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The Rank and File Strategy on New Terrain

Part 3: Socialists and the Rank and File Strategy

September 4, 2020

Spectre editor Kate Doyle Griffiths reflects on Kim Moody’s rank and file strategy in this final part of a threepart essay, considering the rank and file strategy in relation to ongoing strategic debates on the US left.

Socialists today face a set of conditions that is, at once, very like those which socialists faced when The Rank and File Strategy was published, while in other ways, the political economic terrain we operate in is utterly transformed. The working class is still facing a profound crisis of organization; the labor movement continues to shrink, and is largely on the defensive despite a number of hopeful signs of new militancy, increasing success and frequency of strike action. On the other hand, the working class is increasingly politicized, and the socialist movement, while still small, has grown from numbers in the single digits of thousands at its low point in the 2000’s to,  now, tens of thousands of card-carrying members.

One condition that is mentioned but not strategically taken up in Moody’s new book is the degree to which Bernie Sanders’ presidential run reflected and expanded a new reality of “open” declarations of socialism following the long political half-life of McCarthyism in the United States. The Rank and File Strategy was largely silent on the question of whether socialists should organize openly as such, but it certainly did not require them to do it.

Practically, until very recently, Moody’s comrades and acolytes largely did not organize as open socialists, despite the intentions of many to do so. In the new iteration of the strategy in the DSA, however, in part because the surge of interest in the DSA and rank and file organizing followed Bernie, it is impossible to keep socialist commitments under wraps. The DSA’s role in helping to foment the initial teachers’ strike in West Virginia is well and publicly known, if contentious, mentioned and discussed openly both in the press and in the rotunda of the statehouse where teachers gathered during the strike. It was more recently mobilized to argue that the pathway, to more strikes  and rank and file power is through a strategic engagement with the Democratic Party and full tilt left and labor commitment to the 2020 Bernie campaign. 

What then is the role of socialist organizations and socialist politics in the rank and file strategy and vice versa? When the original document was written, the hope was for a regroupment of socialist forces within a single organization, and the implied but not specified trajectory of the rank and file transformation of the labor movement was toward a break of the labor movement with the Democratic Party. While the relationship between the two wasn’t spelled out, criticism of left and working class subjection to the Democratic Party as a capitalist party is a strategic orientation Moody has elaborated in print nearly as often as he has pressed for rank and fileism.

In fact, Moody’s exposition of the scope and nature of Democratic Party formation and rule is among the clearest and most explicit we have. Moody expands on these ideas in On New Terrain and in some specific articles on this topic in New Politics, where he argues that the Democratic Party, far from a “hollow institution” ready for takeover, is one arranged with centers of power far out of reach of ordinary members and with both formal rules and funding structures designed deliberately to undermine the power of the mass of working-class people who make up its base. 

I think it is worthwhile to expand on Moody’s assessment of the Democratic Party, in a way that enhances his challenge to left electoral strategies inside the Democratic Party both those that propose tactical use of ballot lines (like Ackerman) and those which openly reprise Harrington’s realignment approach. To think it through, we have to consider the Democratic Party not merely as a party, but as a broader apparatus that holds sway well beyond the ballot box. This requires consideration not just of the fact that historically the party and the tendency to collapse protest and direct action movements into get-out-the-vote campaigns for Democrats have always become a “graveyard” for these movements, but also of the way these movements have been led in this direction. It requires investigation into the way in which the primacy of elections has been maintained on the left, despite the increasingly apparent lack of democratic structures not only in the Democratic Party itself but in the overall electoral system at every level – an issue that has activated radicalizing working-class people for two decades, from the transparently undemocratic events, enabled by both major parties, surrounding Bush v. Gore in 2000, to the increasingly gerrymandered scramble between the parties for permanent one-party fiefdoms in cities and states, to the ongoing disenfranchisement of a massive prison population and and to concerted assaults on the voting rights act. 

This detachment of the rank and file strategy from Moody’s remarkable clarity about the limits and dangers of socialist and working class capture by the Democratic Party is one that undermines the potential and immediate power of rank and file organizing.

Moody’s analysis of the Democratic Party has often been rejected by rank and file strategy advocates in the DSA as either a naive simplification of the possibilities of using Democratic party ballot lines, or as a holdover of a dogmatic sectarian socialist past. Instead, I think this detachment of the rank and file strategy from Moody’s remarkable clarity about the limits and dangers of socialist and working class capture by the Democratic Party is one that undermines the potential and immediate power of rank and file organizing, and that this is not merely a theoretical objection. The 4-6 year-long experiment in orienting the rank and file strategy towards Bernie Sanders Democratic (socialist!) Party insurgency has demonstrated in practice the validity of this less popular aspect of Moody’s strategic vision. 

