Do Marxists Oppose Strategic or Lesser-Evil Voting?

Sanders1917

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

  1. I appreciate your post, but I think Hawkins, even if used Marx’s quote incorrectly, which I doubt, was right to criticize Sanders. Voting for lesser evil candidates is STILL voting for evil. If Lenin endorsed this as well, then he is wrong as well. I refuse to engage in idiotic lesser evil politics. Sanders might sound nice to some but not only does he refuse to criticize Hillary Clinton but he supports Israel’s bombing of Palestinians, military budget after military budget, Obama’s war against ISIS (incl. saying Obama is on the right path with his aggressive militarism) and rarely talks about cuts to the Pentagon. If he really wants all the programs he claims he wants, then the Pentagon’s budget will have to be radically cut. He refuses to endorse this. If anyone has any sense of mind, they will refuse to support Sanders in his silly, unwinnable crusade for a nomination of the second-most capitalist party, the Democratic Party. I refuse to vote for either of the capitalist parties and I think others should do the same. To vote for the Democrats to stop the “evil” Republicans is an approach that isn’t even worth considering. Sanders may seem like a “comrade” but I don’t think he’s a socialist (he’s more of a social democrat) and he is ok with “regulated” capitalism. He’s basically just another Elizabeth Warren, who also is a progressive except Palestine/Pentagon (PEP). That’s all I have to say.

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    • Thanks for the comment but I’ve dealt with most of these objections elsewhere.

      Choosing the lesser evil is still evil, of course, but in the class war we don’t have the luxury of ensuring that we always face a choice between good, better, great, and perfect options. Sometimes the only option available to stop a catastrophe is to choose or agree to a slightly less damaging catastrophe. Rejecting making these kinds of choices in advance on moral grounds is politically bankrupt since almost every successful struggle involves some form of ‘lesser evil’ compromise. For example, Sawant successfully pushed for $15/hr minimum wage in Seattle, but had to compromise on the “$15 now” demand in order to secure its passage. The choice at that point was between a phased-in $15/hr law with certain (and in my view, justifiable) exemptions or the status quo and I think she and Socialist Alternative made the right choice. Choosing wage-slavery for $15/hr is still evil, yes, but so what? Are we do-gooders and saints or revolutionaries? Do we stand for progress (however flawed or ‘evil’) or for the status quo?

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      • I understand that view, I just don’t agree with it. I also know that voting is hyped to be super important and something that will change a lot, but in reality it only brings minimal reform. I also understand that there isn’t a strong third-party movement, but its more important for people to run as candidates beyond the two parties… I understand that $15 an hour will not do everything and that there was compromises so it could pass. I think they made the right choice, but I see it as just one step to further fights. I’m not a fan of the phasing in of $15 an hour or any wage, but that may not change until new people are in power. It really depends one’s perspective if supporting $15 an hour supports the status quo or is progress. I do think though that supporting compromises in the legislative process is different than voting for a “lesser evil.”

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        • “voting is hyped to be super important and something that will change a lot, but in reality it only brings minimal reform.”

          Voting in and of itself does nothing, it depends on who and what the votes are for. One of the major reasons why the U.S. never got major reforms like single-payer health care or paid maternity leave is because we never created a mass-based socialist/workers’ party as they did in France, the U.K., and the Scandinavian countries. One of the major reasons why grassroots protests in the U.S. are so ineffective at winning even minimal reforms is because they lack an electoral and political arm to complement the action in the streets. I think this is most clearly shown by #BlackLivesMatter — despite years of protests, not a single cop has been convicted for their crimes, not a single minor reform has been enacted to stem the tide of police brutality cases.

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          • Even if you did win minimal reforms, such reforms are broadly a joke. Perhaps no cops have been convicted but we are getting close to that point where one might…and little bitty reforms won’t stem police brutality. That’s laughable. I’d say that there hasn’t been national healthcare because there hasn’t been a big movement pushing for it, a single-payer movement… People are right to be skeptical of electoral action since the political system and system in general is rotten to the core and most politicians are crooks for some reason or another.

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        • “Even if you did win minimal reforms, such reforms are broadly a joke.”

          Then what is the point of struggling? “Little bitty reforms” — such as? If we can’t win even win meaningful reforms, revolution is out of the question.

          “there hasn’t been national healthcare because there hasn’t been a big movement pushing for it, a single-payer movement…”

          Were there national movements for single-payer in France, the U.K., and Scandinavian countries? No. But they got it because they had mass-based worker/socialist parties. The closest single-payer advocates have gotten to victory is in Vermont, which, by no coincidence is home to the country’s only successful state-level third party, the Vermont Progressive Party which again vindicates the Marxist perspective of working people combining political action with direct action.

