A policy based in realities

Submitted by AWL on 27 October, 2020 - 2:37 Author: Martin Thomas
White House protesters

Donald Trump is “setting the stage for an authoritarian Second Term”, putting people in place, putting down markers for street violence and for the rigging or flouting of elections.

Branko Marketic gives some recent detail in an article for Jacobin. In our debate in Solidarity, I think everyone has agreed that Trump and his base are at least “pre-fascist”, or “proto-fascist”, or “could develop in a fascist direction” after the 3 November election.

That makes Joe Biden, a standard neo-liberal, a lesser evil.

The obvious response in a vote between a lesser evil and a greater is to vote for the lesser.

For socialists the big “exception” is this: if a vote for a third option can substantially rally an independent working-class party to combat both bourgeois evils, then that third choice is likely to be better in any but the shortest short-term. Bourgeois lesser evils often bring slower and more roundabout routes towards the greater evil.

Or if the difference between the lesser evil and the greater is thin, then even a token protest vote or abstention may be better, to focus the idea that we need to fight both.

In this case the difference isn’t thin, there is no independent working-class party, and the obvious response is better.

In the USA, support for broadly-defined socialist ideas, anti-racist activism, and even strikes on some dimensions have risen in recent years in the USA (though overall union density continues to decrease, to 10.3% on the latest figures).

Whether we like or not, the most solid chunk of that ferment has been gathered together, in one way or another, in the Sanders and Black Lives Matter movements and in the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), which added 10,000 new members in the first months of the pandemic to reach 66,000 members (from 5,000 in 2015).

Those leftists will mostly be urging people to vote rather than fearfully stay home, to vote Biden to stop Trump, and to stay mobilised against a Trump coup and for left-wing causes after 3 November.

I do not want to paint this ferment as more than it is. It is not an independent working-class party, and can’t become one in the next days or months. It is overwhelmingly reformist, not revolutionary. It is heavily based among young high-formal-education city people. Many of the kitsch-left ideas as have messed up the Corbyn surge are influential in it. But, on the whole, the “Sanders surge” has been bigger and better than the Corbyn surge.

What should those people do now?

• Back Howie Hawkins, the socialist standing as the Green candidate

• Or combine a vote for Biden with an effort to organise themselves, reach out, recruit, push socialist policies, defend democratic rights against a “Trump coup” stealing the election, pursue radical reform of the decrepit US political system which even back in 1949 Max Shachtman described as “of all the bourgeois democracies, the most reactionary and the least responsive to the will of the masses” (In Defence of Bolshevism, p.141)

• Or, if the principle is “only vote for independent workers’ parties”, sit on their hands on 3 November?

The second option some US socialists have called “Defeat Trump, Battle Biden”. It starts from where political forces of the working class are now in the USA, and could haul them forward a step.

It does not require them to paint up Biden as Eric Lee does (Solidarity 569). It requires them only to say what the opponents of a Biden vote in this Workers’ Liberty debate already say: that we hope Biden wins.

With that second option, every word, every clause, is based on reality and not on private speculations. It is the politics of “tell the truth, no matter how bitter it may be”.

I used to think, though uneasily, that the Hawkins vote might still be better. Howie Hawkins is a respect-worthy socialist. On closer examination, backing Hawkins looks to me like an appeal to workers to turn away from the urgent issues towards a speculative political side-way.

I understand that some comrades want to back Hawkins despite his Green Party ticket. But in his recent interviews in Solidarity Howie explains that his plan for developing an independent working-class party in the USA is to build up the Green vote — a councillor here, a mayor there, a state rep somewhere else — and then “when 10 percent of the people start voting for the Green Party, then the unions will start looking at us!”

His recent statements give as a chief reason for voting for him that it will preserve the Greens’ ballot-line access for future elections.

Attention to Green Parties by small socialist groups should not be dismissed out of hand as “petty bourgeois”. But:

• The evidence across the world, including from countries which have had stronger and more active Green Parties than the USA, is that Green Parties cannot be transitional forms towards independent working-class socialist parties.

• At a time when the popularity of socialist ideas in the USA has been rising, Green Party membership has been falling since 2004, and Green Party votes for the House of Reps halved between 2008 and 2018.

• Hawkins insists that Trump is in substance “not more right-wing than some previous Republicans” — only “his invective” is worse — and talks up a Biden victory as almost certain.

To take the Greens’ ballot-line access — or the by-product protest-vote value of a campaign whose own aim is Greens-building — as the decisive criterion, you have to tilt towards claiming Trump can’t win and isn’t that bad anyway. The prior scheme in your head distorts your presentation of reality, rather than you allowing reality to shape your message.

Of course I hope the polls predict right, and Trump’s coup talk proves empty bluster. The resistance from the growing socialistic and anti-racist ferment can be a big barrier.

As long as it isn’t lulled by arguments like those from Hawkins...

The policy of the DSA and the Sanders movement isn’t good, but it can be much better developed to get a message that does ring true.

The DSA is tied by a “Bernie or Bust” August 2019 convention decision not to back a Biden vote straight out. So it says: “A second Trump term would be catastrophic for our class” (draw your own conclusion, no?) and “we have to build our socialist movement, so that we can continue the struggle against austerity; the struggle to defund the police; the struggle to win a Green New Deal; the struggle to win Medicare for All”.

That message would ring more true and solid if developed to an explicit vote-Biden line (coupled with criticism of Biden), more explicit preparation against a Trump coup, and policies for democratic reform.

The chief Sanders organisation, Our Revolution, says: “Organise a powerful grassroots movement inside the halls of power and outside in the streets to win transformative change after the election!”

Hawkins’ claim that Bernie Sanders has dropped Medicare for All ( Solidarity 569) is not true. On 23 October, for example, Sanders explained that Biden has a 100 day plan, and he, Sanders, has a different 100 day plan to fight for, with Medicare for All as item #1.

Marxists working within the movement could build on such stances to develop a sharper, clearer, more critical version.

Many of the objections to voting Biden are similar to arguments against voting Labour in Britain, for example in 1979, when Thatcher won. What if Labour under Callaghan had won? It would have continued the big social cuts it had already started. It would have brought in privatisation and curbs on unions as the Labor leaders in Australia, Callaghan’s political close kin, did when they took office from 1983. By demoralising people, it would have boosted Thatcherism’s plebeian base.

All that would have happened unless we, the left, had been able to turn things over within the labour movement. We worked to develop a socialist voice within the Labour vote in 1979 because that was the best way to build a force to turn things over. No such force could have been built by people who had first “sat out” the 1979 poll.

Labour is a “bourgeois workers’ party”, and the Democrats are a straight bourgeois party. There is little “party discipline”, but senior Democrats advise their new Congress members that they must spend four hours every day phoning to get donations for their next election campaign. Of course, mostly they’ll be phoning and seeking favour from rich people.

The difference is important. But today, whatever about yesterday or tomorrow, there is enough truth in the “building a party within a party”, “dirty break” idea current in the Sanders movement to make a basis for a “vote and fight” tactic.

And for exactly the same reasons that there has been enough truth in that idea for Marxists to get involved (critically, as ever) in the Sanders campaign and the DSA. Not all Marxists agreed that was right. But if you did agree it was right, then “Dump Trump, Battle Biden” is less of a “turn to the Democrats”.

An argument that it’s OK to get involved in Democratic primaries to back left candidates, and to back those left candidates in general elections, but it’s not OK to take 3 November as a “referendum on Trump”, is incoherent.

• More of this argument online: “Fascism and Trump: theory and history”, and “Marxists and the Democrats”

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