Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rethinking the politics of the ‘lesser evil’

 Principle or context?

The World Socialist Movement has traditionally refused to back one capitalist party or politician against another as a supposed ‘lesser evil.’ It has recommended that in the absence of a socialist candidate socialists should ‘abstain from voting for either evil’ and instead write SOCIALISM across their ballot papers. This stance is reiterated in the context of the forthcoming US presidential election in the October 2020 issue of The Socialist Standard (journal of the SPGB, our British companion party)—specifically, in the editorial and in Aljo’s article.

 Recently I have been rethinking this matter and want to share my thoughts. As I currently occupy the post of general secretary of the WSPUS, I must emphasize that I am expressing personal opinions, not presenting an agreed view of the WSPUS. 

The traditional stance of the WSM is based on two arguments. 

First, it is asserted that the differences between capitalist politicians are of minor importance – as meaningful as ‘the choice between cholera and typhoid,’ as Aljo puts it. Rival candidates are likened to the identical twins of an English nursery rhyme – Tweedledum and Tweedledee. 

Second, it is argued that the practice of supporting ‘lesser evils’ is a trap. It keeps the working class permanently in thrall to capitalism, blocking the growth of an anti-capitalist alternative or any movement independent of capital.

In World Socialist Review 22 (pp. 75-80) I identify a recurrent pattern. The disillusionment that follows the election of a ‘lesser evil’ prepares fertile soil for the rise of the next populist demagogue. A vote for a ‘lesser evil’ is therefore – indirectly – also a vote for a ‘greater evil.’ The second of the two arguments is a strong one. However, the first seems to me an overgeneralization. 

Tweedledum and Tweedledee? 

True, very often there does appear to be no great difference between rival candidates. However, I see no reason why this must always be so. Capitalist imperatives place limits on the policies that governments can pursue, but within these limits there is considerable scope for differences. In the United States, for example, the Republican Party has closer ties with fossil fuel interests, the Democratic Party with Wall Street. Recent years have seen a divergence in foreign policy orientation, with the Democrats focused on Russia as the main adversary and the Republicans on China. It may be said that differences of this sort are of no concern to the working class and in most cases that is so. 

However, some differences between one politician and another do affect the working class. I came across one example recently reading Victoria Johnson’s book on the Seattle and San Francisco general strikes (How Many Machine Guns Does It Take to Cook One Meal, University of Washington Press 2008). In 1934 San Francisco employers appealed to the federal government to send troops to suppress strikers in the city. Previous experience led them to expect a helpful response, but the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to oblige. A bloodbath was averted. 

The difference between FDR and his predecessors in policy regarding strikes and trade unions was surely ‘meaningful’ in this instance. Returning to the present, it may be argued that at least some of the differences between Trump and Biden do matter a great deal. 

MP Shah, author of another articleon the US election in the October Socialist Standard, evidently thinks so: ‘If Trump manages to secure another victory, the consequences for the environment will be disastrous.’ I am not sure. The difference between Biden and Trump in environmental policy is that between highly inadequate regulation of business activity and no regulation at all. Consequences for the environment will probably be disastrous even if Trump is defeated, although even an outside chance of human survival is preferable to the certainty of extinction. 

A threat to democracy? 

Of special concern to many people is the unprecedented threat that Trump poses to the democratic elements in the US political system. There is ample basis for such concern. Besides interviews with Noam Chomsky (e.g., truthout. org, August 11), I refer the reader to the series of seven editorials published by The Washington Post, starting September 22, under the heading ‘Our Democracy in Peril’ and to Barton Gellman’s article in the November 2020 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Trump has illegally appointed officials without congressional approval. He has sent federal troops to cities, against the will of their mayors, to confront peaceful protestors. He is systematically purging federal employees and military officers considered insufficiently subservient to himself. His new appointee as postmaster general is slowing down the delivery of mail in order to block mail-in ballots. He has refused to promise to leave office if he loses the election. 

Most alarming of all is Trump’s reliance on the support of extreme right-wing and white-supremacist militias like the Proud Boys and the Boogaloos, whose acts of violence and intimidation he refuses to acknowledge or condemn – despite the evidence presented in a recently leaked FBI report. The claim that Trump represents an American variety of fascism no longer seems farfetched.

As socialists we cannot be indifferent to such a prospect. Even if we remain at liberty, which is by no means guaranteed, we could hardly be effective in our work of spreading socialist ideas in an atmosphere of pervasive ‘patriotic’ terror. 

So what?

 Even if Biden is clearly the ‘lesser evil’ in this election, it does not necessarily follow that socialists should give him their wholehearted support. The long-term interest of the working class and of human survival dictates that such support be withheld from any capitalist politician. Support for an establishment politician, however justified its motivation, is a slippery slope that easily leads to the loss of any radical perspective. 

Just consider how Bernie Sanders has changed his tune. At the time of the Democratic Party primaries he dared expose the dirty secret of Biden and his other establishment rivals – their financial dependence on – and consequent subservience to – big business. This truth-telling was crucial to his popular appeal. 

Now, as Bernie begs his reluctant supporters to vote for Biden, the truth-telling has disappeared. Bernie encourages us to take Biden’s promises at face value, despite the man’s sorry record, and no longer even mentions his ties to capitalist interests. As socialists we face a real tension between the short-term and  long-term interests of humanity and the working class.

 We cannot sacrifice the short term to the long term: after all, we have to pass through the short term in order to reach the long term. Nor can we sacrifice the long-term to short-term considerations. 

A compromise of some sort is required. Our first duty is to be as clear and frank as possible in presenting the situation as we see it. As for the choice between not voting, casting an invalid ballot, and tactical voting for Biden in order to oust Trump, let our fellow workers think things through and decide for themselves. They can manage without our advice. 


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