USA: the issues

Submitted by Class Struggle on 21 April, 2021 - 7:22

Part of an ongoing debate on the USA. Click here to read all the contributions.

1. "Trump is a fascist or quasi-fascist"

• Why vote for this? To recognise sharply the danger which Daniel and his co-authors also recognise in muffled form by writing about "the threat of a mass fascist movement" in the immediate next years, and Mark by writing that "a movement around Trump... could develop in a clearly fascist direction". Duncan even writes: "no-one... disagrees Trump and the movement around him has fascist potential". Someone whose existing movement can, by cohering in the next years (not by transmuting in some hypothetical relatively remote future), become clearly fascist is... a fascist. Or at least a quasi-fascist.

• It's not over-sharp, though. We stressed right from the start of this debate, and not as a concession to opponents, that the elements of a full-on fascist movement in the USA are still inchoate. Barrie Hardy and Luke Hardy (and Robert Cuffy in an interview) were the first in our press, I think, to raise the idea that Trump is fascist, or fascistic, or "neo-fascist". At that stage no-one responded: "No! Absolutely not!"
In his very first article,, Sean started, to be sure, with the attention-grabbing claim that Trump is a fascist. But, right then, he was careful to qualify it by emphasing that the elements of a fascist movement are still uncohered. In that same article he pointedly used "fascistic" (which I take to mean the same as quasi-fascist) as an alternative adjective for Trump himself. Our text for conference states that "Trump’s attempts at a coup against the 2020 presidential election have been inept, clumsy, counterproductive for him. Trump’s childishness served his opponents well"; and that the elements of fascism may dissolve without cohering.
That may happen if for example the Biden administration does even quarter-well in engineering capitalist prosperity over the next years, or if anti-Trump Republicans rally themselves. Only: don't rely on those possibilities.

• If you want to say "quasi-fascist" rather than "fascist", to stress the not-yet-cohered character of Trumpist politics, it's not worth arguing about the nuance. But against those who insist that Trump is definitely not fascist or even quasi-fascist, it is worth arguing.

• The definition is as sharp as you need to promote activity like the mobilisations to pre-empt a Trump coup in late 2020 and to argue for the US left to turn out on the streets against the far right (which it is visibly reluctant to do). But no more so.

• Trump acts as a mobster? Ok. Being a mobster doesn't exclude being a fascist!

• To restrict the term "fascist" to sharply-defined and consistent ideological fascists who have already built a highly-controlled army of stormtroopers would restrict it, historically, pretty much to the Nazis alone. It is untrue to the history of fascism in the 1920s and 30s, let alone to the varieties of 21st century fascism. The description of fascism in the 1920s and the 1930s in the document by Daniel and others is just wrong historically: I have argued that at, and it would be bad to vote for a text making factually wrong statements about the 1920s and 30s.

• No, the alternative to that ultra-restricted definition of fascism is not the idea of "creeping fascism" as per Neil Faulkner and others. I have explained ( what I think wrong with Faulkner's ideas. He dissolves the populist social demagogy of fascism into reactionary bourgeois ideology in general, the class differentiations of the 80%-90% plebeian majority into a single category as supposedly all "working-class", and the crushing of the working class into reaction in general. That's one thing.
But politicians and political movements mostly develop into fascism (or, sometimes, even away from it), rather than being "born" 100% fascist and sticking to fascist politics without deviation. Mussolini. Franco. Mosley. De la Rocque. De Gaulle. Tsankov. Pilsudski. Frank Hague (apparently Jersey City police, very atypically, turned back strikebreakers in the 1920s. Hague became a fierce opponent of union organisers only in the 1930s...). That's another thing.

• Daniel has been misinformed about my contribution in a pre-conference meeting about "fascist bullets". He has me saying he tells people in America, “don't worry if you're killed by gun-toting Trump supporters, they won't be 'fascist bullets'.”
In fact, I was talking about the argument that Trump cannot be a fascist because the Trumpist militias are not sufficiently cohered to be comparable to the SA. Not every fascist movement has an SA, I pointed out. The National Front in the 1970s did not have an SA. When we rallied to defend Brick Lane against the NF in 1978, we did not go with guns, and we didn't expect to be shot by the NF. (None of us were. The NF did not bring guns, and anyway, thanks to our mobilisation, were headed off by cops).
The Trumpist militias are already nearer to full-on fascism than the NF was in the 1970s. Yet the US left has not responded to 6 January 2021 as the French left responded to the fascist (quasi-fascist? fascistic?) demonstration of 6 February 1934, by organising big counter-mobilisations.
Why not? Because they are certain that the threat in the USA is much less fascist than in France in 1934? Even though the French far right did not have guns then; their most important contingent quit as soon as things got violent; that contingent's leader, de la Rocque, always denied being fascist; the police shot dead 16 far-rightists; and the far-rightists killed no cops? No, the US left are hesitant because they are (with reason) more scared than French leftists were in 1934 that the far-right will respond with bullets.
In practice, the US leftists see the threat as more scary than the French leftists did in 1934. It would be wrong to "talk them down": really, no, this threat is smaller. A threat, but not a comparable threat. Bullets, but not fascist bullets?

