In an ideal time for socialists, which the present is most certainly not, the decision to support a socialist candidate would be uncontroversial. For some of us, it’s just something we do. Historically, it’s one of those fundamental principles we’ve tasked ourselves with upholding. Eugene Debs would talk about it in his speeches, and it was one of the primary reasons he ran for President five times. He knew full well that he would not win each of those times, that socialism was unlikely to win at the ballot box. But if socialists could not even assert their support for socialism each election day, what could they do?
Although it pains me to say it, we do not have a Eugene Debs anymore. We don’t have a mass socialist party. For socialists committed to political independence from the Democratic Party, we don’t have much of anything at the moment, unfortunately.
But we do have Howie Hawkins.
Admittedly, Howie is no Eugene Debs. But neither is Bernie Sanders. If we view Debs as the gold standard of socialist presidential candidates in the US, and we should, then who comes closer to upholding his legacy? Neither Hawkins nor Sanders has organized the working class. Their contributions to any movement for socialism are ultimately relatively insignificant. But while the socialism of Bernie Sanders is little more than referencing the New Deal and Great Society programs of Roosevelt and Johnson, respectively, it’s the socialism of Howie Hawkins that sounds, well, a lot more like socialism. While Sanders extols the virtues of a couple of Democrat presidents, Hawkins invokes Debs and theorists like Karl Marx, Hal Draper, and Murray Bookchin. It’s a decidedly nuanced socialism that Hawkins puts forward, but at least it sounds like socialism. Hawkins speaks of worker ownership of the means of production and the need for a mass socialist party while it’s been the better part of 40 years since Sanders could say the same.
In light of this, it should be no surprise that Hawkins has a certain appeal to those of us committed to the kind of socialism that Debs once talked about, the type that can’t and won’t happen via the Democratic Party. It’s part of why the Socialist Party saw fit nominate him well over a year ago. It’s why the Greens, Socialist Alternative, and the Independent Socialist Group have followed suit. It’s why earlier this week, the Colorado Springs and Salt Lake chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) decided to throw their support behind his campaign as well, rather than to sit back and tacitly support Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden.
Those two humble DSA chapters out west could not have anticipated the profoundly negative reaction from other organization members.
Colorado Springs and Salt Lake did not break any rules except those residing solely within the minds of those who wish they had. In fact, before the DSA’s national endorsement of Bernie Sanders last year, numerous chapters gave local endorsements to pressure their national leadership to follow suit. They eventually did just that. Colorado Springs and Salt Lake merely acted within the purview of the organizational rules and bylaws that govern them. Furthermore, they did not make these endorsements under the pretext that a national-level endorsement would ensue. But none of these truths matter because this is not an ideal time to be a socialist. And so endorsing socialist like Howie Hawkins is more controversial than vocally supporting Joe Biden because other socialists said so.
One repeated claim has been that socialists shouldn’t be working to build the Green Party. While this is true, most of Howie’s supporters outside of the Greens are not even remotely interested in doing that. They’ve likened a vote for Howie to a vote for the Green Party while ignoring that by that logic, a vote for Bernie Sanders was a vote for the Democratic Party. Maybe they’re not ignoring it. Maybe, just maybe, they know that and don’t care. They say he can’t win (neither can they) and will do nothing that will materially benefit the working class (neither will they). Because of this, I wonder if they would be criticizing a potential socialist party as well. It would undoubtedly be a right-wing criticism as most of their criticism of other socialists tends to be.
If and when we reconstitute and regroup into a socialist party, they will be attacking us from the right. We should get used to the idea. We should prepare for it.
For all the talk of a nascent socialist movement or a new party of a new type, none of this is really about socialism and working towards it. No, it’s not really about “class struggle elections“, it’s about how we must vote for Joe Biden as if our very existence depended on it. It’s not about anything that has ever meant something to socialists, frankly.
And there’s a reason for that.
I am not much one to peddle the “no true socialist” fallacy, and so if they want to call themselves socialists, I say we let them. But they are not a new kind of socialist. Instead, they’re a new kind of a Democrat. They’ll support neoliberals like Ed Markey and Joe Biden while regarding those to their left, those who uphold the Debsian principle of socialist independence with contempt. These socialists are the new Democrats. They will not lead us out of the capitalist wilderness; they will keep us right where we are. Those of us who want socialism will be forever relegated to the margins should they have their way.
An endorsement, a vote, or any other form of support for Howie Hawkins will do nothing to harm our nearly nonexistent movement for socialism. Ingratiating ourselves with the Democrats will ensure that things stay that way.
The left has many obstacles to overcome. Many failed strategies require discarding. It’s high time we get started. This way, when any talk of culpability for our less than ideal reality occurs, we can point theses socialists, these new Democrats, in the direction of the nearest mirror.
John Palmucci is Executive Editor of The Socialist.