What does voting for the lesser evil get you?

July 11, 2016

Stanley Heller considers the political lessons of the era that paved the way for Adolf Hitler's rise to power, in an article published at the Economic Uprising website.

IN 1932 in Germany, there were four national elections, including two for the powerful position of president. The two leading candidates for president of Germany were Adolf Hitler and Paul von Hindenburg.

Today, when we hear the word Hindenburg, we think of the zeppelin with that name that burned in New Jersey in 1937, but Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was a very famous man for decades in Germany. During "the Great War," which we now call World War I, he was Chief of the General Staff of the German army. In the last years of the war, he was in effect military dictator of Germany.

The German revolution ousted the Kaiser from power, but the leaders of the SPD (the very big German socialist party which supported the war) allied with counterrevolutionary forces and, after massacres of the revolutionary left, made Germany into a capitalist republic. Hindenburg, who should have been in disgrace for his failed war leadership, came through the period with his reputation unscathed.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

To make a long story short: The SPD steadily weakens. Hindenburg is elected President of Germany in 1925. The Great Depression hits Germany like a hammer, and the Nazis go from getting 3 percent of the vote in 1928 to 18 percent in 1930. Their goons are running the streets. The German communists (KPD) follow the orders of Soviet ruler Joe Stalin to totally go it alone. They claim that the SPD is just another kind of fascist: "social fascists." For its part, the SPD refuses to work with the communists. In 1932, Hindenberg runs for reelection, the KPD runs its own candidate, and the SPD supports Hindenburg as the "lesser of two evils" against Hitler.

Most people will agree that Hitler was the ultimate evil, so Hindenburg was certainly "lesser," but the SPD strategy did not work as planned. Hindenburg won the April 1932 run-off presidential election with a solid 53 percent of the vote. "Mission accomplished"--or so the SPD thought.

Hindenburg stayed in office, and he continued to choose the Chancellors and cabinet. However, the string of men he picked totally failed to rescue the German economy. Then Hindenburg made a fateful decision. In January 1933, he appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor in a deal that gave the Nazis only three of the 11 cabinet positions. It was thought that this was all that would be needed to keep Hitler under control. Brilliant plan. Hindenburg was putty in Hitler's hands. Within two months, Hitler had bullied Hindenburg to sign an "Enabling Act" that gave the Nazi leader dictatorial powers.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

SO WHAT has this got to do with today? Well, we have a candidate running for president who a lot of people have compared to Hitler. And we have as his opponent a woman who stands for the status quo, a millionaire who does the bidding of Wall Street, a bloody war "hawk" with notches on her belt from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Libya, a blind supporter of Israeli war crimes in Palestine and elsewhere. Yet people are running to her to defeat Trump, to save them from "Hitler." (See the Halle/Chomsky defense of lesser evil voting.)

Now obviously, things are a lot different in the U.S. compared to Germany in the 1930s. Joblessness, though a lot higher than the official unemployment rate, is not as massive as in the 1930s. The U.S. hasn't felt the shock of a terrible defeat in war and a loss of territory. Though Trump has been embraced by enthusiastic neo-Nazis, their gangs are not (yet) running riot.

On the other hand, there are two threats we live under that were unheard of in the 1930s. One is nuclear war. We were told with communism gone, there would be an "end of history," and the danger of nuclear war would be gone, but any chance for nuclear disarmament in the 1990s was completely thrown away by Bill Clinton. At present the U.S. government still has hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair trigger, meaning they could launch in minutes. Russia probably still has the same. With NATO expanding and Putin conquering, the two nuclear powers are eyeball to eyeball again.

The other threat is out-of-control global warming. Climate scientist Robert Howarth (who was on the short list in 2011 for Time magazine's person of the year) says we're on a path to go over the crucial 1.5 degree centigrade increase in just 13 years. Carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have leveled off in recent years, but methane emissions from fracking have undone all the good and the total global warming gases are increasing at record levels.

This is a path to catastrophe, a catastrophe from which there may not be a recovery. Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees world temperature increase could melt enough of the Arctic permafrost to release massive amounts of methane and create a feedback loop prompting another big jump in temperatures. One of many results is that large areas of the world end up either underwater or uninhabitable. If you think we have refugee problems now, wait until there's tens or scores of millions of climate refugees.

Hillary Clinton will absolutely not save the world from either menace. She raised no objection to Obama's trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program nor his drive (or was it hers?) to stick NATO right in the face of Putin. Clinton supported the Keystone XL pipeline as Secretary of State and only changed her mind under relentless pressure from Bernie Sanders. She calls for an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. That sounds like a big deal, but it's a totally inadequate measure to stop the warming that's coming, a death sentence for coastal cities and genocide for Africa. Let me emphasize this climate menace is on the way. The balance of nuclear terror may hold for more decades, but the things that balance global gases, like the world's oceans, can no longer do the job.

SO WHO should we vote for in the U.S. presidential election?

Before we answer that question, there are others to deal with first. What is the minimum we need for continued human civilization--as opposed to a global war of all against all as livable land areas dwindle--and what would create the force, the movement, the organization necessary to win the minimum changes?

