Sunday, December 27, 2020

Breaking bad: AOC and #forcethevote

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Jimmy Dore

by Frank Brenner


History can be remorseless. That’s particularly true in a crisis, which eats away like acid at hypocrisy, lies, cowardice and zombie ideology. Would that such exposures were enough to rid the body politic of its accumulated bullshit. They often aren’t, but still, they’re not nothing.


One such exposure is going on right now. It concerns Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the progressives in the Democratic Congressional caucus. The exposure is being carried out by Jimmy Dore, a popular YouTube comedian turned political pundit and his campaign is called #forcethevote, as in getting a floor vote on the House of Representatives on the demand for Medicare for All (Med4All).


This demand is hugely popular: some 90 percent of Democrats support it and even a majority of Republicans! And never has the demand been more pressing. Because most Americans get health insurance through their employers and because the pandemic has cratered the economy, 14 million people have lost their coverage because they’ve lost their jobs. So the public health nightmare is compounded by a health insurance nightmare (which in turn worsens public health since people without insurance will go much longer and get much sicker before they seek medical care). For sheer callous indifference by the powers-that-be to human misery, this is hard to beat: we are in ‘let them eat cake’ territory. (Or maybe we should make that ‘let them eat ice cream’, given the food predilections of Nancy Pelosi.)


The support for Med4All is huge – but not among the Democratic politicians and their donor class. Joe Biden campaigned against it, Kamala Harris was a Senate sponsor of a Med4All bill but dropped her endorsement to suck up to Biden for the VP slot, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, embodiment of America’s ancien regime and mouthpiece for Silicon Valley zillionaires, has never allowed a vote on Med4All in the House. But therein lies a tiny but potentially highly embarrassing chink in the armor of ruling-class politics.


Every election cycle there’s a new vote for Speaker by all the members of the House. Pelosi is running for the position again, but because she did such a bang-up job the past two years, the Democrats lost ten seats – even though they were running against a sitting president presiding over a health and economic disaster. This means that the Democratic caucus has only about a ten-seat margin over the Republicans, and so if a small number of Democratic House members decide to withhold their votes from Pelosi, she could lose the speakership.


Which brings us to AOC, her fellow Squad members and other progressives among House Democrats. Together they have more than enough votes to block Pelosi’s election. Jimmy Dore has been banging the drum on this since November: the progressives now have leverage over Pelosi and they can use that to extract concessions from her – specifically to allow a floor vote on Med4All. It’s not like this is an abuse of power; as Dore says, this is exactly the way mainstream politics operates. Right-wing factions in the House (the laughably named ‘Freedom Caucus’ among the Republicans and the Blue Dog Democrats) have often done this sort of thing in to get concessions from their party bigwigs and score points with their political base. The progressives now have some leverage and there has never been a better time to rescue this issue from the political oblivion that the Nancy Antoinettes have consigned it to.


And yet AOC and the other progressives will not do this. Most of them are trying to shut Dore down by ignoring him, but this hasn’t worked out well since the campaign has caught fire on twitter and other social media. AOC has responded (not to Dore directly but to Justin Jackson, an NFL player passionate about Med4All) but her arguments are bogus, and Dore has been scathing in taking them apart on his show and on twitter. (One example of bogus: if we withhold our votes from Pelosi then the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, will become Speaker. First of all, as Dore nicely put it, so what? This would be a choice between one shit sandwich and another. But it isn’t even true: if Pelosi loses, McCarthy doesn’t automatically become Speaker, there’s another vote and anybody else, including another Democrat, can run for the job.)


Dore explains AOC’s position as being due to her putting her career ahead of her principles. There may be a good deal of truth to this, especially if (as Dore claims) she is now charging $75,000 to $100,000 for speaking engagements. But my guess is that the underlying cause is more political than personal: the all-too-common story of someone who starts out as an idealist but who gets co-opted by the pragmatic imperatives of working within the system. In political jargon there’s a revealing phrase for this – ‘institutional capture’.


Pelosi doesn’t want a floor vote on Med4All not only because she’s against it but also because it would force everybody in her caucus to show their hand politically. Like Kamala Harris, many of these politicians haven’t backed Med4All out of commitment so much as out of convenience, i.e., it’s good for getting out votes and raking in donations. But if it came to a floor vote in the House they’d have to stand up and be counted, and even for a craven careerist, it wouldn’t look good voting against medical coverage as hundreds of thousands of people are dropping dead in a pandemic. That means that Med4All would stand a good chance of passing in the House – and that would be a signal humiliation not only for Pelosi but also, especially, for Biden. Behind AOC’s flimsy rationalizations, the real story seems to be that she and her allies are leery of making the Democratic establishment uncomfortable.


(To spell out what should be obvious to any politically literate person: even a floor vote that goes down to defeat could have a tremendous impact, above all in the context of the ongoing pandemic massacre. As the podcaster Briahna Joy Gray, who was press secretary on the Sanders campaign, points out, forcing the vote would probably get a huge amount of media attention, especially given the story line of progressives holding Pelosi hostage, as it were, on this issue. And Gray makes another key point: Biden and the corporate Democrats have already come out for free medical treatment for Covid, but that in itself becomes a compelling argument for Med4All since there’s no good reason why treatment for cancer or heart disease, which kill even more people, should continue to cost money. A floor vote would help bring these glaring inconsistencies to the attention of millions and galvanize collective outrage against a political class whose only real reason for opposing the measure is because they are bought and paid for by private insurers, hospital corporations and big pharma. As I said, this should be obvious to any politically literate person but it’s being vehemently denied by AOC and her various apologists.)


Among the most effective things Dore does when he’s roasting AOC on his show is to play clips of interviews and campaigns vids of AOC herself. In one, from her first congressional campaign in 2018, she says: “What the Bronx needs is Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee and criminal justice reform. We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage.” In another clip, she is at pains to say that the Democratic party isn’t truly on the left, and to prove her point she says: “We can’t even get a floor vote on Medicare for All, not even a floor vote that gets voted down, we can’t even get a vote on it.” As Dore says, these clips amount to AOC “outing herself.” In another clip she declares that her job is to make life uncomfortable for those in power – and yet this is just what she and the other progressives are now refusing to do. Dore calls her out as being little more than “a twitter warrior” and in light of this episode it’s hard to argue with that.


There are broader implications here than just exposing the cowardice of progressives like AOC. To get at those implications it bears thinking a bit more about cowardice. What we usually mean by that is fear of doing the right thing – fear because of weakness and/or fear of failure. But what’s notable in this case isn’t the weakness of the progressives but rather their strength. They have the leverage to force an opponent to do something they believe in, something crucial to their political base – and yet they won’t use that strength. You could make a similar point about Bernie Sanders. In the campaigns he ran for president, he was able to garner tens of millions of votes – but both times when it came to the crunch he caved to the corporate Democrats. And for doing so he extracted nothing from the party establishment, not even so much as an appointment or two of progressives to Biden’s cabinet. Again, what’s going on here is surrender not out of weakness but out of strength. Dore has a good line about this: he says that the greatest abuse of power is not to use the power you have.


