From the uprisings in 1965 and 1992 to the previous Black Lives Matter movement, the dream of equality for Black people in the deeply unequal capitalist system has brought about some of the biggest and most explosive episodes of struggle in United States history.
But this summer’s explosion of justified Black was different. The country has never seen anything like it. The whole world saw the eight minutes and 46 seconds of cop Derek Chauvin strangling George Floyd as he begged for his life and called out to his mother. Chauvin stared into the eyes of a crowd of people filming him without any fear. He knew that white cops like him can kill Black people with impunity. The video shook a country that was already in crisis; there was mass discontent with a racist, right-wing president, a pandemic disproportionately ending the lives of Black people, and a deep economic crisis. The whole country and the entire world rose up — a Black-led, multiethnic movement united under the banner of Black Lives Matter.
It was a whole summer of mobilizations, and people will never be the same.
As we are writing this on the eve of the 2020 elections, the movement has suffered some defeats: Breonna Taylor’s killers walk free. Derek Chauvin was released on bail. The mass movement has subsided, with many focused on the 2020 election. Yet there are still outbursts against the ongoing murders of Black people by police: in Philadelphia against the murder of Walter Wallace Jr., in Providence against the police running over Jhamal Gonsalves, and more.
This summer and U.S. history make it clear: anti-Black racism is a structural part of American capitalism, and uprisings that protest police violence against Black people are a spark that can ignite some of the most convulsive moments in U.S. history, and might even be the fire that leads to the overthrow of U.S. capitalism.
But why didn’t the BLM movement win more, given that it questioned the deepest roots of American capitalism: the racist police who defend and protect the capitalist state? Why did it recede instead of advance toward a deeper crisis, or perhaps even a prerevolutionary situation? And what role can socialists play in pushing these uprisings further?
The Conditions for Revolution
There is no artificial wall that separates an uprising from advancing toward revolution. A revolutionary situation is one in which the question of power is posed — who runs society?
Revolutions result from objective and subjective conditions, and in the United States there exist objective conditions for a deep crisis.
Capitalist equilibrium had been deeply disturbed — the U.S. economy struggled to gain its footing with the failure of the neoliberal project that exploded in the 2008 crisis. Having scarcely recovered from the last crisis, the world has been thrown headlong into a new one. About 217,000 Americans have died in a deadly pandemic. Black and Latinx families have been the hardest hit: Black people are dying at three times the rate of white people. Among 35- to 44-year-olds, Black people are dying at 10 times the rate of white people. And then there are the massive rates of unemployment rate and poverty, which have created great uncertainty and desperation. Forty-one percent of Black businesses have closed as a result of the pandemic, and 60 percent of Black households face “serious financial problems.” Further, there is a crisis at the top: the traditional political parties and institutions are in crisis and no longer held their former sway. The presidency, the Supreme Court, the FBI, and the police are losing their legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. Millions of people have protested Trump over the past four years, and Joe Biden is completely uninspiring. Amid this crisis, many consider themselves socialists, and others are turning to the Far Right, creating a growing neofascist movement. We’ve argued that the situation has elements of what Gramsci called an organic crisis: a political, economic, and social crisis that resulted from the failure of the neoliberal project. Even prior to the pandemic, the capitalist parties couldn’t find a way to resolve the crisis. Within the Black movement, traditional liberal leaders have lost their unquestioned authority. In the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were rebuked by young activists, and groups like the NAACP just don’t hold the same sway they once did. The Democratic Party, with the first Black president as its figurehead, has presided over the impoverishment and incarceration of Black people as much as the Republican Party, resulting in some disillusionment and questioning of both parties. As Gramsci would say, “The old is dying and new cannot be born.”
Thus, even before the uprising, we weren’t living in ordinary times. And with the uprising, the crisis deepened and the ruling class divided, opening a transitional moment in class struggle. Leon Trotsky wrote that there are not just stable and revolutionary times, but also all kinds of transitions “between the non-revolutionary and the pre-revolutionary.” A pre-revolutionary situation is one that could advance towards a revolution that overthrows the capitalist class, like a cloudy sky portending rain.
And in this situation, there was a crisis at the top, an economic and health crisis, and mobilization at the bottom. But the uprising did not bring about a prerevolutionary situation. After all, the capitalist class took steps to attenuate the crisis, at least a little, with eviction moratoriums and minimal aid packages. There was not complete desperation among the working class. And the American working class just waking up from a long slumber from class struggle, with a generation of workers who are only now having the experience of fighting against the union bureaucracy, and sometimes, forcing their hand. A clear example of this was uptick in struggle over the past few years, especially the teachers strikes. Yet the U.S. still lags behind much of the rest of the world in strikes, walkouts, and confrontations with the police.
Even with these elements holding back the movement, the objective crisis was deep. It provided potential to advance to a huge crisis, and perhaps one with prerevolutionary elements. And so we must turn to the subjective conditions — the conditions created by the working class, the oppressed, and their leaderships, the conditions faced by socialists coming into this moment. It is this problem that we will examine in this article.
Before we examine the movement’s shortfalls, we must take stock of just how historic and how disruptive it was. This massive multiethnic movement shook the country, and a whole generation will never be the same. The traditional, Democratic Party shills like Al Sharpton played a limited role — around the country, a new generation of young Black people, especially young Black women, stepped to the fore, organizing marches, leading chants, and speaking about the brutal reality of this system. These young people led the movement in city after city, in a decentralized uprising in all 50 states, in big cities and small towns. This included predominantly white rural and suburban communities, even tiny rural communities with few Black residents. White people were breaking with the racist “color-blind” logic they have been indoctrinated in, as well as the “friendly cop” trope. This was a mass, multiethnic movement.
It even spread across the globe, with protests in at least 80 different countries. The effects of the Black Lives Matter movement changed global politics. As our Bolivian comrade Violeta Tamayo stated regarding the historic vote in Bolivia to oust the coup orchestrators, “The Black Lives Matter phenomenon helped to defeat the extreme right because it weakened imperialism in the United States and the right wing in Bolivia. It shows the importance of the revolutionary left in other countries.” Statues of enslavers and colonizers were toppled, as those ideologies also toppled in the minds of millions of young people. Foundational are the superexploitation of Black people and the granting of privileges to white people to secure their defense of a racist system. Thus, the multiethnic character of the rejection of capitalist state legitimacy is this system’s worst nightmare. People began to realize that what the history books held sacred was a lie. Those once defended as heroes were now exposed as villains.
The movement came in several waves — the first smaller and full of rage: police stations burned in Minneapolis, and stores like Target were smashed. Wealthy shopping districts were targeted across the country. The protests didn’t wane despite Democrats’ finger wagging and moralizing, from Barack Obama to Ilhan Omar; despite police repression with tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests by predominantly Democrats; and despite Donald Trump’s call on the right wing to hurt protesters. In fact, burning the Minneapolis police station was more popular than Joe Biden or Donald Trump. The protests got bigger. Then came the masses, with huge marches called across the country every day — multigenerational marches throughout the day that spoke about all Black lives, including women and trans* people. At night, thousands of mostly young people broke curfew and got arrested in cities across the country. In cities like Los Angeles working-class youth stormed wealthy neighborhoods, disrupting their complacency. On Juneteenth, over a million people mobilized, and the ILWU shut down the ports on the West Coast. Then came occupations in New York City and Seattle and later, the famous “Wall of Moms” in Portland using leaf blowers to combat tear gas. And now, as we come close to the elections, there are small actions by a continued radicalized vanguard continuing to protest police murders, and an eruption in Philadelphia against the murder of Walter Wallace Jr., which have not waned.
Reform and Revolution
There were some important victories won through the protests. Schools and universities in several cities across the country pulled cops from school. No-knock warrants and choke holds were banned in some cities, and in others, changes were brought against the cops who killed George Floyd, and police chiefs were toppled in over a dozen cities.
Increasingly, the movement made defunding the police its central demand, with a vanguard taking up the slogan of abolishing the police. This is a very progressive step: U.S. police departments are among the most highly funded in the world, and the stark contrast between healthcare workers wearing trash bags and riot cops wearing sci-fi-looking gear during the protests could not be more stark. In New York City, there was an entire occupation set up to demand the defunding of the police by $1 billion, which would have left the police budget at $5 billion. Increasing numbers of young people identify as police and prison abolitionists, seeing defunding as an “abolitionist demand” that the movement can consistently build on while building up alternative systems.
