Some thoughts on the debate

Submitted by martin on 17 April, 2021 - 7:00 Author: Daniel Randall

Part of an ongoing debate on the USA. Click here for all the other contributions

Some thoughts on the debate from me, following last night's pre-conference meeting. Some of these comments, particularly on electoral lesser-evilism, overlap with Paul's.

Trump as a fascist

I have previously argued, as have others, that the question of whether one sees Trump as a fascist was not ultimately decisive for determining electoral orientation in the 3 November general election. One might deem him not to be a fascist, and still have favoured a Biden vote. Conversely, one might think Trump was a fascist/fascistic, but still reject bourgeois lesser-evilism as an electoral strategy - as we did for France in 2002, and as many of us did for France in 2017, where a neoliberal lesser evil faced off against what were, in my view, more straightforwardly fascist candidates.

The designation or otherwise of Trump as a fascist is also not a determining factor for anyone in the AWL, that I am aware of, in terms of whether we deem Trump/Trumpism to be a genuine threat that the left and labour movement must sound the alarm and mobilise against. I understand Martin mocked my side of the debate in a recent pre-conference aggregate by characterising our position as telling people in America, “don't worry if you're killed by gun-toting Trump supporters, they won't be 'fascist bullets'.” This is unhelpful demagogy with no basis in anything written or said in the debate so far.

We all agree that Trumpism is a seriously threatening form of far-right nationalism, with authoritarian aspirations, and I think we all agree the movement has fascistic elements within it. In an immediate strategic sense whether or not one thinks Donald Trump himself is, on the level of his personal ideology and his role as a political actor, “a fascist” may not in fact have much bearing. One might therefore say... this is semantic dogmatism, what does it matter?

It matters because the AWL is fundamentally an intellectual-activist collective within the labour movement, a primary task and function of which is to analyse and understand the world around us, and attempt to persuade and organise others on the basis of the conclusions we reach. Therefore precision in the meaning of words and concepts has an intrinsic value for us.

I agree that expecting contemporary fascism to exactly mirror “classical” fascism, or Nazism, is too rigid. In a context in which the left and labour movement is globally weak and marginalised, insisting that a movement is only fascist if it coheres around immediate efforts to physically annihilate the labour movement will cause us to miss new trends. There is an arguable case that the movements around Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi, and Duterte represent contemporary forms of fascism. The point is that it is an arguable case, in each case, which needs to be argued through based on the concrete specifics. The definition Martin offered in the 16 April pre-conference meeting, that a leader is a fascist if they “attempt to govern outside the constraints of bourgeois democracy” is far too broad.

As Ben and others have pointed out, much of what is pointed to by Martin and Sean as evidence for Trump's “fascism”, such as the suppression of black votes, are long-existing trends on the right of US politics. Martin says he rejects the “creeping fascism” thesis of Neil Faulkner and others, which sees contemporary fascism as incipient in the gradual ratcheting up of reactionary trends already existing within mainstream bourgeois politics, but his case for Trump as a fascist seems clearly to mirror it.

The Hawkins vote in the 3 November election

The case for voting for Howie Hawkins in November was that his campaign represented the potential for organising people around making an explicitly socialist propaganda intervention into the election, the point at which formal politics in bourgeois society tends to reach its highest pitch. Undoubtedly Hawkins did that inadequately, and in a way too closely tied to his mistaken analysis of the Green Party itself as a ready-made vehicle for independent working-class politics which simply needs to be built up. (A view which, it should be noted, Hawkins has held for a long time, not one he contorted himself into during the election, as Martin sometimes implies.) Although often prefaced with “eco”, Hawkins' campaign was clearly and explicitly socialist.

