I am told that there is no danger because there are no riots; I am told that, because there is no visible disorder on the surface of society, there is no revolution at hand… This, gentlemen, is my profound conviction: I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano.
Alexis De Tocqueville, January 1848
The left in the United States is faced with a stark situation - every day we witness the contradictions of capitalism increasing and sharpening, the signs of which can be seen everywhere. There is an unprecedented pandemic the ruling class not only tolerates, but makes record profits off of. The “economic growth” represented in the stock market is increasingly detached from real economic activity, and relies more and more on speculation. The climate crisis continues unabated, with only limp gestures offered to combat it. The last vestiges of American representational democracy are being shed. Despite the largest protests in American history against police violence, the structures of policing remain unchanged. The American empire is in retreat. The political center grows weaker, while a militant spirit in the labor movement and a mystical reactionary populist movement grow in strength simultaneously. All of these contradictions are pushing up against a political system unwilling or unable to effectively react, even to save itself.
This situation cannot last. Sooner or later, we will see an acute point of crisis and rupture in capitalism. It is not the job of the revolutionary to create the crisis, as capitalism will continuously generate them. Our ability to effectively react and channel the energy from this rupture decides whether the crisis is a leap towards liberation or a catastrophe.
On paper, this moment would seem to be ripe for an intervention by the left broadly, and DSA specifically. We might think the largest socialist organization in the country could provide a coherent alternative to this slow-motion collapse, if only we could yell loud enough.
However, the broad feeling across DSA and the political left is of listlessness and directionlessness. DSA experienced an explosion of growth across the US immediately following the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ coming campaign in 2020 served as a focusing point for all of the energy of the organization and the political left more broadly. For those who were “all-in” on the campaign, the idea of a socialist president served as a totalizing vision, encompassing all hopes and strategies of the left within it. Even the sections of the left skeptical of or opposed to the Sanders campaign had new energy and purpose in counterposing their vision to his. The entire political left felt the gravitational pull of the campaign. Bernie’s defeat left the movement without a unifying purpose or strategy.
As Red Star, our task is to build an organization that can effectively respond and become the vessel for the working class energy unleashed by a significant rupture in capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself. We have three tasks to prepare DSA and the left more broadly for this rupture.
First, we have to fight alongside the working class in arenas of struggle where they come into conflict with capital, particularly in the workplace. This both raises the level of class struggle, working class confidence, and increases DSA’s presence and level of organization in the working class.
Second, we have to push DSA away from the direction of a socialist political brand, and towards a Workers’ Party. In its current form, DSA does not have the ability to impose any democratically decided discipline on its members who are elected officials. It also lacks the ability to effectively and democratically formulate and implement strategy. A Workers’ Party is a democratic organization of the entire working class that formulates strategy and tactics, and contests power across multiple Arenas of Struggle. These Arenas of Struggle include the workplace, electoral contests, neighborhood and tenant organizing, and street demonstrations. A party can act in a democratic and disciplined manner to effectively challenge capital, while a political brand cannot act in any coherent or disciplined way.
Third, we have to present a totalizing vision of what it is we are fighting for that can encompass the hopes and vision of the working class. For DSA, the Sanders campaign served as this between 2016 and 2020. This totalizing vision can be thought of as a “flag” around which to rally the left and the working class. In a revolutionary situation, the flag comes to represent within itself everything that the left, and the working class, struggles and hopes for.
As members of Red Star, it is critical that we take our role seriously as political actors. Red Star sees itself as a “center” as defined by Hal Draper in his piece “Anatomy of a Micro-Sect.” As ideologically coherent, disciplined actors within DSA, we have the ability to push the organization towards a state of readiness for the coming rupture. Without this sustained push, it is possible the window of opportunity may pass us by, leaving us with a reconstituted capitalism or something far worse.
In our current moment, an imminent crisis in capitalist reproduction feels overdetermined. Multiple critical contradictions are increasing in severity and pushing against a paralyzed political apparatus. Sooner or later, it will result in a crisis and rupture.
COVID Becomes Permanent
Two years and over five million deaths since the emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, the disease has become a permanent feature of life under capitalism. Western bourgeois democracies have shown their absolute inability to effectively counter the spread of the disease. Despite some halting gestures towards a UBI and a full reorientation of the economy to stop the spread of the disease, the US ruling class quickly decided that eight hundred thousand deaths was worth maintaining profitability. The sheer scale of disease and death that the working class has endured in the face of capitalist inaction represents an incredible escalation in the disposability of labor in the mind of capitalists.
