling masses will flock to our banners.

Of course, one section or another of the socialist movement has been doing this for nearly 140 years with very mixed results, depending on the immediate circumstances. Right now, several currents are out there now doing it regularly. The Socialist Party, for example, now seems to have occupied the same place that Socialist Labor Party used to have, providing the stalwart foes of surplus value a way of expressing themselves at the polls.   So, is Hoke pointing us to the SP? The Workers World Party? The Socialist Workers Party?   The International Revolutionary Marxist Spartacist Workers Caucus? Better yet, does Hoke have a plan to knock together their heads together and make them cooperate in one big new socialist effort?

Nope.

What Hoke means is Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the Democratic presidential primaries. Moreover, he isn’t the only self-described socialist suggesting that the campaign will provide “a tool or vehicle for building a mass party.” So, I’m willing to learn from anybody who can teach me . . . but his bouncing pom-poms aren’t enough.

If we’re talking about learning though (and not just bullshitting consumers), it’s going to take some serious Q & A. Saying this doesn’t make me an “ultraleft” “anti-Marxist” adherent of “the lunatic Left,” no matter what an aging boomer in their political second childhood might say. Nor am I a “Sanderphobe” who dislikes the candidate personally. Not only have I never met the guy, but I’ve said many, many times, that supporting him for president would be a very viable option if he were running as an independent. He chose not to do so.

Further, if Sanders were running in the Democratic primaries and holding open his option to run as an independent, I’d find it an attractive, if unwieldy, strategy. However, he has repeatedly said that he will support whoever wins the Democratic nomination. That was his choice, too.

By definition, an electoral campaign in the framework of the corporate parties is not a “movement,” because the ranks do not control what the campaign does. It is rather a tightly managed top-down process—no different in the Sanders campaign than any other—part of a system that ultimately views voters as a consumers picking a toothpaste.

At least, that’s the way radicals used to regard it.

A Sanders road to a mass party?

The key question for radicals in the Sanders campaign is to have a strategic plan for how to best empower its base in such a way as to generalize that power beyond the particular project facing them now. As I’ve repeatedly asked, “Show me the nuts and bolts for building something.” I have yet to get a serious answer, though Hoke attributed the question to conservatism and dogmatism.

Bizarrely, Hoke echoes the dogmas of the most hidebound sectors of the American Left. Unexamined pieties mummified, embalmed and venerated with the bones of FDR by the most hidebound sectors of the Left. Sanders supporters (including Hoke) respond to this observation by pointing out that Sanders is a “socialist,” though they’re just likely to say elsewhere that the word isn’t really important when Sanders himself tries to minimize its importance.

The tendency to draw believers into all sorts of self-contradictions on behalf of the faith is a central feature of genuine dogmatism.

In asserting the electoral appeal of his formula, Hoke writes, “as we are seeing with Sawant and Sanders, socialism works.” Aside from this muddle of a socialist who won office as such and a Democratic contender in the presidential primaries, nobody anywhere has been “seeing” anything of the sort. A single vote has yet to be cast in any Democratic primary, and socialists in no other city have replicated the success of Kshama Sawant. Contrary to the repeated denials of his candidate, Hoke conjures “a class war message” destined to win in red states unimpressed by what he calls “progressive moralism” (the soggy fries that makes him vomit).

Fantasies aside, though, nobody who’s lived through the last half century with their political eyes open can honestly deny that.

  • The Democrats have never picked the most progressive-sounding option available to them as a presidential candidate. We’re starting with Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Shirley Chisholm in 1972, and a succession of others, including Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and even Howard Dean.

 

  • The Democratic hierarchy has structured the nomination to give themselves a veto on any possible nomination through the institutionalization of unelected superdelegates and have also established a long record of actively intervening to change the rules to stack the deck against the more progressive-sounding candidate if they show enough strength to loom as a threat. That is, they will open the spigots of money, disinformation, character assassination, and media misrepresentation to insure the victory of their designated candidate.

