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Left Voice - November 2, 2020

Pragmatism is fundamentally incapable of putting forward a strategy for liberation of the working class and the oppressed. It substitutes shortcuts, like voting for the lesser evil, for the resolution of the strategic problems that arise in revolutionary struggle. Winning socialism requires a rejection of pragmatic logic. Only exceptional strategic clarity and determination will build the material force capable of liquidating capitalism — a party of the working class. 

“Pragmatism, empiricism is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.” — Leon Trotsky.

As Joe Biden says, if he wins the election, “nothing will fundamentally change.” Like all establishment Democrats, Biden represents the continuation of the status quo ante Trump. Outside of election season, Biden does not even claim to stand on the side of working people. But the catastrophic possibility of a second Trump term demands a “pragmatic” approach to the elections November 3, say many self-described “progressives” and more than a few “socialists.”

The common sense for progressives and much of the U.S. Left says that, while Biden may have flaws, these flaws pale in comparison to another four years of Trump. Therefore, those concerned with fighting oppression and climate catastrophe are told we have only one option — vote the lesser evil.

Of course, these same progressives admit that Biden is a fierce defender of corporate interests. He has a reactionary record as a Senator and as Vice President on immigration, policing, and climate. He refuses to back free, universal healthcare, even in the face of the largest public health crisis in a century. But his agenda differs from that of Trump. Biden would not appoint anti-choice Christian fundamentalists to the Supreme Court and does not court the fascist right.

Some on the Left, like Jacobin’s Eric Blanc or New Politics’s Dan LaBotz even recognize that workers need a party of their own, a party independent of the two parties of big capital. But such a party is years (or more!) away, they say, so we must support the best candidate we have now — even if that candidate happens to be a friend of the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical and banking industries. A vote not cast for Biden is a vote for Trump, say these “pragmatic” socialists. Others on the left, such as Tithi Bhattacharya stopped short of calling socialists to vote against the two parties of capital, instead saying that it is acceptable for socialists to vote for Biden, as long as we vow to fight against his policies for the next four years. ***

Pragmatism’s Importance to American Ideology

Marx famously wrote in The German Ideology that the “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” In the United States, no intellectual force has spread more successfully than pragmatism, achieving a status akin to dogma. The philosophy dominates every sphere of politics and business. Even the Left, by and large, has not broken from a pragmatic outlook.

Pragmatism, put simply, is the theory of expediency. In the words of Lenin, pragmatism “ridicules the metaphysics both of idealism and materialism, acclaims experience and only experience, [and] recognizes practice as the only criterion…” Any proposition, says pragmatism, is useful only if it results immediately in a desired outcome. Theory and principles are tossed aside as soon as they’re no longer needed to achieve an objective.

We don’t need to look far for pragmatism’s influence on U.S. politics. American politicians, especially Democrats, will rarely put forward legislation they view as unpassable in Congress. For all the attention it has gotten, a Green New Deal has still not been put forward for a vote by Democrats. Both Republicans and Democrats tout their ability to “reach across the aisle” and make compromises with political opponents. ...
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