Third Party or Socialist Party?

7 min read

Howie Hawkins, the joint presidential candidate of the Green Party and the Socialist Party USA in 2020, recently shared an article from FiveThirtyEight.Com, a favorite source of election commentary for Democrats, titled “Why the Two-Party System is Effing Up U.S. Democracy”.

Hawkins rightly complained that “many liberals applaud the Democrat Party’s increasing efforts, starting in NY but also with the so-called federal voting legislation, to further kill independent third parties”, and implied that they should take to heart the point made in the article, that “the United States’ unique two-party electoral system is messing up [our] democracy.”

Yet despite his avowal of socialism and his successful bid for the Socialist Party USA’s nomination in 2020, Hawkins seems to have grown confused by his long-time commitment to the “third party” politics of the Greens, which does not pose a legitimate electoral challenge but rather functions as a “left wing” spoiler on the Democrats, punishing them for not ceding enough ground to their “progressive” supporters by playing to their discontents and temporarily siphoning their votes away.

Given this fact, it should be no surprise that the Democratic Party and their more “moderate” supporters want to block the Green Party from playing this spoiler role and thereby threatening to hand elected offices to the dreaded Republican Party, as many accuse Green presidential nominee Jill Stein of having done in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, and then-independent candidate and future Green nominee Ralph Nader in George Bush’s 2000 victory over Al Gore.

Hawkins takes the Green Party too seriously in imagining that through this tactic, the progressive wing of the Democrats can be split away, and deludes himself in imagining that the efforts to exclude the Greens and other third parties from the ballot have prevented this tactic from succeeding thus far.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is by no means substantial enough to constitute a party of its own. But more than that, the very nature of its politics renders an independent third party a non-starter, save as an occasional means of punishing the party establishment for its excessive moderation. 

Progressive Democrats are of a piece with the moderate majority of their party as well as the apparently counter-posed Republicans: regardless of the policies they support, all pursue the same basic political goal of pressuring the existing professional political bureaucracy that wields state power to respond to some particular set of concerns and demands. The politics of all Democratic and Republican voters alike are those of pressure-groups vying to influence those who hold power, taking their power for granted and doing nothing to challenge it.

The Green Party, like the Libertarian Party, is not seriously competing to take power away from the Democratic-Republican duopoly, through which the established political bureaucracy maintains its position by exploiting divisions in the electorate on contentious issues, themselves largely manufactured, or else grossly distorted, by the loyal PR machine of the mainstream media. These third parties both play to a discontented fringe of one or the other major party, thereby feeding into the same dynamic of division through which this duopoly preserves itself.

A party seeking to meaningfully challenge and ultimately overthrow and replace the professional political bureaucracy that presently wields state power would have to cut across the spectacular and deceptive terms of this division, and attract not only discontented elements presently attached to both mainstream parties, but more importantly, draw upon the mass of politically inactive people who generally refrain from voting, and whose cynicism and apathy is perfectly justified, stemming from an accurate sense of the futility of participating and disgust at what’s on offer.

The present DSA strategy of running candidates on and supporting certain candidates in the Democratic primaries — whether this is understood in the original Harringtonian sense of building up the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, or in the sense of Seth Ackerman’s “blueprint” for building a “new party” by exploiting the fact that the Democratic Party is not really a party at all, with a membership bound by organizational discipline to uphold a clearly defined program, but a loose and hence permeable formal structure — is premised upon a valid skepticism of the viability of the “third party” approach. 

Yet this unviability is not a consequence of the undemocratic obstruction of third party efforts, as for example in making ballot lines inaccessible to third party candidates by raising the barrier for entry to prohibitive heights or seeking their disqualification on dubious grounds. 

Third parties, in the sense of fringe pressure-group formations parasitic upon the mainstream parties, are unviable by their very nature. Substantial electoral reforms that would loosen the “two party system” and open the way for smaller parties to hold elected office would not make such parties any more viable. It would merely compel them to exhibit more clearly what they already are: they would go from external pressure-group formations to junior partners generally allied with their larger counterparts, playing the same role Bernie Sanders has long played in the Congress, and that the Vermont Progressive Party plays in Montpelier. 