This long experience would lead us to expect that the more successful the Sanders campaign threatens to become, the more the Democratic bosses will employ whatever means might be needed to hobble it. This includes the fiddling of poll results against Sanders, the hyping of Biden to divide voters discontented with Clinton and to leave themselves a backup if she stumbles on the way to the White House. There’s always fueling vilification through the media as they did with Dean. All of this amounts to what Jill Stein has called a “kill switch.”

No Sanders supporter has ever offered a single basis for a belief that those Democratic bosses will behave this time in a more democratic, kinder and gentler way than they have been over the past half century.

Mind you, I will be as delighted to reassess this if we see Sanders win the nomination.

But it’s as likely that we’ll see Sir John Franklin ice skate out of the Arctic asking for a hot cocoa.

If history is a reliable guide here—and if Sanders supports the Democratic nominee, as he’s pledged—where will Hoke’s “tool or vehicle for building a mass party” be when we need it in November 2016?

Where do his supporters go after Sanders loses

When asked about this, the “socialists” supporting Sanders usually walk away. A few say that then they’ll turn to the Greens or some other alternative. Most frequently, they tell me that Hillary Clinton will be a lesser evil than anyone the Republicans might run. For much of this last group, the Sanders campaign seems to be nothing other than a conscious smokescreen for Clinton. Perhaps, they are thinking that the Democratic bigwigs will dangle a post for Bernie in her administration (or, like Howard Dean, put him in charge of the National Committee). These are usually also “socialists” who supported Obama and a long line of Democratic presidential candidates before that.

Indeed, googling various poll results indicate that roughly half self-identified Sanders supporters name Hillary Clinton as their second choice, to which those who give Joe Biden as their secondary preference account for well over half of the Sanders camp.   Is that “class war message” from Sanders that Hoke likes too weak to reach most of his supporters?

Here, too, I would happily salute the work of serious socialists in the Sanders camp were they weaning their more Clintonian-inclined comrades (and the Bidenly Bolsheviki) from their fallback support for drones, patriot acts, bailouts, austerity, or wars, and indifference to the demands of social justice or the climate. However, I’m just not seeing the results of such proselytizing nor am I hearing anything about the mechanism the comrades have put together—or proposed to put together—to do this.

Quite the contrary. Most of the ire of the self-defined “socialists” in the Sanders camp are aimed at those who do not feel the Bern. With a stunning lack of self-knowledge, some condemn us for being both too radical and for being insufficiently radical to rush blindly into what they see as a kind of “socialist” coup about to take place in the Democratic Party. In every practical sense, they’re deploying the language of “unity” not an intransigent opposition to Clinton and corporate politics but against those radicals who won’t just fold their efforts in the interest of someone who won’t be there when the election takes place.

And, in that last push, the Greens, Socialists and anyone who will be there as alternatives when the voters actually do go to the polls will have an even harder sell among former Sanders supporters because of what “socialists” and “radicals” in the Sanders camp are currently spewing.

Meanwhile, the top guns in the management of the Sanders camp heartily agrees with Hoke’s call for the dissolution of the Green Party and have taken action to encourage it. They’ve arranged to call registered Greens urging them to change their registration to Democrat.

That’s entirely fair, but you need to face the facts about what that means about the strategy of the higher-ups in the Sanders campaign. After having decided to deprive his supporters of the opportunity of voting for him as an alternative in November, they are also actively trying to minimize their options to vote for any alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. With Sanders already pledged to do this, the managers of his campaign will ride his supporters directly to his supporters to the watering hole they want them to use.

Where Brother Hoke’s proposal leaves voters in November 2016 is that 190-year old “mass party” that has been a major playing in getting the country and the planet into the mess we find ourselves.

The Question of the Greens

In advocating “regime change,” Hoke is unconsciously advocating the classic meaning of the term, replacing one clique of officeholders with another.

It is certainly not a change of system.

