Yet again on lesser-evilism

November 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm (capitalist crisis, Democratic Party, James P. Cannon, Jim D, mccarthyism, Republican Party, trotskyism, unions, United States, workers)

I spent most of yesterday in a room full of British trade unionists, all of whom would regard themselves as (to varying degrees) on the political left. To a person, every one of them that I spoke to, or overheard, expressed pleasure and relief at the US election result.

In fact, I find it inconceivable that any socialist or, indeed, liberal, wouldn’t feel that way. I do not include deranged anti-Americans of the Pilger/Counterpunch variety.

Of course, a general sense of pleasure and/or relief at the outcome need not, necessarily, be predicated  upon having advocated a vote for Obama. And there is, of course, a long-standing leftist (specifically Trotskyist) argument against advocating a vote for the US Democrats, which I’ll come on to in a moment.

But even those of us who have never had any great illusions in Obama, need to recognise what his presidency represents for Afro-Americans and other minorities (notably Hispanics), and just what a blow to their morale and self-confidence a Romney victory would have been. It is also a fact that, rightly or wrongly, the majority of unions in the US backed Obama. All reports suggest, as well,  that the mass of ordinary people outside the US, feared that a Romney victory would make the world as a whole a more dangerous place.

Now, of course, the orthodox (and not-so-orthodox) Trotskyist position has always been that the Democrats are simply a bosses’ party (in a way, for instance, that the  UK Labour Party, being a “bourgeois workers’ party”, isn’t) and so a vote for them is impermissible. Instead, we should advocate the creation of a US ‘labor party’. The great American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon (of whom I am a considerable, though not uncritical, admirer), wrote extensively on this subject, and his articles repay study. Unfortunately, they are not readily available these days.

James P Cannon

James P. Cannon

Here’s an excerpt from a 1954 article entitled “A New Declaration of Independence”.  I had better explain that Cannon regarded McCarthyism as “American fascism in incipient form.” Whether or not he was correct about that (and, indeed, whether such an analysis of the Tea Party movement would be appropriate today), is not the central issue here.

Cannon argued that:

“[T]he myopic policy of the liberals and the labor leaders is concentrated on the congessional elections next fall, and the presidential election to follow in 1956. A Democratic victory is counted on to deal a death blow to the McCarthy aberration. ‘McCarthyism is becoming a danger all right, and it begins to look like a fascist movement; but all we need is a general mobilisation at the polls to put the Democrats back in power.’ Such are the arguments we already hear from the Democratic high command, the literary liberals, the labor leaders and – skulking in the rear of the caravan, with their tails between their legs — the Stalinists.

“This would really be laughable if humor were in place where deadly serious matters are concerned. The Roosevelt New Deal, under far more favourable conditions, couldn’t find a way to hold back the economic crisis without a war. A Stevensonian version of the same policy, under worse conditions, could only be expected to fail more miserably. A Democratic victory might arrest the hitherto unobstructed march of McCarthyism while it re-forms its ranks. It might even bring a temporary moderation of the fury of the witch-hunt. But that’s all.

“The fascist movement would probably begin to grow again with the growth of the crisis. It would probably take on an even more militant character, if it is pushed out of the administration and compelled to develop as an unofficial movement. Under conditions of a serious crisis, an unofficial  fascist movement would grow all the more stormily, to the extent that the labor movement would support the Democratic administration, and depend on it to restrain the fascists by police measures.

“Such a policy, as the experience of Italy and Germany has already shown, would only paralyze the active resitance of the workers themselves, while giving the fascist gangs a virtually free reign. Moreover, by remaining tied to the Democratic administration, the labor movement would take upon itself a large part of the responsibility for the economic crisis and feed the flames of fascist demagogy around the question.

“That would be something to see: The fascists howling about the crisis, and stirring up the hungry and desperate people with the most extravagent promises, while the labor leaders defend the administration. The official labor leaders are fully capable of such idiocy, as they demonstrated in the last presidential election. But with the best will in the world to help the democratic administration, they couldn’t maintain such a position very long.

“The workers will most probably accept the recommendation of the labor leaders to seek escape from the crisis by replacing Republican rascals by Democratic scoundrels in the next election. But when the latter become officially responsible for the administration, and prove powerless to cope with the crisis, the workers will certainly draw some conclusions from their unfortunate experiences. The deeper the crisis and the more brutal the fascist aggression fed by the crisis, the more insistent will be the demand for a radical change of policy and a more adequate leadership.

