Do Marxists Oppose Strategic or Lesser-Evil Voting?

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Howie Hawkins’s bizarre diatribe “Bernie Sanders Is No Eugene Debs” buttressed the Green Party’s principled pro-spoiler stance with the following lines  from Marx:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

The problem for Hawkins is that:

1. The full quote shows how inappropriate it is to mechanically copy what Marx said was right to do in a time of revolution, civil war, and dual power in a situation like today that is utterly un-revolutionary. The parts in bold below are what Hawkins deliberately left out:

“As soon as the new governments have established themselves, their struggle against the workers will begin. If the workers are to be able to forcibly oppose the democratic petty bourgeois it is essential above all for them to be independently organized and centralized in clubs. At the soonest possible moment after the overthrow of the present governments, the Central Committee will come to Germany and will immediately convene a Congress, submitting to it the necessary proposals for the centralization of the workers’ clubs under a directorate established at the movement’s center of operations. The speedy organization of at least provincial connections between the workers’ clubs is one of the prime requirements for the strengthening and development of the workers’ party; the immediate result of the overthrow of the existing governments will be the election of a national representative body. Here the proletariat must take care: 1) that by sharp practices local authorities and government commissioners do not, under any pretext whatsoever, exclude any section of workers; 2) that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates. As far as possible they should be League members and their election should be pursued by all possible means. Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. If the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.

So unless the Green Party intends to take “terroristic action” against the enemies of the revolution and set up a new insurgent government, Marx’s tactical advice on how the working classes could defend themselves from attacks by said insurgent government has no bearing on what we, as socialists, should do about the 2016 presidential elections.

2. In the snippet of the quote Hawkins cites, Marx clearly states that “the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body” is worth the price of the workers putting up their own candidates as a means of developing their own political organization distinct from the political organizations of other classes. But what about a situation in which we aren’t talking about “a few reactionaries” but a lot of reactionaries in the representative body (maybe even a legislative majority), or elections like the American presidential race that could result in reactionaries wielding not some legislative power but total executive power? Marx does not say. In fact, Marx never really had to grapple with the question of election tactics or strategic voting since for most of his life socialist and workers’ parties either didn’t exist or were in their infancy. Definitive answers about how he would confront the spoiler problem can’t be found in his writings.

3. There is a Marxist who did confront the spoiler problem and the minutiae of election tactics. His name? Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin. On the spoiler issue, Lenin was crystal clear:

“When a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it—he votes for the liberals without any bargaining, and does not break off negotiations if 2 seats instead of 3 are offered him. For instance, it may happen that at a second ballot in Europe a Black-Hundred danger arises when the liberal obtains, say, 8,000 votes, the Black-Hundred representative or reactionary, 10,000, and the socialist 3,000. If a socialist believes that the Black-Hundred danger is a real danger to the working class, he will vote for the liberal. We have no second ballot in Russia, but we may get a situation analogous to a second ballot in the second stage of the elections. If out of 174 electors, say, 86 are of the Black Hundreds, 84 Cadets and 4 socialists, the socialists must cast their votes for the Cadet candidate, and so far not a single member of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party has questioned this.”

So while Howie Hawkins was utterly wrong to quote Marx as if he would have supported the Green Party’s self-defeating spoiler strategy, Bernie Sanders would be absolutely right to quote Lenin in defense of his endorsement of Hillary Clinton if she beats him in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination fight. Lenin was open to strategic or lesser-evil voting because his starting point was not timeless abstract principles but real-world election outcomes.

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9 responses to “Do Marxists Oppose Strategic or Lesser-Evil Voting?

  1. Hey PW,

    In response to this actual post, I would say that I support a tactical alliance with some sections of the bourgeoisie against fascism if there is a real threat of it. But I would also say that due to its imperialist position, I do not expect fascism to emerge within the US proper. Even if we don’t assume that the Trump campaign is a tool of the Clinton campaign which they are propping up behind the scenes to push their desired candidate into office, the conditions are such that I expect Clinton to defeat Trump anyway. Trump is a danger because he, along with the fascist Tea Party movement, is laying groundwork for domestic US fascism in the future. But I would not say that leftists have an obligation to vote for Clinton in the event of Sanders’s defeat. However, the majority likely will anyway, and it would be unwise of Sanders from a tactical perspective to push an immediate demand of splitting the Democrats in this context, even if he wanted to, so I won’t criticise him for that. But among ourselves we should be clear that splitting the Democrats is a goal for the US context, and that if some new “US Labour Party” existed alongside a Democratic and Republican party (and also potentially an official “Tea Party” if the Republicans split between the fascists and the mainstream “Wall Street” Republicans) and THEN fascism emerged, I would likely still advocate mere tactical alliance IN THIS CASE. But of course, the material conditions will dictate.

    Semi-related, you had asked if I would post on Trotskyites, and I had been preparing two related posts, one on Trotskyites and their history and one on “modern revisionism”. But events in Washington DC require that I quickly write something else immediately. Stay tuned.

    Best,
    Muhsin

    PS: I assume you cannot read Turkish, but maybe you have friends who can. I have also been intending to translate this to English, but I never find the time: http://www.etha.com.tr/Haber/2016/03/24/dunya/trump-sanders-ve-abd-baskanlik-secimleri/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m confused. Is this a defense of lesser-evilism in general, or are you defending Bernie in endorsing Hillary, even though you’ve said that she isn’t a lesser evil as far as you’re concerned? From your third post:

    “I wish Bernie Sanders wouldn’t endorse Hillary Clinton if he loses to her in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Socialists active in his campaign should pressure him to “pull a Ron Paul.” If he doesn’t, well, he can’t force us to vote for her. (She’s not even a lesser evil as far as I’m concerned.)”

    https://pplswar.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/is-the-democratic-party-a-capitalist-party-not-exactly/

    Like

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