The Rank & File Strategy and the New Socialist Movement

A Response to Kate Doyle Griffiths

December 20, 2020

Kate Doyle Griffiths has written a largely positive and comradely critique of the rank & file approach to socialist union work as it has been developed in my writings in the late 1990s essay The Rank & File Strategy and several recent attempts to update it. She raises important issues that deserve an equally positive and comradely response. I will discuss three major aspects the implementation of this approach to workplace organizing in today’s context of a changed and changing labor movement and the new socialist movement embodied mainly in the spectacular growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). These include the question of socialist organization and union work; the impact of social reproduction theory on a strategy focused mainly on unions and the workplace; and finally the contradictory effort to combine a rank and file approach to  union work and an electoral orientation toward the Democratic Party that characterizes a good deal of the political thinking in DSA.

As Kate Doyle Griffiths (henceforth KDG) argues, The Rank and File Strategy (henceforth R&FS) essay published in 2000 by Solidarity1Kim Moody, The Rank and File Strategy (Detroit: Solidarity, 2000); more recently available in Kim Moody, In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 75-148. and most of my subsequent refinements don’t specifically address the role of socialist organization or the crucial question of class consciousness and socialist politics. I plead mostly guilty on this mainly because when the original essay was written, socialist organization was extremely weak, and the essay was directed at the broader left engaged in union work in which the question of whether to “get a job” as a rank and file worker (not “class suicide”, as KDG puts it, but “class rebirth?”) or to become a union staffer.

The R&F strategy, as KDG points out, presented an alternative approach to union work for socialists and leftists outside of Solidarity who saw the working class as central to social change. It was also, as she notes, part and parcel of a “regroupment” orientation toward creating a broader socialist organization. On the other hand, most of my recent writing is from before, or in the midst of, the somewhat confusing swirl of DSA’s rapid growth, factional developments, and debates. There is a great deal to be said about the role of socialist organization in union work and more broadly in the working class. Here I will limit myself to a couple of basic points.

 

Socialist Organization and Rank and File Work

Drawing on my own experience in the International Socialists and its successor, Solidarity, I think there are some lessons for those now in DSA attempting to carry out political work in the unions and unorganized workplaces. The first point is that the workplace or job and the union organization based in it compose a political arena every bit as much as work in the social movements or electoral campaigns. They are not simply the site of economic struggle and issues or fights with the union bureaucracy.

Virtually every issue facing socialists and working-class people in American society confronts them in the workplace. Race, gender, social reproduction (that is, the ability to afford food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education), hierarchy, inequality, electoral orientation, and so forth: these all shape the workplace and the union as much as, if not always as obviously as, management policy, bargaining, wages, work intensification, occupational culture, etc. The notion that this is a separate “economic” realm is false. KDG’s discussion of the problems of seeking union political endorsements is evidence of that. After all, we are talking about the central focal point of the social relations of capitalism.

Just how this complex reality is handled by socialists depends on the specific workplace and union demographics and culture, but they are unavoidable. I cannot think of a rank and file movement or organization that in my experience did not address these kinds of issues in one way or another, adequately or inadequately. Probably the most basic “test” of rank and file organizing is in the nature of the rank and file organization or network itself. Does it and its leadership reflect the diversity of the workforce and those who depend on it? Most of the socialist R&F groups with which I’m familiar do.

Beyond this there is the question of how socialists attempt to deal with racism, sexism, and other “broader” issues. Some ways are basic, like TDU membership including spouses. When I was one of a number of ISers who went to work for the New York affiliate of AT&T in the early 1970s, we not only attempted to form a rank and file group/network, but played an active role in the seven-and-a-half month-long strike by CWA. This involved confronting racism and sexism by our fellow strikers on the picket line when the mostly Black women operators who were not in the CWA crossed the picket line. It also meant supporting a Black candidate for union president at the zenith of the Black Power period in an overwhelmingly white union (he lost), and organizing a telephone workers’ contingent on one of the big anti-war demos of the time, as well as the more “economic” and narrowly union matters around which we organized.

Being in a socialist organization that took these issues seriously directly informed our work, and it helped us organize our work collectively. The IS and Solidarity had “labor fractions” in which comrades discussed and formulated their work. If DSA is to have successful political work in the unions, it will need to develop similar structures for democratic, collective discussion and decision-making on strategy and tactics. DSA’s current Labor Commission is not sufficiently rooted in members’ day to day organizing to play this role.

The IS and Solidarity also provided, though not consistently, education: educational events to which worker activists with whom we worked were invited. These could be anything form a discussion group to a weekend “labor school” in which socialist ideas were presented and related to the day-to-day struggles. Most of our members were open about their socialist politics with the activists they worked with, although we didn’t push it to the degree DSAers seem to today. Again, I think DSA should do the same kind of educational work.

The workplace or job and the union organization based in it compose a political arena every bit as much as work in the social movements or electoral campaigns. They are not simply the site of economic struggle and issues or fights with the union bureaucracy.

I suspect, however, that DSA’s rapid growth, lack of coherent national organization, factionalism, and inexperience are going to make the development of well-organized labor work around an agreed approach pretty difficult. In particular, of course, is the division between those who see a rank and file approach to union work as genuinely political and those who reprise DSA’s legacy of dependence on “progressive” union leaders that generally goes with an electoral orientation toward the Democratic Party. The fact that DSA passed a resolution in favor of a rank and file orientation does not settle this question. I do not, however, pretend to have a solution to the organizational/political problems faced by DSA. But it is clear, that while the growth of DSA is a hugely important development for socialists in the US, it is not 75,000 or perhaps 100,000 socialists marching in the same direction.

KDG raises the “often noted” critique of the R&FS as “stagist” in that “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.” The proposition that class consciousness grows out of class struggle is, I will argue below, fundamental to Marxism. But class struggle in that sense is much more than the day-to-day experience of conflict with the boss, the bureaucrat, or even the state. There is no automatic leap from today’s struggles to class consciousness, particularly when they are as basic and fragmented as they have been for decades and mostly still are.

Nor is there any automatic leap to “revolutionary commitment” even aided by socialist pedagogy, much less a simple preordained order in which these aspects of consciousness take shape. Rank and file work in the unions is, nevertheless, part of a process, inevitably a disorderly one, in which workers gain experience and hopefully, self-confidence in their ability to fight and at least occasionally win. In some cases, this made it possible to win workers to socialist ideas.

Lars Lih recently wrote a response to those who criticized Marx’s theory of permanent revolution as “stagist.” Lih argues while it was not “stagist,” it nonetheless recognized that certain tasks present themselves at certain times and must be addressed before others. He somewhat facetiously suggests that Marx’s presentation of permanent revolution was “taskist” rather than “stagist.”2Lars T. Lih, “Why Did Marx Declare the Permanent Revolution?—The Tactical Principles of the Manifesto” Historical Materialism 28(3) (2020) 39-75.

And so it is today. We cannot “organize” the sort of mass strikes that Rosa Luxemburg saw as producing a new level of class consciousness and even a “revolutionary commitment,” but we can (sometimes) organize a rank and file caucus, a wildcat strike, a mass street demonstration, take over a large local union, or even, perhaps, initiate a process leading to a mass strike on the scale of the teachers strikes of 2018-19. Even Luxemburg pointed out that the big revolutionary strikes of 1905-06 came out of earlier, smaller “economic” struggles in the preceding decade.

Socialist consciousness is a product of experience in struggle mediated by theory and education (not of the university sort)—a process that needs to go on all the time even when the results are individual recruitment of workers. That is a project of socialist organization.

Building rank and file power to fight for the independence of unions from capitalist influence, in part transmitted by the bureaucracy, is an important task in building a class-conscious workers’ movement—something without which socialism remains only a set of ideas. Those who choose rank and file union work cannot be simultaneously present in all the social movements of the time, even if they are dealing with related issues. So, some tasks come first in this on-going process.

 

The Crisis of Social Reproduction and R&F Work in the Unions

KDG offers a very positive view of the R&FS, but notes that my presentations of it are “undertheorized” in that they fail to include “class-wide demands and consciousness” which are “just as indispensable to a fully worked out, socialist, rank and file strategy.” Along with “stagism,” “undertheorization” is, of course, another cardinal sin for any Marxist.

