By Harold Meyerson
It’s not only those who forget history who may be condemned to relive it. Less forgivably, some who remember history condemn themselves, and others, to endure horrors they clearly recall.
No one can argue that Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and editor of Jacobin, doesn’t remember history—socialist history particularly. His book The Socialist Manifesto, published last year, contains the best short (150-page) evaluative history of socialism in thought and action that’s appeared in decades. The strengths and limits of European social democracy, Russia’s and China’s blood-drenched variants, the Sisyphean ordeals of American socialists—all get a smart and balanced treatment at Sunkara’s hands.
One grim interlude that Sunkara dispatches with appropriate contempt is that of Third Period Communism, the doctrine that Stalin propounded in the early 1930s, and that the German Communist Party faithfully and tragically acted upon. Third Period Communism asserted that social democrats were actually fascists—“social fascists” was the term—who posed a threat to socialism and humanity’s future every bit as grave and imminent as fascists themselves.
Faithful to Stalin’s diktats, Germany’s communists refused to make common cause with the Social Democrats, their rival left party, to block Hitler’s ascent. Instead, they treated Hitler as just another, if more violent, capitalist tool whose excesses would only hasten the revolution, while directing most of their boundless ire at the Social Democrats. “For every action Stalin took to defeat fascism,” Sunkara writes, “he took another to undermine the anti-fascist struggle—supporting the disastrous Third Period policy that directed Communists to see social democrats as their primary enemy.”
By the early 1930s, it took almost superhuman myopia to miss the growing Nazi threat, but Germany’s Communists were up to the challenge. As historian Michael Goldfield noted in the pages of Jacobin, “Despite huge growth in Nazi membership and votes and the growing murderous violence of their storm troopers, the CP continually underestimated Nazi strength.”
But having duly chronicled and edited accounts of this blindness to the fascist threat, Sunkara appears to have caught a case of it himself. In April, he tweeted that he’d vote come November not for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but for Green Party presumptive nominee Howie Hawkins.
He pointed out that he had no desire to build the Green Party as such, and he encouraged fellow lefties to continue to work for causes like Medicare for All. He chose not to mention that because he’s a New Yorker, his vote for Hawkins carried no risk of throwing electoral votes to Donald Trump. But his rejection of Biden, if followed by his readers, could be lethal in close swing states.
Ed.note. DSA member Sunkara posted an updated view of consequence to this essay. It was posted after the essay was written. Recommended.
In his refusal to vote for Biden, Sunkara has company on the left. By a vote of 12 to 4, the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America recently declined to encourage members in swing states even to “grapple with the question of voting for Biden.” While polling shows that roughly 80 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters say they’ll vote for the former vice president, and while the sentiments of DSA’s (thus far unpolled) rank-and-file members remain unknown, there’s a wing of the democratic left for whom a Biden vote looks to be unthinkable.
The history of the American left contains plenty of precedent for such reluctance. Some of the most active members of DSA hold to a perspective honed for decades in Trotskyist and other socialist sects that shunned involvement in the Democratic Party, even though DSA was founded as an organization that encouraged socialists to build the movement by competing openly within the Democratic Party. Indeed, DSA’s growth spurt since 2015 (from an organization of 6,000 members to one of 66,000 today) is largely due to the groundbreaking campaigns that socialists Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have waged within the party—compelling those with more sectarian perspectives to join DSA rather than continue talking to the same marginal few.
But the real precedent for Sunkara and the dozen DSA National Political Committee members isn’t Trotskyist or Debsian or anything like that. It’s Third Period Communism.
Like the German Communist Party of 1932, their emphasis is on the sins of the center left. And just as the Germans failed to give much thought to what Hitler would do if he came to power, you can look at what Sunkara and the DSA NPC have written in defense of their position and not find anything about what a Trump second term would do to this country and to the constituencies they otherwise defend.
Responding in The Nation to an attack on his position, Sunkara posed a question he then proceeded to answer: “If we can all agree that Trump is worse than Biden, why not advocate a vote for Biden? Simply, millions of people are rightly alienated and angry at the Democratic Party. Joe Biden, owing to both his long history of right-wing policy positions and the credible accusations of sexual assault that have been directed at him, is an especially unpopular figure.”
Sunkara’s position is based entirely on the shortcomings of Biden and the Democrats. Nowhere in his piece does he assess what Trump could do if re-elected.
In other words, Sunkara’s position is based entirely on the shortcomings of Biden and the Democrats. Nowhere in his piece does he assess what Trump could do if re-elected, or, indeed, assess Trump at all, save to call him “worse.” That represents a failure of political imagination and of empathy with the Americans whom Trump will set his dogs on—a failure that comes close to that of the German Communists as the Weimar Republic crumbled.
Sunkara can argue, I suppose, that Trump is no Hitler and Biden falls short of the Social Democrats of 1932. But Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler, nor Biden the Social Democrats, for Sunkara’s apparent indifference to the threat that Trump poses to immigrants, minorities, and democracy itself to remind a good historian—like Sunkara himself—of Third Period Communism.
