Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Backing Biden betrays socialist politics

Send to Printer, PDF or Email


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.


Mitchel Cohen said...

I am one of those radical Leftists Frank Brenner is talking about, who says to vote for Biden, especially in swing states.

Frank Brenner had some very general things to say, and he doesn't capture my reasoning, nor that of anyone I know who's arguing to adopt the position of Vote for Biden, at least in the swing states.

But, don't stop there. Join Black Lives Matter, and build a mass-based anti-fascist movement. Stay in the streets, organize general strikes, fight the retrograde policies of the corporate neoliberal Democrats like Biden, both domestically as well as globally, and take necessary action now, keeping in mind Adolph Hitler’s view: "Only one thing could have stopped our movement - if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement."

The fact that Trump may not fit easily into the exact categories that Brenner posits for Fascism, Authoritarianism, etc. is irrelevant. Trump may or may not be a fascist, but he is helping to cohere a mass fascist base. Those of us saying to vote for Biden have no illusions that we're gonna need to keep Hitler's observation in mind regardless of who wins the election. The difference will be which set of ideals the State upholds, even rhetorically, and which groups it tolerates and even finances.

Rather than answer each of Frank's enumerated paragraphs point by point, I'll just say here why I think he's wrong. Frank offers no assessment of the state of the Left, does not participate in forming the kind of anti-fascist fighting groups we need, and comes much too close to the old (and wrong) argument that "the worse things get the more people will be open to rebelling, making socialists' tasks easier" (my assessment of his argument, not a quote from his letter).

It is the task of Leftists to assess the military as well as organizational strengths and weaknesses of all the different forces, parties, objective and subjective conditions, and offer a conjunctural analysis that weighs them all in devising strategy and tactics. But Frank Brenner dispenses with all of that concrete analysis and instead sweeps a magical wand of grandiose pontifications regardless of objective conditions, which he promulgates as good for all times and all places.

My position is based on the opposite of Brenner’s. I note that:

1) What is important is what one builds 24/7, which is the real indicator of socialist potential, and not whether one supports this or that candidate or even runs one’s own candidate in the national election, and an honest assessment of those forces at the present time. Under which regime would we be better able to do that?

2) The white supremacist death squads are overtly emboldened by Trump and his administration, and stopping them is the fundamental task of our time. They would not be supported under a Biden administration, regardless of Biden’s neoliberal policies, which we would continue to oppose. It 2is imperative that we cut off the rhetorical as well as actual support from the government for such neo-Nazis and lynch mobs. There’s already the beginning of a new civil war; I’d rather have the government opposing lynch mobs – even if it is only rhetorically – than continue as it will be for another 4 years under the Trump regime.

Had Leftists been doing what we needed to do all these years, we’d be in a different place today, with different options. But, as it stands, we absolutely do have to evict Trump from the reins of military as well as economic power. We need the elbow room that would provide. We won’t be able to do that under Trump.

Mark said...

I've never voted for a Democrat in my life, and I'm not going to start with Biden, and I live in a swing state. For the radicals and leftists, how soon did we forget that the Democrats did everything in their power to defeat the left as represented in the campaign of Bernie Sanders? Now Sanders is saying that Biden needs a landslide victory, it seems that anything short of that the Democrats are not willing to contest. So much for democracy.

In terms of the balance of forces, look at the George Floyd protests. Could the radical right ever match that? What are the political parties of the radical right and are they significant? I would say the Republican Party is not a radical right party, it endorses Trump because he enacts their agenda. The radical right might be embolded by Trump, but their numbers are small, they often have to congregate from out of state at cities like Portland or Charlottesville to show their numbers, an organized left could easily defeat them.

The left is growing in strength, I see that in the growth of the numbers in the DSA and now the MPP (movement for a people's party). The problem here is that these organizations do not have a revolutionary orientation, they don't apparently have a grounding in the lessons of Trotskyism, that could possibly change as the situation changes here in the US.

Anonymous said...

Cohen’s logic is topsy turvy. He says: “Had the left been doing what we needed to do all these years, we’d be in a different place today, with different options.” You’d think that would mean that the left needs to do things differently – and yet he is calling for the same wretched political line that has crippled the left for a century and more: voting for the ‘lesser evil’!

Similarly Cohen tells us it’s not important “whether one supports this or that candidate or even runs one’s own candidate” and yet in the next sentence he argues that in this election, supporting the candidate Biden is in fact very important. And it will be the same story in every election from now on: Cohen will tell us next time that we have to stop Trump 2.0 (whoever that turns out to be) and then Trump 3.0 and so on. In other words, it will always be the WRONG TIME for the left to break free from the stranglehold of corporate Democratic politics.

