Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 18, 2016

Richard Seymour justifies voting for a Democrat

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Richard Seymour

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:

  1. 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’?
  2. 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’?
  3. 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.


  1. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, the chances of voting for Sanders in the general election are slim to vanishingly none. Seymour is really wasting pixels on this one. The real question to be answered is what the effect of a Sanders endorsement of Clinton will have on his supporters. How might they be won away from the Democrats?

    Comment by Jon Flanders — April 18, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

  2. Louis, you’re a great guy, with many insights and a lively popular blog. But, this is one of those times when I feel I am listening in on strange chatter from another planet. I will hazard a guess that most of your correspondents don’t have children, because their attitudes toward the future (the near future) seem so lacking in any concern: they are purely theoretical, ideological rather than pragmatic. Perhaps that is the purpose of your site, to maintain the presence of an ideology in public attention (which public is inclined to be hostile). If so, then perhaps I should not interrupt the discussions here with my reactions to this post, because I am not a committed partisan to Marxism generally, or any of the various species (and sub-species) of Marxism that are mentioned in The Unrepentant Marxist. Nevertheless, for my own satisfaction of blowing off excess steam, and on the slim chance my reactions to this post, and the electoral situation (in the NY D-primary, and nationally), can add something to minds here, I point to the following two intemperate broadsides of mine, regarding “Bernie Sanders,” and “voting for a Democrat” and “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.” My own overall conclusion about all discussions of this type is: people believe what they want to believe.

    Democratic Party Unity Without Bernie?
    17 April 2016

    Bernie versus the Leftist Halo-Polishers and Clinton Vanity Queens
    31 March 2016

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — April 18, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

  3. Manuel, I have been making these arguments for the past 49 years. I guess there’s something wrong with me for walking around with a grudge against the DP after LBJ went to war (or continued the war) in Vietnam. If it hadn’t been for that, I might have led a profitable life as a lecturer on modern poetry at some small college in New England and been a registered Democrat.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2016 @ 1:06 am

  4. Dear Manuel. I had the unfortunate traumatic displeasure at 7 years old (1968) of attending a mass march (half a million easy) on the Pentagon where the cocophony of chants was: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Have You Killed Today!” I was convinced by those mass chants that LBJ had it out for kids like me, personally. I was literally scared shitless and even my parents couldn’t convince me that LBJ’s goon squads were after kids like me. After all, he was killing lots of kids according to all those shouting adults. Why wouldn’t he have me in his sights? Point is the party of real life monsters like LBJ could never represent a party some 5 decades later as a party of progress, a party worth giving a vote of confidence towards. On the contrary. It’s a party with blood on its hands from its slavery origins, through its war mongering 20th century genocides, through its congenital labor legislation betrayals, through its Nobel Peace Prizes won on the tips of smart bombs and Drones.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 19, 2016 @ 2:05 am

