Chomsky uses misconceptions about the history of German radicalism to argue for lesser evil voting.
Noam Chomsky has been a very important figure in my political development. As a teenager just being acquainted with Anarchism he supplied an influential public voice that identified with the Anarchist tradition. Today Chomsky is important to me for what one might call negative reasons. As I have acquainted myself more with Anarchism and the reality of the modern world I have found Chomsky’s voice increasingly influential in the wrong directions. Chomsky, for me, has ceased to be a voice for a radical alternative to the status quo and more and more become a voice for the status quo’s preservation, it’s loyal opposition. His rhetoric around the 2016 and 2020 election cycles have fallowed this trend.
In both cycles Chomsky has insisted that what matters is not the social structures that organize our lives and livelihoods, but instead who sits on the white house toilet seat. Chomsky can’t be entirely blamed. The dominant narrative is one which exalts the importance of the temperament and decisions of the holder of the highest office. As someone who identifies with Anarchism, who has made a career off the proposition that really what controls our lives are the dominant social structures, rather than any one official we might vote for, Chomsky should certainly be expected to break with that dominant narrative. Yet, he fails on all accounts to accomplish this. He instead has joined the sad fatalist chorus of dejected progressives willing to accept the “lesser of two evils” and thus avoiding deep questioning of how the modern world works.
Unfortunately for Chomsky and his fellow sad sacks they got what they wanted. As Trump hopelessly flails to overturn the most important election result in the country Joe lesser evil Biden is sitting pretty as the presidential nominee. Why is this unfortunate for Chomsky and the backers of lesser evil? Simple. Not less than a year into Biden’s administration it will become clear how “lesser” this evil really is. Going back to before Biden’s win, however, Chomsky tried to invoke a little history to justify biting the bullet.
In an Intercept interview, when asked about progressives averse to voting for Biden after having their hopes for Bernie dashed for the second election in a row, Chomsky offered a reply based on the history of the German Communist Party (KPD). According to Chomsky, the rise of Hitler was the result of the KPD, acting under orders from the Soviets, to reject allying with the Social Democratic Party in order to stop National Socialism. This is what I like to call “bumper sticker history”. It takes a complex and important historical event and collapses it into a simple, but inaccurate argument for what should be done in the present.
Before WW1 the Marxist orthodoxy in the west was that of using electoral socialist parties to coast off concessions made to labor by capital. Most prominent among these parties was the SPD (German Social Democratic Party) which had taken it’s coarse with the endorsement of Marx’s closest colleague himself, Fredrich Engels. For Germany, however, the destruction wrought by the war overshadowed the concessions that were first implemented by Bismarck in the 19th century and so the population lashed back. The result was the German Revolution of 1918-19 where much like the Russian Revolution a year before the population chased off the monarch and organized self-governing workers’ councils. This lead the Social Democratic Party to come to power resulting in the creation of the Weimar Republic. Stability was not to come, however. The rift between the left-wing of the Social Democrats who had formed a militant group known as the Spartacists and the Social Democratic Party lead to a failed uprising by the former and a resulting bloody assault on the Spartacists by the latter culminating in the murders of the two most prominent Spartacists, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
The KPD which was formed out of the Spartacists was driven underground and completely overhauled it’s ideological disposition. Under the leadership of Luxemburg’s old alley, Paul Levi, the organization ditched it’s putschist disposition and oriented itself to the old Social Democratic policy of electoral influence. In 1923 the Republic faced more instability when under the pretext of failure to make reparation payments Belgium and France occupied the industrial Ruhr Valley. Inflation spun out of control and nation-wide strikes appeared. The head of the Comintern, the international coordinating body of communist parties emanating from Moscow, Grigory Zinoviev, ordered the KPD leadership to take advantage of the wave of unrest.