When the first vaccines to protect against COVID-19 became available in early 2021, it felt as if a window of hope had opened. The pandemic would soon be over, and we would go “back to normal.” Instead, the profit-based healthcare system of the US immediately proved unable to handle the task of mass global vaccination that was needed.
First, the ruling class united to defend the profits of pharmaceutical companies above all else. Against the threat of widespread distribution of the vaccine across the world, they opted to enforce the patent protections on the vaccine. Unfortunately, the pandemic did not isolate itself in countries who the US refused to share the vaccine with.
Second, the chickens finally came home to roost for the US medical system. The country’s healthcare crisis began long before the advent of COVID-19, with every study showing it having the worst and most expensive healthcare among all wealthy nations. The people of the United States have experienced their healthcare as labyrinthine, bankrupting, and woefully insufficient. Because of this, when right-wing opportunists began agitating against vaccine mandates, they found a ready audience used to being abused by their healthcare system. Never before in their lives had the healthcare industry been on their side, why would this time be any different?
These two failures combined to create the recirculating variants of the disease that may now be a permanent feature of our lives.
Capital Chokes on its Own Success
During the pandemic, millions of Americans were thrown into unemployment. Many were thrown out of their housing and onto the streets as well. One might think that the stock market would reflect this catastrophic impact on the workforce of the country. Instead, the market shows unprecedented growth throughout the entirety of the pandemic. The “market” and “the economy” is increasingly unmoored from anything resembling real economic activity.
In 2008, the contradictions inherent in the neoliberal model of capitalism reached a crisis point. Since that time, the underpinnings of this economic model have not changed; the forces that produced that particular crisis have only accelerated. More and more of the economic growth in the US is based on fictitious capital, with many companies existing primarily as speculative assets. As long as the bubble keeps growing, they can keep making money.
Capitalists are now choking on their success. They have amassed so much capital throughout the neoliberal counteroffensive that they are running out of things to invest in. So instead of capital being invested in actual production, they are being invested in more and more speculative gambles. In particular, capitalists have increased investment in housing stocks as a speculative asset, driving the cost of homeownership across the country far out of the reach of the working class. This particular gamble may have catastrophic consequences for the ruling class’s ability to avoid unrest.
Since the country’s founding, the promise of free land to a privileged section of the working class has served as a safety valve against cross-racial solidarity and uprisings. The American Revolution avoided the internally-directed terror and violence of most other revolutions of the period. They did so by pointing that terror outwards at the indigenous and enslaved populations of the United States. The violently expropriated land and labor of these populations were then redistributed or promised to the white citizens of the United States. The new ruling class of the country had found an incredibly effective strategy for defusing the anger of poor white people and preventing their alliance with poor or enslaved Black people to fight for liberation.
In the second half of the 20th century, the ruling class continued to use land as a safety valve against working-class uprisings. This took the form of making home ownership available to wide swaths of the working class, particularly but not exclusively to white people. During the Black uprisings in cities across the country in the 1960s, many white workers, former militants of the heroic labor struggles of the 30s, called for harsh and violent repression to protect their property interests. These Americans thought of themselves not as workers but as “homeowners,” allied with capital and the police in the defense of their land.
Since the housing market crash of 2008, more and more capital has been directed toward speculation in housing. This has caused an enormous spike both in urban rental prices and housing prices across the country. The results of this are most dramatic in the explosion of homelessness and abject poverty across every major city, but speculation has also driven up prices across rural communities and small towns.
In its hunt for more and more speculative assets, the American ruling class is about to lose its most effective block against solidarity: the idea that someday, you too might own your own plot of land, leave the working class and join the ranks of the “homeowners.” In doing so, capital may now have initiated the final and full proletarianization of American workers.
The Empire Retreats
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, public pressure increased for a drawdown of US militarism. The great enemy had finally been defeated, and the ruling class was flailing for a palatable explanation for their globestriding empire. Military production accounted for a huge amount of the domestic economy, and allowed the US to control much of the world at the barrel of a gun. As such, it could not be allowed to diminish or end. Something had to change.
Between 2001 to 2003, a faction of the ruling class initiated a desperate attempt to reconstitute the American global empire. Through deftly exploiting a public spectacle of death and horror, they channeled public energy towards massive military action. Their aims were twofold. First, to control the geostrategically important region of Central Asia. Second, to seize the vast energy reserves of Iraq. The invasion of Iraq turned catastrophic almost immediately, while the occupation of Afghanistan turned into a long, draining, and embarrassing slog. Despite pouring trillions of dollars into making ever more sophisticated and terrifying death machines, the United States left both countries in embarrassing failure.
