Monday, November 2, 2020

Behind the politics of lesser evilism: continuation

Send to Printer, PDF or Email


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



No comments: