Sándor Goldberger (1894–1990) is known in popular history as J. Peters, the mysterious Communist espionage agent whose work in the United States from 1924 to 1949 was profiled by Whittaker Chambers in his (absurdly paranoid pseudo-spy novel) Witness. Whether Chambers was telling anything but tall tales in his magnum opus is not worthy of consideration herein, what is worth discussion here is how Goldberger’s corpus of writings offer us a vital set of insights about party building with regard to the Greens.
As a National Delegate and the Treasurer of the Rhode Island Green Party, I have learned the inner mechanics of the organization in depth while simultaneously having spent several years reading histories of the Old Left that come out of the New Left’s social history prism, meaning these books are attenuated and focused on how the CPUSA operated in a wider social sense rather than, as was the case with Theodore Draper and his intellectual heirs, being concentrated on the minutiae of party officers, their connections to Moscow, and internal resolutions that seem to indicate some sort of conspiracy was afoot in the leadership level of the organization.
What is it that has made the Green Party fail to garner what first the Debs-era Socialists and then the Communists were able to gain?
There are two answers to this conundrum. The first is discerned from the history of the so-called Foreign Language Leagues. At the end of the 19th century and prior to the 1918 Red Scare, European immigrants came to American metro centers with their own long traditions of socialism much in the way they also brought along folktales, cuisines, and religious customs. In some sense, the Debs-era Socialist Party was not a singular party, it was a confederation of these leagues that served more as embassies for the respective foreign socialist parties, a microcosmic version of the entire Second International. Within these foreign language leagues members would synthesize and foster mutual aid societies that could provide support and defense to members who fell on hard times.
Notably, the Debs-era Socialists were pretty inconsistent in their handling of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. Robert Craig writes “Like so many well-meaning radicals before and since, Debs tried to subsume the race question in the class struggle, and in the process he moderated his radicalism and failed to come to terms with the unique quality of the African-American experience. The end result was that Debs’s understanding of the problems facing African Americans was one-dimensional. ‘There is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle,’ Debs maintained. ‘We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.’” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “I attacked the Socialists for trying to segregate Southern Negro members” in his October 1961 letter of application to the Communist Party USA. “Debsian socialism remained, therefore, largely a white phenomenon, and African Americans had little role in defining its character, its goals, its strategies, or its purposes,” concludes Craig. It bears mentioning here that one can see in the period of Radical Reconstruction, spanning 1865-80, a period ending roughly 15 years prior to the emergence of Debs on the national stage, there was a true moment of working class solidarity between workers emancipated from slavery and working class whites, an occurrence rendered beautifully if imperfectly by The Free State of Jones and more perfectly in the classic Black Reconstruction in America by Du Bois. This means the shortcomings of the Debs era lie squarely on the shoulders of the Socialists who were straining to “become white.”
The fostering a mutual aid society under the roof of a progressive-left political party continued on into the next generations and the Communist Party. Furthermore, because Lenin and the Comintern by contrast did address African American concerns under their analysis of the national question, a wider network was built that included many skin tones. This extension into the realm of integrated childcare and summer camp efforts planted the seeds that bloomed when these red diaper babies became active in the various liberation movements in the New Left a generation later.
As shown by Dr. Gerald Horne in his scholarship on the life of the Black Communist and New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, the CPUSA built itself over the period from 1921-1949 in a fashion where it nearly broke into mainstream politics before the McCarthy period scuttled them. But it bears mentioning here that the CPUSA (flawed as it was) only entered the electoral politics realm with Davis in 1943, relatively late in the game. This insight provides what may be a very worthwhile and important fact to grasp. While we respect and esteem those who do try to run for office as Greens, is it possible that in some instances the cart has been put before the horse and entry into the ballot box has come before base building?
The second answer is in terms of how one builds a base and returns to Goldberger. In 1935, before the declaration of the Popular Front, the CPUSA published a book written by J. Peters titled The Communist Party: A Manual on Organization that is quite impressive reading and furthermore available for free via the digital archives of the State University System of Florida. On page 48 Peters writes “The main difference between the Communist Party and the Socialist Party form of organization is that the Socialist Party organizations (branches) are built on the basis of bourgeois election wards and districts while the Communist Party is built on the basis of place of employment.” In between admittedly boring dross about Trotsky and Jay Lovestone, Peters lays out a schematic of organization that will either lead to unionization under the CIO or alternatively build a Communist caucus within the union. The organizational skeleton is one of cells, called the shop unit, that can operate independently and autonomously of each other while building membership and consciousness within the ranks using tools like a self-produced shop paper and the external Daily Worker newspaper. Admittedly the Worker was a bit pretentious at times, mostly when printing long diatribes about Lenin and Stalin as if people cared, but a periodical such as Labor Notes makes a sufficient substitute in this regard and is not hindered by the flaws of the old Worker.