Since 1990, much of the American ruling class’s power has been based on their position as the unipolar hegemon of the world. Iraq and Afghanistan may represent the global high-water mark of their empire. The empire’s smaller attempts to reassert its power through coups in Venezuela and Bolivia have also been embarrassing failures. It is a vast overstatement to say that the empire’s collapse is at hand, but the empire is now in retreat. This, in the long run, represents a significant weakening in the global strength of the American ruling class.
Police Violence Continues Unabated
During the summer of 2020, the US saw the largest protests in its history. Uprisings exploded in every major city against rampant and violence and murders of black people by police officers. These protests exhibited a level of militancy and willingness to confront the state unseen since the urban rebellions of the 1960s. The protests also showed an incredible solidarity across race, which the American ruling class has expended vast resources over its history to prevent.
Despite these unprecedented protests, there has been no substantive changes to the system of policing anywhere in the country. Police rates of violence remain unchanged. Black Americans remain the primary targets of the system of humiliation, incarceration, and muder. The liberal wing of the ruling class has attempted to portray itself as the ally of the victims of this system while offering nothing to change it.
Reactionary calls for even harsher policing have increased as the misery engendered by the failure to address COVID-19 causes a spike in crime across the country. Right-wing opportunists have seized on this opportunity to call for more and more violent measures to be taken by police against “criminals.” This faction has even cynically attempted to channel the calls for Asian Americans to be protected from hate crimes into more bloodthirsty policing.
The conditions that led to the largest protests in the country’s history have not been changed at all. The liberal wing of the political class has responded with superficial palliatives, while the right wing has responded with calls for bloodthirsty violence. The streets may be quiet now, but they will explode again.
“Just-in-Time” Production Breaks Down
One of the most significant changes of the neoliberal phase of capitalism is the invention of the “just-in-time” or lean production system. Pioneered in Japan’s auto factories, this system did away with factories carrying reserves of materials, and relied on them being delivered “just in time” for production. Capitalists found this system allowed them to significantly speed up work, eliminate labor, and increase profit. It quickly became dominant in all industries across the globe. As Kim Moody explains:
From the introduction of lean production and “just-in-time” in the West’s auto industry in the 1980s, these methods spread to every type of goods and service production, transport, and retail. Big retailers like Walmart and Amazon and producers like Ford and General Motors forced it down every supply chain until each supplier, big or small, was expected to deliver products just-in-time to the next buyer. In the case of retailers like Amazon or Target it means minimizing inventories of any goods based on projected demand for that product using digital analytics. Amazon moves goods so fast through its system that it actually receives your payment for a product you purchase before it pays its supplier.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the incredible brittleness inherent in the system. The lean production system is incredibly vulnerable to any disruption at any point in its linkages. The factory shutdowns, worker shortages, strikes, and other disruptions during COVID-19 have caused an unprecedented breakdown in the logistics system. The most spectacular example of this has been the backup of massive container ships outside of the port of Los Angeles. The implicit promise of neoliberal capitalism has always been that while your life may be more alienated and precarious, the economy will attempti to compensate by delivering you any product you want promptly. Now, its ability to do even that is breaking down.
The breakdowns and stoppages of the lean production system also demonstrate that this iteration of capitalism may be more vulnerable to worker action than any previous. A prolonged strike of American warehouse workers or truckers would effectively be a nationwide general strike. The global nature of distributed supply chains lends itself to international solidarity. Despite its seeming omnipotence, if we are able to organize workers in the global logistics chain, capital may be weaker than it has ever been.
COVID-19 has become a permanent part of our lives. The economic system is a speculative bubble unmoored from reality. The ruling class has lost the ability to buy off the working class with cheap land. The empire is in retreat. The system of state violence has remained unchanged. The global system of production and logistics is breaking down and showing its incredible vulnerability. And underneath all of it, an unspeakable monster, the black wall of ecological collapse, approaches.
The Black Wall Approaches
It is almost impossible to comprehend. Every year, a new slew of record temperatures are broken. More and more of California burns while Texas freezes. “Once in a lifetime” heat waves become a regular and deadly occurrence. Oysters boil and cook in their shells in the water off the shore of Washington State.
Scientists issue direr and direr warnings: We are approaching an irreversible point. The jet stream responsible for global weather stability may collapse. The insects that sustain the web of life throughout the planet may die out. The very habitability of the planet by any form of life will collapse if the course is not changed. The world is ending. Everyone knows what is coming, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.
The global ruling classes offer the same half-hearted half-measures that they understand will be woefully inadequate to ensure the preservation of human life. Those not actively denying the magnitude of the approaching catastrophe offer suggestions of personal responsibility. Individual members of the capitalist class indulge in fantasies of escaping the catastrophe by taking joyrides on rockets into the upper atmosphere, releasing enormous volumes of carbon pollution in the process. The capitalist class is unable to act, even to preserve the lives of their children. In the face of the approaching wall, our ruling class has offered us nothing. It is difficult to imagine a bleaker situation.