While some police budgets were minimally cut, the movement’s central demand of defunding the police remains unaccomplished. In Minneapolis, the City Council sought to tame the movement by promising to dismantle the police department, an empty promise to buy time. Nothing of the sort will occur. In New York City, the police budget was merely restructured, and cities like LA cut police budgets by large amounts numerically, but percentage-wise, it was a drop in the police budget’s bucket. Further still, in places like New York City, austerity budgets that included cuts to the public sector were passed.
The demand of abolition, which increasing sectors of the vanguard support, is no small one — it is a demand that could be accomplished only by a revolution: one that ended the system of exploitation and inequality inherent to capitalism. Just as you can’t abolish slave catchers without abolishing slavery, you can’t abolish cops without abolishing capitalism. After all, you can’t have a society with Jeff Bezos the trillionaire and millions of homeless and unemployed people on the verge of eviction without cops to protect that system. That is what was so powerful about the demand to abolish the police: it questions an essential pillar of capitalism. But the fight to end this system is not theoretical; it is not about changing hearts and minds or “killing the cop in your head.” It’s not an imaginative project or a cultural one, but one that should be set on a material basis, to chart a path to end the cops and the capitalist system it protects — to organize against all its the opponents with the power of the organized working class.
Where Is the Working Class?
Overwhelmingly, it was the multiracial U.S. working class that was in the streets, including unemployed people, service-sector workers, teachers, nurses, and more. In fact, across the country, teachers held actions calling for cops out of schools, pointing to the exorbitant police budgets and the lack of counselors in schools. Students and families joined these protests, chanting “We want books, not cops!” Other workers on the job stood in solidarity: in Minneapolis and New York City, bus drivers refused to transport protesters arrested in the movement. It was a moment of unprecedented unity of a multi-racial working class in support of Black lives, a working class that the bosses have consistently used racism to divide. However, organized labor did not play a central role in advancing the movement — a problem that is first and foremost the fault of the bureaucrats that lead the unions.
Yet , around the country, some union locals took up demands to kick cops out of their unions, arguing that cops aren’t workers but rather repressors of the working class. They are the people called in to escort scabs in strikes and beat up workers on picket lines. Cops kill union members like Philando Castille, yet police unions have historically defended, and continue to defend, the most violent racist, rapist police. In the first Black Lives Matter movement, Left Voice took this up, with SEIU Local 721 Black and Latino Caucuses voting to kick cops out of their unions. SEIU Drop the Cops is a national rank-and-file-led fight for disaffiliation. SEIU has 2 million members in the U.S. Throughout the labor movement unions like the Writers Guild of America-East made calls to kick cops out of their union. The Martin Luther King County Labor Council, which represents more than 100,000 workers in the Seattle area, voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild. On the other hand, despite a great deal of rank and file support, the leaders of the AFL-CIO rejected calls to kick cops out of unions, or even so much as hold rank-and-file discussions about it.
And the most important militant action of the working class came on Juneteenth, when the ILWU shut down the entire West Coast port system — 29 ports in total — and held a massive rally in Oakland. This it not the first time the ILWU has engaged in such actions — calling for justice for Oscar Grant, who was murdered by the Bay Area transit police as well as a port shut down during the Occupy movement.
Further, in July this year, tens of thousands of workers in 200 cities across the United States participated in work actions as a part of the SEIU’s “Strike for Black Lives.” The mobilizations were organized by 60 different unions and organizations — significantly smaller numbers than the actual support for the movement from the working class. This included car caravans and nine-minute work stoppages. Yet it did not include full-day strikes or large shutdowns of any sector of the economy. And then in August, NBA players refused to play in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
These were important actions that expressed the depth of the crisis. They show that sectors of the working class want to take action for Black lives and recognize the police for what they are: the descendants of slave patrols. But the working class of various sectors did not engage in independent mass actions. In other words, the working class, as a class, organized in their workplaces, taking action to address police violence and the massive funds spent on police. There were no mass multi-day strikes, citywide or country-wide. The working class, through its organizations, was not recognized as an independent actor, it did not “break in,” putting forward a distinct program or pushing for specific demands. No significant sector of the labor movement called for a strike until Breonna Taylor’s killers were charged, until the police were defunded or until the mayor and governors who repressed the movement were forced to step down.
In other words, while most protesters were working class, the working class did not intervene with its own methods in the struggle except in the exceptions mentioned above. This is because the organizations of the working class, the unions, refused to organize and even actively opposed expressions of Black Lives Matter by the labor movement, from kicking cops out of our unions to work stoppages. This is important because, indeed, it is the working class that runs all of society and makes all the profits for the capitalists. Independent worker actions could call into question bourgeois hegemony; it would call into question reliance on capitalist politicians to solve systemic racism. It questions the idea that union leaders continue to peddle: that voting is the only way out of the crisis, as the only way to get things done. It puts another hegemonic actor on the stage: the working class can address racism, resolve the crisis, and run all of society. It could call into question the capitalist politicians who run society and bring the question to the fore: Who actually runs society?
While some workers may have wanted to engage in more radicalized actions — and indeed, many workers were in the streets — we must look to the union leadership to interrogate why workers did not participate in the movement using their own method, the strike. These organizations that supposedly represent the working class pretend that workers are powerless, demanding that workers place their hopes in a Democratic Party who is anti-worker and anti-Black. They are tied to the Democratic Party, who demand that staffers canvass for Democrats. In order to engage in real working-class actions in support of Black lives, workers need to fight the leadership of their unions.
We should also ask why the Left, and specifically the largest left organization in the U.S., the DSA, did not try to chart an independent path for socialists and the working class, independent from the graveyard of social movements, the Democratic Party and in confrontation against the union bureaucracy.
“When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts”
Fighting systemic racism means fighting the Republican and Democratic parties — the two parties of the U.S. racist, capitalist system. This was evident in relation to the Trump administration, who is running a law-and-order campaign against antifa and implicitly, against BLM. It was evident in his alarming “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” comment, which failed to mobilize massive numbers of neofascists, but did embolden sectors to run over protesters with cars and show up with guns at protests, and ultimately led Kyle Rittenhouse to kill two BLM activists. His law-and-order rhetoric resulted in dangerous actions, like tear-gassing protesters so that he could walk across the White House lawn and hold up a Bible — which got so much pushback that even military commanders had to distance themselves. And the law-and-order measures included sending in federal agents to repress protesters in Portland — kidnapping several while they were walking home from protests.
But what the Democrats would like to have us forget is that most of the repression against protesters didn’t happen by Republicans. They happened in blue states. In fact, Minnesota, where the uprising began, is governed from top to bottom by Democrats: from the governor, to the mayor, to the attorney general to the district attorney to the City Council. In fact, Amy Klobuchar failed to press charges against Derek Chauvin in a previous act of police brutality when she was the district attorney of Hennepin County. It was Democrats who, in city after city, created curfews, locked up protesters, and in some cities used tear gas. Democrats refused to defund the police. It is clear: the Democrats hold up the same racist, capitalist system as the Republicans, although they are extraordinarily adept at convincing people that it is primarily the Republicans who are to blame.
The Democrats are the “graveyard of social movements.” They don’t just repress — they try to speak as if they were on the side of the movement. In this uprising, Black leaders first attempted to divide the movement, speaking as the people who really care about the success of the movement, peddling the myth of outside “outside agitators,” and asking that people stay home, as Ilhan Omar and Keisha Lance Bottoms did. This didn’t work. As the movement became more massive, refusing to be divided by this rhetoric, these figures tried to turn the movement into a huge campaign rally for the Democrats. Barack Obama is perhaps the most adept at this. In a Medium post with George Floyd’s memorial on the cover, Obama wrote, “So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.” In other words, channel this energy into the Democratic Party.
While the movement engaged in radicalized actions, and while the movement put forward radical calls that questioned the funding of the police and even called to abolish the police, the movement did not, on a mass scale, break with the Democratic Party as a party of capital. That meant that Kamala Harris could walk among the movement, despite being “Top Cop” herself. In Minneapolis, certainly one of the most radicalized cities, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a rally, but Ilhan Omar was applauded, despite her earlier attempts to divide the movement with the myth of “outside agitators.” Bourgeois hegemony was not broken because no power was great enough to compete with the mass liberal notion of voting (for the Democrats) to create change. The working class did not break bourgeois hegemony.
