Bernie Sanders, the Greens, and the New Anti-Capitalism

by Steve Welzer on June 6, 2016


Steve Welzer

(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Green Horizon Magazine and reflects the viewpoint of the author. North Star is posting it as a follow-up to Brandy Baker’s article that appeared yesterday.)

For anyone who came of age after the turn of the millennium the anti-communism of the Cold War period is all but irrelevant. Sentiment now, for that younger generation, leans more toward anti-capitalism. They’ve been reading about—or directly experiencing the effects of—a highly unstable boom-bust economy along with growing income/wealth inequality and oppressive indebtedness.

Disdain for the current system among a significant proportion of the young opens doors for their consideration of an alternative; and it’s forcing the progressive movement to confront issues regarding what that alternative might be. For example, activists are debating the merits of the “democratic socialism” espoused by Bernie Sanders in contrast to the more radical vision of Kshama Sawant, the Marxist two-term Seattle city councilor. Meanwhile, a proposal has been circulated among Green Party members advocating that the party’s platform be amended to embrace “eco-socialism” as a principle.

The broad electorate in our country has little context for relating to such leftist ideological debates. In Europe, where distinctive Green, liberal, socialist, and social democratic parties compete for votes in almost every major election, ideological differences are front-and-center and forthrightly debated. But many of the American youth who have been attracted to the Bernie Sanders campaign may not recognize the significance of Sanders’ assurances that he won’t advocate collective ownership of industrial enterprises. On the basis of Bernie’s invocation of “the Scandinavian way” some might even have the impression that socialism is a relatively new phenomenon exemplified by the systems of Norway and Sweden; or perhaps it’s an extension of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies, for which Bernie expresses a special affinity. It’s unlikely that a person being introduced to the concept of socialism via the 2016 Sanders campaign would acquire much in the way of ideological clarity—or be motivated to consider the full range of alternatives to capitalism.

The critique of capitalism has a long history

The left-wing critique of capitalism dates to the early nineteenth century. At that time proto-anarchists and agrarian decentralists were concerned about a destabilization of community life under the onslaught of encroaching market forces. They retained a vision of a simple-living anti-industrial pastoralism. Others, having a different orientation, advocated a transition from capitalism to socialism in order to enable the productive potential of industrialism to be fully realized. The latter perspective came to predominate within the movement because it was more concordant with the reigning doctrine of progressive development.

Interestingly, right-wing and left-wing progressives were in agreement that industrial development held the promise of eliminating scarcity—and that such was the key to human liberation. They differed in regard to the question of property relations: would private enterprise and the profit motive best spur industrial development and thus grow the economy to the benefit of all citizens, or would they result in largesse for the owners of capital at the expense of the masses of wage laborers? Progressive-minded anti-capitalists asserted that industrial productivity could foster the achievement of generalized abundance—the basis of a classless, just, and peaceful society—only if the fruits of that productivity were appropriated socially via collective ownership of the means of production.

An international confederation of anti-capitalist organizations was established in 1864 (the “First International”). It lasted only twelve years due to ideological wrangling between the socialist followers of Karl Marx (who stressed the importance of building workers’ political parties intent upon capturing state power) and the anarchist acolytes of Mikhail Bakunin (who advocated direct economic struggle at the point of production to subvert state power).

By the time a second such confederation was founded in 1889 Marxism was ascendant. In addition to the idea of striving for working class control of state power, its tenets specified that:

  • after a long historical process of progressive development the next higher stage (the ultimate stage) of human history will be socialism—a classless society wherein the people altogether own and democratically control the means of production;
  • the primary agency of social change toward achieving this is the class-conscious industrial proletariat;
  • the immediate objective of the proletariat’s revolutionary activity is socialization of the “commanding heights” of the economy, thus enabling national—and then international—economic planning.

There was a relatively high degree of consensus among Second International socialists in regard to that worldview for a number of years. But programmatic and strategic disagreements arose before too long and a major schism developed in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Those who saw that event as a model and therefore adopted the ideas of its leader, Vladimir Lenin, established a new confederation, the Communist International, adhering to a revolutionary ideology termed “Marxism-Leninism.” (The group that Kshama Sawant belongs to, Socialist Alternative, espouses a Trotskyist variant of Marxism-Leninism.) Those who, instead, supported parliamentary gradualism inaugurated the competing Socialist International (S.I.) in 1923. The latter came to emphasize the ethical and social justice foundations of the movement rather than its class-struggle imperative or historical inevitability. Over time, many of the S.I. constituent organizations came to embrace a more modest vision of reformation called “social democracy”—characterized by the retention of private enterprise and market economics, albeit with extensive public provision and a robust social safety net.