It is a challenge to imagine a socialist, or even any, future when confronting this reality. The fact remains that in order to win any future at all, capitalists must be displaced from their position as the ruling class of the world. The increasing crises associated with climate collapse may be the most significant contradiction of all in our current moment, and may help to fatally weaken the capitalist class. The French Revolution of 1789, the European Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 were all preceded by extreme climate events. May we be so lucky to salvage what we can.
The Ruling Class Becomes Politically Paralyzed
In the face of these increasing and overlapping contradictions, the political system of the United States seems incapable of responding or adapting. Biden and legislators associated with the Democrats promise to take action to resolve and deescalate these issues, and proceed to do nothing. Biden’s centerpiece legislation, the Build Back Better bill, was still woefully insufficient for the scale of the crises bearing down, particularly in regard to climate action. Liberal legislators folded on even this, giving away all of their leverage and conceding defeat.
Beyond the legislature, the vestiges of American representational democracy are systematically being stripped away. The Republican party moves further and further towards consolidating permanent minority rule, while the Democratic party apparatus limply protests and asks them to stop. The Supreme Court has become an instrument of despotic power untouched by any democratic process. The political system seems to be on rails.
Donald Trump represents the perfect avatar of this new type of American politics. Trump governed as any bog-standard Republican would: tax cuts, less regulation, more power to the national security state. Meanwhile, his aesthetic presentation evinced hysterical panic from liberals and adulating devotion from conservatives. As the actual levers of power are moved further and further away from the voting public, the constituents fight a more and more brutal culture war.
This political paralysis does not bode well for this system’s ability to withstand the eruption of these overlapping crises. Historically, ruling classes have been able to withstand ruptures and revolutions when their governments are able to adapt, react, and channel the energies of a restive population. Britain was able to avoid the European revolutions of the 19th century partially due to the relative flexibility of their political system. Russia’s brittle ruling class did not survive the revolution of 1917, while Germany’s more capable system easily survived a revolution in 1919. In the 1930s, the United States political system was adapted and radically changed to partially incorporate the desires of its working class, and survived the crisis of the Great Depression.
Our Three Tasks
Multiple critical contradictions are increasing and pushing against a paralyzed political system, and a ruling class unwilling to act even to preserve itself. The pressure is increasing, and will inevitably lead to a rupture. One of the likely outcomes of this is a collapse in the power and influence of the political center, but there is no guarantee that this will lead to an increase in the power of the left.
There are already dangerous symptoms apparent, particularly the growth of a mystical reactionary movement across the country in the form of QAnon and its offshoots. The QAnon movement and its descendants, rather than a passing phenomenon of social media, now appear as the radical edge of American reaction. It is no accident that the Trump era opened with mass protest at airports against an immigration crackdown, and ended with the Capitol riot.
The most hopeful sign is the steady upsurge in labor militancy throughout the country. While nowhere near the levels of the 1930s or 1970s, there is an undeniable surge in workers’ confidence and willingness to fight. In 2021, workers waged large scale, sustained strikes in manufacturing, mining, education, and other industries. Even more promising, in many cases the union rank-and-file was willing to confront both their bosses and a union leadership that was unwilling to fight. The million-and-a-half strong Teamsters elected a militant leadership, the Autoworkers won direct democracy in their union, and a movement for a “one-member-one-vote” system in IATSE may be brewing. These workers have been given leverage by the millions of Americans who are now refusing to return to work for the shit wages and conditions they’d accepted for so long.
Revolutionary situations are generated primarily by two factors. First, by a crisis in the system and the ruling class’s ability to reproduce its own power. Second, the existence of mass organizations capable of exploiting that crisis and willing to contest for power. It is abundantly clear that capitalism is careening towards a massive crisis generated by multiple overlapping contradictions. Our duty is now to work towards building the skeleton of a democratic mass organization capable of stepping into that crisis. Practically, that duty consists of three tasks which reinforce each other dialectically.
First, to deepen our engagement in the working class’ fights in Arenas of Struggle. Recommit ourselves and redouble our efforts to engage in real class struggle.
Second, to move DSA away from the model of a political brand and towards a Workers’ Party. Push the organization towards being able to develop and implement strategy in a democratic and disciplined way.
