What sort of third party do we need?

The past year or so has seen a dramatic shift in the U.S. class struggle. The mass movement in Wisconsin against the union busting agenda of tea-party Republican Scott Walker, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that spread across the U.S., and the ILWU fight to protect their union rights at Longview, WA, and elsewhere on the West Coast all show the potential for a working-class fightback against the anti-worker agenda of both the Democrats and Republicans.

Working people are increasingly receptive to calls for a new third party as an alternative to business as usual. But what sort of party do we need?
As of this writing, the GOP field has narrowed to four candidates, who each seem eager to outdo the others in reactionary, racist, anti-union, and anti-women rhetoric. They promise draconian measures ranging from Ron Paul’s “open season” on union organizers, to Gingrich’s promise to put Black eight-year-olds to word as school janitors to “teach them the value of work” and to repeal child labor laws, to Romney’s professed love of firing people and Santorum’s support for a national “right-to-work” law.
The Democrats will certainly point to the reactionary nature of the GOP, and Obama will likely take a slight left turn in his speeches. For instance, in his State of the Union address (SOTU) last month, Obama used populist rhetoric about taxing the rich, creating jobs, and defending the middle class. This is in contrast to the SOTU he gave last year, in which he signaled his willingness to compromise with GOP budget cutters, saying, “We will move forward together or not at all.” But this year’s SOTU also contained nationalistic attacks on China—the biggest trading partner of the U.S.—as well as promises to defend Israel and a pledge to “take no options off the table to” stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons.
Obama’s real record in office
It is astonishing to read in the lead editorial of The Nation (Feb. 13) the statement that Obama’s State of the Union address was “suffused with the spirit of Occupy Wall Street.” A glance at Obama’s record in office should put to rest any suggestion that the U.S. chief executive is one of the “99 percent.” 
In 2008, Obama ran on the slogans of “Hope” and “Change.” But instead of “Change,” we see business as usual in the White House. The president has pursued a pro-corporate agenda with bailouts for banks. Obama’s so-called jobs bill features tax cuts and “incentives” for business and the rich. He has supervised massive cuts in social programs. He has attacked civil liberties—continuing the scandalous Guantanamo concentration camp—extended the PATRIOT Act, and signed into law the NDAA, which guts the right to habeas corpus and allows for the detention of U.S. citizens without trial.
Obama campaigned as a “peace” candidate, but has continued the war policies of the previous administration. He has supported the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people, played a leading role in the imperialist attack on Libya, and has pursued a policy of war and sanctions towards Iran.
In 2008, Obama campaigned as a pro-union politician, promising to sign into law the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made union organizing easier. Instead, we have seen a bipartisan attack on collective bargaining, and brutal attacks on the Occupy movement in different cities—mostly by Democratic mayors and coordinated with federal authorities. Obama promised health-care reform, but instead we were given a health-care “deform” that was a massive bailout of private insurers.
The Democrats have a history of co-opting social movements and channeling them into the service of a reactionary social agenda. This was demonstrated a year ago, when the Democrats and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy diverted the movement in Wisconsin, which had occupied the state capitol, into more “respectable” forms of protest like electoral politics and petitioning. The result was the loss of the momentum the movement had achieved. 
More recently, the Occupy movement was courted by Democratic Party-supporting organizations like MoveOn.org and by some union tops as a way of bringing the movement’s energy under the wing of the Democrats. Democrats clearly see the opportunity to create a “tea party” of the left as an adjunct of their campaigns. So far, the majority of the movement has resisted the temptation to ally themselves with either of the two major parties of the 1 percent.

An alternative needed—but what kind?
A lot of activists and progressive people rightly point to the need for an alternative to the two capitalist parties, but what kind of party do we need? Many are responsive to the Green Party or to independent candidate Rocky Anderson. Anderson, the candidate of the newly formed Justice Party, is a former Democrat and two-term mayor of Salt Lake City. The Greens have yet to choose a candidate.
What matters most, when we consider the Greens, or a candidate like Anderson, is the role of political program. Anderson’s campaign, for instance, offers a variety of financial and economic reforms but not the type of fundamental change that must be enacted to address the economic crisis. He focuses on tax cuts and incentives to businesses who “hire U.S. workers and disincentives to those that don’t; splitting up too big to fail banks; and he opposes hiring ex-financial executives as advisors to the president on economic policy.”
Tax policy and breaking up big banks ultimately are not the solutions. The banks and financial institutions will still exert control over the economy and politics. Socialists argue instead for the nationalization of the banks and the Fortune 500 under workers’ control. Capitalism is the problem, and trying to make it better, or more humane, is fruitless.
Anderson’s campaign statement promises an end to the wars of the Bush-Obama administrations, support for universal health care (while laying out no specifics), support for the environment, and for LGBT rights and gay marriage. He says little, however, about the massive assault on civil liberties under Obama, including the NDAA and crack-downs on the occupy movement.
The Green platform is superior to Anderson’s in many ways. It offers a number of reforms, many of which are radical sounding. However, the Green platform does not advocate doing away with capitalism but rather proposes to “reduce the economic and political power of large corporations, end corporate personhood and re-design corporations to serve our society, democracy and the environment.” At the same time, it would change “the legal design of corporations so that they generate profits, but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, public health, workers, or the communities in which the corporation operates.”
This sort of thinking is contradictory. Corporate power and the drive for maximum profits are at the center of the capitalist system. The reforms that the Greens propose are impossible because capitalists would never adhere to them. Exploitation of the environment, human rights, public health, workers, or communities is endemic to the capitalist private-profit system.
Workers need their own party
Socialists argue against support for electoral campaigns that do not have a base in the organized struggles of the working class and oppressed people. We believe it is a mistake to sow illusions in reformist candidates, or to downplay putting forward a clear working-class program in order to find a short cut for obtaining votes. Rocky Anderson, the Greens, and similar electoral campaigns—like that of Ralph Nader before them—will result in no lasting mass working-class organization and little in the way of fundamental change.
That is why socialists call for a labor party in the United States, based in the unions. This isn’t an abstraction, but a reflection of the real needs and interests of the working class. Class independence and the ability to fight and speak in our own name are fundamental tasks for working people. The working class is the one force in society with the potential strength and economic power to fundamentally change society.
More than 25 million working-class people remain either underemployed or unemployed, with no action from Washington to solve the problem. Spending on infrastructure projects would benefit some sectors of the economy, but what is really needed is a massive public works jobs program to put the unemployed back to work at good union wages. Millions could be put to work in a matter of weeks—improving infrastructure, weatherizing homes and public buildings, cleaning and protecting the environment, providing needed social services and education.
Without class independence, we are forced to depend on the goodwill of politicians who answer to Wall Street. A workers party, or labor party, will emerge from mass struggles to defend the interests and living standards of the working class, protect the environment, and stand behind all oppressed people—Blacks, women, immigrants, LGBT people, etc.—who are fighting for their rights.
Such a party would not have to be a bureaucratic, pro-capitalist party like the Social Democratic Parties of Europe. Nor would it be a party that merely puts forward candidates in the electoral arena. The labor party that we see on the horizon, having come out of a renewed upsurge in the U.S. class struggle, would remain first and foremost a mass-action party—organizing people who are fighting back in their workplaces and in the streets.            
> The article above was written by John Leslie, and first appeared in the February 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.