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.