The political crisis in the United States continues to escalate dramatically in the run-up to the November 3 presidential election. The polls anticipate a resounding victory for Biden, and Trump has already announced that he will not accept the result if he loses, and that he is counting on the Supreme Court—with the addition of a new right-wing justice––to allow him to steal the election. Meanwhile, he is doing everything possible to suppress the vote. All sides anticipate chaos, conflict, and the possibility of violence. The election could even lead to the end of liberal democracy in the US.
What we advocate is mass mobilization to defeat Trump in overwhelming numbers and to protect the election. Moreover, a thorough, humiliating defeat of Trump could help to bring about the demise of the Republican Party and deal a blow to white nationalism and authoritarianism.
Marxist-Humanist Initiative has written extensively about the threat of Trumpism, the attitude of the “left” toward Trump and the Democratic Party, and about the importance of voting, while simultaneously supporting mass movements that go beyond the narrow realm of bourgeois electoral politics. This editorial is a chance to summarize what we have said in the past and to argue the following main points:
1. In this election, everyone opposed to Trump and Trumpism, even those not residing in swing states, needs to vote, and to cast a ballot for the Democrat. An overwhelming vote for Biden will reduce or foreclose pretexts of legitimacy for Trump’s promised legal challenges to the outcome of the election.
2. MHI does not support Biden or the Democratic Party. We do recognize Trumpism as the main enemy facing us today and our obligation to fight it.
3. Third-party voters and abstentionists have no moral or political ground to stand on. Their positions are self-serving and dangerous.
Third-Party Voters and Abstentionists
Many on the “left” find it anathema to advocate a vote for Biden. This stems from the inability of a large segment of the left to break free from its inertial position by which, for decades, it has considered the main obstacles to socialism to be neoliberalism and the Democratic Party. For many on this so-called left, it is taken for granted that the left’s function is to attract cadre and build organizations/parties that fight neoliberalism and the Democratic Party.
This part of the left only understands Trumpism through the lens of its anti-neoliberal viewpoint. Thus, if Trumpism is bad, they argue, that it is the fault of the Democratic Party for not offering a more attractive populist candidate and platform. If Trump is destroying liberal democracy and taking us down the path to fascism, it is because Obama signed too many executive orders and deported too many immigrants. If Trump has killed over 200,000 people with his criminally negligent approach to Covid-19, this just means Obama should have fought for single-payer healthcare. Etc. Regarding Trump’s existential threat to life and liberty, they have little to say.
Credit: Marxist-Humanist Initiative
Those with their orientation find it bewildering to hear Marxist-Humanists argue that it not only fails to be fundamentally anti-capitalist, but that it can also serve to enable Trumpism. They wonder how we could say that fighting the Democratic Party is not the ultimate priority, or why we would criticize third-party voters and abstentionism for enabling and normalizing Trumpism. They are surprised to hear us treat Trumpism as a distinct proto-fascist phenomenon with its own internal logic, rather than as a by-product of neoliberalism or the Democratic Party. When we say there is no moral ground to vote for a third-party candidate or abstain from voting in 2020, they take offense.
MHI does not support the Democratic Party, never has and never will, but we do not see a purpose in the left continually repeating the obvious fact that the Democratic Party is not a force for socialist revolution. Is it not a truism that a bourgeois party cannot be a force for an anti-bourgeois revolution? And given the extraordinary danger of the current objective situation, when the main enemy is Trumpism, should we really spend our energy rehashing the same obvious critiques of the Democrats?
Jacobin magazine continually devotes an impressive amount of space to re-proving the thesis that the Democratic Party is not a force for socialist revolution. Undoubtably, the repetition is a propaganda technique, talking down to the masses, recruiting disaffected liberals for the DSA revolution. But what is Jacobin’s recipe for revolution once it has recruited enough cadre? Voting for democratic socialists who run as Democrats!
For them, the Democratic Party’s problems do not stem from the fact that it is a bourgeois party, in a bourgeois electoral system, vying for control of the capitalist state. Rather, its problems are seen as the result of the wrong ideas and the wrong people leading the party. Thus a Sanders, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Jill Stein, is considered capable of bursting through the bounds of bourgeois politics. And, conversely, voting for Clinton or Biden in order to stop the ascent of fascism is considered a cardinal sin, a capitulation to the status quo.
We have continually criticized this voluntarist conception of politics. These parties will not and cannot determine our future. Real change comes by other means.
Real Change Doesn’t Come through the Ballot Box
In contrast to this uncritical hope for salvation by bourgeois parties, MHI has always looked to mass movements fighting for freedom as the real forces for social change. For an example of the transformative power of mass movements, we need look no further than the Black Lives Matter rebellion which took on new life in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in April of this year. There followed a transformative movement in US politics that profoundly altered public opinion around race and policing within a few weeks. This transformation of public opinion, this mass display of solidarity with the Black protesters and their allies, has severely limited Trump’s ability to use racism to divide the working class in the run up to the November election. This is something that never could have been achieved by the Democratic Party, whether under the leadership of Biden or Sanders.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
From a revolutionary perspective, it is a waste of time to constantly focus on, and rail against, the Democratic Party. Wishing the Democratic Party would become something that it is not, is futile. The real functions of constantly railing against the Democrats are
(1) practicing armchair-radical politics: they complain about how things are, when the point is to change them; and
(2) making people to the left of the Democratic Party feel good about themselves, morally superior and smarter, by putting all the blame on the Democratic Party for not being something it isn’t and won’t be, while absolving themselves of any responsibility for changing reality.
The point of revolutionary politics is not to find morally superior positions from which to cast judgment upon others. The point of revolutionary politics is to change reality. Our critique of third-party voters and abstentionists challenges those people to take personal responsibility for their actions. Will their actions contribute to the struggle for human freedom? Or will their actions instead only increase the chances that kids will be locked in cages, that right-wing vigilantes will run amok while militarized goons attack the left, that a malignant narcissist will allow a coronavirus pandemic to spread unchecked and tank the economy, etc.
As part of taking personal responsibility for their actions, people have to soberly assess the consequences of their actions. Things look a certain way when one glibly blames the Democrats, liberals, or neoliberals for everything that is wrong. They look very different when you accept that, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
We have used the term “left-first” politics to describe those on the left who prioritize building power for themselves and their parties, and who act as self-appointed leaders of the left. The quintessential example of left-first politics is leftists who enabled Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016 because they could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, who had dashed their drive to gain political power when she defeated Sanders in the primaries. Many of them then abandoned the Democratic ticket and advocated that people vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or abstain from voting.
With Sanders off the Democratic ticket, there was no way for them to use that campaign to boost their own power. At least with a third-party strategy, they could still use the electoral campaign as a way to recruit cadre to their organizations. And because building their organizations is their top priority, and towers above all other considerations, defeating the neoliberal mainstream of the Democratic Party was more important to them than combating Trump and Trumpism. They thus minimized the threat that Trumpism poses, dismissed concerns that Trumpism might triumph as a distraction from the “real issue”—building “the left”—and pandered to Trump’s white-nationalist base in an attempt to win it over.
There is a great amount of substitutionism in the world of left-first politics. They substitute particular individuals and ideologies for the structural defects of US bourgeois electoral politics. “If only the left were in power, these defects would disappear!” They substitute neoliberalism for capitalism. “If only we got rid of neoliberal thinking, then all of the contradictions of capitalism would evaporate!” And they substitute themselves for independent mass movements. “If only everyone took their marching orders from the left, we would have a real revolution!”
Any chef knows that if you substitute all the ingredients in your recipe, you are no longer cooking the same dish. If you substitute left-first politics for independent, anti-racist, anti-capitalist mass movements, you are no longer cooking up a socialist revolution. At best, you are serving a warmed-over New Deal. At worst, you are pandering to, and normalizing Trumpism.
A common trope heard from the contemporary left is the argument that Clinton and the Democratic Party should shoulder the blame for Trump because its centrism failed to mobilize disaffected voters. But this perspective fails if we understand the politics that Trump represents to be a pre-existing condition in US politics, one the predates neo-liberalism. As we argued in our 2018 Perspectives:
Yet the strongest evidence that Trump’s electoral victory was not an uprising of the forgotten working class against economic distress brought about by neoliberalism and globalization is the evidence that Trumpism is a pre-existing condition. It has unfortunately been with us all along, as the resurgence of atavistic and revanchist white supremacism helps to make clear.
For evidence that Trumpism is a pre-existing condition, please see the following:
(1) Evidence we have provided that Trump’s base is today’s version of George Wallace’s base. Wallace had strong support in both the South and the North, prior to neoliberalism and globalization.
(2) John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck’s 2018 book, Identity Crisis, which argues convincingly that “Trump succeeded by tapping onto long-standing, but often unappreciated, sentiments among Republican voters …. Trump simply met many Republican voters where they were” (p. 35).
(3) Andrew Kliman’s empirical studies of Obama voters who “flipped” to Trump in 2016, which show that their support for Trump was driven, not by objective “economic distress,” but by a complex of pre-existing racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and authoritarian attitudes.
From the KKK to George Wallace, proto-fascist, authoritarian, white-nationalist sentiment has always been part of the ideological landscape in this country. Thus we can see that the neoliberal orientation of Clinton has nothing to do with the pre-existing condition of this Trumpist sentiment. This is why we feel no need to continually rehash criticisms of the Democrats for being too neoliberal. Instead, our criticism is of the parts of the left that have failed to understand the extreme danger of Trumpism and who have enabled its spread.
MHI’s Position on the Democratic Party and the Resistance
MHI’s 2018 Perspectives, which remain in effect, solidarize with the leading edge of the Resistance against the Democratic Party. And our first, August 2016, editorial on Trumpism says the following:
Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party are corrupt, self-interested, and cut off from and disdainful of working people and minorities. They have neither the will nor the ability to build the kind of mass movement that will be needed to crush Trumpism. …
This is no time to trust the Democrats. We cannot trust them to win the election. Much less can we trust them to continue to fight Trumpism ….
