The French second round of May 2017: discussion document 4

Submitted by martin on 3 August, 2017 - 1:43 Author: Martin Thomas

Another contribution to <a href="/node/31059">the debate</a>.

The French leftists who advocated a vote for Macron in the second round of the French presidential election - Arguments pour la lutte sociale, Ensemble, (implicitly) the NPA, and even the French Communist Party - were right. Macron, a standard-issue Blair-Schröder-Renzi-Clinton-type neoliberal semi-cosmopolitan, was a lesser evil than Marine Le Pen, an outright fascist.

That Le Pen's party, the Front National, is an electoralist party with a fairly small membership base, and thus not a fascist movement comparable to the Nazis or Mussolini’s Fascist Party when they were on the eve of power in the 1920s and 30s, does not reduce the difference to an indefinite and speculative balance of probabilities.

The FN has a fascist core cadre and a fascist ideology. It functions as the electoral-political wing of a broader fascist current, with varying relations of collaboration with smaller street-fighting fascist groups (<a href=""></a&gt;). The French presidency is the strongest elected position in the advanced capitalist world. It has powers to legislate bypassing parliament. It is immune to removal by parliament. Study of what the FN has done where it controls municipalities (which Yves Coleman described in detail in IFF) indicate that an FN presidency would grievously hurt trade unions, workers' rights, and immigrants in France, and probably trigger a re-raising of national frontiers across Europe.

Of course, in every situation, we want to do better than backing the lesser evil and opposing the greater evil. We want to advance the good. We fight for working-class alternatives in triangular contests against bourgeois evils both lesser and greater. We are for a working-class third camp even if there are real differences between the first and second camps of established power. Only as a second-string of action, and only while still using all the audibility and visibility we have to promote working-class alternatives, do we ally with bourgeois lesser evils against greater, as for example we sided with "Remain" in the 23 June 2016 European referendum against "Leave".

The second round of the presidential election was a case for second-string tactics because it was a run-off. Only two candidates were allowed. No candidate of even the most vestigial working-class character could run. Only three options were open: vote Le Pen, vote Macron, or abstain or vote blank.

French leftists could and did use what audibility and visibility they had to promote working-class alternatives. They could and did support the revolutionary socialist candidates in the first round, Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou, and labour-movement-based candidates opposed to both Macron and Le Pen in the legislative elections which followed the second round. Arguments pour la lutte sociale had the slogan: defeat Le Pen on 7 May [presidential second round], defeat Macron on 11-18 June [legislative elections].

To explain that we "supported" Macron only in the sense of voting for him as a lesser evil to fascism was no more complicated or liable to misunderstanding than to explain, in 2001 or 2005 say, that we "supported" Blair only in the sense of solidarity with the (much-attenuated) working-class base of the bourgeois workers' party to which he was attached. Less complicated, if anything.

To vote for bourgeois lesser-evils in such run-offs, when there is no other option bar abstaining or voting blank, has Marxist precedent. The German Social Democratic Party in its heyday faced an electoral system with second-round run-offs. They always voted for the bourgeois liberal progressives where they themselves had been eliminated. Left-wingers in the SPD and in the wider Second International - Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring - criticised the SPD leaders sometimes for "soft" slogans which implied too much credit for the progressives (such as "against the blue-black [conservative] bloc"), but did not dispute the policy in run-off.

"The Social Democratic voters have not let themselves be so led astray by the traitorous cowardice of the liberals, as to leave the liberal candidates in the lurch against the reaction, but they should not trust this political breed to deliver any more than it can...", wrote Mehring ("The run-off elections", 28 June 1898, Neue Zeit 16.1897-98, 2. Bd. H. 41).

Luxemburg wrote: "That we should, where the decision depends on us, go for the lesser evil, is so self-evident that to put that question into discussion would be tantamount to pushing at an open door and distracting from the real issues". ("A revision", 16 June 1911, Leipziger Volkszeitung: thanks to Bruce Robinson for digging out this article).