We tend to think of the American left as perpetually in crisis, marginalized and ineffectual, shouting into a howling wind. But that isn’t entirely accurate any more. To be sure, there are still huge problems faced by the left, notably the ball and chain of the Democratic party and the disintegration of the trade unions. But since the financial crisis of 2008 the political landscape has shifted as a new generation has emerged for whom capitalism is a dirty word. There is no Horatio Alger mystique to figures like Jeff Bezos. The comparison that he most often brings to mind is to the Robber Barons, and frankly even that doesn’t do justice to the grotesque economic inequities that Bezos personifies; he is more literally a Robber Baron than J. P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller in that his accumulation of wealth has reached neo-feudal extremes.


All of which is to say that history has conspired to provide progressive politicians with an opportunity to escape their marginalized predicament, if only on this one occasion. Suddenly they’re in a position to make a difference – and yet it turns out that they don’t really want to, which is what Dore has exposed. It’s a bit like a scene out of Kafka: you wait and wait for a chance to change things, and then when that chance finally comes along, you’ve become so ‘institutionally captured’ that you deny the chance exists. In effect you’ve become a political zombie.


The #forcethevote campaign has been trending for weeks on twitter and now is even getting some attention – predictably negative – in mainstream media (Washington Post, New York magazine). The campaign has gotten endorsements from a few prominent people such as actor Susan Sarandon, and Cornel West came on Dore’s show to do a supportive interview. Most left public intellectuals, though, aren’t saying anything, at least that I can see; here I’m thinking of people like Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky. Still the campaign has provoked an interesting debate on the left. The social democratic website Jacobin has weighed in to defend AOC, and their arguments are revealing.


I should specify that Jacobin is a hybrid of social democratic politics with academic Marxism. It’s the unofficial think tank of the Democratic Socialists (DSA), whose membership has grown exponentially in the Trump era. AOC and a couple of her fellow House progressives are DSA members, though this affiliation is little more than a label (which says as much about the DSA as it does about AOC). In the #forcethevote controversy, David Sirota, former speechwriter for Sanders, is the voice of ‘practical politics’ while Ben Burgis provides the ‘Marxist’ arguments.


Sirota’s position is that #forcethevote “isn’t a bad idea” but that it shouldn’t be the main focus of the fight for Med4All. Instead, he proposes 5 practical steps, including removing the chairman of the House and Ways Means committee and allowing states to create their own single-payer systems. Sirota makes no mention of Dore in the article but Dore nonetheless invited him on his show where they ended up in a screaming match. Dore’s comeback was that Sirota’s proposals were all fine but they didn’t replace the need to pressure Pelosi for a floor vote. As Dore said, Sirota’s position amounted to “throwing shade” on the #forcethevote campaign.


Sirota exemplifies a ‘nuts and bolts’ approach to left politics, and the most revealing thing he has to say is a defense of that approach against what he calls the “performative” approach of a campaign like #forcethevote. “Only asking for that performative vote – rather than also asking for things that might change the structural power dynamic – would be a waste, and yet another instance of progressives reverting to a feckless tradition of prioritizing spectacles rather than the wielding of actual power.”


Of course, no one supporting the campaign, including Dore, is “only asking” for that – this is a straw man. But this deprecating of “performative” politics is worth reflecting on. It’s certainly true that “prioritizing spectacles” has been a problem for the left – one thinks of Occupy, Antifa, identity politics. But there is performance and there is performance. The famous civil rights March on Washington and MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was also performance, as Dore pointed out, and so was the raid on Harper’s Ferry and Rosa Parks sitting on a bus – all ‘spectacles’ that transformed political consciousness. As for “the wielding of actual power”, which Sirota valorizes, that can easily morph into opportunism and careerism: you get lost in the weeds of getting on this committee or passing that amendment and soon enough you lose sight of any bigger picture or the crying needs of the people who voted you in. That tradition of ‘institutional capture’ has been, if anything, even more debilitating to the left than the “feckless” tradition of performative politics.


In the New York magazine article on #forcethevote, Eric Levitz encapsulates the ‘anti-performative’ stance thus: “A political tactic is only as moral as it is effective” – and by that light he argues that #forcethevote is immoral! This is to conceive of politics in purely pragmatic terms, which always touts itself as the only practical approach. But there is sleight-of-hand going on here: “effective” for what? If this means effective within the current structures of political power, then this is a ‘morality’ that amounts to subordinating oneself to those power structures. Or to put this more bluntly, it amounts to subservience to the powers-that-be. Any fundamental social change only happens through defying such subservience: it re-defines what is effective in terms of a higher moral imperative. (One might add that there is a long tradition of Marxists opposing pragmatism on these grounds, notably Trotsky’s scathing critique of what he called “bowing before the accomplished fact.”)


Ben Burgis has a similar take to Sirota, though if anything he is even more negative about #forcethevote as a tactic and doesn’t think it will have much impact as a symbolic gesture. The only wrinkle he adds to the argument is to condemn Dore and his supporters for holding a “voluntarist worldview” by which he means a belief that “anything is possible regardless of the objective political terrain”. This is a rather transparent case of loading the dice. For Burgis the “objective political terrain” is defined by Big Money’s domination of the levers of power, the lack of support for Med4All in Congress and the insufficiency of the grassroots movement backing Med4All. But Dore could well counter that the “objective political terrain” also includes a raging pandemic as well as the leverage House progressives have for now over Pelosi’s re-election as Speaker, and potentially also the impact that a floor vote under these conditions could have in inspiring a grassroots movement. The real issue isn’t voluntarism but agency: are progressives like AOC going to use the power they have in the current “objective political terrain” to raise mass political consciousness and thereby change that terrain or are they going to “bow before the accomplished fact” and stick to being “twitter warriors”?


Burgis is one of those ideologists who badmouth agency as voluntarism because he himself is no revolutionary but rather a gradualist. This is apparent from how he thinks Med4All will come about. It will be a long fight to build a mass workers' party in America, preferably also rebuilding the trade unions, and eventually such a party will have enough seats in Congress to make Med4All happen. Burgis says that no such thing is going to happen in this election cycle or the next, but it’s plain to see that realistically this is all going to take even longer, as much as a generation or more. Or to put it another way, you might as well put any hopes for Med4All on hold for the foreseeable future.


