Millions of people in the United States understand the problems of capitalist society: poverty, unemployment, racism, war or any other of the many other social ills that working-class people face.
Hundreds of thousands of those, if asked, would sincerely like to see social change to address those problems.
Yet communist ideas are still a small factor in U.S. working-class consciousness.
Talking about how to make a revolution in the United States does not always generate the kind of fear and anti-communist hatred that has been the case during periods of witch hunts and red-baiting—at least among most social justice activists. Rather, the biggest criticism of communist politics among activists is that it is unrealistic, hopeless or not practical.
“When the revolution happens, I’ll be with you,” communist organizers have heard countless times. “But for now, I’m going to focus on helping my community.”
The speaker could be a union organizer, a volunteer at a women’s shelter, an anti-war activist or any other of the thousands of people who selflessly sacrifice countless hours trying to improve the lives of poor and working people. With these dedicated activists, communists do not try to engage in long-winded arguments about the need for revolution. Instead, they show themselves to be the most dedicated fighters in the many struggles for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, and against war and racism.
Sometimes, however, the pragmatic argument against revolution takes a political form. A politician or political party holds out the possibility of reforming capitalism to the point where people’s needs can be addressed without revolution and without infringing on the ruling class’ right to exploit and rule. This is known as reformism, and it is one of the main poisons in the working-class movement.
Reformists do not always come across as misleaders. They often present themselves as advancing a “progressive” agenda. Sometimes they might even pose as contributing to breaking the two-party hold on political power in the United States.
Despite all this, revolutionary Marxism has considered these forces a danger that inhibits working-class consciousness. Lenin wrote in 1913, “Unlike the anarchists, the Marxists recognize struggle for reforms, i.e., for measures that improve the conditions [of] the working people without destroying the power of the ruling class. At the same time, however, the Marxists wage a most resolute struggle against the reformists, who, directly or indirectly, restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms. Reformism is bourgeois deception of the workers, who, despite individual improvements, will always remain wage-slaves, as long as there is the domination of capital.”
U.S. reformism: ‘Lesser of two evils’
Reformism in the United States comes in many varieties. By far the most common version is the line that the only way poor and working people—especially African Americans—can get a political voice is through the Democratic Party. The misnamed and reformist Communist Party USA consistently argues for supporting Democratic candidates as a way to “defeat the right” and build a “labor-led people’s movement.”
The Democratic Party, “a class-based party,” is “the only election instrument that is capable of defeating the extreme right at this moment in the electoral arena,” the CPUSA argues.1 It refers to the 2008 elections, but it could have been written during any election year over the past 70 years. CPUSA lists “a decisive Democratic Party landslide at the Presidential and Congressional levels” as the first condition for a “decisive victory” over the “extreme right,” by which it means the Republican Party.
This line, designed to give a left veneer to a fundamentally reformist line, is repeated in certain sectors of the liberal political movement and national union leadership. This line has become more and more untenable as the Democrats support funding Bush’s war in Iraq, while joining the chorus of threats against Iran. In spite of receiving tens of millions of dollars in union funds, it was the Democrats under Clinton who passed NAFTA and kicked 7 million children off welfare.
More and more people are looking for a way out of supporting pro-war, anti-working-class and pro-corporate Democratic politicians as a “lesser of two evils.”
U.S. reformism: The Green Party
Another form of reformism in the U.S. political arena is the Green Party of the United States, which presents itself as a federation of state parties “committed to environmentalism, non-violence, social justice and grassroots organizing.”2 Many hard-working and committed progressive activists have affiliated with the Green Party. It presents itself as an alternative to the two parties of the ruling class. While the Green Party presents itself as a party of activists, it sees this activism as “building the support networks needed to run candidates for local office first, followed by higher offices later.”3
The Green Party achieved national attention during the 2000 elections when their candidate, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, won 2.9 million votes. Nader’s votes exceeded George Bush’s margin of victory over Al Gore in several states including Florida. This provoked hysteria among “lesser of two evils” advocates, blaming the Greens for Bush’s victory and conveniently ignoring Gore’s right-wing electoral campaign and the Democrat’s loss of credibility among millions.