From about the 1950s (the first reference I can find, and it's not a clear-cut one, is in a polemic by Cannon against the ISL in 1954), the general Marxist rule for elections came to be simplified to "never vote for bourgeois candidates". The negative way of putting it was always inferior to a positive principle - to seek the maximum independent working-class political intervention. In conditions where, in those countries where Marxists had effective organisations, even small ones, run-off elections were rare and generally included at least one candidate with at least vestigial working-class credentials, the negative formula would do.

The French presidential election of 1969 ended with a run-off between two bourgeois centrist politicians, Pompidou and Poher, but then not only the Trotskyist first-round candidate, Alain Krivine, but also the left-reformist Michel Rocard and even the Communist Party, said it was "six of one and half a dozen of the other" on the second round ("blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc").

If I understand the debate in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty correctly, no-one argues that Marxists should absolutely never back votes for bourgeois candidates. The argument is rather than we should do that only when a bourgeois candidate advances - against her or his opponent - some important positive plank of our program.

Of course things are better for us in elections when the pressure from left-wing working-class opinion is such that even bourgeois candidates have to propose some elements of what we want. That is no reason why tactics should disappear in favour of indiscriminate shrugging when conditions are worse, as when the bourgeois options are a standard neoliberal versus a fascist.

In fact, in the classic case, the SPD did not cite advocacy by the bourgeois liberal progressives of positive planks from the SPD program. The SPD's general picture of bourgeois politics in the run-up to World War 1 was that it was moving to the right, and, short of socialist revolution, counter-reforms were more likely than reforms. In the 1911 article mentioned above, Luxemburg cited Bebel as stating the criteria for supporting bourgeois lesser-evil candidates in run-offs as that they opposed restrictions on the right to vote for the Reichstag suffrage, restrictions on the right of assembly, and emergency laws against the working class. Not that they advocated positive improvements, but that they opposed decisive deteriorations.

Luxemburg remarked - as a reason for a sharper critical tone towards the liberals, while still voting for them in run-offs - that many of the liberals did not even meet Bebel's minimum conditions, and that in the Reichstag debates on the social insurance law (the occasion for her article), the majority of the liberal deputies had taken a bad position.

If voting for a lesser-evil bourgeois candidate in a run-off is justified, at times when politics is moving to the left, by them backing an important positive plank from our program, then it is equally justified, in a time when politics is moving to the right, by them opposing decisive negative measures advocated by the rival candidate.

Mostly when Marxists have advocated abstaining or a blank vote in a contest between two bourgeois candidates, they have argued as the French left did in 1969, that it is "six of one and half a dozen of the other" ("blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc"). That is how the American Trotskyists, both Orthodox and Heterodox, argued in the US presidential elections of 1940, 1944, and 1948. If there were any differences between Roosevelt, Willkie, Dewey, and Truman, they were in the realm of speculative calculations about whether this one or that might turn out worse or better - nothing definite enough to warrant a vote.

Essentially, the Trotskyists shrugged. In 1940 and 1944 they did not even mention the left candidates, presumably on the basis that these were marginal "propagandist" candidates, and with poor propaganda. The best left vote in the period was 0.29% for the quite-well-known Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party in 1948.

Before the 1940 election Trotsky suggested to the Orthodox Trotskyists that they might back the Communist Party candidate, Earl Browder, who in the poll got 0.1%. Cannon and the others vehemently rejected the idea, and Trotsky did not insist. One of Trotsky's arguments for the suggestion were that it would stir things up politically with the Rooseveltian "progressive" trade unionists who were the Orthodox Trotskyists' main periphery, and with whom, Trotsky thought, the routines of trade-union collaboration had led to slack political live-and-let-live rather than sparky interaction. Another was to intervene among the membership and periphery of the CP, whom Trotsky saw as in greater ferment and crisis than in fact they were.

