Part of an ongoing debate: click here to read the other contributions
There are it seems to me three central propositions to be debated at conference.
1) Trump is a fascist
2) We should have called for a vote for Biden
3) Whether we would direct comrades intervening in the DSA to focus primarily on the Democrats and in particular their primaries
Although each of these will have a bearing on a comrade’s view on the other propositions none clearly follows one from another. For this reason, I support Bruce’s suggestion to take in parts.
It is true that our previous debates on lesser evil-ism do have some bearing on the current discussion however those links can and must be looked at in greater depth in the future. For now, we should concentrate on the three issues in question and our attitudes towards them.
Is Trump a fascist?
With Martin and Sean’s auto-amendment it now looks as though it were a tactical gambit to call Trump a fascist with the aim to soften comrades up for the other two propositions. I think this is unfortunate and not a good way to proceed. Martin now responds by saying that he only objects to comrades who emphatically rule it out. This is strange, firstly because no-one I think disagrees Trump and the movement around him has fascist potential. Secondly, because it was Sean, Martin and Barry who raised the proposition within the group, then defended it repeatedly, now they are no more than objecting to emphatically ruling it out. There has always been a good deal to be alarmed about with Trump, the idea that the only way to raise that was to scream ‘he’s a fascist’ and hope that comrades could then be sold on calling for a vote for Biden and a focus on work ‘in or around’ the Democrats, is to say the least not a model we should aspire to. Indeed, Martin has argued in recent discussions that that labelling Trump a fascist was necessary otherwise comrades would not realise how bad Trump was and how serious the situation was. But who is that aimed at? I don’t think the American left, generally, is under any illusions on this point. Nor do I think anyone in our group is. The differences arise about how to deal with the threat, not whether there is a threat.
We have historically been against the Anti-Nazi League/Unite Against Fascism approach of saying ‘Don’t vote Nazi’. We have, correctly I think, argued for a vote for Labour and creating a positive programme and labour movement response. It seems to me that the argument to ‘vote Biden’ to stop the ‘fascist’ Trump is a species of ‘Don’t vote Nazi’. A dereliction of the labour movement and a positive programme in favour of simply, in the short term only, stopping the bad thing.
In his ripostes to Paul, Martin has made the point that fascism largely arises after the labour movement has suffered defeat. I won’t speak for Paul but I cannot see where Paul disputes this. What Paul repeatedly asserts, correctly I think, is that fascism’s primary role is to crush the labour movement. A defeated labour movement is not a crushed labour movement. The bourgeoisie summon fascism to power because they are not convinced of repeated victory and that the working-class struggle has alarmed them sufficiently that they are willing to gamble on fascism.
‘We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition … Our tasks … we realize not through the medium of bourgeois governments and not even through the government of the USSR, but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow. Such a “defense” cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority. Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us.’ Leon Trotsky, The USSR in War (1939)
Advocating a vote for Biden does not educate the workers ‘what they should defend and what they should overthrow’. Calling for a vote for Biden is entirely against the spirit and intention of Trotsky’s view here.
Should the counsel to vote Biden be heeded by our American comrades then they will be miseducating the new layers that have been mobilised by the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter. Just as we have, rightly, admonished Brexiteers, it will be impossible for our comrades to differentiate their ‘vote Biden’ from the general clamour to ‘vote Biden’ to return to a bit of normality and for a bit more decency. Indeed, if I can understand the comrades’ arguments for voting Biden, it is indeed for ‘a bit of normality’ and a ‘bit more decency’. Let us agree that a bit of normality and more decency would be a good thing in the current context. Do we really want to educate the layers around us that Biden can guarantee us these things? I think not.
Martin has written about voting: ‘Lib-Dem to stop the Tories in constituencies in Britain where Labour is clearly running third. The answer there is that an orientation to the Labour Party and a fight within it for working-class politics requires the Labour Party to contest every seat.’ Firstly, I would ask, what if the alternative is a right-wing authoritarian or Fascist candidate or government, does this approach still apply, to Martin’s mind? Secondly, I think it misses a key concept which I had always understood about this approach. I hope comrades will forgive me an anecdote to make the point.
