Today on Facebook Richard Seymour continued writing on behalf of the Sanders campaign. It is clearly in line with the recent Salvage Magazine editorial that gave it very qualified support in an article mostly about how Donald Trump can conceivably lead a fascist takeover in the USA:
And if the choice for president were Sanders versus Trump? Then notwithstanding our remorseless suspicion of the Democratic Party, against which we remain implacably opposed and for which we would never campaign, if this UK quarterly could vote, Salvage would seriously consider doing so for Sanders.
Does urging a vote for Sanders in this fashion sound like something you might have heard from Gus Hall in 1964? You be the judge.
The Facebook post took aim at a Danny Katch article in the ISO newspaper opposing a vote for Sanders on the basis of principle that Seymour quoted. His answer to Katch follows. My response follows after that.
I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow. … I don’t vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle. … many leftists are throwing themselves into the Sanders campaign, often with the claim that this is the only time they’re ever going to vote for a Democrat…
There are a few distinct issues being incautiously elided here by Danny Katch. First of all, in principle, there are two potential chances to vote for Sanders. One is by joining the Democratic Party primary process. The other is by voting for him in a general election if and when he is the DP presidential candidate. Secondly, there is a crucial distinction between ‘campaigning for’ (phonebanking, leafleting, etc) and ‘voting for’ in terms of the level of involvement in the DP and in terms of the publicity of that involvement. So, let me put it like this:
- Let’s say that you don’t want to participate in the primary process, even if it’s an open primary. Let’s say that you definitely don’t want to campaign for a Democratic candidate, and get sucked into that machinery. But let’s say Sanders does in fact win the primary process (it’s against the odds, but who would be confident enough to rule it out on those grounds right now?). You’re faced with a choice, in November, of voting for either Sanders or Jill Stein. What are the prospects in each case? What difference would it make if Sanders won the election, as opposed to the difference it would make if Stein won 3% of the vote? How would each outcome affect the terrain on which socialists work? How would it affect the combativity and confidence of the working class? What sort of gains might the working class and oppressed make in each case? What sorts of losses? And how do we weigh those immediate gains/losses against (or in relation to, since they may not be mutually incompatible) the longer-term objectives of, say, achieving a political realignment? Or shall we gainsay these questions on the grounds of ‘principle’?
- Let’s say that you could cast a vote in the primary process, without doing any campaigning or otherwise compromising yourself. What would be the prospects for the left if Sanders won the nomination, as opposed to if Clinton won the nomination? What kinds of problems might the Democratic Party establishment face in each case? Would a win for Sanders exacerbate the crisis created for its establishment, its relative cohesion, its ideological framework, etc. already rendered acute by the campaign itself, or would that be more the case if Clinton won? And how to weigh this against the danger that participating in the process by voting would constitute a form of incipient cooptation, giving ground to the machine which will absorb and neutralise the movements (as and when the movements arise)? Or are these questions also foreclosed by ‘principle’?
- Since *when* was voting a ‘principle’ rather than a tactic? What is the point of elevating a good strategic insight (the fact that the DP is a capitalist party from which workers need to gain political independence) to an inflexible ‘principle’ (never voting Democrat) if it prevents one – as it must, of necessity, do, if you think about what turning voting into a ‘principle’ entails – from engaging with the concrete prospects?
Taking up these points one by one, it is difficult to answer rhetorical questions such as “What sort of gains might the working class and oppressed make in each case” or “Would a win for Sanders exacerbate the crisis created for its establishment, its relative cohesion, its ideological framework, etc. already rendered acute by the campaign itself, or would that be more the case if Clinton won?”
They are interesting questions but the more important matter is principle versus tactic with respect to voting for the Democrats. It is obvious that Seymour views it as a tactic. He asks when voting became a “principle”. Assuming that he meant to ask whether not voting for the Democrats became a principle, this is the important question rather than whether voting in itself is to be shunned. We can assume that Seymour understands that the ISO is not an anarchist group with a hardened belief in the superiority of direct action over voting.
It is also important to explore the question of whether a “good strategic insight” is different from having a principle about something. For example, we can all agree that not crossing a picket line is a principle (even though it was sorely tested when Albert Shanker’s teacher’s union organized a racist strike in 1968.)
What exactly is a principle, after all? If you look into Lenin’s writings before 1917, it is rife with references to principle in a context not that far from our own. The Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) were Russia’s version of the Democratic Party. Although some people like Mike Ely of the apparently moribund Kasama Project tried to make the case that Lenin did urge a vote for Cadets in exceptional circumstances (unsuccessfully in my view), the brunt of his articles was to draw clear class lines between parties of the democratic left (like the SR’s) and the bourgeois parties.