In 1948 the Orthodox Trotskyists ran their own candidate - Farrell Dobbs, who got 0.03% - and the Heterodox recommended voting for any one of the socialist candidates, Dobbs, Norman Thomas, or Teichert of the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party. Neither Orthodox nor Heterodox thought a shrug adequate, because there was another candidate clearly to the left (in generic terms) of Truman and Dewey, namely, Truman's former Vice-President, Henry Wallace, standing with a Stalinoid program on the ticket of a newly-constructed Progressive Party and the American Labor Party old-established in New York state. Both Orthodox and Heterodox thought it important to dissuade left-minded workers from voting from Wallace.

In 1967, Hal Draper wrote an article about the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections arguing that there was no real lesser evil between the main bourgeois candidates (<a href=""></a&gt;). The article was not specifically about how to vote, and did not discuss the left candidates in those elections, of which there were two in 1964 and four in 1968. The article's practical conclusion might have been that trade unions should form a labour party to create a third alternative, but presumably Draper thought, as the unions were at the time, that would be vapid wishfulness.

In 1964 the Republican candidate had been Barry Goldwater, considered an extreme right-wing Republican. A common slogan of the supporters of the Democrat candidate, Lyndon Johnson, who won by a huge majority, was: "In your guts, you know he's [Goldwater is] nuts".

Draper commented: "In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater, who was going to do Horrible Things in Vietnam, like defoliating the jungles. Many of them have since realized that the spiked boot was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for 'actually carried out Goldwater's policy'. (In point of fact, this is unfair to Goldwater: he never advocated the steep escalation of the war that Johnson put through; and more to the point, he would probably have been incapable of putting it through with as little opposition as the man who could simultaneously hypnotize the liberals with 'Great Society' rhetoric.)"

Draper was arguing that the differences even between Johnson and Goldwater were too speculative and indefinite to allow a firm statement that Johnson was the lesser evil. He continued by discussing another case where, he argued, an apparent lesser evil had turned out not to be such.

"This genuine liberal, Pat Brown, acted for eight years as governor of California [1959-67] in no important respect differently from what a conservative Republican would have done. The operative word is acted. He sold out the water program to the big landholding companies as his two Republican predecessors never dared to do. He fought tooth and nail for the bracero system [of contract workers from Mexico] as no Republican governor of an agricultural state dared to do".

Draper concluded with a generality which, I think, the 1970s would disprove:

"Under the pressure of bureaucratic-statified capitalism, liberalism and conservatism converge. That does not mean they are identical, or are becoming identical. They merely increasingly tend to act in the same way in essential respects, where fundamental needs of the system are concerned".

The Republican president Eisenhower, wrote Draper, had been "forced to act, in the highest office, no differently from a New Deal Democrat. Because that is the only way the system can now operate". And conversely a liberal Democrat would be forced to act essentially like a right-wing Republican.

The underlying idea there was that "bureaucratic collectivism" was an organic world-wide trend, including in the USA. Draper's close comrade Ernie Haberkern would later tell one of our London forums that the IMF, not being a competitive unit in a market, was an example of bureaucratic collectivism.

In 1970 the Tories contested the British general election on a proto-Thatcherite program (the "Selsdon" manifesto). After the Tories won, Socialist Worker ran a front-page lead article arguing that though the Tories were bad, really they wouldn't do much different from the 1964-70 Labour government, because the "demands of the system" confined bourgeois politics within a narrow range.

Socialist Worker soon dropped that line, because for its first year and a half that Tory government was as aggressive as, indeed more aggressive than, the Thatcher government of 1979. The Tories retreated towards "consensus" politics not because the system in general constrained them to do that, but because they were defeated in great set-piece battles with the working class, the miners' strike of 1971-2 and the "Pentonville Five" dispute of July 1972.

So Draper's generalisation was dubious. His specific argument about Johnson and Goldwater, or about Brown and his Republican opponents, was less so. In any case, Draper's argument was not that Johnson, Brown, etc. were lesser evils, and socialists should oppose them regardless. It was that they were not lesser evils in any important way at all.

