The Rank and File Strategy on New Terrain

Moody on Moody, Part 1: Preliminaries

August 5, 2020

Spectre editor Kate Doyle Griffiths reflects on Kim Moody’s rank and file strategy in this first part of a three-part essay. In subsequent installments, they will consider the rank and file strategy in relation to both social reproduction theory and ongoing strategic debates on the US left.

Seventeen years after the release of Kim Moody’s pamphlet The Rank and File Strategy for the socialist organization Solidarity, and two decades after Moody’s then prescient assessment of the state of the working class, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy1Kim Moody (1997) Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (New York: Verso)., his recent offering On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battlefield of the Class War2Kim Moody (2017)On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket) comes at a crucial moment both for the socialist movement in the United States and for the growing influence within it of Moody’s ideas. The book expands on most of his key insights, offers some crucial correctives to his earlier work, and once again establishes Moody’s place as one of the most preeminent analysts of the composition of labor markets and labor process in the Anglophone left.

Here, I would offer that both a social reproduction theory (SRT) framework and deeper attention to the question of socialist organization can offer some insight into some of the most crucial tasks for a rank and file perspective today. In particular, a SRT framework helps us think concretely about the relationship between “consciousness” and “organization” raised in the original pamphlet, while signaling the aspects that are most urgent for us today.

 

The Rank and File Strategy

The two movements – the refinement of Moody’s ideas, and the manner in which they are currently being taken up by a much more substantial slice of the socialist left – are often at odds. For this reason, it is necessary to take a moment to re-read The Rank and File Strategy in light of On New Terrain, as well as in the context of the developing practice of today’s new wave of rank and filers located today not in Solidarity or in its predecessor organization, the International Socialists (IS), but in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), where it was recently adopted at their national convention in Atlanta. Once a moribund organization, the DSA has seen their membership explode and their political composition expand to encompass a fairly heterogeneous array of tendencies of socialist thought, including a number of experienced socialists, as well as a massive cohort of new and quite politically fluid young socialists.

The rank and file strategy is still often practically posed as a document advocating for a version of “class suicide” that is articulated as a political strategy aimed at discerning the most effective targets for a small group of socialists hoping to make a large political impact.

Though bigger, this layer, as with previous waves of rank and filers, is drawn largely from college educated and disproportionately downwardly mobile presumptively professional socialists, part of a radicalization that began with Occupy, among those increasingly aware of the diminished prospects for stable professional careers. For this reason, the rank and file strategy is still often practically posed as a document advocating for a version of “class suicide” that is articulated as a political strategy aimed at discerning the most effective targets for a small group of socialists hoping to make a large political impact. It is also seen as a viable personal strategy for building a life as a socialist that might avoid the isolation of academia, of paid organizer tracks for unions and NGOs, and the longstanding danger that youthful radicalism might give way to the conservatizing influences of traditional professional careers or the pressures of small business ownership.

As a pamphlet, The Rank and File Strategy has been a real workhorse of the socialist movement. When it was initially written, its influence was narrow but intense. It recast the legacy of IS industrialization in a form fit for its moment and swayed a small but important number of the now famously sparse “Generation X” socialists – inspired by Miners for Democracy, New Directions in the UAW, and reformers in the Steelworkers and Teamsters – to commit to taking rank and file union jobs in the hopes of organizing existing opposition caucuses and member-to-member networks. Their influence has taken shape, since then, in logistics (IBT), in transit (TWU), in longshore (ILA and ILWU), in rail, in auto (the UAW, unexpectedly, as a major player in academic unionization), and somewhat incidentally, in the unions representing teachers (AFT and NEA), nurses (NNU and NYSNA), hotels (UNITE-HERE), and more generally, unions including Communication Workers of American (CWA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Many of them also took the tack of contributing to “transitional organizations” like Labor Notes or to caucuses, reform locals won through caucus struggles and elections, or by joining the staff of left-led participatory unions, particularly the CWA.

The Rank and File Strategy lays out the “the problem” quite convincingly, as a historically generated separation between the socialist left and the working class, as both a result and a determinant of the historic weakness of working-class institutions in the United States. A related problem in this text is the lack of a “sea” of class conscious workers in which socialists can “swim,” and thus “do” socialism. Consequently, the task was to help the tidal waves of local class activity converge into one common sea, at first in the form of a “militant minority” in and through “transitional organizations.” The latter included caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), cross-union and cross-sectoral organizing, publication and education efforts such as Labor Notes, as well as formations that might promote “social movement unionism” like Jobs With Justice, organized through Central Labor Councils and under the auspices of “left”-led international unions and locals.

It must be pointed out that The Rank and File Strategy did not assert – in fact explicitly denied – that the workplace is the only or the most important source of workers’ consciousness, and it was this recognition that drove its vision of “social movement unionism.”

This was conceived as both reform locals lead by democratic insurgent caucuses, but also, in practice, the left-talking but internally undemocratic and highly top-down “bureaucratically militant” section of the organized labor movement, which would eventually split with the AFL-CIO union federation on the basis of a shared staff-driven organizing model, Change To Win. This practice at the time reflected a deviation from Moody’s opposition to militants accepting staff jobs at top-down unions, but it was nevertheless common as a form of engagement with social movement unionism. While the two strategies were elaborated as diametrically opposed, organizations and groups of socialists didn’t always find them to be mutually exclusive in their practice.

Part of the explicit goal of these transitional organizations was to develop and cohere a minority of unionists who are not only tactically militant but armed with a more comprehensive politics. Transitional organizations build concrete solidarity across unions and industries but also across the segregations of race, nation, gender, sexuality, as well as other divisions within the working class that are expressed as sectoral divides and reinforced by chauvinist policies, attitudes and harassment at the hands of the boss.

As critics have often noted, there was a stagist idea of how to radicalize the proletarians at work here. It was, after all, a strategy rooted in the most organized and often most militant sectors (such as logistics and manufacturing), that have the greatest direct power to disrupt profit through workplace strikes. At the same time, these sectors can be among the more socially conservative sections of the class in terms of receptiveness to hierarchies of nationality, gender, and race. Rather than viewing the working class as always already radicalized and for-itself, merely held back or restrained by false or conservative leadership, the rank and file strategy assumes that the development of consciousness – from trade-union to class, and perhaps from class consciousness to a revolutionary commitment – is the project of organized socialists built through concrete solidarity within overlapping layers of organization.

With this horizon in mind, The Rank and File Strategy laid out why the minority and then-shrinking sector of the already unionized workforce is a crucial arena for socialist intervention on both practical and political grounds. Many of these arguments remain quite convincing to young socialists seeking to commit themselves to a life of organizing and wishing to sustain themselves as an activist and militant without working on the basis of charitable grants or government funding. It is particularly convincing for those who might wish to organize from and toward their own truly held beliefs rather than primarily as a paid staffer beholden to the agenda of their employer, whether union, NGO, or government service provider. The pamphlet was especially sharp on the question of the necessity of workplace action to the achievement of even basic reforms, let alone the advancement toward or achievement of socialism. In the context of the community-heavy and particularistic 1990s that inspired it, it was rarely made and crucial point.

It must be pointed out that The Rank and File Strategy did not assert – in fact explicitly denied – that the workplace is the only or the most important source of workers’ consciousness, and it was this recognition that drove its vision of “social movement unionism.” A lengthy section of the pamphlet rooted the weakness of the U.S. workers’ movement precisely in the history of African slavery and indigenous genocide in building a working class historically divided against itself and often more mobilized in an explicitly political way around its own internal divisions than against capital. The piece saves space for a special interlude on the role of union bureaucracy as a repository of some of the most backward historical forms of workers’ consciousness, as a brake on militancy in moments of upsurge or even simply of militant fightback, and as an engine of anti-communism, meant broadly as the purging of all leftists and radicals from the labor movement. It attempted to synthesize both a non-sectarian assertion of the crucial role of socialists in potentiating, if not activating, rank and file rebellion when the conditions become ripe, and elucidated a compelling set of historical examples that underlie both the urgency of this and some of the recurring obstacles to the full development of a conscious and active class-for-itself: not only rearguard action by the bureaucracy, anti-communism, racism, and other kinds of chauvinism, but also sectarianism among socialists brodaly committed to the strategy.

Moody also briefly mentions some of the limits of the original piece that have become much more salient. He calls these “the missing tasks,” asking if there is a “particularly socialist way to approach union and workplace organizing.” It makes sense that this was less of a focus in the original document, as the socialist movement was then particularly weak. Now, with the growth of the DSA to more than 60,000 new members, the question of the role of socialist organization and the role of the rank and file orientation within broader socialist strategy is much more urgent.  The question today is also what it means to be not only a socialist rank and filer, but a rank and filer who is part of a large socialist organization and of a growing socialist movement. Unfortunately, Moody raises this question in Jacobin, but doesn’t answer it there, instead turning to the welcome but well worn idea that socialist unionists should build militant minorities and fight for worker control in their unions, and build militant minority unions where unions don’t already exist. The next installments of this essay will take up these “missing tasks,” the militant minority, and the end game of the rank and file strategy.

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