US debate: call things by their right names

Submitted by martin on 11 April, 2021 - 10:53 Author: Paul Hampton

Part of an ongoing debate: click here for other contributions

The latest responses by Martin Thomas and Barrie Hardy in the US debate only demonstrate the confusion of those advocating the lurch towards the Democrats.

With little caricature, their argument seems to be: Trump is a fascist, therefore vote Democrat; the DSA is a large milieu, therefore join the Democratic Party. This position compounds a poor assessment of US reality, a misreading of history and a strategy of failure.

Workers Liberty pride ourselves on Trotsky dictum: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives.”

Comrades who advocate the turn to the Democrats have disregarded this method. Instead of engaging with US realities or the critical arguments, we get impressionistic musings and bygone reminiscences, historical analogies that don’t fit the situation and historical rewriting when the truth is inconvenient.


On the question of fascism, a desperate search for historical precedents has replaced honest assessment. In Recognising 21st century fascism, (28 March 2021), Barrie argues that “Il Duce didn't emerge as fully fledged ‘fascist’ until the mid-1920s”. This entirely ignores the fascist armed violence from 1920 used to beat down the labour movement and intimidate the Italian state, the March on Rome and the steps the fascists took in power from 1922 to obliterate the left and democracy.

Martin’s Seven more points on the US debates (11 April 2021) avoids the fundamental arguments by throwing in side issues. My contribution emphasises large-scale fascist violence preceding Mussolini’s rise to power, among other defining features. I cited Zetkin’s assessment from early 1923, before Hitler had even attempted the Munich putsch. I have hardly raised fascist ideology. What distinguishes fascism from military juntas, Bonapartists and other bourgeois authoritarians is precisely their use of organised violence prior to power, followed by the crushing of the labour movement when in power. This certainly applies to Mussolini, Hitler and other actual fascists.

Fascism in Spain did take a peculiar form, but this offers little succour for their argument. According to Pierre Broué, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (1961):

“Since February [1936], systematic counter-revolutionary activity prompted by the Falange had increased. It was in the streets, as in Germany and Italy, that the Falange emerged most clearly in its Fascist guise: its aim was to crush the revolutionary and labour movement with terror and violence, to attack party offices and newspaper vendors, meetings and processions, and to kill when it became necessary to eliminate an enemy or to set a salutary example. After the elections the Falangists had taken to armed struggle. In Madrid, carloads of escuadristas armed with automatic weapons sowed terror in the working-class districts. In Andalusia, pistoleros in their pay slaughtered fresh victims daily.”

On 16 June 1936, a rollcall was read out in the Cortes, indicative of the country’s atmosphere since the February elections: 269 killed and 1,287 wounded in street brawls, 381 buildings attacked or damaged, 43 newspaper offices attacked or ransacked, and 146 bomb attempts. This fascist violence preceded the uprising on 17 July 1936 by Franco, who went on to lead the fascists in the Civil War.

Martin reaches desperately for other cases in order to blur the differences between actual fascists and right wing, authoritarian and Bonapartist politicians. In Solidarity 584, 3 March 2021 (The US left and Trump: replying to debate, long version) he points to Pilsudski, who ruled Poland between 1926 and 1935. It is true that the Comintern, already infected with Stalinist poison, regarded Pilsudski as a fascist. Trotsky broadly shared this assessment. However it is clear from the recollections of Hersh Mendel and Isaac Deutscher, who were Polish Trotskyists in the early 1930s that this assessment was contested. They pointed out the unions remained legal, as did bourgeois political parties. By 1934, Trotsky admitted Pilsudski’s regime had Bonapartist elements, though he stuck with his classification. Crucially, neither Trotsky nor the Polish Trotskyists advocated entry into a capitalist party, in order to advance working class politics or combat Pilsudski’s “fascism”.

Similarly, it may be true that some French Trotskyists once called De Gaulle a fascist. But it is not credible looking back over his entire political life, including his time at the helm of the French state, to regard De Gaulle as a fascist. No doubt an assessment of modern fascist movements shows they have adapted. However the core threat of stormtroopers remains key to distinguishing real fascist threats from other enemies. Sadly, Martin’s frantic pursuit of analogies merely functions to rationalise his belated characterisation of Trump as a fascist.


Martin writes in Solidarity 584, 3 March 2021:
“Donald Trump is a fascist in politics because he aims for autocratic rule unrestrained by bourgeois democracy, and is building a mass plebeian movement on nationalist and populist lines, with a significant militarised component, as his battering-ram to achieve that.
“The USA is not a fascist state, and would not have become one if Trump had won on 3 November. No full-formed fascist movement exists yet in the USA.”

These claims cannot all be true. If Trump was a fascist at the time of the election, why wouldn’t he have ruled as fascist had he won? Was he building a fascist movement in power or building one now he’s not in office? Nowhere does Martin demonstrate how Trump commands this “militarised component”. At best, this is correlation. Nobody in this debate is complacent about the threat Trump may pose in the years ahead. But to conflate being and (possible) becoming in this fashion clouds more than it clarifies.

