Chicago-based socialist and union activist, Joe Allen, assesses the current moment and the challenges and opportunities facing the Left.
Extraordinary political events have shaken the United States since the police murder of George Floyd, and the sheer scale and size of the fight against police terror is unprecedented. Well over a thousand cities, suburbs, and small towns across each of the fifty states have seen Black Lives Matter protests. The New York Times estimated that by July 3, “15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.”
The national uprising spread internationally and left few institutions untouched, while the major political parties and their proxies scrambled to respond. The toppling of long-hated symbols—from Confederate monuments to statutes of Christopher Columbus and local thugs like Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, along with the destruction of the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis—are actions reminiscent of past revolutions, echoing the overthrow of Stalinism in 1989-1991 or Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. That millions took to the streets during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic tells us something about the deep rage unleashed.
Are we witnessing the beginning of a new era of militant mass struggle, or is this just a flash in the pan, an episodic explosion? The crises and polarization of recent U.S. history that brought us to this moment strongly suggest the former. The combativity and radicalism of the demonstrators, overwhelmingly led by multiracial youth, have propelled the demand to defund the police, long a goal of the radical prison abolitionist movement, to the center of national political debate. To say this is extraordinary is an understatement. It has called into question the very nature of the capitalist state, in one of the most powerful and most stable nation-states of the last century.
President Donald Trump’s threats to unleash “ominous weapons,” “vicious dogs,” and to deploy active duty troops—he later had to back down—further radicalized protesters. It was left to an array of Democratic governors and mayors across the country to use police and National Guard troops to attempt to crush the protests. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female mayor, took a hard line against protesters. At the height of demonstrations in the week following Floyd’s murder, she raised the bridges and limited public access to the business and government district in Chicago’s affluent downtown Loop.
Undeterred, demonstrations continued across Chicago and the rest of the country. More than 14,000 people have been arrested nationally, while in New York City 47 police cars were damaged or destroyed. Nothing like this has happened in the U.S. in fifty years, not even during the years of urban revolts and mass protests against the Vietnam War. That last generation of rebellion took place during the end of the post-World War II economic boom, while today the United States is mired in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Even before the economic collapse triggered by the COVID-19, four decades of one-sided class war meant that half of U.S. residents were already living in or near poverty.
The insurrectionary quality and radical demands of the uprising have shifted national politics dramatically to the left and forced quick concessions from a discredited political establishment. It should remind us of the observation, made by the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin that, “During a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life.” It’s not just that there is a new willingness to confront the United States’ racist past and the racist policies of its brutal police forces, but what is at work is a deeper longing for a dramatic shift in politics across the board.
The lid is off
To put it bluntly: the lid has come off the smoldering powder keg of U.S. society. Even some thinking sections of the conservative establishment media have taken notice. The National Review, the long-time voice of “respectable” conservatism, declared on June 6:
And yet something else seems to be happening, something that suggests these events are a harbinger of even more serious upheavals in the years ahead. These upheavals will not be averted by justice being done in Floyd’s case, or by reforms in policing, however overdue they may be. And these upheavals will be “about” a lot more than race. To understand why, it’s necessary to appreciate that the protests over Floyd’s death were both a sincerely felt reaction to an appalling incident, and another round in a broader social and generational fight.
Long-time Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald F. Seib looked at the current political landscape and asked, “When does a country reach a tipping point—a point when the citizenry concludes that things are simply spinning out of control, and that something different is required?” Quoting business historian Ron Chernow, Seib concludes, “My guess is that we are seeing a situation that is of the deep and lasting variety.”
Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar sees in the uprising the potential for a new labor movement. Her reasoning for this is pretty straightforward:
The economic divide is about as stark as it was the last time the country saw this kind of social unrest, in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. But while the marchers then were mainly Black, and the organizers were civil rights leaders from African American communities, today’s Black Lives Matter protests are much more diverse. They are happening in some overwhelmingly white communities—places like Boise, Idaho, and Colorado—as well as in multicultural cities such as New York.