The KPD attempted to do so by appealing to the Social Democratic coalition in Saxony, but under pressure from the central government (backed up by troops) the Social Democrats refused to take part. In Hamburg fighting broke out between communists, local police, and right-wing militias. However, unions and other left groups stood by idly while the communists were put down. Skipping ahead to the end of the 20s Stalin and Bukharin had taken power in Soviet politics and deposed Zinoviev. In accordance with the militant fervor of Stalin’s policies at home he crafted a new doctrine for the Comintern that was a complete break from it’s past positions.
The new policy was that of the “third period”. The about face the Comintern did in adopting it is referred to as “the turn”. According to the turn communists could no longer ally with any social forces outside their camp. This was extended in the idea of “social fascism”, that the social democratic parties and their allies were in fact Fascists using a disguise to fool the workers. The KPD, which had gone through purges of it’s membership and come under the iron rule of Ernst Thalmann, having been betrayed by the Social Democrats one too many times, was happy to abide by this doctrine. This lead it to enter into a kind of circumstantial soft alliance with the National Socialists in which the KPD continually mocked the failures of the SPD.
Once the KPD realized the threat posed by Nazism it was too late and Hitler made his ascent. Chomsky would like us to believe that if the KPD just joined an electoral coalition with the SPD and the two mutually put their differences aside Fascism could have been prevented, thus demonstrating the wisdom of lesser evil electoralism. For now we will ignore the bizarre nature of a comparison between a national election that was the culmination of the rise of Nazism, the crises of the Republic, and the struggle between the social democrats and communists, and a more, or less typical US election in which a Republican contests against a Democrat. If we take a look at the more complicated historical backdrop we can see how misleading Chomsky’s version of history is.
It should firstly be remembered that by tapping into the frustrations of unemployed and unskilled workers the KPD had became the fourth most powerful electoral force. It certainly wasn’t taking up a policy of abstention from bourgeois elections, it was only refusing to ally with it’s long time rival. It had in fact achieved significant electoral success on it’s own. Secondly, despite wide speculations of historians as to what might have gone differently had a coalition been established, this isn’t even the actual issue. The real issue is that the “social fascism” doctrine of the communists lead them to ignore the real Fascists and concentrate on a bitter foe that, nevertheless, were not Fascists. Things would have turned out very differently if the communists had brought the fight to the Fascists, rather than the SPD, regardless of whether a coalition between the two was created, or not.
Let us go back to before the war and the formation of the KPD. The welfare state loving, organized labor based, SPD, despite it’s obvious moderate political disposition, would certainly qualify as a lesser evil to people like Chomsky. A Chomsky may even completely embrace the SPD given his own affection for candidates like Sanders. However, the moderate SPD, as did the rest of the socialist movement, made a hard right turn. Defying the expectations of the International Socialist Bureau the SPD and other parties such as British Labour threw their support and base behind WW1, one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. Despite Chomsky’s own warnings about the need for lesser evil voting to prevent disasters such as climate change and nuclear conflict, a party (multiple in fact) well to the left of Biden and the Democrats signed off on a world-historic catastrophe.
Not only that, but this was the reason for the KPD’s rivalry with the SPD in the first place. The KPD was formed by left social democrats who were disgusted, principally, by the party’s choice of murderous patriotism over solidarity among the workers of the world. The SPD, the supposed lesser evil in Weimer Germany, made a horrendous choice which created their own misguided opposition. How differently would history have looked if the SPD never supported WW1 in the first place?
The moral of this story is that lesser evil electoralism, and frankly electoral politics in general, is blind to the long term structural phenomena of the modern world. Just as the horrific failures of a nominally progressive socialist party like the SPD were part of the same historical process that ultimately lead to the KPD’s hardheaded dogmatism and Hitler’s rise to power so were the horrific failures of the Democratic Party over the past several decades part of the same historical process that produced Trump. By the same token, after Trump won’t be brunch. The horror show will march on and Biden can do nothing to save us. All we have is our collective agency as the oppressed and exploited of the modern world, with it, we can make actual change, but only if we break from the dominant illusions and common sacred cows.
Vanguard of The Revolution, McAdams