The problem with gradualism is that it's a bit like Zeno's paradox: to get from A to B we need first to get halfway to B and then halfway of that and then halfway of the halfway of the halfway ad infinitum. In the end we actually can never get - or rather can never conceive how we get - from A to B. Burgis believes we first need a mass workers' party - but how do we get that? Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that such a formation could come out of mass campaigns around issues like Med4All? And couldn't a floor vote on the House help galvanize such a campaign? Certainly, Dore understands this straightforward truth, as do a lot of workers and youthful socialists, which is why Dore is getting such traction on this issue.


There is also something dishonest about Burgis’s argument. If it is true that Med4All isn't possible until we have a mass workers' party and that this isn't going to happen in this election cycle or the next – so at least for 4 more years and probably longer than that – then isn't it the obligation of a socialist politician like AOC to be up-front about that with her supporters? But that isn't the messaging coming from her. As noted earlier, in the clips Dore keeps playing from AOC’s first campaign, she attacks the position that we have to “wait forever” for Med4All, insisting instead that we can do this now and that what it takes is “political courage”. She’s never retracted that, she's never put out a clip saying that 'You all have to stop being voluntarist and be patient until I get a committee assignment in 2 or 3 or 4 election cycles and maybe then I can nudge this thing along.' I have a feeling that wouldn't go over too well in her Bronx congressional district, which has one of the highest Covid mortality rates in the country. Nor would it go over well with her millions of young twitter followers who were inspired by her because they finally felt that they had someone in Congress who was going to make life seriously unpleasant for Pelosi, Biden and the establishment. This means that AOC is deluding her supporters: she wants cred for having “political courage” but not the pain of acting courageously. Burgis’s arguments are really intended to make that embarrassing contradiction disappear.


A final point: an article revisiting this issue appeared on Jacobin a few days ago. This one, by Corey Brooks, a history prof, suggests that there is ongoing unease in the Jacobin milieu about AOC’s position on #forcethevote. Brooks goes back to the abolitionists of the 1830s and 1840s who, like today’s progressives, only had a small contingent of supporters in the House but tried to leverage that to stop any slaveholder from being elected House speaker. They had no qualms about using whatever leverage they had against the dominant parties of their day (Democrats and Whigs) so as to gain attention for their cause, and their efforts had a significant impact on Northern public opinion in fostering opposition to slavery. A noteworthy episode was the House Speakership election of 1849 that became a marathon of 63 ballots because of abolitionist tactics. In the end a Georgia slaveholder won the position but in a larger sense it was the abolitionists who gained the most. They “didn’t necessarily gain tangible policy outputs from this gambit. But they did create a spectacle that put [their cause] at the center of national political debate, along with [their] criticisms aimed at both parties for their temporizing on the slavery issue.”


This has obvious relevance for the current #forcethevote controversy and Brooks makes that connection explicit: “Left commentators are correct when they argue that speakership elections constitute a rare opportunity for balance of power politics in a closely divided House. However doomed to fail in the short term, the spectacle such events create can have real consequences for long-term political and policy discourse.” So AOC and her apologists like Sirota and Burgis are exactly wrong: the “spectacle” of putting Pelosi’s feet to the fire to force a vote on Med4All is indeed “a rare opportunity” to shift public opinion, as the 1849 “spectacle” had done on slavery.


Brooks writes with an academic’s caution. He wonders “how to balance the very real value of spectacle for the cause of radical change” especially “in the midst of a pandemic” “against whatever potential seat at the table might be sacrificed by being obtrusive.” Maybe, as AOC has implied, she’s getting some concessions “behind closed doors” or maybe “she and her allies have become too sensitive to pressure from party institutions,” (a delicate way of saying they’ve been co-opted, a point Jimmy Dore also makes, though far more caustically). Maybe they think “this is not the moment to play hardball for the sake of spectacle,” but then Brooks asks a pointed question: “If that is in fact the case, it does raise the question of when and where they could find a better opportunity than a majority-rule speaker election in a closely divided congress.” The answer to this question is painfully obvious. The upshot of Brooks’s article is clear: the abolitionists of the antebellum era put today’s so-called ‘democratic socialists’ like AOC to shame.




Monday, November 2, 2020

Behind the politics of lesser evilism: continuation

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Note: This is a continuation of the essay ‘Behind the politics of lesser evilism’.  That essay elicited a response from Walter Daum.  I am reprinting Daum’s comments here followed by my response to those comments.


Comment by Walter Daum

WD, October 31, 2020

Reply to Alex Steiner on Voting


In notifying me of his post “Behind the politics of lesser evilism,” Alex Steiner commented, “I think this is an important discussion that should be taking place within the revolutionary left as a whole. It goes beyond the positions taken by various people and groups.” I agree and would add that the debate should continue beyond the 2020 election, since it is as much methodological as practical.


To summarize my position, there are basically two questions at issue. 1) Is there a Marxist or socialist principle that rejects voting for bourgeois parties or candidates under all circumstances? 2) Since I think there is no such absolute principle, is it tactically correct to vote for Biden in this election in order to defeat Trump? I and my comrades in the LRP say yes; we recently issued a statement explaining our reasons at


On the first of these questions, Alex re-states the principle: “that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party.”  In the post that began this debate, Frank Brenner invoked ths Marxist tradition, and in my reply I claimed that there was no such principle; I challenged anyone who thinks there is “to find any statement by our Marxist teachers that it is unprincipled to vote for bourgeois candidates under any circumstance.”


As it happens, I and others in the LRP have made such a challenge in other venues during this election season, and we have received no response with actual evidence. We have, however, been told more than once that there is a Marxist principle that the working class should organize independently of all representatives of the ruling class for political action – and we agree. But that principle, regularly invoked by our Marxist teachers, did not prevent them from advocating tactical voting for specific bourgeois parties on specific occasions, namely when the working class had no viable candidate of its own and when the democratic rights that enable our class to organize and struggle were at stake.


Alex dismisses the challenge as “delv(ing) into ... hypotheticals,” but adds that “this is a general principle that is more relevant than ever in the period of the decline of capitalism on the world stage, not an abstract moral imperative.” This is explained by his claim that the occasions when Marx, Engels and Lenin called for voting for liberal bourgeois parties have no parallel today: “The corporate Democrats represented by Biden in no way constitute a wing of the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to authoritarianism.” Of course the Democrats are not congenitally opposed to authoritarianism; they, like the Republicans, support all kinds of authoritarian regimes around the world when doing so fits U.S. imperial interests; and they have often enough acted in authoritarian fashion at home. (That was also true of the liberal bourgeois parties who our predecessors had backed.)


