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.