The problem is not the “two party system”. There is only one party in this country, the capitalist party, which has two right wings. Adding other, smaller wings would not change it in substance, but only in appearance.

There is only one thing to be done: build a socialist party through which the working class can take the power of the state into their own hands and thereby reclaim democracy from the career bureaucrats who presently prostitute it.

To accept the purely superficial opposition of Democrats and Republicans is to mislead about the problem and the solution it requires. Posing a purely formal, substanceless challenge to one or the other of these parties from its fringe, whether outside or inside the halls of government, only reinforces the deception by adding another layer of apparent opposition that only affirms the power of the professional political bureaucracy, taking it for granted and merely seeking to influence the manner in which they wield it.

Building a socialist party would not proceed through the existing “party system” but by agitating, educating, and organizing the working class in ways the capitalist parties and their social auxiliaries do not. It would not be concerned with winning office as an end, nor as a means of influencing the conduct of the governing bureaucracy, but only to demonstrate the strength of its base in society and to propagate its mission to the masses, using the electoral and legislative arenas to voice its vociferous opposition to the capitalist state in its entirety, and to call upon the working class to organize itself to seize state power and wield it to fundamentally different ends.

We don’t need a “third party”. The capitalist party is not really a political party at all, only a mass of opportunist bureaucrats clinging to or clawing at power on the basis of a fundamentally unstable status quo. On this point, Ackerman and those of like mind are correct. Yet this is precisely why a socialist party would have to stand in clear, unambiguous opposition to it, to both of its major wings as well as its smaller “third” wings. Socialists running in a Democratic primary would only tarnish those doing so by associating them with what they must oppose, if they are to meaningfully represent the goal of organizing the working class to overthrow the ruling bureaucracy and take state power into their own hands. 

Electoral and parliamentary activity undoubtedly has an important tactical value in this process, but only secondarily, as an expression of education and organization of working people in society. For that matter, undemocratic obstruction of electoral activity would be even more instructive than unobstructed participation, as it would demonstrate the obstacle the organized working class faces and must conquer all the more clearly: the undemocratic, authoritarian character of the capitalist state and its bureaucratic functionaries.

Campaigns against such undemocratic obstructions would be infinitely more valuable than electoral campaigns that take this obstruction for granted and accept the colors of the enemy as an easy out, thereby obscuring, or really, sacrificing the essential function of such electoral activity: to stand in steadfast, resolute, intransigent opposition to the political representatives of the prevailing order, and thereby both represent the opposition to this order within society, and propagate the task of overthrowing and replacing its guardians in order to transform it.

A socialist party would have to clearly distinguish itself from the politics of pressuring or jockeying for position within the ruling bureaucracy. The capitalist party in all of its guises has no orienting aim for social change, seeking only to profit from it by preserving it while opportunistically exploiting the discontents it generates.

A socialist party would be the first and only real political party, revealing the two factions of the capitalist party as inept, incapable of providing real political leadership for society to those who are presently duped to the contrary.

Socialists should not affirm the insipid commentary of apologists of the status quo, but bring to light what is generally lost in the rightfully cynical reaction to mainstream politics and disregarded from the outset by those who take such politics seriously: that the democratic revolution upon which this country was founded collapsed with the rise of capitalism, and can only continue by working through and overcoming the problem of capitalism in socialism.

Only the working class, who make capitalism what it is by failing to take responsibility for the world they create through their labor, can recognize and ultimately overcome this problem by taking political power for the sake of doing so. 

That is why we need a socialist party, a party of the working class, and why anything less feeds into the illusion that democratic politics is possible under capitalism. The problem is not the two party system, and the solution is not a “third party”. Third parties are as much a part of the problem as the two — really, the one — they ostensibly oppose. 

The problem is that the working class must organize itself into a genuine political party to provide this society with the political leadership it requires, by realizing the necessary transformation of capitalism, through the conscious organization of production, into socialism.

Reid Kane is an independent historian of socialism and founding editor of The Socialist Legacy, an anthology of literature from the historical socialist movement. He is also a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. His publications can be found at: reidkane.net.