But that is not the point. I and my comrades are calling for voting for Biden not because he is more liberal in general but because he is less dangerous than Trump on a specific matter, the Republicans’ drive to entrench their minority-party rule by destroying democratic rights – the right of Black people to vote and be counted, and the right of workers to organize trade unions and their struggles. This drive precedes Trump, and he is serving as its useful tool. Indeed, his campaign itself rests on denying voting rights, since he is constantly threatening not to accept the result if he loses the vote and to invoke the powers of his presidency and his Supreme Court appointees to overturn it. In this concrete situation the Democrats are opposed to Trump’s authoritarianism for their own reasons; they want to get elected. So this is just the sort of situation when there is no viable working-class candidate and when the rights that enable our class to organize and struggle are at stake.


Returning for a moment to Brenner’s original post, he says that  calling for a vote for Biden “would promote the dangerous illusion that the only credible resistance to Trump is from the Democratic Party.” That is a real concern, and more generally there is the danger that any kind of bloc with bourgeois forces helps strengthen illusions that they can be relied on to be on the side of the working class. That danger has to be weighed and countered, which means that socialists who electorally support Biden must forthrightly illuminate rather than obscure the true history and role of the Democratic Party.


It would certainly create illusions if all we said is that Trump is terrible and Biden is not so bad although not ideal. Many Biden supporters rely on such arguments. Revolutionary socialists, on the contrary, should make every effort to explain, even as we argue for voting for Democrats, that they are a party that promotes capitalism and imperialism, opposes working-class struggles and accommodates to racism (as various Democratic governors and mayors did in calling out their cops against the recent Black Lives Matter protests).


It is noteworthy that in the early voting period of recent days, millions of people have flocked to the polls, waiting patiently for hours to cast their votes, confounding the efforts in many states to make it as difficult as possible for people to vote, especially in minority communities. Surely the main reason for this amazing phenomenon is that people are so fed up with Trump that they are willing to take extraordinary steps to get rid of him. And, yes, many of them have illusions that Biden and the Democrats are dedicated not just to reversing Trump’s most sociopathic policies but also to carrying out the reforms that working-class people need.


How should we as revolutionary socialists counter such illusions? By telling people not to vote for Biden & Co. because of their rotten record and hostile class character? If we do that we will not get much of an audience. But if we say, yes, vote for Biden to oust Trump, we can then also help people understand that Biden too is an enemy of the working class and the oppressed, and that only mass action can wring vital reforms out of a Democratic Party government. We can also explain that the working class needs its own party, independent of the capitalist parties and dedicated to the overthrow of capitalist rule.


Alex claims that once you advocate for voting for a Democrat in this election you are on a slippery slope that means never building an independent socialist party. Even a tactical “lesser evil” vote, he says, leads to lesser evil-ism, the strategy of always voting for a lesser bourgeois evil:


“... once one acknowledges a different outcome between a Trump or a Biden Administration, that there are no grounds for opposing a vote for a ‘lesser evil’ candidate. But one cay say that in every single election since the American Republic was founded there is always the possibility of a different outcome. It has never been the case and never will be the case that the outcome of an election ‘makes no difference’.”


This assumes that rejecting the mythical “socialist principle” of never voting for a bourgeois party necessarily means always doing so. That is false both in history and in logic. Our Marxist predecessors who advocated choosing certain bourgeois parties when there was no alternative never stopped working for socialist working-class parties. Moreover, there is a lot of room between never and always, and that’s where this year’s election fits. According to polls, among the millions of early voters are many who chose not to vote in 2016. They are not lesser-evilists; they are coming out in droves because they see that in 2020, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, the greater evil is a qualitative threat that he must be defeated.


Finally, I’ll note that Brenner and Steiner are both aware of the danger of Trumpism:


Brenner: If Trump wins, “Polarization will spike, Bill Barr will have a green light for ever more police state measures, the fascist gangs will feel emboldened. Voter suppression, scapegoating of immigrants, lethal police violence, dismantling of Obamacare and probably Medicare too, maybe a Covid death toll of a million.”


Steiner: “One can expect a very sharp turn to authoritarian forms of rule in a second Trump Administration ... Trump’s open encouragement of fascist plots to assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginia and the state murder of an anti-fascist activist in Oregon indicate a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy.”


Those are strong and accurate forewarnings. The working class, the oppressed, and all those who defend democratic rights have to act. Mass mobilizations have to be prepared. A few trade union officials are even talking of a general strike if Trump tries to steal the election. Brenner agrees that “socialists would try to promote mass political resistance within the working class” – but he asks, “How would that goal be served by having called for a vote for Biden?” The answer is that no matter who wins, mass action by the working class and oppressed people will be necessary to defend their rights and promote their interests. And such action would take place under far more favorable conditions if Trump and the fascistic gangs he encourages were to suffer a massive rejection at the polls. Only voting for Biden, class enemy though he is, can accomplish that.


Why not do all we can to prevent Trump from wielding the authority that could be used to justify a coup? As Marx and Lenin pointed out, every few years the working class and the oppressed are asked to choose which leaders of the oppressing class will lead the repression against them. That is bourgeois democracy. When that choice is significant, when it indeed means “a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy,” why not take it? A Democratic Party government will be no loyal friend of the working class, but against it we will be in a better position to wage the class struggle, fight for democratic rights and organize for the socialist and revolutionary party our class needs.


Steiner responds to Walter Daum


Before addressing what Daum wrote I want to say a few things about what he did not write. Specifically there is no mention at all of something that was a key element of my critique, namely the philosophical examination of the type of cost-benefit arguments that are characteristic of the politics of lesser evilism. I placed that analysis at the core of my argument because I think it exposes the fundamental incoherence of lesser evil politics. To reiterate what I wrote, the problem with cost-benefit type analysis when applied to human affairs is that it reduces living human activity to a thing that can be weighed and measured. In the arena of economics such methodology has been championed by the school of “rational choice” theorists.  I have no doubt Daum, who has written extensively on economics from a Marxist perspective, would recognize the fallacies of rational choice theory. Why does he not recognize the fallacies of this exact same methodology when applied to the political arena?

In his opening remarks, Daum correctly says that


…”the debate should continue beyond the 2020 election, since it is as much methodological as practical.”


But Daum never gets beyond the “practical” to the methodological questions in his reply.

As to the “practical” considerations, Daum’s case against me appears to be based on a misreading of what I said. He presents a straw-man argument based on this misreading.

Daum says that I ,


“…re-state[s] the principle: ‘that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party.’ “


But that is not what I wrote. I did not “restate” any such “absolute” principle as Daum also writes. Rather I posed this as a question,


Does this mean that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition, to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party?”