It is ironic that Martin has now moved a last minute amendment to the original “Caligula” resolution, shifting his position towards Trump becoming a fascist in the future, rather than previously. The shift is an admission the earlier assessment was false. However the revision leaves his position in tatters. If Trump was not a fascist in the November 2020 election, then why call to vote Biden? Trump might head up a fascist movement in the future, but that doesn’t automatically justify the “vote Biden” position in the November election. Yet Martin still retrospectively wants to endorse the “vote Biden” position for that election.

Martin’s position is incoherent. It also obscures the connection between rational assessment of the situation and our political conclusions. Suppose Trump does succeed in the coming years in coalescing around himself squads of fascist stormtroopers, who terrorise the labour movement and threats US democracy. The Marxist answer would be for union-backed armed militias and black self-defence units, together with political answers aimed at working class communities backing Trump. It would not subordinate these efforts to the ruling Democrat party. Undermining Trump’s hold on swathes of American workers depends on creating a working class political force independent of the Democrats, not dissolving into the capitalist party currently running the bourgeois state.

Socialists and the Democrats

For advocates of the lurch to the Democrats, the designation of ‘fascism’ acts to soften up opposition. The substantial disagreement is about voting Democrat and joining the Democrats to participate in their primaries. Here again, advocates employ bogus historical analogies in place of Marxist analysis.

Martin quotes Engels’ 1891 assessment of the way the two bourgeois parties, Democrats and Republicans, served the US ruling class. Engels followed US politics closely, corresponded with American socialists and visited in 1888. Nowhere in his writings on the US does Engels advocate joining the mainstream US bourgeois parties, even though the labour movement was weak.

Engels consistently advocated the formation of a labor party in US conditions, based on the unions, as the real movement within which Marxists should organise. His assessment of the upsurge in union organising and political action during 1886 repays carefully reading.

Engels’ approach was drawn from the experience of the emerging workers’ movements he had known and intervened in during his lifetime. In 1889, he wrote to the Danish socialist Gerson Trier:

“Marx and I have been advocating this ever since 1847 – for it to constitute a party in its own right, distinct from and opposed to all the rest, one that is conscious of itself as a class party.
“This does not mean, however, that the said party cannot occasionally make use of other parties for its own ends. Nor does it mean that it cannot temporarily support other parties in promoting measures…”

Asked about whether the Danish social democrats should work with bourgeois parties, Engels argued that it was “a question of tactics”. However, he warned that “a tactical error, however, may in certain circumstances, lead to an infringement of principle”. He counselled that “a genuinely proletarian party could not, or so it seems to me, collaborate with a party of that kind without in the long run forfeiting its class character as a workers’ party” (Engels to Gerson Trier, 18 December 1889. MECW 48: 423-25).

Martin cites other precedents for his US turn, such as the German SPD and the left in Britain before the Labour Party was formed. Even the Bolsheviks gave limited electoral support to the Kadets between revolutions. Yet all of these examples occurred in very different circumstances to the USA today, when the franchise was restricted and the labour movement only emerging as a mass force. Some of these tactics were legitimate, while others in retrospect look like errors. The point is not to repeat the mistakes of the past or duplicate the earliest, stumbling steps towards working class political representation. What matters is the coherence of the tactics, in the context of the time and as part of the wider strategy for socialism.

Cannon balls

It is mildly amusing to find Barrie referring to James Cannon on fascism to shore up his position, while Martin admonishes me for quoting Cannon against him on the Democrats (Solidarity 586, 24 March 2021). In the 1950s, Cannon wrote about the experience with the Democrats over previous decades. He explained that even right-wing socialists did not vote for or orientate to the Democrats until Roosevelt. Cannon was right that the adaptation by the trade union bureaucracy and some socialists to the Democrats from then onwards was a strategic error, which ultimately weakened the US labour movement.

I think Cannon was wrong about fascism in the 1950s, though no doubt McCarthyism was a serious threat. (On this, Shachtman was better). Cannon was undoubtedly wrong on Stalinism in the 1950s – and earlier – about this there is no dispute. However the historical materials on the US labour movement he wrote during the 1950s are still valuable.

Martin’s reply on Shachtman’s mistakes (Solidarity 586) is astonishing for its confusion. Martin had earlier argued that Shachtman went awry in the 1960s. I provided evidence of Shachtman’s shift away from revolutionary socialism from 1949. Shachtman began by tailing the trade union bureaucracy, who made their own political pact with the Democrats. Shachtman chose the bureaucracy over the rank and file and as part of that evolution, chose the Democrats over independent working class politics.