The argument that Brown or Johnson or such were lesser evils, but lesser evils such as would only provide a more tortuous path to the greater evil, was also not Draper's. "When the Lesser Evil named Johnson was elected in 1964, he did not call in the Greater Evil to power... He did not... act in so flabby a manner that the Right wing alternative was thereby strengthened – another classic pattern. These patterns would have been old stuff, the historic Lesser Evil pattern in full form. What was bewildering about Johnson was that the Lesser Evil turned out to be the Greater Evil, if not worse".

Unless Macron is beaten back on central issues by the French working class, or French capitalism gets a new boom in the coming years, his administration is likely to pave the way for an even worse far-right threat at the next presidential election in 2022. That lesser evil does pave the way for the greater evil. Likewise, the record of the 1974-9 Labour government, which was surely a lesser evil than the 1970-4 Tories and than Thatcher, paved the way for Thatcher.

Independent working-class politics is necessary: trying to negotiate through capitalism by picking its lesser evils will in general bring us its greater evils too. That is a great truth, which certainly needs to be repeated again and again today. It is not, however, a reason for not voting Macron in the run-off.

Having the lesser evil now, a serious risk of the greater evil soon, but nevertheless some interim with space to educate and mobilise to combat both evils, is better than having the greater evil straight away. If you face two enemies, one with a knife and one with fists, it is better to get rid of the knife first, because then you may prevail with your own fists, but once your throat has been cut you are done for.

The only Marxist text I know which assesses a run-off between bourgeois candidates as definitely one between a lesser and a greater evil, but nevertheless argues for a blank vote, is my own article on the French presidential run-off between Jacques Chirac and Marine Le Pen's father, J-M Le Pen, in 2002: <a href="/node/96"></a&gt;. I think that article was basically right, although some of the arguments could have been expressed better.

Chirac was definitely going to win in the run-off, whatever the left (even defined very broadly) said or did. All the other candidates bar Bruno Mégret (a FN dissident recently ejected by Le Pen) backed Chirac on the second round, and at that time it could be taken as a fact that parties' voters would pretty much follow their parties' recommendations on the second round. In the event Chirac won 82%-18%.

Socialists wanted Chirac to beat Le Pen, but we had no special interest in Chirac piling up a huge majority. On the contrary: the best result for us would be one in which Chirac beat Le Pen, but a sizeable body of opinion could in some way express itself as standing for a left alternative to both of them. Since the only call for a blank vote came from the left - from Lutte Ouvrière - the blank votes could be a way of doing that, a second-best way, but better than nothing. In the event the blank vote was sizeable, at over 5%, although abstentions were much lower than in the first round. No-one can be sure, but it is reasonable to claim that blank vote as the expression of left-wing protest, at least in large part.

A substantial difference between bourgeois candidates in a run-off makes voting for the lesser evil the "common-sense" choice, but it does not make it compulsory.

The 2017 second round was different from 2002. It was always probable that Macron would win in the run-off, but not as certain as the 66%-34% outcome made it seem. Few voters were firmly attached to following the recommendations of their first-round choices. For example, 28% of the voters of the mainstream-right candidate François Fillon said in opinion polls that they would back Le Pen, despite the whole of the mainstream right backing Macron. (In the event, about 21% of them voted Le Pen).

For most of the time between the rounds, opinion-poll scores for Le Pen rose steeply, and those for Macron dropped steeply. Those who said they preferred Macron often said they were unsure as between turning out or abstaining. Even a small shock - say, another Islamist atrocity, to which Macron was perceived to react poorly, or a poor performance by Macron in the between-rounds TV debate - could have tipped the balance. In the event, Le Pen did poorly in the TV debate, Macron did well, and the polls swung towards Macron in the last few days. There was nothing certain about that.

