Break the cycle
It is understandable that many on the left will cast a vote for Joe Biden - but it is time for a decisive break with lesser-evilism, argues Paul Demarty
One of Donald Trump’s killer lines in the first presidential debate was “I’ve achieved more in 47 months than you have in 47 years”.
It does not particularly feel like it right now, simply because there is something of a déjà vu vibe to the whole situation. For all the drama and grotesquery of those 47 months, here we are again: in the red corner, the orange man, bullying, cajoling, lying, openly treating the contest as a test of virility. In the blue corner, a basically apolitical product of Democratic gerontocracy, with nothing more to offer the world than merely not being Donald Trump. One must fall - or possibly both, if Covid-19 does us a favour for once.
Some things have, perhaps, sharpened the mind. We no longer anticipate the gruesome goings-on of a Trump administration, but have his ‘achievements’ to look back on. As is usual with this relentless liar, there are not so many as he would want you to think. He failed to build his wall, but succeeded in radicalising the cruelty of the USA’s border forces, with children separated from parents and thousands crammed into what are often called, with justice, concentration camps. He did not succeed either in getting rid of Obamacare or replacing it with ‘something better’.
He managed to hand out a vast tax cut to his billionaire mates, and was gifted three opportunities to nominate a conservative supreme court justice - the third of which will undoubtedly be waved through regardless of November’s result - but can hardly take credit for Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s decrepitude. He managed to turn a tricky problem of disease control into a public health disaster. (That humble RNA virus has, of course, achieved more in the Trumpian specialism of global chaos in 47 weeks than Trump has in 47 months ... ) He started no wars, nor did he extricate America from any.
The debacle of Covid-19 and the sheer intensity of his demagoguery make four more years of Trump a frightening prospect in many a leftwing quarter. We find some familiar faces here, to be sure; it is panic stations at the Communist Party USA, whose short-term expectation is for extensive polling-station intimidation by fascist bands, and whose prescription is
the broadest united front - the main force being the working people, who realise their healthcare, jobs, homes, education, planet, freedom of speech and equality are all at stake. But it must also include people like those in the military communities and, yes, even the defectors from that very Trump administration whose vision of patriotism includes protecting democracy.1
The ultimate conclusion of this line is to be found in a statement from the CPUSA’s Political Action Commission: “it is urgent to defeat Trump by voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”2
It would be foolish to expect any better from the CPUSA, which - let it never be forgot - backed Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, since she was the candidate who could beat Trump (whoops-a-daisy!). Ever more contingents of the far left are panicked into that camp, however. One such - a diminutive Trotskyist group by the name of the League for a Revolutionary Party - graced our own inbox to argue for a Biden vote, on similar if slightly more sober grounds to the CPUSA. Comrades Walter Daum and Matt Roberts object to Weekly Worker correspondent Daniel Lazare thus:
If Trump secures another term in office and can appoint at least one more [supreme court] justice, the far-right majority will establish ... strong-man rule, not simply by enforcing the “ancient constitution”, as Lazare suggests, but by dramatically overturning the way it has long been interpreted. And they will not stop there ... To be sure, Democrats have done much to establish today’s imperial presidency, especially its ability to spy, torture and wage war. But they are not pursuing a sweeping constitutional counterrevolution; and in their recent impeachment of Trump, however narrowly focused, they took a stand against such lawless authoritarianism.3
We quote the LRP not because it represents significant forces, but rather because the outcome is striking; its political character has, until relatively recently, been of the strident orthodox Trotskyist variety, comparable for those not adept at sliding cigarette papers into place with the Spartacist League and its progeny (though the Sparts have recently collapsed into left nationalism and perhaps, now, into oblivion entirely - not a peep has been heard from them since May). A key part of this world view is something like a commandment - Thou shalt not vote for bourgeois parties. So horrified are these comrades at the Trump administration, that they have not only abandoned this commandment in a panic, but then extensively discussed the question and published a lengthy and thoughtful self-criticism. Their acknowledgement of the historical record of Marxism on this point is, perhaps, an exception to the rule that too quickly theorising immediate tactical considerations leads to bad theory,4 though their present position is hopelessly defeatist.
