Beyond Electoralism

Mass Action and the Remaking of the Working Class

June 12, 2021

In late August 2020, the largest and most diverse antiracist protest movement in US history was surging powerfully forward. Professional basketball players in six cities had just walked off the job to protest police violence against Black lives. The next night, players for the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, unofficially voted alongside members of the LA Clippers to shut down the rest of National Basketball Association (NBA) season. The Women’s National Basketball Association was already in protest mode, as were several teams in major league baseball.

Professional athletes were on the brink of placing strike action at the center of the next wave of an uprising that had already seen up to twenty-six million people demonstrate in defense of Black lives.1Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter Protests May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020. Such high profile antiracist strikes had the potential to inspire workplace activism and organizing, and to reignite a movement that had toppled Confederate statues, surrounded (and occasionally burned) police stations, and seized streets in a multiracial outpouring against racism. Enter Barack Obama. With a single phone call, the former US president demobilized the movement. In conversation with James and NBA union president Chris Paul, Obama persuaded them to return to work and join with their employers, the team owners, in pushing voter turnout rather than strikes and street protests. In one fell swoop, electoralism had shut down mass mobilization.2Ricky O’Donnell, “How Barack Obama Helped Convince NBA players to End Their Strike and Return to Play,” SBNation.com, August 29, 2020.

The dramatic demobilization of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) rebellion is an underappreciated aspect of Donald Trump’s re-energized presidential campaign during the fall of 2020. During the BLM upheaval, one major public opinion poll after another showed substantial support—ranging from 60 to 75 percent of those polled—for protests against racial injustice.3See Grant Smith, Joseph Ax and Chris Kahn, “Exclusive: Most Americans Sympathize with Protests, Disapprove of Trump’s Response,” Reuters, June 2, 2020; Kendall Karson, “74% of Americans View George Floyd’s Death as an Underlying Racial Injustice Problem: Poll,” ABC News, June 5, 2020; Zack Budryk, “More Americans Troubled by Police Actions in George Floyd Killing than Violence at Protests: Poll,” The Hill, June 7, 2020; MPR News, “AP–NORC Poll: Majority of Americans Support Police Protests,” MPR News, June 19, 2020; Steven Long and Justin McCarthy, “Two in Three Americans Support Racial Justice Protests,” Gallup, July 28, 2020. All of that quickly changed. As antiracist protesters abandoned the streets, right-wing forces reclaimed them, particularly by way of Trump car caravans and similar tactics. Central to their mobilizations were aggressive displays of the symbols of white supremacy—from MAGA hats to Confederate flags. The results ought to have been predictable.

With antiracists retreating and Trump supporters belligerently waving their flags, far right groups like the Proud Boys were re-emboldened. The result was a sharp shift in political dynamics, with proTrump forces gathering momentum and occupying public space. Meanwhile, Democratic Party officials worked overtime to discredit the anti-racist call to defund the police. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s electoral support surged, winning him ten million more votes than he had garnered four years earlier and making the presidential contest much closer than had been widely predicted.

We cannot know for certain what impact a continued BLM uprising would have had on the outcome of the 2020 election. But we can say with certainty that had the athletes’ strikes spread, the movement would have moved into a higher gear. The withdrawal of labor is a powerful and electrifying tactic. It reveals to working people something fundamental about their potential collective power. A high profile athletes’ strike could have inspired even more people to join the struggle. Indeed, a significant network of college teachers were beginning to organize anti-racist job action at the very moment the struggle receded. An NBA strike could also have galvanized student walkouts, just as it would have emboldened union organizing at Amazon and beyond. The Obama-driven turn to electoralism squandered the exciting possibilities of a unique historical moment.

But it would be too easy to simply blame Obama. In truth, few on the Left objected when the athletes shifted from strike action to working with their bosses to help get out the vote. Many on the US left embrace the idea that elections are the key to socialist political action and power. Writing in Jacobin, Paul Heideman posited an identity between electoral campaigns and mass politics, implying that those who do not embrace electoral activity simply “cultivate an embrace of marginality.”4Paul Heideman, “Mass Politics, Not Movementism, Is the Future of the Left,” Jacobin, April 12, 2020. At no point does Heideman even contend with the idea that mass strikes or popular mobilizations for racial and gender justice might constitute forms of mass politics too, or that they could give birth to new, ongoing, mass organization.