Although many of its members are anti-capitalist, the Green Party is not an anti-capitalist party. Their “Ten Key Values,” which are “guiding principles” and not a binding program, promote restructuring society “away from a system which is controlled by and mostly benefits the powerful few.” But nowhere does it challenge the right of those powerful few to own or rule.
During the 2008 elections, the Greens are positioning themselves as an anti-war party, taking advantage of the fact that Democratic and Republican candidates alike solidly oppose an immediate end to the war in Iraq. In a Jan. 24, 2008, press release, they criticize pro-Democratic “anti-war” organizations like MoveOn.org for “setting back the peace movement” by backing Democratic candidates. “Groups like MoveOn that divert the energies of peace activists towards Democrat candidates who fail to push for a prompt and total withdrawal only undermine the peace movement and advance the war agenda,” one of their candidates stated in the release. “Voters need genuine peace candidates like those from the Green Party.”
Setting the record straight
Neither the social-democratic “lesser of two evils” reformism nor the newer Green Party version of selling reform while rejecting the need for revolution are unique to the United States. Social-democratic parties have been ruling parties across Europe and even at times in the United States. Capitalist exploitation is still rampant on either side of the Atlantic. The need for reform is still as burning as before the reformists took power.
Since the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the Greens have become more of a factor on the European scene. In 1998, the German Green Party joined the Social Democrats in a ruling coalition government. The German Greens, currently known as the Alliance 90/Greens, are affiliated with the same “Global Green Network” as the Green Party of the United States.
The Green parties emerged in Europe in the 1970s. They stood to the right of the overall social movements that were developing at that time. Just a few years before, socialists and workers had been on the verge of revolution in France in 1968. The Greens emphasized a non-class-struggle approach to environmentalism, focusing on getting capitalism to adjust its destructive “policies” that harmed the environment. This had a particular appeal to the middle classes and the more liberal bourgeoisie who were rightfully alarmed about pending ecological catastrophe.
The German Greens were the first Green Party to elect a representative to office. They had been founded in 1979 in what was then West Germany. At that time, the German Democratic Republic in eastern Germany was part of the socialist camp.
In 1983 the Greens won their first major governmental posts in the German parliament. They had greater electoral successes through the 1980s, fueled by ecological concerns and nuclear disarmament. The Pentagon and NATO stored nuclear missiles at West German bases.
It was in this setting that Joschka Fischer, who would later become prime minister, became the leading figure in the German Green Party.
In the 1990s, the Greens maintained their presence in the German legislature thanks to their merger with Alliance 90, an East German anti-communist formation. Alliance 90 was a coalition of so-called human rights organizations including New Forum, Democracy Now, and Initiative for Peace and Human Rights. Alliance 90 was part of the movement that fomented the overthrow of socialism in East Germany.
During this period, Green politics moved more quickly to the right. Leftist party members quit in 1990 and 1991, unable to halt the right-wing direction of the party’s reformist orientation.
As early as 1994, prominent Green Party leaders like Joshcka Fischer and Jens Reich called for the privatization of state-owned utilities, social services and the cutting of social programs. These leaders are part of the same current whose “Key Values” in the United States supposedly include restructuring society “away from” the interests of a “powerful few.”
As if that was not enough, in 1993 the leadership of the party endorsed the idea of “humanitarian intervention in foreign lands.” This broke with the anti-military sentiment that had dominated German mass consciousness after the crimes of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II. The Greens managed to reverse a taboo that the right in Germany could not.
Greens in power: pro-war, anti-worker
In 1998, the Green Party joined the Social Democrats in forming the federal government. Joschka Fischer, the leader of the Greens, became the vice chancellor and foreign minister.