The socialist regroupment envisioned in Moody’s and Solidarity’s iteration of the rank and file strategy has in large part taken place inside the DSA, even if it has been overshadowed by new membership and the growth of the socialist left. In this context, the question of a break with this Democratic Party and its broader apparatus, seems distant, perhaps even further today than it was when the rank and file strategy was written. At that time, the left was coming off a failed attempt at organizing a Labor Party, and about to take up building the Green Party as a left-populist alternative to the Democrats on the strength of ballot access generated through Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential run. 

In the end, both experiments in “independent” working-class politics were failures, and for the same reason: the labor bureaucracy was not ready to break with the Democratic Party. In both cases, most labor leaders stuck with the Democratic Party lending their internal get-out-the- vote apparatus and their ability to mobilize members to Democrats, rather than to any third party alternative. This is because that layer continued to see its power as a consequence of favor from Democratic Party politicians and to see that favor, limited as it is, as conditional on their ability to get out the vote for Democratic politicians. This has remained a sticking point in more recent efforts to reform the Democratic Party from within, either by takeover or by realignment – in a latest example, despite teachers being the job category most supportive of Bernie Sanders candidacy, and despite the weight of powerful socialist-led reform locals in Chicago and LA, the AFT ultimately endorsed Joe Biden in the primary. It was more or less a foregone conclusion that this would be the case. 

The Green Party particularly exemplifies the weakness of left populism that lacks a clear class politics or socialist character, and any meaningful base in the working class, where its political muddle and declining support have mutually contributed to a downward spiral since the height of the Nader campaign. Once a home to a truly popular progressive slice of the electorate that viewed the Democratic Party as a barrier to its aims, it has become a petri dish of conspiracism and left-to-right reaction, pandering to a small coalition of supporters of right-wing dictators on purportedly left grounds, of “feminists” fixated on trans women as the main enemy of feminism, and of environmentalists primarily motivated by a misguided and increasingly explicit racist Malthusianism. Many more good comrades continue to participate and build the Green Party, but it is difficult to see a path toward joining the Green Party to an organized working class base that could take on these toxic elements and turn the ship around.

In the Labor Party, on the other hand, the failure consisted of the ultimate unwillingness of most labor bureaucrats to genuinely cut the cord with Democratic Party patrons and establish an independent electoral front. This was due not only to the direct relationships long established by labor’s GOTV efforts and the marked but never reliable differences between Democrats and Republicans on labor policy, but also to the Democratic Party apparatus’ control and influence on NGO-ified and Democratic Party-allied social movements, organized as distinct constituencies.

 These were then the closest allies of even left-wing unions in a partially operative strategy of “social movement unionism,” but one that reinforced electoral ties with the Democratic Party and a certain degree of transactional solidarity between organizations conceiving themselves as distinct minority interest groups. This was and is true of both more radical NGOs of the period, as well as more establishment-oriented NGOs, such as the National Organization of Women (NOW), that demonstrated their willingness to back Bill Clinton despite repeated accusations of rape and sexual assault and weak Democratic Party protections for women’s rights in office. As outlined in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, a host of self-proclaimed radical NGOs ultimately toed the line set by Democratic Party aligned funders on crucial issues ranging from Palestinian liberation to criminal justice reform. 

This weakness, defined and compounded by  acceptance of a narrow legal remit of  union bargaining and strike action, is intensified by a continued strategy of building solidarity between rank and filers and social movements through local union leaderships, CLCs, and NGOs in coalition. This structure locates the solidarity of working-class people and organizations solidly within the Democratic Party apparatus, and orients it fundamentally toward elections. This is because the Democratic Party is oriented toward elections and not toward building labor and social movements, toward politics defined and constrained by a ruling class agenda, not toward building working class power. This is coldly material in the sense that money raised for say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, can’t then be reoriented toward extra-electoral efforts, and neither can internal party apparatus aimed at electing him or other left-wing Democrats – Our Revolution can’t legally be repurposed toward movement building and neither can the tens of millions that working class people donated to Bernie’s campaigns.

Bernie’s “political revolution” wasn’t able to overcome this basic structural problem – that presented by the commitments of the labor and NGO bureaucracies – that has plagued previous attempts to organize working class political  independence by first and primarily focusing on the electoral realm. While Sanders supporters in fact argued for a few different strategic rationales for the campaign as an advance toward political independence of the working class, none of these seems to have panned out or to be clearly advancing on the strategic path set out  by its advocates.  The recent Democratic National Convention was notable for its rigid exclusion of Bernie wing of the party, from platform and podium, with the exception of a pro-forma speech from Sanders and a more rousing, if brief and plausibly deniable dig at Biden and the powers that be, by the popular left-wing congresswoman from New York, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

When socialist and rank and file politics have been, for several years, at their most popular since the Great Depression, why have they, in practice, so far failed to radicalize the existing labor movement? Why have they failed to organize any front of working-class organizations prepared to take self-defense action in the face of quite extreme and urgent threats? 