It is not at all clear why the abortion rights campaign in Argentina, which brought millions into the streets and radically changed the law, should not also count as mass politics. The feminist, labor, and student organizers who focused on social mobilization in streets, communities, schools, and workplaces were anything but marginal. Or take the example of the youth-led uprising against transit fare hikes in Chile last year, which sparked general strikes and street rallies of millions.5See David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” Spectre 1, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 12–37. The same would apply to recent general strikes in Colombia, India, and France, notwithstanding the significant ways in which these have revived working class organization and popular struggle.

Chris Maisano has recently doubled down on the electoralist perspective, charging those doing the grassroots work of building sustained organizations of working and oppressed people with “militant particularism.” Because union organizing, strikes, and community campaigns “impact a small number of workers,” they are ostensibly unable to promote class formation, working class consciousness, and organization. The work of organizing thousands of workers at Amazon, for instance, is thereby casually dismissed. What counts for Maisano is electoral activity: “Recent experience leads to the conclusion that wide-scale class formation will for the foreseeable future run largely, though not exclusively, through electoral politics.” Moreover, we are further instructed that such activity in the US can only take place through the machinery of the Democratic Party.6Chris Maisano, “A Left That Matters,” Socialist Form: A Democratic Socialists of America Publication, Winter, 2021.

Revolutionary socialists have never rejected participation in electoral politics. What they have contested is the elevation of electoral campaigning to the strategic priority for people of the Left. From Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg, from V.I. Lenin to C.L.R. James, there has been general agreement that, where possible, the socialist movement should use electoral activity to promote its program and popular mobilization.7See for instance, August H. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019). What the radical wing of the socialist movement has consistently challenged, however, is the idea that class struggles outside the electoral arena should take a back seat to elections.

On the contrary, radicals have insisted, mass extra-parliamentary struggles are more strategically important than electioneering. This claim is based on two political insights. First, that parliamentary politics are distorted and potentially disabling because they operate on the alienated terrain of capitalist state institutions. And, second, that the advance of working class power requires insurgent mobilizations that produce political ruptures from this alienated political space. Without the latter, entry into the political institutions of the capitalist state will tend to defang and incorporate the Left.

The Capitalist State as an Alienated Social Relation

It is obvious that bourgeois elections are dominated by money, not the power of people in the streets. It is equally clear that big-money politics disadvantage working class and poor people’s candidates and parties. But the disadvantage here is much more than strictly quantitative (that is, the fact that the ruling class has more wealth with which to dominate the electoral arena). Much deeper qualitative effects are in play having to do with the fundamentally alienated character of money and the liberal state.

As Marx reminds us, the dominance of money is an index of social alienation. In a society dominated by money, connections among people become abstract and quantitative—the social life and interactions one experiences are governed by the quantity of money one represents: “The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.”8Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 157. The dominance of quantitative wealth, expressed in money, thus assumes a qualitative form. Social interconnections are reified, transformed into relations among things (commodities and money). As a result, in capitalist society the “mutual interconnection” among people “appears as something alien to them, autonomous, as a thing.”9Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” in Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 377–79. What is often neglected is that Marx viewed the modern state too as an expression of alienated social relations.10See Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” 124, where he describes the bureaucratic form of the modern state as “the same fantastic expression.”

Because the overriding focus of social democracy is on the electoral “capture” of the state,11Among the deepest commitments of social democracy is its devotion to the capitalist state and its parliamentary forms. As Ralph Miliband famously noted, the British Labour Party is dogmatic about only one thing: “not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” The party has consistently rejected “any kind of political action” that falls “outside the framework and the conventions of the parliamentary system.” See Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (London: Merlin Press, 1961), 13. it evades the alienated status of the liberal state. For Marx, however, “democracy” in capitalist society is purely formal and abstract. Rather than a system in which people engage in self-government, liberal democracy requires that they alienate their capacity for self-rule to unaccountable representatives and nonelected officials. This alienation of power produces political passivity.

Instead of exercising power, people become administered by power. Membership in the body politic becomes empty and formal. Rather than participating directly in deliberative processes focused on people’s unique social-material needs, including their needs for individual development, the liberal citizen is limited to the formal act of voting for politicians who lack accountability and are bound to respect the rights and prerogatives of capitalist property.12Note that the noncitizen experiences an even more profound reification, being rendered politically nonexistent, indeed dead, as far as the electoral process is concerned. In short, capitalist “democracy” substitutes an alienated system of elite representation for the democratic principle of a self-governing demos. As Ellen Meiksins Wood argued, liberalism thus represents “the antithesis of democratic self-government…not the exercise of political power but its relinquishment, its transfer to others, its alienation.”13Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The ‘Demos’ versus ‘We, the People’: From Ancient Democracy to Modern Conceptions of Citizenship” in Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 216.

Liberalism thus represents ‘the antithesis of democratic self-government…not the exercise of political power but its relinquishment, its transfer to others, its alienation.’

This is why ruling class politicians, like Barack Obama, are so keen to channel the energies of insurgent mass action into the passive politics of electoralism. The anti- racist upheaval of 2020 was an exercise in disalienating political life—it involved millions of people taking direct action to reshape the practices and institutions of their society. In this regard, it demonstrated Marx’s insight that the direct self-activity of masses of oppressed people, in generating new relations of collective power and solidarity, is crucial to their self-transformation into agents of their own collective liberation.14This is generally known in the literature as Marx’s principle of self-emancipation. See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), Ch. 10; and Dan Swain, None So Fit to Break the Chains: Marx’s Ethics of Self-Emancipation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020). Such emancipatory moments offer dramatic counterpoints to the alienated politics of bourgeois elections.

Rather than an arena for self-mobilization, liberal electoral politics comprises a domain of passivity, where people consume campaign advertising and reenact the transfer of power from the demos to elites. Again, the socialist left can and should intervene in elections by running its own, independent candidates who actively promote extra-electoral struggles and are accountable to organizations of workers and the oppressed. But this requires an approach designed to disrupt the normal forms of passive electoralism, rather than reinforcing them.

Without such an approach, any socialist movement will tend to be absorbed by the institutional forms of the modern state. This evolution was on full display with German Social Democracy in the early twentieth century. Although rhetorically Marxist and revolutionary, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany became increasingly a party of piecemeal social reform—indeed, one that defended the capitalist state and social relations, as became shockingly clear when the vast majority of its leaders and parliamentary representatives supported the imperialist first world war.

Years before that fateful betrayal, Rosa Luxemburg had discerned the ways in which the SPD leadership elevated parliamentary politics above mass struggle. Writing to Clara Zetkin in 1907, Luxemburg warned that SPD leaders “have completely pledged themselves to parliament and parliamentarism, and whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentary action they are hopeless—no, worse than hopeless, because they then do their utmost to force the movement back into parliamentary channels.15Rosa Luxemburg to Clara Zetkin, as quoted by J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 375. For a discussion of the German Social Democracy’s subordination of mass strikes to electoral politics before World War I, see Charlie Post, “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky isn’t Good Enough,” Jacobin, March 9, 2019. In short, they had become experts in exactly what Obama accomplished in ending athletes’ strikes and redirecting energy into “get out the vote” campaigns.

This sort of fixation on elections and parliament leads to the incorporation of left parties into the machinery of the state, where the “ticket to the dance” is the renunciation of disruptive, mass struggles. It focuses their aspirations and their consciousness on vote-getting and parliamentary maneuvering. In so doing, it tames and domesticates their representatives, while bureaucratizing their organizations, which come to rely upon a professional layer of parliamentarians and their functionaries (speechwriters, assistants, researchers, PR people), all of whom are subsidized by state budgets.

The great sociologist Max Weber may not have understood capitalism terribly well, but he had considerable insights regarding bureaucratization, including what it does to parties of the Left. In a provocative 1908 lecture, Weber argued that the German SPD could best be tamed not through repression, but through its integration into the bureaucratic institutions of the state. If those in control of the state encouraged such incorporation, he suggested, “it would be shown not that Social Democracy is conquering city and state, but on the contrary, that the state is conquering Social Democracy.”16Max Weber, “Address to the Verein fur Sozialpolitik” (1908), as quoted by Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1907: The Development of the Great Schism (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 118. And that is exactly what the state achieved. When the revolutionary moment of 1918–19 arrived, it was the leadership of the SPD that organized the counter-revolution and saved the capitalist state.17See Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918–19, trans. Georg Rapp (New York: The Library Press, 1972); and Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923, trans. John Archer (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

Elections v. Mass Struggles: Consciousness, Organization, and Power

From their very different political perspectives, Luxemburg and Weber both grasped the inherently deradicalizing dynamics of left strategies that prioritize electoral action. The dynamics of electoral campaigns that seek solely to win office—and this includes campaigns in which “socialists” run on the Democratic Party ballot—have a very different logic from that of mass struggle and have markedly different impacts on working people’s power, organization, and consciousness.18Much of this expands on ideas put forward in Robert Brenner, “Can the Left Use the Democratic Party?” Against the Current, Old Series (Fall 1984): 4–8. Insurgent popular actions—uprisings to defund the police, rent strikes, workplace struggles, and the like—involve confrontational action to win concessions from capitalists and the state.

To be successful, these struggles require escalating actions and expanding solidarities. They often entail many participants taking combative and even illegal actions that carry real risks—of losing jobs and housing, or of arrest and physical abuse by the police. As history has shown, in the course of building insurgent actions, significant minorities of working people often develop new ideas and outlooks to make sense of their direct experiences of struggle—producing new perceptions of friends and foes, new understandings of the state and of militant struggle against it, and new solidarities born of struggle.

Reaching out to other working class people to build unity across social differences, they may well become receptive to antiracist and feminist politics. And as they confront their enemies, they frequently begin to see capitalism as the problem and to understand that the state and the law are not neutral. Time and time again, experience has shown that mass direct action against capital and the state has the capacity to build collective power, radical consciousness, and enduring organization among diverse groups of workers.

Such moments are often those in which radicals and socialists find greatest resonance for their ideas, since they have the most to offer in these struggles—both in terms of specific organizing skills and general political ideas. Historically, mass, disruptive movements—not the election of “friendly” politicians to office—have been crucial to gains by working people in the US and across the globe.19Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books 1977). And it is at these insurgent moments that the socialist left has frequently developed a mass influence.

Electoral campaigns, even those with “socialist” candidates, typically have a very different dynamic.20This is especially true where socialists run on the Democratic Party ballot line, but it is generally true as well of social democratic campaigns organized by the likes of the Labour Party in Britain or the New Democratic Party in Canada. Winning election requires none of the grassroots mobilizing, risk-taking, and building of solidarities that are inherent in radical social struggle. To win an election you need to appeal to more than 50 percent of voters and get them to the polls (or get them to mail in their absentee ballots) on election day. Not only do the people you “organize” electorally remain isolated and passive, rather than active participants in their own liberation, but election campaigns that focus on winning must appeal to voters’ existing consciousness.

The people you ‘organize’ electorally remain isolated and passive, rather than active participants in their own liberation.

This is especially disabling when labor organizations and radical social movements of all sorts are weak, since most working people will have little or no experience of successful collective action against capital and the state. Their existing consciousness will tend to be a complicated amalgam of radical views mingled with mainstream “common sense.”21Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 419. That is why, to win a majority, politicians typically appeal to the lowest common denominator consciousness—and often to its most reactionary aspects. They will obsessively avoid radical ideas about policy or organizing.

This is why, even as a self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders did not embrace the demand to “defund the police,” and why he calls for increased police wages and budgets. It is also why he did not unequivocally support all aspects of the BLM uprising—especially those that involved law-breaking. Contrary to some claims, activists do not learn the skills or develop the radical ideas needed to build mass, disruptive social movements through participating in conventional electoral politics.22Such is the claim of Eric Blanc in Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (London: Verso Books, 2019). A valuable book in many respects, Blanc tends to overstate the significance of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign to the outbreak of teacher militancy. Where elections of progressives and radicals have brought gains for working people, they have invariably been accompanied by independent grassroots upsurges. In the absence of such pressure from below, leftists in office almost routinely implement austerity measures, as the experience of left governments from France’s Socialist government under François Mitterrand in 1981 to the SYRIZA government in Greece in 2016, which capitulated to the demands of global financial institutions.

Again, it does not follow that radicals should in all circumstances boycott electoral activity. Socialists have long utilized the electoral sphere to give a broad, political voice to the struggles of working and oppressed people. Such campaigns focus on popularizing the demands and activities raised in mass struggles—like “defund the police, refund communities”—and on fostering mass mobilizations like street marches, strikes, and rallies. They prioritize building popular struggle and self-organization as higher goals than winning political office. Candidates associated with radical campaigns of this sort must also be accountable to the left-wing activists and organizations that do the on-the-ground organizing. And they must commit to resisting the pressures experienced by all elected officials to be “realistic” and accept the limits of the capitalist social order.

