Old radicals, new liberals
The refusal of Democratic Socialists of America to back Joe Biden is more than welcome, argues Jim Creegan
In mid-April, ‘An open letter to the new New Left from the old New Left’ appeared in The Nation magazine over the signatures of 80 founders and veterans of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) - the principal American student radical organisation of the 1960s. It included such venerable names as founders Al Haber and Todd Gitlin, as well as former leaders of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn, Cathy Wilkerson and Mark Rudd. They commend Bernie Sanders for his wisdom in endorsing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, but are “gravely concerned that some of his supporters, including the leadership of Democratic Socialists of America, refuse to support Biden”.1
Characterising Trump as a proto-fascist, the signatories warn that nothing less than American democracy is at stake in the November election; they caution against repeating the mistake of the German communists and social democrats, who fought one another while Hitler sneaked into power. Thus the new leftists who endured the opprobrium of liberals and cold-war ‘socialists’ for breaking with liberalism in the early 60s upbraid the leftwing youth of today for following their earlier, audacious example.
The two defections occurred under different circumstances. In the 60s, it was the straitjacket of anti-communist ideology - combined with a brutal imperialist war, waged by a Democratic administration - that propelled the new left from a liberal to a revolutionary outlook. This time, it was a political maverick who channelled anger over a widening class cleavage into two Democratic primary campaigns, leading to the exponential growth of a marginal and moderate socialist organisation, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which was conceived in 1982 in a commitment to work within the Democratic Party. Now many in DSA - angry, and weary of playing the lesser-evilest game that has always ensnared the left - are refusing to follow Sanders in endorsing the corporate Democrat who defeated him in the primaries. It is for this refusal that the rebels of yesterday rebuke the rebels of today.
The elders’ counsels, however, rest upon a doubtful premise: that the choice in November will be between a magnification of the presidential depravity of the past four years and some version of the pre-Trump status quo, personified by the presumptive nominee.
Biden emerged as the standard-bearer of the Democratic establishment’s bid to quell the Sanders insurgency. He presented himself - then, as throughout his later career - as normal, reassuring, down-to-earth, middle-of-the-road, middle class Joe; a party elder of accumulated wisdom and experience, who alone could bridge the increasingly bitter partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. He boasted of his ability in years past to work with the diehard southern segregationist, John Stennis of Mississippi, and promised to unite the warring factions of his own party. He was the one who could make the Trump presidency appear as a dangerous but momentary blip in the level line of ‘government as usual’.
There is much talk now in the media about Biden searching for bold ideas and following in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt during the great depression. Thus far, however, Biden has given no concrete indication of any desire to launch another ‘new deal’. Since the primaries, he has been a near-invisible man, remaining homebound in Delaware, seemingly determined to keep his head down, as Trump self-destructs in the face of the pandemic. The few moves Biden has made, however, indicate his intention to deliver more of the same centrist recipes.
He has taken on as his chief economic advisor Lawrence Summers, secretary of the treasury under Obama, and a major architect of neoliberalism. Hedge fund managers and CEOs - haunted during the primaries by visions of Sanders-led confiscations - can now breathe a sigh of relief. To the Democratic left demand for Medicare (government old-age health insurance) for all, he has responded with a proposal to reduce the eligibility age to 60 from its current 65 - weak tea, even compared to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 pledge to lower that age to 55. He only agreed to support a rise in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour - still less than needed to live in most places - under intense prodding on the primary debate stage. He has embraced the notion of student debt relief and tuition-free public university education, but only for those students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year - at first sight a reasonable threshold, but one that would dilute the idea of free public education championed by Sanders with complicated means testing. Biden has now shunted Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into task forces to work on the Green New Deal and other proposals that they will have neither the power to implement nor to make his campaign adopt.
If his political history is any indication - as it surely is for a man of nearly 78 - Biden will not fight hard as president for even the mild reforms he advocates. He has borrowed some ideas from the left of his party, and proceeded to water them down - but not because he thinks they stand a better chance of Congressional passage, thus modified. He is rather using all these dilutions, qualifications and cooptations to signal to the corporate interests he has always served that, while he has a Democratic left to placate, any actual reforms he undertakes will, like Obama’s Affordable Care Act, be pursued only with their approval.
Biden departs even less from the norm when it comes to foreign policy. He says that he will restore the diplomatic relations with Cuba that Trump discontinued, rejoin the Paris climate accords, and recognise opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. In short, Biden pledges to undo some of what he sees as the damage to foreign relations done by Trump, and resume more or less where Obama left off.