“Settle for Biden”
After the fiery months of June and July, the mass movement began to wane. Throughout the summer, the proposal to protest and vote (Democrat) was in the air and on the lips of every Democratic Party politician. Angela Davis, known as a revolutionary and prison abolitionist, endorsed Joe Biden, lending credence to Obama’s protest and vote rhetoric. This is no surprise coming from Davis — she’s supported the Democrats for decades. But it was employed strategically by the capitalists in this conjuncture. A meme circulated, titled “She’s settling for Biden. Why can’t you?,” used unsarcastically against the youth who had been in the streets. This is the strategy that the Democratic Party employed against different social movements: to feign support for the movement, then impose the perspective of “pragmatism,” that is, we won’t be able to “abolish the police,” so we need to settle for electing a president who presents himself as the friend of working people of color, but who calls for more funding for police and for “shooting Black people in the leg instead of the head.” Settle for Biden, as the popular social media group proudly states.
As the movement waned, Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate; if elected, she will be the first Black and Indian American woman to serve as vice president. The strategy raked in $48 million in 48 hours and reinvigorated the Biden campaign, drinking from the energy of the BLM movement. It is true that Harris’s candidacy is historic in a country structured against Black women. From wearing Timbs to her pursed lips and facial expressions in the Harris-Pence debate, Harris can seem familiar to Black folks. The Democrats would have you believe that representation is the same as liberation. But a Black woman’s face on white supremacist politics has not and will not improve the lives of Black women. Harris’s politics have been to attack Black people and other oppressed and working-class people — her time as “top cop” in California meant an expansion of the prison system, pursuing draconian truancy laws, making massive arrests of Black people for nonviolent drug offenses, locking up trans* women in men’s prisons, and more. This is why the Democrats must focus on her mannerisms, clothes, and superficial representation: Harris continues to prove that she is politically, ideologically, and qualitatively an enemy of Black people, as is the Democratic Party. And with the help of unions and nonprofits, this is working for the Democrats.
Now many of the groups who were championing the Black-led, multiethnic youth in the streets now are telling those same youth to be “pragmatic.” That we must bite the bullet (again) and vote for Biden, who coauthored the 1994 crime bill used to mass-arrest Black people. People enraged at the live suffocation of George Floyd by police, at the impunity the killer cops received for murdering Breonna Taylor as she slept, the murder of trans* man Tony McDade and countless others — we need to vote for Top Cop Kamala Harris because she talks and looks like us.
Some liberals claim leftists who refuse to vote for Biden are privileged — meaning these people will suffer little consequences by refusing to “vote Trump out.” The argument is deployed especially against white activists, erasing the fact that people of color, immigrants, queer, and trans* people are also refusing to vote for Biden. It also erases the fact that white workers will also be hurt by neoliberal austerity measures. After all, the Obama-Biden administration bailed out the banks in 2008, leaving workers of all races and ethnicities to suffer. It is true that white people have certain rights and privileges that are not afforded to people of color, like better treatment by police, and sometimes marginally better pay. These rights and privileges are often used to divide and buy off a sector of the white working class. But when oppressed and working-class people have forced concessions, it was because they rose up, rioted, went on strike, and threatened the social order, not because we voted the lesser evil. To quote the former political prisoner and Black Panther Party member Dhouruba bin-Wahad, “It’s not the duty of the slave to reform the plantation.”
Some Democrats have also claimed that this election cycle is a vote between democracy and fascism. Although Trump curries favor with neofascist groups, they are still marginal, and the U.S. is not on the verge of fascism. But even if we were, the Democratic Party has not built an organized resistance to fascism. They just use the term “fascism” as a bogeyman to get people to the polls. Voting will not stop the rise of the Far Right, and after the election, we will have to fight, whichever party’s representative is president.
The Nonprofit Bureaucracy
The Democrats’ co-option of the movement is further helped along by the nonprofit machine, which plays an important role in oppressed communities. Around the country, nonprofits are phone and text banking to get activists out to vote for Biden. This includes VOCAL-NY, one of the main organizers of a City Hall encampment to defund the police.
And although the Black Lives Matter movement is much larger than Black Lives Matter™, the nonprofit associated with BLM — the media coverage provided for this nonprofit is important, and they are pushing people to the polls. Their August “Black National Convention,” viewed by tens of thousands of Black progressives involved in the movement, called for voting “against Trump.” And the Black Lives Matter Network website states, “Our visionary Brother Malcolm X saw the vote as a tactic in the larger strategy for freedom. And as we approach one of the most important elections of our lifetime, we must continue to rise above. We must continue to thrive and intensify efforts of Black liberation — and we will do so at the polls.” It is an affront to Malcolm X’s legacy to use him as a way to get Black people in particular to vote for the Democratic Party, given that Malcolm X denounced both Democrats and Republicans: “I’m one of the 22 million black victims of the Democrats. One of the 22 million black victims of the Republicans and one of the 22 million black victims of Americanism. And when I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat or a Republican, nor an American. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy — all we’ve seen is hypocrisy.”
Why would the Black Lives Matter organization support the Democratic Party? Although many BLM chapters have militant slogans, many also have received funds from wealthy organizations and donors. Taking donations from corporations like Google or the Ford Foundation inevitably blunts combative strategy — which why capitalists give money in the first place. In 2016, Left Voice wrote a critique of the M4BL platform, which included some good ideas but offered a strategy that amounted only to a policy brief with the goal of saving the capitalist system.
NGO-ization takes a militant movement on the streets and puts a bureaucracy on top of it. One hundred years ago, massive bureaucracies developed in the unions — a layer of privileged officials who no longer defend the interests of their members, but rather of their own social status. NGOs represent a similar phenomenon in social movements. They create a layer of “professional” activists who monopolize decision making, and they make up a social layer distinct from the people on the streets. As a result, their function — whether they intend to or not — ends up being mediation between the oppressed and their oppressors. NGOs are, in a sense, even worse than union bureaucracies, because the latter are more or less dependent on workers, whereas the former need support from the oppressor class. And these nonprofits are currently playing a role in encouraging the movement to get out the vote for Biden.
What Could Have Been?
And so here we are — a few days from the elections, with two racist capitalist choices. With two presidential candidates running explicit law-and-order campaigns, and a radicalized right wing emboldened by the Trump administration. And large sectors of the movement see voting the lesser evil as a part of their Black Lives Matter activism. In the meantime, police violence against Black people continues, Breonna Taylor’s murderers were not charged, and Derek Chauvin gets to await trial from the comfort of his own home.
But this outcome wasn’t inevitable. Three key subjective elements were missing to shift the relation of forces:
- Independent working-class action. To raise the question of power, of who actually runs society, an alternative must be posed. Only the working class can pose such a question. Black folks, although overwhelmingly working class, cannot do this. An Obama or a Harris always emerges to highlight that Black people can captain this racist, capitalist ship.But the working class can pose the question of power. Who runs the buses — the bosses or the bus drivers? Who runs the supermarkets — the bosses or the workers? And the working class, during the Black Lives Matter movement, was overwhelmingly on the side of Black Lives — overwhelmingly on the side of Breonna Taylor against the killer cops, of George Floyd and of other victims of police violence. A working class that not only fights for the bread-and-butter demands of their narrow job, but also takes up the defense of all oppressed people — that is a working class that can really dispute power. And this was missing in the uprising: strikes. Mass strikes or even a general strike to really pose the question of power, which means fighting the union bureaucracy to mobilize, as well as to increase unionization among the most exploited and precarious sectors of the working class.
- Rank-and-file democracy. The movement, from the rallies in the streets to the labor actions, was not governed by rank-and-file democracy — by assemblies to propose steps to take. That is, use our workplaces and neighborhoods as places to engage politically. The Democratic Party could co-opt the movement, and Trump could openly suppress it, partly because there existed no spaces of debate. After protests in which people engaged with the police, took over freeways, and possibly got arrested, there were few places where people could discuss their experiences and democratically decide what to do next. This meant that existing leaders of nonprofits and unions got to make a lot of the decisions for the movement. Furthermore, in the workplaces discussions of political situations were not supported by the union leadership and were instead controlled by the bosses. Capitalists around the country made their workers suffer through hollow talks on “racism” and “implicit bias,” but the union didn’t hold democratic forums to organize as a labor movement.We are so insistent about the need for assemblies because they help the rank and file fight the bureaucrats’ control of unions and NGOs. Assemblies where everyone active in the movement can participate are essential to let everyone discuss and take responsibility for the big political discussions. And assemblies can form the basis of workers’ councils — organs that unite all workers and oppressed people around actions for their common interests. Councils can form the basis of a workers’ government and a totally new form of society. Assemblies and other forms of self-organization are the only way that the broad masses can learn about revolutionary ideas and be won over for them. For us, fighting for self-organization is a strategic question in the fight for socialism. We call that a soviet strategy.