For climate, I see no way to avoid intolerable climate change unless there is a government takeover of the energy, heating and transportation industries and a "Manhattan Project" crash program for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. The bloated armaments industry, which lives on wars and the need for ever more nuclear "modernization," should be nationalized, too. Its industries need to be converted to peacetime use and its workers hired in "green" jobs. This has to be planned at the highest level and worker-run at the day-to-day level. We need a new system, a social democracy that is able to maintain a sustainable ecology--in short, "eco-socialism."

Now the Democrats and Republicans are both staunch defenders of (somewhat different versions of) capitalism, and nothing in the short run is going to change that. Unfortunately, if we have 13 years to fix the climate, all we have is the short run. The recent farce at the Democratic platform committee, where every proposed method of weaning the U.S. away from fossil fuel was rejected, should disabuse those who think the Democrats can be a vehicle for the necessary drastic changes needed in the next decade.

The largest left party is the Green Party, which gets a miniscule vote in national elections and gets denounced for taking away votes that naturally belong to the "lesser evil." It's hampered by a voting system totally stacked against third parties. (As a result, no party other than the Democrats and Republicans has won a single presidential electoral vote in almost 50 years.) It sees its role as running in elections, period. It rarely takes part in creating social movement or antiwar actions.

That's not enough. There needs to be something else, something that will run in elections, but that will also organize massive disruption to undo the power structure and build a new eco-socialist society. It has to be an ever-rising tide of democracy and environmentalism. We must do what is necessary to build that movement, that force, and we can't be intimidated by the fear of being taunted as the "spoiler" in elections. We have to say in advance that if our actions result in a more repressive, more racist and environmental Know-Nothing party taking over for a while, so be it. We'll have to grit our teeth and deal with it. There's no time for glacial progress. Human society is at stake.

ON JUNE 20, Juan Gonzalez, the great journalist, former Young Lords leader and current co-anchor on Democracy Now!, spoke at the Bernie Sanders' People's Summit. He told the thousands attending, "Don't make the mistakes of 1968 that elected Nixon."

What were those mistakes, according to Gonzalez? People came to Chicago to "confront" the Democrats who were about to nominate Hubert Humphrey. Also SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, which quickly grew to include tens of thousands of radical students before it splintered in 1969] told people not to vote. Gonzalez claimed "there would have been a positive change if Nixon had not been elected." The lesson, though Gonzalez didn't say it outright, is "vote for Hillary."

Actually, what Gonzalez proposed would have been suicide for the movement. Hubert Humphrey was Lyndon Johnson's lickspittle and junior partner in war crimes against Vietnam. A Humphrey victory could well have led to eight more years of genocide for the people of Vietnam.

Instead, Chicago in '68 was a milestone of direct action. Neither the Chicago police riot nor the prosecution of protest leaders on bogus charges dampened spirits. The Yippie and Left protests of '68 led to many more direct actions and the eventual radicalization of part of the U.S. military. Thousands of U.S. soldiers would no longer fight for the empire. They refused to be cannon fodder. That scared the bejeezus out of the power structure, and that's what ended the war.

Two more recent movements come to mind, the 2006 immigrant "boycott" and what's going on in France today. On May 1, 2006, millions of Latinos "boycotted" work, maybe 5 million undocumented and documented workers went on a one-day strike. They came out into the street to protest an anti-immigrant law that was making its way through Congress. The law was never passed.

Fast forward 10 years and the neoliberal Socialist Party of France proposes a labor law to reduce labor rights. For a month, tens of thousands have come into the streets night after night to demand its defeat.

SO WHAT do we do here in the U.S. this election year? As far as the election, I'd counsel voting for Jill Stein of the Green Party for president. I don't have illusions that the Green Party will win the presidency. Nor do I think a "Green New Deal" is at all an adequate way to dealing with capitalism, and I don't like Stein's blindness about Russia's horrific role in Syria. However, the Green Party will actually be on the ballot in 30 or 40 states. A vote for the Green Party will be noticed, and it's the best vehicle we have to send out a certain message.

The message the vote will deliver to the public is that we're uncompromising--yes, "uncompromising." We're not dogmatic about some belief or program, but we're uncompromising about the need to preserve human civilization and to avoid a massive die-off of human and animal life. We realize that politics as usual is a death sentence, and we won't participate in our own executions. We intend to promote an eco-socialist tide and turn it into an unstoppable deluge.

Our main work is not electoral. During and after the election, we continue our base work, organizing in the neighborhoods, workplaces and in the streets, coming out to the July 24 anti-fracking march, standing with immigrants, denouncing great power aggression and indifference to the plight of Syrians, condemning the Saudi-U.S. war on Yemen. We need to organize the millions of angry people that came out for Bernie and who are now being told to dive into the Democratic Party graveyard.

The left in the 1930s had a slogan "socialism or barbarism." It needs to be updated for a world that faces even greater perils: "Eco-socialism or the abyss."

First published at the Economic Uprising website.

Further Reading

From the archives