No way back
There is, however, something anachronistic about Biden’s promises. The pre-Trump status quo he vows to restore - already fraying at the edges before the pandemic - is now in shreds, and will not return by November, if ever.
Covid-19 is exposing and widening the class fault lines in American society as no single event since the great depression. Even the establishment media cannot ignore the fact that the burden of the virus has fallen most heavily on blacks and Latinos, who will probably become a working class majority before mid-century. Of singular importance to Marxists should be the fact that many people of colour work in the service industries - healthcare, retail, hospitality, restaurants - which employ a majority of the contemporary working class, including many whites. It has long been an open question as to whether service-industry workers would prove capable of the solidarity and militancy of the industrial workers of bygone days. Now, it is these service workers - angered by bosses unmindful of their safety and lives - who have been galvanised into action in the form of demonstrations and walkouts around the country.
Nor will heightened class tensions disappear when - in a future that may be months or even years away - the pandemic subsides. Businesses will have failed, and those that reopen will be determined to recoup the profits they have lost, hiring fewer workers and/or subjecting the ones they hire back to wage gouging and speed-up. For its part, the government will need new revenue streams to tackle the massive debts it has incurred. Will this increased tax burden be borne by corporations and the rich or by the middle and working classes? In other words, the post-pandemic world is likely to be one of heightened class antagonisms.
In such a world, it is highly improbable that Joe Biden can fulfil his promise to restore the pre-Trump status quo - a status quo, let us remember, that allowed him to strike a moderate, nice-guy pose while:
pushing legislation making it harder for poorer people to claim bankruptcy, at the same time as shielding the rich from property seizure in repayment of debt;
calling for cuts in Medicare and social security;
stiffening criminal penalties;
ensuring the confirmation of an extreme reactionary nominee to the Supreme Court;
staunchly supporting the invasion of Iraq;
using his influence to obtain lucrative corporate positions and business deals for his son;
and, finally, denying in primary debates and elsewhere that he had ever done these things.
Such a modus operandi was only possible when enough people felt sufficiently secure to allow themselves to be lulled by saccharine phrases into political indifference. But the world that produced and sustained opportunist politicians like Biden is fading fast. A working population that depends more than ever on the government for survival will demand more of politicians and examine their actions more closely. The left should help people see Biden for what he is rather than assist him burnishing his credentials as a healer and reconciler.
Yet the greying veterans of SDS are not the only ones hoping that Biden will put things right again. In another Nation article, Peter Dreier, a professor of politics, waxes indignant that the editor of Jacobin magazine, Bhaskar Sunkara, tweeted his intention to vote for Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, a long-time radical. Dreier is not mollified by the fact that Sunkara was only indicating his personal intention, not making a recommendation to others. A person of Sunkara’s reputation could, he argues, influence radical young voters in swing states, where a few thousand votes could decide the election. After enumerating the potential horrors of a second Trump term, Dreier points out all the ways in which Biden has supposedly moved to the left during and after the primaries, creating in his mind a realistic hope that he can be further influenced in the same direction. Sunkara’s refusal to endorse Biden is in his eyes an unconscionable self-indulgence.
Dreier’s admonitions are seconded by Mitchel Abidor - a translator of the writings of Victor Serge and Jean Jaurès - in a New York Times op-ed. Abidor calls the refusal of DSA and Jacobin to endorse Biden a “quixotic display of socialist principle” by privileged, middle class, white youths, who will not have to suffer the consequences of a second Trump term. He notes:
... this was also the position of most members of the New Left during the 1968 presidential election, when radical young leftists either refused to vote or supported fringe candidates. Anyone was preferable to Richard Nixon except, of course, the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey.2
It would be helpful, however, if these scolds would answer a couple of basic questions. Has there ever been a time in recent history when the Republicans were not several degrees to the right of the Democrats? Or when votes in swing states did not matter? If Hubert Humphrey’s support for the most criminal imperialist war of the later 20th century, in Vietnam, was not a valid reason to shun him at the polls, or the present near-collapse of the existing order is not a time to make a new beginning, then when will it ever be permissible to break with the Democrats?
Their implied answer is self-evident: never. When all is said and done, liberals like Dreier and Abidor, along with the radicals of yesteryear, perceive the Democratic Party not as an obstacle, but as a guarantor of a status quo that probably has not treated most of them unkindly.