Such campaigns, even in support of open socialists, are impossible within the Democratic Party, whose program, finances, and structure ensure the domination of corporate interests.23Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), Part II. Indeed, in early March of this year, Democratic Party officials gutted the resources of their own party organization in Nevada after activists associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were elected to top party offices. In protest of this democratic result, party staffers resigned; and more telling, officials transferred $450,000 from party bank accounts in order to deprive the DSA-aligned state organization of funds.24Michelle L. Price, “Sanders Backers Take Over Nevada Democratic Party Leadership; Staff Resigns,” Reno Gazette Journal, March 10, 2021. This was just the latest evidence that socialist campaigns require socialist organizations—even embryonic ones.

No doubt, the space for independent socialist political campaigns today is limited—often to “one party” cities and Congressional districts in which third party candidates cannot be accused of being electoral “spoilers.” Such campaigns can merely prefigure the sort of independent, nationally organized multiracial working class political party that the US has never seen. It is also clear that such a party cannot be launched outside of new upsurges of struggle and mass organization—possibly on the scale of the 1930s. Only when a significant minority of working people experience their collective power outside the electoral arena—in the streets, at workplaces, and in their communities—will they see the point of using elections to build mass organizations of struggle. In a context of insurgent struggles, it will seem reasonable, in ways it typically does not today, to “waste” their vote by supporting the campaigns of independent labor or socialist candidates who do not have an immediate prospect of winning office.

Of course, nothing of that sort was on offer in 2020—nor will it ever be on offer from Democratic Party candidates. Once again, people were called into the electoral arena as abstract and atomized individuals, not members of insurgent collectivities. Their “participation” was overwhelmingly passive in character. They were summoned to choose their poison in the form of which representative of a ruling class party would govern over them. They were thus instructed to abdicate the exercise of political power in favor of “its relinquishment, its transfer to others, its alienation.” Little surprise that few echoes of the popular antiracist insurgency of a few months earlier were heard in that domain

Racism, Class Struggle, and the Remaking of the Working Class

Given these realities, it was not surprising that the demobilization of the BLM uprising in favor of electioneering was a gift to the Right. While Biden narrowly won the presidential election,25The narrowness was, of course, in terms of the electoral college, not the popular vote. politics is much more about the dynamics of social forces than about who holds office. However much Trump controlled the White House in the summer of 2020, his administration increasingly lost control of the streets and the battle for public opinion. As millions marched and toppled racist monuments, as athletes took to their knees during the national anthem and struck in defense of Black lives, the political climate was being progressively transformed.

The deliberate demobilization of that antiracist insurgency allowed Trumpites, Proud Boys, and other vile forces to reclaim the streets and to build up their confidence and public activity. Meanwhile, activists inspired by the uprising were undermined by the hit job Democratic Party officials launched against the radical demand to defund the police—the very demand that had stirred the imagination of activists, new and old, throughout the country. As Democratic leaders rolled out their uninspiring neoliberal agenda, conservative and far right groups re-energized. Weeks earlier the antiracist rebellion had dominated the headlines and forced its agenda into the public domain. Now the initiative belonged to the Right, who mobilized proTrump car caravans and waved their Blue Lives Matter flags.

The deliberate demobilization of that antiracist insurgency allowed Trumpites, Proud Boys, and other vile forces to reclaim the streets and to build up their confidence and public activity.

We emphasize these shifting social dynamics because disruptive mass action plays a vital role in the transformations of consciousness and experience that enable the remaking the working class as a radical social force. Rather than assuming that workers are always incipiently revolutionary, Marx keenly appreciated the patterns and experiences that inhibit radical activity and consciousness among workers. Crucial in this regard are the conservatizing effects of competition among workers, which reinforce the immense influence of the dominant ideas, practices, and institutions. We have seen this on frightful display across the neoliberal period.

As historical materialists recognize, “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production.” They are also “individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers—especially workers in a weaker social position:

It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.26Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class” Against the Current,  Old Series (Winter 1981): 30.

Thus, neoliberalism must be seen as a set of transformations running across political culture and consciousness as well as through state and economy. Neoliberalism eroded the “infrastructures of dissent” that had been built among working class people in earlier periods.27See Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2014). Neoliberalism succeeded in large measure because it triggered a cycle of unmaking of working class movements in the Global North and beyond, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in the United States, where union density collapsed to about ten percent by 2019, less than a third of its postwar peak.28Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, “Unions, Workers, and Wages at the Peak of the American Labor Movement,” NBER Working Paper 23516 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017).

