This US presidential election is different in two ways.
It narrows down to a contest between a fascistic demagogue with a militant and part-militarised mass base, and a standard-issue neoliberal.
And recent years have seen a sizeable though diffuse new US socialist current round Sanders’ campaigns and the Democratic Socialists of America.
At the same time, the International Socialist Organization has wound itself up, and Solidarity sees itself more as an “educational centre” than an activist group.
Conclusion: the most active, interventionist step on 3 November towards building an independent working-class socialist party in the USA is to create a socialist, democratic, critical profile within the rallying of left-minded, anti-racist, and pro-union voters to stop Trump by voting Biden. That will energise people round the urgency of defending and extending democratic rights and round working-class and socialist ideas. Not as well as a campaign by a socialist party, but that’s not available.
The climate-activist Sunrise Movement, as passed on by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, says: “Young people have the power to crush Trump, and he knows it. That’s why he’s trying to steal the election, but we’re going to be there to stop him. Once he’s out, and we’re still in the streets, our movement can set the tone for the next four years…”
The DSA says: “The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminded us all of the fragile state of our democracy… We know that a second Trump term would have devastating effects for our class and for our movement”. Draw your own conclusion? The DSA doesn’t. If DSA groups campaign on the Sunrise Movement basis, they will contribute more.
Black Lives Matter leaders like Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza are combining a Biden vote with left-wing criticism. Voting Biden requires saying no more “for” him than leftists who oppose voting for him already say.
Voting Howie Hawkins might be better if he were running for a substantial working-class party that could build itself in the election. But, for understandable reasons of realpolitik, he is running for the Green Party, not a socialist or working-class party. His own socialist group, Solidarity, is not backing Howie Hawkins in the presidential election.
A Hawkins vote is a weak gesture, not movement-building.
Sticking to principles is not the same as sticking to old formulas. The long-established formula is for US Trotskyists never to vote Democrat.
All those socialists, the majority, who favoured backing Sanders’ bid for the Democrat nomination, and would have backed him if he’d won that, have already modified the formula.
The socialist movement before 1914 focused rightly on building independent working-class parties. It had no principle that it was better to sit on your hands than to vote for bourgeois-democrat candidates against monarchists or the like. On the contrary.
After 1914, the argument of principle was for real working-class parties, and ones which saw themselves winning the majority of the working class in a not-distant-future, to use elections to build themselves rather than renouncing that in favour of bourgeois lesser evils.
There was argument about independent candidates in Germany in the run-up to Hitler’s rise to power, for example. There, in the November 1932 election the Communist and Social-Democratic parties won 37% of the vote, as against the Nazis’ 33% and a declining share for the bourgeois liberal parties (Zentrum 12%, DDP 1%: right-wing Zentrum politician Franz von Papen would then in January 1933 persuade the President to appoint Hitler Chancellor with himself, von Papen, as Vice-Chancellor).
The Democratic Party is to a large extent not a party in the European sense, but rather a bureaucratic subsection of the USA’s ramshackle structures of government. There is no equivalent of Labour Party conference, of the political processes in CLPs, or of Labour’s NEC elections (even at their worst). Nearest are the “primaries”, run by government structures, not the party.
But then Bernie Sanders didn’t have to be a Democrat senator in order to run for the Democrat nomination. Bernie Sanders has never been a revolutionary, but he didn’t have to move to the right to contest the nomination. Experience has shown it possible to participate in action like the Sanders campaign, and to build organisation from it, without being drowned.
The Trotskyist “don’t vote Democrat” tradition was always linked to saying that there was little or no difference between Democrat and Republican candidates.
In 1932 the Trotskyists backed the Communist Party candidate because they worked as an expelled faction of the CP. In 1936 they backed the Socialist Party candidate because they were in the SP. In 1940 and 1944 they said little about the presidential election except (truly) that there was little difference between the leading candidates.
In 1948 both the Orthodox Trotskyists (SWP) and the Heterodox (WP) shifted, basically the better to counter the Stalinoid Henry Wallace Progressive Party candidacy. The SWP ran a candidate and the WP recommended a vote for the SWP or either of two other minor socialist candidates.
Even in the 1960s, Hal Draper’s argument was that the pressure of “bureaucratic-statified capitalism” made differences between liberals and conservatives largely illusory.
As far as I know, there is nothing in the literature against voting for a clearly-defined, high-stakes bourgeois lesser evil (not a might-be-a-shade-in-it one) when there is no real working-class alternative in the race, before the arguments I made for an active minority “blank vote” in the Chirac/ Le Pen second round of the French 2002 presidential election. They don’t apply here.
To say that the USA is already fascist, or that Trump can make it immediately fascist if he “steals” the 3 November election, would be to proclaim a possible future defeat as already complete, like the Stalinists in the early 1930s saying that Germany was already fascist before Hitler took power. Saying that Trump personally is fascist, and that he may severely damage democratic rights, is accurate.
Trotsky’s comment on Pilsudski is relevant here: “It is methodologically false to form an image of some ‘ideal’ fascism and to oppose it to this real fascist regime which has grown up, with all its peculiarities and contradictions, upon the terrain of the relationship of classes and nationalities in the Polish state”.
So is the US Trotskyists’ assessment of McCarthy as an American fascist in the early 1950s. Not knowing that the period was the beginning of an unprecedented capitalist boom, they overestimated his impact, but they were right not to dismiss him as “not fascist” because he lacked the trappings of European fascists.
That Max Shachtman lost his revolutionary activism from the mid-1950s shaped what he later did around the Democratic Party, but was not caused by it. On a world scale, he saw Stalinism as dynamic and stable and capitalism (even in the long boom) as in “unarrested decline and helplessness” (as he wrote in a book preface as late as 1961). If Stalinism won, all bets were off. If bourgeois-democratic capitalism could get a reprieve from the Stalinist steamroller, then a workers’ socialist movement might be built in the interim.
And gradually he had given up on building a revolutionary socialist movement, hoping instead that in that interim social democracy would come good. From being a writer and activist appealing directly to left-minded youth, he drifted to being a behind-the-scenes fixer and adviser in those circles of US trade-union officialdom where many radicals of the 1940s had landed.
That orientation took him into Democratic Party string-pulling, not vice versa. The finale was Shachtman in 1972 following the AFL-CIO’s line of… neutrality in that year’s presidential election.