Rethinking Voting
for Capitalist Parties

A Statement by the Central Committee
of the League for the Revolutionary Party

March 13, 2020

Along with much of the left in this country that identifies with the tradition of revolutionary Marxism, the LRP has considered it a basic principle to oppose voting for capitalist parties. We have condemned such voting as “crossing the class line” and for undermining the struggle for independent working-class political organization and action. In the United States, the Democratic Party postures as the friend of labor, women and minorities, so we have had to warn especially against illusions in it. Along with the openly right-wing Republicans, the Democrats are in fact a major party of the U.S.’s imperialist capitalist class, one of the bloodiest ruling classes in history.

We have long warned of the Democratic Party’s role as the “graveyard of social struggles.” Over the course of modern U.S. history, protest movements, strikes and other mass struggles by working-class and oppressed people have been defeated by various means, from corrupt leadership to state repression. The ruling class’s most reliable tool, however, has been the Democrats’ role in diverting mass movements from challenging the ruling class and in demobilizing the working class into passive bourgeois electoralism. This role has been key to the demise of every mass movement of working-class and oppressed people over the last century, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements of the 1950s and ’60s, to more recent uprisings like the great immigrant rights struggles of the early 2000s and the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

Reconsidering the “No Vote for Capitalist Parties” Principle

Nevertheless, two major factors have prompted us to reconsider the principle of not voting for capitalist parties and to consider a range of possible electoral tactics that the principle would generally forbid.

  1. The chief factor was the election of Trump and the unprecedented threat that he and the Republican Party pose to the democratic rights and other protections that working-class and oppressed people won through mass struggles over the course of generations. With his open racism and authoritarianism, Trump has rallied a far-right mass movement of support for Republicans whose aim is to entrench white supremacy over a “browning America” and overturn all barriers to capitalist profiteering. (We discuss this agenda in more detail below.) Trump and the Republicans therefore represent the greatest and most imminent threat to working-class and oppressed people. Yet in the absence of a mass working-class alternative to the Democrats, the “no vote for capitalist parties” principle ruled out any significant electoral means to help mount an immediate defense.
  2. Our rethinking was also triggered by the stunning movement of support for Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 and its continuation in 2020, as well as the success of left-wing Democrats’ challenges to incumbent right-wing Democrats in Congress and local offices. Sanders’ campaign threatened that establishment by mobilizing support for reforms like Medicare for All and for action to address climate change – proposals that promise to put the needs of working-class people before capitalist profiteering. Likewise, the victories of left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have given a voice in Congress to important demands in the interests of working-class and oppressed people, from impeaching Trump for his crimes against humanity to proposing their “Green New Deal” to address the climate change emergency.

In supporting the campaigns by Sanders and other left Democrats, millions of working-class and oppressed people saw an opportunity to fight for policies that answer their immediate needs. The resistance to those campaigns and policies by the leadership of the Democratic Party has made clearer than ever that the Democratic establishment is an obstacle that must be defeated. So the campaigns offered an opportunity to advance the struggle for working-class and oppressed people’s interests, and at the same time to test the left-wing politicians and their strategy of reforming the Democratic Party. We believe such testing will prove the need to break from the Democrats and to build an alternative party of and for the working class. But again, the “no vote for capitalist parties” principle stood as a barrier to revolutionary socialists joining with those movements and their challenge to capitalist interests.

The Framework for Our Reconsideration

Because the LRP has understood opposition to voting for capitalist parties as not a mere tactical question but a defining principle of our political tendency, our reconsideration has significant implications beyond the question of elections. For that reason, until now we have conducted our reexamination and discussions solely within our ranks, among whom the strongest bonds of comradeship and respect have been forged in the course of years of common participation in the class struggle. We share the conviction that humanity ultimately faces the alternatives of socialism or barbarism, that socialism will only be achieved through workers’ revolutions overthrowing capitalist rule the world over, and that the success of those revolutions depends on building an international revolutionary party leadership in every country.

Far from repudiating all the above principles, our rethinking has been framed by our commitment to them and the collective experience we have of fighting for them in the class struggle. That is a tradition we not only remain proud of but regard as an invaluable resource. So too, our reexamination has given us new reason to value our tendency’s unique tradition of theoretical seriousness, forged especially through our study of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its application to understanding Stalinism and contemporary imperialism, and our Marxist analysis of racism, nationalism and liberation struggles.[1] We believe that tradition provides a powerful basis for reckoning with the questions of electoral principles and tactics, the history of which we have until now neglected to study thoroughly.