In fact, up until the Comintern’s Popular Front turn in 1934, the left never voted for bourgeois parties. Upton Sinclair ran as a Democrat for the office of governor of California that year, breaking with the Socialist Party. His son was so upset with him that the two nearly broke relations. Sinclair’s candidacy was not inspired by the CP, however. He simply had come to the conclusion that FDR represented something new just the way that some people regard Sanders’s campaign today.
If the same criteria that Seymour is applying to the Sanders campaign today were applied to the New Deal, logic would dictate that the CP and Upton Sinclair were correct to work within the Democratic Party. After all, if our goal is to vote for candidates who can provide “gains” for the working class and oppressed, there are tons of candidates in addition to FDR who can deliver the goods. This includes Chokwe Lumumba who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi or some remarkable liberal Democrats from New York like Bella Abzug or Ted Weiss. You can also throw Jerry Brown into the mix whose Presidential campaign announcement speech from 1992 was just as much an assault on the status quo as any made by Sanders:
The calamity which our forefathers feared most has, in our time, come to pass–an unholy alliance of private greed and corrupt politics. Our deteriorating economy, our collapsing political process, and our eroding system of common values, are the direct consequences of a few allowed to satisfy their appetites for greed and privilege.
While the net worth of the average American family declined, the Forbes 400 richest families in America saw their collective wealth increase by 300%! Did any other American families see their net worth triple? Even double?
However, the stunning gains by the very rich did not result from the success of hard work or as a reward earned by expanding the nation’s prosperity to the benefit of all.
The triumph of the forces of special privilege with its devastating consequences to the entire nation, was engineered with the complicity of Washington’s entrenched politicians, Democrat and Republican alike.
That is the whole point of politicians like Jerry Brown, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Bella Abzug, Chokwe Lumumba et al. It is to hold out hope that the Democratic Party can be transformed. Understanding it in dialectical terms, these are politicians who by their very idealism tend to undercut the ideals they enunciate. There is no conspiracy to “sheepdog” the gullible. Rather we are dealing with a party that has always had a populist component. After all, the first Democratic Party president Andrew Jackson was a friend of the “common man” (even if the Cherokees were regarded as less than human.)
Let’s say for argument’s sake that “principles” are not involved, only what Seymour calls “good strategic advice”. From a strategic standpoint, the most urgent task facing the American left historically is to create a party of the left. Some people think that the Sanders campaign can serve as a launching pad for the left. However, this is certainly a vain hope. When Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, Sanders will endorse her just as most people now accept even if they are ardent Sanders supporters.
At the age of 74, it is highly unlikely that Sanders will embark on the rather daunting task of spearheading the creation of a new third party (one that I would certainly support if he did.) Sanders is not the politician he once was when he worked closely with radicals in Vermont to get elected Mayor of Burlington. For the past 10 years Sanders has functioned as a Democrat. In 2006, he ran for his first term as Senator from Vermont in the primary on the Democratic Party line, backed by Democratic Party leaders from inside and outside the state, including Charles Schumer who clearly opposed everything Sanders supposedly stood for. He must have seen something in Sanders that was not obvious to Richard Seymour. Once he won the primary, he declined the nomination, thus leaving no Democratic nominee on the ballot. This meant that no Democrat would appear on the general election ballot to split the vote.
There is something coy about how Sanders deals with political identification. His Senate website and press materials continue to label him as an “independent” while his presidential campaign website lists him as a “Democratic candidate.”
If you think that a new party can be spawned out of the DP by Sanders and his supporters like Tulsi Gabbard (his most prominent ally is dubious at best, having been a keynote speaker at a Christians for Israel conference), you might be tempted to look at such a process as having analogies with the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 when members of the Whig Party divided over the extension of slavery into new territory. As it happens, the Whig Party was being torn apart in a way that has little resemblance to the Democratic Party of today.
The Republican Party was the culmination of a long and arduous struggle against slavery that was prefigured by earlier and somewhat premature formations like the Free Soil Party. There was a constant assault on chattel slavery that became the new party’s “principle” so to speak. In 2016, if we were serious about the possibilities of a new left party emerging out of the DP, we have to consider the complete lack of evidence for opposition to wage slavery, the evil of our epoch that Bernie Sanders has never said word one about.
Although it is painful for some to consider, Sanders sees his role as decrying the abuses of capitalism, not abolishing the system. After his campaign is over, he will take a few weeks off and then return to what he does best–voting the right way in the Senate and making appearances on the Rachel Maddow show. Starting a radical party in the USA that we so badly need will involve a separate set of principles and a willingness to see the fight through to final victory that will have enemies from the get-go. When Nader ran in 2004, Democratic Party lawyers fought to rob him of ballot status everywhere. In conditions of extreme polarization, a burgeoning radical party will face serious repression. That is the reality of radical politics in a nation where capitalism has had its most successful reign since the 1600s. The Sanders campaign is a far cry from the battles we face down the road.