Third, to develop and present a totalizing vision, explanation, and goal to present to the working class and the members of DSA. This can be thought of as a “flag.” In previous revolutionary periods, “The Republic,” “The Constitution,” “National Liberation,” “The Soviets” and “Communism” have served this role. For better or worse, the campaign of Bernie Sanders for President served as the Flag for the refounding of DSA between 2016 and 2020. This flag can only be generated through the interaction of leftist militants and theorists with working class struggle, and likewise the bringing in of working class militants into leftist organization to engage with theory.
An organization that does not fully throw itself into real working class struggle and attempts to raise a Flag will become a micro-sect shouting irrelevant slogans at a working class movement to which they have nothing to offer.
An organization that does not critically engage with theory and attempt to push beyond trade union consciousness will find themselves blandly repeating back to the working class what they already know. This is the case even if the organization dutifully marches alongside the workers.
The “flag” is simply this - the tangible representation of the synthesis created by the dialectic of theory and practice, of critique and struggle.
Example of the Three Tasks: Communists Organizing the Deep South
Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe provides a concrete example of this dynamic through the story of Communist Party organizers in Alabama in the 1930s. The Great Depression was an unprecedented crisis and rupture in the ability of capitalism to reproduce itself. The organizers of the Communist Party were an ideologically coherent political Center. The Communist Party they built in Alabama was a democratic organization capable of generating strategy and engaging in arenas of struggle - it was a Party.
Communists were dispatched to the deep south, initially expecting that enlightened white intellectuals would join the party. The idea was that organizers would appeal to their sense of morality rather than engage with any material struggles. The organizers soon found that there was little to no white, middle class interest in the party.
Instead, they found that by engaging in arenas of struggle alongside the black working class of Alabama, they were able to build their forces. Communists worked alongside them to build sharecroppers’ unions, resist racist terrorism, and organize relief recipients. This activity not only directly increased the power of Alabama’s black working class, but built the party and into an organization that democratically formulated and carried out strategy in a disciplined manner. The interaction between Communist Party organizers and the party’s working class members produced a vision of liberation that blended both orthodox Marxism and traditions of black American radicalism. This hybrid vision became the flag that the party utilized to self-discipline, focus its efforts, and present Communism as a coherent goal and vision of liberation.
Example of the Three Tasks: The Bolsheviks
The Bolsheviks provide the most famous example in the annals of the left of the application of these three tasks. During the apocalyptic crisis of the Great War, Russia’s ruling class was losing its ability to reproduce its power. Bolshevik activists were an ideologically coherent center, acting until February 1917 within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and then until October 1917 within the Soviets.
The Bolsheviks built their power by engaging directly with the struggles of industrial workers and soldiers. By engaging on the factory floor, the streets of Saint Petersburg, and the front, they both directly increased the power of workers and soldiers, and brought them into the party and Soviets. The Bolsheviks’ victories within the Soviets were not based solely on their ability to present a convincing argument and a good speech, but also on the depth of their organization. The Bolsheviks’ engagement with revolutionary arenas of struggle on the front and in the factories forced the Soviets to become organs of power and governance.
In the period leading up to October 1917, one of the Bolsheviks’ main achievements was to present a coherent and totalizing vision to the working class and soldiers of Russia. To do so, they learned from the mistakes of Russian revolutionary history. They learned from the Economists, who were able to engage with the working class struggle in the streets and on the factory floor, but could offer nothing beyond what the workers themselves already agitated for. They learned from the Narodnik terrorists, who shouted incredibly bold slogans and committed daring acts of violence against the ruling class, but could not rally the working class to their side. The Bolsheviks’ ability to synthesize the practice of rigorous critique with diligent struggle allowed them to present a clear revolutionary vision in a way no other party could.
While other parties presented alienating arguments on the necessity of following the preordained stages of history, or complicated formulations to end the imperialist war, in order to replace it with a war in defense of the revolution, the Bolsheviks presented a clear and bright flag. Land to the Peasants. Control of Production to the Workers. Peace. This clear flag allowed the Bolsheviks to embody the hopes and desires of the Russian Empire's working classes, rather than attempt to convince them.
Example of the Three Tasks: The Refounding of the Democratic Socialists of America
The rebirth of DSA in 2016 was a massive leap forward in the organization of the American left. While its history is still being written, and the crisis leading to its refounding were nowhere near as critical as the other examples, it also maps onto our three tasks.
The United States had experienced the crisis of an impossible political situation coming to pass. Every safeguard in the US electoral system was supposed to stop Donald Trump from gaining power. To many, the democratic norms of the country seemed to have collapsed. Fascism itself seemed to be a possibility.
The political center in this example began nowhere near as ideologically coherent as the other examples. They were the groups of activists who met in living rooms, libraries, bars, and cafes to refound local chapters of the organization. While these chapters were far from Parties as defined by Red Star, these organizations were roughly able to decide strategy and engage in arenas of struggle.
DSA’s 4-year period of growth saw dramatically uneven development of chapters across the country. New political centers formed and dissolved, attempting to push their own political vision within chapters. In the San Francisco chapter, these centers took the form of issue-based committees. The Labor Organizing Committee pushed for a particular political vision, while the Justice Committee pushed for another, while the Electoral Committee pushed for yet another.
The chapters’ work primarily took the form of electoral campaigns. These electoral campaigns produced wins, and brought new activists and organizers into the fold. The more struggle the chapter engaged in, the more effective they were. The more active chapters were forced to develop structures which allowed for some level of democratic decision making, and the barest hints of discipline.
The feeble flag raised by this fledgling movement was the prospect of Bernie Sanders as President of the United States of America. This idea encompassed all the possibility and hope of the new left, that something previously unthinkable was within reach. No one was sure exactly what would come after Sanders’ election, but it would be a different world.
A movement can survive the loss of its flag, but it comes at a steep cost. The lack of the animating, almost millenarian effect of an effective flag is shown in many ways, but primarily as a feeling of directionlessness and malaise. In effect, the DSA is experiencing a small version of the catastrophic loss of a flag experienced by the world in 1990. Enzo Traverso explains that while the culture of the communist left has been built from glorious defeats, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a defeat of a different type. What was lost was not a particular fight, but the very idea that another world was possible. Since 1990, leftists across the world have slowly been reconstructing the idea that another world is possible, necessary, and imminent. The question now is whether we can do so within DSA.
The Three Tasks in DSA: Engaging in Struggle
Taking our role as revolutionary socialists in 2022 seriously means reckoning with the enormity of both the coming crisis and our responsibility.
The DSA must focus its efforts in fighting alongside workers in struggle directly against capital. There are opportunities for local electoral activity, but national electoral activity does not seem to be promising for the near future. Other forms of organizing, such as tenant unions, neighborhood councils, or mutual aid are likely to happen on a relatively small scale. In the near-term, fighting alongside and within the labor movement is by far the most promising way for us to engage in working class struggle.
While 2021 saw an increase in the level of workers’ militancy and confidence, 2022 will bring more and larger conflicts. Structurally, workers will continue to have more leverage than they have in years as prices of necessities continue to rise. At the same time, multiple contracts in critical sectors of the economy are set to expire, opening the possibility of large-scale strikes.
30,000 grocery store workers across the country may strike. 22,000 dockworkers who control the flow of all shipping into and out of the West Coast may strike. 30,000 oil workers may strike. More than 100,000 hospital workers are covered by contracts that expire in 2022. Looming over all of this, the UPS contract, the largest private sector contract in the country, expires in 2023 while the Teamsters are now led by militant reformers.
Any DSA chapter anywhere can use Labor Circles to engage with these struggles. There are two main types of circles, the worker circle and the solidarity circle. The worker circle consists of workers in a particular workplace, union, or industry. The members of these circles share information, formulate strategy, and take on organizing tasks. These tasks can be as huge as organizing for a strike or as small as establishing a regular workplace meeting to discuss issues.
Any DSA member can form a solidarity circle. The solidarity circle has the following discrete tasks: First, forming connections with local groups of workers or unions, focusing on those likely to come into conflict in the near future. Even starting with one contact is enough. Next, the circle should collect the names and contact information of anyone locally who wants to support workers. These should not be confined to existing DSA members, as it can be a vehicle for bringing new members into the organization. Third, when workers or unions come into conflict with capital, the circle contacts the list to show up in support.
In San Francisco, there has been a rocky and uneven development of labor circles, with constant re-evaluation and reassessment of tactics. Our first circle was formed through a relationship organizing alongside members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. This relationship took years of patient struggle to build. Most of that time, we did nothing other than support what workers wanted to do rather than try to bring them into DSA. The most important lesson we were taught was that relationships with workers in struggle are more important than the specific form we think a labor circle should take. Organizing may not look like a DSA committee, and it may not go exactly how we planned at the beginning. Marxists understand that the socialist movement is given shape by the struggles and experience of the working class, and we should be willing to adjust our tactics accordingly.
Efforts to form circles in other industries is progressing slowly but steadily. Our members are active in fighting for teacher safety in San Francisco public schools and building a movement to end the two-tier employment system at SF State. Workers in the healthcare, tech, and city government sectors are beginning to come together to formulate strategy and build connections. Patience, flexibility, and commitment are essential for us to succeed.
We are also in the beginning stages of forming a Solidarity Circle. This may well be our single most powerful tool for engaging in worker struggle. For many members of DSA, the project of initiating class struggle in their own workplace may be a long, quiet, and unglamorous one. Solidarity Circles will lend strength to workers’ struggles, while building connections between workers across industries and the socialist movement.
The Three Tasks in DSA: Pushing Towards the Party
The engagement in worker struggles and the formation of labor circles represents part of a crucial shift within DSA. Most DSA chapters began by forming interest-based committees or working groups. This led to most chapters being associations of siloed organizations rather than a single coherent organization able to focus its resources. Rather than issue-based committees, chapters should develop structures based in workplaces or neighborhoods. Rather than perpetual, free-floating committees, chapters should periodically come together to reformulate strategy, debate their priorities, and decide how to direct their resources. If adopted on a wide scale in chapters across the country, it would represent a significant step away from DSA as a political brand and towards a Party.
Not all DSA members agree with the dissolution of permanent issue-based committees and focusing resources towards a limited amount of goals. Their most consistent argument is the idea that to be effective, DSA must engage in all forms of struggle. In a way, this argument is morally convincing. Capitalism oppresses people on all fronts, so we have to fight on all fronts. This oppression affects people not only as workers, but also as people of color, as immigrants, as those excluded from permanent housing. The basic idea is this: DSA should be as wide of an organization as possible. Anyone who identifies as a socialist and wants to fight should have a home in DSA, regardless of what they want to work on.
These two visions of DSA are the embodiment of the two possible paths for DSA. If we are to implement the system of periodic self-criticism, democratic decision making on priorities, and disciplined execution, we will move in the direction of an effective Workers’ Party. Remaining an organization where anyone can work on anything they want leaves us stuck as a political brand. Any activist or politician can claim the mantle of DSA, regardless of their principles, with no ability to evaluate whether their actions support “socialism.” For example, if a member who is an elected politician supports an apartheid state, this model leaves us no ability to discipline him.
On a practical level, if anyone in DSA can work on anything they want, we have no ability to effectively focus resources. We become a dispersed federation of activists working separately on whatever issues interest us the most. If we want to be effective, we have to come to terms with the fact that we have finite energy and resources. Even if we were able to take control of the state, we would still need to make decisions on where to focus our resources to build socialism.
Rather than being an obscure question of procedure, this is the heart of the clash between DSA as a brand or as a Party. One direction leaves us stranded, the other sets us on the path towards real power. If we combine our engagement in workers’ struggle and Party building, we will develop our ability to present a totalizing and clear vision that gives direction to the entire movement.
The Three Tasks in DSA: Raising the Flag
With the defeat of Sanders, what do we believe will be the flag that presents a totalizing vision that allows DSA to embody the aspirations of the working class, realized through struggle? What is our vision to be sharpened and honed through our engagement in struggle?
We can begin with examining some obvious candidates. Sanders was a singular figure. There is no other politician even close to being capable of filling the role he did. “Socialism,” “Democratic Socialism,” or “Social Democracy” are too vague to be workable. “Communism” in this moment is too associated with hyper-online cultures. Other candidates are relatively sectarian formations that do not stand much of a chance, such as “Class Independence” or “Revolution Now!”
At this point it becomes necessary to delineate the difference between the flag as a symbolic, totalizing vision, and the actual object in reality referred to by the flag. In the Bolshevik case, their flag was “All Power to the Soviets.” In actual fact, in that moment the Soviets were vacillating and conciliatory, unwilling and incapable of wielding actual power. DSA members understood that if Sanders were to win the presidency, he would likely be stopped by the US ruling class by all of the means at its disposal from enacting a transformative agenda. The symbolic power of a flag to focus, unify, and embody the desires of a class in struggle is distinct from the practical reality of an object it may refer to.
There is only one possible contender for the flag of the leftist movement of the United States: the construction of the Workers’ Party itself must become the flag of the socialist movement.
Red Star considers DSA to be a placeholder for a Workers’ Party. DSA has the most potential currently of any organization in the country to become an organization of the entire working class. However we have no particular preference as to whether DSA itself becomes a Workers’ Party, becomes part of a future Party, or its actions lead to the creation of a Party which it is not part of. In our current moment, the process for each is identical.
Here, we run into some possible confusion, due to the difference between the historical definition of Party utilized by Red Star and the American vernacular understanding of “party.” We understand that a Workers’ Party is a democratic organization of the working class that formulates strategy and engages in arenas of struggle. For the vast majority of Americans, “party” and ballot line are synonyms.
