A Bad Argument for Supporting Biden for President
by Wayne Price, ASR 81
In the debates among leftists over the 2020 elections, one particular historical argument has been raised. It has been cited repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, among others, to argue why radicals should vote for Joseph Biden, despite his flaws. Chomsky has asserted, “What led to the rise of Hitler was the decision of the huge Communist Party to condemn the labor-based Socialists as ‘social fascists,’ not different from the Nazis, and to refuse to join with them in barring the Nazis from political power.” This is similar, he claims, to “the behavior of some of the left” which opposes voting for Democrats today.
(I am not interested in discussing here how individual radicals should vote or not vote. My question is what radicals should advocate be done by organizations and large groups of people, such as unions, the African-American community, Latinx, feminists, LGBTQ people, organized environmentalists, etc. — whether to support bourgeois politicians or to put efforts into non-electoral activities.)
What is Chomsky referring to? In the early 1930s in Germany, popular support for Hitler’s Nazi Party had been exploding. They won a third of the votes to the Reichstag (parliament). Their uniformed thugs marched in the streets, beat up leftwing newspaper sellers and speakers, broke up union meetings, and murdered prominent socialists. Big business began to pour money into the Nazi coffers. The police did little to stop them and judges gave them slaps on the wrist. The issue was not “free speech for Nazis” but how to stop their violent rise to power.
The Social Democratic Party (“democratic socialist” or reformist state socialist) was the largest single party in the Reichstag. Unlike today’s social democratic parties, it still claimed to stand for a new society of socialism. The Communist Party (Stalinist or pseudo-revolutionary state socialist) was smaller but still a large party, and held most of the revolutionary-minded workers. Under the orders of Stalin, in 1928 the Communist International had adopted a new analysis. This claimed that the world was in a new period (the “Third Period” since World War I) in which revolution was imminent. The Communist Parties would soon lead the workers in world revolution. All other parties were varieties of fascism. Bourgeois parliamentary democracy was the same as fascism. Conservative and liberal parties were fascist. The Social Democratic Party was “social-fascist.” Anarchists were “anarcho-fascists.” There was no point in trying to work with the social democrats, since they were just as bad as the Nazis and maybe worse. In fact, the Communists allied with the Nazis against a Social Democratic regional government in a referendum. This was an international program; in New York City, Communist Party members assaulted a Socialist Party meeting at Madison Square Garden.
Stalin declared, “Fascism is the militant organization of the bourgeoisie which bases itself on the active support of the Social Democracy. Objectively, Social Democracy is the moderate wing of fascism. … These organizations [fascists and social democrats] do not contradict but supplement one another. They are not antipodes [opposites] but twins.” The Communists assured the workers that there was no need to worry about the Nazis coming to power, because the Communists were sure to take power soon after. Their crazy-optimistic slogan was, “After Hitler, us!”
It was true that the capitalist class ruled under both bourgeois parliamentary democracy and under fascist totalitarianism. In either case, they ran their businesses and squeezed profits out of their workers. The governments supported them in this. They did not run the governments directly but had more-or-less influence on the regimes.
But what was important for the workers was not the extent of the freedom held by big businesspeople. What really mattered was the beginnings of working class democracy. Even under bourgeois democracy, the workers still had their unions, their political parties, their newspapers, their halls, their clubs, and even their socialist bars and restaurants. The Social Democratic Party had no intention of making a revolution for socialism. But it had every interest in holding on to these institutions, which required rejecting fascism. Fascism would—and did—destroy all these working class institutions. While the reformist state socialists may be accused of not fighting fascism, they could not be “the moderate wing of fascism”!
This was pointed out at the time by Leon Trotsky, in a series of pamphlets and essays. Formerly a leader of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist International and exiled from the Soviet Union by Stalin. He had few followers in Germany and little influence. But whatever Trotsky’s failings overall (I am not a Trotskyist), he persistently called on the Communist workers to give up the crazed analysis of their Stalinist leadership. He called on them to offer an alliance with the Social Democrats, a “United Front” against the Nazis. This was not to be a political merger or electoral bloc, but a fighting coalition. Coordinating activities through joint committees, they should defend each other from Nazi attacks, drive the Nazis from the streets, break up their meetings, and close their halls. This was a practical program which might have kept Hitler from taking power—and might have led further in a revolutionary direction.
As we know, this was not done. The Stalinists stuck to their insane program. The Nazis came to power and destroyed all working class and democratic institutions, killing thousands and then millions. (It is worth remembering this when present-day Stalinists tell us how wonderful Stalin was since he “led” the Soviet Union in beating Hitler during World War II. They leave out Stalin’s contribution to Hitler’s taking power in the first place.)
Does this then support the argument of Chomsky and others that the anti-electoral left is repeating the errors of the German Communist Party of the thirties?
Anarchists Fight Fascism
But first I will go over a less well-known episode in radical history. This was the rise of the Fascist Party to power in Italy, and the anarchist struggle to prevent this.
In Italy in the 1920s, right-wing forces organized gangs of mostly World War I veterans. Benito Mussolini organized them into his Fascist Party, with subsidies from Italian business. He sent them into towns and cities to attack union halls, workers’ party headquarters, and left-wing gatherings—breaking them up, beating up their members, and killing leaders, establishing a reign of terror.
At the time, the anarchists, while a minority of the left, dominated an anarcho-syndicalist union federation. Together with the Arditi del Popolo (people’s commandos). they called for unity in action of the left. They proposed to physically combat the Fascists, to defend workers’ institutions, and to drive the Fascists off the streets. In a number of cities they won fierce battles with the Fascists. For a time, they had support from Socialist and Communist workers and from radical republicans (revolutionary anti-monarchists).
