When Chomsky was asked about the “Never Biden” position by Mahdi Hasan, he began by saying that the question brought back memories from the early 1930s. At the time, the German communists refused to form an alliance with the social democrats, which—eventually— allowed the Nazis to take power. Chomsky’s purpose in recounting that episode was to support the claim that sometimes it is necessary to join hands with your rivals in order to stop a greater catastrophe from happening. If that’s the main lesson we’re supposed to learn from the story, then no one can disagree with Chomsky. It’s a valuable lesson, and the underlying principle is solid.
But what is undoubtedly true in the abstract is not necessarily as obvious in practice. This is because (1) we never have complete information about any real-life situation where an important decision has to be made, and (2) in most non-trivial situations, there are competing values, principles, and motivations that pull us in many different directions. These two factors—lack of complete information and the necessity for subjective judgments—make it hard for us to know with certainty whether a particular abstract truth is applicable or not in a given situation.
Consider the fact that conventional wisdom provides us with contradictory suggestions, such as “look before you leap” versus “you snooze, you lose” or “strike the iron when it’s hot.” So, which advice are we supposed to follow? The answer is: It depends. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to be cautious and careful; at other times, we must take the initiative without wasting time. What makes a decision difficult is precisely the fact that we are able to justify both courses of action in good faith. If this weren’t true, there would’ve been no such thing as regret.
That such opposite proverbs exist at all is itself an evidence of the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in the human condition. Sometimes we can easily see that an abstract principle fits perfectly with the situation we are facing, but very often our view is obstructed. When there is little or no ambiguity, making a decision is as easy as peeling a banana. Unfortunately, that is not true with respect to the voter’s dilemma.
Let’s say a small town is threatened by rising waters in a nearby river. To save the town from flooding, everyone would have to participate in the work of building a barrier. If one group of people refuses to join the effort simply because they don’t like hanging out with another group, the entire town will be lost. Given these particular facts, the ethic of responsibility says that we must set aside our personal likes and dislikes in order to serve a shared goal, for nothing is more important at the moment than saving the town from a catastrophe that we can all see coming.
The situation that Chomsky describes, however, was not as clear, certainly not at the time. Chomsky is making an analogy, and then using that analogy as a warrant to defend a particular voting strategy. Chomsky’s argument works only if we accept that the case of U.S. progressives not voting for Biden in 2020 is similar in relevant ways to the case of German communists refusing to form an alliance with social democrats some ninety years ago. Let’s ignore the fact that this analogy requires us to equate Trump with Hitler. Let’s also not discuss the fact that the U.S. political system fragments power in ways that are incredibly hard to overcome compared to the German political system in the early 1930s. Instead, consider the fact that American voters do not have the benefit of hindsight, and neither did the German communists. We are all functioning on the basis of an incomplete and imperfect understanding of probabilities.
Suppose you were one of the leaders of the German communist party in the early 1930s. You did not like the Nazis and you did not like the social democrats. You were absolutely convinced of the truth of Marxist ideology; you knew for sure that capitalism’s days were almost over; and you had pledged to always uphold the interests of the working class. You had seen political leaders betray their parties; you had seen parties abandon their supporters; and you had learned to despise the the hypocrisy and opportunism of politicians. You had no respect for individuals who would readily sacrifice their avowed principles in exchange for a seat in the parliament or a meaningless official title. You also did not have a crystal ball, and so you had no idea what Hitler would eventually do; in fact, you were probably not even sure that the Nazis had a realistic chance of gaining power. After all, you were working within a parliamentary system, and you knew that no political party had enough support, either among voters or among members of the parliament, that would allow it to form a government on its own strength, including Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Perhaps most importantly, you were living in a democracy; the idea that a minority group in a coalition government would soon be able to establish a dictatorship hadn’t occurred to you even in your scariest nightmares.
As a leader within the communist party, even if you had some idea of how dangerous the Nazis were, and even if you were open to forming an alliance with the social democrats in order to prevent Hitler from becoming Chancellor, that still does not mean that you had a stark, black and white choice. At best, the situation you were facing was ambiguous. There were good arguments on both sides, and it was difficult to assign the right weight to each position without knowing what the future held. Of course, you did not take this decision lightly. You looked at all the information you had at your disposal, and you tried to be as rational and logical as possible. You had a sense of responsibility, but you were also committed to your ideals. In the end, the issue of whether to cooperate with the social democrats or not had to be resolved on the basis of subjective judgments about values and principles as well as the weighing of relative probabilities about how different political groups would behave.
I agree with Chomsky that the German communists made the wrong choice when they decided to refuse to build an alliance with the social democrats. But I cannot say with absolute certainty that I would have made the right choice if I were a German communist in the early 1930s—and neither can Chomsky. Given that the ethic of responsibility applies only to the foreseeable consequences of our choices, it’s hard to see how we can blame the German communists for the rise of Hitler.