Spurred on by Fischer’s pro-war policies, the Green Party supported German imperialism and NATO’s military campaign against Yugoslavia in their Second Extraordinary Assembly of Federal Delegates of May 1999. In a resolution reeking of imperial arrogance and filled with blame-the-victim hypocrisy, the Greens wrote, “The decision whether to support or reject intervention in Yugoslavia against the degrading policies of the Yugoslav government must for most of us have been the most difficult political decision ever. Many have come to realize that the point cannot be to decide which principle of Green policy has a higher priority: safeguarding and protecting human rights or declaring one’s adherence to pacifism and anti-militarism.”
It was the worst form of demagoguery, hiding the fact that it was German imperialism that was largely to blame for Yugoslavia’s civil war by financing and arming the anti-communist secessionist movements in Slovenia and Croatia. “Human rights” became the false slogan for a vicious NATO air campaign that included dropping 23,000 bombs and missiles on a defenseless country.
The Green Party, while it shared political power, gave the green light to sending German troops to Afghanistan, Congo, Kuwait, East Timor, Macedonia, Sudan and Mozambique. German imperialism is now one of the largest suppliers of “peacekeeping” troops worldwide.
Every year, anti-war activists hold demonstrations in Germany, a tradition that dates back to the 1960s. In 2007, the Green Party for the first time withheld their support. Green Party leader Claudia Roth railed against the demonstrations, accusing them of having “a black and white view” and a “blanket rejection of the military.”
Needless to say, the party is now far more popular among the wealthy than the working class. According to a Jan. 25, 2008, Infratest Dimap research report, higher-income voters (earning more than $4,500 per month) vote Green more than lower-income voters. Greens get 10 percent of the vote among managers and the self-employed, but only 5 percent among workers and the unemployed.
In the end, it was the Green Party as a junior partner with their Social Democratic allies that was able to preside over privatizations, cuts in social programs and workers’ rights and the once-taboo military reactivation of German troops on foreign soil. The right wing would have endured mass protests and political opposition in many corners, including the massive German labor movement, had they tried to do this. But the German ruling class found better marketers. This is where the road of reformism leads.
Reform or revolution?
The relation between the struggles for reform and for revolution has been the source of major differences within the Marxist movement since the 19th century. Writing in “Social Reform or Revolution” in 1900, Rosa Luxemburg stated, “It is not true that socialism will arise automatically from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence of (1) the growing contradictions of capitalist economy, and (2) of the comprehension by the working class of the unavailability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation.
“When, in the manner of revisionism, the first condition is denied and the second rejected, the labor movement finds itself reduced to a simple co-operative and reformist movement. We move here in a straight line toward the total abandonment of the class viewpoint.”
Luxemburg was responding to German socialist-reformist Eduard Bernstein, who argued that capitalism could be peacefully transformed to socialism—as long as people were active. He theorized that by means such as the creation of a credit system, the expansion of modern communications, the further stratification of production and the growth of the middle class, capitalist crises could be eliminated. Eventually, Bernstein thought, the practical goals of the workers for better conditions and a better life would be met. “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing,” he argued. “The movement is everything.”
Luxemburg explained how what may be a powerful mass movement can end with nothing without the tools of Marxism and the struggle for power by the working class. She explained, “The union of the broad popular masses with an aim reaching beyond the existing social order, the union of the daily struggle with the great world transformation, that is the task of the Social-Democratic movement, which must logically grope on its road of development between the following two rocks: abandoning the mass character of the party or abandoning its final aim, falling into bourgeois reformism or into sectarianism, anarchism or opportunism.”
It is the combining of these two elements—being with the masses of working people in the struggles for jobs and housing, against war and racism, for health care and all the other reforms that are so badly needed on the one hand, and constantly aiming for destroying the capitalist class and its system of exploitation on the other—that is the greatest test for those who hope to achieve social justice.
It is the historic task of communism and the historic goal of the working class.
1. Sam Webb, “On the road again: Challenges and opportunities in the 2008 elections,” www.cpusa.org/filemanager/download/83/new.pdf.
2. Green Party USA, “About Us,” www.gp.org/about.shtml.
3. “A Brief History of the Green Party,” www.gp.org.histo