As unions were defeated and strike activity and workplace resistance dramatically declined, working class cultures and organizations disintegrated. The social presence of union values of cooperation and solidarity eroded throughout working class communities. This involved not just a numerical decline in unions but a qualitative shift to the right in attitudes, values, and practices, as norms of individual competition displaced those of collective organization and struggle.29David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland: PM Press, 2011), 113–21.

Increased social fragmentation and the decline of collective solidarities fostered social and racial antagonisms, which are built into capitalist society. And as these divisions and antagonisms deepened, enormous space was pried open for right-wing deployments of the racialized trope of the Black criminal as a symbol of social crisis. Racial panic—constructed around tropes of Black criminality—reframed a crisis of growing unemployment, declining living standards, cuts to social welfare, and growing precarity “as a crisis within and between” workers.30Stuart Hall, et. al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 1978), 339, 346. To be sure, other racialized figures were joined to that of the Black criminal—the “Muslim terrorist,” the “illegal Mexican,” the “castrating feminist,” the “violent antifascist” (“antifa”), and so on.

In the United States, the Republican Party, with its racially coded appeals to conservative whites in the South, has been the principal vehicle for the mobilization of white racial rage.31See Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of American Politics (New York: The New Press, 1997), Ch. 9; Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (New York: Verso, 1978), 169–70; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986), 121–26. For the way the Democratic Party collaborated in developing this racial agenda, particularly under the presidency of Bill Clinton, see Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 154–55. And white workers have not been immune to these appeals. We reject the view of liberal pundits who reduce everything to the static claim that Trump has an unwavering base composed of white people “without college education.” They then compound their errors by equating this group, often referred to as “less educated whites” (LEWs), with working class whites.

In fact, about half of this group consists of people who would correctly be described as petty bourgeois—owners of small businesses, independent salespeople, supervisors, and lower level managers.32Sam Farber, “Trumpism,” and Kim Moody, “Analyzing the 2020 Election: Who Paid? Who Benefits? Against the Current, no. 211 (March–April, 2011). Many of these people are relatively well off and figured prominently in the right-wing invasion of the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021.33Adam Serwer, “The Capitol Rioters Weren’t ‘Low Class,’” The Atlantic, January 12, 2021. Trump has consistently done better with voters whose annual family income exceeds $100,000 than he has with those earning less than $50,000 per year. Furthermore, the latter group swung away from Trump and toward the Democrats in 2020. In short, Trump supporters are disproportionately more affluent than the average voter.34See Michael McCarthy, “The Revenge of Joe the Plumber, Jacobin, October 26, 2016; Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class, Washington Post, June 5, 2017; Christine Zhang and John Burn-Murdoch, “By Numbers: How the U.S. Voted in 2020,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020.

But it is impossible to receive more than 70 million votes, as Trump did, without substantial working class electoral support. And there is considerable evidence that the politics of white racial antagonism took on unique intensities in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008–9, as reflected in a marked rise in votes for Trump among members of union households—to 40 percent in 2020. Indeed, whiteness correlated with electoral support for Trump more than any other major social- demographic factor, with 57 percent of white men and 54 percent of white women casting their ballot for the Republican presidential candidate. Moreover, hard-core Trumpism, as measured by their support for the use of force to save “the traditional American way of life,” correlates strongly with “ethnic antagonism” based on hostility to “the political and social role of immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos.”35Larry Bartels, “Ethnic Antagonism Erodes Republicans’ Commitment to Democracy,” PNAS 117, n. 37, September 15, 2020.

The appeal of right-wing populism among large swathes of the middle class and a significant minority of older, white workers is a manifestation of the dynamics of class formation and deformation over the past forty years. Because the working class is the key to all progressive social change in capitalist society, we need to be deeply concerned with the cycles through which proletarian formations are socially and politically made, unmade, and remade.36David Camfield, “Re-Orienting Class Analysis: Working Classes as Historical Formations,” Science and Society 64, n. 4 (2004–5), 421–46. To be clear, we use proletariat, like working class, to indicate all wage-laborers, employed and unemployed, and the bulk of their household members. Such working class formations develop around historically specific configurations of labor and socialist organizations, subaltern cultures, oppositional class identities, and concrete practices of mobilization and resistance. All of which are sustained by “infrastructures of dissent” such as unions, left media, socialist parties, community halls, and popular organizations.37Sears, Next New Left.