In this statement we will present an overview of the roles played by the Republicans and Democrats in managing capitalism in this country, a summary analysis of the rise of Trumpism, and the current state of the Republicans and Democrats. We will share key findings from our reexamination of Marxist thinking on electoral tactics and open our reconsideration to the left-wing public by presenting some of the different views that our comrades have developed so far regarding the current presidential campaigns.

The Republican and Democratic Parties: Dual Pillars of U.S. Imperialism

It is a commonplace of Marxist commentaries to note that despite the fact that society is divided between two fundamental classes (the working class and the capitalists who profit from its exploitation), the U.S. political scene has stubbornly remained dominated by two political parties, both of the ruling class. Whereas many other countries have prominent social-democratic, socialist and even “Communist” parties claiming to represent the working class, the Republicans and Democrats offer voters only the choice between alternative perspectives for openly capitalist rule. Underlying this persistent bourgeois hegemony has been U.S. capitalism’s foundation in slavery and its continuing racism, which has kept the working class deeply divided. As well, the U.S.’s unique prosperity, resulting especially from its imperialist exploitation of the world economy, has allowed for exceptionally large and influential middle-class social strata which identify with the system.

The Republican and Democratic Parties have succeeded in maintaining their domination of the political scene for so long, however, only by undergoing significant transformations in how they relate to society’s key fault lines of race and class:

1. As the party of Lincoln, the Republicans represented the Northern class of capitalists who waged the Civil War against the Southern slavocracy. Marx and Engels famously supported Lincoln’s election and backed the North in the Civil War. The North’s victory would abolish slavery, promote the growth of the working class in an unfettered capitalist economy, and clear the way for the working class to unite across lines of race and nationality in the struggle for socialism.

2. With the end of Reconstruction, the Democrats emerged as a party linking labor-backed capitalist politicians in the North with Jim Crow segregationists in the South, while the Republicans evolved as a party promoting “free market” capitalist exploitation. Both parties promoted imperialist expansion. Under these conditions, socialists and other champions of justice denounced the two parties that blatantly stood for capitalism and racism. In the early 1900s, socialist leader Eugene Debs summed up the basic attitude:

“The Republican and Democratic parties are alike capitalist parties – differing only in being committed to different sets of capitalist interests – they have the same principles under varying colors, are equally corrupt and are one in their subservience to capital and their hostility to labor. The ignorant workingman who supports either of these parties forges his own fetters and is the unconscious author of his own misery.”[2]

3. The shockwaves of the Great Depression and the rise of the massive and militant labor struggles of the 1930s triggered a major reconfiguration. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats recognized that to stave off the potential for revolution, massive reforms needed to be granted. These included accepting the growth of unions but incorporating them into a framework of legal bargaining, and expanding government agencies to better manage the anarchy of the capitalist system and to create welfare programs to blunt the masses’ worst sufferings.

4. After World War II the Democratic Party was deeply divided. In the North it was associated with liberal reform, but in the South it was synonymous with Jim Crow segregation and violent racial oppression. In the 1960s, while liberal civil rights leaders tried to channel mass struggles into support for Democrats, Malcolm X explained the Democrats’ role in maintaining the country’s system of racist injustice:

“The Democratic Party is responsible for the racism that exists in this country, along with the Republican Party. The leading racists in this country are Democrats. Goldwater isn’t the leading racist – he’s a racist but not the leading racist. The racists who have influence in Washington, D.C., are Democrats. If you check, whenever any kind of legislation is suggested to mitigate the injustices that Negroes suffer in this country, you will find that the people who line up against it are members of Lyndon B. Johnson’s party. The Dixiecrats are Democrats. The Dixiecrats are only a subdivision of the Democratic Party, and the same man over the Democrats is over the Dixiecrats.”[3]

Malcolm also expressed the growing awareness among Black people in particular that the civil rights leaders’ alliance with the Democrats was holding back the struggle, and that an alternative had to be found:

“We won’t organize any black man to be a Democrat or a Republican because both of them have sold us out. … Both parties are racist, and the Democratic Party is more racist than the Republican Party.” [4]

5. When the mounting rebellions of Black working-class and poor people forced the Democratic leadership in Washington to concede the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, racist leaders in the South switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, which increasingly openly embraced racism to mobilize white support. And with the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s, this support was then wielded under Ronald Reagan for a more aggressive agenda of capitalist exploitation, after its initiation by the Democrat Jimmy Carter and his Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

Thus developed the division familiar today: the Republicans are a party increasingly relying on racism and most aggressively pushing capitalist austerity, while the Democrats purport to represent workers and oppressed people. Yet those who supported the Democrats, with the expectation that they would at least offer moderate improvements, were confounded when Democratic administrations pushed through anti-working-class and racist attacks that their Republican counterparts might not have been able to implement. Bill Clinton introduced “free trade” agreements that devastated the industrial working class, austerity policies symbolized by “the end of welfare as we know it,” and the dramatic expansion of racist policing and mass incarceration now known as “the New Jim Crow.”

Time and again Democratic administrations used their allies in the bureaucracies that control the unions, civil rights and other mass organizations to restrain popular struggles and enable demoralizing anti-working-class measures to be pushed through. This paved the way for the election of Republican administrations that advanced capitalist interests even further. Most recently, Obama’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was to bail out Wall Street while doing little to help millions facing unemployment and foreclosure. That further demoralized Democratic voters. The consequent fear among middle-class and working-class whites of being displaced from their privileged place in the system, combined with the U.S.’s toxic history of racism, prepared many to support Trump’s right-wing populism.

The Democrats’ history of betraying the voters they claim to represent, the working class and people of color especially, haunted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the presidency. Her record in Washington led millions to see her campaign as nothing but the promise of more of the same. And that blinded many, the LRP included, to the especially grave threat posed by Trump. Like most observers, we did not expect Trump to win; we thought his role would be to make the reviled Clinton more electable. We were wrong. At our best we warned that the Democrats were “no answer to the right wing menace”; at our worst we equivocated and said that to choose between Trump and Clinton was to “pick your poison.”[5] At all times we advocated the mobilization of mass struggle against racist and anti-working-class attacks, but we did not see the need for an electoral defense against the greatest threat to the working-class and oppressed people. Trump’s victory was a shocking wake-up call for us.

Despite our mistaken approach to the 2016 elections, we responded quickly. Within days we issued a statement warning that:

“Donald Trump’s shocking election as president is a dire and immediate threat to the rights and lives of millions. The violent assaults taking place on Muslims and immigrants and KKK rallies chanting “Black Lives Don’t Matter” warn of the dangers that all people of color will face, from thugs and especially from racist police who have been emboldened by Trump’s victory. … These attacks also foretell the impending legislative barrage led by the openly authoritarian Trump, plus the Republicans who kept control of Congress, on the democratic rights of immigrants (e.g. rights to obtain citizenship and avoid deportation), people of color (e.g. voting rights and strengthened police powers), women (e.g. abortion and equal employment rights) and the entire working class (e.g. the rights of workers to organize in unions).”[6]

In this statement, subtitled “The Democrats Delivered Us This Evil,” we pointed to the role of the Democratic party in paving the way for Trump’s victory. We emphasized the vital importance of revolutionary socialists’ insistence on independent organization of working-class and oppressed people for struggle and for political action against all representatives of the ruling class. Nevertheless, Trump’s “evil” was clearly more far-reaching than previous differences between the two capitalist parties. We would allow the back-and-forth exchange of power between them to act like a hypnotist’s watch, were we to believe that there is no significant difference as things stand today.

Trumpism and the Republican Party Today

Trump’s capture of the Republican presidential nomination, and then of the presidency itself, culminated the GOP’s decades of increasingly racist rhetoric and policies and its growing commitment to authoritarian rule. In particular, Trump’s triumph would not have been possible were it not for the Republicans’ earlier racist gerrymandering of electoral districts and by their suppression of the voting rights of people of color and youth, deeds that had been green-lighted by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court. Still, Trump’s rise to power marked the beginning of a qualitative leap forward in the Republican assault on this country’s democratic rights and institutions, and on all the barriers against unchecked capitalist exploitation and abuse.

Trump’s openly racist authoritarianism drew together the different reactionary trends in the Republican Party: the massive evangelical Christian movement, the growing racist vigilantism and authoritarianism among police and the military, and the broader racist radicalization of whites (especially small business owners but no small number of working-class whites as well). These have been forged into a loyal base of support. And that has placed far-right Republican leaders in a position to implement policies they had long dreamed of but previously could not realize for fear of triggering an electoral backlash and a social upheaval.

Republican presidential candidates before Trump had avoided open racism and had pledged allegiance to democracy, while their strategists fretted over the shrinking proportion of white voters and turned to a variety of makeshift efforts to minimize the numbers of people of color who could vote and have their vote counted. But with Trump’s success, Republicans have felt free to pursue more extreme measures. They have been emboldened not just to suppress votes of people of color, but also to refuse to protect the electoral infrastructure from attack by foreign powers that favor their reelection, [7] and even to try to alter the demographics of the population through mass deportations and by stripping naturalized immigrants of their citizenship. [8] Their goal is to make permanent the minority-party rule they now enjoy.

Republican “free market” zealots, who previously bragged that their goal was to “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub,”[9] can now see their most extreme visions realized. With another financial crisis looming that threatens to trigger a depression, the Republicans pushed through their trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich and have set about an unprecedented dismantling of regulations protecting the environment, food and workplace safety.

Most important, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court is set to transform many of these policies into the law of the land by overturning a century of legal reforms won by mass struggles of working-class and oppressed people. They plan to further eviscerate the gains of the civil rights struggles and to overturn laws from the 1930s that allow workers to join unions, as well as the “agency laws” that underpin protective Federal programs.[10]

What’s more, the Court’s far-right justices have shown that they are prepared to back Trump’s bid to rule as an authoritarian strongman who is above the law. With the “Christian nationalist” William Barr as his attorney general, Trump has transformed the Justice Department into a machine for covering up his crimes and persecuting his rivals. He has violated the Constitution’s empowerment of Congress to set the budget and oversee the Executive Branch with moves like funding border wall construction despite Congress’ vote and refusing to respond to Congressional subpoenas. All this was tacitly approved by the Chief Justice presiding approvingly over the Senate Republicans’ flagrant rigging of Trump’s impeachment trial. And it could be further entrenched by Court decisions to recognize the presidency as a “unitary executive” empowered to dictate over the other branches of government. This would, in the words of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, leave Trump and future presidents free to “decline to follow” the law.[11]

To sum up, another Trump term in office threatens to allow his most extreme policies to be turned into law by an even stronger Supreme Court majority, entrenching an authoritarian presidency in particular and white supremacy in general, devastating the country’s already weak unions and unleashing an onslaught of economic and social attacks on the working class and poor.

The Democratic Party Today

While the Democrats’ betrayals over the course of decades paved the way for the rise of Trumpism, the Party in general has a vested interest in not seeing his most extreme anti-democratic measures implemented. In particular, to have a chance of gaining political power for themselves, Democrats rely on people of color being able to vote and have their votes counted and so they are opposed to the Republicans’ most extreme policies of vote-rigging. The Democrats also rely on unions to help mobilize electoral support and so do not wish to see them destroyed. Working-class and oppressed people can therefore expect Democrats in power to not implement anti-democratic attacks like those the Republicans are pushing. We do not of course mean that the Democrats play a consistently progressive role. That has been very far from the case even during Trump’s reign, as we spell out below.

In our leaflet distributed at the massive march on Washington against Trump’s inauguration, we warned:

“As Donald Trump celebrates his capture of the White House, two factors make this one of the most dangerous moments in this country’s history for Blacks, Latinos and immigrants especially, as well as for the entire working class, and the workers and oppressed people of the world:

“First, Trump plans to rule in the same way that he campaigned. He will govern by means of racism at home and militaristic nationalism abroad. Posing as the defender of “the common man,” he will threaten opponents right and left and demagogically promise “middle America” – and “the white working class” in particular – that if they support his strongman rule they will be rewarded with the return of prosperity not seen for generations.

“Second, Democratic Party politicians will continue to play the role that paved the way for Trump. Always loyal to the capitalist system, under Obama they bailed out Wall Street and big capital but no one else. While the working class faced the ravages of the economic crisis in which Blacks and Latinos suffered the worst, their allies who control the unions, civil rights and community organizations held back attempts at struggle. Yes, the Democrats will denounce the new administration’s worst injustices. But they will, as always, discourage the only real hope for defense against the coming onslaught: a rising mass movement that grows from protests to mass strikes and occupations that force the capitalist ruling class to retreat.”[12]

That warning has been fully confirmed. The Democrats have proved to be an utterly inadequate and unreliable defense against the Republican attacks. The leadership is committed to serving the interests of this country’s ruling capitalist class. As House leader Nancy Pelosi put it, “we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.”[13] Accordingly, the Democratic leadership has avoided any move that could rouse masses into the streets to oppose Trump and the Republicans’ outrages. Through their influence over their allies in the bureaucracies that control the country’s unions, civil rights and other mass organizations, they have ensured that the massive mobilization of protest in Washington that greeted Trump’s inauguration has not been repeated. For example, no march on Washington was organized to oppose the trillion dollar tax cut for the rich or the Republicans’ attempt to overturn Obamacare – in fact, when Republicans voted to end Obamacare, congressional Democrats shamefully celebrated because they expected that the consequent mass suffering would bring them an electoral victory. (We were one of the few groups on the left to recognize the potential for a mass mobilization in defense of Obamacare, though our efforts to promote the idea could not overcome the indifference of most of the left, let alone the inertia of the trade union bureaucracy.[14])

The extent to which the Democratic leadership is prepared to sacrifice the defense against Trump’s attacks in the interests of avoiding mass protests was again on display in their feeble impeachment of Trump. They refused to impeach him for any of his crimes that would arouse popular anger, like his outrageous financial corruption, his flagrantly unconstitutional sabotage of Obamacare, his illegal delay of aid to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, or his criminally sadistic policies targeting immigrants, to name just a few of his outrages. Instead, they impeached him on the narrowest possible grounds: his extortion of the government of Ukraine at the cost of U.S. imperialist interests there, in order to smear the Democratic leadership’s preferred presidential candidate, Joe Biden. This practically guaranteed that when the Republicans rigged the impeachment trial to block evidence of Trump’s guilt, they were not challenged by massive protests in the streets because the masses could not see their immediate interests at stake.

The Democratic leadership’s commitment to imperialism and to the dominant capitalist banks and corporations explains why it cannot represent the interests and struggles of workers and oppressed people. It shows the need for working-class political independence from the Democrats, and in particular for a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. This outlook frames our reconsideration of how elections can be used to both defend and advance working-class interests.

The Marxist Tradition on Voting for Capitalist Parties

Our reconsideration of the principle of not voting for capitalist parties is yet to be concluded, but our study of the history of the Marxist movement has confirmed that the proponents of this principle, ourselves included, have perpetuated a good deal of mythology.

We do not know how or when the principle became the common view of whole sections of the U.S. far left, including just about all Trotskyists. To the best of our knowledge, no such principle was ever cited by our classical Marxist teachers: Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky.

To be sure, Marx’s 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” has been frequently cited as establishing the principle. There, Marx argued:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. If the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.”[15]

That was Marx and Engels’ advice in the immediate aftermath of the bourgeois democrats’ betrayal of the 1848 revolutions. The approach they proposed was for a period immediately following another democratic revolution, which they mistakenly expected would happen in the near future. Since Marx and Engels were hypothesizing elections after popular revolutions had already triumphed over the reactionary ruling classes, it is understandable that they could expect such elections to be only marginally contested by reactionary forces; they believed the masses could force democratic leaders to carry out a “terror” against the reactionaries and drive them from the scene before elections were even held.

But a quarter-century later, when it came to writing a strategic guide for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, they took a very different approach. They favored running workers’ candidates wherever it was practical and would advance the workers’ interests. But they supported voting for bourgeois democrats when necessary, especially when it came to defending and extending the workers’ democratic rights:

“It is therefore in the interests of the workers to support the bourgeoisie in its struggle against all reactionary elements, as long as it remains true to itself. Every gain which the bourgeoisie extracts from reaction eventually benefits the working class, if that condition is fulfilled. And the German workers were quite correct in their instinctive appreciation of this. Everywhere, in every German state, they have quite rightly voted for the most radical candidates who had any prospect of getting in.”[16]

Marx and Engels advocated such an approach for the rest of their lives in a variety of circumstances, and that precedent was followed by revolutionary socialist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany. Marx and Engels’ approach of voting for bourgeois liberals to defeat threats to the masses’ democratic rights was carried out by both Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, culminating in their leadership of the 1917 revolution. Indeed Lenin, seeking to educate a new generation of revolutionary communists in 1920, pointed to that tradition as an example to follow. He wrote in Left-Wing Communism:

“The more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest, rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries … Those who do not understand this reveal a failure to understand even the smallest grain of Marxism, of modem scientific socialism in general. …

“Since 1905 [the Bolsheviks] systematically advocated an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, against the liberal bourgeoisie and tsarism, never, however, refusing to support the bourgeoisie against tsarism (for instance, during second rounds of elections, or during second ballots) ...”[17]

So Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin and Trotsky, all advocated electoral support for certain capitalist parties under certain circumstances. In a subsequent document we will provide further documentation. And we challenge anyone who looks to the Marxist heritage to find evidence that voting for bourgeois parties was held by leading Marxists to be unprincipled under all circumstances.

In the United States, one frequently cited rationale for opposing voting for capitalist parties is that presented by Socialist Workers Party leader James Cannon in 1948 in response to proposals to support the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace:

“It has been argued that ‘we must go through the experience with the workers.’ That is a very good formula, provided you do not make it universal. We go with the workers only through those experience which have a class nature. We go with them through the experiences of strikes, even though we may think a given strike untimely. We may even go with the workers through the experience of putting a reformist labor party in office, provided it is a real labor party and subject to certain pressures of the workers, in order that they may learn from their experience that reformism is not the correct program for the working class. But we do not go through the experience of class collaboration with the workers.pp. ... The party must be educated and re-educated on the meaning of class politics, which excludes any support of any bourgeois candidate, and requires even the most critical attitude toward a labor party when we are supporting it.”[18]

Since Cannon wrote those lines, socialists and militant workers have accumulated many more bitter experiences of betrayal at the hands of class collaborationist union leaders. That should not blind us, however, to the fact that Cannon should have recognized that his reasoning was fallacious. As a prominent leader of the Fourth International he should have known that he and his fellow Trotskyists frequently found themselves in circumstances where collaboration with bourgeois forces was obligatory, in struggles against greater and more immediately threatening enemies. Examples in Cannon’s time included fighting alongside nationalist bourgeois forces in the colonial world against their great power oppressors, and defending the bourgeois-democratic Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists.

Cannon’s denunciation of class-collaboration was a serviceable guide to participation in many union struggles, but it is a misleading guide to the defense of democratic rights in many circumstances and it implicitly repudiated important instances in which Fourth Internationalists acted correctly and heroically. Cannon did not cite any precedent for his declaration that “class politics ... excludes any support of any bourgeois candidate.” He seems to have been unaware that Marx, Engels and Lenin did not hold to such a principle.

Key Proposals We Are Considering

With the presidential primaries underway and the November elections fast approaching, one proposal we are considering is that under the current circumstances, Marxists should recognize that the main immediate task is to defeat the threat posed by Trump and the Republicans. Most LRP members believe we should therefore advocate voting for Democratic candidates as a temporary defensive measure. That would include voting for Joe Biden if he turns out to be the Democratic presidential candidate.

Another proposal, favored even by comrades who remain wary or opposed to the idea of voting for Democrats as a defensive measure, is to support left-wing campaigns like Bernie Sanders’ in order to advance working-class and oppressed people’s demands and encourage mass action to win them. We remain unanimously in agreement that the Democratic Party cannot be reformed into a party that genuinely represents the interests of the working-class and oppressed people. But we are grappling with the potential for campaigns like Sanders’ to test the Democrats’ limits and prove the need for independent mass struggle beyond bourgeois electoralism and for a working-class revolutionary socialist party.

Our comrades who support a vote for Democrats to defeat Trump and the Republicans recognize that the candidates the Democratic Party offers are further evidence of how it cannot be relied on in the struggle to defend democracy. The party establishment and its billionaire backers have united in support of Joe Biden, a notoriously right-wing member of the party infamous for his record of supporting anti-working class economic attacks, racist mass incarceration policies and every bloody imperialist war the U.S. has waged in his lifetime. And as if Biden’s record and conservativism were not enough to make him a weak opponent of Trump, his frequent incoherence, along with the scandalous way his family members have profited from his political influence, make him an especially vulnerable candidate.

The Sanders Campaign

The conservative Democratic leadership has used its power over decades to so thoroughly marginalize liberal members that the most prominent candidate championing traditionally liberal policies is a self-described socialist from the small state of Vermont. Sanders has won support because he advocates solutions to urgent problems facing working-class and poor people especially, as well as society in general. For example, the current coronavirus pandemic has given new urgency to Sanders’ signature policy of Medicare for All. And his support for the “Green New Deal” offers a response to the threat of catastrophic climate change; even if inadequate, it offers far more significant action than the proposals of other candidates. No wonder Sanders’ millions of supporters see his campaign’s confrontation with the “moderate” Democratic Party leadership as a life-and-death matter.

Sanders has won increasing support among people of color, especially youth, who see him as a serious alternative to the Democratic leadership’s “tough on crime” posture. Older Black voters, however, have tended to support Biden as the candidate they think can be more relied on to beat Trump. Overall, Sanders still approaches racism and other forms of oppression as a distraction from working-class concerns, when in reality the struggles of people of color and the oppressed in general are key to unlocking the potential for united working-class struggle.

On immigration, Sanders denounces Trump’s obscenely cruel attacks. But he opposes letting in all immigrants and refugees, many of whom are fleeing starvation and repression by U.S.-backed regimes; instead he supports the Democrats’ “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” which includes increased policing of the border to stop further immigration, onerous conditions for amnesty, and pro-capitalist guest worker programs. In the past he gave anti-immigrant bigotry a nationalist, pro-U.S.-worker rationalization, as notoriously exemplified by his appearance on Lou Dobbs’ anti-amnesty, immigrant-bashing television show.[19]

In foreign policy, Sanders opposes some U.S. imperialist atrocities but not all. He broke from Progressive Caucus members twice to vote for resolutions supporting “regime change” in Iraq, and he supported Bush I’s and Clinton’s murderous sanctions against that country before he opposed Bush II’s invasion and occupation; he opposes Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed war in Yemen and Trump’s aggression towards Iran, but he backed the war in Afghanistan; he voted for “defense” budgets that funded the occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq; and in his previous campaign he promoted greater military intervention into the Middle East by reactionary powers like Saudi Arabia, although he has since repudiated that policy. He also approved NATO’s bombing war against Yugoslavia in the 1990's.

While Sanders has moved leftward regarding Israel, he opposes the BDS movement and still defends the “two-state solution” for Palestine that would enshrine apartheid and ethnic cleansing. His support for Israel extends to votes to provide billions in military aid and for resolutions in favor of Israeli military actions against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2014. Indeed Sanders’ current vow to condition further U.S. military aid to Israel on its ceasing expansion of its colonial settlements presumes that it is right to arm Israel to defend its control of the Palestinian territories acquired at the start and further expanded in the war of 1967.

In sum, Sanders is not anti-imperialist. He prefers a multi-lateral imperialism in which the U.S. works with allies like NATO and Israel. He has repeatedly said that his pro-working class policies aim to strengthen support for the U.S. state so that it can exercise greater power and influence globally.[20]

The popular support for Sanders’s campaign shows that the anti-socialist attitudes that have long gripped the working class in this country are giving way. Sanders’ campaign has advanced this positive development, but it must also be recognized that his version of socialism raises illusions in the possibility of managing capitalism in the interests of the working class. Revolutionary socialists believe that the economy must be seized from capitalist ownership in order for it to be redirected from profiteering to producing for the interests of society as a whole. Sanders’ “socialism” is little more than a Rooseveltian New Deal vision of moderating an oppressive and crisis-ridden system through limited state intervention, so that it can survive its worst crises rather than being overthrown and replaced by a genuine socialist alternative.

There is a long way to go to free U.S. workers from anti-socialist prejudices, and Sanders’ socialist rhetoric and his past record could well be a liability for his candidacy, especially in more conservative parts of the country. But given Biden’s demoralizing history of pro-capitalist and racist policies, along with his personal liabilities, it is far from clear that a Sanders candidacy would be a weaker electoral challenge to Trump.

Sanders’s campaign encourages people to identify with the working class and to promote the necessity of unions and struggles for democratic rights. But his practical approach to politics remains exclusively electoralist: he has never sought to lead and organize mass struggles. This has been especially apparent during the Trump years, when no one was in a better position to take the lead in calling for mass protests against Trump’s attacks and to back the demand for impeachment. This lack of mass struggle under Trump remains a crucial factor making many working-class voters see Sanders’ effort as unrealistic and Biden as a safer bet to defeat Trump.

Trump’s drive towards further racist authoritarianism and the Republicans’ goal of establishing permanent minority-party rule mean that this election is being fought for extraordinarily high stakes. Aiming to give capitalists a free reign to exploit, pollute and profit, Republicans will unleash unprecedented levels of voter suppression. Unless there is a landslide victory for the Democrats, they could very possibly contest the results and hope that their majority on the Supreme Court hands them the election. Foreign powers like Russia and others that stand to gain from Trump’s re-election have a great motivation to intervene again, including by hacking election infrastructure to sow chaos that Trump could exploit. If such a scenario unfolds, massive mobilizations of protest in the streets will be needed to prevent the election from being stolen. Demands for such protest will be much more likely to succeed if Sanders is the Democratic candidate, since working-class and oppressed people would see the clearest possible interests in joining the fight.


With all the above in mind, most LRP members support advocating a vote for Sanders. And if Biden is the candidate, many LRP members support voting for him and for Democrats in general, in order to defeat the Trumpist threat to democratic rights that working-class and oppressed people need to effectively defend themselves against attacks supported by either party.

We emphasize that all such support is tactical and temporary, not a basis for permanent endorsement of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, we recognize that opening up the option of backing Democrats demands that we be clear about how far such support can go. Like any tactical compromise, it can be a slippery slope. We see that many on the left who have been campaigning for Sanders have failed to warn against his pro-imperialist stances and the limitations of his reform program. It is all the more important to clearly label the Democratic Party as an enemy of the working class and oppressed people at home and around the world. It is also necessary to specifically expose Sanders and other left Democrats as misleaders whose socialist and even “revolutionary” verbiage obscures the fact that their policies aim to “save capitalism from itself.”

The election will be an opportunity for LRP members to test our approaches in practice, providing an experience that will inform our discussions as we move toward further conclusions under these extraordinary conditions. During that process we will publish more of our considerations and invite questions, contributions and challenges from the left-wing public.


1. See, for example: Walter Daum, The Life and Death of Stalinism; Walter Daum and Matthew Richardson, Marxist Analysis of the Capitalist Crisis: Bankrupt System Drives Toward Depression ; and Sy Landy, Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle.

2. Eugene Victor Debs, Opening Speech Delivered as Candidate of the Socialist Party for the President, September 1, 1904.

3. Malcolm X, Capitalism today is more like a vulture, Interview, January 18, 1965.

4. Malcolm X, Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, June 28, 1964.

5. Clinton, Sanders – No Answer to the Right-Wing Menace, March 31, 2016; and Trump vs. Clinton: Pick Your Poison November 3, 2016.

6. The Democrats Delivered Us This Evil: Now Only Mass Struggle Can Beat Back Trump’s Impending Attacks!.

7. Igor Derysh, Senate GOP blocks election security bills as intel report warns of Russian meddling in 2020, Salon, February 13, 2020.

8. See for example: Michael Edison Hayden, Miller Dismisses DACA in Emails, Mirroring Anti-Immigrant Extremists’ Views, January 14, 2020; and Hamed Aleazis, A New Section Of US Attorneys Is Being Created To Strip Naturalized Citizenship From Suspected Fraudsters, February 26, 2020.

9. Grover Norquist, Maybe They Forgot What ‘Conservative’ Means, 2004.

10. Mark Joseph Stern, A New Lochner Era, Slate, June 29, 2018.

11. Brett M. Kavanaugh, One Government, Three Branches, Five Controversies: Separation of Powers Under Presidents Bush and Obama, Marquette Lawyer, Fall 2016, p. 14.

12. The Democrats Delivered Us This Evil! We Must Build Mass Struggles To Stop Trump’s Attacks, Not Wait Four Years! January 20, 2017.

13.Pelosi: Democrats are capitalists.

14. See Why Unions Must Take the Lead and Call a March on Washington to Defend Healthcare, May 30, 2017; and The Rise of Trumpism and the Crisis of Labor Leadership, June 3, 2017.

15. Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, London, March 1850; .

16. Engels, The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 20, pp. 37‑79.

17. Lenin, Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Marx-Engels Collected Works,

18. James P. Cannon, Summary Speech on Election Policy, in the SWP’s Internal Bulletin, February 1948.

19. Matthew Yglesias, What Bernie Sanders told Lou Dobbs in 2007 about why he opposed the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill, February 12, 2016;

20. Andrew Prokop, Read Bernie Sanders’ speech on democratic socialism in the United States, Vox, November 19, 2015;