The argument that Bernie’s campaign was a working class insurgency that could realign or replace the Demoractic Party has been clearly rejected in practice by the success of the Biden campaign and its absolute refusal to incorporate, even symbolically or dishonestly, Bernie’s most popular proposals for working class reforms or any elements of the campaign. Even more, the lack of coherent response by Bernie-backing socialists, let alond Sanders himself to this predictible impasse reveals the degree to which strategic engagement of socialists with the bourgeois ballot line and the strategic redeployment of shop-floor activism toward a focus on Bernie was more a series of shotgun weddings and rationalizations for alliances of opportunity than a worked out strategy. 

The argument that the campaign could be a vehicle for building working class and left forces within the Democractic Party, toward a (dirty) break and a new independent party formation has also crashed and burned; if anything openings for national-level independent working class and socialist politics in terms of elections at the national level seem more narrow than ever before. There doesn’t seem to be much (if any) move toward this kind of break, in part because of the long-anticipated situation of this election. This is one in which the sitting President seems to be attempting to undermine the election results at every turn, and where the only viable opposition party darkly hints at the likelihood of drawn-out contestation of poll results and electoral college challenges. This isn’t fertile terrain for launching a new attempt at an independent party with little to no chance of attracting an organized base – certainly not more so than for other recent attempts. This is despite the still-increasing popularity of socialism, of major pro-working class reforms like universal health care and police reform, and the emergence of a large, militant, and sustained working-class rebellion across the country, the likes of which haven’t been seen for generations. 

At the same time, 2020 has presented new and quite dire threats to the working class, around the world certainly, but particularly in the USA. The Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been so disastrous that the word “failure” doesn’t really cover it as a descriptor; sadistic opportunism and sabotage is a more appropriate way to understand the actions of a federal government bent on escalating attacks on the working class, with special viciousness reserved for immigrants, Black people, women and queers, public sector workers, and leftists. Long-looming economic crisis converging with the pandemic has put tens of millions out of work, precipitated a mass eviction crisis, and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people, many of which were absolutely preventable. Democratic Party-controlled states have hardly performed much better. One hopes that with control of the White House and Congress they might have offered a more controlled Malthusianism, but in the face of such a long period of economic activity, even these seemingly more rational managers are chomping at the back-to-work bit, even if it means the sacrifice of a few thousand more working-class people’s lives. 

While the virus remains untamed in much of the country, police murder and horrific immigration detention also continue apace. Vigilantes and organized fascist elements have made their presence known in the form of armed occupation of state houses, as “protestors” blocking ambulances from transporting the sick and dying to hospitals. Mass online networks are disseminating elaborate conspiracy theories, and the far right has become increasingly visible in the form of car attacks on protests and pickets – these have developed increasingly into openly fascist terror attacks by armed individuals and groups, and these in turn have increasingly engaged in public collaboration with police departments in some cities and towns.

We have, of course, seen brave (and thrilling) efforts by workers in many sectors to confront this assault through job actions. These have been sporadic and largely organized outside of the formal structures of the labor movement and those of the left. So far, these have not begun to coalesce into more sustained strike action or into any organization with the capacity to grow or to begin to match and anticipate the array and degree of threats we face. When socialist and rank and file politics have been, for several years, at their most popular since the Great Depression, why have they, in practice, so far failed to radicalize the existing labor movement? Why have they failed to organize any front of working-class organizations prepared to take self-defense action in the face of quite extreme and urgent threats? 

I do hope that my posing this question this way turns out to have been a misreading of the state of working-class and socialist organization and simply premature. Teachers, clearly, continue to be at the leading edge of organized workers’ struggle for classwide demands and self-defense, and many are agitating for and preparing strike actions to limit the threat of a viral bomb in the form of school reopenings that are now imminent or already underway across the United States. They have been joined, happily, by NBA and WNBA players striking for Black Lives of the sort that the ILWU has in some locations been threatening for several months.

But, I think, it is also the case that some of the potential of the new engagement of socialists with the shop floor and bottom-up union organizing has been limited by the degree to which that energy has been poured over several years from the DSA into elections, and thus detached from the goal of building working class-organization independent of the Democratic Party. Moody’s rank and file, without his class independence, is a champion fighting with at least one hand tied behind her back.

That the regroupment of presumably non-sectarian socialist forces has taken place inside the DSA presents some specific problems for Kim Moody’s rigorous critique of the Democratic Party, which are a product of the specific history of that formation, and of the way in which the primary advocates of rank and fileism have oriented themselves within it. If the new socialist bloom of DSA growth and the attendant seeding of rank and filism is to come to different ends than the collapse of much of  the socialist/communist left into the Rainbow Coalition in the late 1980s, there are some specific contradictions which will have to be directly addressed. 

The strategy of building socialist politics or a party within the Democratic Party has some particular problems in addition to the ones it shares with failed attempts at independent politics. As Moody elaborates in On New Terrain, the leaders of the Democratic Party are opposed to this and will mobilize every tool at their disposal to prevent it – indeed, they have done precisely this. Moody describes how the demands of professional politicking first and already undermine the democratic character of insurgent campaigns, the ways in which formal and informal structures of power simultaneously co-opt socialist ideas and result in a stacked system that, at increasingly high levels of power, decrease the ability of candidates who refuse the offer of capitalist funding to win.

Should they do so, the immediate pressures to perform loyalty to the party in the form of softening the line and endorsing (enemy) standard bearers come instantly into play. We’ve seen some of these processes up close and recently in the second  campaign of Bernie Sanders for the presidency. Whereas in his first campaign, criticism of the Democratic Party was front and center, in the second attempt, he found himself having to defend himself as a “real” Democrat and heavily criticized by likely primary voters for being disloyal to the party. His speech at the recent Democratic National Convention was a lovely recitation of his most popular policy positions that I think resonated with his supporters and beyond; unfortunately it was in the service of endorsing a candidate and platform utterly and aggressively opposed to those policies. 

The Democratic Party is a machine primarily  concerned with elections in the realm of municipal state and national elections. The influence of the party on the labor movement, via the labor bureaucracy, doesn’t end at the requirement that unions play the role of canvasser and vote-delivery apparatus for its preferred candidates. The Democratic Party and its bureaucratic labor top clients also tend to push a labor movement strategy that prioritizes elections, legalism, symbolic over direct action, and siloed concerns between labor and social movements, in a word demobilization of the working-class movement broadly.

The same can be said of the party’s NGO clients and their “leaders;” just one example in this realm, recently, has been Planned Parenthood’s rejection and opposition to any street-level defense of clinics, patients, and services in the face of on-the-ground right-wing mobilization aimed at intimidating patients and providers. Just as union bureaucrats oppose and limit the activation of members in favor of the legislative agenda of Democratic Party patrons, seeing their own ability to stay in well-payed power hinging on toeing that line (even in a moment of extreme dues-shrinking crises), NGOs oriented to service provision and lobbying and without even the democratic features of unions, take much the same tack, against employees, patients, and/or clients.

More generally, the role played by NGO-based self-appointed leaders in the context of this summer’s Black liberation and anti-police uprising has largely been one of open attempts to pacify an angry and militant mass movement, with calls to “stay peaceful” in the face of extreme violence, and to take the power of the streets to the polls, while condeming any instigators of property distruction or even angry chants as possible instigators and infiltrators. On the rightward end of the NGO spectrum, we find calls to reconcile with the police and assertion that the police themselves, rather than protestors in the streets or  organized workers and tenants represent the real potential “change agents.” 

The DSA’s focus on the Democratic Party, even as an oppositional force within it, and on elections subjects it to much the same pressures and pull that impact the layers of labor leadership and NGO managers who have loing been embroiled within that structures system of rewards and  retribution, and calls for coalition across class lines. We saw this potential realized in 2016-17 in the sphere of immigration struggles when large number of DSA locals, inspired by occupations of ICE offices in Philadelphia, Portland, and St. Louis, aimed to replicate the strategy. Following the spontaneous occupations of airports following Trump’s sudden and terrifying country bans, an initial stratgegy call was organized including members from chapters across the country.

DSA member and Democratic Party Women’s March Organizer, Linda Sarsour was appointed by DSA staff to present a national strategy consisting entirely of a one-off march and symbolic direction action–a die-in in DC. Local chapters were left to coordinate any occupations outside of their own socialist organization. In Philadelphia, where the occupation was coordinated through a united front of socialist organizations, including a left caucus of the DSA chapter there, activists were able to raise the leftmost demand of the immigrant rights movement and ultimately win it: ending the PARS program, a specific data sharing agreement with ICE, enforcing the city’s self-designation as a “sanctuary city.” In Portland, a DSA chapter with a left-wing orientation similarly occupied ICE offices and won local concessions around ICE/public sector cooperation. In St. Louis, a similar occupation also succeeded in disrupting ICE operations, but not in transforming action into reform. No other DSA chapters managed to pull off any similar action. In New York, DSA members and leaders actively discouraged attempts in this direction, arguing to those assembled with intent to occupy that doing so would harm immigrants in the immidiate term and would otherwise have no impact on immigration policy. Doing nothing, of course, has had exactly this unforunate effect, and we’ve not seen since any effort at a coordinated strategy within DSA or the larger socialst movement to confront the ongoing terror and torutre of the USA’s modern-day concentration camps, effective or otherwise. This, despite the very promising and widely supported, spontaneous mass occupations of airports in defense of immigrants in the early days of Trump’s term and mass outrage at family separation and the increasingly harsh and overtly murderous conditions in detention camps, and at the multiply-exposed far-right politicization of ICE and border patrol. 