Whereas in 2002 abstention dropped sharply between the first round and the second, in 2017 it rose sharply (37% abstention or blank or spoiled ballot, as against 25% on the first round).

If I understand our debate right, some comrades were swung by that large abstention rate away from voting Macron towards thinking that the blank-vote choice had been correct. I draw the opposite conclusion. In fact, the expectation that abstention might be big in the run-off was one of the factors prompting me, before the election, to raise the idea of favouring a Macron vote.

The abstention did not reflect a swing between 2002 and 2017 towards more independent working-class political self-assertion. On the contrary. In 2002 the revolutionary left had scored 10% in the first round of the election, and there were huge demonstrations between the two rounds. In 2017 the revolutionary left totalled 1.7% on the first round, and there was nothing more than the routine May Day demonstrations. The anarchists who were the most vocal in proposing abstention on the second round had stupid slogans like "ni banquier, ni facho" - neither a banker nor a fascist - as if fascism relieves us of the exploitative role of the capitalist banks!

The large abstention reflected widespread political indifference and fatalism ("so Le Pen is bad, but can she really be worse than the status quo?"); some success for Marine Le Pen's drive to cosmetically "de-demonise" the FN; and widespread sympathy, including among people on the left, for the nationalism-mixed-with-social-demagogy in Le Pen's pitch.

The most successful broadly-left candidate in the first round, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ran a heavily nationalist campaign. He refused to take a position on the second round, though eventually he muttered that he would himself vote and everyone could guess which way. Opinion-poll surveys of his voters between rounds showed up to 19% of them wanting to vote for Marine Le Pen in the run-off (<a href=""></a&gt;). In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen got fewer in the run-off than the total of his own votes and Mégret's in the first round: hardly anyone who voted for any sort of leftish candidate in the first round can have backed Le Pen in the second or just shrugged in indifference, rather than casting a purposeful blank vote (or voting Chirac, with the slogan "rather a crook than a fascist").

In the event, Mélenchon's voters went heavily for Macron. As I would see it, sense prevailed over demoralisation and indifference, and we should commend those in the Mélenchon camp who argued for such sense. 53% voted Macron, and between 11% and 7% (according to different surveys) voted Le Pen. 36% or more abstained or cast blank or spoiled ballots. (<a href=""></a&gt;)

Since no-one other than Lutte Ouvrière, who with a 0.64% first-round score cannot have had much sway, positively called for blank votes, there is no political basis for differentiating the mass of blank or spoiled ballots from the simple abstentions. To surf on the abstentionist wave of indifference, demoralisation, and nationalism, and call it a stand for independent working-class politics, would have been utter self-deception.

Of course, revolutionary socialists advocating abstention or blank votes could simultaneously have combatted nationalist ideas and made left-wing recommendations for the legislative elections that were to follow on 11-18 June.

But in no way could the blank votes or abstentions have expressed that combat or those recommendations. There is no way that, without making themselves ridiculous, socialists could have said to those around them: yes, Le Pen is worse, but don't vote Macron, because you can do better by using blank votes to assert a third alternative. Blank votes asserted nothing of the sort. In this case they were not better but much worse than the "common-sense" expedient of voting Macron to stop Le Pen while organising against Macron on the streets and for the legislative elections.

The high abstentions undoubtedly represented wide hostility to Macron, and a lot of it for good reasons. But not just hostility. In 2002, the roughly 45% who voted "left" of some sort on the first round would all have been hostile to Chirac. Chirac had been the right-wing president for seven years, including during Juppé's drive for pension cuts in 1995, which was met by a strike wave by some measures exceeding 1968's. He had been a chief figure of the French right over 40 years of often bitter class battles, back to the 1960s. The difference in 2017 was that the hostility which Macron had earned in his short spell as a minister under François Hollande flowed much less into purposeful resistance than the old hostility to Chirac had done, and much more into a sea of demoralisation and political indifference. That shift is a factor blunting and diminishing working-class self-assertion in politics, not promoting it.