2. The DSA and Democrat primaries

• Why vote for this? To register that something important has happened in the last six years or so which we didn't expect. Socialist agitation against mainstream Democrats within Democrat primaries has proved capable of winning mass support from which sizeable organisation has been crystallised.

• Bernie Sanders got 13 million votes for broadly-defined socialist ideas in the 2016 primaries, and 10 million in the 2020 primaries when he withdrew earlier. That's much more than the one million votes which Debs got at his peak (which was not for a "perfect" campaign, either: it was for the reformist Socialist Party in 1920, after the revolutionary left had already split away). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got 16,000 votes in her 2018 House of Reps district primary to displace a well-entrenched mainstream Democrat incumbent tipped as likely to succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House of Reps. Cori Bush, also a DSA member, got 73,000 votes in her 2020 House of Reps district primary to displace an even better-entrenched "progressive Democrat". All those votes, note, were votes against Democrats. The DSA has grown from a dormant group in 2015, with a median age of 68, to a youth-based movement of over 90,000, bigger than any previous socialist organisation in the USA except the Debs Socialist Party at its peak just before World War 1 (113,000).

• These gains came from crystallising and focusing a pro-socialist sentiment that was previously atomised, not organised, not active in a socialist way. And absolutely not because people were flocking to the Democrats. In 2015, when Sanders started his campaign, the Democrats had lost heavily in state and Congressional elections for some years (and they still haven't recouped their losses in the states). The Republicans, however, were still in the mode when many of their leading figures talked about the need to widen and soften their appeal, to get away from being based too narrowly among angry, ageing, white men in small towns (i.e. the core constituency which Trump would return to with a bang). Everyone thought that the most likely choice in 2016 would be between Hillary Clinton and a "moderate" Republican like Jeb Bush. Sanders made an impact because people were disaffected with the Democrats, not because they were rallying to the Democrats.

• The gains happened at the same time as the ISO dissolved itself, Solidarity waned further into a loose educational network, and the Green Party lost support.

• The "orthodox Trotskyist" position, as stated by Cannon in 1954, was that it was political suicide to get involved in such activities as Democrat primaries. Political suicide on principle, not just poor tactics at this or that time. We should recognise that was wrong.

• The other motions aren't clear what they want. Daniel's and the others' is explicit about supporting activity in the Sanders movement and the DSA. But then they distinguish their view from ours by saying they oppose an orientation "of the type we (AWL) currently have to the Labour Party" (in Britain). We haven't argued for an orientation to the Democrats similar to the one to the Labour Party (and because of the huge difference in structures, it would be impossible anyway!) The (rough) British analogy we've made has been with socialists' intervention in Liberal-linked Radical Clubs in the late 19th century. Paul, one of the co-signatories of Daniel's motion, rebukes all who want to "intervene in the Democrats" at all. Mark's text rejects all and every "activist orientation to the Democrats". The words on paper indicate, in retrospect, that we should have opposed US socialists getting involved in the Sanders movement or in AOC's or Cori Bush's primary challenges. I think Mark and Paul don't actually mean what they have written. Voting for texts which say, on paper, the opposite to what you know the writers actually mean, or which define their stance only by negation of something which no-one in the actual debate argues, is not good.

• The DSA is loose, incoherent, heavily based among high-formal-education big-city youth, mostly reformist, with a strong influence of kitsch-left or even Stalinoid ideas. The DSA could well fragment and decay. But US Marxists should try to consolidate it. That can only by done by recognising what has been gained already. Not trying to define it out of existence, or dismiss it as a momentary aberration which came about only because people were temporarily warm to the Democrats (they weren't!).

• The DSA is more activist, and more oriented towards unions and working-class activity than it was in 2015. It still has a long way to go. But its work in Democrat primaries has sharpened leftist hostility to mainstream Democrats, not weakened it. It has increased leftist non-electoral activity, not dampened it. Many people have joined the DSA to fight the Democrats, rather than passively accepting the Democrats as a fact of life.

• The argument in the motion is not at all, as Daniel has it, to adopt "an idealised picture of what the DSA is actually doing". Still less is it, as Duncan would have it, to argue for the DSA to turn more to work in primaries. Or, as Mark would have it, to "advocate a major tactical shift for the US left". Neither the motion, nor anything written in support of it, suggests anything like those ideas.

• The motion does not even remotely suggest supporting the line which Sanders has proposed in recent months, just pushing the Democrats to become more "progressive". Even the DSA core leadership (which I hold no brief for) differs from that. Read the responses to the 3 November 2020 result in Solidarity 571 The DSA scorns the Democrats' results, counterposes the successes of socialist candidates and campaigns, describes the Democratic Party flatly as "a failure", and asks how "the working class [will] build enough real power... to have our own party".
But the DSA statement says it doesn't know how to get there, beyond "putting boots on the ground"? Indeed! It does at least say it wants to get there. By contrast, Howie Hawkins' response says nothing about plans for a workers' party, but instead focuses on new electoral efforts for the Green Party. A picture of the DSA as a magnetic force dragging young activists away from better things into electoralism, and Hawkins as the figure to latch onto to draw people into workplace-focused politics, is awry.

• The new and unexpected developments for socialism in the USA come in part, probably, as an unexpected result of a gradual change in the whole structure of US politics (the "Sixth Party System"), in which the once-strong Democrat base of precinct committees and so on has shrivelled, and primaries have become the highly-dominant form of political contest within the Democrat party. Detailed tactics and recommendations for the DSA about how in future they can combine some openings made by Democrat primaries with fundamental working-class agitation towards a workers' party, are difficult to map. Even more difficult from a distance. For sure, I don't know, beyond generalities, and do not attempt to prescribe. The motion deliberately does not attempt to prescribe, beyond a general indication of the priority of union and workplace and working-class community activity and of ideological clarification.

• Terrible things happened in the 1960s with leftists getting lost in the Democratic Party? Comrades repeat this line, but it's still not clear what they're referring to. SDS started out as one of the variety of organisations which are "around" the Democratic Party without being structurally "in" it. "Progressive" reform of the Democratic Party was one of SDS's stated aims. In the 1964 presidential election, it had a "project" to get out the Democrat vote on campuses. By that stage, already, many SDSers were just not interested in that. I would guess most of the new young SDSers had never been interested in Democrat politics. It wasn't that they had suddenly "seen through" the Democrats after previously "having illusions". As far as I know none were interested in backing the SWP-USA's 1964 candidate (0.05%, but arguably viable as a party-building exercise for the SWP) or the De Leonite SLP's (0.06%, but why would we want to build the SLP?)
The "Shachtmanites" (most significantly Michael Harrington, later founder of the DSA) were well-positioned in SDS to make gains from its expansion and radicalisation. In fact, they ruled themselves out of contention early on by reacting bureaucratically to the (real) Third-Worldist drift in the 1962 Port Huron statement, rather than listening and arguing patiently. The SWP never intervened in SDS. The Draper faction of the ex-Shachtmanites would intervene, later, but with little success. The "electoral" wing of their policy was the Peace and Freedom Party as a vehicle for protest votes. I don't think they ever argued that the Peace and Freedom Party was a working-class party, or likely to mutate into one. It surely wasn't, and it wasn't a success in any terms.
By the late 1960s the SDS was dominated by different factions of ultra-left Maoists. In 1969 it would split between urban-guerrilla Maoists and go-to-the-factories Maoists. Both wings dissipated, the urban guerrillas quicker than the go-to-the-factories types.
Most of the remnant Maoists quit politics. As I understand it, a fair number of those few remaining active mutated into left-Democrat types. But to stop that mutation needed argument about Maoism and working-class politics, not about tactics for revolutionary socialists. They were fully up for shunning the Democrats when they considered themselves revolutionary socialists! The SWP-USA got a lot of flak for having left Democrat politicians as speakers on anti-war demonstrations. But I think their broad-movement orientation was better than the Maoists' ultra-left direction of that time.
A number of earlier-1960s SDS figures, like Tom Hayden, spun off as the SDS descended into ultra-left Maoism. Where would they end up? Maybe just inactive. Maybe in academia, maybe in NGO-world, maybe as union full-timers. Those who wanted to continue to be active in formal politics would probably end up around the Democrats. In the same way, the Labour Party has lots of people who were ultra-lefts when young, then "matured" into gradualism but wanted to keep some less-demanding formal political activity.
The differences between Labour and the Democrats are real. I noted, a while back, that the Democrats advise their new members of Congress that they must spend four hours on the phone every day raising campaign funds, and where will the big majority of them go to "sell themselves" and solicit those funds other than to rich people? Paul usefully adds information about how much money all that phoning has raised. But that worn-out ex-radicals, after becoming "ex", end up domesticated in the Democratic Party, tells us nothing about those differences.

3. Biden

• Why vote for this motion? To register that telling the truth, and finding the best way to advance socialist ideas, is the priority at election time, not preconceived electoral formulas.