They assert that this is the most consequential election of our lives - as many of them did in the last election, and no doubt in elections before that. And who can deny that the demagogy, bluster, gasconade, petty vindictiveness and disregard for the truth (or the appearance of telling the truth) mark out the Trump presidency as unique, even in the sordid annals of American politics? And there is no doubt that a second Trump term would be uglier - especially for immigrants and people of colour - than a Biden presidency.
But it would be mistaken to confuse the personal traits and rhetoric of a fascist strongman with the potential or reality of fascism. The country is too big - and power too dispersed among regional and local sites - to be subdued peacefully under a dictatorship. Such an outcome would require a militarised mass movement of the middle class - such as those in the Germany and Italy of the 1920s. And, though Trump has given encouraging words to white supremacist groups and rightist militias, he is not linked to them organisationally, and such groups are far too small and marginal to metastasise overnight into anything resembling Hitler’s brownshirts. SDS veterans notwithstanding, Trump is no fascist, and American democracy - such as it is - does not hang in the balance in the coming election. Trump would doubtless continue his attempts to restrict the franchise and pack the courts. But he did not initiate these efforts; they were begun under previous Republican administrations.
Analogies with Weimar Germany or pre-Mussolini Italy are always contrived, given the absence of either a militarised petty bourgeois mass or a multi-million workers’ movement in the US. But, since the SDS veterans have chosen this comparison, let us briefly pursue it - all proportions guarded. Much is often written about the disastrous ultra-left policy pursued by Comintern and the German Communist Party (KPD) - which equated the Nazis and Social Democrats - and refused a united front with the latter - in the run-up to Hitler’s takeover. Less is generally known about the equally disastrous policy of the Social Democrats (SPD), who refused to deploy their armed militia, the Reichsbanner, to fight Hitler’s SA thugs in the streets, but instead relied on the Weimar constitution and then German president Paul von Hindenburg to keep the brown scourge at bay. We know the results of that strategy all too well.
DSA’s critics think we can rely on Biden to restore pre-Trump normality, while forgetting that the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party - with Biden in the front ranks - are part of the reason why Trump was elected in the first place. To prevent the erosion of democracy, and fight back effectively in the sharpened class struggles that await, a mass workers’ party will be required.
Those who view the creation of such a party as the main objective must look for opportunities to break the Democratic stranglehold on left opposition forces. In doing so, they are not - as Dreier and Abidor would have it - acting as self-righteous, self-indulgent, white, middle class brats, oblivious to the human damage a Republican victory in November will cause. Those seeking fundamental change have always been called elitists, because, among other things, they reject the shallow pragmatism that cannot see further than a few months ahead. Strategic thinking always involves weighing short-term harm against long-term goals. The harm of a second Trump term must be evaluated against the harm of perpetuating a party that is partly responsible for Trump, and will continue to paralyse the efforts to cohere a force that can really fight back against him and those he has emboldened.
Towards a break
There is now a generational cohort - some of them educated, but with dim future prospects - and many with lower-paying jobs, who find no voice in the prevailing party system. They are a distinct presence in social media and a growing number of alternative publications and podcasts. Although not all conscious socialists, many were Sanders supporters who feel no loyalty to the Democratic establishment, which they subject to a daily drumbeat of criticism and exposure. Some are grouped in DSA, some not. Their search for alternatives to the Democrats should be encouraged, not disparaged.
Most DSA members realise that building a workers’ party with a socialist programme will be no easy task, and that none will arise as a result of a sudden growth spurt of a micro-vanguard or marginal third parties like the Greens. The ranks of such a party must rather come, at least in part, from defecting Democratic voters and political leaders, who are not likely to leave the party simultaneously. Socialists must therefore continue to have some relationship with the insurgents still inside the party. But any effort to build a workers’ party must at some point take aim at the principal mechanism through which the Democratic establishment keeps dissidents in tow: pressure to endorse centrist candidates at election time.
A strategy aimed at splitting the Democrats could be implemented through independent local campaigns, which, if successful, might encourage progressives now in the Democratic Party to withhold their backing for Biden-like candidates and run with the support of DSA.
By refusing to endorse Biden, DSA has taken an important step toward cohering a nucleus of socialists that will employ flexible tactics, with the aim of eventually bringing a workers’ party into being. Their progress toward this goal will not be aided by liberals and old New Leftists rushing with indignation to act as the Democratic establishment’s political police.
Jim Creegan can be reached at email@example.com.
The Nation April 16 (original emphasis).↩︎
‘Will young leftists back Biden?’ The New York Times May 14.↩︎