J. Edgar Hoover once called Bernardine Dohrn “La Passionaria of the lunatic left.”
We took it as a compliment.
As members of the radical left for over fifty years—the lunatic left to be sure—we’ve participated in major social justice movements, experimented with a wide range of strategies and tactics, and learned a bit about success and failure. But the question remains: what is needed and what will it take—finally—to make an authentic popular revolution capable of overcoming exclusion, exploitation, oppressive relations, and capitalism? Do we need One Big Union? A vanguard party that will seize power? A general strike? A revitalized trade movement in the lead? Armed struggle? A third party in the electoral arena?
I have friends—lunatic leftists all—who favor one or another of these options, and will argue with me (or you) all night and into the next day—eyes blazing—for why theirs is the only true and sure way forward. I’m often put off by the self-righteous tone my friends employ, or the inability to entertain even the slightest doubts. I cringe at the well-rehearsed answers to every small objection. And yet…I don’t dismiss any one of these ideas or approaches out of hand. Maybe there is something hopeful and necessary to this one or that one. Maybe. But the unbending certainty in their own self-referencing logic leaves me cold, and I’m really pretty sure that the “only true and sure way forward” is intellectual myth-making at the extreme. Sure, let’s try everything, let’s learn and grow as we go, let’s come together and unite wherever we can. I guess I’m willing to try again and again, but I’m more agnostic and uncertain today than ever.
Which leads me to the elections and the noisy, clamorous calls for a serious third party now.
I’m not really an electoral politics person, believing that social movements and fire from below are our best hope, but I vote, and I advocate electoral reforms—automatic registration, universal suffrage, ballots into the prisons, instant run-off, extended voting, eliminating the electoral college, money out of politics, and more. Voting only takes a few minutes and leaves the rest of the day for organizing, educating, rising up, and getting down. I’ve always thought Emma Goldman (and others) had it right: if voting were the path to fundamental change, it would be outlawed. OK, in many ways it is.
I like the idea of a third party, but I’m baffled by my lunatic left pals acting as if this and only this is the essential step forward now. How does the effort to make a third party fit into a larger strategy? What is to be done on November 9?
Voting should be seen as part of a larger, multi-dimensional radical strategy, so that win, lose, or draw the movement keeps learning and moving. Voting should never be seen as a simple act of individual self-expression. It’s social, and it’s political.
Many folks who voted for Obama had buyer’s remorse—perhaps they didn’t pay attention when he said he was a moderate Democrat, or they imagined that the head of one of the two greatest war parties ever assembled would somehow NOT command the country’s violent legions. Many of these same folks voted for Bernie and cast him as our savior—OK, I voted for him too, not as a savior but essentially as the “lesser of two evils.” I liked that he used the word socialism, and I liked a lot of his specific proposals, most of them FDR-type reforms, and many adopted by Clinton. I loved that he said that the Palestinian people are human beings—a wildly left stance in mainstream US politics, barely middle of the road in Europe. But he was not for converting the financial industry into a public trust, nor nationalizing the banks, nor closing the Pentagon, nor emptying the prisons. I thought he tried hard to catch up after leading a political life in which Black people (and their concerns) played no role, and of course he fell short.
I urge you to read the following piece by the incomparable Noam Chomsky. Donald Trump must be defeated; the racist, nativist, white supremacist forces that have cohered in his wake must be crushed; the radical social justice movement must be energized and mobilized—the streets will call to us, now and then again in the coming months (no matter who is president) and we must respond.
An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)
By John Halle and Noam Chomsky
JohnHalle.com, June 15, 2016
(Note: Professor Chomsky requests that he not be contacted with responses to this piece.)
Among the elements of the weak form of democracy enshrined in the constitution, presidential elections continue to pose a dilemma for the left in that any form of participation or non participation appears to impose a significant cost on our capacity to develop a serious opposition to the corporate agenda served by establishment politicians. The position outlined below is that which many regard as the most effective response to this quadrennial Hobson’s choice, namely the so-called “lesser evil” voting strategy or LEV. Simply put, LEV involves, where you can, i.e. in safe states, voting for the losing third party candidate you prefer, or not voting at all. In competitive “swing” states, where you must, one votes for the “lesser evil” Democrat.
Before fielding objections, it will be useful to make certain background stipulations with respect to the points below. The first is to note that since changes in the relevant facts require changes in tactics, proposals having to do with our relationship to the “electoral extravaganza” should be regarded as provisional. This is most relevant with respect to point 3) which some will challenge by citing the claim that Clinton’s foreign policy could pose a more serious menace than that of Trump.
In any case, while conceding as an outside possibility that Trump’s foreign policy is preferable, most of us not already convinced that that is so will need more evidence than can be aired in a discussion involving this statement. Furthermore, insofar as this is the fact of the matter, following the logic through seems to require a vote for Trump, though it’s a bit hard to know whether those making this suggestion are intending it seriously.
Another point of disagreement is not factual but involves the ethical/moral principle addressed in 1), sometimes referred to as the “politics of moral witness.” Generally associated with the religious left, secular leftists implicitly invoke it when they reject LEV on the grounds that “a lesser of two evils is still evil.” Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that this is exactly the point of lesser evil voting-i.e. to do less evil, what needs to be challenged is the assumption that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences, specifically those outlined in 4). The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.
While some would suggest extending the critique by noting that the politics of moral witness can become indistinguishable from narcissistic self-agrandizement, this is substantially more harsh than what was intended and harsher than what is merited. That said, those reflexively denouncing advocates of LEV on a supposed “moral” basis should consider that their footing on the high ground may not be as secure as they often take for granted to be the case.
A third criticism of LEV equates it with a passive acquiescence to the bipartisan status quo under the guise of pragmatism, usually deriving from those who have lost the appetite for radical change. It is surely the case that some of those endorsing LEV are doing so in bad faith-cynical functionaries whose objective is to promote capitulation to a system which they are invested in protecting. Others supporting LEV, however, can hardly be reasonably accused of having made their peace with the establishment. Their concern, as alluded to in 6) and 7) inheres in the awareness that frivolous and poorly considered electoral decisions impose a cost, their memories extending to the ultra-left faction of the peace movement having minimized the comparative dangers of the Nixon presidency during the 1968 elections. The result was six years of senseless death and destruction in Southeast Asia and also a predictable fracture of the left setting it up for its ultimate collapse during the backlash decades to follow.
The broader lesson to be drawn is not to shy away from confronting the dominance of the political system under the management of the two major parties. Rather, challenges to it need to be issued with a full awareness of their possible consequences. This includes the recognition that far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the “reasonable” alternative. A Trump presidency, should it materialize, will undermine the burgeoning movement centered around the Sanders campaign, particularly if it is perceived as having minimized the dangers posed by the far right.
A more general conclusion to be derived from this recognition is that this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing.
Finally, it should be understood that the reigning doctrinal system recognizes the role presidential elections perform in diverting the left from actions which have the potential to be effective in advancing its agenda. These include developing organizations committed to extra-political means, most notably street protest, but also competing for office in potentially winnable races. The left should devote the minimum of time necessary to exercise the LEV choice then immediately return to pursuing goals which are not timed to the national electoral cycle.
1) Voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement directed in retaliation towards major party candidates who fail to reflect our values, or of a corrupt system designed to limit choices to those acceptable to corporate elites.
2) The exclusive consequence of the act of voting in 2016 will be (if in a contested “swing state”) to marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning.
3) One of these candidates, Trump, denies the existence of global warming, calls for increasing use of fossil fuels, dismantling of environmental regulations and refuses assistance to India and other developing nations as called for in the Paris agreement, the combination of which could, in four years, take us to a catastrophic tipping point. Trump has also pledged to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, offered to provide for the defense of supporters who have assaulted African American protestors at his rallies, stated his “openness to using nuclear weapons”, supports a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and regards “the police in this country as absolutely mistreated and misunderstood” while having “done an unbelievable job of keeping law and order.” Trump has also pledged to increase military spending while cutting taxes on the rich, hence shredding what remains of the social welfare “safety net” despite pretenses.
4) The suffering which these and other similarly extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.
5) 4) should constitute sufficient basis to voting for Clinton where a vote is potentially consequential-namely, in a contested, “swing” state.
6) However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.
7) Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must.
8) Conclusion: by dismissing a “lesser evil” electoral logic and thereby increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve.