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An Open Letter from SDS Veterans Haranguing Young Socialists to Back Biden Was a Bad Idea

We don’t need melodramatic hyperbole from New Leftists telling us to campaign for Joe Biden. We need to build a democratic-socialist movement that is the only real hope for the planet’s future.

Protestors at the march against the Vietnam War organized by Students for a Democratic Society and the Women's Strike For Peace, Washington DC, April 17, 1965. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

The Nation has published an “open letter from the old new left to the new new left,” signed by more than sixty “founders and veterans of the leading New Left organization of the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society.” Its main thrust is to criticize younger leftists — in particular those in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — for not endorsing Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

If there’s a generation between the “old new left” and the “new new left” — the middle-aged new left, perhaps? — some of its members will remember a similar plea from one of the letter’s signatories, Todd Gitlin, before the 2004 presidential election.

“Restarting Politics”

On the eve of the Republican National Convention that year, Gitlin debated with Naomi Klein on Democracy Now. He urged anti-war protesters to stay off the streets and fall in line behind John Kerry:

John Kerry is the possibility of restarting politics. Right now, we have no possibility of politics because we have a one-party state. That state can be defeated, and to say that we don’t have the luxury of waiting to November 2 is to say we don’t have the luxury of the US Constitution. I beg to differ. We have the luxury of the US Constitution. We have the possibility of defeating this reactionary cabal.

Gitlin invoked the memory of anti-war protests in Chicago in 1968, suggesting they had paved the way for Richard Nixon’s electoral triumph.

For her part, Klein insisted that it was essential to protest in New York, because Kerry and the Democrats — including his colleague Joe Biden — had lined up uncritically behind George W. Bush’s war drive:

The Democrats have really sealed off the possibility of just expressing our opposition to the war by voting. . . . They are running on a hugely militaristic campaign. They’re promising to continue the occupation, even expand the occupation of Iraq. So we need to be in the streets.

Of course, John Kerry lost the presidential election that autumn: Bush didn’t need any Chicago-style disturbances in Manhattan to see off his challenger. Then as now, there were plenty of liberals denouncing the Republican president as a “fascist” whose continued presence in the White House would lead to the eclipse of democracy.

However, the Republicans lost control of Congress two years later, and relinquished the presidency to Barack Obama in 2008. The Bush administration certainly presided over gross violations of civil liberties, at home and (especially) abroad, leaving behind a repressive machine that Obama refused to dismantle. But the two-party system and its institutions remained fully intact.

The greatest crime perpetrated by Bush and his “reactionary cabal” was the occupation of Iraq, which led to untold suffering for the people of that country. In that project, he had the unhesitating support of the Democratic establishment, from John Kerry to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

In her debate with Todd Gitlin, Naomi Klein kept the focus firmly on that unfolding horror, and refused to subordinate her political arguments to the electoral needs of the Democratic Party:

I wasn’t in Chicago in 1968, I hadn’t been born yet. But I really feel a tremendous responsibility to the people I met in Iraq, to bring those voices here, because they’re being crushed there.

Protofascism?

What can the old new left, the middle-aged new left, and the new new left learn from this experience? The open letter in the Nation once again invokes the specter of fascism:

In our time, we fought — for a time successfully — against the sectarian politics of the Cold War. We were mindful then of the cataclysm that befell German democracy when socialists and communists fought each other — to death — as Hitler snuck by and then murdered them all. Now we hear that some on the left cannot see the difference between a capitalist democrat and a protofascist. We hope none of us learn the difference from jail cells.

It requires no soft-soaping of Donald Trump’s atrocious political record to describe this as melodramatic hyperbole. Trump has been in power since 2016: if he had both the will and the capacity to crush his opponents in the style of Hitler, Franco, or Mussolini, he would have done so by now.

The most likely outcome if he wins reelection is not a crude dictatorship, but further erosion of civil liberties within the existing political framework. Opposition parties and media will still be able to function. The people who suffer the worst forms of oppression under Trump will be the immigrants and ethnic minorities whose rights are routinely violated under Republican and Democratic presidencies alike. A Biden administration won’t close detention camps for refugees, or take down the surveillance state.

In any case, Biden won’t have to face Trump alone. He’ll have the full support of the Democratic Party machine and its resources (including the Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors who were so spooked by the idea of a Bernie Sanders nomination), not to mention liberal media outlets with a vast reach, from the New York Times to MSNBC. He’ll even have Bernie Sanders himself going out to bat for his candidacy.

So why do they need DSA, or left-wing media platforms like Jacobin? After all, they’ve made it abundantly clear they hold everyone from that political quarter in contempt. Their main priority for this electoral cycle was to stop Sanders from winning the primary: beating Trump came a distant second. If their strategy for defeating Trump hinged on enthusiastic support from America’s new left-wing activists, they shouldn’t have treated those activists like something you’d scrape off your shoe.

An Ethic of Responsibility

Hitler isn’t the only prominent twentieth-century German cited by the open letter:

In 1919, in the midst of the brief German socialist revolution, the great sociologist Max Weber addressed left-wing students about politics. He urged upon them that the best politics must be painfully aware of the consequences of action, not just intentions. Speaking to young men, he prophetically warned them that the cost of ignoring consequences might be their deaths.

The choice of Weber as a source of timeless wisdom about political maturity is eccentric to say the least. Weber directed the most vitriolic barbs against his country’s radical left, days before their leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by right-wing death squads, with the complicity of the German Social Democrats and Weber’s own Democratic Party: “Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoo.” That might explain why those “young men” (and women) were unmoved by Weber’s scolding.

If there’s one political cause that really can’t wait until 2024 or 2028, it’s the climate crisis. Climate change was already an urgent matter when Naomi Klein debated with Todd Gitlin in 2004, and even more so when Barack Obama became president. But eight years of rule by a centrist Democrat in hock to corporate donors left the planet still hurtling towards catastrophe. And this year, the Democratic establishment moved heaven and earth to stop the only candidate who proposed to do something about it.

Just as they did in 2004, Democratic leaders have sealed off the possibility of doing something about the most urgent moral and political issue of the day. No socialist who campaigned for Bernie Sanders should feel guilty about abandoning them and concentrating on building a movement that is the only real hope for the planet’s future.