It is definitely not a change of which class rules.

These things will require us to build real social movements that can establish and maintain their independence. We can’t conjure the tools and vehicles to do this by calling for them . . . or by fiddling with the wording on the building permit. We have to work with what we’ve got and to deal with those people who are actually in motion right now. That includes all sorts of working people whose concerns we need to embrace and whose language we need to learn.

Strategically, what the American Left faces right now in electoral politics couldn’t be more starkly plain.   We must break the two-party monopoly. This must start by showing that it can be seriously challenged and seriously threatened. Who can do best do that right now might vary a bit from place to place, but nationally and in most places, it’s been the Greens.

What this means in terms of a presidential ticket is uniting as many people as we can behind the campaign most likely to punch the biggest hole in the duopoly.

That’s simply the reality we face. If you can build a better option for doing it, many of us will be happy to pitch in. But you’d better some serious thought.

  • On class, Hoke asserts that the Greens are “gut-churningly remote from the headspace of the working majority, and marked by all the world’s middle-class progressive moralism and aesthetic hangovers of the 1960s failures.” The historically strongest centers of the party—New York and California—which established membership-based organizations have always had socialist currents, not fielded socialists among their most prominent candidates. Also, innovative Green leaders such as Bruce Dixon in Georgia have brought a range of grassroots concerns to bear in reshaping the party into a vehicle that may prove much more usable to them.

Here in Ohio, our most prominent candidates in Ohio right now are contending for the U.S. Senate and include Joe Demare, a machinist and Dennis Lambert, a veteran who works on the technical side of television and media production. Neither are holdovers from the 1960s, though I can’t vouch that they don’t eat tofu or have some other reprehensible habits that make them “gut-churningly remote from the headspace of the working majority.”

The suggestion that the Greens have terminally failed and we should start something new merits consideration.

  • On organization, the basic problems turn on entirely decentralized standards and a certain ambivalence about how to address that problem. There actually is no national structure save on paper, a situation rationalized largely by the desire to foster decentralized initiatives. If the party is ever to become a coherent political force, it has to develop a membership base and hold all leaders accountable. The Greens have found this very difficult.

So, can something new be both a “mass party” and solve these problems?

  • On turning an electoral project into a movement. The extent to which we need a party that should function 24/7 year-round in controversial, but there’s no insurmountable impediment to those who want to build such a formation. (The main problem we have right now on this is that almost everybody who’s expressed interest in the Greens is hoping that Bernie Sanders can make the hard work of building a new party unnecessary.) So, how do you do this? Meetings, rallies, forums? And how do you build these in a way that doesn’t compete with social media?

How would starting something entirely new address these matters?

  • On reaching the voters, Hoke and others have made much of the small percentage of votes the Green Party gets, while simultaneously attributing all sorts of power to the organization. They miss the essential point that only a tiny percentage of the electorate knows the party is an option. Of that percentage, the party does quite well. The real question is how to increase that percentage of the electorate aware of the party.

Does it make more sense to plunge into that process RIGHT NOW or to build something new from scratch that will aim at getting around that fight by not waging it?

  • Again, the cornerstone of any serious mass electoral strategy has to aim at opening up the political process. Whatever else they have failed to do, the Greens have fought to do just that. (See Jill Stein on Tavis Smiley. http://video.pbs.org/video/2365569875/.)   We can contribute to that necessary fight. We can organize to promote it. We can take Dixon’s suggestion about a national fight for ballot status seriously.

Hoke complains that because we haven’t won that fight, we should abandon it.

There’s no way around this. Any new organization will have to do what the Greens have already been trying to do. Point after point, “socialists” can unite with others to fight these issues.

Or we can, as Brother Hoke proposes, preserving our socialist purity from Green-ish temptations through the peculiar strategy of popping into a self-contained ideological bathyscaphe and diving to the bottom of a Democratic sewer

To put it in the best light, Hoke makes a real rookie error by counterposing something that exists to something that doesn’t. His hallucination of a mystical shortcut to a mass socialist presence dances like the ghost of Isadora Duncan on hashish.