By the middle of the twentieth century, despite the fact that the movement had become divided and sub-divided, parties adhering to one or another variant of communism, socialism, or social democracy were thriving as major political forces in country after country.

But not in the United States.

The legacy of American Exceptionalism

Various theories have been put forward to explain “American exceptionalism” (citing such factors as anti-statism, hyper-individualism, attachment to laissez-faire, suspicion of centralized authority, a relatively high degree of social mobility, and “get rich” opportunities presented by the frontier; plus the idea that a less homogeneous population tends to have less of a sense of collective responsibility). Over the years, leftist electoral activists in this country have continually attempted to overcome those exceptional factors and establish the kinds of mass-based socialist parties found in all the other advanced democracies.

There was some encouragement in that respect early in the twentieth century. The Socialist Party of America garnered over three percent for its presidential candidate in 1912 and 1920; it elected dozens of state legislators and more than a hundred mayors during that period. But it only managed to seat two members of the House of Representatives and its influence waned after the post-WWI “Red Scare” repression.

The SP continued to run candidates for many years thereafter, including the well-known Norman Thomas, but almost all such campaigns were marginal. The Communist Party USA fielded presidential tickets in the years between 1924 and 1940 and then again between 1968 and 1984, but it never established a mass base. More recently, during the last thirty years, there have been at least a half-dozen attempts to launch a social democratic type of alternative party (under the appellations: Citizens, Rainbow, Labor, New Party, 21st Century Party, Justice, Progressive, Working Families)—but not a single one achieved national prominence of any degree. It’s often suggested that America’s winner-take-all electoral system is to blame, but during the same thirty-year period the Canadian New Democratic Party and the British Liberal Democratic Party made great strides toward national major party status while operating within very similar types of winner-take-all systems.

Recognizing how daunting the challenge is in the U.S., a number of social democratic initiatives (notably Progressive Democrats of America and Democratic Socialists of America) have adopted the strategy of “boring within” to try to move the Democratic Party to the left. The Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 is the latest such endeavor. If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination it will set in motion a contention for the soul of the party. The outcome could conceivably be a transformation into a European-style social democratic party. The threat of such would alarm that portion of the American financial and industrial power elite that has been loyal to the Democrats since comprehending that FDR’s New Deal saved capitalism. Those elites, who appreciate the fact that welfare-state amelioration of systemic economic deficiencies must be sustained in order to foster social stability, wouldn’t be inclined to countenance a Democratic Party turn toward socialism—of any kind. They would view it as “going too far.” In regard to Bernie Sanders, they’re aware that his platform is really just an extension of Great Society liberalism, but they’re concerned that his rabble-rousing could spur a movement for resolute income redistribution and stricter corporate regulation—or even propel the growth of organizations calling for expropriation of large enterprises and whole industries.

Alternative anti-capitalist paradigms

As the American left sees an opening to finally get a hearing for its anti-capitalist credo, how should the Green Party respond?

Some Greens who remain fixated on the dichotomous perspective—capitalism or socialism—are advocating that the party’s platform be revised to espouse the latter. They acknowledge that the numerous attempts at implementing socialism (revolutionary or parliamentary) during the twentieth century yielded disappointing results, but they believe that the modification called “eco-socialism” addresses many of the issues that were responsible for prior failures.

Eco-socialism seeks to meld the “Red” paradigm (of the historical socialist movement) with the “Green.” The idea first gained currency during the 1980s and is often associated with the launch of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism in 1988. This was followed by Green Left Weekly and the volume Environment, Capitalism and Socialism during the 1990s (both products of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party). Formalization of the movement can be dated to the appearance of An Ecosocialist Manifesto (2001) authored by Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy and then the founding of an International Ecosocialist Network in 2007.

Many eco-socialists are Marxists who have come to appreciate the Greens’ reconsideration of the issues, practices, and objectives of modern radicalism. Like the Greens, they prioritize confronting the looming threats of ruination from ecological disaster and destruction from incessant warfare. Their discourse, like the Greens, is more along the lines of community rejuvenation than proletarian revolution. Recognizing how the Greens disdain concentration of wealth and power (whether in the hands of big business or under the auspices of big government), their revamped program no longer calls for nationalization as a panacea. Instead, public ownership is conceived of as municipalization (more localized)—or else it’s suggested that socialization should result in cooperatives based on worker ownership.

Nonetheless, socialization remains the fundamental principle—whether couched as “public works” or municipal enterprises or cooperatives—and private ownership is still anathema. Eco-socialists continue to be wedded to the Marxist notion that exploitation is inherent in private enterprise (on the basis that one person must not “own” another person’s labor). This leads to a conclusion that egalitarianism has to mean common ownership. Privately owned businesses—other than sole proprietorships, partnerships, or those that are family-owned and operated—are disparaged or disallowed. And they want the Green Party platform to reflect such.

The Ecosocialist Manifesto asks: “Why socialism, why revive this word seemingly consigned to the rubbish-heap of history by the failings of its twentieth century interpretations? For this reason only: that however beaten down and unrealized, the notion of socialism still stands for the supersession of capital.” What a Marxist might have difficulty understanding is that many Greens are also proposing a post-capitalist society—but of a different kind.

A premise of the new alternative is that the left has been mistaken to conflate the capitalist system with private enterprise. A corollary is that the latter is not necessarily the problem. The problem, rather, is the globally dominant development-obsessed system that can manifest as either industrial-corporate capitalism or industrial-state socialism. In that light, eradicating private enterprise can be viewed as an ideological preoccupation, not a solution.

And it’s hard to imagine that Green Party candidates would be enthusiastic about running for office on a platform that disparages or disallows small private businesses. In fact, the Greens have generally viewed small-scale businesses as potentially being a healthy part of a thriving local or regional economy. The key toward realizing their positive potential is that they must be of, by, and for (i.e., accountable to) the community. A post-capitalist alternative based on such a perspective can have broad appeal. Conversely, to encumber the Green Party platform with a dogma that fetishizes collective ownership would be to take a misguided step in the direction of replicating leftist miscalculations of the past.

What to do about the big corporations?

Greens talk about decentralization and devolution of power as prerequisites for realization of their vision of a society based on a grassroots-participatory form of democracy and a communitarian ethos. But from this point in history—given the extreme hypertrophy and over-centralization of our polities, institutions, and technologies—achieving the necessary downscaling will take time. Therefore, while working toward ultimate long-term transformative goals, a critical issue remains: What to do about the current dominance of the extant large corporations?

We’ve established that socialists advocate collectivization of one sort or another—as a universal principle. Greens, on the other hand, tend to be wary of the bureaucratic monstrosities that can result. Still, Greens don’t proscribe the idea categorically. For example, Jill Stein’s 2016 campaign is calling for the nationalization of the energy industry, as well as the Federal Reserve and selected other facets of Big Finance.

Greens tend to have a pragmatic, case-by-case approach to this issue. The transition to a decentralized Green society might, in fact, be hastened by socializing some of the large corporations (keeping in mind that municipalization, whenever possible, is a better idea than nationalization). In cases where socialization is inappropriate, vigilant and tight regulation is imperative. The objectives guiding corporate-constraining policies should be, at minimum: to diminish their power by getting corporate money out of politics, diminish their wealth through progressive taxation, remove their subsidies, end their bail-outs. At the same time, corporate dominance can be undermined by gradually re-allocating social and economic resources toward community-based enterprises (some private, some public, depending upon local preference).

The left needs to do some comprehensive re-thinking

Revulsion with the capitalist system is fully justified, and the renewed clamor for alternatives is encouraging. What the Greens should do in response is to patiently explain that we have in mind a different, better alternative than that which was promoted by the left during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This message may not be so easily assimilated because the worldview associated with the traditional left/right (public/private) spectrum is so entrenched. But with persistence it should be possible to elucidate why socialism is not the only alternative to capitalism—and to make the point that, rather than reviving a near-discredited ideology, it’s time for the left to re-think its vision of “where to go and how to get there.”

The Green politics movement is increasingly broadening its appeal through the advocacy of a perspective that weaves together ecological sanity, social justice, and nonviolence in a way that advances the critique and practice of our movement beyond any and all socialisms. Such could ultimately provide the most conducive framework for the post-capitalist regeneration of our society. Greens assert that it holds the promise for finally clearing the pathway toward human liberation.
Steve Welzer has been a Green movement activist for over twenty years. He was a founding member of the Green Party of New Jersey in 1997 and recently served on the Steering Committee of the Green Party of the United States. Steve has run for a number of offices as a Green Party candidate, including a 2013 bid for Governor of New Jersey. He holds a Master’s degree in Economics from Rutgers University and currently serves as Treasurer for the Jill Stein for President campaign.

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