From all indications, the workers’ discontent will be concentrated, at first, in the demand for a labor party of their own. This will most probably be realized. It will not yet signify the victory over fascism — not by a long shot — but it will represent the beginning of a counter-movement which will have every chance to end in victory.”

I have to say that I find most of Cannon’s case unconvincing and (ironically for an outspoken anti-Stalinist) verging upon Third Period Stalinism. Just at a factual level, I don’t think it’s accurate to dismiss the New Deal as something that could not have succeeded without a war, or to suggest such a policy in the 1950′s was doomed to “fail miserably”. Certainly, Cannon produces no evidence to back up that claim. His argument against illusions in the Democrats and the dangers of being seen to defend a Democratic administration are fair enough, but do not amount to a coherent case against even voting for the Democratic Party – any more than the danger of sewing illusions in the UK Labour Party and giving uncritical support to a Labour government, are arguments against a Labour vote.

In fact Cannon, it seems to me, fundamentally undermines his own argument by concluding that workers’ discontent with a Democratic administration at that time would result in the demand for a labor party, which “will most probably be realised.” That would seem to be an argument in favour of getting the Democrats elected, not against it.

I have quoted Cannon’s argument at some length so as not to risk the charge of having taken him out of context. And I decided to quote Cannon in the first place because his writings on the US labor movement are generally of a high standard, and because his arguments are still, essentially, the arguments put forward by serious people who oppose a Democrat vote.

(NB: “A New Declaration of Independence” was published in The Militant of April 12 1954, republished in Notebook of an Agitator, pub: Pathfinder Press 1958 & 1973)

15 Comments

  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Voting for a lesser evil to my mind does not even require special justification – you merely need to establish how inimical to the interests of the working class the two evils are.

    As regards Romney his administration would have been catastrophic in every imaginable way and have signalled a massive assault on every last remaining vestige of the New Deal and on US democracy itself.

    Obama on the other hand is the real small-c conservative candidate – even his healthcare reform was designed to preserve the private funded insurance model rather than to replace while his education policies are pushing for the same marketisation and privatisation of public schooling that we are experiencing,

    But unlike the Republicans he does not hate and fear women or immigrants, does not stand for the disenfranchisment of as many poor Americans as they can get away with, does not plan to relieve the rich of the need to pay whatever taxes they can’t already avoid, does not seek to destroy trade unions, just might be driven by partisan self-interest to do something about the Plutocrats Charter that is Citizens United and so on.

    So on balance he is unlikely to leave workers much worse off in 2016 than they are now (and insofar as Obamacare will cover millions of people who are currently dying or being bankrupted by lack of insurance will ensure that many are better off in ways which we in Europe with our universal healthcare can barely conceive).

    About as clear cut a lesser evil as you can plausibly imagine.

    • bler4egHH omceonmretatry said,

      Agreed Roger, it’s just good sense innit. No engagement with an outstanding mediocrity like Cannon is required..

  2. Clive said,

    If I get the drift of Jim’s post – though it has to be said it seems only a drift… I think I agree.

    Obviously, in the US socialists need to put the general case for a Labor Party; and if there is a meaningful movement for one, or even a candidate who might help develop such a thing (Ralph Nader, I thought at the time, though afterwards he seemed a bit of a wanker), then you can make that case – and reasonably argue that ushering everyone behind the Democrats is counterproductive.

    But when there’s no alternative candidate, or even a campaign, even a small campaign, for one – what does that argument mean? “We wish there was something else happening…? And how effective can you be if you seem to be completely indifferent to the outcome between Obama and Romney (when it meant pretty tangible things for many people)?

    That said, Kshama Sawant’s result in Washington state (27% in the senate election, I think) – a candidate linked to Socialist Appeal, if I’ve understood the names of stuff I’m rusty about – suggests I (and Jim?) might be completely wrong.

    • Matt said,

      The candidate in Washington is a member of the US section of the CWI, the SP’s international (i.e. a Taaffeite rather than a Grantite).

