A Socialist Alternative? Going from Green to Red

A Socialist Alternative? Going from Green to Red

The recent election primaries have stolen much of the progressive thunder-badly. Barrack Obama’s stentorian voice and uplifting rhetoric, two qualities often passed as “progressivism” in the United States, gets incredible press while the personal venality of the Clintons and their surrogates, (which mask serious policy choices anathema to a truly progressive agenda) is overly analyzed. Some substance!

Both candidates are imperial Democrats, supporting the 800 or so military bases around the world, and the hegemonic dominance that assures. Both candidates will not support an end to insurance company mobsterism in health care, and instead opt for what most modern Western democracies have: a single-payer health system. Both candidates talk only in the vaguest of generalities about the importance of unions (but neither support an end to Taft-Hartley), the environment (yet both support nuclear power and neither will reign in destructive corporate agriculture), or “working families” (but neither supports a living wage). What all this means is that, simply put, a progressive agenda is once again relegated to the backburner in exchange for the maddeningly inevitable mantra of “change”, which in American politics means changing the prison guards and keeping the Left locked away from mainstream debates.

Here in Iceland where I live, the Left-Green Movement, a Green-Socialist-Feminist coalition, is part of the government, and its leader Steingrímur Sigfússon delivers the most impassioned and inspiring speeches, winning respect from even opponents for his integrity and vision. But they represent only 14.3% of Parliament. The Socialist Alliance, a Social Democratic, center-left coalition (perhaps the equivalent of a more liberal version of New Deal Democrats) holds 26.8% of Parliament and so between them, almost half of the total seats. Together they get attention and more importantly, some legislation passed that fits a progressive description. While this is not the place to recommend a proportional system of representation for the US (though I do) or a whole new way of configuring movements and political parties (which I do), I think it time some of us on the US Left reassess our choice of words (and fear of others) and earnestly support where we can an openly socialist agenda electorally. What this means is giving a new look to an old friend, the Socialist Party-USA (SP-USA).

Even as large numbers of progressives, including socialists joined the Green Parties in the 80´s (and technically there still remains 2, without counting the arcane mergers and configurations within individual states) the Greens have been hobbled by infighting and crass manipulation by Dems in Green clothing. And while Communists (CPUSA) and other socialist parties exist, they have neither the traction (organization or ballot access) nor the independence (the CP, for example, supports the Dems as a tactical, and “practical” endeavor) to make more waves than a pond ripple. For progressives, these are disheartening signs.

In addition, we have seen the movement of radicals, Leftists, and other progressives drift towards the Republican candidacy of Ron Paul. His unswerving opposition to American imperial adventurism and undeclared wars, and strong support of the Constitution make him appealing. Yet many of his other positions are questionable, to say the least. Why aren’t we reassessing a group that has always opposed wars, imperialism and unjust policies at home and abroad?

The Socialist Party is the US´s oldest socialist party, does not favor top down “democratic centralism”, is adaptable to distinctly American political realities and has a platform remarkably consistent with progressive (and Green) views without the nutty baggage that hampers any Left discussion of politics. At one time, in its heyday, the Socialist Party had numerous elected officials in office and Eugene Debs once received almost a million votes—while he was in jail! By openly supporting the Socialist Party, we would be making a statement loud and clear that can push the debate much further to the Left than it is at present.

Yet, if history teaches us anything it’s that movements matter and that unified struggle beats divisive sectarianism. Hopping from one political party to another is now an unfortunate, inevitable consequence of US ballot access laws. Thus, a socialist may have to vote Green in order to have her vote count (or in order to simply be able to vote) or a Green to support an Independent candidacy in order to be heard.

But what if we simply agreed that what we want, at its most basic, is found pretty squarely inside that SP-USA platform and that, wherever possible, by voting Socialist we are helping a noble party get back into the consciousness of Americans and giving an alternative vision the chance it needs to compete. While I have for 20 years committed myself to Green politics, I think it may be time to shift back to where my heart says I should go for me to feel I am not wasting my vote, or my time—to the Socialist Party. And if, and when we can form our version of a Left-Green Alliance, in whatever name, I’ll be right there too.

Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland. Read other articles by José.

9 comments on this article so far …

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  1. Shenanigans said on February 11th, 2008 at 6:18 am #

    I hope the “idealistic” dream of socialism dies a hard and convincing death. Liberalism (classical liberalism) is the only route to true prosperity, true equality and true freedom.

  2. Max Shields said on February 11th, 2008 at 8:02 am #

    José M. Tirado said “Why aren’t we reassessing a group that has always opposed wars, imperialism and unjust policies at home and abroad?”

    The answer is simple: because socialism has been demonized for the better part of 70 years; and Stalinism was for too long its wrong-headed face.

    Woodrow Wilson and his gestapo broke the backs of the US Socialist Party during the run up to WWI (the reason Debbs was in jail).

    I think it’s a mistake to generalize that Greens are socialists and would want to “go back” to the Socialist Party. We don’t have proportional representation as you noted nor a lot of other tools for strong participatory democracy. By mentioning Iceland, you raise a point that seems so easily ignored – SIZE. I would argue that large land/population massed nations are not sized for the kind of lively participatory multi-faceted political representation that a little nation like Iceland (and many others) can sustain.

    Size is a necessary but not sufficient ingrediant to obtaining that mix. A non-hierarchical process can be had on a local level with a good deal of work; but national politics in a China or Russia or India or, yes, USA is much more monolithic with a corporate supporting hierachical cast. The vast majority of Americans believe in the authoritarian leader. India is said to provide some distinction but it has taken on a USA-client relationship that belies so much.

    My response to your post is that while there is much to incorporate from a socialist perspective, it will take a coalition of factions that have key shared values and agendas as well as a way of working. Domination (the hierarchical model) is a powerful organizing principle. It will take a broad coalition to undermine it.

    I believe we can, locally, begin a transformation that carries the best of a number of ideological ideas including socialism.

  3. John Halle said on February 11th, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Excellent piece. Thank you.

    While I agree that Obama has, as you say, stolen the progressives’ thunder, this may be very temporary. Namely, if Clinton succeeds in stealing the nomination through buying off the super delegates, there will be huge numbers of disgusted Obamaites who will have seen the true face of the Democratic Party and will want to have nothing to do with it in the future.

    Even Chris Bowers, of the establishment Democratic site Open Left, who proclaims himself a ward captain and who has “raised millions of dollars for Democratic candidates” has pledge to quit the party if this happens.

    Bowers and others will be open to an alternative in the event that Clinton is successful. I’m not sure if the SWP or the Greens, or the Labor Party, or the CP, or the Peace and Freedom Party or any existing formation is in a position to provide it. What is needed, probably, is a completely new party or at least a consolidation of existing left parties under a new banner, though it is not impossible that a party like the SWP could be resuscitated.

    In either case, this will require negotiation, flexibility, political sophistication, rationality, tolerance, and the ability to compromise, qualities which do not seem to be in great abundance on the left at the moment, as can be seen from many of the postings on this site.

    The first step is to begin the discussion with articles like this.

  4. Seven said on February 11th, 2008 at 9:27 am #

    Thanks for this piece.

    As I see it, the problem with Leftist and independent American politics is that everyone feels that they can change the world by themselves, no one is uniting and compromising to create a truly powerful political entity.

    If everyone is trying to play the hero, nothing changes.

  5. Rev. José M. Tirado said on February 11th, 2008 at 1:12 pm #

    Thank you all for your comments.

    To “Seven”, you are 100% right. This remains a huge problem the Left has been faced with for as long as I can remember and, studying history, for as long as the “Left” has existed. Divisions, purity, factionalism, envy, rigidity, racial divides and cultural divides: these are not new to the Left at all. They are part of the history of teh USAmerican Left and we should acknowledge this openly. That said, what do we do? Certainly attempts have been made. For me, looking again at the history made me conclude, as I wrote above, that the SP-USA deserves serious reconsideration. They have weathered vicious storms and have survived with a platform I don´t have to pick and choose in order to support.

    To John, what you say will probably come true but it happens regularly within the Democratic Party, every time a new “spokesperson” gets attention (and, more importantly, votes) and threatens the Dems basically center-right-corporate agenda. The Democratic Party in the US is to the RIGHT of many European centrist parties, such as the Christian Democrats. Sure, many will leave but then what? Will they coalesce again elsewhere? I am unsure.

    To Max, much of what you say is true. But here is one instance where size doesn´t matter.
    What Icelanders did, like so many Europeans did after the second World War, is unite their progressive agenda to the traditionally (here it´d be the SP-USA) Left parties which were not supporters of Stanlinism. They knew the world they wanted was a socialist one where health care and education were free, where industry did not run government and where representation was proportional to the population. Sure they wanted more but the CIA did much to prevent this movement from going any further Leftwards than it achieved. (William Blums´”Killing Hope” is an excellent resource in this matter). And even then it was a struggle and people died for the gains they presently are celebrating (all the wealthier industrialized nations have single payer for example, in addition to freer and more equal access to education, etc.) So I don´t think just because things are smaller here they were more easily had.

    On the contrary, considering imperial domination of many smaller countries by bigger ones after the war, the utter devastation and poverty most countries suffered and the reluctance of people to piss off the US too much (or the USSR, for that matter, such as Hungary in its attempts to create a “socialism with a human face”) creating a better society took unity, vision and work. The SOcialist Parties were instrumental.

    As far as Greens not being socialist, for sure that´s true. But I´d say 80% of the Greens I knew and worked with in the US would gladly have been socialists were there such a chance being labelled one wouldn´t keep them from jobs or cause social pariahship.

    For me the journey was painful but was illuminated by living in Europe for the past 6 years (and my first exposure in the 1980’s when I lived in Japan for almost 5). “Socialism” remains a grand ideal, a promise of a better world and an attempt to create that world with no apologies. These people are and were idealists, to be sure, but they also were union members and felt solidarity with other workers. They believed compromise inevitable and they achieved some gains (like I mentioned above) we from the US could only dream of. They kept the name and worked until the system gave in and througout Europe Socialists are a part of the governmental systems and more importantly, are part of the regular debates in society.

    Oh, the world still looks Green to me. but the Socialists around the world got that message too and have adjusted accordingly. I guess it´s a personal thing for me. In this last third (if I´m lucky) of my life (I´ll be 49 this summer) I want to hold my head high and stay with what I believe is the right vision for the world I live in and for my children and children everywhere. At one time the USAmerican Left dared to dream of a better world. Why have we stopped that? Well, for one, the very name socialism makes people squawk in the US.

    Yet what do they want? No imperialism, no militarism, free education and health care, decentralized, democratic control of resources without corporate interference, a living wage, a cleaner, safer environment in which to live: these are the traditional ideas of the original Left, a socialist Left. Instead of trying to wrest control of the Dems (we keep doing this election after election and look where we are) or the Reps (e.g. Ron Paul) or even the Greens whose pillars are visionary and great but whose own thunder is squeezed out by Dems and whose vision is squeezed in by the media, why not just remember where these dreams came from and work from there?
    Just my thoughts…

  6. Don Hawkins said on February 11th, 2008 at 2:57 pm #

    No one is uniting and compromising to create a truly powerful political entity.
    Click on one degree and then two degrees. We are only two tenths of a degree away from one degree right now. In 8 years two degrees. We have seven years to keep CO 2 levels below 450ppm. Can it be done ,yes. The word is getting out.

  7. Max Shields said on February 11th, 2008 at 3:04 pm #

    Rev. José M. Tirado, I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve said.

    My point about size is that there is a critical mass that works against what you expressed in your post – non-hierachical organization. Americans (in general) share the hyper-individualism with the authoritarian search for a leader (persuasive or certain). A strange but real cultural mix. Re-building community is what’s needed. The relationship between state and locality has undermined community, the spiritual, economic and overall quality of life of our communities.

    That said…

    There are nations which are off the hegemonic table. Iceland is one as is Switzerland, and a whole host of others. Why? Because they do not possess what imperialism requires to keep the machine rolling – scarce resources. The USA is neither small nor without resources, but our history is one of 2 monolithic parties with hair splitting differences, and a monolithic corporate media. This is the result of the journey from inception to our current state. There were choices along the way, you can mark them in the actions taken. It wasn’t inevitable, but it was forged from a narrative that continues to sustain it. It is the predominate narrative which must be transformed.

    As an ideology, socialism has no currency in the USA. Single payer does. But call it socialism and you’ve killed it. As I said we can create solutions which and must include social and economic justice. Organizations struggle with identity. The Green Party is no different; and in a two party “world” any idea outside the mainstream is readily marginalized. That is why I think local is the only dynamic that works for social and economic justice. If we reconsider our approach, building community from the inside out we have the opportunity for that end we share with or without calling it socialism.

    On the national stage the battle is futile. The old saying in boxing goes, “keep hitting the body and the head will fall”. In political terms it’s grass-roots transformation and the pyramid will topple. This is perhaps the one point that Obama makes that I agree with: bottom up.


  8. Max Shields said on February 11th, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    Just one more emphasized point, Jose. It is best not to underestimate the deep cultural underpinnings in the USA. This is an extremely individualistic, material driven, and, frequently, politically disengaged society (that is democracy is an occasion, not a way of life).

    The socialism you hope for will take much more than a new leader or a party. You mentioned the need for movement. That’s true but that movement must be built on top of a transformed culture. And again I think our best hope for that transformation is at the local level.

    When we’ve ideology (those times in our history like the early 20th century and 60s) has led the way, it has been undermined by our deep cultural characteristics. Capitalism, profits, competition are in the cultural “DNA”.

    I am optimistic that there are signs at the local level. But the work is huge.

  9. Rev. José M. Tirado said on February 12th, 2008 at 2:50 am #

    Hi Max,
    I think this is misleading. The Germanic/Scandinavian countries are hardly known for their “collective” mentality. On the contrary, ever since Roman times, the Germanic peoples were known (and admired) for their radical individuality and competitiveness. So I think the argument that the US is somehow more immune to “collective” ideas, particularly socialist ones, is inaccurate.

    The constant demonization of such intellectual sentiments, however, has made within the latter part of the 20th century socialist ideas harder to get out there. (McCarthyism, the first Red scare of the 1920´s, etc.) You can´t talk about the 8 hour work day, “weekends”, feminist rights, labor rights, etc. in the history of the US without noting that the socialists, particularly the Socialist Party, played a hugely significant role. FDR, scion of one of the wealthiest families in the US met with socialists during his first terms and is widely reported to have said “Look, I agree with what you are saying, now go out there and make me do it.” So the idea that somehow socialist ideas don´t get into USAmericans consciousness is historically wrong too.

    USAmericans get it. And more and more many are willing to look again at such ideas. I mean, let´s face it, every one of the “best places to live” as generally listed: Canada, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, etc. all have vigorous socialist policies in effect (single payer, paid maternity/paternity, 4-6 weeks paid vacation per year, etc.) and vibrant socialist parties. That´s no coincidence. They have mixed capitalist/socialist national economies, a greener emphasis, and a social contract that emphasizes people over profits and deemphasizes militarism and instead promotes negotiation. They didn´t suddenly wake up one morning and get those ideas. They had people fighting tooth and nail for years to get them.

    Thus, I absolutely agree that organizing “from below” is essential. But the quintessential USAmerican tendency to reinvent the wheel anytime an intellectual challenge arises, and to forget history and its lessons (and to ignore our own vibrant Left history) is killing us. Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, Helen Keller among many, many others all espoused democratic socialist ideas in ways USAmericans understood and, more importantly, agreed with. Socialism, in that respect, is as “American” as compettition. The narrative depends upon one´s own adopted set of ideals.

    All I am suggesting is that we sit down and take a look at where many of our greatest ideas came from and revitalize that sector of the Left rather than giving up and saying “it can´t happen here” or hoping a few progressive Democrats appear on the horizon to lead us to the promised land. It won´t happen that way. For a start, I suggest reading Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Paul Foner, etc., or getting The Encyclopedia of the American Left just to see how exciting and vibrant our radical Left traditions were. Then check out the Socialist Party platform and seriously give it some thought.


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