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          • Your cynicalism is just depressing and immobilizing. I’m cynical as well, but also hopeful. You have no hope. You just think that supporting the Democrats is a good idea even though they have betrayed social movements and working people time and time again, siding with big business. To say revolution is out of the question is not only wrong but absurd. The progressive parties like the Vermont Progressive Party just take positions of the old progressives and are center-left. We need something radical now, not the same old bullshit. You seem to agree with that, except your methods of making this happen are wrong. If there is ANY support of the Democratic Party electorally or monetarily, then the same old bullshit will continue on. You don’t seem to grasp that. Your mocking of those who support third-parties is just absurd, you sound like an angry liberal like Eric Alterman of The Nation who hates Ralph Nader with his guts. Perhaps there does need to be more organization of political parties like Socialist Alternative is doing, but supporting Democrats will NOT make this happen. Anytime that either one of the capitalist parties/orgs. wants support, people should scoff and tell them that they don’t need their money or support and that they aren’t voting for them. On principle, after I realized the idiocy of the lesser evil approach, I will not vote for either the Democrats or the Republicans. If there isn’t a viable third-party candidate then I just won’t vote. It’s that fucking simple. You don’t seem to grasp that. I don’t even think you are that radical, since your arguments sound like a liberal with a radical exterior. Once you peel of the exterior inside is a liberal who thinks they are radical. This may be one of the last comments I’ll send you because your arguments are so horrible that they are painful to read and sad at how much you don’t grasp.

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  2. “Your cynicalism is just depressing and immobilizing. I’m cynical as well, but also hopeful. You have no hope. You just think that supporting the Democrats is a good idea even though they have betrayed social movements and working people time and time again, siding with big business. To say revolution is out of the question is not only wrong but absurd. The progressive parties like the Vermont Progressive Party just take positions of the old progressives and are center-left. We need something radical now, not the same old bullshit. You seem to agree with that, except your methods of making this happen are wrong. If there is ANY support of the Democratic Party electorally or monetarily, then the same old bullshit will continue on. You don’t seem to grasp that. Your mocking of those who support third-parties is just absurd, you sound like an angry liberal like Eric Alterman of The Nation who hates Ralph Nader with his guts. Perhaps there does need to be more organization of political parties like Socialist Alternative is doing, but supporting Democrats will NOT make this happen. Anytime that either one of the capitalist parties/orgs. wants support, people should scoff and tell them that they don’t need their money or support and that they aren’t voting for them. On principle, after I realized the idiocy of the lesser evil approach, I will not vote for either the Democrats or the Republicans. If there isn’t a viable third-party candidate then I just won’t vote. It’s that fucking simple. You don’t seem to grasp that. I don’t even think you are that radical, since your arguments sound like a liberal with a radical exterior. Once you peel of the exterior inside is a liberal who thinks they are radical. This may be one of the last comments I’ll send you because your arguments are so horrible that they are painful to read and sad at how much you don’t grasp.”

    Facts are not cynicism.

    We radicals may want something radical now, but reality and the outcome of struggles are not determined by our whims and wishes but by the balance of forces. I don’t mock third-party efforts, I criticize comrades who are engaging in self-defeating and futile strategies that will lead to zero progress towards our common goals and — in the final analysis — serve to perpetuate an increasingly reactionary status quo as a result. A revolution can only emerge in this country when tens of millions of people not only take action but exhaust the possibilities of the existing system to make the changes they want and need. That’s not cynicism either, that’s the ugly reality every revolutionary has to grapple with if they want to avoid becoming empty phrasemongerers who pretend that revolution is always on the horizon when it’s plainly not. Accusing me of liberalism and of being a fan of the Democratic Party is not a poor for a thoroughgoing and convincing analysis that could demonstrate where I’ve erred either in my arguments or reasoning.

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    • Ha!

      I think Lenin would shoot himself if he saw 1) the state of the U.S. socialist movement and 2) the way people relentlessly nitpick over his quotes.

      The point of this post was simply to set the record straight on where he stood on the question of spoilers and strategic/lesser-evil voting. The question of the libcom discussion shouldn’t whether he would vote for Hillary or Democrats in general but rather what a “Black Hundred danger” might be in a 21st century American context (if it even exists) and what to do about it if it does.

      The poster is certainly correct that Lenin’s politics and practice go against the grain of what Trotskyist groups preach, but that’s true of just about every question and topic from party-building to democratic centralism to democratic versus permanent revolution and how to behave in mass movements and towards other left currents. Trotskyists are just as much epigones when it comes to Lenin as their Stalinist cousins are.

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  3. I hope you realise that Lenin in that article was arguing *against* the Mensheviks forming a bloc with the Cadets. He is actually accusing the Mensheviks of exaggerating the Black-Hundred danger in order to justify an unprincipled alliance with the Cadets.
    In his attack on lesser-evilism, Lenin is conceding that a temporary tactical support to a weaker democratic-bourgeois candidate could be necessary if the Black-Hundred candidate were a serious threat. I’m not sure that he held this position later, because this is not how the Third International posed the question in its first congresses, but who cares.
    The point now is that Donald Trump is not likely to win these elections and in any case he’s not going to establish a literally Fascist regime in the USA (the Black Hundreds were practical pogrom organisers, not just deliverers of inflammatory racist speeches). Hillary Clinton is the one who’s expected to win these elections, unless Bernie Sanders runs as an independent candidate.
    Actually, if Sanders ran as an independent candidate, apart from the possibility of an unprecedented presidential victory for a Socialist candidate, even if he loses this would bring extraordinarily important long-term consequences for the American Left, which would largely outweigh the increased risk for a Trump victory due to vote splitting in the anti-Trump camp. And by the way, this is precisely the argument made by Lenin in that 1907 article.
    By encouraging the Left to support Clinton, you are actually encouraging Sanders to keep his links with the Democratic Party.

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    • I hope you realize this article does not address the issue of forming blocs with anyone and is solely focused on the issue of lesser evil/strategic voting which Lenin clearly endorsed not only in Tsarist Russia but in 1920s England as well. We are also not discussing Clinton or Trump. Good try though.

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