I also don’t agree that stopping white supremacists is “the fundamental task of our time”, emphasis on THE. This is a hysterical overestimation of the strength of the fascist gangs. A far greater danger now is the national security state – which is just as much a Democratic as a Republican enterprise. To confront that danger, as well as the danger of the fascist gangs, we need to do what we can to split the progressive wing away from the Democratic party in order to create a mass base for a socialist party. That is the real fundamental task of our time – and calling for a vote for Biden in this election is a betrayal of that fight.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

Comment by Walter Daum: Part I

I share Mitchel Cohen's conclusions and want to add to his arguments.

Revolutionary socialists who see Trump as a qualitatively greater danger than previous Republican greater evils are not "lining up behind Biden," as Frank Brenner accuses, or shouldn't be. In my case and that of my organization, it is a purely tactical, defensive choice to enable the movements of the working class and oppressed people to gain time to organize and fight. We do not paper over Biden's rotten record or the nature of the Democratic Party as an imperialist, racist and anti-working class outfit. On the contrary, we make every effort to expose them. As socialists we promote and depend on working-class consciousness, so we must tell the truth about the Democrats. That’s the only way to get the ear of and convince working-class people, minorities, immigrants etc who have justified concerns about and even despise the Democrats that a tactical vote is nevertheless necessary.

It's not just the fascists and other thugs who Trump encourages. He is openly planning to violate democratic norms and steal a victory. He and many Republicans will use any means necessary to disrupt voting, including encouraging their far-right supporters to use violence. Then they expect to turn to the courts to block the counting of mail ballots so that the Supreme Court can effectively hand them victory.

Trump and Co. plan on governing the same way, with a new far-right Supreme Court majority in position to turn their agenda into the law of the land. Their aim is to entrench minority-party rule and use that power to sweep away laws and regulations that limit the abuse and exploitation of workers, consumers and the environment. They want to gut voting rights and other civil rights won by the great struggles by Black people in the 1960s and by women and other oppressed people since. And they want to demolish the achievements of the great labor struggles of the 1930s; the right to organize in unions is an immediate target, and no social welfare program will be safe.

Further, they hope to strip Congress’s most democratic body, the House of Representatives, of its powers to investigate the administration and hold it accountable, leaving those powers to the outrageously undemocratic Senate. And they, Bill Barr especially, plan on elevating the presidency to the position of a “unitary executive” above the other branches of government and with all the powers of authoritarian strongman rulers. This would mean, in the words of Brett Kavanaugh, that the president would be free to “decline to follow” any law.

The Democrats, capitalist party though they are, do not go along with that all-out assault on democratic rights, for their own reasons. They want not to smash trade unions but to tame them; they rely on the union apparatus to get out their vote. Likewise they depend on Black votes and want them to be counted.

Walter Daum said...

Comment by Walter Daum: Part II

It is curious that Frank writes about what happens 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."

True, a Trump win would not be "game over" – but for the reasons Frank gives 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? Every four years, as Lenin once said, the working class gets to choose who will lead the class struggle against it for a period -- why not make a choice when it makes a difference?

Frank's wording even implies, although I doubt that's what he meant, that a Trump win might be better for our class: “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.”

Are you really saying it would be more inspiring if Trump wins and thereby tens of millions of people feel he’s illegitimate and will be motivated to resist in force? More motivated than if he loses and they feel victorious? On the contrary, if he wins I’d say our side will be demoralized and less likely to act confidently – and the right wing and its thugs will be the ones who are energized.

Frank correctly says there should be no illusions about 'getting back to normal." We should indeed recognize that the capitalist system is in a dangerously unstable state – Trump’s success is not just its abettor; he was enabled by it. Much of the ruling class was desperate enough to be willing to tolerate and work with Trump, even though they disapproved of his vulgarity and his disregard for their imperialist interests. (Now they seem to realize that his ignorance and narrow self-interest, the instability he relies on and the resistance he provokes are not in their best interests.) We are facing a heightened struggle, even against a potential Democratic government.

Finally, Frank invokes the Marxist tradition. I and my organizational comrades had long accepted the dictum handed down by James P. Cannon, and before him by Max Shachtman, that U.S. workers should never vote for bourgeois-party candidates. But the shock of Trump's victory drove us to investigate the history ourselves, and we found it was quite to the contrary. Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and Lenin all considered it the duty of the workers' party, if it had no viable candidate of its own, to back whichever bourgeois party (assuming there was one) that defended the democratic rights of the working class. E.g., that opposed Bismark's anti-socialist laws, or opposed the Black Hundreds under Tsarism. We think that the danger of Trumpism presents such an alternative. And, by the way, we challenge anyone who holds to the so-called tradition to find any statement by our Marxist teachers that it is unprincipled to vote for bourgeois candidates under any circumstance. For more of our case, see our statement “Rethinking Voting for Capitalist Parties” at: lrp-cofi.org/statements/elections-capitalist-parties.html.

Walter Daum

Unknown said...