Just as advocates of Ackerman’s “ballot line” strategy have presented the Democratic Party as a hollow shell ripe for takeover, a point extensively disputed by Kim Moody, so have the advocates of rank and filism in the DSA presented the organization as a blank slate with little connection to its past affiliations and orientation.

A fleshed out and consistent socialist strategy focusing on building this movement as one rooted in workplace, shop-floor and direct action, and on turning periodic bursts of social movement energy to the workplace and other forms of rooted long-term working class organizing, might count among its victories many more such substantive contributions to immigrant solidarity, and pave the way for a repeat and expansion of the workers’ power on display in West Virginia.

Imagine a socialist organization putting the energy and resources representing even half of those directed toward electoral work, toward a campaign building on the spontaneous solidarity by transit workers in Minneapolis, New York, and elsewhere with protestors in the early days of the George Floyd rebellions, with a goal of expanding workers’ commitments to refuse transport of police and prisoners the the broader system of prison and immigration detention and control. Or a large-scale and sustained effort to propagate the logic of  recent moments when workers in several disconnected plants struck or simply chose to retool and redirect production in their workplace toward the things that the working class actually needs in this moment of crisis – medical equipment and hand sanitizer. Or one building on the actions of retail and service workers who spontaneously refused service to police, or with wildcats erupting in meat and other food processing plants where immigrant workers struck for thier own and all of our saftey to prevent inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks, in the face of inevitable (and actualized) retaliation by ICE agents. Imagine if that kind of campaign had the support of a robust socialist campaign against ICE that had been growing and sharpening its tactics over the course of two previous years, and that movement was able to take up the challenge of millions marching and rioting against racist anti-Black police violence.

It may well be that even our best collective efforts as an organized socialist movement wouldn’t have met that challenge, but it is certain that without focused attention to strategic organizing out of spontaneous moments of bold worker and working-class action, these struggles and sparks, though growing in frequency and intensity, have died out or been doused by all manner of ill-conceived redirections from outside and inside the socialist left. 

In the sphere of union and workplace organizing, the DSA’s overwhelming focus on electing progressive candidates directly represents a danger for the rank and file strategy. Just as advocates of Ackerman’s “ballot line” strategy have presented the Democratic Party as a hollow shell ripe for takeover, a point extensively disputed by Kim Moody, so have the advocates of rank and filism in the DSA presented the organization as a blank slate with little connection to its past affiliations and orientation. This is a similarly suspect formulation. Take as an example the historical close ties between the “old” (pre-Bernie) DSA and the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, and in particular its conservative New York iteration, the UFT. While this connection seems to be much less influential in the “new” DSA, transformed by Bernie and by the revival of the rank and file strategy, its legacy seems to haunt the debates (and to shape the limits of debate) within the DSA. 

Essays in Jacobin and Catalyst by elected DSA leaders and closely associated intellectuals (Touré Reed, Cedric Johnson, and Adolph Reed, for example), as well as in The Call, a blog operated as the voice of the rank and file strategy within DSA, have heralded Bayard Rustin as a kind of democratic socialist exemplar. Rustin was a close associate of Albert Shanker, the former President of the UFT and representative of a narrow right-wing and top-down political strategy both within and outside the union, and not, as far as we have any evidence, a partisan of rank and file democracy either in unions or in the social movements where he built his reputation as an organizer and activist.

For queers, the example is particularly poignant. Rustin was forced to live his life as an activist largely in the closet and often under threat or reality of being outed, expelled, humiliated, and exiled on the basis of his sexuality as a gay man. Compounding a political picture opposed to the possibilities of a rank and file strategy, particularly one that might be committed to explicit and organized anti-racism, feminism, and pro-queer politics, the specific contribution of Rustin’s that was highlighted both in Jacobin and The Call was his taking up of color-blind social democratic reforms (explicitly compared to the Erfurt Program) as the legacy of the civil rights movement. In this discussion, this was counter-posed to a politics which “does both” the work of broad demands and that of the self-organization of working-class people within the movements for Black people’s, immigrants’, womens’, and queer lives.

Here, I think, it is crucial to point to the difference between viewing the latter as a moral rather than a strategic injunction, and to point out that the tendency to imagine that these politics might be an automatic consequence or effect of broad-based reform. Moody himself  takes on this very issue when he refutes this mistaken nostalgia for Rustin and the historical misreading of Rustin’s career that that nostalgia entails. 

