Lenin, Teddy, & Joe
In 1912 Lenin criticized the alliance of leftists with liberal reformers, but also pointed out exactly why the alliance was formed to begin with.
What might the seminal socialist and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin have to say to the American left right now? In the wake of Biden’s election as president due in large part to a coalition of leftists, labor, and many other historically disenfranchised groups reluctantly getting behind the Biden/Harris ticket, what words of comfort or warning could someone who died nearly 100 years have?
Some of you might not know, but Lenin was at times fairly vocal about American and European politics (mainly because he longed for a revolution in those parts of the world as well). So it’s not terribly surprising that in 1912, after the United States election, Lenin had some choice words for both the liberal capitalist reformers and the left of the time.
A Brief History Recap
In 1912, Democrat Woodrow Wilson faced off against President William Taft of the Republican Party. Taft probably would have won, except for former president and persistent narcissist Teddy Roosevelt launched a third-party run under with the newly formed Progressive Party. Keep in mind that at the time, the GOP was the more liberal party of the duopoly, and so TR and his Progressive Party siphoned off a tremendous, tremendous amount of Taft’s support. At the same time, activist and labor agitator Eugene Debs was running as the Socialist Party’s nominee.
Debs was a relatively popular candidate among many workers and American leftists, but in the end many of Debs’ potential coalition abandoned his more revolutionary campaign to support the reformist cause of “progressive” Roosevelt. On Election Day, Woodrow Wilson received 42% of the vote (but 435 electoral votes), Roosevelt received 27% of the vote (and 88 electoral votes), Taft received 23% of the vote (and 8 electoral votes), and Debs received 6% of the vote and no electoral votes.
This should come as no surprise to modern Americans, but Roosevelt and his third-party were almost immediately blamed for Wilson’s victory (even though Roosevelt received far more actual and electoral votes than Taft, but I digress). In the fervor that followed, Roosevelt and almost all of the Progressives soon caved and rejoined the Republican Party, which was barely discernible from the conservative Democrats.
Lenin’s Critique of (and Warning for) Teddy
Lenin was extremely disappointed that so many on the American left and labor movements supported Roosevelt over Debs. In his scathing article titled “The Results and Significance of the U.S. Presidential Elections” and printed in the Pravda newspaper on November, 1912, he wrote:
Obviously, so long as these modern slave-owners are there, all “reforms” will be nothing but a deception. Roosevelt has been deliberately hired by the astute multimillionaires to preach this deception. The “state control” they promise will become — if the capitalists keep their capital — a means of combating and crushing strikes.
But the American proletarian has already awakened and has taken up his post. He greets Roosevelt’s success with cheerful irony, as if to say: You lured four million people with your promises of reform, dear impostor Roosevelt. Very well! Tomorrow those four million will see that your promises were a fraud, and don’t forget that they are following you only because they feel that it is impossible to go on living in the old way.
Despite his disappointed, Lenin was happy that so many of Roosevelt’s backers who could be part of a potential socialist coalition were already waking up to the false-promise of Roosevelt’s reformist ways. Lenin predicted (wrongly) that this awakened working class would not be so easily fooled again, and would next time throw in their lot with Debs (or his successor). Obviously, that did not happen.
Parallels to Today
Joe Biden and the Democratic Party today find themselves in a similar boat as Roosevelt and the Progressive Party of 1912 (the noticeable difference of course being that Biden won his election). Both Biden and Roosevelt relied on the reluctant support of leftists and workers. Both Biden and Roosevelt siphoned the support from further left parties and candidates (the Greens and the Socialists, respectively). Both Biden and Roosevelt were capitalists running on platforms of liberal reform against a far more conservative opponent.
And like the Progressive Party before it, the Democratic Party now finds itself the now the de facto home of most of the American left, not because of any leftist affinity for the party but because as Lenin said, “they feel that it is impossible to go on living in the old way”. This particular sentiment resonates with me on a deep level.
In 2020, I did end my membership with a third-party to join the Democrats. I did campaign for, donate to, and vote for Biden. And it certainly wasn’t because I’m in love with Biden’s policies or infatuated with the mushy centrism and elitism of Pelosi and Schumer’s party. Hell no. It was because I — like many others on the left — earnestly believed (and I still do) that continuing down the path of Trumpism was to continue down the path of democracy’s extinction. I felt in my bones that it was impossible to keep living the old way, so I joined in with the capitalist reformers.
As he begins his administration, Joe Biden would be wise to remember this. He gathered and led a coalition of more than 80 million Americans in 2020. He should not take that for granted in the 2022 midterms, nor should his successor take that coalition for granted in 2024.