The reason I posed this as a question was precisely to highlight the difference between a mythological “absolute” principle allowing of no exceptions, something which has never existed except as a thought experiment, and a general principle that has guided Marxists for generations.   Daum and the LRP rely for much of their argument on conflating this idealized “absolute” principle with the very real practical principle that Marxists should not be calling for a vote for a bourgeois candidate.  I don’t think it is very difficult to demonstrate that Marxists have traditionally opposed voting for a bourgeois candidate,  certainly not in an advanced industrial country where the question of national independence is not relevant and where the right to vote for a socialist candidate still exists.  To cite just one example, take a look at Trotsky’s writings on Germany in the period leading up to the victory of fascism. Did Trotsky advise his followers to support the “lesser evil” bourgeois politician in the hope that this would buy time to defeat the Nazis? Not at all. Here is what he wrote:


“The social democracy supports Bruening, votes for him, assumes the responsibility for him before the masses – on the basis that the Bruening Government is the “lesser evil… But have the German Left Opposition and myself in particular demanded that the Communists vote for and support Bruening? We Marxists regard Bruening and Hitler, together with Braun, as component parts of one and the same system. The question, which one of them is the “lesser evil”, has no sense, for the system against which we are fighting needs all these elements.” [1]


And Trotsky’s was not alone within the Marxist tradition in opposing the politics of lesser evilism.  Daum relies on another straw-man argument in order to blur over this general (not ‘Absolute’) principle. He sees a huge difference between supporting a “lesser evil” and “lesser evilism”.  He writes,

“Alex claims that once you advocate for voting for a Democrat in this election you are on a slippery slope that means never building an independent socialist party. Even a tactical “lesser evil” vote, he says, leads to lesser evil-ism, the strategy of always voting for a lesser bourgeois evil”.

Of course I never equated the politics of “lesser evilism” with the requirement that one has to always vote for a lesser evil candidate.  But by “lesser evilism” I am referring to a method of approaching political questions that is fundamentally at odds with Marxism. It may or may not always lead one to supporting a bourgeois candidate in a specific election but what it does is replace a strategic orientation toward the independent political activity of the working class for their emancipation with the small change of opportunist tactical considerations characteristic of bourgeois politics.  It is precisely this methodological approach that Trotsky criticized in the support the Social Democrats in Germany gave to Chancellor Bruening.

Does the rejection of a vote for the “lesser evil” in the 2020 election mean that we are blind and contemptuous of those workers and youth who think that voting for Biden is the best way to defeat Trump? Not at all! Revolutionary socialists should be engaging in a dialogue with those workers and youth, especially those who were ardent Bernie Sanders supporters and now feel that they have been disenfranchised.  But what should we say to them? Shouldn’t we encourage in every possible way a break of the left-leaning forces that were active in the Sanders movement from the Democratic Party? How is that accomplished if we tell them, no matter how many caveats one adds, that they should vote for Biden?

Finally Daum claims that I am presenting a “slippery slope” type argument and he goes on to deny the existence of a slippery slope.  You can call for a vote for Biden in the 2020 election he says, and it has no relation to anything else in your political trajectory and is of no significance for anything you may do in the future.  But I raised the question of how the about-face of Daum’s group, the LRP, on this question, is part of a wider phenomenon that has seen many long-time radicals who have previously resisted the siren song of support for the Democrats suddenly give way to a broad-based collapse of opposition to the American duopoly. I mentioned the sudden dissolution of the International Socialist Organization last year. One can add the pathetic turn of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party - who were well known for their fiery rhetoric about the need for a “communist revolution” - to support for Biden. Daum has nothing to say about these developments, apparently believing that the turn of the LRP has no relationship to them. I think the fact they are unaware of the broader social and class forces driving them is good evidence that Daum and the LRP are indeed embarked on a slippery slope.








[1] The Impending Danger of Fascism in Germany: A Letter to a German Communist Worker on the United Front Against Hitler



Some thoughts on the state of American ‘democracy’

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Swearing in of Justice Barrett. 

by Frank Brenner


The prime motivation of the ‘vote Biden’ radical leftists is to ‘save’ democracy, or at least its rudiments, from Trumpist authoritarianism, so I think it’s worth considering the state of American democracy, especially as the day I started writing this was also when Amy Coney Barrett was being elevated to the Supreme Court.




We now have a justice with a mindset more from the Middle Ages than the 21st century consolidating a right-wing super majority on SCOTUS. Abortion rights are going to be overturned or at the very least reduced to an empty shell, same for Obamacare, voting rights, separation of church and state, government action on climate change, the rights of unions, of gays and lesbians, to say nothing of backstopping a possible Trump coup to defy the election results. I think it’s safe to assume that this is the most reactionary Supreme Court since Chief Justice Roger Taney handed down the Dred Scott decision in 1857, although ‘most reactionary’ is a hard sell when it comes to an institution that gutted Reconstruction, gave us Plessy v. Ferguson and sanctioned the legal murder of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs, to say nothing of more recent outrages like Citizens United.


It’s not just Barrett though but the whole spectacle of her appointment that is notable. First there is the flagrant hypocrisy of the Republicans in ramming through this nomination 8 days before the election, after having refused to approve an Obama appointment to the court 8 months before the previous election. This is about as blatant a ‘fuck you’ to any semblance of democracy as is possible in mainstream politics. But that hypocrisy is only matched by the Democrats who pretend to be outraged, especially as such outrage has been very lucrative in raking in millions in campaign contributions. Yet they have managed to do absolutely zip to hold up the approval process in the Senate, even though, had they used procedural motions to slow it down by even a week, they could have potentially scuttled the nomination in the event of a Biden landslide. The only reasonable conclusion is that the corporate Democrats are not really that upset by Barrett’s appointment – and that’s because a ‘Dred Scott’ Supreme Court will be useful for them in stymieing the demands of their party’s progressive wing. Hey, they will say to the progressives, we want to do the right thing but our hands are tied.


Still I have to say that if there is any silver lining here, it is the delicious irony to be had from eventually watching the pious Barrett, who seems nothing so much as an emanation from The Handmaid’s Tale, joining Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, two men with a proclivity for hitting on defenseless women, in striking down Roe v. Wade. And of course, we shouldn’t forget that Barrett and Kavanaugh, judicial zealots for that foul abuse of language, the so-called ‘right to life’, owe their positions to a man widely accused of being a rapist.




American democracy is composed of two parties that are fundamentally opposed to democracy. The Republicans engage in voter suppression (through means legal and illegal) while the Democrats engage in voter shaming. If you dare to oppose the Democrats from the left, you are an outcast because you are ‘splitting’ the vote and thereby helping the reactionaries. The liberal media still can’t forgive Jill Stein for running against Hillary Clinton in 2016 or even for that matter Ralph Nader for running against Al Gore in 2000. And this year’s Green party candidate, Howie Hawkins, is facing a similar torrent of reproach and abuse, including from members of his own party and even his old high school teacher! Every election it’s the same story: a heavy-handed campaign of political guilt-tripping, a drumbeat amplified by mainstream media, overbearing pundits and academics and Hollywood celebrities (and now, sadly, a goodly number of radical leftists). You cannot stray a step beyond the Democratic Party fold, otherwise you are anathema and your voice has to be silenced.