One other argument has been put forward for a blank vote: whatever the rights and wrongs in France, a Macron vote would set a precedent pushing us towards choices such as backing Hillary Clinton against Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.

The short answer is: the whole argument here is about what to do in run-off elections, where third or alternative candidates are impossible. US presidential elections are not like that.

And the longer answer, discussing that 2016 election, goes as follows. Socialists would support those in Bernie Sanders's camp who argued for him to stand as an independent after losing the Democratic nomination. (I think we all agree about that). As I understand it, when Sanders refused, many of those people opted, as second-best, to back the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. That may or may not have been right. We made no "proclamation" on the issue, and I think we were wise not to.

Stein was the most visible generically-left candidate, and she did get 1.5 million votes. On the other hand, Stein's economic platform was barely even social-democratic. Her vice-presidential running mate, Ajamu Baraka, has pretty much antisemitic positions on Israel, and Stein herself did not clearly differentiate from those positions.

Maybe the right thing was for the Sanders movement, or socialists within the Sanders movement, to bring forward a candidate of their own, one of the few trade-union figures who backed Sanders for example, or to pick up and run with the (otherwise very marginal) Soltysik-Walker Socialist Party presidential candidacy.

If the Stein campaign was unusable, and the socialists couldn't engineer or encourage any better campaign, then that means that they lacked the means to intervene even minimally in the presidential election. The socialists may well have had very important things to say about the general political future, but what they said about the presidential election had no grip - or radically less grip than revolutionary and radical socialists in France had, or could have, in 2016.

In that case, I see no point in the socialists issuing any voting recommendation at all. To make a recommendation which comes with the subtext "we're making this recommendation only because we lack the forces to make any minimally relevant recommendation in this case" is only to discredit oneself and to dilute one's basic message in "tactics" which are actually empty pretence.

In his "First Ten Years of American Communism", James P Cannon comments on the 1920 US presidential election that the young Communist Party "issued a ringing proclamation calling the workers to boycott the elections! You might think that we could have just said, 'We have no candidate; we can't do anything about it'. That was the case, for example, with the... Trotskyists in 1940... we just let the matter pass. The Communist Party in those days, however, never let anything pass without issuing a proclamation. If I quite often show indifference to proclamations it is because I saw so many of them in the early days of the Communist Party. I lost entirely the idea that every occasion must have a proclamation. It is better to get along with fewer; to issue them on the more important occasions".

That sort of thinking would have been timely for socialists who tried to organise an intervention in the 2016 US presidential election but found that they lacked the forces to do it. They would of course not pretend that the election wasn't happening. They would comment. To comment truthfully - and there is no point commenting unless you do it truthfully - they would have to condemn Clinton's standard-issue neoliberalism, but also to point out that Trump's right-wing nationalist and racist demagogy was even more dangerous.

They could perfectly well, and comprehensibly, do that without positively recommending Clinton to any degree. To those who asked them how to vote, they would reply: if we had the forces, we would, with as many others as we could reach, support a working-class socialist candidate. As of yet, we do not have the forces do that, even on the most minimal level. In other words, we lack the forces to make any difference at all. We are working to change that, and we believe we will change that, but we haven't changed it yet. We will make our proclamations where and when we have the forces to do so meaningfully.

No doubt many of the listeners of those on-the-back-foot socialists would end up voting Clinton, as, by all accounts, most of the Orthodox Trotskyists' periphery voted Roosevelt around 1940. But the socialists themselves would and should focus on their long-term and fundamental explanations of socialism and working-class interests, without muddying those with toytown "tactics".

The attached article, by the US socialist Victor Wallis, is the only extended discussion of Marxism and lesser evils I can find. Myself, I don't find it particularly incisive or helpful, but I present it for what it is.

<a href="/system/files/The%20Lesser%20Evil%20as%20Argument%20and%20Tactic%20from%20Marx%20to%20the%20Present.pdf">Click here to download the Wallis article as pdf</a>.

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