Shachtman’s support for the Democrats was integral to his rejection of revolutionary socialism. Most who went with him ended up marooned in the Democratic Party. The DSA’s “dirty break” is not premised, as Shachtman thought his was, on getting the union bureaucracy to take over the Democrats. Realignment happened, but the Democrats remained a capitalist party, funded and controlled by big business. For so many reasons, Shachtman’s path is not a model for today.

Martin reprints an article he wrote in 1984 for Socialist Organiser, (The USA: politics as a "business" and populism). He would have been better advised to reprint the article he wrote next to it, No Choice for Workers, where he rightly characterised the Democrats and the Republicans as the same sort of parties, both “represent the bosses and bankers who rule America”. At the time Reagan was rampant in the White House, while Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition was shaking up the Democrats. There were differences between the two main bourgeois parties. But rightly, no toying with “lesser evilism” or support for the Democrats at the time.

Sanders and the DSA

There is no disagreement about Marxists in the US engaging with the Sanders movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. Only a complete sectarian would ignore a candidate making propaganda for broad socialist ideas and only a political fool would write off an open socialist organisation with 90,000 members. However, what are we saying to them? We do not have a caucus within the DSA. Our biggest contribution is not vicarious tactical advice, but to assess the situation in light of the international experience of working class political representation.

Martin provides no assessment of the experience of the last five years or the current state of affairs among the Sandernista activists. Twice now Sanders has stood for the Democratic Party nomination, lost, and then folded behind the Democrat candidate. There is no assessment of these failures, nor more importantly, of the prospects right now. Given Biden and Harris are the incumbents, short of a tectonic shift within the Democratic Party or massive instability in the US political economy, they are likely to stand again. Even if Sanders does run again, how does this relate to the fight for working class political representation or the rank-and-file strategy in the unions. Far from a dirty break, it more likely ends with demoralisation and collapse into the Democrats.

Martin prettifies the DSA, stating (Solidarity 584) that “the DSA's formal policy was ‘Bernie or Bust’, so no recommendation on the presidential election”. This is disingenuous. DSA conference voted for ‘Bernie or Bust’, but many leading activists effectively abandoned it. In October 2020, a month before the election, a statement “DSA Members Organizing Against Trump” was circulated and signed by some leading DSA figures. It stated:

“A Trump loss would be unequivocally better for the working class and for our movement than a Trump re-election victory…

“In the interest of doing all that we can to secure a Trump loss… we, the undersigned Democratic Socialists of America members, are committing to volunteer our time to phonebanking, textbanking, doorknocking, and otherwise organizing to defeat Trump over the next four weeks.”

This is worse than calling for “vote Biden”. The statement does of course mean vote Biden and licenses activities to secure a Biden victory. But it was worse, because it made no a positive case for these political decisions, but rather dresses it up as mere anti-Trumpism.

We need to be clear about the ideologists directing this kind of approach. We already know something about Jacobin – for example its support for Brexit. Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara (What Should Socialists Do? Jacobin, 1 August 2017), wrote in glowing terms about the popular front in 1930s as a strategy for today, with only a minor lament on the role of the CP. This is disastrous and incumbent on us to say so.

Eric Blanc is a high-profile figure in the DSA. As I understand it, Blanc belonged to Alan Benjamin’s Socialist Organizer group, then the ISO (until 2018) and now Jacobin and the DSA. Starting from 2014, he published some iconoclastic articles about the Russian revolution, particularly on the national question. However by 2017 he accommodated to Lars Lih’s views about the Bolsheviks in 1917, which concluded that October was not really a socialist revolution. A massive step backwards.

Blanc’s views on the Democratic Party have undergone a familiar evolution. In Defying the Democrats (2014), he wrote about the labor party debates of the early 1920s and the need to found an independent workers’ party. By 2017, in The Ballot and the Break, he was distorting the history of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party to justify work in the Democratic primaries. Much of this has been rationalised by the misrepresentation of Lenin and the elevation of Kautsky, mangling the demand for workers’ governments made by the early Comintern with a fictitious democratic road to socialism. Blanc was, btw, a signatory of the “DSA Members Organizing Against Trump” statement.

We have to take responsibility in our debate for the signals we send to comrades in the US who read our press, engage with our ideas and may listen to our counsel. Martin’s position seems to me an uncritical endorsement of the orientation of Jacobin and the likes of Eric Blanc, who are evolving away from revolutionary socialism. The AWL’s third camp tradition has much more to offer.

Martin endorses the transformation of a tactic (stand candidates in Democratic primaries) into a strategy (build the core of a workers’ party within the Democrats). After the recent experience, this is to elevate a failed tactic into a disorientating strategy. As a strategy, this is a ‘line of least resistance’ approach, an apparent shortcut that seems to offer visible gains in candidates elected, membership growth and a wider audience for socialist ideas. However the ‘break’, dirty or clean, is pushed far into the future. And the strategic task of building an independent workers’ party still apparently off the immediate agenda. Quō vādis? If not now, when? If not these forces, then who? Those are the urgent questions facing the US left.

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