Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Backing Biden betrays socialist politics

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By Frank Brenner


Recently on twitter I came across an anguished plea: “I thought I would cut my arm off before ever writing this, but please folks we have to vote for Biden.” This guy considers himself a radical, hence his anguish. And he’s far from being alone. In this election year where the whole world seems to be spinning out of control, one small but notable feature is radicals who are, politically speaking, willing to cut their arm off. This includes some alumni of Sixties radicalism, people who have held on to an allegiance to revolutionary ideals through the long political twilight of neoliberalism, often at significant cost to themselves. They refused to follow the examples of many in the Sixties generation who renounced their youthful radicalism for lucrative careers in academia, media and the professions. But all those decades of not caving in to the pressures of the political mainstream no longer apply because this election is different.


I’m not going to single anyone out here for criticism but I do think it’s worth responding in a general sense to the ‘amputee’ arguments. And then I’ll add a comment or two about what I think this development means.


The basic argument is that the immediate consequences of a second Trump term would be so devastating that there isn't any other choice open to socialists except lining up behind Biden. 


My objections:


1. Those who are committed to a fundamental change in society, Marxists, above all, have never based our politics on immediate consequences. We base them on the objective interests of the working class. This doesn't mean that we don't engage with immediate consequences, but we always do so from the standpoint of whether such an engagement advances or holds back those objective interests.


2. If immediate consequences determine politics, then there is no escaping the trap of lesser evil-ism, that perennial curse of leftist politics in America. The argument that the 2020 election is an exception is a dodge. The same argument was made in 2016 and it will be made in 2024, 2028 ad infinitum. Every election from now on will be 'exceptional': all the arguments that apply now – above all, the threat to democracy posed by Trump and the Republicans - will continue to apply indefinitely. If we support Biden this time, the logic of that choice means abandoning any hope for an independent socialist politics of the working class for the foreseeable future. 


(This kind of logic brings to mind a remark by Ed Broadbent, who decades ago was a leader of the NDP, Canada’s social democratic party. He was once asked during an election campaign why it was that his party was losing votes, including from working class voters, even though there was a recession going on, and he replied, "Recessions are bad times for socialists." In the 2020 election it would seem that political crises are also "bad times for socialists." By this logic the only good time to be a socialist would be when capitalism is prospering and its politics are stable ... but then you might as well junk socialism entirely!)


3. Further to the argument that this year's election is exceptional: what if it is so because a Trump coup would mean no more elections or blatantly rigged ones? In which case socialists would try to promote mass political resistance within the working class. How would that goal be served by having called for a vote for Biden? On the contrary, it would promote the dangerous illusion that the only credible resistance to Trump is from the Democratic Party. Eugene Debs’s old line has never been more apt: if you choose the lesser evil, what you end up with is evil.


4. 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.


5. The same point applies if Biden wins, which is still the most likely outcome. A call to vote for Biden would undercut the credibility of socialists in resisting his administration’s policies, including the many ways it will endanger democracy, whether by sins of omission or commission. Having capitulated once to lesser evil-ism, socialists would indeed be ‘missing an arm’ when it comes to countering conventional political ‘wisdom’ (embraced now by many ex-radicals) that we have to stop dreaming of pie-in-the-sky revolutions and 'get real' by backing Democrats to keep the Republican fascists out.


6. My view is that Trump is not a fascist – yet – but a right-wing authoritarian. He is less in the mould of Hitler or Mussolini, and far more akin to figures like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. This isn’t to downplay the dangers that Trump poses, which are very real, but in a political struggle you need to have a realistic assessment of the enemy you’re facing. It can be just as fatal to overestimate an enemy as to underestimate them. I think labelling Trump a fascist adds nothing to our understanding of Trump but it greatly ratchets up the panic level. There will not be concentration camps on Nov. 4 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 - all this is predictable and would be terrible but it is still not Nazi Germany. And most important of all: it is not the end of the struggle, it's not game over if Trump wins. At best he will win with a minority vote for the second time and if the election gets tossed to the Supreme Court, which Trump has packed with his nominees, his legitimacy as the nation's leader among the 65-75 million people who will have voted against him will be nil. The fight for democracy would spill out of the voting booths and on to the streets. It's precisely because it isn't game over on Nov. 3 that calling for a vote for Biden is so wrong and so damaging to whatever hopes revolutionary socialists have for engaging with such a mass movement.


7. But let's entertain the possibility that it is game over on Nov. 3. Let's say Trump really is a Hitler. Again, how would it help the cause of revolutionary class consciousness to call for a vote for Biden? In this case we can look back to the precedents of the 1930s. In the 1932 presidential election the Social Democrats supported Paul von Hindenburg, the conservative who was running for re-election, in order to 'stop Hitler'. Which sounds similar to the ‘stop Trump’ line of the radicals who are now lining up behind Biden. But this was not Trotsky’s position, he excoriated the Social Democrats for their policy, and I think it’s a fair assumption that he wouldn’t be among the ‘amputees’ if he were alive today.  As I said at the start, Marxists have never based our politics on immediate consequences. That's the way Bolshevism operated, and the Transitional Program is essentially a master class on that kind of engagement. 


We also know how this chapter of European history ended: having provided Hindenburg with millions of their workers' votes, the Social Democrats were repaid for their efforts to ‘save democracy’ by having Hindenburg appoint Hitler as chancellor in January of the following year. 


Nothing that I’ve said here should be news to any of the long-time radicals now lining up behind Biden. They know the pitfalls of lesser evil politics as well as anyone, and yet this isn’t stopping them from capitulating this time around. Why?


I’m speaking here in broad strokes, again without any particular individual in mind, but I think the simple answer to the question is – fear. By this I mean fear of a major disruption in their lives should Trump win re-election. It is of course completely legitimate to fear political repression given police violence in response to the George Floyd protests, but I think the kind of fear I’m talking about goes beyond that. As marginalized as radicals have been for a generation and more, they have still managed to sustain a life on those margins, including a more or less active political engagement. The little one has, the more attached to it one becomes. I’m not thinking here of possessions but rather of expectations. If you’ve grown used to a certain stability in your life, even as narrowly defined as that may be, the prospect of losing it can be terrifying. And a second Trump term very much entails such a prospect. In this sense, the move by radicals to back Biden partakes of a much broader social tendency – all those in the middle classes, and many in the working class too, who are increasingly desperate to ‘get back to normal’.


The desire to ‘get back to normal’ is understandable, but it is also an illusion to think that anything approaching ‘normal’ awaits us after the election regardless of who wins. Those of us who are fighting for a fundamental change in society should steel ourselves against the seductive call of a return to normality. The coming period will present great opportunities for building a mass socialist movement as well as harsh challenges. One thing it will not be is a return to ‘normal’. We must be prepared.