One of the things that surprised me about this past election season in the United States was the sheer number of self-identified revolutionary Marxists who either voted for Clinton or called on others to vote for Clinton. I had never heard of most of these individuals before, but there were a few notable exceptions. One of them was Andrew Kliman of the Dunayevskayist outfit Marxist-Humanist Initiative. Best known for his work on Marx’s value theory, Kliman penned a number of pieces for his group’s website, sounding the alarm bell about how the rise of what he called “Trumpism” represented an “extraordinary danger” that required holding one’s nose and voting for Clinton. In a follow-up piece, he even suggested that voters in Utah might consider voting for former CIA operative and far-right Evan McMullin in order to block Trump from winning Utah’s electoral college votes.
It was okay, claimed Kliman, because voting for any of these candidates was not the same as supporting them. And indeed, one can look to the first subheading of his most comprehensive article about “Trumpism” to see that it does in fact disclaim any “support” for Clinton. Evidently, we are to believe, acting in a way so as to place Clinton in a position of executive power is not a form of support. Whereas the political tradition initiated by Marx, Engels, and their followers was made a first principle of the political independence of the working class, Kliman believed that such recognition of the class line — and failing to cross it — was “drawing false equivalences” between Clinton and Trump. Evidently the equivalence that they were both vying to be the imperialist-in-chief at the head of avowedly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist political parties was either “false” or irrelevant, in his view. And to follow it was, in his words, “an act of self-expression or personal morality.” Who would have guessed that one of the foundational political principles of Marxism was just so much self-indulgent moralizing?
In contrast to Kliman’s advocacy for Clinton’s electoral triumph, revolutionary socialists understand that voting in bourgeois elections cannot stop anti-working-class enemies. They also understand that depicting the struggle to stop such an enemy by getting workers to vote for yet a different anti-worker enemy results in the blurring of class lines. It also means, in the context of bourgeois electoralism, that energy will be sapped from grassroots movements. People who live in the United States should not need to rack their brains thinking of examples of this phenomenon. While liberals and even some socialists were claiming that an Obama victory in 2008 could build and strengthen the anti-war movement, those who knew better kept pointing out that people would refrain from mobilizing against the Obama candidacy (and indeed the administration) on the basis of the very same lesser-evilism that Kliman was espousing in his article. What happened in 2008 and 2009? The anti-war movement imploded. In their study of the demobilization of protestors in that time period, Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas concluded: “[T]he antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This didn’t happen through the magical power of voting in and of itself, but rather through the dilution and distortion of consciousness about what the capitalist state and its electoral arena represent. It was that changing consciousness accompanying the activity of voting that was the problem. The same problem produces the position that Trump was an evil so threatening that it required casting one’s vote for the Democrat. After all, it is completely logical to continue to try to weaken one faction of the bourgeoisie, by supporting the other faction, if you’ve been convinced that bourgeois-electoral triumph is the metric by which you should calculate what the appropriate way forward politically is — and whom is or is not deserving of your vote. It is also completely consistent, if you’re persuaded that one faction’s parliamentary success would be an important blow against a unique threat, to pull punches and refrain from demonstrating against, or otherwise embarrassing, members of that other faction as it attempts to govern. If you undermine their governance, after all, you will just be empowering the reactionary threat whose specter initially compelled you to vote for the opposing bourgeois faction in the first place.
In light of the paramount importance of prying workers away from a parliamentarist framework, revolutionary socialists would never, ever call on workers to vote for politicians running on a capitalist program, whether that vote is semantically construed as “support” or not. They understand what Kliman and others who joined him in their shameful lesser-evilist chorus failed to realize: that Trumpism was facilitated by the Democratic Party, and by that party’s role in working with the GOP to stick the boot ever deeper into the necks of the working class. The Democrats have always had a different strategy in accomplishing this task than their partners in the GOP. With the blue team, the goal is to slap progressive-sounding slogans onto a political program that is pro-capitalist and therefore necessarily protects the underlying force responsible for sustaining racism, sexism, and other forms of special oppression. Although Trump and many of his supporters are unique in their outward embrace of these problems, they did not represent anymore of a special threat in Marxist terms than did Hillary Clinton. As the dust settles on the election, the GOP establishment sinks its meathooks into Trump’s transition team. And as the process of actual governance begins to supersede the process of campaigning, the image that emerges is, in all essential ways, business as usual for the right faction of the bourgeoisie and the “progressive” toadies that grease their wheels.
The same orientation toward bourgeois parliamentarism most clearly manifest in Kliman’s endorsement of voting Clinton is also evident in other organizations that litter the landscape of the present-day “Trotskyst left” and “Marxist left.” Groups from the CWI to the IMT to the ISO and many others in between have endorsed either Jill Stein, of the petty-bourgeois Green Party, or have simply called on workers and socialists to, in the words of the IMT’s U.S. organ, “vote for whichever left-of-the-Democrats candidate.” As with Kliman and his Marxist-Humanist Initiative, the class line might find a prominent rhetorical place in the abstract literature, but in practice, it disappears. Instead the class struggle is replaced by an electoral war waged between Democrats and a potential party that a class-ambiguous broad “left” might get behind. As if creating illusions that the problem with the bourgeois political system is that it doesn’t provide diverse enough bourgeois choices, has anything to do with progress toward the Marxist goal of creating a revolutionary workers’ party.
For revolutionaries, the goal is not to build a third or fourth or fifth capitalist or small-capitalist alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. It is to be instrumental in forging a workers’ party capable of conquering political power, then as the party of the newly minted ruling class, to lead the transition to a scientifically planned economy geared toward meeting human and ecological need.