  5. Dear Karl, and friends: I had the unfortunate experience in 1968 of being called by the draft for induction into the US military during the height of the Tet Offensive. My initial draft deferment was soon revoked because I was confused with some other NY PR who had flunked out of school. This error could not be changed because “once we start the process we just keep going” (how the Draft Board explained it to me on the phone). I was 1A, holding out on month-to-month appeals (there was a big backlog!) until the draft lottery of December 1969 gifted me with a very high number. And so, like a small-fry catch-and-release trout, I was tossed back into the wild. I have never had illusions about Democrats or Republicans or anyone else. My point is very simple: I believe in pragmatic action, “people over ideas,” especially given unusually favorable opportunities like the wildly popular Bernie Sanders campaign (a rarity), instead of inflexible ideology, which is basically a fundamentalist religion, “ideas over people.” When Louis allowed himself to be moved by his heart, instead of his supposedly rigid anti-US-imperialism Western leftist comfort zone isolationist “intellect,” and “ideology,” over the imminent (and thwarted) Benghazi massacre by Gaddafi (March 2011), and the continuing war and atrocities by Assad against the majority of Syrians who don’t want him as their dictator, he (Louis) was pilloried by many of his Marxist colleagues because he broke ranks with the ideology: he blasphemed against the word-as-law, really “the word” as secular god. I have unbounded admiration for Louis because of this display of compassion, which causes him to have so many rhetorical and semantic difficulties in doing the verbal origami necessary to fashion a “logical” argument for these stands being correct and direct conclusions based on the ideology shared by the Marxist community you all share. By the way, the argument I am giving here is the central moral principle of Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn (“a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision, and conscience suffers defeat”). So, if you can view voting as a tactic (even if perhaps often trivial) rather than a Holy Sacrament or a potential Mortal Sin, and you can feel solidarity with most of the people (the actual people, even though I personally don’t like most people) who have awakened to Bernie Sanders’ message, then given a sound heart you easily chuck “the word” and vote to help make this magnificent (and never-to-be perfect) revolution succeed, because it is both a once-in-a(my)-lifetime opportunity and it is BIG and REAL. Are you really going to suffer by “going against your principles” in this situation? Is the question of voting “all about me” regardless, even over participating in a genuine popular movement to overturn much of the enslavement and corruption imposed on us today? Do you realize what a real revolution $15/hour nationally, and Medicare-for-all, and socialized public college would be for perhaps 100,000,000 Americans today? Instead of waiting for the perfect revolution to drop into you laps sometime in the future (never, basically), don’t you think you would have much more influence in organizing for that grander revolution from within the movement that has captured popular enthusiasm today: the Sanders revolution? And we all know that Bernie is just the current flag-bearer of this revolution, we may need to find new personifications of it after July, or November. It is clear Bernie knows this too. What makes Bernie run?: he has 7 grandchildren, he cares about their futures, which is NOW. What makes me spend this time writing to you (thanks, Louis, for your tolerance), I have three children and am far more concerned about their futures (which is NOW) than about the purity of my ideological allegiances and cohesiveness of my intellectual constructs: people over ideas. The ideas (and “faiths”) are useful to give you a sense of direction, and sharpen your awareness and remind you of compassion, but the realities of your life and the currents and incidents of the history (and chaos) you live through should be the actual forces you dance with to produce your actions. It’s all very simple: is it about me, or is it about us? “I rebel, therefore we exist.”

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — April 19, 2016 @ 4:16 am

  6. Think of Sanders as the first confused steps toward a greater understanding. The first inadequate response to the prevailing conditions.

    This is how Engels described the right to work movement of his day.

    So I urge all to vote Sanders, the confused inadequate!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 19, 2016 @ 7:25 pm

  7. Think of Sanders as the first confused steps toward a greater understanding.

    Right. After one of his speeches about jobs disappearing, I can see the audience rushing out and buying V. 1 of Capital.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2016 @ 7:28 pm