However, they were undermined by the left parties. The Communists were then led by Amedeo Bordiga, an authoritarian ultra-sectarian. Communist members were ordered not to work in any organization they could not control. He denounced the very idea of a United Front. (He was expelled from the Communist International in 1930, although his ideas were revived in Third-Period Stalinism.)
However, it is important to also point out the behavior of the Italian Socialist Party (social democratic), which also rejected any United Front against Fascism. It called on the government to control the Fascists. Cravenly it disarmed itself by agreeing to a so-called Pact of Pacification, signed with the Fascists in August 1921. Of course Mussolini felt free to ignore this “pact.” Without effective opposition from the workers’ parties and unions, but with support from the big bourgeoisie, the church, and the king, the Fascists were able to take power and eventually establish a murderous totalitarian state—serving as a model for Hitler.
This little history exposes what is wrong with Chomsky’s historical metaphor. When looking at the rise of Hitler (and before him, of Mussolini) it is not enough to blame only “the decision[s] of the huge Communist Party.” There were also decisions of the even huger Social Democratic parties. What did they have to contribute to the debacle? When Chomsky says that the Stalinists “refuse[d] to join with” the Social Democrats, it implies that the reformists were willing to join with the Communists in stopping the fascists. But this was not the case.
The German Social Democratic Party
Rather than preparing to fight the Nazis, the Social Democrats followed a completely legalistic policy. They ran in elections and built up their party and union bureaucracies. They tried to take the Nazis to court for illegal actions! They did have an armed workers’ force, but it was kept in the background and never used. They did not understand that the Nazis were not just another political party and that the crisis was not just another political crisis.
In 1932, there was a decisive national election for president. The Social Democrats decided to back the old reactionary-monarchist general, Paul von Hindenberg, as the lesser (nonfascist) evil. Their slogan was “Smash Hitler, Elect Hindenberg!” Hitler lost and von Hindenberg won! But the economic and political crises continued. After some maneuvering, Hindenberg appointed Hitler as chancellor, which began Nazi rule. Hindenberg was not a Nazi; he assumed that power would calm down the irresponsible Nazis, who were a “lesser evil” for him. The Germans never gave the Nazis a majority of the vote, yet they took power.
What did the Social Democrats do? They still tried to rely on legalistic means. They voted in the Reichstag for the proposed Nazi foreign policy — before they were all rounded up. The social democratic unions cut all ties with the party and offered to work with the Nazis — until they were seized by the Nazi state.
The Communists of Germany and their leadership in Russia never admitted to having made mistakes. But in practice, after a few years, in 1935 they abandoned their super-left program. Indeed, they jumped over the United Front of workers’ parties (which they had recently called a capitulation to fascism). Instead they sought to build “Popular Fronts.” These were alliances among not only socialist and communist workers’ parties, but also with a wing of the capitalist class. In France, this meant allying with the Radical Party (really mildly liberal). In Spain, with the loyalist Republicans. In the U.S.A., it meant supporting Franklyn Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. Of course, an alliance with a pro-capitalist party meant that the Popular Front could not oppose capitalism or the alliance would end. If the workers and peasants, in a revolutionary time, tried to go beyond capitalism, to make a socialist insurrection, then the Communists would have to stop them, by force if necessary. (Chomsky has written a number of times about how the Stalinists repressed the revolutionary workers in Spain in the thirties.) Worse, in Spain the large anarchist organization and its union federation betrayed their program and also joined the Popular Front government. This was except for a minority of revolutionary anarchists, including the Friends of Durruti Group.
In every one of these situations, from Italy to Germany to France and Spain and the U.S., the policy of allying with — of supporting — liberal capitalist politicians resulted in catastrophe for the working class, for all oppressed people, for the organized left, and for the world.
Lessons of the Hitler Metaphor
The problem in the 1930s was not just that the Communists were ultra-sectarian. It was also that the Socialists were reformist, legalistic, and sought alliances with moderate capitalists. In 1932 the situation was dire. Society was in a deep crisis where the alternatives were revolution or Nazism. Even then, choosing a “lesser evil,” and supporting a capitalist did not work. The Marxist Hal Draper concludes, “1932 is the classic case of the Lesser Evil, because even when the stakes were this high, even then voting for the Lesser Evil meant historic disaster.”
For years, the left (unions, African-Americans, progressive activists, etc.) has overwhelmingly endorsed the “lesser evil” of Democratic candidates. Sometimes these won and sometimes the greater-evil Republicans won. But as a result, the overall direction of both parties has been to the right. The Republicans, in particular, have became far-right, with a fascist element. As Obama was followed by Trump, even worse than G.W. Bush, so Biden is likely to be followed by another far-right politician, even worse than Trump. Over time, lesser-evilism does not work. For unions and other popular movements, placing their hopes and giving their support to “the lesser evil” political parties has proven to be a dead end.
As for individuals, it’s what you do between elections that count; neither voting nor non-voting is enough, activity is necessary — speaking, writing, organizing, mobilizing, marching, in communities, unions, workplaces, schools, and everywhere. The massive protests around the police and racism have shown a way to struggle, a way of direct action, in the streets, and outside the limits of the voting booth and the official parties. If it spreads to labor upheavals in workplaces and neighborhoods, it may upset the whole oppressive society. This is the way to go.