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This article is adapted from an introduction given in a recent debate between advocates of two opposing motions to AWL annual conference, setting out perspectives on the US political situation
In moving our motion I’m going to highlight four areas of disagreement with Thomas Carolan’s motion and Martin Thomas’s additions to it: what's driving the far right upsurge in the US; whether or not Trump is a fascist; calls to vote for Biden in the 2020 election (and more broadly, lesser evilism in electoral politics); and finally, the orientation to the Democratic Party suggested in particular by some of Carolan's recent writings.
Understanding the hard-right surge
In its discussion of the politics of Trumpism and the upsurge of far-right politics in the US, Carolan’s motion focusses disproportionately on the role of religion, irrational thinking, and “post-truth” politics. This explanation of the US situation – essentially giving the impression that the author thinks the US electorate simply became muddled and senile because of a lack of intellectual rigour, atheist scepticism and respect for truth – is (ironically) rather lacking in materialism.
First, this is not the mid-2000s and Trump is not Bush Jr. Right-wing organised religion plays a big role, but it is not even as central as it perhaps was then - at least not to the most extreme elements of the Trumpist coalition.
Second, it is superficial and thoroughly misguided to focus more on irrational discourse than factors such as the deep history of racism in America; the material deprivation and sickness riddling many parts of US society (from persistent unemployment resulting from industrial shifts, to the opioid epidemic); the paranoia of nationalists in an imperial superpower who are conscious and jealous of the re-emergence of a rival imperial camp; and the disenchantment and disaffection bred by Democrats’ broken promises - not least those of the Obama presidency in which Biden served.
Fascist or mobster?
Both sides of this debate agree that Trump is a dangerous right-wing authoritarian – a step outside previous US bourgeois political norms, even for the Republican right. And he has certainly encouraged and amplified actual fascists, militias and the like, who now have to be faced.
But Carolan and Thomas do not tell us when Trump became a fascist. Was he a fascist when he was a real estate mogul or a reality TV celebrity? When he stood in 2016?
Why did he sack Steve Bannon – probably the closest thing to a textbook fascist in his administration? Why didn't he make more efforts to dismantle bourgeois democratic institutions - not just the culture, but the institutions themselves - during his term, rather than only when worried he would lose the election? Perhaps most significantly from a Marxist perspective, why were his attacks on organised labour little more than a continuation of standard Republican/Conservative policies?
His orientation to the far-right street movements was inconsistent and selective, mainly ramping up when he realised he might lose the 2020 election. But even then, he spent most of his time on no-hope lawsuits. He only really leaned into mobilising the thugs for an obviously doomed set-piece at the Capitol in January. He could have been mobilising them for much more thoroughgoing voter obstruction at the polls, and intimidating functionaries throughout the autumn (not just pathetically begging them by phone to rig counts). Many of us, including on this side of the debate, were surprised (and relieved) that he didn’t go further in this respect.
Far more than a fascist, Trump approached office as a mobster. Our opponents have countered that ideological sophistication is not a prerequisite for being a fascist. But surely some heartfelt political commitment to its goals and principles is required? Do we really believe Trump was motivated more by some fascist vision for America, more than just his own personal, rather apolitical desire to see himself and his cronies get and keep power?
In sum, Trump has acted much more as an (incompetent) aspiring Putin than an (incompetent) aspiring Mussolini. That pushed him to appeal to fascist forces as convenient, but that is not the same as being a fascist.
Bannon, and many of the more serious fascists, seem to recognise that themselves – viewing him either as a useful idiot, or as providing an opening, more than as one of their own. Now some of them have openly abandoned him.
Biden and proxy arguments
But the fascism label is not the most important thing in this debate. Rather, it has largely become a proxy for whether the threat Trump poses justifies the kind of orientation to bourgeois political forces that Carolan and Thomas advocate.
Whether he's a fascist or not, this orientation is not the answer. In facing the far-right that Trump has helped to whip up, socialists need to emphasise independent working class politics, not point workers into cross-class dead-ends.
This brings me to Biden. The US socialists who positively advocated a vote for Biden squandered a key opening to educate those around them about independent working class politics, and in doing that, help further entrench the deep-rooted existing problem. Making the task that bit harder when (if) they finally do attempt to lead the required break.
If we follow them, we miseducate ourselves too. I encourage comrades to consider the potential corrosive effect on our own thinking.
Some advocates seemed to regard a Biden vote as an exception. Back Biden, bourgeois politics can get back to “normal”, and you can get back to advocating working class political independence. But far-right populism is on the rise globally. Electoral contests where the two leading candidates are hard right populists versus bourgeois centrists, could be increasingly common or even a new normal. And to the extent that we fail to develop and grow independent working class forces, that will get worse, not better.
It has been suggested that a Biden vote follows straightforwardly from our tendency’s position in favour of a second-round vote for Macron in the second round of 2017’s French Presidential election. But Thomas’ amendment on lesser evilism introduces a new test – pointing to a vote for bourgeois candidates whenever the working class and socialist candidates are not “viable”.
“Viability” is totally and dangerously undefined, leading us to ask – does Thomas seek to revisit the positions we and our predecessors and co-thinkers have taken in elections around the world and across more than a century - of attempting to build independent working-class forces for the long term, even where they stand no chance of winning the next election? Revision of past positions is legitimate and often necessary but should be done with specificity and clarity.
In opposition to electoral lesser evilism, we argue that the greater evil is to put off independent working-class politics to the future. Moreso to a future that is rapidly contracting, as multiple catastrophic crises close in.
It is vital to be clear that the Democrats and the Republicans are not parties in the straightforward sense that we understand the British Labour or Conservative parties to be.
They are much looser formations, more autonomous of their activist bases even than the British Conservatives, certainly than any centre-left bourgeois workers’ party in Europe.
That, especially given how the US’s repressive laws obstruct ballot access for upstart and minor-party candidates, is why it is legitimate to back a working class, trade unionist, social democratic or socialist candidate running in Democratic primaries. Such a candidate can run substantially from outside the “party”, and if nominated would have the power to set out a platform relatively autonomously from the party machine.
So it was right to back Sanders, but we have to be clear that such a run should be viewed as a hijack of the Democratic primary. Once you see it as more than hijacking, you get sucked into the dead-end that progressive movements in America have been sucked into time and again. We can see the results in the large sections of the US left now thinking of themselves not so much as mobilising a militant opposition to Biden, but seeking a seat at his table as critical advisers – for instance, in the (thankfully failed) bid to get Sanders into the cabinet.
As for the DSA, nobody in this debate disputes that socialists should orient to the DSA, that the DSA is the first place where we find the forces that could build an independent working-class party. But Thomas’ position offers no proposals of what socialists should actually do in the DSA.
I am open to certain types of “dirty break” strategy, such as that set out in Seth Ackerman’s 2016 “Blueprint for a New Party”. But that blueprint is not what the DSA, or politicians like AOC and Sanders, are currently doing.
Socialists need to be fighting for the DSA to develop itself into a proto-party, with a (democratically-developed and living) programme, that consciously and deliberately decides to run candidates on that programme and hold them to it – whether on the Democratic ballot line or otherwise. By contrast, Sanders and AOC are not accountable to the movement. They run their own campaigns at will and the DSA decides whether to issue an endorsement for them. Once in office, that heightens their susceptibility to rightward slides – witness AOC’s accommodation with the Democratic party machine.
So yes, orient to the DSA. But that is the beginning, not the end, of the issue. And it is not the same thing as orienting to the Democratic Party.