Nevertheless, I take the point that the broader social crisis of the working class has an impact on consciousness generally and, as KDG argues, on that of workers producing the conditions of social reproduction—most famously teachers and healthcare workers, but others as well—as a positive criticism. KDG recognizes that I have “explicitly taken up this point.” From my point of view the “conditions of learning, health, and basic of the “crisis of care”, as she puts it, and the working conditions imposed on these workers are of a piece. She is right that socialists should be arguing this.

Again, however, in trying to spell out the content of the R&FS as it applies in these and other cases, it is essential to distinguish between educational work and agitation; that is, what these workers can actually do today—what are our immediate tasks. As in any movement, we have to act on the issues that present themselves and are seen as central to those we work with at any given time.

Teachers and nurses, for example, who are fighting for control of their union and against the surveillance, standardization, quantification, and often the commodification of their work in order to improve patient care are more likely to be in a position to engage in effective direct action on the-job than in mostly ineffective pressure tactics for legislation, for example. Educationally socialists point to the intersection of the broader social crisis and the undermining of their labor of care. In terms of agitation, that is, what most people can act on now, socialist work for the most effective actions possible in the given context such as fighting against standardized testing in schools or nurse-patient ratios in hospitals.

Building rank and file power to fight for the independence of unions from capitalist influence, in part transmitted by the bureaucracy, is an important task in building a class-conscious workers’ movement—something without which socialism remains only a set of ideas.

Note that even where the R&F movement takes over the union, as in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), that union’s strikes have been more effective in raising social issues from racism in education to housing, etc., that is, more politically effective, than what some socialists see as “political,” i.e., electoral or pressure campaigns. Where workers in social reproduction do not control their union, the matter of direct action and winning control of the union remains the most immediate task. Even movements that do not come out of the workplace tend to focus on particular issues and choose particular forms of action—Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, the international women’s strike, etc. Yes, socialists need to “raise” broader issues and present the “big picture” of capitalism’s social crisis—in this social reproduction theory gives us a strong weapon. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between education, or propaganda, and action and organization.

The key, I believe, however, is not just a matter to “raising” big issues, but of taking advantage of escalating struggles. The more struggles, the greater the possibilities. Here I think KDG and I would agree that periods of general upsurge encourage more groups to rebel. That was the experience of the 1960s and early 1970s. It looks like it might be what is taking shape now. But many of the social movement upsurges in the streets tend to be short-lived and not only because of the leadership of non-govermental organizations (NGOs) and the like.

There has to be a solid core of independent organization and struggle to sustain and build the flashes of movements we’ve seen since Occupy, the initial anti-Trump actions, the women’s strike, and BLM. The organization of Amazon and the new sectors of work, for example, will be central to building permeant or long-lasting organizations following a bottom-up pattern like the teachers strikes. In other words, they require a rank and file approach to building on-go organization that goes beyond the formulaic “models” of union organizing proposed by Jane McAlevey and others.

KDG also argues convincingly that the notion of rank and file struggle against the restraining influence of the labor bureaucracy can be carried into the fight against the sort of conservative leadership that other social movements confront in the form of NGOs and older, institutionalized “movement” organizations. This was a reality in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and today in Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights struggles.

My own first experience with this sort of grassroots versus conservative leadership was in the civil rights movement in Baltimore, particularly in the effort to organize a mass Black working-class contingent for the 1963 March on Washington. The local Black clergy opposed providing free busses for the unemployed, who they saw as an undependable “dangerous class.” The movement activists, mostly from CORE, SNCC, and SDS, backed by a Black caucus of steelworkers at the Bethlehem Steel Mill fought to include the unemployed and provide free buses. In this case, ironically perhaps, the issue was resolved when A. Philip Randolph came to town and before a mass audience in one of Baltimore huge Black churches read the riot act to the clergy and the busses were hired. Without the fight of the activists it is doubtful if Randolph would have intervened. So, yes, there is an analogy between the R&FS for union work and that in the other social movements.

There is also a difference. As I argued in the original Rank and File Strategy essay, the workplace and union present a finite, well-defined political arena with elements of democratic procedures in the union and direct confrontation with capital in the workplace. Broad social movements present a larger, more amorphous terrain. In the case of the 1963 March on Washington struggle the activists could not outvote or remove the clergy from office. They could not withhold their labor and still build the March on Washington. There was no clear organizational framework.

Similarly, isolating the NGOs or eliminating their influence is a more complex and indirect task. So, while I agree with KDG’s orientation on this, it is important not to overdo the analogy. At the same time, it is clear that union activists can and do learn from the best practices of the other social movements, for example, the use of civil disobedience. This is two-way street. As David McNally argues in the first issue of Spectre, some social movements have turned to that classic working class form of action, the strike—notably, the international women’s strike and the student strikes over the climate crisis.3David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals” Spectre Vol. 1, Issue 1 (Spring 2020), 13-27.

It is, of course, perfectly true that broad issues associated with capitalism’s multiple crises—economic, social reproduction, climate, and pandemic—can and do move people to action that challenges the priorities and even fundamental processes of accumulation. It is nonetheless, the basic conflict rooted in the direct exploitation of labor that remains capitalism’s Achilles heel. It is not only that this conflict underlies all the others, but that it provides the ultimate “choke point” of the capitalist system as a whole.

As tech worker and DSA member Carmen Molinari argues, all the “big” issue campaigns by Amazon workers have remained marginal in comparison to its total US workforce, whereas strikes by Google workers and  other “gig” workers around workplace issues have drawn in larger numbers.4Carmen Molinari, “There Is Something Missing From Tech Worker Organizing,” Organizing Work, December 9, 2020, https://organizing.work/2020/12/there-is-something-missing-from-tech-worker-organizing/. It is difficult to escape the fact that this is generally how workers struggles and organizations begin—that tasks thing again. Socialists should be found in all the struggles of the oppressed and exploited, but they dare not be absent from the site of production of capital’s life blood. The rank and file strategy is a clear path to that terrain.

 

Opposing Forces: R&FS v. Democratic Party

One of KDG’s most important points is the contradiction between the rank and file strategy itself and the advocacy by some in DSA of using the Democratic Party ballot line either tactically or to reform this thoroughly capitalist party. While I have written quite a bit about why the use of the Democratic Party ballot line is a hopeless and misdirected endeavor for socialists, she is right that I haven’t clearly connected how this type of electoral work is in direct contradiction with the rank and file strategy. Fundamentally, rank and file movements represent the self-activity of workers in their own class interest—class interests that are often blunted by the labor bureaucracy in which its attachment to the Democratic Party is a material factor.

Those who see the tactical use of the Democratic ballot line as somehow compatible with the rank and file strategy lack an analysis of this classically bourgeois party.

Rank and file movements are embryos of and the potential for the broader class struggles that can open possibilities of greater class consciousness and the terrain on which socialist politics can become part of working class life. The Democratic Party and its links with the labor bureaucracy represent everything that is top-down, tied in multiple ways to capital, removed from the influence of working class people of all races, the opposite of actual democracy, opposed to the methods of direct actions the social movement thrive on, and counter to the fundamental needs of all the oppressed and exploited. And yet, there are those in DSA who see them as compatible—just two tactics, one in the unions, the other in “politics,” i.e. elections.

For some, this springs from the experience of Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns for presidential nomination. These were grassroots campaigns in many ways that activated tens of thousands to campaign for Bernie, put the (unwelcomed) word socialism back in the lexicon of politics, and contributed to the growth of DSA. Furthermore, as its campaign activists like to point out, it was a grassroots movement against the party “establishment.” But like all electoral campaigns Bernie’s were temporary. Indeed, it was clear that the second run lacked the dynamism and momentum of the first. They left no credible mass organization, let alone any democratic workers’ organization in their wake.

Responding to the criticism that Bernie’s campaign failed to create an on-going movement, Heather Gautney, a researcher and organizer for the 2016 Sanders’ campaign, wrote that part of the reason Bernie’s campaigns “missed an opportunity to engage in more systematic movement-building activities” lay in “the fact that electoral enterprises necessarily operate according to different sets of principles and imperatives than do movements.”5Heather Gautney, Crashing the Party: From Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement (London: Verso, 2018), 133. In any case, there is almost no possibility of repeating this experience in the foreseeable future.

Even more importantly is the fact that the Democratic Party is far more than a ballot line. As I have written elsewhere, it is both a highly structured, hierarchical organization, with its own defences against internal and external rebellion, devoid of internal democracy, well-funded by capital, and thoroughly committed to capitalism.6Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Shaping The Battleground Of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 107-170.

Those who see the tactical use of the Democratic ballot line as somehow compatible with the rank and file strategy lack an analysis of this classically bourgeois party. According to two advocates of this strategy, by using the Democratic ballot line “we can sharpen the contradictions between the Democratic base—the working-class and generally progressive rank-and-file members of the party—and the wealthy Democratic Party funders who don’t want anything to do with the base’s demands.”7Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (London: Verso, 2020), 123. Leaving aside the fact that there is a great deal more to the Democratic Party than its funders and ballot line, the Democrats are not a membership organization in any recognizable sense, much less a working-class one.

As the late socialist political scientist Arthur Lipow pointed out, what became most distinctive about the US political system was that, “Only in America is it true that direct membership participation in the parties does not exist except in the sense that individuals register their party preference with an official agency of the state or are habitual voters for one or another party.”8Arthur Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory London: Pluto Press, 1996), 20. This was, as Lipow argued, the intention of elite reformers over a century ago who introduced voting restrictions to reduce working class participation and the direct primary to eliminate internal opposition and secure elite domination of the party system. Their legacy survives today.

The Democratic Party’s “members” are its operatives, officials, functionaries, committees, office holders, big donors, consultants, etc.–not just its “establishment,” the vast majority of whom, indeed, don’t want anything to do with the majority of those who vote for it. The voters, of course, have no say in the affairs of the party beyond supporting one candidate over another in a primary—which involve fewer than 20% of its members participating, primarily those who are disproportionately educated and well-to-do.

The working-class contingent of the Democrats’ multiclass electoral coalition has been shrinking for decades, most recently among workers of color. On the other hand, well-to-do urban and suburban voters make up a growing proportion of the “base” that provides the Democrats with the margin of their electoral majority nationally and in a growing number of Congressional and state legislative districts.9For a recent analysis of this shift in “base” see Matt Karp, “Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War”, Jacobin No. 38 (Summer 2020),  55-72. As of 2020, despite losing several seats in the House, the Democrats still control 41 of the 50 wealthiest Congressional Districts in the country.10Andrew DePietro, “After the Midterms, One Party Controls All the Wealthiest Congressional Districts”, Yahoo/finance, November 8, 2018, https://finance.yahoo.com/new/midterms-one-party-controls-wealthiest-184200649.htm  All 41 of these Democrats were re-elected in 2020. Any analogy with the rank and file strategy is seriously misplaced.

This becomes even clearer when, as KDG proposes, one expands our understanding of the Democratic Party to include its “broader apparatus that holds sway well beyond the ballot box.” That is, in light of the many DSAers who see the party’s ballot line as a passive site available for tactical use or party reform, she argues we have to understand how the Democratic Party, through myriad channels, intervenes in society and in the various social movements including, of course, organized labor. Most of my writings on this topic have emphasized the hopelessness of operating within its hierarchical structures, both internal and in Congress, state legislatures, city councils, etc. KDG is, of course, absolutely right that the Democratic Party through its operatives, politicians, campaign professionals, associated NGOs, the media, academia, think tanks, and the labor bureaucracy influences movements, sets the limits to “the art of the possible,” defines alternatives, and recruits candidates and voters. This is not a conspiracy or a matter of bribery. It is American “big tent” electoral politics, an example of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony—American-style.

This is not a conspiracy or a matter of bribery. It is American “big tent” electoral politics, an example of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony—American-style.

One of the most famous instances of this process of political co-optation was the close relationship between Amalgamated Clothing Workers and CIO leader Sidney Hillman and FDR in the period leading up to and during WWII. In return for this “access” Hillman, an erstwhile socialist who was said to have the ear of President Roosevelt, waged war against those union leaders and activists who clung to the CIO’s earlier militancy. More than anyone, Hillman solidified the CIO’s relationship with the Democratic Party through the formation of the Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1943. This involved combating the sentiment and movements around various state-level, labor-backed third parties of the time as well as subjecting the industrial unions to war production speed-up and a no strike pledge. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes, “In launching the new Political Action Committee, the CIO leadership specifically rejected any ‘ultraliberal political party in the name of the workingman.’” Instead, they sought to discipline the unruly rank and file by channelling its energy into a firmly controlled political action group that could function safely within the two-party system.”11Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 173. The new PAC was simply the CIO’s way of supposedly influencing the Democratic Administration. In reality, it was the Democrats’ conduit for far more effectively influencing the CIO’s behavior.

Two decades later, there was Kennedy’s effort to stop the 1963 March on Washington by courting, flattering, and “consulting” A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders—which fortunately didn’t work. A year after that, the effort of the Black-led Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to replace the all-white Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention was stifled by “sympathetic” liberal Democratic stalwarts at the behest of LBJ—which did work.

Then there was Lyndon Johnson’s courting the Walter Reuther and the leadership of the United Auto Workers by involving them in the design of the famously ineffective War on Poverty—at a time when LBJ was pushing wage restraint. As historian Kevin Boyle summarized that experience, “No matter how hard it tried, however, the UAW leadership could not overcome the political and structural forces pulling the Democratic Party away from even piecemeal reform.”12Keven Boyle, “Littler More than Ashes: The UAW and American Reform in the 1960s”, in Kevin Boyle (ed.), Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894-1994 (Albany: State University of New York, 1998), 221. And that was at the height of Democratic reformism in that turbulent decade. These, of course, are just some of the most public and visible examples of the intervention of the Democrats in labor and the social movements. As KDG points out this practice of “recruiting” social movement leaders goes on today through Democratic Party aligned NGOs.

For decades the bulk of the labor bureaucracy has been thoroughly integrated into the Democratic Party field of influence via both formal and informal ties that frame and limit how most US union leaders see political possibilities including the basic practices of bargaining, organizing, and the process of social change itself. It is of a piece with their view of collective bargaining as something that mustn’t kill the (capitalist) goose that lays the golden egg.

The fact that the Democrats do this in competition with the Republicans who represent the most retrograde sectors of capital provides the cover story and motivation for accepting this hopeless class imbalance. Nevertheless, the limitations imposed by the Democratic apparatus’ intervention and field of influence in the labor movement remains a major barrier to winning gains whether in the workplace or politics. It is these limitations, among others, that rank and file movements and organizing are meant to overcome and destroy.

For an up-to-date display of the results of the Democratic Party’s octopus-like reach into the social and labor movements, see David Sirota’s and Andrew Perez’s Jacobin analysis of the DC-based liberal advocacy organizations’ and leaders’ subservient response to Biden’s pro-corporate appointments. The authors argue that by praising Biden’s deeply compromised appointments, these “Beltway” liberals in fields from the environment to labor “are betraying their missions in order to try to gain influence.”13David Sirota and Andrew Perez, “Beltway Liberals Aren’t Fighting Biden’s Pro-Corporate Admin Picks Hard Enough,” Jacobin, December 4, 2020, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/joe-biden-cabinet-nominations-kerry-tanden.

In fact, this is actually what these liberal groups and leaders have always done—seek “to gain influence.” And it is the appearance of it that Democratic administrations and politicians have offered for decades often in the form of testimony before House or Senate committee hearings, meetings with Congressional staffers, for a few a seat on the DNC, the sympathetic ear of well-meaning progressive politicians who are in no position to deliver on the “mission,” or even for a few the President’s ear. It is a substitute for power, but nonetheless why, as the authors put it, these liberals “genuflect for access and influence.”

