A Critique of the Rank-and-File Strategy

Jason Koslowski

January 3, 2021

It is the most popular strategy for U.S socialists in the labor movement — yet it has serious limits.

Kim Moody first gave a systematic statement of the “rank-file strategy” in a working paper for the socialist organization Solidarity in 2000. Since then he has kept on refining it, such as in 2017’s On New Terrain and in more recent essays. The DSA adopted a version of it as its official position on labor organizing, and Jacobin constantly discusses it. Labor Notes, influential among union militants, is built around some of its basic ideas. And it has been a regular point of debate for leftists. Most recently, Kate Doyle Griffiths wrote an important set of articles in Spectre about its strengths and limitations.

Moody formulated the strategy during a time of defeat and decline for the struggles of the working class and the oppressed. It aims to help bridge the chasm separating the socialist movement and the labor movement, and to help socialists prepare for future waves of more intense class struggle.

But things have changed. We are living through a period of intensified class struggle in the U.S. that began after the 2008 financial crisis — intensified even more in the past few months with the Black Lives Matter uprising against the police and the uptick of worker militancy during the Covid-19 pandemic. In these changed conditions, the rank-and-file strategy’s limits become clear. Although Moody criticizes the Democratic Party, the strategy leaves socialists unprepared to confront the state and the union bureaucracy. And it can’t truly overcome the disconnected, incoherent nature of working-class struggle in this country.

To reconnect the workers’ movement and socialism, we have to move past the rank-and-file strategy.

The Strategy

The chasm between the labor and socialist movements, says Moody, is the result of several historical developments, including the rise of union bureaucracies hostile to militant, revolutionary struggle, and the Communist Party’s alignment with those bureaucrats and the Democratic Party. The CP’s approach alienated the most militant workers, and Cold War purges of “reds” profoundly isolated communists and socialists alike. As the rate of profit began to fall and class struggle surged again both in the streets and the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, the Far Left’s separation from the labor movement put it mostly on the sidelines of the workers’ movement. By the time of the mid-1970s recession, that separation was more entrenched than ever.

According to the rank-and-file strategy, socialists should be part of, and help spread, militant rank-and-file revolts against bosses and union bureaucrats alike. We should help drive fights for more union democracy, replacing reactionary bureaucrats when necessary. More than this, socialists should create and support “transitional organizations” like Labor Notes linking rank-and-file struggles. Building class-wide solidarity also means linking to “community-based working-class organizations” — like worker centers and the Black Lives Matter movement. The goal, says Moody’s 2000 pamphlet, is to create a “sea of class-conscious workers for socialist ideas and organizations to swim in.”

On New Terrain goes further, arguing that one pathway to greater class power is local elections in Democratic-controlled cities, where running a candidate wouldn’t have a “spoiler effect.” These could build coalitions of local unions and community organizations, which would help push “to the limits of capitalism.”

The rank-and-file strategy offers important insights. In both the original pamphlet and later work, Moody gives us a powerful critique of the way unions bureaucratize, attack, and undermine militant struggle. On New Terrain and Moody’s recent article in Spectre also criticizes the idea that socialists should infiltrate and use the national Democratic Party for their own ends. What’s more, a rank-and-file approach has paid important dividends in labor organizing. Organizations that have followed some version of the strategy, like radical caucuses and Labor Notes, have helped stoke the fires of more militant worker struggle, and the wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018 are only one of the latest examples of the power of bottom-up worker organizing.

The Lure of the State

For all of Moody’s critiques of the Democratic Party, though, the rank-and-file strategy is “apolitical.” Or in other words, it does not give pride of place to the fight against the Democrats for a truly socialist politics based on class independence, something always kicked down the road. Moody even suggests the strategy automatically opposes the capitalist parties: “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.” This hope in a spontaneous break from ruling-class parties leaves the working class unarmed before a ruthless, brutal capitalist state.

As Marx and Engels note, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Socialists might put off explicit political struggle against the state, but the bourgeoisie will hardly be sitting still. Day after day, the ruling class and its agents hammer home the message that the system can never be overthrown; that workers themselves, or minorities, are to blame for their woes; and that its own political regime can solve any problem.

Then, when a surge of working-class struggle arrives, the state brutally represses the revolt — spearheaded, like this summer, by the Democratic Party. At the same time, it ruthlessly tries to co-opt, defang, and divert that class struggle. The Democrats were fantastically successful in collapsing the anti-cop movement into a “get out the vote” campaign for the white supremacist Joe Biden and California’s top cop, Kamala Harris.

For its part, the labor bureaucracy (as Moody points out) doesn’t just fight worker militancy: it chains the working class’s struggle to the ruling class’s chariot. It’s true that organized labor played an important role in the uprising this summer, like in the strikes organized by the ILWU. But the vast majority of unions and caucuses refused to call for kicking cops out of our unions. They stayed silent when it was the Democrats repressing the uprising with naked, brutal violence. Unions overwhelmingly endorsed the Democrats and mobilized members to phone bank, with little or no pushback even from the most progressive caucuses. The SEIU leadership alone pledged $150 million to help the Democratic Party.

Moody might think that the rank-and-file strategy tends toward class independence. But it is telling that an organization like the DSA, which is strategically committed to the Democratic Party, can lay claim to it. We cannot expect any unconscious tendency toward such a break. Lenin did not deny the sometimes spontaneous nature of workers’ revolt, but he made note of two counterposed tendencies. On the one hand, labor’s elemental revolt against bosses and bureaucrats alike tends to escalate as capitalism is wracked with crises. On the other hand, “bourgeois ideology spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class to a still greater degree.” Working-class revolt tends to be snared and defanged by the state and union bureaucracy.

When we refuse to carry out an explicit struggle against the bourgeois state and its parties, we’re doomed to fall into the ruling class’s traps. When the rank and file rejects the absolutely fundamental role of socialist political struggle against the Democrats, it leaves the massive machinery of the state and union bureaucracy to churn along unchallenged. When the state inevitably turns against the working class in “wartime,” many in the most active, militant parts of organized labor aren’t just disoriented by the violence of their “allies” in the Democratic Party — they’re ready to support their enemies.

Moreover, this approach abandons the field to reformist socialists who weaken the class struggle. The DSA’s bureaucrats are ostensibly committed to the rank-and-file strategy, but they utterly failed to mobilize the DSA to help build up the anti-cop struggles this summer. Worse, they sucked up surging class energies just to dump them down the sewer of the Democratic Party — hawking for Bernie and then shilling even for Biden.

But the rank-and-file strategy can even feed into the power of the capitalist state. For example, District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected in Philadelphia through exactly the kind of local electoralism that On New Terrain is calling for, supported by a coalition of labor, community, and socialist groups. Now he’s prosecuting protesters from the BLM uprising — but not the cops who murdered Walter Wallace, or many other killer cops besides. Meanwhile, he’s silent on the federal government’s repression of local activists like Ant Smith.

Bureaucrats and Silos

We need more effective weapons against the union bureaucrats than the rank-and-file strategy offers us. For Moody, challenging union bureaucracy often means replacing them through elections. There’s some danger the new leadership will become reactionary — but this problem can be solved by left-wing caucuses continuing to push the new leaders leftward.

This underestimates the balance of forces, however. The state constantly threatens even local leaders with injunctions, union decertification, and jail time if rank-and-filers are too militant. Simultaneously, it offers the “carrot” of promises for real reforms — in return, of course, for tamed membership. The rank-and-file strategy, when it succeeds, will likely mean slates that oppose bureaucrats, themselves become bureaucratized and integrated into the Democratic machinery, and then must be opposed again. We see this in the PSC at CUNY, whose leaders were elected to fight entrenched bureaucrats but turned against militant adjuncts in the “7K or Strike” movement. In New York in 2019, nurses organizing for safe staffing had to fight union bureaucrats who had themselves run on a reform slate.

Kate Doyle Griffiths in Spectre shows the weakness of Moody’s analysis of non-workplace organizing. Where Moody lauds the links between unions and “community organizations,” Griffiths points out the ways those organizations can be not only deeply bureaucratized but also part of the Democratic Party’s machine. Black Lives Matter is a crucial example: a movement with both a powerful and radical base of militant struggle and a bureaucratic leadership sidling up to the Democrats.

But the rank-and-file strategy is also trapped in the silos fracturing working-class struggle. The basic units for the strategy are unions and caucuses. Wider class struggle means coalition-building between these and other structures. Unions and caucuses are key organs of the working class, but they also separate the class by trade and workplace. In the 1930s, Trotsky wrote that

trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labor movement.

This is even truer today, when barely 6 percent of private-industry workers are unionized, and only about 10 percent overall. What’s more, unions and caucuses are extremely uneven politically. They encompass a vast array of political stances, from anarcho-syndicalist to liberal to outright reactionary. No amount of coalition building can solve these problems because it embraces those siloes and their political chaos.

This means that, in periods of heightened class struggle, the rank-and-file strategy is radically limited. For example, the period between March and June saw not just massive, largely spontaneous class struggle against cops in the streets but also an important uptick in workplace actions by workers being forced to work in a pandemic. One crucial thing missing was forms of self-organization beyond the “peacetime” organizations like unions, caucuses, and community organizations.

“During such moments,” writes Trotsky, “it is necessary to create organizations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally, soviets.” This isn’t to say we could have seen soviets — councils of elected workers’ delegates — appear this past summer. But we badly needed some ad hoc structures — mass assemblies — that could have coordinated and connected the fight in the streets and in the workplaces in a systematic way. And we needed the socialist militants in our unions who would’ve pushed for democratic self-organization like this.

Another Approach

For all its limits, rank-and-file strategy can seem like the only left-wing alternative to bureaucratic, business unionism in the United States. That’s why it’s useful to look at socialists in other countries. The Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina offers a real-world model of a different approach.

In the late 1990s, rank-and-file workers at the Zanon ceramics factory in Argentina began a fight against the bureaucracy of the SOECN, the ceramics workers’ union. That fight was led in important part by Trotskyist militants of the PTS like Raul Godoy, who won representation on Zanon’s local shop committee. As Godoy recounts, they proceeded to dismantle key parts of the union bureaucracy. The workers’ assembly became the highest decision-making body in the union, and all union officials were subordinate to it. Officials were recallable at any time and had to return to the shop floor after a maximum of two years.

This battle led to the creation of new union statutes, which now enshrine the workers’ assembly as the union’s ultimate decision-making body. Those statutes also declare the SOECN to be committed to class struggle in total independence from the parties of capitalism.

Christian Castillo points out the role played by the PTS’s explicit socialist organizing, noting that “if there is no conscious activism and militancy, these efforts will exhaust themselves. This is because the bureaucracy will persecute you, betray you to the boss, or buy you off.” Godoy himself notes that the workers’ assembly at Zanon played a key role in the years of crisis that lay ahead. In 2001, the Argentinean economy was wracked by a major economic and political crisis. Organizing through the assembly, the Zanon workers occupied the factory and placed it under worker control — renaming it FaSinPat, or Fabrica sin Patrones (Factory without Bosses).

While many other occupations became worker-owned cooperatives, the Zanon workers demanded the nationalization of their factory under workers’ control — they did not want to compete on the capitalist market, but rather to get state funding to serve as part of a massive public works program. Unlike many autonomists, they recognized that the state isn’t just a neutral party that can be “worked around,” but a force that has to be struggled against, overcome, and replaced. The work of the PTS has been vital to Zanon’s survival without bosses long after many other worker-owned cooperatives from 2001 collapsed.

The PTS also linked the fight over Zanon to the struggle of the masses of unemployed workers, and it weaponized the lessons of Zanon to inform the other major factory struggles over the years that followed, like the one at Kraft in 2010. The struggle at Zanon showcases a model of union organizing in which the explicit socialist organizing by revolutionary militants played a key role in pushing for and systematizing working-class self-organization. It’s a model also tested in practice at the Donnelly and PepsiCo factories in and around Buenos Aires, for instance.

Socialists in Unions

The PTS is a working example of a revolutionary, Trotskyist model of union organizing.

There is no dispute with Moody that socialists must build inside unions, fighting side by side with the “militant minority” against both bureaucrats and bosses. But the PTS’s work at Zanon shows that this organizing has to be explicitly socialist — to break labor away from capitalism’s parties, undermine and replace union bureaucracy, and help build up the organs of independent self-organization.