- A revolutionary socialist Left. Critical in organizing independent working-class actions, in organizing rank-and-file democracy, is a socialist left deeply embedded in the Black community and the labor movement. In the decades of neoliberalism, the legacy of Black socialists has been erased — murdered, incarcerated, disappeared from history books — giving way to the stereotype of the white intellectual as the prototype. And indeed, if one looks at the biggest socialist organization in the country, it is overwhelmingly white. This makes it easier for liberals to co-opt the movement, often employing cynical identity politics to bring support back into the Democratic Party. The movement necessitated a socialist Left with a strong and determined sector of Black leaders, who could denounce police violence and the brutal conditions that Black people are subjected to in a country where the legacy of slavery remains in every aspect of society. Speaking from within Black communities, not outside them, is necessary to highlight the fight against the racist capitalist system, as well as the fight liberal identity politics, and to play a role in building independent actions of the multiracial working class in defense of Black lives.
But it’s not just up to Black socialists; a multiracial working class organization can and should play a role in the movement in the streets and in workplaces to organize rank-and-file democracy and to propose and advocate strikes, fighting the union bureaucracy, which exists to contain the movement.
The biggest U.S. socialist group, the DSA, was not up to the task of the moment. While individual members of the DSA participated in the movement and many got arrested, the organization did not make the success of the movement a political priority. They didn’t mobilize their forces nationally and in a coordinated manner, as they did in the Sanders campaign.
Many leaders of the DSA hold up Karl Kautsky, the chief theoretician of the old German social democracy, as a model. And there is in fact an analogy here. Faced with the uprisings, DSA leaders were not just timid, or distracted by the Sanders campaign — they saw no role for themselves as a socialist organization with tens of thousands of members to drive the struggle forward. This reflects what Karl Kautsky wrote in 1909:
The socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.
This kind of “attentism,” passively waiting for revolution, characterized the SPD in 1909. The DSA today is much to the right of this — not necessarily seeing itself as a revolutionary organization, but their lack of vision for themselves in playing a role in this uprising is analogous. Further, rather than fight to break the movement’s ties to the Democratic Party, the DSA echoed the Democrats’ call to protest and vote as the strategy forward. Rosa Luxemburg had a radically different proposal:
The social democrats … cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which in every spontaneous peoples’ movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events. This they cannot do, however, by suddenly issuing the “slogan” for a mass strike at random at any odd moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat the inevitable advent of this revolutionary period, the inner social factors making for it and the political consequences of it.
And Luxemburg’s ideas show the kind of socialist party we need in the U.S. today: one that is at the forefront of advancing the movement’s organization and politics, of fighting to break with the Democratic Party’s hold on social movements, and organizing the strength of the working class for Black lives.
Charting a Path to Revolution?
Although many of the protests have waned, the fury at and political consciousness of the role of the police and racism has not disappeared. People are still seething, and the police have not stopped killing. Smaller uprisings have occurred in Philadelphia, Providence, and Kenosha. We will see another movement rise against police violence. Indeed, the well of rage at hundreds of years of oppression may well be the motor for revolution in the United States.
But a revolt does not become a revolution automatically. This requires organization, strategy, political debate, and action based on that debate. It requires a revolutionary organization made up of a vanguard of the working class and oppressed playing a role in organizing rank-and-file democracy and independent actions of the working class. The Democrats and Republicans will attempt to co-opt and repress social movements, especially when the momentum slows. This is why it is crucial to build a class-independent organization. This party could argue for its goals while leaving capitalists and imperialists unable to control and buy off its members. It could then win over the fighters, thinkers, and actors in class struggle and struggles of the oppressed to revolutionary socialist ideas and to build for that internationally.
Many Americans believed that uprisings occur elsewhere — that they are impossible here. They aren’t. And revolutions aren’t either. And when the predecessors of the enslaved people who built this country rise up in the just rage of hundreds of years of oppression, with them can rise the rest of the multiracial working class against this system of exploitation and oppression. In describing the strength of a united, multiracial working class, C. L. R. James explains,
The racial prejudice that now stands in the way will bow before the tremendous impact of the proletarian revolution … That is the prognosis of the future. In Africa, in America, in the West Indies, on a national and international scale, the millions of Negroes will raise their heads, rise up from their knees, and write some of the most massive and brilliant chapters in the history of revolutionary socialism.