Part I

I think we need to be clear, in so far as it is possible to prognosticate, what the “Immediate consequences” of a Trump victory will mean. Many of the items that Walter Daum enumerates—further restrictions on voting, attacks on civil rights and social welfare programs—have been, and will continue to be, the result of any Republican victory. And while it’s true that Democrats have pursued, and will continue to pursue, many of the same ends as Republicans, they have done so less vigorously and consistently because they must appeal to different constituencies than the rival party. The Republicans have clearly been the “greater evil” for several decades. This situation has not persuaded me, other revolutionary Marxists, or even the latter-day DSA, to endorse mainstream Democrats. The reason (or at least my reason) was (is) that such endorsements allow the Dems to pursue their slower-motion neoliberal agenda, while maintaining the allegiance of its victims--workers, minorities, “progressives”—by arguing that they, the Dems, are “not as bad” as the other party. And assuming the Dems will continue to be the lesser evil, voting for them on that basis will effectively mean that there can never be any justification for breaking away. By this logic, third party efforts will always amount to abetting the “greater evil”, and the Clintons, Gore, Biden etc. will thus continue on their rightward course without fear of opposition from the left. For this reason, the more aggressive anti-democratic and neoliberal politics of the Republicans was never a valid rationale, IMO, for supporting the Democrats.
The question to my mind is whether the above logic obtains in this election, or whether, on the contrary, the stakes are so radically different that I and other anti-lesser evilists must reassess. Would a Trump victory result not merely in the emboldening of groups like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo, but turn them into de facto arms of government? Would it mean not merely the further erosion of the truncated electoral democracy we now have, but a qualitative change in the form or government; not merely the further curtailing of the right to vote, and the freedoms of speech and assembly, but their virtual abolition? If,in other words, we believe that a Trump victory will mean that we will only be able to fight back from the political underground, and that a Biden win would not have these direct consequences, I can think of no valid reason for not urging a Biden vote as a matter of sheer self-preservation. There are immediate consequences and immediate consequences.

(And here I should add that I find Brenner’s comparison to Weimar Germany inappropriate. Unlike the Social Democrats, Trotsky refused to support Hindenburg against Hitler because he thought—rightly--that the issue of democracy v. dictatorship would not be decided electorally at all, but in the streets by a struggle between the big battalions of the working class—the KPD and SPD, on the one side—and those of the militarized petty bourgeoisie- the brownshirts of the SA-- on the other. Therefore, in his view, Hindenburg (or Breuning, or von Pappen) could be no more than transitional figures. Those who see Trump as a fascist threat, however, are implicitly arguing that the difference between democracy and dictatorship can be decided at the ballot box. If this is the case, I don’t see how one can argue consistently that we should refuse to vote for Biden.)

Jim Creegan

Unknown said...

Part II

I don’t, however, buy into the widely repeated Biden slogan that “American democracy” is on the line in this election. Even in the unlikely event that Trump should win and the Republicans hold on to their Senate majority, I don’t think the government possesses the institutional power to impose a dictatorship. Things could turn far uglier under a second Trump term, but the country is still too big and diverse, and political power dispersed over too many sites, for the 20,000 or so scattered fascistic groups, even with full federal support, to annihilate all opposition. The so-called deep state—the FBI, the Joint Chiefs and the State Department—have already made clear their antipathy toward a president who substitutes personal whim for coherent policy, of which he hasn’t even the vaguest notion. They would in all likelihood join together to prevent the orange ogre from staging a coup in defiance of the popular vote. The big ruling-class donors are putting their money overwhelmingly on Biden. Trump is partly a symptom of American decline, but also partly an electoral anomaly. His recent antics bear a closer resemblance to The Madness of King George than The Triumph of the Will.
Yet, although Trump may be too incompetent to impose a dictatorship, he at least in part signals a political trend we should take seriously. The post-Trump Republicans are unlikely to move toward the center after November. Since 2008, but especially in the aftermath of Covid-19, the Republicans will no longer be in a position to appeal to voters with bromides about the “magic of the market” and the virtues of self-reliance. Their popular base can only be preserved by stoking white grievance against blacks Latinos and immigrants, and their electability maintained by restricting the franchise to shut out the soon-to-be non-white majority. This longer-term prospect makes it all the more urgent to cohere a left political force genuinely capable of fighting back—in elections and in the streets. I think everyone here would agree that the Democratic Party will never constitute such a force. We cannot therefore create one without resisting the temptation—our own as well as of the wider working-class electorate-- of rushing time and again into the arms of the Democrats as the main defense against an increasingly fascistic GOP—a temptation that flocking to Biden in November can only reinforce. I think Brenner is right in broad outline, if not in every turn of his reasoning.

Jim Creegan

Alex Steiner said...

I wrote a response to the comments here but it was too long to include as a comment. It is posted as a separate essay. See:

Behind the politics of lesser evilism