“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. Candidates for office flip positions overnight depending on what constituency needs to be won. Kamala Harris, for example, unequivocally declared her intention to ban fracking during the Democratic primaries, and Joe Biden suggested he’d do the same. Now, however, the Biden-Harris ticket vigorously defends fracking, given the importance of winning Pennsylvania and reassuring the fossil fuel industry.
And nowhere is pragmatism more evident than in business. Capitalism’s emphasis on short-term profit mandates pragmatic decisions rather than overarching theories. Trial-and-error is its modus operandi. Quarterly profit reports, rather than long-term strategies, guide the actions of corporations. In this way, despite lofty “mission statements” and humanitarian “core values,” businesses will throw ten thousand workers in the streets from one day to the next if the situation demands it. Exxon, Shell, and BP will continue to extract and burn fossil fuels even as carbon emissions threaten the very existence of human society. The pharmaceutical giants will not share trade secrets with each other even though cooperation would mean the faster development of vaccines and life-saving medicines, because any shared knowledge would threaten their bottom line.
The Pragmatic Left
This logic of pragmatism has regrettably contaminated the discourse within the U.S. Left too. This manifestation of “left” pragmatism can be seen most clearly in the campaign to vote for the lesser evil. Neal Meyer and Eric Blanc from the Bread and Roses caucus of the DSA, in their unironically titled “This Time It’s Different,” call Biden a “hardened neoliberal,” and “not a friend of the working class,” but are ready to back him until November 3 because of the “unprecedented threat” posed by Trump. And not only should socialists vote for Biden, say Meyer and Blanc, they should also “get out the vote for Biden” in every way possible. Any principles of class independence and anti-imperialism should be temporarily put aside in order to win a more favorable terrain for the left.
In September, an open letter entitled “Dump Trump, Then Battle Biden” was published and signed by dozens of progressive figures like Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich and even some who identify themselves as Marxists like Dan LaBotz and Victor Wallis. Biden, the authors admit, is “beholden to corporate interests.” However, “ending the Trump presidency is, by far, the most important goal that can be achieved between now and January.” Chomsky described Trump as “the worst criminal in history, undeniably.” (We will ignore for that moment that Chomsky and other progressives described Bush II in similar terms, justifying their appeal for a lesser evil vote in 2004.) The only “pragmatic” response, given these circumstances, is to support Biden in the upcoming elections.
Unfortunately, Biden’s own pragmatism allows him to shift further and further to the right, courting conservatives, Wall Street, and big capital, with the conviction that he has the “progressive vote” already locked up. So Biden can declare, without much hesitation, his support for the repressive and racist police forces around the country even in the face of an uprising against police violence. “Shoot them in the leg,” says the Democratic candidate. Having earned the high praise of progressives for his climate plan, Biden can quickly change course to appeal to the oil and gas executives, stating openly that “we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.”
Pragmatism’s Historical Roots
To understand how the logic of pragmatism rose to such prominence in the United States, we must take a brief look at its historical theorists and expressions.
In the 19th century, American pragmatism’s most notable figures included William James and Charles Pierce; in the first half of the 20th, John Dewey was progressive pragmatism’s theoretical leader. Dewey was perhaps the most well-known educator and public philosopher in the United States. He chaired the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, which included both psychology and pedagogy. He helped found New York’s New School. His work continues to influence models for public education across the country. During the Moscow Trials, Dewey’s progressivism led to his leadership of the Commission of Inquiry, which came to be known as the Dewey Commission, to investigate the charges brought against Leon Trotsky by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. In a major defeat for Stalinism internationally, the Dewey Commission would go on to clear Trotsky’s name, although on a pragmatic rather than a Marxist basis.
Dewey’s philosophy rejected grand theories as a means to obtaining knowledge. Truth is determined by practical activity above all. Dewey, therefore, stood in opposition to both fascism and Marxism. “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities,” he wrote.
The political expression of progressive pragmatism in the late 19th and early 20th century was populism, with parties like the People’s Party, the Progressive Party, and the Farmer-Labor Party which sought to temper capitalism’s worst impulses but without seeking to overturn it. Populism, a movement of the small farmers and the middle class, needed pragmatism. Why? The idealism of Kant or Hegel taught that freedom could be achieved in the mind. But the struggling middle classes needed practical activity to protect themselves against big capitalist monopolies. Hence, pragmatism was a reflection of their class interests.
Pragmatism vs. Marxism
In understanding the conflict between pragmatism and revolutionary Marxist theory, an instructive text is George Novack’s book Pragmatism vs. Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey’s Philosophy. In his introduction, Novack says he undertook the work as a fulfillment of Trotsky’s wish to see a “thorough critique of pragmatism from a Marxist standpoint.”
When Novack visited Trotsky in Mexico, the old Bolshevik said “Upon going back to the United States, you comrades must at once take up the struggle against [Max] Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.”
Novack’s contribution came 30 years after the murder of the Russian revolutionary leader at the hands of a Stalinist agent in Mexico. Novack notes that pragmatism originated among the middle class of the newly-formed United States, a nation generally unencumbered by the old pre-capitalist institutions of Europe such as the church or the aristocracy. There was no reverence for either the divine right of kings. The United States “became a happy hunting ground for adventurers, innovators, enterprising individuals on the move and on the make. The spirit of initiative, the willingness to disregard routine and try something new to see what comes out of it is a deep trait of the American character.”
This need to innovate and to toss aside long-held beliefs was therefore the basis of American pragmatism. As Novack says, “Just as the bourgeoisie repudiated unproductive labor in material production, their thinkers turned away from theories which justified pursuits not immediately productive or gainful.” The self-made man, pragmatism’s highest ideal, has no use for dogma. He overcomes the obstacles in front of him through his own ingenuity.
Pragmatism also drew heavily from the influence of Darwin, whose theory of natural selection challenged the church and the feudal order. Though revolutionary for the sciences at the time, Darwin’s evolutionary ideas were still a product of his bourgeois worldview. Unlike Marx and Engels, the great English naturalist excluded the possibility of sudden and rapid changes. Evolution, in Darwin’s view, could only take place gradually. It was an outlook that fit perfectly with pragmatism since pragmatists never proposed the overthrow of the existing order, but rather its continual improvement through reforms. It was clear to the pragmatists that capitalism had created immense wealth for a small minority while the majority suffered. But they clung to the belief that by tinkering around the edges, a just and democratic capitalist society could be built.
Yet despite these progressive beginnings, says Novack, “pragmatism was to be sucked under by the ebb tide of capitalist reaction as the twentieth century unfolded.” Pragmatism is the guiding philosophy behind imperialism’s conquest of the globe. Allies and enemies are determined not by their level of “democracy” or “human rights” but rather their willingness to carry out U.S. objectives. Calculations about whether or not to launch new military interventions are made over the public support and impact on the deficit, not any respect for sovereignty or human life.
A Workers Party Requires a Break from Pragmatism
The pragmatic Left is correct when they point out that there is no workers’ party in the United States that we can support today. They ignore, however, that it was the logic of lesser evilism that has been largely responsible for the absence of such a party. A party of the working class does not drop out of the sky. It requires years of dedicated work by revolutionaries who reject all cooperation with the capitalist class. It requires exposing the Democrats at every opportunity as defenders of imperialism, mass incarceration, deportations, and fossil fuel extraction. Such work necessarily precludes the strategy of “lesser evilism,” which tells us every four years that the working class needs to line up behind the liberal wing of the ruling class.
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.
*** Correction: This article previously stated that Spectre editor Tithi Bhattacharya said that socialists must support Joe Biden. The article has been amended to reflect her position.