by Andrew Solender
Lately I’ve been learning and reading about the Russian Revolution. Outrage about the oppressive Tsarist government in 19th and early 20th century Russia led to a revolution in 1917, the reverberations of which are still being felt in Russia and surrounding nations today. Today, we may be seeing a similar trend happening.
The political environment in Russia at the time was not so foreign to what we are seeing today. In a country becoming increasingly polarized between the working class and the elites, a reactionary (far-right), autocratic, monarchical regime was causing discontent throughout the masses. Amongst the far-left workers who made up the main opposition to the Tsar, there were two main ideological groups.
First there were the Mensheviks who tended to be older and more pragmatic workers who were willing to compromise and coalesce with the centre-leaning Kadets and and even the centre-right Octoberists to make a democratic and just Russia. Then there were the Bolsheviks, the party of Lenin and Stalin, who wished to take the government by violent means and install one party dictatorial rule because Communists supposedly knew best. Spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks did exactly that.
One would think that, using history as a case study would mean a radical, even violent uprising is the solution to alt-right administration headed by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
However, before you put down the paper or close the webpage, content with the conclusion you may have drawn, I would like to quickly remind you of what happened as a result of the 1917 Soviet Revolution. Millions were killed, and millions more suffered and starved in crippling poverty under a system that guaranteed them no rights and put in place inefficient and oppressive policies. In many ways, the Soviet government was far worse than the Tsars, and that is just one of the reasons why radicalism is not a valid answer to fascism. Radicalism, in this case, is defined as shifting far to the left ideologically as well as the violent or confrontational actions of recent far left protesters.
Radicalism is bad politics, and could lead to another four years of Trump.
It’s no secret that the Democratic base has moved farther left and the Republican base has likewise moved right. This is apparent in some of the new party leadership; Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are consolidating significant power on the left, being viewed favorably by 80% of Democrats which “no other Democrat comes close to matching.” Meanwhile Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the top two finishers in the Republican Primary, are largely seen as right wing leaders. To some on the left and right, this is great. To people who enjoy governments that can compromise, come to just and pragmatic outcomes and make positive progress, this is pretty awful. Congress has shown to have a correlation between productivity and ideological polarization. As successive congresses have become more polarized, their productivity has declined. This is because it is more difficult to pass bipartisan bills, have a functioning minority party and make compromises and deals to get things done.
Then there is the electoral challenge for Democrats created by embracing the far left. Elizabeth Warren, who is the furthest left democrat in the Senate according to GovTrack, seems like a sure bet for the Democratic nomination in 2020, at least to progressives who feel Hillary Clinton lost because she was too moderate. To those of us who looked at the exit polls and mixed in some right wing news with our daily dose of information during this election, we see quite the opposite. Warren would seriously struggle to appeal to moderates, independents and never Trump conservatives, just as Hillary Clinton (who is far to the center of Warren) failed to do so.
According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 35% of voters said they would back Trump for reelection compared to 43% who said they would “probably back an unnamed Democratic challenger.” This shows a remarkable opportunity for Democrats to defeat Trump, but Elizabeth Warren was shown by this poll to be the wrong person for that task. That is because “42 to 36 percent, however, said they would vote for the sitting president over the Massachusetts Democrat [Warren].” Warren is popular, well known and relatively scandal free. Therefore the best explanation for this poll is that Americans simply don’t want somebody this far left.
The prospects of the future Democratic primary tie into another trend amongst liberals: primary challenging moderates with more conservative constituents.
According to NBC News, “A new progressive Political Action Committee plans to recruit and fund primary opponents to Democratic members of Congress that it feels are not aggressive enough in fighting President Donald Trump.” This is a foolish move on behalf of progressives, because a liberal Democrat is not going to win moderate Democrat Joe Manchin’s seat in deep red West Virginia or moderate Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in equally red North Dakota. Yet, we’ve seen that moderates like Jon Ossoff (Yes, he was a moderate) can whip Democrats from his district and draw upon national Democratic sentiments for support and fundraising, all the time pulling in centrists and independents that a Progressive might struggle to win. If these progressives succeeded in unseating moderates in the Democratic party, they would effectively be dooming democrats to the minority for the remainder of the Trump administration. This is a dangerous prospect that could result in many right wing laws and unchecked executive power. But beyond the issue of his unchecked legislative power, there is also the issue of Donald Trump’s possibly unchecked police and military powers.
That brings me to part two of this article: a discussion of the violence that is caused by political polarization. Left Wing political satirist Jonathan Pie said “If you go to a University Campus and set fire to things, throw rocks at police, pepper spray and punch people whose opinions you don’t like, you’re not liberal, you’re not left wing… and you lose the argument”. This is very important, because these behaviors have become more common amongst millennial progressives and socialists in recent months.
Political polarization, like we’re seeing in the U.S. today, can cause harsh tensions that leads to violence as in the Russian Revolution.
One such example is the #punchanazi campaign which sprung up after a masked protester punched white supremacist Richard Spencer during a TV interview. Since then, millennials have largely gotten behind the punching of political detractors, with one Vassar student handing out buttons that said “BE THE FIST YOU WANT TO SEE IN A FASCIST’s FACE [sic.]” This language is not just scary, but dangerous.
First, a campaign run with violence is never a winning one. For every act of violence that liberal and seemingly anarchical (judging by the anarchy A’s spray painted on walls) protesters commit, Trump gets further on the moral high ground. These violent actors allow him to gain sympathy and look like a strong leader in the rightful condemnation of these attacks. It also may allow Trump to seize more police or even military power in the name of riot control. The most frustrating thing is that if these protests continue, and especially if they escalate, he would be within his power to do so.
It’s also dangerous because if Trump sends in armed controllers to manage these riots, it could go disastrously wrong and even cost lives. One leader of the Michigan GOP suggested it was “Time for another Kent State,” (NY Daily News, “Michigan Republican suggests ‘another Kent State’ for protesters,” 02.03.2017) in reference to shootings by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University during a Vietnam protest which left 4 students dead and 9 wounded. We’re not just talking about government control, we’re talking about possible loss of young lives. That is not to say that this is a definite outcome, of course. Philosophically, however, violence only breeds more violence and when one invites violence into a protest, they are essentially inviting a violent response to that protest.
The second reason this radical violence is dangerous is the possible result of what comes of such violence. Say left wing actors punch out all the alt-right white supremacists. They’re still in control of the government. So then what? Violent overthrow? Voter coercion? Something will have to be done in response to the alt-right backlash that could occur from the violence conducted against their own. If Democrats do make it into government under these means, what then? They’ve come into power on a foundation of violence against their political counterparts. Are they any better than the Soviet Revolutionaries 100 years ago? Will we, instead of Tsar Trump, have an oppressive revolutionary regime? The Russians proved it is a slippery slope from radical ideals.
Now, after reading this article, you may be saying “well you’re a white male who doesn’t feel the constant day to day urgency of right wing oppression, so why should I listen to you?” You would be very justified in that assertion. However, the point is to urge progressives and left-wing activists to look at their opposition strategy through a more objective lens.
Despite the very real and concrete urgency that the Trump Presidency poses to your person, it is not in your or anybody else’s better interest to act rashly or violently in response.
As I have laid out in this article, if we use violence or otherwise radical or irrational means to meet our ends instead of conducting intelligent, well-thought out opposition strategies, we in fact put ourselves and our loved ones at greater risk than before.
Andrew Solender is a student at Vassar College.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.
The cover photo above was taken by Joe Parks of protests in Berkeley, California. It is under a CC BY-NC 2.o license and be found here.