Partisan division is not what is impeding socialism
The more you think about this argument the less sense it makes.
I see this argument constantly, and while it may resemble a socialist position, it just isn’t plausible and it certainly doesn’t follow from a Marxist understanding of class struggle.
Think about voting. If you try to convince a Democrat or Republican to vote for a third-party socialist, what do they tell you?
Some of them will just say stuff like “I don’t think so, socialists take it a little too far” or “absolutely not, socialism is authoritarianism” or “socialism would be nice in theory, but it can’t actually work.” These people aren’t outside the socialist tent because they are divided, they are outside the socialist tent because they oppose socialism. They think it’s extreme, or oppressive, or unworkable. People are very clear about this if you ask them. And while I know the cope is that this is just a branding issue, if you really start listening to people and looking at the numbers it becomes crystal clear that anti-socialism really is still a major force in American politics.
Others, of course, will say “it would be nice for a socialist to win, but she can’t so I’m going to vote Democrat.” This is obviously not a “I am too angry and biased against Republicans or blindly loyal to the Democrats to vote socialist” argument. This is a “the system is preventing me from doing what I want, so I have to settle” argument. Folks who answer this way have noticed, quite correctly, that our elections have been rigged to ensure that third party wins are extremely unlikely, and even if they are too pessimistic about overcoming this, that is a problem of pessimism, not of partisanship.
Others, similarly, just don’t vote at all. And if you ask them why, they sound a lot like the second group of partisans: the system is so rigged that they can’t get what they want. It don’t make no difference.
The same kinds of reasoning dictate political engagement outside of electoral politics. That hyperwoke academic who won’t join PSL because it’s insufficiently intersectional? Turns out she isn’t even a socialist. That insane MAGA grandpa who won’t stand in the same room with anyone who has blue hair? Turns out he hates socialism, too. That group of college kids who laughed when you invited them to join your socialist book club? Some of them were Democrats, some were Republicans, but all of them agreed that they’d rather go bowling than waste their time.
But none of these people are giving explanations that can be sensibly interpreted as a problem of “division”. Democrats and Republicans aren’t failing to unite behind Gloria La Riva because they’d start throwing punches if they were in the same room. Tons of Americans just don’t support her platform, tons don’t think she can win, and tons have never even heard of her. The problems facing socialism look like that, not like Democrats and Republicans being too mean to each other on Twitter.
It’s true of course that Americans waste an insane amount of time, energy, and money engaging in ultimately unproductive partisan warfare. It’s also true that they would be much better off uniting to pursue their common interests as workers. But the notion that the first thing is what’s preventing the second thing from happening seems completely absurd. It reduces the entire systematic apparatus of political control and repression in this country to…voters being so blind with rage that it never even occurs to them that going communist is a possibility? Workers preferring socialists, but hating Republicans so much that they vote for Democrats instead, even though a socialist candidate would also keep the Republican out of office?
This analysis is so nonsensical and so utterly disconnected from how real people actually explain their political decisions that it’s hard not to suspect that it persists for reasons other than its plausibility. My guess is that a certain kind of “radical” has quietly absorbed the centrist conventional wisdom about how partisanship is at the root of all our dysfunction, and just tacked on “we’ll get socialism” in place of “we’ll solve our problems” as the outcome of overcoming division. It doesn’t make sense when the centrists say it, either.
Carl Beijer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.