The two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders are an object lesson in how the Democrats suppress democracy. Twice he was denied the nomination, in 2016 by illegal DNC machinations and this year by a gang-up of so-called ‘centrist’ candidates lining up behind Biden. There has never been any question that his signature policies - Medicare for all, free college tuition, tax the billionaire class – are hugely popular. And yet both times Sanders has submitted to the fiat of the corporate Democrats and chosen not to run an independent campaign, giving as his reason (according to Chris Hedges) that he didn’t want to be a Ralph Nader. Sanders personally has a lot to answer for in this regard but this isn’t just a story of a politician’s shortcomings. It’s also a story of how the Democrats suppress democracy, how their ‘soft suppression’ can be just as effective, sometimes more so, than the gangsterism of the Republicans. If running a presidential campaign on issues that tens of millions of Americans support is beyond the pale of American democracy – where the political and media establishment will do everything possible to denigrate, marginalize and ultimately squash such a campaign – then what sort of democracy is that? It means that almost nothing is now left of Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” except the words themselves.


3. Whites No College: WNC. This is a relatively new sociological label imported from the polling industry and it now appears routinely in election coverage. What it means is blue collar white workers, but since mainstream American culture has always been phobic about any open acknowledgement of class, especially the working class, we now have this new rhetorical subterfuge – WNC. It’s also typical of that political culture to define everything in terms of race, and yet one never sees stats citing BNC or LNC (Blacks No College, Latinx No College). The presumption must be that the African-American and Latin communities are somehow homogeneous so that the NC suffix would have little bearing, but of course this is utter nonsense. What it does do is help normalize racial divisions in the working class by making them appear as a self-evident artifact of demography rather than a deliberately chosen political distinction. Or to put this another way, its political spin passed off as pseudo social science – and the upshot is to turn blue collar white workers into a political ‘other’, a bogeyman of everything backward or, as Hillary Clinton famously put it, “a basket of deplorables”.


Two factors are at work here. The Democratic Party has long since abandoned the base it had in the working class from the New Deal to the Great Society. Having bought into neo-liberalism through the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, it has become a party which caters primarily to the upper middle classes as well as some of the Big Money in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and on Wall Street. It is a party of the rich.  By contrast, the Republicans are a party of the super-rich, but one which has embraced right-wing populism to exploit the working-class base cut loose by the Democrats. This Republican coalition of cold hard cash and emotional frenzy over guns, racist dog-whistles, abortions and born-again religion can seem head-spinning but has precedents in American politics, notably Huey Long and George Wallace. But crucial to the Republicans being able to pivot in this way has been the decline of labor unions to the point of near total social irrelevance. So, the American two-party system is a choice between a party of the rich and a party of the super-rich. The party of the rich is heavily invested in identity politics (which I’m about to get to) while the party of the super-rich is heavily invested in right-wing populism. They operate as a division of labor for the purpose of disenfranchising the overwhelming majority of the people.


The second factor is the dominant role that identity politics has come to play among liberals and radicals, especially anyone connected to academia. From the point of view of identity politics, blue collar white workers are indeed a mass of “deplorables”, a cesspool of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. Hence the ‘whitelash’ explanation for why Trump won in 2016, though advocates for this theory downplay or deny outright the inconvenient truth that there were millions of so-called Obama-Trump voters in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – white workers whose supposed racism hadn’t prevented them from voting for Obama, not just once but twice. So far as identity politics is concerned, the only remedy for dealing with WNC is demography: the more they shrink as a percentage of the population, the less important they’ll become politically. In the meantime, everything possible should be done to contain them, like some rabid horde, by minimizing their political influence and keeping them as far removed as possible from civilized folks with college degrees and the deserving poor among minorities.


Identity politics is a disaster for the left, and for that reason also a disaster for American democracy. It not only accepts but positively embraces the splitting of the American working class along racial lines – and down that road lies a dark future of reaction. The only way to save political democracy is to expand it into social and economic democracy, but that will never happen without the working class, including blue collar white workers. So long as the left remains shackled to the Democratic party, it will never be able to win these workers away from right-wing populism, and so long as it remains under the sway of identity politics, it will never even want to try. And one sees that in the attitudes of many on the radical left for whom the very notion that one should try to appeal to the millions of workers in Trump’s base is unthinkable.




As I was writing this post, I came across a column by Robert Reich in The Guardian titled “Trump assaulted American democracy – here’s how Democrats can save it”. Reich is a prominent liberal public intellectual and was Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration. He is very much in the mould of figures like Maynard Keynes – liberals who want to save capitalism from itself. (In fact, one of his books is called Saving Capitalism.) This column is in a similar vein, though its focus is on politics rather than economics. As someone with a long career as a public official in several US administrations, Reich’s approach is very practical: he lays out a series of steps that Biden and the Democrats should take (assuming of course that they win and are allowed to take office) to reverse the damage Trump has done. Reich adds that this “may be the last chance – both for the Democrats and, more importantly, for American democracy.” It’s an ominous warning from someone who isn’t usually given to hyperbole.


Here are the 3 steps Reich is proposing:


1. Increase the size of the Supreme Court to reduce the conservative super-majority to a minority.


2. Abolish the Senate filibuster so that a simple majority is enough to pass legislation, not the 60 votes presently needed. (Reich is assuming that the Democrats will have a majority in the Senate after the election.)


3. Rebalance the Senate so that small rural states like Wyoming don’t have outsized power compared to populous states like California. To effect this change, Reich proposes to create new states: Washington DC, which has long wanted statehood, and California, which has grown so large that Reich says it should be split into two states, North and South California.


The first thing that strikes me about this is the imbalance between the gravity of the problem and the trifling nature of the proposed solutions. Reich is tinkering with minor adjustments even as he recognizes that the fate of American democracy is at stake. And even for a liberal this is timid stuff: one glaring omission is any mention of the electoral college, an arcane leftover from the pre-Civil War era that was put in the Constitution at the behest of slaveholders and has been responsible for two of the last five elections where the ‘winning’ candidate actually lost the popular vote. Indeed, it’s electoral college calculations that determine the insanely lop-sided nature of presidential campaigns, where the focus is entirely on a half-dozen battleground states, and where the rest of the country is all but completely ignored by the candidates. Reich would probably say that his third proposal addresses this but there’s a much simpler solution: eliminate the electoral college. If this seems impractical to a good pragmatist like Reich, his own proposal is actually much more far-fetched. There is no way three quarters of the states, to say nothing of two-thirds of Congress, are going to approve splitting up California, let alone granting DC statehood. And even if this miracle were to transpire, it would only be a start: you’d have to turn NYC into a state, maybe Chicago, Miami, Houston, LA etc. etc.