However, the matter at hand is that the Green Party must begin to project an ideological message of eco-socialism that promises working voters jobs. Here is my own proposal for Rhode Island that I think a Green could win on.
Over the past decade, Rhode Island has been struck by powerful storms that have knocked out electricity for multiple days on end, most recently being in this past balmy autumn. This is due to the centralization of the power system under the auspices of National Grid, a multinational conglomerate that is infamous for malfeasance such as utility shutoffs and rate hikes. Simultaneously, in 2015 Treasurer Seth Magaziner opened a Rhode Island Infrasture Bank that puts a special emphasis on renewable energy and utilizing the Property Assessed Clean Energy model of funding.
In order to decentralize the grid, it is necessary to put renewable energy implements on public building rooftops and develop a municipal utility repair crew that is distributed into the cities and towns on roughly the same grid and using the same concentration levels of person-power as already seen with the fire department. The augmentation of these renewable energy implements with energy storage systems (lithium batteries or an alternative) is a worthwhile discussion. On the one hand, the element is one of the most plentiful on earth. Simultaneously, further extractive enterprises that would mine the stuff prolongs the degradation of an ecosystem already in crisis if not managed properly.
Furthermore, the reality is that humanity’s consumption habits and levels are so significant that the conversation needs to be focused around changing not just how we are generating electricity but also how we live our lives, a true cultural revolution that would make Mao and Lenin tremble in contemplating. Such an undertaking is a massive challenge in terms of praxis that we need a Green Party to be working on diligently.
However, for a variety of reasons, mostly caused by egotism combined with delusions of grandeur, instead we have about 50 state-level Green Parties that are divided over simplistic and superficial liberal minutiae. Women like Andrea Mérida Cuéllar and Margaret Flowers understand the need for an eco-socialist praxis embodied in a political party that embraces class-based intersectional feminism and are currently fighting the good fight to actualize that in their parties. Those Greens who refuse to embrace such a praxis are embarking on the same mistaken path Debs and his Socialist Party took over a century ago.
However, due to a structural issue that was built into the national party from the start, it is simply impossible to get things like that praxis or dues implemented nationwide without a serious restructuring of the national bylaws. In effect, the Green Value of de-centralization, which would have a lot of merit if utilized in a legislative setting, is used as a smokescreen and cover for the worst kind of liberal flakiness imaginable. Liberals furthermore resort to the slimiest kind of mudslinging when they are challenged for control of their Green sandbox, accusing those in favor of dues of wanting to implement a poll tax. Such a claim is absurd because a dues-based membership organization is absolutely different from registering to vote in a primary with your respective state. How such conflation can take place is beyond my understanding.
Right now people working to make the Greens relevant to progressive politics are operating on the state-by-state basis. Bruce Dixon and Ajamu Baraka have been advocating for changes with this same approach for a while now and Howie Hawkins has been since before the 2000 Nader campaign.
There was a significant moment in the history of the Communist Party that made it streamline and become uniform on basic policy in its early days called ‘Bolshevization’ which might prove instructive. After a certain date the Communist International said ‘OK, flip a switch, no more confederations, no more Foreign Language Leagues, no more multiple parties, you are all now going to be Bolshevized and become like our Communist Party of the Soviet Union, meaning a set of basic structures and chains of command that you can work within.’ They had some real issues that stemmed from that move, most notably being the way that it created the right conditions for Stalin to implement the cult of personality and have his ego run amok, but they also were able to get results that included unionizing a lot of American industry alongside the CIO.
At this juncture, I think that there are a few points worth recognizing about de-centralization. First, as a principle put into place to differentiate the Greens from the Communist-styled parties of the twentieth century, it made sense in the 1980s when the Green Parties were materializing. But second, the fact is that Fidel Castro was able to (somewhat) convert his Soviet-styled party (which actually holds power in an entire nation-state) into a decentralized eco-socialist party, utilizing organic farming and renewable energy infrastructure since the Special Period after the implosion of the USSR and its oil export market to Havana. Putting it another way, the Cubans (and now North Koreans) have out-done the Green Party of the United States in terms of actualizing a Green Party praxis!
And this leads to my third point, that we do not have the time or space to waste on the petty liberal hemming and hawing about dues and decentralization as if these individual state parties were anything more than political practical jokes on their own deluded emeritus leaders. The individuals who put their time and energy as Greens into things that are not requiring marching in the streets, something that I see a lot of, are the ones who will be regarded as ancillary footnotes in a future history book. Who cares about “Green-ing the Dollar” or passing paper resolutions that have zero practical implementation in the immediate future? The United Nations just has released findings about poverty in America which demonstrate we are sinking rapidly into a systemic dire poverty that would make Dickens ill.
Where is the Green Party of the United States on issues like that? I don’t know what Sándor Goldberger would have said about this. Joseph Hillström, however, would have said ‘Don’t mourn, organize!’