Since then, the association between the rank and file strategy and a politics openly hostile to anti-racist, feminist, queer, immigrant or other so-called “particular” demands  seems, happily, to have waned. Nevertheless, the debate itself remains alive in the DSA, or at least on its outermost and most public edges – and in fact, it is being mainstreamed. Adolph Reed’s condemnations of DSA’s Afrosocialist Caucus as an example of “cancel culture” found their way into the New York Times. This echoed, even if unintentionally, the framework and slogans characteristic of the intensifying McCarthyite obsessions of Trump and street-level fascists with so-called “cancel culture.” 

It is certainly the case that Reed isn’t any more accountable to DSA members than most of the other celebrities of the new socialist and social democratic moment. (He is apparently not a member of any DSA chapter, despite his influence in internal debates and his public-facing media profile.) And it seems clear that most members of DSA don’t share Reed’s fixation on rooting out “identity politics,” even as a layer of socialist media figures rally around him on precisely this point, amplifying his oft-repeated objections to any organizing by or for oppressed groups as such, and boiling them down into crass and reactionary slogans or ironic and jaded social media postures of contrarian snark.

Even while most DSA members and many of its leaders actively oppose these kinds of oppositions between race and class (or any so-called “fringe issue” and class), it’s hard not to see the hauntology of DSA’s aggressively anti-communist, anti-Marxist past in the stubbornness and tenacity with which this conflict continuously re-emerges in the form of intra-socialist conflict rather than as slander by external enemies. It appears to forget the long shadow of similar kinds of McCarthyist, anti-anti-racism in the AFL-CIO during the mid-20th century.

Then, the specter of labor radicalism, Black liberation, and Marxism became the major justification for purging the formal labor movement of any and all leftists or rank and file organizers who posed real or simply potential internal political competition to an increasingly conservative bureaucratic leadership – even where some of the organizers thrown under the bus of anti-communism were the very individuals who had trained, organized, and campaigned for the labor officials who directly turned on them. Sometimes these organizers were even accused of being Stalinist operatives when they were open critics of his regime.

But none of that is to say that the most immediate danger for rank and file organizers or revolutionaries comes from inside the house (of socialism). On the contrary, the main impact of frequent confrontations with such bureaucracy-based formulations has been a missed opportunity. It is not merely that Reed or even his acolytes have large platforms and loud echo chambers that have created the conditions whereby the same bad point need to be continuously countered.

 

Is it still possible that a working-class movement can confront the fast-approaching endgame of now daily threats by both Biden and Trump to much more directly and harshly confront the militancy of the streets and workplaces, all under the guise of defeating the nefarious influences of "foreign actors," "anarchists," and "communists"?

The salience of such unnecessary oppositions is not merely the result of its frequent repetition in the realm of social media discourse. It has also developed as a matter of practical politics: through the orientation of rank and file strategy toward Bernie’s second campaign and the demand that unions should endorse Bernie, and through short-cut strategies to persuade progressive-leaning union officials to do so. Political endorsements of this kind make particularly poor hooks for campaigns for union democracy, contrary to the widely-held argument that Bernie’s campaign prepared an especially fertile ground for recruiting union militants to socialist organization. I am certain that more than a little bit of that did happen, of course, but at the cost of another also common dynamic – one in which strong partisans of any non-Bernie candidate inside our unions was unlikely to be drawn into the fight for reform or shop-floor power. They were given every reason to understand efforts to force endorsements from below as instrumental to Bernie supporters’ enthusiasm for their candidate, rather than as an effort to fundamentally transform the relationship between members and our unions or as a campaign for democracy aimed at creating space for shop-floor power.

Bernie’s campaign itself did do some wonderful promotion of shop-floor and rank and file organizing, including putting out calls for pickets to support teachers and autoworkers and raising solidarity funds for workers organizing in logistics, retail and elsewhere. While this use of campaign structures was far and away better than the use most other presidential candidates made of theirs, and much better than nothing, from the perspective of the most optimal use of socialist resources, these benefits for rank and file fights were marginal when considered against the vast amount of money raised from small, working-class donors or time expended. It is hard to take seriously the idea that these expenditures were the most efficient use of resources or most logical path to building independent worker organization and militancy. What’s more, the campaign also put out conflicting messages that at times directly countered the sort of consciousness that rank and file organizing is intended to cultivate.

Messages like “not me us” and “fight for someone you don’t know” certainly echo the intention of all sincere unionists and popularize a class-resonant sensibility. At the same time, many of Bernie’s strongest supporters came to believe that the campaign was “our only hope” for health care or for socialism or political “revolution,” so much that the intra-union concerns for lasting relationships among coworkers and fellow members might come to seem less urgent. Building trust and functional political points of unity between coworkers on the shop floor could and did fall by the wayside, at least, in the most urgent moments of the campaign.

Often the most intense battles could be between the leftmost, most engaged, members of a local, as conflict between Sandernistas and Warrenites heated up, leaving distrust in its wake beyond the Bernie boom. In my own local, one that is, admittedly, an outlier in a number of ways, a recent and brief campaign to pass a resolution in favor of removing cops from our campus garnered rank and file reformers an unprecedented number of full-time supporters. This was an exceedingly hopeful sign for greater cross-title, cross-tier organizing we had not been able to achieve previously as a movement made up primarily of part-time contigent faculty members. In comparison, pushing for Bernie as our union’s candidate (which I personally did, with passion!) reinforced the long-standing and strike-killing divide between tiers, even splitting the base of reform-minded adjuncts.

Admittedly, my union is strange in the US labor movement, but the way in which it is weird should in this case have turned a Bernie boost into a slam dunk. By any account, the PSC/CUNY faculty union has to be the single local with the highest percentage of formally affiliated socialists of any in the country. Our leadership, too, is socialist-heavy, though probably more in line with a number of other locals in various sectors. So we should have won this fight handily at least if the then-popular theory about Bernie’s impact on class consciousness and open appeal to socialism had any validity. If talking about popular class demands and saying the word “socialism” was calling socialists into being, we had a head start. But we didn’t even get close.

In the end, I don’t know of any unions where the fight to nominate Bernie won substantial new reforms for internal union democracy, or any major unions or even large locals, that were won to support for Bernie in this way absent a long-term, pre-Bernie reform movement in the union, begun and sustained by independent organizers.

In part because of the pressure of the specific exigencies of rank and fileism for Bernie, today’s rank and filers appear, at times, to share political commitments contrary to both the letter of the original rank and file strategy and to the possibilities for an updated, timely version suggested in the first sections of this essay. In practice, the need to build a coalition (and fast!) collapsed distinctions between rank and file causes or reform-led unions and progressive but top-down ones. It erased the distinction between a staff-driven strategy and a worker-led one, vacillating between anti-racist and feminist stances and opposition to the self-organization of oppressed groups as a central plank of socialist strategy.

The latter impulse tilted toward not only Democratic Party politics, but a particular version of them. Still working on the theory of “coalition” and the premise of the primacy of elections, pushing for a a rhetorical shift away from liberal feminism or anti-racism and toward a performative “class politics” that treats class as an identity rather than a position for organizing. Ultimately this seemingly endless tempest in a socialist media teapot – over a vision of  class politics counterposed to working-class, socialist commitments to antiracism, feminism, and queer struggle – reflects more a struggle for turf and territory within a coalition of constituency brokers that includes labor officialdom rather than any clash of competing principle or even over clear and distinct strategic oppositions. 

In the context of even the best electoral strategy for disrupting the Democratic Party as ususal, its easy to see how “class” can too easily stand in for the presumably disaffected, white, and usually male worker who might be won to vote for a Bernie, but not for a Warren or a Hillary. Just as Biden and the DNC triangulate with disaffected Republican moguls and suburbanites by pushing back on the self-organization of the left and then counting on their support, while focusing on winning an ambivilant and fundamentally conservative Joe Singlemalt, the structure of the Bernie campaign had a similar impact on the left, only the Joe in question was Rogan, or, at least a slice of his numerous and notably politically confused-to-committedly-chauvinist listeners. 

Even where the 21st-century expression of the rank and file strategy directly acknowledges the existence of a diverse working class, along with the continued salience of racism, the potential for subordination of potentially transformative shop-floor organizing to a progressive coalitional electoral strategy remains. This confusion is made possible by a lack of clarity around the nature and role of the union bureaucracy as a distinct layer,with distinct interests, one which the rank and file strategy in some ways itself leaves open, but about which Kim Moody himself is more clear in his writing.

It is a debate of long standing on the left and within the tradition that the rank and file strategy represents. For some, the the purpose of rank and fileism has always been to challenge labor officialdom as a check on the potential power of workers, and to challenge the tendency of this layer to deploy union power in its own interests rather than those of members or the working class as a whole. In this view, officials will, without both ideological commitment and significant pressure from below, always tend toward cutting deals with bosses and politicians, and to prefer member mobilization and show strikes to any potential for autonomous networks of organizing and power or political control among and by the ranks. The more conservative understanding has been that the conservatism of the bureaucracy is primarily a political problem, one which can in the necessary cases, be combated and redirected through member democracy.

