2020 has been a momentous year—a petri dish of capitalist chaos and instability not seen in generations. Tens of millions of American workers have been pushed off the cliff of a devastating economic meltdown and subjected to a criminally mishandled global pandemic. Sociopathic cops have been unleashed against peaceful protesters, backed by homicidal extreme-right vigilantes. In response, there have been unprecedented mass protests, semi-insurrectionary uprisings and occupations, and emergent neighborhood defense committees.
As if all of this were not enough for a single twelve-month span, the US is barreling blindly towards an electoral reckoning which, no matter the outcome, will test the limits of the American capitalists’ experiment with bourgeois democracy. Not since the election of 1864—when the country was embroiled in an all-out civil war—has a presidential contest been held in the midst of such unpredictable uncertainty.
However, in the latter half of the 19th century, American capitalism was on a historical upswing. Not only did it survive these shocks to the system, it flourished in the aftermath, having “cleared the decks” for its untrammeled expansion across the hemisphere. Today, the socio-economic system underpinning the mythological “American Century” is sputtering and sclerotic.
Taken in isolation, any of the shocks currently battering American society would merely add incrementally to the misery of the masses and the general instability. But with the system as a whole quivering on the edge of chaos, even a gentle breeze could tip the entire house of cards into the abyss. Now, having sown the wind, the American capitalists are reaping the whirlwind—in the form of Donald J. Trump.
The country is as polarized as it has been in living memory. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha reignited the magnificent BLM protests, which had ebbed after raging all summer. The potential to harness the anger and energy into fundamental change is also unprecedented in recent memory. Even NBA players “got it” and went out on a wildcat strike to protest this society’s racist insanity. And yet, the labor leaders continue to cling cravenly to the capitalists’ coattails, more terrified of the millions they are supposed to represent than of the workers’ mortal class enemy.
Coming out of their respective nominating conventions, Biden appears to have the advantage. Never in 70 years has the post-convention leader lost the general election. But the polls got it badly wrong in 2016, and millions have lost confidence in them. Much can happen between now and election day, and it is a well-known fact that the Democrats are experts at stealing defeat from the jaws of victory.
Trump has staked his reelection on a message of “law and order.” He is frantically painting a picture of a country being burnt to ashes by “socialist” fanatics—though he is personally fanning the flames. His supporters demand his reelection with the unironic slogan “no more bullshit!” Never mind that Trump has been in charge for the last three-and-a-half years.
Dispensing with the dog whistle altogether, he has doubled down on his divide-and-conquer tactic of racism, misogyny, and selective repression. The Postal Service has been deliberately hamstrung to lay the grounds for privatization and union-busting, and as an added bonus, to cast doubt on the election’s results if Trump is not triumphant. Even if Biden wins by a landslide, no one should be surprised if the petulant sociopath currently inhabiting the White House refuses to go quietly into the night.
How should revolutionary Marxists approach these elections?
Marxists fight for the establishment of a workers’ government based on a revolutionary socialist program. We do not believe that socialism can be achieved in a gradual, piecemeal fashion through a series of partial reforms granted by benevolent representatives of the capitalist class. Although new laws representing the working-class majority’s interests will indeed be enacted once a workers’ government comes to power, bringing about a new society will not be a simple legislative matter.
The very process of electing and installing a workers’ republic will require the sustained mobilization of the working class, as a class. This would include the formation of democratically elected workers’ councils and committees for self-defense, in one form or another. A revolutionary workers’ government would move to nationalize the key levers of the economy, while simultaneously dismantling the old state apparatus, replacing it with a new kind of state, a semi-state resting on a fundamentally different class basis.
However, before the working class can conquer and wield power, the Marxists must win the masses to a revolutionary program that transcends capitalism’s artificial limits. First, by winning over the advanced workers, and eventually, a majority of the class. While we are not as far from such a situation as some may think, this is not yet on the cards for November 2020.
Marx explained that elections under capitalism give workers the “right” to choose which representative of the bosses will rule over them for the next few years. We have no illusions in these charades. We understand that all decisive social questions are decided, not by the ballot box, but in the factories, workplaces, streets, and barracks.
Nevertheless, we are not anarchists, who fear sowing illusions in, or being tainted by bourgeois democracy if we accompany the masses in the electoral process. Given the lack of other political outlets, many workers and young people are attuned to the electoral process—even if they are jaded and cynical about it. This is why Marxists view bourgeois electoral cycles as opportunities to dialogue with politicized workers, expose the limitations of capitalism’s democracy-for-the-few, and gauge support for our ideas.
We do not see elections as ends in themselves—as the liberals and reformists present them—but merely as means to a very concrete outcome: the building up of the forces of Marxism so we can play a decisive role in the revolutionary events of the future. We have much to say about the current state of affairs and should use these opportunities to expound our ideas to an ever-wider audience.
For revolutionary class politics—not lesser evilism
The current electoral farce is alleged to be a simple “yes/no” referendum on the president. The Democrats seek to win votes by portraying him as a “menace to democracy”—by which they mean bourgeois-liberal democracy—and they are not entirely wrong. Trump is out for himself and only himself. He couldn’t care less if the constitutional tatters that give legal cover to the rule of capital get caught in the crossfire.
But Marxists oppose Trump—not because he represents a major destabilizing factor for the continuation of bourgeois rule—but because he represents a clear and present danger to the American and world working class. The healthy class instinct of millions of workers and youth tells them that Trump must be removed from power. We agree! But the key question is this: what is to replace him?
The liberal Democratic establishment and its apologists argue that if we could only get rid of Trump, everything would be just dandy. However, although Trump’s policies most definitely exacerbate things further, most of the horrors and travesties that people object to are byproducts of capitalism. What is needed is a root-and-branch transformation of the entire system, not merely a change of parties or faces at the top.
While some “lesser evilists” concede that Biden is also “evil,” they allege that he will be more “susceptible to pressure” and that his attacks on the workers will be “less severe.” But what is the Democrats’ track record when it comes to such susceptibility? The historic protests against the bipartisan Iraq War did nothing to “pressure” Biden into voting against it. And the ongoing BLM movement has not “pressured” Biden and his top-cop running mate into supporting even milquetoast reforms like partially defunding the police. And although Trump has overtly cheered on the chaos and violence, Biden blames “all sides” equally—both the protesters who have history on their side and the reactionary scum who shoot them and ram them with their vehicles.
As for the severity of the cuts, austerity, and repression, why is any of this necessary? Why, in the midst of such unparalleled abundance, must those who produce the wealth continually tighten their belts?
When the Republicans are in office, movements usually take to the streets to oppose their agenda—since the Democrats do not represent an opposition in any meaningful sense of the word. But when the Democrats are in office, their connections with the labor movement, NGOs, and similar forces often leads to a decline in mass action, at least at first. The case can certainly be made that the Democrats are “more” susceptible to mass pressure from below—or at least, that they are more conscious of their policies’ optics. But the following is unquestionably true: they are under the direct pressure of the capitalist class whose fundamental interests they loyally defend.
For example, during the debates around Obamacare, the president did not propose universal coverage and allowed both single-payer health care and “a public option” to be taken off the table under the pressure of the HMOs and other big corporations that really call the shots in Washington. Not even the slightest change was made to anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley when the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress. The reality is that there will be no significant reforms paid for by the ruling class under a Biden administration and that any crumbs doled out to this or that section of the working class will be underwritten by cuts or taxes on another part of the working class.
The austerity and counterreforms that have hammered the working class since the 1970s are a function of capitalism’s organic crisis. Biden and the Democrats cannot stop the downward slide of their diseased system with promises alone. As a defender of capitalism, Biden will be forced to conform to the system’s exploitative logic.
If Trump loses you can be sure he will play the part of vicious and vocal opposition to Biden and the Democrats. Under conditions of deep crisis, it is almost guaranteed that he and his ilk would get even stronger, just as he and the Tea Party gained from disillusionment in Obama.
In short, lesser evilism merely kicks the can down the road and ratchets the entire political playing field even further to the right for the next go-round. This is not a serious approach to the real problems facing the working class. Not only is the “lesser-evil” approach exhausting and demoralizing, but it blurs the underlying class relations and interests in society, and does not prepare the working class for the serious tasks that lie ahead.
“Safe state” strategy?
Some on the left call for a “protest vote” for left-of-the-Democrats candidates—but only in so-called “safe states.” In other words, only in races where there may as well be no election at all since they are all but guaranteed to go either Democrat or Republican. Furthermore, to avoid “spoiling” the election for the Democrats, they advocate voting for Biden in “swing states” that could go either way.
This is what happens when you have not fully absorbed the method of Marxism—eventually, you abandon the class perspective altogether and cave to the pressure of the ruling class. We must patiently explain our opposition to the “safe state” approach—which is merely lesser evilism in another guise.
After all, even if Trump were a fully-fledged fascist—which he is not—this would not be grounds for supporting the “lesser-evil” wing of the ruling class. Instead, our task would be fundamentally the same as today: to fight relentlessly for the labor movement’s political independence and explain that only the working class can stop reaction—by taking power into its hands.
In this election, we advocate casting a protest vote for one of the left-wing candidates running independently of the two major parties. But the main work ahead is not voting or getting out the vote: it is building the foundations for a future mass Marxist tendency.
Planting seeds for the future
For all intents and purposes, we now live in a near-constant electoral cycle. As soon as the midterms are over, another two-year presidential campaign begins. “Public opinion” is relentlessly pressured into accepting the two “allowable” choices. No other options or opinions are allowed in the debate. This is reinforced by the fact that practically all the labor leaders are political liberals. They accept all of the political prejudices that come with that ideology without question.
In the face of this colossal pressure, Marxists continually and patiently explain that the working class requires a party of its own. Even a small party that ran candidates for a few offices would be a step forward in the present situation. It could help break the logjam and prepare the ground for bigger and better things—whether or not it won any elections in the short term.
Those self-declared socialists who myopically support Biden against Trump or who run as Democrats only cloud the vital issue of class independence and give left cover to one of the institutional pillars of capitalist rule. They will be bruised and bloodied beyond redemption and lose any authority they may have once Biden’s true colors are revealed. This craven, class-collaborationist approach leads directly to the swamp—not out of it!
Events, events, and more events will continue to transform the situation and the consciousness of the working class. Eventually, running independent socialist candidates won’t seem like such a wild and unreasonable idea. And eventually, momentum will build as they start winning on a principled, class-independent basis.
Even if Trump is run out of office, he is unlikely to fade from the public spotlight. The Democrats would inherit the ongoing crisis—which is still in its early stages—and would be unable to bring about significant and lasting improvements in workers’ lives. Even if they were able to hang on to the presidency in 2024, eventually, Trump or someone even worse than him would come roaring back—and the vicious cycle of evil would be repeated on an even more pernicious level.
This is not pessimism—it is the all-but-inevitable reality that awaits us unless and until the working class succeeds in building a mass socialist party of its own. Fortunately for humanity, the potential for such a party has never been greater, and its rise and ascension to power could come very quickly in the context of the current crisis. As the societal discontent and ferment accelerate, the IMT will continue to be a growing and integral part of the debate over how and why a workers’ government must come to power, and the kinds of steps such a government would need to take to truly transform society.
The US is virtually the only advanced capitalist country without a mass working-class political alternative. The blame for this lies squarely with the labor leaders and people like Bernie Sanders, who have accommodated themselves to the ruling class’s power and ideas. Despite the capitulation to the “present circumstances” by the labor leaders and much of the left, we are confident that a mass workers’ party worthy of the name will eventually coalesce. In the aftermath of Bernie’s latest betrayal, interest in a left-of-the-Democrats political formation is growing, as exemplified by the nascent “Movement for a People’s Party”—though many of his supporters will nonetheless hold their noses and vote “against” Trump by voting “for” Biden.
When a mass workers’ party bursts onto the scene, it will need Marxist ideas if it is to lead the working class to genuine socialism. If it does not mobilize the workers to smash through the artificial limits imposed by this for-profit society, it will merely manage the capitalists’ crisis for them. This would deeply discredit the word “socialism” and pave the way for even more virulent reactionary forces.
Only the power of the working class can stop Trump, Biden, and the system they both represent!
As part of our scientific analysis of the decay of bourgeois society and its institutions, we must follow all the major twists and turns of bourgeois politics. However, we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in the minutiae or miss the forest for the trees. Above all, we must energetically and painstakingly build up the forces of revolutionary Marxism to ensure we are large enough to make a decisive impact on the future workers’ party.
As we have seen, the bourgeois electoral system cannot stop people like Trump—on the contrary—it leads directly to these monsters. But Marxists do not limit ourselves to the political “options” and parameters of struggle determined by the bourgeoisie. We base ourselves on the power of the working class and explain that in the final analysis, the workers don’t need to wait until November 2020 to get rid of Donald Trump.
Organized labor could and should mobilize its considerable strength to stop him. If the labor leaders mobilized for a nationwide general strike, this would quickly stop Trump and his policies in their tracks. Remember how the government was reopened in January 2019 after the job action by air traffic controllers? And in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the BLM protests sent Trump scurrying into the White House bunker. Just imagine what the broader working class will be able to achieve once it fully flexes its muscles!
History wastes nothing, and the workers and youth are learning tough lessons about the limits of reformism and of capitalism as a whole. The new generation is being profoundly radicalized by the experience of life under capitalism—and they are increasingly drawing revolutionary socialist conclusions. This is precisely the situation the IMT has been preparing for for decades—we must energetically seize the opportunity with both hands to build our forces. We invite you to join us!
Originally published 1 September at socialistrevolution.org