This appearance of “access” is why AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka “lauded” the choice of entitlement-cutter and union-buster Neera Tanden as director of the important Office of Management and Budget, while environmental groups praised the choice of John Kerry as climate czar. This praise for Kerry wasn’t limited to the likes of the Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund, the latter of which called Kerry “one of the world’s most effective climate champions.” Even the “radical” Sunrise Movement’s executive director, Varshini Prakash, opined that Kerry was committed to listening to youth and “ensuring we have a seat at the table.”14 Jennifer Ludden, “John Kerry Tapped For Newly Created Role As Presidential Climate Envoy”, National Public Radio, November 23, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition- updates/2020/11/23/938150511/john-kerry-tapped-for-newly-created-role-as-presidential-climate-envoy; Branko Marcetic, “It’s Joe Biden’s Swamp”, Jacobin, December 3, 20202, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-donald-trump It is more likely these liberal advocates will be on the menu than at this mythical table, as the new administration feeds the voracious appetites of its business sponsors. Sirota and Perez hit the nail on the head when they refer to this process as one of “ideological capture.”15Sirota and Perez, “Beltway Liberals.”

On the other side of class politics, whether their activists are conscious of it or not, rank and file caucuses, movements, actions, and campaigns almost invariably run counter to the pro-capitalist framework that the Democratic-labor link has shaped and through the law; pressure, persuasion, promises, the occasional reform, or just the “common sense.” It is in this way that the R&FS is political even when fighting at its most basic union/workplace level. For this reason, debating, refining, and implementing this basic socialist tool for building an independent working class movement in opposition to the priorities of capital and both major parties is or should be central to the politics of the new socialist movement in the US.

(Griffiths’ “The Rank and File Strategy on New Terrain” Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 can be read on the Spectre website. )

 

[1] Kim Moody, The Rank and File Strategy (Detroit: Solidarity, 2000); more recently available in Kim Moody, In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 75-148.

[2] Lars T. Lih, “Why Did Marx Declare the Permanent Revolution?—The Tactical Principles of the Manifesto” Historical Materialism 28(3) (2020) 39-75.

[3] David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals” Spectre Vol. 1, Issue 1 (Spring 2020), 13-27.

[4] Carmen Molinari, “There Is Something Missing From Tech Worker Organizing,” Organizing Work, December 9, 2020, https://organizing.work/2020/12/there-is-something-missing-from-tech-worker-organizing/.

[5] Heather Gautney, Crashing the Party: From Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement (London: Verso, 2018), 133.

[6] Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Shaping The Battleground Of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 107-170.

[7] Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (London: Verso, 2020), 123.

[8] Arthur Lipow, Political Parties & Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory London: Pluto Press, 1996), 20.

[9] For a recent analysis of this shift in “base” see Matt Karp, “Bernie Sanders’s Five-Year War”, Jacobin No. 38 (Summer 2020),  55-72.

[10] Andrew DePietro, “After the Midterms, One Party Controls All the Wealthiest Congressional Districts”, Yahoo/finance, November 8, 2018, https://finance.yahoo.com/new/midterms-one-party-controls-wealthiest-184200649.htm  All 41 of these Democrats were re-elected in 2020.

[11] Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 173.

[12] Keven Boyle, “Littler More than Ashes: The UAW and American Reform in the 1960s”, in Kevin Boyle (ed.), Organized Labor and American Politics, 1894-1994 (Albany: State University of New York, 1998), 221.

[13] David Sirota and Andrew Perez, “Beltway Liberals Aren’t Fighting Biden’s Pro-Corporate Admin Picks Hard Enough,” Jacobin, December 4, 2020, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/joe-biden-cabinet-nominations-kerry-tanden.

[14] Jennifer Ludden, “John Kerry Tapped For Newly Created Role As Presidential Climate Envoy”, National Public Radio, November 23, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition- updates/2020/11/23/938150511/john-kerry-tapped-for-newly-created-role-as-presidential-climate-envoy; Brank Marcetic, “It’s Joe Biden’s Swamp”, Jacobin, December 3, 20202, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-donald-trump

[15] Sirota and Perez, “Beltway Liberals.”

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