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The golden age of the Socialist Party in the U.S. lasted about a decade. By 1912 the party’s vote peaked when Eugene Debs won 6%. It was downhill from there. After more than four decades of decline, the Socialist candidate Darlington Hoopes won just 2,128 votes nationwide in 1956.
If 44 years of decline taught the Socialists anything, it was that maybe it was time to try working inside the Democratic Party, the party that most American workers – and their unions – supported.
In 2016 and 2020, that idea was tested in reality, with spectacular success. Senator Bernie Sanders proved that an avowedly democratic socialist candidate running on a left-wing platform could come very close to winning the Democratic nomination – twice.
The legacy of his campaigns is a resurgent organised socialist movement (DSA – the successor organisation to the Socialist Party) and a number of socialist political leaders in Congress and elsewhere, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The debate over whether socialists should work inside the Democratic Party or outside it has been settled by history.
In the current campaign, Donald Trump has repeatedly accused Joe Biden of being a “captive” of the “far Left.” Of course this is complete nonsense. But there can be little doubt that the Democrats have had to make concessions to Sanders and his supporters, particularly in the party platform. Biden is committed to a number of reforms that go much further than any previous Democratic candidate. And that’s part of the reason why union leaders have been backing his campaign unanimously.
Some socialists, both in the US and abroad, think that what America needs is a strong, independent socialist party. And of course I agree with them; that would be a wonderful thing. But that is not in the cards in 2020, and indeed may never happen. And people who dream of that, rather than working in the real world, seem to think that supporting the little-known Green candidate Howie Hawkins is a good idea. It is not.
Hawkins’ campaign is invisible. No one is aware that he is running. The previous Green candidates (Ralph Nader and Dr. Jill Stein) had some name recognition. Not Hawkins. And this is particularly true in the labour movement. Hawkins has pitched himself as a socialist and trade unionist. But not a single union supports him. Even Donald Trump has considerably more union support than Hawkins does.
If Hawkins gets any votes at all – and polls rarely show him above 1% – the only possible effect would be the same as what Nader and Stein achieved: undercutting the Democratic vote and helping Trump win re-election. This is particularly true in the battleground states where even Stein’s marginal candidacy in 2016 won enough votes to deprive the Democrats of victory.
No one seriously believes that the Green Party is the embryonic form of a powerful working class socialist party. It is a tiny group, completely lacking in influence, in which a small number of socialists have decided to waste their time, money and organising skills on a symbolic campaign that were it even modestly successful could only help Trump.
Socialists who were discouraged by Sanders’ withdrawal from the race earlier this year have very clear tasks in front of them, even if some – including DSA and the new “Movement for a People’s Party” – don’t fully realise this. Bernie Sanders says that our job now is to elect Biden, to elect progressive and even socialist candidates to Congress, and to deal a crushing blow to Trump and Trumpism.
And on the morning after Biden is inaugurated President, the real work begins: putting pressure on Biden and the Democrats to live up to their promises, while building a powerful Left based on a reinvigorated labour movement, inside the Democratic Party.
• Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart. He writes this column in a personal capacity