Martin and others have argued that there is some logical contradiction between expressing a preference between the likely outcomes of an election, and advocating that people vote for some option other than the one you say you prefer. This argument doesn't hold up. In the first round of the 2017 election in France, in which presumably all comrades agree we would back either LO or the NPA, it was clear that the only likely eventual outcomes of the election would be a Macron presidency or a Le Pen presidency. Presumably all comrades agree that, if an imaginary French AWLer active in either the LO or NPA campaigns were asked, they would say: “Between the calculable likely outcomes, we strongly prefer a Macron victory.” In Venezuela under Chavez, where presumably all comrades agree we would support independent socialist challenges like that of Orlando Chirino, presumably we would also say: “Between the calculable likely outcomes, we prefer a Chavez victory to a victory of the right-wing candidates backed by coup-plotting oligarchs.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting these situations are direct analogues for the US presidential election in 2020. I am merely demonstrating that there is no necessary contradiction between expressing a preference between the likely eventual outcomes and still advocating a vote for an independent candidate. Comrades who insist on a such a contradiction should be clear about whether they now think we were wrong to advocate a Nader vote in 2000 and 2004, even though a Bush victory was a clearly worse outcome than a Gore or Kerry victory.

The DSA, the Democrats, and the “break”

A number of demagogic mis-characterisations have been repeatedly advanced throughout the course of the debate, which bear correcting:

No-one argues that the growth of the DSA is insignificant or unimportant

No-one argues that Marxists in the USA should not focus on attempting to build a class-struggle, internationalist tendency inside the DSA

No-one argues that it would be better for Marxists in the USA to resurrect the former ISO's efforts of sectarian “party building” on the Cliffite model

No-one argues that Marxists in the USA should stand aside from the campaigns of figures like Sanders and AOC because they are “bourgeois”

No-one argues that it is inadmissible on principle for the DSA to orient to Democratic primaries

No-one argues that a real independent party – whether a labour party, a “left” party, or some other formation – can be established in the USA simply by declaration, without upheavals and splits in the “Democratic coalition”, and that therefore some species of “orientation” to that coalition is necessary.

I support the text listed on the conference order paper as “Democrats 1”, and I voted for it at the EC. The problem with Martin's position is that, although he claims otherwise, it suggests an idealised picture of what the DSA is actually doing, and lacks a critical analysis of the gulf between DSA leaders' on-paper adherence to a strategy of a “break” and the actual content of DSA's political work (i.e., uncritical electoral donkey-work for often not-very-left-wing Democratic primary candidates). Moreover, the arguments used to justify the position suggest a much more thoroughgoing intervention into Democratic structures than “Democrats 1” actually calls for, and than the “dirty break” strategy involves. The “break” must be declared, in advance, as an aim that is consciously being worked for, and function as an organising pole, rather than being presented as a kind of millenarian horizon whilst the immediate work actually serves the Sanders/AOC “reclaim/reform/takeover” strategy of neo-realignment.

Lesser evilism in elections

Passing “Democrats 2”, even shorn of its final sentence reversing our position in the November 2020 election, would contribute to making support for bourgeois lesser evils in elections our default stance. Of course it is a “valid option” to vote for a bourgeois lesser evil, but by foregrounding and emphasising this, rather than reaffirming that our default stance should be to seek the maximum profile for socialist and independent working-class politics, the motion “bends the stick” in a way that risks greater slippage.

As already stated, identifying a clear lesser evil does not compel us to advocate a vote for it, and it has not been the tradition of our tendency to do this. We are, or try to be, a group of critical thinkers, constantly reassessing our own practise and changing it where necessary. We should not continue doing/advocating something simply because that's what we've always done. But pivots away from tradition should be made on the basis of concrete analysis of specifics, not broad brush strokes. As other comrades have pointed out, the motion lacks any clarity whatsoever about the substantive meaning of its concept of “viability”. Retrospectively applying the spirit of this motion to various historic elections would have seen us foreclose on support for independent socialist candidates on the basis that they were “unviable” (small? Marginal? Likely only to garner tiny percentages of the vote? What?), and declare for the bourgeois lesser evil as long as there was a “big and clear difference” - as there surely was in many elections where we backed independent candidates.

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