But let’s be clear.

The only reality it’s going to leave us is Hillary Clinton.

Hoke’s “Regime Change” means no change.

[1] I have already raised most of these issues with the other editors of The North Star. I raise these not simply as political disagreements, but editorially to make the piece more coherently defensible, which would permit a response more coherently focused and an exchange that might be fruitful. I regret that hoke wasn’t interest in such a discussion.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Proyect September 30, 2015 at 12:56 pm

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Michael Trudeau September 30, 2015 at 1:03 pm

A well-reasoned response to an embarrassingly incoherent hit piece—the most ridiculously incoherent argument being that socialists should run *as socialists,* while the article gave support to Sanders, who’s running as a Democrat, not a Socialist or even (for christsake) a socialist. Glad to see that North Star has regained its mind.

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daelv (@daelv) September 30, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Well done Mark! I am not familiar with Hoke. Perhaps he has been published within this Northstar?

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daelv (@daelv) September 30, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Well done Mark! I am not familiar with Hoke. Perhaps he has been published within this Northstar. Yes I see the preceding link below. Bravo

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Manuel Barrera September 30, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Indeed, Mark, if the aim is to build a mass party, why would we wait until Bernie sells out (sic, formally speaking) after the convention to begin supporting the Greens or any other such alternative. If we are actually interested in building a mass movement, never mind a mass party, through the elections, wouldn’t we instead be interested in building support for an actual anti-capitalist, “socialist”, or simply independent alternative to the twin parties of war and plunder? Now? I agree that the formulation of “regime change” ilustrates the conceptual mistake inherent in Hoke’s flawed view (and by association, the “socialists” who want to support Sanders’ Democratic nomination).

So. Now? What should we do?

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Jonathan Nack September 30, 2015 at 5:24 pm

I’m absolutely open to the development of a new left mass party. I’m what I heard my late comrade, Peter Camejo, refer to as a “watermelon” – green on the outside, red on the inside – though I’m not claiming Peter coined the term. It’s not that I’m a socialist hiding within the Green Party, or that I don’t take environmental struggles extremely seriously. It is because the Green Party is by far the largest most developed left party in the U.S. It’s also because the Greens have, or at least from what I’ve seen and experienced, welcomed socialists – I haven’t seen or known of a practice of red-baiting.

Where I live in Oakland, CA, most of the active members of the Greens are also watermelons, though I know that is far from the case everywhere.

The Green Party has lost momentum over the past decade and, with the exception of some good recent campaigns, such as that of Howie Hawkins for Governor of NY (another watermelon), we are not progressing.

In Oakland, the vote for Green Party candidates has declined dramatically, and we don’t seem to attract the same caliber of candidates as we once did. Our ability to attract younger activists to the Oakland Green Party has been quite limited.

So, I don’t see the Green Party as the be all and end all. Perhaps the Greens can regain momentum – it remains the strongest of the current “third parties,” and its name, which does emphasize environmental issues is far from irrelevant to our times – but perhaps not.

There is a socialist party in California which has had ballot status for decades – the Peace & Freedom Party. In a number of ways I’m politically closer to it. So why aren’t I, and other California socialists in the Green Party and not the PFP? Because, unfortunately, as week and poorly organized as the Green Party of California is, it is considerably stronger and vital than PFP. All too often, PFP candidates have settled for getting their names on the ballot, and haven’t had the ability to mount real campaigns. Perhaps a new generation of socialists will come to reinvigorate the PFP, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

New political parties of the left arise out of social movements. The Green Party arose out of the growing environmental movements in the 1980s and 1990s. The Peace & Freedom Party arose out of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Anti-War movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Conditions may be ripening for the development of a new mass left electoral party. The Occupy Wall Street movement may prove to be a pivotal historical moment in this regard. It remains to be seen. If a new mass electoral party does coalesce, it remains unclear whether such a party should be labeled socialist, anti-capitalist, labor, or progressive.