As for the first proposal, Biden has already stated that he doesn’t want to stack the Court. This is after all a man who pledged that if he comes to power nothing fundamental will change. Visions of Biden as FDR redux are wishful thinking on steroids. He’s announced that he’ll set up a commission to study SCOTUS proposals, which is standard procedure for an old political hack to make difficult problems go away. As for the Senate filibuster, even if this happens, it will do nothing to change the reality that Democratic senators are as beholden to their donor class as Republican senators are to theirs.


Reich is no fool. He understands perfectly well that what is really undermining American democracy is social inequality. But he can’t see beyond the limits of ‘saving capitalism’. Back in the Thirties someone like Reich would have been part of the ‘brain trust’ FDR assembled to make the New Deal happen, but after four decades of supporting and/or accommodating themselves to neo-liberalism, there is little boldness left among liberal intellectuals for that kind of ground-breaking overhaul. Reich wants to patch up constitutional arrangements that are centuries old and decrepit, so decrepit in some cases (the Second Amendment for example) that they have morphed into monstrosities that promote and legitimize untold carnage. In the 19th century it took a revolutionary civil war to save democracy from the constitution. Patchwork solutions aren’t going to be any more successful in the 21st century.


Reich’s quandary is the quandary of anyone who believes in incremental change. You invariably end up with wholesale wishful thinking (what I would call a bad kind of utopianism) which amounts (whether one admits it or not) to hoping for the ruling elites to ‘come to their senses’, the sort of thinking that goes, ‘if only Jeff Bezos would settle for having $100 billion instead of $200 billion.’ But that’s not how the system works and elites never give up their power and privilege willingly. I think the ‘vote Biden’ radicals are engaging in a similar kind of wishful thinking. Though they may still adhere to the rhetoric of revolutionary politics, their succumbing to ‘lesser evil’ blackmail attests to a lingering hope for incremental change probably along with a deep despair about the possibilities for revolution.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Behind the politics of lesser evilism

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Swing states in the 2020 election

By Alex Steiner

Note: This is a continuation of the discussion that began in the previous essay by Frank Brenner, Backing Biden betrays socialist policies, See the comments in that essay for the context of this discussion.

I think Frank Brenner and Jim Creegan have provided an excellent response to Mitchel Cohen’s and Walter Daum’s support for a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate in the 2020 Presidential election, namely Joe Biden. I don’t think I can add too much to what they have already written.  What I would like to do is explore the general form of the “lesser evil” argument and expose its inner fallacies.

Those arguments change every four years in their outward expression, but their inner structure always remains the same. When you boil them down to their essence they go something like this:

“I would love to support a genuine alternative to the two-party duopoly that dominates politics in the United States. If this were an ordinary election, I would happily cast my vote for a third party socialist candidate running independent of the Democrats.  But this election is different. We are living in a special moment that requires that we vote for a Democrat while holding our nose.  (The holding our nose metaphor seems to be required in all these explanations.) We will go about doing our organizational work despite voting for a Democrat whom we loathe, knowing that this organizational work is what is really important.”

This is the basic template of the argument. Before getting to the details, I would like to put it into its philosophical and historical context.

The force of the argument is based on the premises of a utilitarian world outlook. What characterizes all utilitarian arguments is the engagement of a cold calculus of benefits versus risks. Moral and political imperatives beyond the immediate considerations of what action maximizes ones odds for survival in a Hobbesian world are considered irrelevant.  On the face of it, such arguments are quite compelling. It seems that the only way to challenge them is to dispute whether in fact a particular course of action does result in a greater benefit, or if not a benefit then at least a lesser evil, than another course of action. Those kind of details can be legitimately debated it seems, but there is no challenge to the basic premises of the debate, that one must always chose that course of action which results in the most benefit – or least evil – given the circumstances. [1]

What the cold calculus of a risk vs benefit assessment characteristic of utilitarianism misses is that human beings and human values are not quantifiable. It is not like projecting the value of an investment. A notorious example of what can go wrong when decisions are made purely on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis is the case of the Ford Pinto. Ford’s engineers discovered a design flaw in the Pinto of potentially lethal consequences. A cost-benefit analysis prepared by Ford concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaws. The upshot was that approximately 500 people died as a result of Ford’s failure to ameliorate the problem. While the consequences of the cost- benefit analysis were particularly horrendous in this case, cost-benefit type planning is not the exception but the norm in the business world. It’s “what comes naturally” in capitalist society where all considerations for how we should live are subordinated to the need for profit. And its applies to all manner of human behavior beyond the strictly economic.

The “lesser evil” argument in politics is not so different than any other kind of a cost-benefit analysis. One justifies a course of action that is undesirable because the alternatives are considered worse. When we trace this argument back to its philosophical and historical context, we are in a better position to understand the hidden premises that lay beneath the surface. When we do that the argument is no longer as compelling as it initially appeared to be. 

In the present instance, we can see that in addition to challenging the validity of the judgment itself, that in fact a vote for Biden really is a “lesser evil”, as if that is obvious, it is also possible to challenge the basic premises of the risks vs. benefits logic of the argument. In the case of the 2020 elections, we are not dealing with ethical considerations that try to quantify the value of a human life, but with social and political considerations that hold vast implications for those on the left wishing to see a fundamental transformation of society.  How do you quantify class consciousness? And what price is paid in the coin of your political credibility when you advocate a vote for a candidate you admit is terrible?

In the argument justifying a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate, what changes every four years is the identification of what is “special” or “exceptional” in the current election that requires that the left “hold their noses” and get behind the current anti-socialist Democratic candidate. Often one finds references to Hitler or Nazism thrown into the discussion as a way to stop any further consideration of the issues and drum up a panic reaction. That is certainly the case in Mitchel Cohen’s argument. Daum on the other hand provides a somewhat more nuanced take and admits that a Trump victory would not be “game over”.  But then he goes on to say,

“…it would be a huge setback and, yes, it would embolden the fascists. So why not do everything we can to prevent that, including holding our noses and voting for the rotten Biden?”

Daum’s criteria then for caving into the pressure to vote for a Democrat is not quite the absolute evil of Cohen’s vision of a fascist America the day after the election, but a regime that would be a “huge setback”.  

Cohen seeks to discredit Brenner’s argument by claiming, falsely, that Brenner sees no difference between a Trump regime and a Biden regime.  This is in fact a common accusation of those defending “lesser evilism”.  Daum on the other hand agrees that Brenner sees a difference but claims therefore that Brenner contradicts himself by opposing a vote for Biden while acknowledging that a Trump Administration poses a huge danger of increasing authoritarianism.

The mistake both Cohen and Daum make is to think that once one acknowledges a different outcome between a Trump or a Biden Administration, that there are no grounds for opposing a vote for a “lesser evil” candidate.  But one cay say that in every single election since the American Republic was founded there is always the possibility of a different outcome. It has never been the case and never will be the case that the outcome of an election “makes no difference”.  If one follows this logic then one has to conclude that in past elections, when Daum and his organization, the League for a Revolutionary Party, (LRP) opposed voting for a Democrat, that they must have been working under the illusion that whoever won the election “made no difference.”  I have no doubt that some of the LRP’s political opponents who favored a vote for Al Gore, or John Kerry, or Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton in past elections must have levelled the accusation against the LRP that they were “blind to the differences” between a right wing Republican Administration and a centrist Democratic one.  So why is the LRP now supporting a vote for Biden in 2020 when they opposed a vote for Kerry in 2004? Was not the election of George Bush in 2004 a “setback” when compared to the possibility of a Kerry victory? One can anticipate the answer: A second Trump election victory in 2020 would be “a lot more” of a setback than the Bush victory in 2004.  I have no doubt that is true. One can expect a very sharp turn to authoritarian forms of rule in a second Trump Administration, as a recent article in Jacobin makes clear. [2]  Trump’s open encouragement of fascist plots to assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginia and the state murder of an anti-fascist activist in Oregon indicate a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy. But does that fact automatically lead to the conclusion that we must – for the 2020 election – abandon our socialist principles and vote for Biden?

There are higher political principles involved in the 2020 election just as there were higher ethical principles involved in the Ford Pinto case.  Some of those higher political principles were spelled out in Brenner’s article:

“The position of revolutionary socialists should be that the Democrats are not the saviours of democracy but the enablers of the would-be dictator. A call to vote for Biden would obscure this critical point. In the fight to save democracy, we need to insist that only mass working class action can make this happen. That fight doesn't stop on Nov. 3, it only enters a new phase. But if socialists have already come out for a vote for Biden, then we bear responsibility for having promoted illusions we would now be trying to resist.”

The struggle over those principles does not mean that we are oblivious to the consequences of our actions and are instead captives of some Platonic ideal that has no relation to the class struggle in the real world.  No, it simply signifies that we are thinking of consequences in the long term as well as the immediate situation. And the long term political consequences of socialists calling for a vote for Biden would be disastrous.

Finally, even if one restricts judgment to just the immediate situation , it is not at all clear who is the lesser evil in the 2020 election. Chris Hedges has convincingly argued that if the measure of who is worse were the number of bodies buried by the state, Biden has a lot to answer for. He was largely responsible for the 1994 crime bill which resulted in the mass incarceration of millions, largely people of color.  He voted in favor of the Iraq War. And when he was Vice-President during the Obama Administration, he supported the use of drone strikes to assassinate American citizens. It is true that a second Trump Administration would give more power to extra-judicial forces spreading terror against American citizens, but a Biden Administration would strengthen the national security state who would unleash its own forms of terror against perceived enemies both at home and abroad.  Supporting either camp, no matter the caveats, should be considered beyond the pale if one takes ones socialist principles seriously.

Daum tries to justify his position by citing precedents in the Marxist tradition for supporting bourgeois parties under certain conditions. His argument here is not very convincing. Let’s just say that the examples Daum cites, supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany against Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws or supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia against the Tsarist Black Hundreds have little  relevance today. The corporate Democrats represented by Biden in no way constitute a wing of the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to authoritarianism.  They are simply a wing of the bourgeoisie, in fact the predominant section of the bourgeoisie, who have tactical differences with Trump and the Republicans.  They stand for a more aggressive military policy against Russia while Trump is on a trajectory for a confrontation with Iran and China.

There have been in recent years attempts to build a progressive faction in the Democratic Party, most notably the movement inspired by Bernie Sanders candidacy. Now that those progressive, left-leaning forces have been abandoned by Sanders, doesn’t it make sense for revolutionary socialists to encourage a break from the Democratic Party and begin the process of building a socialist party independent of and opposed to the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats? That cannot be done if one supports a vote for Biden.

Does this mean that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition, to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party?  It is not necessary to delve into such hypotheticals. Suffice it to say that this is a general principle that is more relevant than ever in the period of the  decline of capitalism on the world stage, not an abstract moral imperative. Nor is a discussion of this general principle a justification for supporting this bourgeois candidate in this election. All the attempts to do that claim that we are in an exceptional situation that impel us to set aside this principle. But why is this “exceptional situation” so much more “exceptional” than other “exceptional” situations? If we extend that argument to its logical conclusion, we can say that every election of the past few decades presented an “exceptional” situation. It seems that the time is never right to openly campaign for a socialist candidate against the Republicans and the Democrats.

Perhaps we need to examine the dynamics of mass psychology behind the rationalizations of a vote for Biden. Unquestionably there is an element of fear of the consequences of a second Trump  Administration. I don’t discount the material basis of that fear, but fear is hardly a sufficient basis for making political decisions. There is also the pressure felt by many rank and file activists to participate in the Sanders movement despite Sanders’ personal betrayal of this movement. Paying attention to these currents in mass psychology help us make sense of the sudden political turn we see among diverse groups of radicals and Marxists who had previously held out against the pressure to accommodate to the Democrats. The about-face of long time radicals is not unrelated to the 180 degree turn of the LRP, which in 2016 denounced a vote for Clinton while in 2020 calls for a vote for Biden.  This about-face on the part of long-standing opponents of the status quo was anticipated in the most dramatic fashion by the sudden dissolution of the International Socialist Organization last year. These are all related symptoms of the same phenomenon.

Finally I want to comment on one aspect of this election that I find particularly troubling. There has been a public campaign orchestrated by some of the advocates of “lesser evil” politics in the 2020 election to pressure the Green Party candidate for President, Howie Hawkins, to stand down lest he damage Biden’s chances of winning in the swing states.  This campaign has gone so far as to bombard Mr. Hawkins with letters from his former teachers asking him to reconsider his candidacy for President. I find this campaign thoroughly reprehensible. While I have political differences with Mr. Hawkins and the Green Party, I would have thought his teachers would be proud of him for taking such a courageous stand in the face of near universal condemnation from others on the left, even if they disagree with it.  Instead they berate him and urge him to stand down. They should be ashamed of themselves!


[1] The prototype of this argument is the tale of the survivors in a lifeboat facing death by starvation.  They debate what must be done in order to survive and come to the realization the only possibility of survival is to murder the weakest member of the crew and eat his remains. In jurisprudence the this is called the argument of necessity.  This tale is often discussed in the abstract in a class on Ethics, but in fact it is based on a real event that was tried in the British courts in 1884, The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. ( ). In that case the judges ruled that necessity did not justify murder.