There was just recently a very charged debate in the Portland Greens surrounding an election between two qualified women for the position of Chair of the Local Committee.
While the forces of disorganization within the party would have us believe that this charged debate was based in differences in personality or personal allegiances, the truth is that there is a very real philosophical and political fissure in the Greens that has been growing for some time. The debate exposed this deep divide within the Portland Greens, which is the same divide that erupted following the debate at the state and national level around the campaign of Bernie Sanders.
It is not a policy based disagreement, though policy is informed by the philosophical divide. It has been revealed that there are two distinctly different camps in the Green Party of the United States.
One camp, the dissolvers or liquidators, see the Green Party as a way to pressure the Democrats to do the right thing– a pressure party.
The other camp, the Green Left, sees the Green Party as a vehicle for radical transformation of society, and as an organizing space to build the forces we need in order to take power.
Which begs the fundamental question that the Green Party faces: Does the Green Party want pressure, or power?
Are Greens Just a Pressure Party?
There are those who envision the Greens as simply being a “Pressure Party” that works hand in hand with the Democrats when in power, and serves as an organizing space for progressive Democrats to retreat to when out of power.
Some of these, what I call “liquidators” (as they want the Greens to dissolve into the existing stranglehold on power by joining with the structures of the Democratic Party), have argued that one can be a member of the Green Party while being a registered Democrat, and working to get Democrats elected.
This formulation confuses the purpose of the party (complete social transformation in line with our ten key values) with short term goals and the advancement of individual political careers, and loses sight of the larger chess game at stake. Capitalism embodies the ideology of the cancer cell, unregulated growth, and as such is killing the planet. Democrats are the second most enthusiastic capitalist party, and nobody elected from within their ranks has the ability to make the sorts of changes Greens are looking to make. When we join forces with the Democrats in ways that are not strategic, that do not respect and highlight our differences, in ways that make us either in optics or in practice an arm of the Democratic Party, we lose whatever credibility we have as a force capable of making meaningful change.
Some see the Green Party as simply being a gadfly in the eye of a horse, with the idea being that if we annoy the horse enough, the horse will move and do the right thing. However, the Democratic Party is not a horse at all. The Democratic Party is an incredibly destructive machine that is complicit in the bombings, shootings, and murders of black and brown people at home and abroad. It is complicit in bailing out wall street while cutting welfare– even as its own children starve. The Democrats are guilty of funding wars of empire abroad, and fight a racist and classist war on drugs domestically. Democrats supported making it illegal to declare bankruptcy on student debt. The Democrats are complicit in illegal spying on citizens, and the Democrats are the worst offenders when it comes to prosecuting whistleblowers against illegal spying activities. The Democrats are guilty of supporting the Keystone XL, of opening deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Circle — all while paying lip service to climate change. The Democrats are just as guilty as the Republicans are of propping up an economic system that creates poverty, homelessness, and death. When we are able to see them for what they are, it becomes clear: The machine should be destroyed.
The Green Party should not be a gadfly in the eye of a horse. The Green Party should be a sledge, wielded by all oppressed peoples together, to stop the machine by destroying it.
The liquidators in the ranks of the Green Party seem to lack the imagination necessary to envision a Green Party that is in majority power and able to make policy. They say that we need to drop our eyes away from our long term goals and focus on jockeying fairly inconsequential issues that do not rally the public, and even if they are good issues, the Green Party won’t get credit for them via the methods being used, of working with Democrats. This strategy does nothing to build our party, it only furthers the political careers of individuals.
The liquidator’s formulation of the party is that of a loose affiliation of independently minded progressives who may not agree on anything much at all, but will work together (if they have to) to get people who are not Democrats elected, as a way to hold the Democrats accountable, or as a way to punish Democrats for not being progressive enough. The “pressure party” formulation also blurs the lines around the idea of membership, and what membership actually means.
It strikes me as odd that the very same people who lack the imagination to envision a Green Party majority in charge, are presently elected officials. How people can win elections as Greens and yet lack the vision to see Greens in power is beyond my comprehension, but I suspect it has to do with the inherently limiting and conservative nature of state power.
On ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘Being Effective’
An argument that the liquidators make in their argument for being a pressure party, is that they “simply want to get things done.”
And while “getting things done” is commendable, one must ask what it is we are doing. One can smash a rock with a hammer into smaller rocks, and that is certainly getting something done, but to what purpose?
One can walk in a straight line all day, but without any destination in mind, where are you going? Should one not stop for a moment to consider that they may be walking without aim?
The Left-wing of the Green Party argues that we need to have a map to figure out where we are going, but the liquidators advocate that we must simply keep walking, because the walking is the important part, not the destination. They see the Green Left’s desire for direction as being an obstruction to walking. They advocate that if we stop walking, people will think we are ineffective, and then they won’t want us to walk anymore. They would have us all walk off a cliff into the ocean and drown ourselves, and applaud it as “being effective” because we “got something done.” The Green Left advocates that we have a destination in mind, and develop a path to get there.
The Problems With Being A Pressure Party
There are very real problems with orienting the Green Party as being a pressure party that hopes to nudge the Democrats to do the right thing once and a while.
If you only seek to pressure the Democrats, you are putting your weakest foot forwards. And you will lose because your threat to power is not earnest. If you open with the play that you are not interested in actually taking power, you will not have any ability to exert pressure. Why?
The only thing that power cares about is power. The only way to get power to move, is to threaten access to power. To be a threat, you need not just to be able to win elections, but you also need to be a continuing force of opposition once elected that continuously delegitimizes existing power structures. We should not work with illegitimate power, built on systems of oppression. To be able to keep one foot in State Power, while keeping the other foot in the street, requires a big picture understanding of the Green Party’s role as a cohesive organization built around a shared vision. More on that later in this piece.
If you earnestly want to be a pressure party, you should be working to build a strong, politically independent Green Party that does not work with or legitimize the two Wall Street parties, or their candidates. Our elected officials should not endorse the Wall Street party candidates.
If you are actually interested in building a “pressure party” it is necessary that you build a political party that works with political movement in the streets, and uses the elevated platform of elected office to further grow in number and force. You should build an organization that has the ability to completely disrupt the existing power structure and shut it down and force it to cease functioning if it continues to oppress and kill people, if it continues anti-black racist murder by police, if it continues to create poverty and homelessness through systems of economic oppression. It must be made clear that if it continues, it will be prevented from continuing to function.
That is how pressure is built. One cannot exert pressure without building real power.
That is how existing power is threatened–by legitimately threatening to take state power away from the ruling class. So it follows, the only way to build a true ‘pressure party’ is to build a strong and independent Green Party that has the ability to take power away from the ruling class, and similarly (if not redundantly) the only way to take power is to build a strong and independent organization that can take power.
But threats made while building such a movement or organization is dishonest and damaging if you have no real intention of following through. So the clear path is that one must build an organization that has the numbers, the depth of philosophy, the training and skills, and the strength and cohesion necessary to take power, with the goal of taking power, and build real citizen power that is capable of stretching the current system beyond its limitations for what is possible– until you can break it.
When we work in concert with oppositional organizations like the Democratic Party, we give up our ability to threaten power. Without a threat of taking power, we give up our power. We render ourselves irrelevant, and become absorbed either ideologically, or in practice, into the structures of the ruling class, and end up serving their ends.
Not only that, but pressuring the Democrats to adopt our positions allows them to continue to control the narrative around our issues, and opens the door to their co-opting the movements we spend years helping to build, only to divert the movements we help build into pointless campaigns for candidates who aren’t really on our side. Is that our goal? To have Democrats make better sounding promises– which they still intend to break after getting elected? Do we simply want the Democratic Party to tell us more appealing lies than they did before?
A similar argument is made by Rosa Luxemburg in “Reform or Revolution” in which she argues that it doesn’t matter if you are simply a reformist, or a revolutionary — If your honest pursuit is not revolution, but reform, the only way to get existing power to accept and acquiesce to meaningful and lasting reform, is to threaten it with social and political revolution, a process through which the ruling class will lose everything. Since the only way to meaningful reform is the threat of revolution, and the only way to revolution… is revolution, no matter where one falls on the spectrum of political thought, one should be willing to go all the way to revolution.
The goal of a reformist is to get state power to acquiesce to our demands, not to acquiesce to the demands of state power. To prevent this from happening we need to hold one another accountable.
The Green Party Must Develop a Program
What does it mean to be a Green serving on School Board? On City Council? In State Legislature?
What sorts of policies will we pursue, and what sorts of policies will we fight? How do we expect our elected officials, who are the front lines of the party, our most public faces of the party, how do we expect them to act? How should they use their elevated platforms to build the party?
These questions are not worthy of consideration by the liquidators. They think that when Greens get elected, we should simply trust them to do whatever is best. But best for whom? For their own short term political ends? For their slightly longer term political careers? Or for the life-long project of building a strong, independent working class political party that has the power to win real, meaningful, and lasting change?
Over the past ten years, while Greens have won seats in state power in Maine, it has not amounted to much in the way of transformation of the system. If anything, the system transformed them, making them less idealistic, less visionary, and more politically conservative.
We have over and over again launched candidates into political office only to see them retreat politically so that they can maintain a hold on their seat.
When the idea is presented to develop a program by which our own elected officials may be held accountable by providing the backing of our party when they advance it, and held accountable to our party when they do not, the disorganizing forces of the liquidators push back. While they may want to hold Democrats accountable, they are vehemently opposed to holding our own candidates accountable, especially so if they are presently elected.
Which begs obvious strategic questions: Why bother getting Greens elected if they aren’t accountable to the Green Party? If they can simply do whatever they want, what makes them Greens? How do you create institutional change if your elected officials are accountable to nobody? Why should Greens back their candidates, if they are unwilling to participate in party building, and advance policy counter to our party goals? Would it not make just as much sense to work within the Democratic Party, where there is a similar lack of accountability? Or to simply run as independents, and rely on your own personal networks and cult of personality to push you into power?
I argue, that for those who think that we are a pressure party, that it would make more sense for the Green Party if you were to organize as a faction fully within the Capitalist sideshow that is Democratic Party, which has long dealt with such internally oppositional forces, and rendered them toothless through structural bureaucracy. Which means you’d only be wasting their time and your own, not ours.
The other option is to shed the cowardly ideology of lesser-evilism and join the Left-wing of the Green Party in their project of building a coherent political party, with accountability, and a shared vision, with the goal of taking power from the ruling class and transferring it to the masses.