Becoming “Fit to Rule”

We reject the prioritization of electoral activity not simply because of the severe limits on what can be achieved through the institutions of the capitalist state. We center a politics that fosters the self-transformation of the working class because it is only through insurgent struggle that the working class can remake itself as a radical force. Again, this was central to Marx’s vision of the processes by which the working class can make itself “fit” to remake the world. Marx argued that revolutionary struggle is the essential means by which oppressed people can change “on a mass scale.”

If socialist transformation is to be possible, people who have been infected by all the bigotries and mystifications of an oppressive society must transform themselves into a force for solidarity, cooperation, and the regeneration of society. It follows, Marx wrote, that “the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”38Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “The German Ideology” in Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 52–53.

Showing up at a voting station to draw a few ‘Xs’ does not radically transform the people involved.

Showing up at a voting station to draw a few “Xs” does not radically transform the people involved. It does not undermine deep social divisions and antagonisms among working people or build antiracist and feminist working class struggle, solidarity, and consciousness. It does not allow workers to rid themselves of “the muck of ages.” For such “alterations” to take place, particularly on a “mass scale,” insurgent popular struggles are required: “In revolutionary activity the changing of oneself coincides with the changing of circumstances.”39Marx and Engels, “German Ideology,” 53.

The road to remaking the working class will not come primarily through electoral politics—and definitely not through campaigns run through the Democratic Party in the US. Instead, radicals and revolutionaries must again prioritize mass struggles—strikes, demonstrations, occupations, and the like—around all demands of working and oppressed peoples. Clearly, mass uprisings, like last year’s struggles against racist police violence, will be episodic. In a society in which people are constantly subjected to economic and social pressures to survive, it is impossible to keep millions permanently mobilized in the streets. What historical experience has demonstrated, however, is that it is possible to build independent, radical, mass organizations of the Left that bridge the gaps between waves of struggle, and that also amplify, deepen, and extend those waves.

The task of radicals in periods of “lull” in mass mobilization, when many people retreat to the individualized struggle to survive under capitalism, is to build ongoing, independent organizations to maintain growing networks of activists and organizations that are preparing for the next upsurges. Such democratic, grassroots organizations allow militants to continue to organize and educate around the politics of multiracial class struggle and to resist being absorbed into the alienated spheres of liberal electoral politics and lobbying.

Imagine the political situation in the US today if a national network of police abolition activists had been created in the summer of 2020 to continue the struggle for defunding the police in different localities—one that carried the movement into unions, schools, and neighborhood organizations. Imagine if that work had been deeply integrated into the union organizing drive at Amazon in Alabama, and into many similar campaigns, from rent strikes to campaigns among nurses, teachers, and grocery store workers. That is the direction in which we must set our sights.

It is in building infrastructures of dissent—new unions, antiracist and feminist organizations, tenants’ associations, new socialist media and organization—that today’s “militant minority” can build for the transformative struggles of tomorrow. But to do this requires that our horizons extend far beyond electoralism and that our priority is insurgent mass struggle to change society—and to assist the self-transformation of workers into a class that can remake the world.