Because Trumpism is likely to persist whether or not Trump wins the election, we foresee the need for protracted struggle against it. That struggle cannot rely on faith in the electoral process or bourgeois politicians and parties; they are always prepared to sell us out. We need a mass movement, independent of capitalist interests and politics, to fight Trump and Trumpism on the ground.
These words are just as true today as when we wrote them prior to Trump’s election. We very well may need a mass movement or even a revolution to ensure a fair election in November of 2020. It is the responsibility of the left to argue against the illusion that the electoral process and bourgeois parties are sufficient to stamp out Trumpism. We support the many people who have taken to the streets to resist Trumpism. We see mass movements as essential to fighting Trumpism.
But this position is not shared among many on the left who would prefer to see a bourgeois party (a Sandernista Democratic Party, or a Green Party, etc.) be the force for social change. Their orientation to social change is entirely hemmed in and constrained by their ultimate faith in bourgeois parties. What they think is needed is a different Democratic Party, or some third party like the Greens, that adheres to the methods, norms, and elitism of existing bourgeois parties but reflects “the left’s” priorities instead of neoliberal priorities. Voting for Biden does not serve, but hinders, this alternative party-building strategy. Thus a vote for Biden is seen as capitulation or surrender that closes all doors to radical change. It is even difficult for them to conceive of voting for Biden while simultaneously roundly criticizing him.
We criticize Biden and the Democrats plenty, but still urge you to vote for them in this election, due to what is at stake. We are not part of the Democratic Party, we have no influence over them, and we do not want to pander to people who are disenchanted with them. This is because such people’s underlying attitude is still to want salvation to come from some such party, not from mass movements and their own activity and thought. Again, at issue here is the dividing line between revolutionary politics, rooted in one taking personal responsibility for helping to change the world, and armchair radicalism, which evades that responsibility.
We regard our role as radically different. As MHI wrote in the conclusion of the August 2016 editorial,
The special role of Marxist-Humanists in this struggle is to oppose the “leftists” who are pro-Trump, soft-on-Trump, or “understanding of” Trumpism. They need to be driven out of the left. As we said above, the left needs to stand for freedom and human rights for all once again.
There are others out there who can and do criticize liberals and the Democratic Party, or who appeal to never-Trumpers in the interests of democracy. But we alone have the perspective of reclaiming the left as a force for freedom and human rights for all. If we don’t make that perspective the focus, no one will.
Voting in the Election
If Trump remains in office after January 20, the descent of the US into white-nationalist, misogynistic, authoritarian reaction will rapidly accelerate. All voters in the US who wish to help halt and reverse this descent should bear in mind the warning and advice we gave in our August 2016 editorial: “bear firmly in mind that defeating Trump is the crucial immediate task and thus vote in a way that minimizes the chance that he will be elected. This election is not about you. Your vote isn’t an act of self-expression or personal morality.”
In 2016, we said that eligible voters who don’t live in swing states could safely vote for a third-party candidate or refrain from voting. This election is different. Trump and the Republicans are doing everything in their power to rig and steal the 2020 election. It is thus insufficient to hand Trump an electoral defeat. The defeat must be massive, overpowering, unambiguous. Massive anti-Trump majorities in swing states will, of course, help to thwart Trump and his lackeys’ efforts to “win” those states by means of their undemocratic trickery.
But a massive gap between Biden’s and Trump’s vote totals is important on the national level as well. If Trump loses the nationwide popular vote by an overwhelming margin, the Trumpites’ attempts to steal the election afterward will be deprived of any semblance of legitimacy. Under these circumstances, some Republican officials and judges may decide that it is best not to abet the theft of the election.
We do not support the Democratic Party. We did not support Hillary Clinton in 2016. We do not support Joe Biden in 2020. But to minimize the chance that Trump will remain in office after January 20, everyone opposed to Trump and Trumpism needs to vote, and to cast a ballot for Biden.
Voting For Does Not Mean Supporting
One must remember that voting for Biden is not the same as supporting the Democratic Party or its policies. It is a tactic to help assure that Trump doesn’t get re-elected. You can agitate against the Democratic Party and its policies all you like and still urge people to vote for Biden.
As we wrote in our 2018 Perspectives:
“Supporting” constitutes a wider sphere of thinking and action than “voting” does. One can vote against Trumpism, even if that means voting for a centrist, without being in support of centrism.
This argument makes sense if one’s orientation to politics is one that faces with sober senses the inherent limits and problems of the Democratic Party and electoral politics. This argument makes sense if one sees mass movements as the real source for social change. Because we understand that the Democratic Party cannot change its fundamental character––that of being a bourgeois party––we harbor no illusions that voting or not voting is an act that defines one’s political orientation. We harbor no illusions that if we keep voting for the Green Party, or stay home on election day, that one day the Democratic Party will swing radically to the left and start calling for general strikes and the end of the capitalist mode of production. This is why our Perspectives encourage people to vote against Trumpism (even if that means voting for a centrist Democrat) and also voices support for those mass movements who are resisting the policies of the Democratic and Republican parties.
The US is at a crossroads. There is no room to sit on the sidelines or engage in abstract moralism. Those who fail to take the objective situation seriously as an existential threat, those who see the crisis only as an opportunity for the advancement of their own interests, need to be exposed for the charlatans they are.