Anyone committed to basic human decency, let alone socialism, should hope that Donald Trump loses the American presidential election in November. Given the nature of the US’s electoral system, this means hoping that Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, wins.
Does it follow that socialists should campaign for a Biden vote? This article will argue that it does not, and support the position of those US socialists who back Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, rank-and-file working-class militants running on the Green Party ticket, with the endorsement of Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party, and on the basis of explicitly socialist policies.
Blurring all differences between Trump and Biden into an undifferentiated analysis that both are “capitalist candidates” would be utterly mechanical. Socialists should be instinctively sympathetic towards left-minded voters campaigning and voting for Biden despite their misgivings about his politics.
But elections cannot be seen as incidental snapshots, binary plebiscites in which we stop all other politics, pick a preference between the two candidates most likely to win, express that preference, and then get back to our politics afterwards.
If not merely defeating Trump in the popular vote, but ensuring that Trump cannot “steal” election, and also defeating Trumpism, requires a political program based on the types of policies the Hawkins/Walker campaign is advancing, socialists should use the opening, narrow though it may be, to rally what forces they can round that program.
Some US comrades have argued that, since many workers will see the election as a “referendum on Trumpism”, to advocate and campaign for anything but a Biden vote would cut socialists off from the mass of working people. But the cold and unpleasant reality is that socialists, in the US and almost everywhere globally, are already cut off from the mass of working people.
Falling in behind Biden would entrench that marginalisation, not address it. The US socialist left does not have sufficient resources to influence the broad election result; it does have resources to make the election campaign itself a chance to advance socialist politics and organisation.
Of course, in such a polarised election, the Hawkins/Walker campaign will find it hard to cut through. Those “big picture” circumstances cannot be changed at will; they do not represent a case for abandoning independent politics.
A lower vote for Hawkins/Walker will set back the case for those independent socialist politics. On the other hand, an as-vigorous-as-possible Hawkins/Walker campaign can seek links with workers already in struggle, and rally forces which could lead battles to defend democracy against potential sabotage or obstruction from Trump, and start undercutting Trump’s plebeian base.
The ballot papers will not read “Trumpism: yes or no?”, and “Trumpism” will not pack up shop and go home on 4 November if Biden has won. A vote for Biden is not simply a vote “against Trumpism”, it is a vote for something: a corporate Democrat whose political record, judged from a socialist point of view, is fairly consistently dreadful.
Any election could be seen as a “referendum” on the incumbent. That is a frame socialists should challenge, not accept. We should aspire to use elections to advance an independent working-class position.
Other comrades have advanced a broadly “anti-fascist” case for voting for Biden, arguing in essence that election will either result (should Biden win) in the continuation of what Marxists have called “bourgeois democracy”, or (should Trump win) collapse into fascism, or something close to it.
Unlike Stalinists in the “Third Period”, we are not indifferent in a conflict between bourgeois democracy and fascism. We positively prefer the former. But whilst Trumpism shares elements in common with fascist, or proto-fascist, movements, this alone does not make the case that the November election is reduced to a straight choice between “fascism” and “not-fascism.”
Things can be bad, extremely so, without being fascist. And whatever lurches Trump may make in the direction of a harder authoritarianism, building active working-class and popular resistance to that, including strikes, will be central, which further highlights the needed for socialists to develop their traction to shape and lead that resistance.
All socialists would agree that defeating any kind of far-right movement, fascist or otherwise, requires transformation of the social conditions and system that gave rise to it — the rule of capital, and the oppression and inequality that necessarily generates. All socialists would also agree that defeating it requires direct ideological combat with its ideas.
All that does not make Biden the same as Trump, but it does mean that falling in behind him is not an adequate strategy for fighting Trumpism.
This election takes place in bleak conditions for socialists — not just the pandemic, but a global authoritarian wave, a weak labour movement, and a marginal left. There is no question that Biden is a “lesser evil”. But identifying a lesser evil does not require voting for it. The basic socialist case against that has not historically been contingent on there being only a small gap between the “evils”.
Rather, it is based on the idea that socialist advance is not possible without building up our own forces, on the basis of our own politics. There is no short cut around the hard work of persuading working-class people to take conscious ownership of socialist ideas and to fight for them — immediately, and beyond the election. That hard work includes persuading workers of the value of independent political action, even in circumstances where it serves only to raise the banner of certain ideas and consolidate and expand socialist organisation.
To make that argument on 2 and 4 November, but suspend it on the day on which we have the opportunity to support it with a vote, would be to boycott our own ideas.