The first general election I was active in was the 1992 General Election. I was a student but was at home on the Isle of Wight. The island (as anyone from an island calls ‘their’ island!) was a Tory/Liberal marginal. In the 1987 general election the Tories had taken it from the Liberals (Tories 51.2%, Liberal 42.9%, Labour 5.9% [up from 2.4% in 1983!]). We in the Labour Party had recently celebrated (and celebrated hard, as I recall) getting our first councillor, for many years, elected (Tony Coburn for Pan). I think it is possible to say there was no ‘viable’ (to use the words in the motion) working class candidate. The Tory MP was Barry Field, who was on the right of Thatcher’s Tory Party and had distinguished himself by being vocally in favour of the return of the death penalty. There had been 13 years of Thatcherite/Tory rule and although with hindsight that election may not now seem like a big deal, it really did then. The narrative immediately after Labour’s defeat was that it would never win again and that there needed to form an electoral alliance with the Liberals. I remember clearly canvassing on Pan Estate (Labour’s strongest area, a largish council estate in Newport) and meeting a Labour Party member and trade unionist who said ‘I am voting Liberal to get the Tories out and get a Labour Government’. This view was not uncommon. I argued, and I still think I was right, that you will never get a strong Labour vote if you vote for something else. I would argue this is what is wrong with the negative, not Trump, vote for Biden, it is not a positive vote for what we want. Those of us, who withstood the pressure, to tactically vote for Liberals on the island ensured that by 2017 Labour would become the second party on the island. However, that was achieved at the cost of Tories holding the seat in every election apart from 1997 (and by dint of this you could argue Brexit and a hoard of other bad things). But I still think we were right to not collapse in to lesser evil-ism.
At one of the pre-conference aggregates Bruce tentatively put forward the suggestion of the slogan: ‘vote Biden and prepare to fight’. This is a version of our slogan ‘vote Labour and prepare to fight’ that we up to the 1997 General Election. The point of this slogan that the two clauses of the slogan were dependent on each other. That we fought through the labour movement structures to bring them into conflict with a Labour Government. That there were structures in the Party that could be utilised to do that. No-one, I think believes that of the Democrats. Essentially, what Bruce’s slogan means is vote Biden and then carry on as before. The voting and the fighting are not conditional on each other. More tellingly, perhaps, we dropped the slogan ‘Vote Labour and prepare to fight’ in 1997, recognising Blair’s Labour Party to be something radically different from what it had been in the past, that the structures to fight within it were ‘concreted over’, we replaced it with ‘Vote Labour. Fight for a workers’ government’. I think it tells you all you need about the problem with a vote Biden if you use this formulation, despite the fact the Democrats are surely closer (although still miles away) to the Blair party than the one before it. ‘Vote Biden. Fight for a workers’ government’ strikes me as politically illiterate gobbledegook.
The organisation rightly proposed a vote for the Green Party’s candidate Howie Hawkins. The reasons for this are clear. Hawkins is a third-camp socialist and the propaganda he and his running mate Angela Walker made, was as close to that we would want made as any recent candidate. Martin, pours scorn on Hawkins desire to open electoral lines for the Green Party. However, I think, another reason to support Hawkins was to break the two ‘party’ system or as Martin himself describes it ‘legally-demarcated electoral structures of the US polity’. To break it from the left is surely a worthy aim in itself and a reason to vote Hawkins.
How to orientate comrades working in and around the DSA
Sara has valuably pointed out that the DSA is ‘incredibly heterogeneous’ and that the membership is ‘quite sceptical of the Democratic Party as an institution’. I believe she is entirely correct to ask what counsel we would give to comrades working in the DSA who have worked out that the Democrats are a dead-end: are we to whisper ‘we agree comrades but don’t tell anyone because lots of good people don’t and you have to be with the activists, don’t you know’? Or ‘you are wrong, there’s gonna be a “dirty break” unfortunately we can’t tell you how or when and all the history suggest actually there won’t’? Would we not be better intervening into the DSA to persuade comrades on a whole range of issues, not least that the Democratic Party is indeed a dead-end for working class representation?
Martin writes: ‘If the Republican party were a proper political party in the European sense, it would be splitting now. It is not. It is more a sub-system of the official, legally-demarcated electoral structures of the US polity.’ If this is true of the Republican Party, as I believe it is, surely it is also true of the Democrats. If to use Martin’s term a ‘fascist’ movement cannot split the Republicans, what would be necessary to split the Democrats? Doesn’t the evidence of Trumpism suggest that that Democrats and Republicans both fit Martin’s description and therefore they are nigh on impossible to split.
Whenever Martin reflects on Shachtman’s experience he attempts to argue that Shachtman succumbed to fixer politics and behind the scenes machinations before he turned to the Democrats. Let’s accept that as true. Focus on the Democrats cannot but of heightened and accentuated that tendency. Unless, we believe that Shachtman was already ‘lost’ in an absolute sense by the point he turned to the Democrats, or conversely, we think that an orientation to the Democrats could have saved him but was too late, then we must conclude that it had a role in his demise as an effective socialist. Were Shachtman alone, Martin might be on firmer ground, but we know that activist after activist, movement after movement has been lost in the ‘sub-system of the official, legally-demarcated electoral structures of the US polity’ that is the Democrats.
If we take the sum total of the three propositions together, that Martin and Sean want us to take, it would amount to a disorientating and muddled lurch. Given the current political context with authoritarian far-right movements in the ascendency across much of the world and the labour movement weak and on the back foot, nearly everywhere, this lurch prepares the ground for a potential collapse.