  8. For many who came up through the democrats and then became part of the anti capitalist movement it’s’s a different story. Knowing the democrats as I do, it’s only a matter of using the democrats for as long as we can to teach, and no more. For now, the sanders campaign offers a chance to stymie the most powerful crew of corporatists on the national stage, the Clinton machine. Once that’s over with it’s over, unless Billory manages to create,a split in the party with their periodic stupid outbursts on why the presidency belongs to their bloody claws. There are many within the sanders ranks who are teachable, but most will move back onto the Clinton column come the convention. That’s what I’m seeing as I work through all this as a Sanders delegate. The Sanders leadership just doesn’t have the sand to take on the big players. They’re a little more combative than the obamians were, but they just don’t have enough of a base aside from inside the machinery of the democrats. Once in awhile, Sanders makes a point that compels Clinton to run against herself, but he doesn’t have – nor does he want- the presence of character enough to press his advantage. He is a third rate man in a,situation that requires a second rate man, He is a Humphrey when the times require a McGovern. As for the bulk of the Sandernistas that I’ve seen at the Washington caucuses, many have fire, but are too drawn in by the party’s smoke and mirrors to mount a,credible opposition. Evidence may be seen in their howls of outrage over the petty bureaucracy machinations, and their inability to see the most gross deception like the , the Trump/Cruz bogey. There is no in depth discussion of what it might mean to begin to organize a grassroots opposition to the right wing, there is only a quiet fear that borders on panic. There are tiny layers within the Sanders ranks out here who will say “stuff it” to whatever horror shows the clinton people will drag out and vote third party come what may. But the chances of creating an open split with the Clinton democrats remain largely reliant on one key contradiction. That is thearrogance and the presumption of the clintons and their supporters, who remain bone headedly wedded to their dynastic succession fantasies, and mouth off as though they make some kind of sense. They present a nonstop willingness to.play the “rule or ruin” card, and occasionally step on their own selves. But to take advantage of this, the Sanders faction needs someone other then Sanders to lead the charge. And unless there is a major set-back for Clinton in California – the new york machinery blew sanders out last night- there will be no more of the more combative Sanders who began to mouth off after his string of primary victories. I will be participating in the platform struggles out here in the coming weeks, but frankly, it’s looking more and more to me like the Sanders political revolution is exactly what some of us have been saying all along, more fuss and feathers than actual bird.

    Comment by Michael hureaux — April 20, 2016 @ 9:19 am

  9. Keep it up.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — April 20, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

  10. I’m pretty sure I’ve read that SWP and IS teachers did cross picket lines during the reactionary if not openly racist 1968 New York teachers strike against community school boards (maybe in the Haymarket book Education and Capitalism which I don’t have handy). I recall something about radicals not respecting bus drivers’ picket lines which opposed busing in the 1970s Boston school integration struggle. It seems that particularly in the colonial settler states sections of the labour bureaucracy have historically played in part at least a reactionary and sometimes racist role and dragged some workers along: anti-Chinese pogroms in Australia in the 19th century (and a general support for White Australia by some until the 1960s); a racist strlke in South Africa in the 1920s; a bigoted anti-Catholic general strike in Northern Ireland in 1974. So not crossing picket lines is a rule with exceptions rather than an absolute principle. Some of the Brit Trots with more more economist snd formalistic ideas of “class lines” got themselves in convoluted knots trying to see something positive in the 1974 Northern Ireland general strike.

    Regarding Sanders I would have thought the question for your audience is not whether Upton Sinclair or Jesse Jackson or Sanders should run for the Democrats: yeah it might have been much better if Sinclair started a Workers Party or Sanders ran for the Green Party but they’ll do what they do out of our control. The question for the socialist left is what to do if lots of working people and youth open to radical ideas flock to such unusual Democratic Party-oriented campaigns. I don’t see any reasons in principle to reject participation, any more than possible participation in a British Labour led by a Tony Benn or a Jeremy Corbyn or the unlikely circumstances that Australian Labor moves in such a direction. Or in the Australian Greens for that matter, which are pretty much an externally operating Labor left these days. British and Australian Labor have been and are pretty rotten and linked to sections of capital, and the in the US the Democrats play the role of a mass social democratic party in the absence of anything else, so I don’t see a principled difference.

    That said I just listened to the always interesting Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report on the Doug Henwood show, mainly on the appeal of Clintons to black voters, but he also said some interesting things about the efforts he’s involved in trying to turn the Green Party in Georgia and nearby states in a more working class and socialist direction, which could well be the better tactics for US socialists at the moment.

    Comment by Nick Fredman — April 22, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

  11. I don’t see any reasons in principle to reject participation, any more than possible participation in a British Labour led by a Tony Benn or a Jeremy Corbyn or the unlikely circumstances that Australian Labor moves in such a direction.

    So Gus Hall was right all along and Peter Camejo was wrong. Interesting. Very interesting.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 23, 2016 @ 12:02 am

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