To be sure, pointing out the shortcomings of capitalism and Third Way (not Third Period) Democrats is the default occupation of left writers like Sunkara and me; I’ve been at it since the mid-1970s and am at it still today. But this occupation doesn’t preclude critical support of a Biden to rid us of a Trump—unless we’ve swallowed Third Period Kool-Aid.
For its part, the DSA NPC does lay out the dangers of Trumpism, while declining to support stripping Trumpism of the state power that comes with possession of the White House. “We will fight like hell against the Trump agenda,” they wrote, “by running pressure campaigns, engaging in mutual aid, helping to build strong, democratic unions, building coalitions with those organizing against capitalism, acting in solidarity with immigrants and incarcerated people against deportation and detention, working to protect tenants and unhoused people, organizing to expand voting rights, locations, and the right to vote by mail.”
DSA has indeed thrown itself into all these activities; the rank and file are among the nation’s most dedicated activists. When all these activities are measured against DSA’s refusal to work to deny Trumpism the monopoly on force that comes with state power, however, they may not amount to much in the eyes of immigrants, the incarcerated, democratic union activists, and the verdict of history. The Ralph Nader of 2000 opposed Bushism as the NPC opposes Trumpism, but he is remembered today largely for helping Bush win the White House. The German Communists of 1932 opposed fascism as DSA opposes Trumpism, but they are remembered today, if at all, for failing to redirect their campaigns against the Social Democrats to one against Hitler.
Biden, of course, is no socialist, and for DSA’s NPC, that’s the end of the story. “We fully agree with Senator Sanders that taking on the reactionary, racist, and nationalist right wing represented by Donald Trump is imperative for the survival of millions of working-class people across the country and the world,” they write. “We believe that the only way to beat the radical right once and for all is through a socialist movement that draws millions of disillusioned working-class people, here and abroad, into the political arena.”
That’s the American Trotskyite tradition speaking: If you’re not running as a socialist, if you’re not working for the final victory of the working class, count us out. That’s not Trotsky himself speaking, however. Unlike Stalin and the German Communists, he actually studied fascism during the 1920s and foresaw what it would do once in power. While more withering in his criticisms of social democrats than DSA and Sunkara are toward Biden and the Democrats, Trotsky was nonetheless a ferocious critic of the Third Period offensives against “social fascists,” and called upon his fellow Communists to wake up to the dangers of real fascists.
“The wiseacres who claim that they see no difference between [Chancellor Heinrich] Bruning [the centrist austerity-monger who led Germany before the Nazis took power] and Hitler are in fact saying: It makes no difference whether our organizations exist or whether they are already destroyed,” Trotsky wrote. “If fascism comes to power, it will ride like a tank over your skulls and spines … Only a fighting unity with social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, communist workers; you have very little time to lose.”
Biden, of course, is no socialist, and for DSA’s National Political Committee, that’s the end of the story.
Among those making such haste today are Bernie Sanders and AOC, both of whom are working to move Biden leftward—which both believe will surely help Biden win over more progressive voters. Most of DSA’s growing ranks of elected officials will be supporting Biden, critically, with eyes wide open, but not just because the majority of them are Democrats. What they understand, what they have to understand to win and hold elective office, is that the people they represent and seek to help—not just necessarily their own constituents, but also the poor, the immigrants, the minorities of all kinds—aren’t workers only, and aren’t oppressed only by capitalism. They’re African Americans fearful of the white nationalist violence that Trump fosters, mothers at the border frantic at having their children taken from them, slaughterhouse workers terrified by orders that call them back to work. Millions of them realize we need Medicare for All—immediately, today. But they don’t have the luxury of waiting for a socialist candidate to take on Trump and capitalism. They need to have Biden defeat Trump in November.
Some of the hardcore Bernie left, and too much of the socialist left, both historically and today, is white and male, and as such may not see themselves as the most immediately endangered targets of Trump and Trumpism. When such as these hold out for a socialist candidate who can mount a systemic challenge, in the face of the immediate threat Trump poses to more vulnerable communities than theirs, people in those communities may view that abstention as a form of male, white-skin privilege. They may be right.
If the DSA NPC members still feel bound to withhold a Biden endorsement, they surely could encourage locals and members to do everything they can to help minorities exercise their franchise, in the face of Republicans’ furious opposition to universal suffrage. They’ll have to understand that the vast majority of those voters will be casting their ballots for Biden, and let’s hope they figure out why. The fight to remove Trump may not be the final conflict of which socialists sing—but for America’s imperiled minorities, it’s a life-or-death conflict nonetheless.
Prospect editor at large Harold Meyerson has been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and one of its predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, since 1975.
Bashkar Sunkara, whose position is criticized in this piece, is editor and publisher of Jacobin. He is also a member of DSA. We requested permission to repost his piece here. We have not heard back. The link to the New York Times piece is in the article. Please consider both views. We will publish his position if given permission to post.