That is not to say that the whole of the American left is all out for Biden. Most pertinently, the Democratic Socialists of America, which is almost certainly the largest left organisation in the country and the one most associated with Bernie Sanders and the soi-disant socialist congresswomen, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, has pointedly refused to endorse a vote for Biden - to no small consternation in its ranks, it must be said. Its statement deserves extensive quotation:
The Democratic Socialists of America will not be endorsing Biden. We fully agree with Senator Sanders that taking on the reactionary, racist and nationalist right wing represented by Donald Trump is imperative for the survival of millions of working class people across the country and the world. We believe that the only way to beat the radical right once and for all is through a socialist movement that draws millions of disillusioned working class people, here and abroad, into the political arena.
We also recognise this moment to strategically strengthen our movements and power. We will fight like hell against the Trump agenda by running pressure campaigns, engaging in mutual aid, helping to build strong, democratic unions, building coalitions with those organising against capitalism, acting in solidarity with immigrants and incarcerated people against deportation and detention, working to protect tenants and unhoused people, organising to expand voting rights, locations and the right to vote by mail. We will demand Covid relief that addresses inequality through a lens of reparations, push for an end to sanctions that are killing millions and fuel militarism in many parts of the world, and will back democratic socialist candidates at the grassroots level.
That’s because we know that politics does not begin every four years with a national election: when we get organised, we become the agents of the change that will win the better world the working class desires and deserves.5
The DSA’s attitude contrasts interestingly with the CPUSA’s, since both have played rather similar roles in recent-vintage US politics, as more overtly socialist or anti-imperialist components of the big Democratic tent. The DSA’s close involvement with both Sanders runs and its development into a material force within Democratic Party politics has, it seems, been a teachable moment. What the comrades have learned is that the Democratic mainstream, whatever they may say about the issue, would prefer four more glorious years of Trump to a social democrat waving a Green New Deal around that he could not possibly get through Congress.
Inter alia, it is also worth noting movement even on the CPUSA’s part: it supported Sanders in the primaries this time, at least, and perhaps it is our imagination, but we detect more than a little hesitation to be seen to advocate a Biden vote directly. We have quoted the one instance we have found with admittedly not very extensive research; it is more common to see formulations like ‘Use your vote to defeat fascism’, with Donald Trump very definitely dressed up in a toothbrush moustache for the occasion. Though no doubt the comrades’ ingrained opportunism will dispel all such thoughts in due course, it is only natural that they should bow under the pressure of reality, and what reality has to say about their contention that Democratic administrations offer more favourable conditions for building up a socialist alternative than Republican ones.
Denying that proposition may seem particularly barbaric in present circumstances, for the sort of reasons outlined by the LRP comrades. When they wrote to us, of course, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg still lived, and so now their letter is out of date - the Republicans, for all intents and purposes, already have their majority of three on the supreme court. In prospect is the legalisation, basically without a fight, of the extensive disenfranchisement conducted by Republican state authorities, the further militarisation of the police, a crusade against ‘Antifa’ that will likely turn into a generalised police offensive against the left, and so on. A Biden presidency will not actively pursue any of these things, though it will offer no meaningful resistance to them either.
To treat the question thus, however, is to miss the immediately concentric political dynamic. This becomes visible if we address seriously the question of Trump’s unique depravity, as it is usually taken. It is perhaps the case that his political style is so carnivalesque that he truly will be remembered as a political nadir. We are not so sure.
Twenty years ago, Americans elected a man who was generally considered to be a simpleton to the highest office (in reality an image deliberately cultivated so as to inflame anti-intellectual sentiment, on the basis that nobody ever missed election to the presidency by underestimating the American public). George W Bush embarked on two enormous military disasters, and was widely talked about as a near-fascist danger, especially given the apocalypticism of his pre-millennialist Bible-thumping coterie.
Barack Obama capitalised on war-weariness and horror at the effects of the banking crash to replace Bush; but was in the end cornered into complicity with them by state department warmongers (and their warrior queen, Hillary Clinton), neoliberal ‘expert’ economists and intransigent Republican congressmen, who spurned his painstaking ‘bipartisanship’ and painted him as a communist Muslim foreigner. A suitably demobilised Democratic base sleepwalked into 2016.
The point is that the demoralisation is part of the cycle. It is simply not true that, having escaped the madness of Sarah Palin in 2008, the American working class was necessarily in a better position vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie: it was just as incapable of acting independently after, as before; and so it was unable to advance a distinctive class agenda strong enough to avoid the Trump-Clinton disaster of 2016. Voting for ‘the right lizard’, in Douglas Adams’s famous illustration, calls forth an even wronger lizard in the near future.
There is exactly zero reason to doubt a similar outcome with a Biden presidency; Sleepy Joe is in for a rude awakening when Wall Street tires of counter-pandemic government largesse, and the gentlemen in suits are far more likely to get what they want from that somnolent coward than they are from the impulsive egotist Trump, who will happily send cheques to American households, so long as it is his signature on them. While rhetoric on the world stage will be calmed, imperialist strangulation of strategic rivals is likely to tighten, and the risk of military entanglements to increase. Four years of crisis management and increasing alienation will unfold until, most likely, some cracked far-right reprobate takes up the job in 2024.
There is exactly one alternative to this spiral of despair and creeping tyranny: an independent political voice for the working class as a class, that exposes the US constitution for the malfunctioning monstrosity it is; fights for the replacement of capitalism by socialism; takes the form of a party in the strict sense, rather than the competing professional machines that presently exist in the USA; and is not - most to the point - browbeaten into support for openly capitalist candidates for an office that, let us remember, should on elementary democratic principle be abolished.
The trouble with the historic far-left opposition to the Democratic Party - as exemplified by the LRP up to 2016 - is that it treated the matter as a shibboleth, and, in the absence of any serious electoral alternative to the Democrats, could propose merely infantile anti-electoralism, in the hope that a party might mysteriously emerge from ‘the struggle’ at some future date. That perspective failed the LRP, and has - in reality - failed the other Trot ginger groups who hold it. There is no reason whatever to withhold votes from, say, DSA members standing on a Democratic ticket: the more of them there are, the better the opportunities are to weaken the Democratic Party by heightening its contradictions, and to bring something living out it, like the alien from John Hurt’s chest. We should have no illusions in the personal virtues of such politicians as Ocasio-Cortez, of course; careerism can set in very quickly, as we have lately been reminded in Britain.
The question in relation to Biden, however, is this: by calling for Americans to vote for him, leftwingers cannot avoid taking responsibility for the attacks his administration will make on the working class. So is it worth it? Is there that much difference between Trump 2020 and Tom Cotton 2024? Will our side find it easier to build a party under Trumpite repression or Bidenite demoralisation? And, above all, will a party ever be built if the American left is always terrorised by the far right into voting for any Democrat whatever, however conservative and senile? It is past time to leave this panic behind: we urge our American readers, for what our opinion is worth, not to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket.
Letters Weekly Worker April 23.↩︎
lrp-cofi.org/statements/elections-capitalist-parties.html - “the proponents of this principle [‘thou shalt not ...’ - PD], ourselves included, have perpetuated a good deal of mythology ... Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin and Trotsky, all advocated electoral support for certain capitalist parties under certain circumstances ... We challenge anyone who looks to the Marxist heritage to find evidence that voting for bourgeois parties was held by leading Marxists to be unprincipled under all circumstances.”↩︎