      On the broader point, recognising one candidate as worse than the other and being relieved when they’re not elected doesn’t mean you have to advocate a vote for the better one. Some of the debate – summed up by you as ” But when there’s no alternative candidate, or even a campaign, even a small campaign, for one – what does that argument mean? “We wish there was something else happening…? And how effective can you be if you seem to be completely indifferent to the outcome between Obama and Romney (when it meant pretty tangible things for many people)? ” – strikes me as equivalent to Britain in the nineteenth century when most trade unions called for a vote for the Liberals and socialists raised the banner of independent working-class political representation. There’s also an echo of the French presidential run-off between Chirac and Le Pen (although Romney clearly isn’t a fascist): as the French Trotskyists put it, the real question is the strength of the labour movement (and that is linked in the US to it becoming independent of the Democrats) not who wins an election.

      • Clive said,

        On the general level of principle I hear that argument and can see the point of those parallels. My point is that – after many of years of trying – there is nothing comparable to the French Left or Keir Hardie or what have you, in the US, so the general principle doesn’t necessarily answer the immediate question.

        Why can’t you ‘raise the banner of independent working class representation’ but say – right now, this Tuesday – vote Obama?

  3. holy joe said,

    “27% in the senate election”
    The state senate, though, not the national one.

  4. bler4egHH omceonmretatry said,

    Noam Chomsky (a man despised by pseudo-socialist tory vermin everywhere) has it right:

    • Jim Denham said,

      “(a man despised by pseudo-socialist tory vermin everywhere)”…but loved by revisionist genocide-denying red-brown semi-fascists everywhere

      • comradeNosaj said,

        Yes because we all know that when a writer is wrong on a topic/issue (or several) that automatically makes them wrong on every other topic/issue that exists and could exist!

  5. bler4egHH omceonmretatry said,

    Howard Zinn (RIP):

  6. Jim Denham said,

    “Yes because we all know that when a writer is wrong on a topic/issue (or several) that automatically makes them wrong on every other topic/issue that exists and could exist!”:

    I wouldn’t go as far as that, Comrade. But someone who (for instance) backed the Iraq war would be, in my eyes, seriously undermined as any kind of serious political person, and their opinion on anything else pretty much worthless.

    For the record, this comment is not directed at Chomsky, who for all his many faults, opposed the Iraq war.

    • comradeNosaj said,

      “But someone who (for instance) backed the Iraq war would be, in my eyes, seriously undermined as any kind of serious political person, and their opinion on anything else pretty much worthless.”

      Good thing to know that you’re happy with Iraqi democrats, secularists, socialists, communists, liberals and, you know, just your average regular joe trying to get by 9-5 and support himself + family all being killed, brutalised and murdered by psychotic, fascist totalitarian gangster family. High-five for chemical weapon genocide and rape prisons bro! Nice one! ;-)

    • Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

      “someone who (for instance) backed the Iraq war would be, in my eyes, seriously undermined as any kind of serious political person, and their opinion on anything else pretty much worthless.”

      eg. Norm Geras

      C Hitchens

      Kanan Makiya

      all of which you have used as a source to back up your arguments on many a thing previously.

      I could go on but can’t be arsed polluting myself on this piece of shit blergghh crap – not that i ever took you and your shit idiot blergghh seriously ever anyway.

  7. Fuckwitsahoi said,

    Over at Stalinist Lunacy, we learn that Cuba is great and is a “pragmatic socialist” country. Wtf that means. http://www.socialistunity.com/12203/

  8. Matt said,

    To answer Clive’s question “Why can’t you ‘raise the banner of independent working class representation’ but say – right now, this Tuesday – vote Obama?” Put simply, because one cuts across the other. If American socialists said “We’ll support the Democrats as the lesser evil for now” and were serious about it, they’d join the unions in fundraising, leafletting and canvassing for Democratic candidates. Even if they still had in their heads the project of a US labour party, their actual activity would be in the opposite direction. They’d join the long list of people – from the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, Shachtmanites – who joined the Democratic party in order to transform into something different only to be transormed by it into something different themselves.

    A US labour party would likely have to deal with the Democratic party in the same way that the Labour Represntation Committee dealt with the Liberals ahead of the 1906 general election when the Liberals were arguing for – and went on to legislate for – a rudimentary welfare state and the repeal of the anti-trade union Taff Vale judgment. Ramsey MacDonald agreed with Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone that the LRC wouldn’t stand in constituencies where doing would split the vote and let the Tories in and the Liberals would stand aside in most of the constituenticies where LRC candidates were standing. The LRC did not advocate a vote for Liberal candidates in constituencies where they were not standing, even though many individual trade unionists probably voted for them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 420 other followers

%d bloggers like this: