The third camp and the lesser evil

Submitted by martin on 17 April, 2021 - 6:56 Author: Paul Hampton

Part of an ongoing debate on the USA. Click here for all the other contributions

Martin’s “Democrats 2” resolution is probably the greatest danger in this debate. It threatens to generalise his mistakes on the United States into a universal methodology. This effectively diminishes the third camp tradition we have been building for decades and want to build in the immediate years ahead. Martin’s text states:

“In an election choice between two bourgeois candidates, where there is a big and clear difference — such that in rational comment observant socialists routinely say that a victory for one is much preferable to a victory for the other — and where there is no viable working-class candidate, it is a valid option for socialists to vote critically for the "lesser evil". They explain this simply by saying that it is the "lesser evil", and that encouraging workers to come out and vote in such a choice (while also urging them to work with socialists in our efforts to create better choices in future) helps future possibilities better than a shrug or a non-vote. That applied in the November 2020 US presidential election.” (my emphasis)

Martin’s other reasoning that Trump is a fascist simply does not add up, unless the word “fascist” is so elastic as to lose its specific meaning. But Martin’s rationale here is that the Democrats are the “lesser evil” in a wider sense.

The Democrats are the party of big business and bankers. They are currently the ruling party again, as they have been for half of the last century or more. They have a stable apparatus, funding and an entrenched party bureaucracy. The Democrats may have changed their outward forms, shed some Dixicrats and gained some other sectors, but they remain a party of capitalists, who administer bourgeois governments for capitalism. Nothing qualitative has changed that characterisation in recent years.

Nevertheless, the Democrats have also probably been the “least-worst” bourgeois party compared to the Republicans for decades. They have offered limited welfare programmes. They have been better on special oppression and minority rights. They have long had the backing of the trade union bureaucracy. Latterly, they have been better on climate change, within the realm of bourgeois politics. If all this is true, then Martin should explain why only now he thinks that it is acceptable to vote Democrat as a “lesser evil”?

But politics should be forward-facing. If it is okay to vote Democrat now, will it still be a lesser evil in two year’s time, with the Senate, governors and other contests hanging in the balance? Will the Democrats still be the lesser evil in four year’s time, when Trump or one of his acolytes – or some other right-wing Republican – stands against Biden/Harris for the presidency? Martin’s logic is not simply a one-off for November 2020. It is an electoral stance in the United States for the foreseeable future. It turns an exceptional tactic into a norm.

The greater flaw is to generalise the mistake about voting Democrat in the United States into a universal methodology, apparently applicable to other states. If so, this position would retrospectively overturn the third camp tradition on elections we’ve held to for decades. Martin’s formulation licenses voting for bourgeois candidates in numerous cases where previously the AWL has taken a different view.

Martin’s criteria of “viability” is especially slippery, since it is difficult to tell in advance of an election what a “viable” outcome looks like. It could mean the worst bourgeois candidate could be beaten if the socialists rallied behind the least-worst bourgeois candidate. Or it might mean withdrawing a workers’ candidate if their polling is so low as give them no chance of winning, or getting above a reasonable threshold, such as 5%. The concept of “viability” is slippery because Martin nowhere defines what it means or how it is decided.

Some election results from recent history might illustrate the flaws with Martin’s position:

In South Africa in 1994, in the first post-apartheid election, the AWL supported Neville Alexander and the Workers’ List. Nelson Mandela and the ANC won the election, with almost two-thirds of the 20 million votes. The Workers’ List got around 4,000 votes, or 0.02%. By Martin’s new method that seems unviable. Yet Alexander planted an important flag for working class political representation.

In the 2012 Venezuelan presidential election, Hugo Chávez headed a party openly claiming fidelity to “twenty-first century socialism” and won more than eight million votes (55%), against an authoritarian right-wing opposition that had already tried to overthrow him. However the class struggle socialist and trade unionist Orlando Chirino for the Party for Socialism and Liberty stood. He only got 4,000 votes (0.02%). By Martin’s new method that seems unviable. Yet in my view, Chirino planted an important flag for working class representation.

In 2012, the Awami Workers Party in Pakistan was formed from forces including Labour Party Pakistan, with whom the AWL maintained relations. In the 2013 Pakistani general election the Awami Workers Party received 18,000 votes or 0.04% of the national share. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which contains some socialists (backed by the IMT), lost the election to reactionary forces. The AWP would meet Martin’s “unviability” test; the PPP his lesser evil test. Yet our solidarity was rightly with the workers’ candidates.

In the first round of presidential elections in France in 2002, Arlette Laguiller (LO) won 1.6 million votes (5.7%) and Olivier Besancenot (LCR) 1.2 million (4.3%). The Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was beaten into third by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen by 200,000 votes, less than 1%. So the run off was between conservative Jacques Chirac and the fascist Le Pen. The AWL supported LO and the LCR and did not call for Chirac in the second round. By Martin’s new criteria, the Trotskyist candidates might just have been “viable”, but they upset the “lesser evil” in his new criteria.

In the United States, Eugene Debs garnered just 87,000 votes or 0.6% in his first election in 1900. The Democrat lost by less than a million votes. The AFL had backed the same Democrat four years previously. I would regard Debs’ candidacy as the first step towards working class political representation, but by Martin’s criteria, it wasn’t “viable” and might have upset the lesser evil.

In 2000 Ralph Nader won 2.8 million votes (2.7%), while the Democrat Al Gore got half a million more votes than the Republican George Bush, but still lost. Nader’s candidacy, with some union and socialist backing, was a small step towards left independent candidates. Gore would probably pass Martin’s lesser evil test against Bush. Does Martin retrospectively repudiate support for Nader?

Historically, attempts at working class political representation have garnered small votes. Third camp socialism has to start somewhere. I think we were right in these past cases. But adopting Martin’s position creates a policy for forthcoming elections for the foreseeable future.

“Viability” is not a valid criteria. In all elections, there are differences between bourgeois parties and pressure to concede to the lesser evil. To follow Martin’s path is to forever remain the appendage of bourgeois political parties. To accept Martin’s logic is ultimately to rule out small independent working class candidates, and with it, our historical right to exist.

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