Most working class people have a basic understanding that no one associated with the Democratic or Republican parties have their interests at heart. While they may not yet have the precise vocabulary, there is more often than not an awareness that these two organizations represent different factions of the ruling class. Furthermore, most understand that there is no power inherent in a ballot line, that “running third party” accomplishes nothing.
Therefore, part of our task is explaining clearly and consistently that what is necessary is a “party of a new type.” We are not interested in creating another perennial loser like the Peace and Freedom Party. The ballot line, in and of itself, accomplishes nothing. It is not magical. There is no special power that is afforded a political candidate who affixes a “W” by their name rather than a “D” or “R.” Our proposal is not to “let a thousand Green Parties bloom.” Doing so would only reinforce the problem of DSA as a leftist political brand, as a ballot line that sufficiently “left” candidates can utilize to signal their allegiance to a particular type of politics abstracted from working class struggle.
This is why the debate whether DSA should embark on a “clean break” or a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party is unhelpful. The clean breakers assert that DSA must be immediately unshackled from the Democratic Party, that we must never have another political candidate with a “D” next to their name. The dirty breakers argue that through engaging with elections utilizing the Democratic Party line, DSA can build their forces and level of organization to the point where they can create their own ballot line. Both positions misidentify the problem and its solution. They give a weight and power to the Democratic ballot line that does not exist, and support the idea that our ultimate goal should be to have our own ballot line. While the creation of a ballot line may be an effective, even necessary step, our ultimate goal is power for the working class. If we support the idea that we must only create a new ballot line without building its working class base, we will create yet another hollow political brand, a Democratic Party painted red.
Instead, our goal is to build a true organ of power for the working class, able to democratically formulate strategy and challenge the power of Capital on a massive scale. One of the many tactical decisions to be made by this Party is whether to create its own ballot line, to utilize an already existing one, or to run candidates as “independents”. These tactical decisions should be given the same weight as where to focus labor organizing efforts, whether or not to attempt to found a tenants’ union, or whether a mutual aid project is a wise use of resources. As a tactical decision, it should not be considered uniquely existential or fundamental, nor given a level of importance or precedence above all others.
The exact forms of this party must be created and elaborated through struggle and debate. It does not serve us to attempt to plan out the details of the functioning of such a party without committing to working class struggle. Our role is to clearly and confidently raise this flag, while engaging directly in Arenas of Struggle, bringing the working class into DSA, and pushing DSA in the direction of a Workers’ Party. If we do this, the form of the Party will be hammered into being through the class struggle itself. Anything else is simply wishcasting.
The Party cannot be declared, it can only be built.
A Daily Commitment, not a Grand Sacrifice
It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis bearing down on us. In particular, the coming ecological collapse is near-unthinkable. It can be difficult to hold onto the hope of any future at all, let alone a future of human liberation. The task presented to us feels enormous.
In the face of this, it is tempting to lash out and flail for a solution that can arrive in time. Some of us look for a millenarian anarchist answer, where our small local actions will somehow lead to a phase-shift in human organization that eliminates all forms of hierarchy and oppression. Some turn to the internet, posting more and more urgently. Some of us are briefly led astray by the idea that somehow, if we could only declare a workers’ ballot line today, we would break the power of the ruling class at the next election.
The truth of the matter is as simple as it is painful - our only hope is the daily commitment to a slow process of building working class power. There is nothing that will come to save us, no dramatic change of heart of the ruling class, no anarchist utopia under the surface ready to burst into beautiful existence tomorrow. Bernie is gone, and cannot come back to save us. The excruciatingly slow process of building the Party is the only thing that will lead us to victory.
What is required is faith and commitment. While the alienation of capitalist life reaches its zenith, while police murders continue unabated, while the unyielding wall of climate collapse draws closer, our task is to walk steadily forward, clear in the conviction of what we are doing. We do not have the luxury of “throwing our bodies on the gears” or sacrificing ourselves in heroic battle. Rather than asking ourselves if we are ready to die for the people, we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to live for the people, in the face of whatever may come. We may make history, but not in the circumstances we might choose.
Despite all of the horror we have seen and are yet to see, there is an incredible beauty in the task we are given. There is no higher calling than the daily commitment to the eternal task of human liberation, nothing more rewarding than the fight to allow true human flourishing. Those who have come before us have seen and walked through the unimaginable horrors of the 20th century, and kept their faith in the communist horizon. We are now called on to do the same.
The socialist movement has allowed me to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister—and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life. And in their service I can feel myself expand; I can rise to the stature of a man and claim the right to a place on earth.
Eugene Debs, 1919
Evan McL. is a member of DSA San Francisco, a union organizer, and the coordinator for DSA SF’s Labor Circles priority.