All this means deploying a labor strategy, as Lenin once put it, based on building up concentric “circles” of socialist influence. At the “center” is a grouping of revolutionary socialists fighting side by side with their fellow workers on the shop floor. The aim of that kind of “cell” is attracting the most active and class-conscious of their coworkers. And its aim is to fight constantly to liberate the working class from the parties of capital — here in the U.S., that means total independence from the Democrats. So the goal is neither to play “coy” and keep socialist struggle on the backburner, nor to be sectarian by demanding that every worker become a socialist as a precondition for struggle, but to build a “center of gravity” of socialist influence in our unions.

And we need more than reform slates attempting to replace the existing bureaucrats. We need to dismantle the bureaucracy itself, fighting to make workers’ assemblies the highest union authority controlling all officials. Such assemblies are the seeds of worker control over our workplaces in moments of crisis.

In those moments, we also need union militants pushing to unite the working class against the bourgeoisie in ways that stretch beyond union and caucus siloes. That means being ready to organize united fronts of any and all working-class organizations to fight off attacks like austerity measures and police violence against Black and Brown people.

We have to distinguish between a united front and “coalition building.” A united front is one tactic in a coherent socialist strategy to shift the balance of power toward revolutionaries within the working class. It’s a forum for socialists to point out the bureaucrats’ betrayals and half measures, to call out the need for true class independence against the Democrats, and to build up the socialist movement with the most energized and class-conscious militants. Unlike coalitions with NGO bureaucracies, the united front tactic is always oriented toward activating the masses.

And when thousands pour into the streets, many of whom hadn’t been active beforehand, and as struggle in workplaces begins to rise, what the working class needs are pathways to its own independent action. This would mean socialists in unions calling for mass assemblies that could connect the fights in workplaces and in the streets. It would mean laying the groundwork for more robust bodies of large-scale action, too — like delegate councils or committees connecting different workplaces, or, as they were called in the Russian Revolution, soviets.

You might be interested in: The Soviet Strategy: A Primer

In this light, union elections become totally secondary to the goal of building the independent power of the working class against the rulers. Their usefulness comes from their ability to stoke militant struggle, help totally disconnect the union from the Democratic Party, and fight to replace a union’s bureaucracy with direct workers’ democracy. This is part of the fight for workers to present their own candidates, using elections to spread socialist ideas, denounce the bourgeois state, and measure our influence.

The Tasks Ahead

The rank-and-file strategy that Moody develops is a product of “low tide”: decades of working-class defeat. For all its hope in workers’ struggle, it’s a profoundly pessimistic response to that situation — based on the idea that even the most militant parts of the working class aren’t ready for concerted socialist agitation and organization. Because of this, the rank-and-file strategy would leave us unprepared for the most important tasks when the tide turns.

Things have changed. We are definitely not in a revolutionary situation, but the economic crisis of 2008 ushered in a period of heightened class struggle that has only intensified in 2020. Explicitly socialist organizing has also surged. Masses of young people say they sympathize with socialism, while the U.S. has seen the explosive growth of a socialist organization for the first time in decades, though in a very problematic form. In other words, holding fast to the rank-and-file strategy today means falling behind — being a brake on — the most militant parts of the socialist and working class movements today.

Today more than ever we need to learn from international examples: we need socialists fighting alongside the rank and file as a socialist “center of gravity” to dismantle union bureaucracy, sever unions from the Democrats, and push for working-class self-organization. But all this means that the most pressing task that faces socialists today is to create an independent, working-class, socialist party — one built out of the scattered socialist forces in the U.S. and the most class-conscious worker militants, alongside with the youth fighting the police on the streets; organized around a program of revolutionary class struggle; and fighting for the broadest forms of working-class self-organization as a class.

Today, we have a chance to build that organization that did not exist when Moody first wrote his pamphlet. The post-2008 era is bringing upticks in workplace actions and spasms of struggle against racism, while socialist ideas are more popular than ever. These are potential sources of a socialist movement rooted in the working class. But a socialist party has to be built.

This can’t happen immediately, and it will take careful preparation, building links and hammering out a program. But socialists in workplaces and unions need a strategy that consciously and openly sets out to complete these tasks.

Many thanks to Nathaniel Flakin, James Dennis Hoff, and William Lewis for their comments on earlier drafts.

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.