This question will not be settled by diatribes, but by on the ground electoral campaigns which bring people together. It will not emerge from us attacking each other, but by building a more powerful unity in action. It will have to have strong organic connections to our social movements, drawing in dynamic leaders.

If a new left electoral party does emerge, it must build on the experiences and struggles of parties such as the Greens, PFP, the Socialist Party, the Working Families Party, and others. It must also build upon the struggles of left-wing candidates within the Democratic Party, such as the current Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, bringing along people ready to break with the Democrats and chart a truly independent course.

Let’s not denigrate and attack each other. Let’s respect, learn from, and build upon our respective experiences.

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Steve Welzer September 30, 2015 at 9:11 pm

> Let’s not denigrate and attack each other.
> Let’s respect, learn from, and build upon our respective experiences.

Sure, absolutely. That includes the idea that discussing and understanding ideological distinctions can yield insight and direction. A problem with Occupy was that it wanted to be inclusive at the expense of doing so . . . therefore it remained ideologically amorphous.

The “Red vs. Green” discussion can be respectful and work toward Red/Green alliances. I don’t know any Greens who “red-bait” in the way that conservatives do.

If you call me a Green, I couldn’t be prouder. “Red” is a historical term enveloping a certain ideological orientation. Socialist, Communist, and Marxist organizations identify with that and so tend to march under red banners. Proudly.

Our Green banners indicate our basis in an ecological politics. Our Ten Key Values serve as a good introduction to such. Beyond that there’s a vast literature explicating our new political orientation. Our goal needs to be to gradually get the left to understand why Green represents the way forward.

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Illin_Spree September 30, 2015 at 8:22 pm

Socialists ought to identify where Green Party politics fall short on propaganda, platform, and organizational questions.

The revolutionary potential in new communicative technologies has been demonstrated on many occasions. A big weakness for the GP is it doesn’t use new media and technology to organize people effectively enough. There is little vibrant Green-affiliated media and communication. Or propaganda and media oriented to the youth.

Personally I think there is both insufficient 1) democracy and 2) discourse in the Green Party. The SPA had a lively discursive culture with national initiatives and referendums–why don’t the Greens? Perhaps we should be looking at the delegative democracy and organizational technology developed by the various Pirate parties.

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Steve Welzer September 30, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Mark Lause writes:

> The suggestion that the Greens have terminally failed and we should start something new merits consideration.

Why does it merit consideration?

Third party politics in this country is notoriously difficult, but, relatively speaking, the Greens have neither failed nor are they “terminal” . . .

(1) There are only two alternative parties that have the capability of running a true national campaign — the Greens and the Libertarians. All other third-party initiatives have failed in that regard; the Greens have succeeded.

(2) There is an international movement for Green politics. That movement is slowly growing. As long as that’s the case there are bound to be people in the U.S. who are supportive of the Greens’ distinctive perspective (in my last post I showed how it’s distinguished from libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism and socialism) and active building an organizational structure to represent that perspective in the electoral arena. We ain’t going away!

A socialistic basis for politics is, by now, an old idea. Over 140 years it has shown considerable resonance and had considerable success — becoming a major ideology of our time. Some of us from the Sixties generation of radicalization came to feel that socialism is theoretically deficient in a number of significant ways (for example: regarding its interpretation of history, regarding the question of the agency of social change, regarding the objective of socialization of the industrial means of production). People who felt that way formulated an ideological alternative with the intention of addressing those deficiencies (otherwise, why bother starting up a whole new movement, starting new parties from scratch?).

An ecological basis for politics is a new idea. It represents a major paradigm shift, and so it’s not surprising that it will take time to achieve critical mass. It’s also not surprising that activists steeped in the older paradigm, like Harlan Hoke, might feel disoriented.

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