The joining of the rank and file strategy to a Labor for Bernie electoral push presents a vision of rank and file decidedly in line with the second view, taking up a strategy replacing union officials who endorse Democratic Party centrists or even Republicans with new leadership that can get behind Bernie, and which requires for its biggest electoral impact an alliance with unions that are progressive on the outside but which might be totally internally undemocratic and present stark limits on rank and file workers’ power, oppose or dampen shop floor activity and strike action.

Further, building the broadest labor coalition for electoral unity entails, at best, an agreement-to-disagree about which candidates should be endorsed and under what conditions, now that Bernie is out of the running. Most, if not all, unions – whether rank and file-led or otherwise, are under heavy pressure to revert to the age-old accommodation with Democratic Party candidates who openly endorse austerity, privatization, and the like, backed by bosses. The alternative, a break with the Democratic Party, rooted in a labor movement bloc, will be much more difficult to impossible to ever achieve if bureaucratic layers are able to constrain and limit the ongoing strike wave, also eliminating or limiting the potential for winning demands directly or organizing formal political power independent from the Democratic Party. Is it still possible that a working-class movement can confront the fast-approaching endgame of now daily threats by both Biden and Trump to much more directly and harshly confront the militancy of the streets and workplaces, all under the guise of defeating the nefarious influences of “foreign actors,” “anarchists,” and “communists”? (I certainly hope the answer is ultimately in the affirmative.)

We are forced to wonder if workers, socialists, or the labor movement would be more or less prepared for this moment of post-Bernie crisis if a different strategy or a even simply a different version of the rank and file strategy had been taken up more widely over the last 4-5 years. This particularly given the DSA’s important role in structuring the discontent of teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere; following the initial declaration by the confounded leaders of the AFT and NEA of a “victory,” which was both unacceptable to members and unsigned even by the state legislators, Jacobin and DSA leaders gamely celebrated this “victory,” even attributing it to the in fact recalcitrant bureaucrats of the teachers’ unions.

When teachers and other education workers instead rejected the false victory in favor of turning an already illegal strike into a wildcat, the same forces from the top pushed for a resolution as quickly as possible and at the level of what an old socialist might call the minimum program. Union leaders quickly learned, and in subsequent state actions enacted, a strategy of turning strikes into protests and pushing protests toward an agenda of sweeping “red states” with a “blue wave” of electing Democrats. The largest socialist organization in decades in the United States was unable or unwilling to devote significant resources to spreading the strike, while connections between teachers’ struggle and inchoate but widespread opposition to a wave of abortion bans and a racist “anti-gang” bill in Kentucky were for the most part not developed. As a result, West Virginia’s achievement of statewide raises not only for teachers but for all public sector employees represented the high water mark for victory in the teachers’ red spring. A further analysis of the balance sheet of the still developing teacher struggle will be necessary to assess what we know about the evolution of the rank and file strategy in practice. Its certainly the arena that makes the strongest case for the DSA’s rank and file strategy today – at the same time, it is also the sector that makes the strongest case for the importance and long-ranging long-lasting effects of independent socialist organizing as member-workers. Unfortunately that full explication will have to wait for another essay. 

As we consider the possibilities for a rank and file strategy On New Terrain, we have to not only update the strategy on paper but in practice, in situ, as part of a new flowering of socialist organization, openness, and commitment that represents promise and peril for the strategy. Can the strategy, taken up by a new and growing layer of socialists, transform not only the workers’ movement but the socialist one? Can it build its rank and file-oriented slice as a large but non-sectarian left pole for a broader socialist movement? Can DSA itself confront its history as a vehicle for the labor bureaucracy and the continued assertion of a bureaucratic and crude class reductionism by influential and unaccountable socialist influencers in their organization’s name? What is or might be the influence of rank and fileism outside the DSA and distinct from strategies for Democratic party realignment or the “dirty break”? Is there any more (or perhaps less?) hope for a realizable explication of the relationships between shop floor organizing, class independence and socialist politics and party implied in Moody’s original strategy? At what point does socialist organization and strategy become, again, the object of the rank and file strategy rather then itself simply a pool for locating and sustaining organizers committed to working on the shop floor?  What, if any, strategy might have better prepared the DSA, or even simply rank and file organizers of all stripes to respond to the ongoing uprising for Black Lives, as an opportunity for building on existing organization and how might socialists now do that anyway? How could we still, as a class, and as socialists, organize to win the demands of the movement?

The answer to these questions depend in large part on the commitments and vision of the activists who now take up the banner. To that end, a careful reading of Moody both then and now, with an eye toward the opportunities that exist now but weren’t available to the Moody of 17 years ago, would be an excellent first, or, at least, second step. An electorally oriented workerism that imagines the Democratic Party as both the logical object and necessary conclusion to this politics has little relationship to Moody’s rank and file strategy in the context of his broader work, especially to the insights in On New Terrain , and even less to the potential for bottom-up, worker-led, socialist politics today.

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