  1. Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter Protests May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020.
  2. Ricky O’Donnell, “How Barack Obama Helped Convince NBA players to End Their Strike and Return to Play,” SBNation.com, August 29, 2020.
  3. See Grant Smith, Joseph Ax and Chris Kahn, “Exclusive: Most Americans Sympathize with Protests, Disapprove of Trump’s Response,” Reuters, June 2, 2020; Kendall Karson, “74% of Americans View George Floyd’s Death as an Underlying Racial Injustice Problem: Poll,” ABC News, June 5, 2020; Zack Budryk, “More Americans Troubled by Police Actions in George Floyd Killing than Violence at Protests: Poll,” The Hill, June 7, 2020; MPR News, “AP–NORC Poll: Majority of Americans Support Police Protests,” MPR News, June 19, 2020; Steven Long and Justin McCarthy, “Two in Three Americans Support Racial Justice Protests,” Gallup, July 28, 2020.
  4. Paul Heideman, “Mass Politics, Not Movementism, Is the Future of the Left,” Jacobin, April 12, 2020.
  5. See David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” Spectre 1, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 12–37.
  6. Chris Maisano, “A Left That Matters,” Socialist Form: A Democratic Socialists of America Publication, Winter, 2021.
  7. See for instance, August H. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).
  8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 157.
  9. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” in Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 377–79.
  10. See Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” 124, where he describes the bureaucratic form of the modern state as “the same fantastic expression.”
  11. Among the deepest commitments of social democracy is its devotion to the capitalist state and its parliamentary forms. As Ralph Miliband famously noted, the British Labour Party is dogmatic about only one thing: “not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” The party has consistently rejected “any kind of political action” that falls “outside the framework and the conventions of the parliamentary system.” See Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (London: Merlin Press, 1961), 13.
  12. Note that the noncitizen experiences an even more profound reification, being rendered politically nonexistent, indeed dead, as far as the electoral process is concerned.
  13. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The ‘Demos’ versus ‘We, the People’: From Ancient Democracy to Modern
  14. Conceptions of Citizenship” in Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 216.
  15. This is generally known in the literature as Marx’s principle of self-emancipation. See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), Ch. 10; and Dan Swain, None So Fit to Break the Chains: Marx’s Ethics of Self-Emancipation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020).
  16. Rosa Luxemburg to Clara Zetkin, as quoted by J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 375. For a discussion of the German Social Democracy’s subordination of mass strikes to electoral politics before World War I, see Charlie Post, “The ‘Best’ of Karl Kautsky isn’t Good Enough,” Jacobin, March 9, 2019.
  17. Max Weber, “Address to the Verein fur Sozialpolitik” (1908), as quoted by Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1907: The Development of the Great Schism (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 118.
  18. See Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918–19, trans. Georg Rapp (New York: The Library Press, 1972); and Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923, trans. John Archer (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).
  19. Much of this expands on ideas put forward in Robert Brenner, “Can the Left Use the Democratic Party?” Against the Current, Old Series (Fall 1984): 4–8.
  20. Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books 1977).
  21. This is especially true where socialists run on the Democratic Party ballot line, but it is generally true as well of social democratic campaigns organized by the likes of the Labour Party in Britain or the New Democratic Party in Canada.
  22. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 419.
  23. Such is the claim of Eric Blanc in Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (London: Verso Books, 2019). A valuable book in many respects, Blanc tends to overstate the significance of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign to the outbreak of teacher militancy.
  24. Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), Part II.
  25. Michelle L. Price, “Sanders Backers Take Over Nevada Democratic Party Leadership; Staff Resigns,” Reno Gazette Journal, March 10, 2021.
  26. The narrowness was, of course, in terms of the electoral college, not the popular vote.
  27. Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class” Against the Current; Old Series (Winter 1981): 30.
  28. See Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2014).
    Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, “Unions, Workers, and Wages at the Peak of the American Labor Movement,” NBER Working Paper 23516 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017).
  29. David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland: PM Press, 2011), 113–21.
  30. Stuart Hall, et. al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 1978), 339, 346.
  31. See Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of American Politics (New York: The New Press, 1997), Ch. 9; Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (New York: Verso, 1978), 169–70; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986), 121–26. For the way the Democratic Party collaborated in developing this racial agenda, particularly under the presidency of Bill Clinton, see Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 154–55.
  32. Sam Farber, “Trumpism,” and Kim Moody, “Analyzing the 2020 Election: Who Paid? Who Benefits? Against the Current, no. 211 (March–April, 2011).
  33. Adam Serwer, “The Capitol Rioters Weren’t ‘Low Class,’” The Atlantic, January 12, 2021.
  34. See Michael McCarthy, “The Revenge of Joe the Plumber, Jacobin, October 26, 2016; Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class, Washington Post, June 5, 2017; Christine Zhang and John Burn-Murdoch, “By Numbers: How the U.S. Voted in 2020,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020.
  35. Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class, Washington Post, June 5, 2017; Christine Zhang and John Burn-Murdoch, “By Numbers: How the U.S. Voted in 2020,” Financial Times, November 7, 2020.
  36. Larry Bartels, “Ethnic Antagonism Erodes Republicans’ Commitment to Democracy,” PNAS 117, n. 37, September 15, 2020.
  37. David Camfield, “Re-Orienting Class Analysis: Working Classes as Historical Formations,” Science and Society 64, n. 4 (2004–5), 421–46. To be clear, we use proletariat, like working class, to indicate all wage-laborers, employed and unemployed, and the bulk of their household members.
    Sears, Next New Left.
  38. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “The German Ideology” in Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 52–53.
  39. Marx and Engels, “German Ideology,” 53.
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