• Also, to register that the circumstances in the November 2020 election were indeed "pressing". "Trump's contempt for the norms of bourgeois democracy, even the limited democratic system of the US, poses a genuine threat", as Daniel and his co-authors admit. As they also admit, he has since 2015-6 built an "amplified... far right, including explicitly fascist elements [and] armed right-wing militias", which poses "the threat of a mass fascist movement growing in the US" in the very short term.

• "Pressing", also, because just a 0.32% swing in the recorded vote from Biden to Trump on 3 November would have secured a "legal" coup for Trump (he would have been re-elected President by the House of Reps voting, one vote per state, on the basis of a tied electoral college, although Biden would still have had 6.5 million more votes than Trump).

• To advocate a vote for Biden for 3 November, together with a socialist struggle against Biden, required no painting-up of Biden. All we had to say "for" Biden was what Daniel and his co-writers also say in their text: that it would be a (big, not just marginal) relief if Trump were no longer president.

• A "protest vote" for Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker was in the circumstances an exercise in political escapism. An effort for such a "protest vote" wrapped the valuable socialistic propaganda which Hawkins and Walker made in a package where to support socialist ideas you also had to support a Green Party which has no potential to become a working-class party and to dismiss the threat from Trump as not "pressing". The wrapping was more likely to discredit than to accredit socialist ideas.

• Neither the motion, nor anything written in support of it, indicates that voting for bourgeois lesser-evil candidates (real lesser-evils, not illusory or marginal ones) becomes a default, even where there is no working-class options.

• Notice that no-one in the debate says that voting for bourgeois lesser-evil candidates is always ruled out. That's an arguable view, but no-one is arguing it. Some comrades, sometimes, argue as if voting Hawkins in November 2020 was a straight deduction from long-established principle. But it wasn't. No-one has actually tried to argue (rather than imply) that it was.

• The case against our motion thus comes down to suggesting that it makes voting for bourgeois lesser-evil candidates a "default" (but it doesn't do that!); or to claiming that the threat from Trump in late 2020 was not "pressing" (because he was bound to lose, or because he is definitely not even quasi-fascist).

• Of course our priority is to develop working-class options in elections. The motion explicitly limits its ambit to the case where there is no working-class option.

• It says "viable" working-class option. "Viable" doesn't mean "likely to win the election", or "sure to win more than 5%", or any such high bar. It means, capable of life. That's the dictionary, not us giving a special meaning. It contrasts with nominal or notional pseudo-options. In response to Duncan's question, the Labour Party was a "viable" party in the Isle of Wight even in 1992 or 1983. In response to Paul's point about South Africa, we considered WOSA "viable" in 1994... Etc.

• Even when there are no working-class options, it says only that voting for the bourgeois lesser-evil (a "much-lesser-evil", not an "on-balance-probably-lesser-evil") is "an option". Not "the default". "An option". There are other options. For example: a blank-vote campaign (as in France in 2002). I got the idea from Lutte Ouvrière, but LO argued it explicitly on the claim that there was no real difference between Le Pen and Chirac. Though I didn't realise it then, my article of 2002 was (as far as I know) the first writing ever by a Trotskyist to say: there is a bourgeois much-lesser-evil here, and no working-class alternative on the ballot paper, but still we should not vote for the lesser-evil. (Paul has it wrong, by the way. The LCR did, in a mealy-mouthed way but unmistakably, go along with voting Chirac in the second round).
All that makes me disinclined to accept comrades' claims that I'm the one proposing to reject a clear and long-standing tradition!
Blank vote is an option. A "protest vote", leftish but for something which cannot even by a stretch be described as a workers' party, is also in principle an option. It was an exercise in political escapism in the particular US presidential election of November 2020, I think, and I don't think Draper's P&FP tactic in the 1960s was good, but I wouldn't rule it out elsewhere. A socialist propaganda vote (i.e. for a candidacy of a socialist propaganda group which we support, or hope to work with) is another option.
Yet another option is simply recognising that we are in no position to recommend tactics or make more than general comment (in the spirit of Cannon's remark that he had "lost entirely the idea that every occasion must have a proclamation. It is better to get along with fewer..." - History of American Trotskyism, p.10-11).

• The US Trotskyists (both wings), for example, went for the "only general comment" option in the presidential election of 1940. They really didn't even comment, for example, on the presidential candidacy of the Socialist Party even though they had quit that party only two or three years previously. That sort of "we can only make general comment" approach is even more suitable in considering elections in distant countries where the working-class left is weak and we have no real political contacts. An electoral tactic might be appropriate "on the spot", but it would depend on who it was a tactic for, what their base and their broader tactics outside election times were, and so on. It makes no sense to prescribe an electoral tactic from a distance for forces which we don't know about or which don't exist or don't exist with sufficient strength to make any such tactic meaningful. So rejecting our argument on Biden by raising a scare about supposed implications for distant elections which we may not even comment on in the paper does not make sense.

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