The multiple shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic—the economic collapse, the national uprising against racism, and the tottering position of U.S. imperialism—have not only radicalized a large section of the U.S. population but also isolated the Trump administration from large sections of the U.S. ruling class. Trump has tarnished the image of U.S. imperialism across the globe so badly and mismanaged the pandemic with such dire economic consequences that a sweeping victory of the Democrats in the fall elections is a virtual certainty. This is despite the candidacy of Joe Biden, a living fossil of twentieth century U.S. politics, accurately called “yesterday’s man.”
Challenges for the U.S. Left
During the last five years, the U.S. left has gone through a rebirth that has surprised many of its own adherents and bewildered the U.S. political establishment. This is best represented by the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now claims more than seventy thousand members. Much of DSA’s growth can be attributed to Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, especially the 2016 campaign that put the term “democratic socialism” back into mainstream politics. While Sanders’ politics were always a very mild version of socialism, more like New Deal liberalism, in the dry wasteland of mainstream U.S. politics, he has been celebrated as a radical who inspired a generation of young people to become socialists.
The political opening for Sanders was created by the political response to the 2008 Great Recession. When President Barack Obama continued the bank bailout policies of the Bush administration—resulting in a massive transfer of wealth upwards, from the poor to the rich—it opened up a big space for radical politics. The Occupy movement, the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement created the conditions for Sanders’ insurgent campaign that nearly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The rapid demise of Sanders’ 2020 campaign—he had already been doing demonstrably worse than four years earlier—following his Super Tuesday losses caused enormous confusion, especially since many on the left, exemplified by Jacobin magazine1, thought Bernie was going to win.
But the issues went deeper than a failed perspective. For many on the left, Sanders’ campaigns became the primary terrain of engagement, appearing to settle long rancorous debates on strategic political questions—ostensibly demonstrating, for example, the triumph of reform over revolution, the effectiveness of using the Democratic Party ballot line for socialist candidates, the fertile soil of election campaigns as arenas for struggle, the success of a class-first approach to fighting racism, and, finally, the imperative of building a broad party instead of revolutionary organizations. While this was always illusory, the failures of the Sanders campaign, and now the national uprising, have again thrown open many of these “settled questions” or at the very least prompted a more critical examination of them.
Black liberation has been put back at the center of the socialist project in the U.S., and the rebellion has sparked a new debate about strategic goals both in and around DSA. Mass struggle in the streets has shown itself more effective in shifting political debate and achieving concrete results than years of electoral campaigning. Long ago in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels taught us that class struggle is the motor force of history. The national uprising proved this once again.
When Sanders put himself forward as one of the first national politicians to oppose defunding police departments, it revealed how political figures who can appear radical in one context can migrate very quickly in the opposite direction. This recalls figures such as Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington, social democrats of the 1960s who were part of the left wing of the civil rights movement who then shifted rightwards to become defenders of the liberal establishment, and in the process marginalizing themselves from the burgeoning Vietnam antiwar movement.
There is great potential for a different kind of U.S. socialist movement to emerge from this national uprising in the coming years. For one, those who argue that “anti-racism” is the politics of the neoliberal elite or the expression of a professional-managerial class, such as Adolph Reed and his supporters, will be consigned to the proverbial dust bin of history.
The national uprising has also taught us that socialists need to be nimbler on our feet. Thousands of DSA members have individually taken to the streets since George Floyd’s murder, yet the dramatic shift in politics caught the organization as a whole off guard. The reason for this, I believe, is the heavy emphasis that DSA placed on electoral campaigns as markers of political success even during the national uprising. How a political organization determines the tasks of the day and what comes next takes the input of hundreds, if not, thousands of comrades and activists.
Another challenge for DSA is to create permanent democratic structures in order to facilitate having debates about perspectives and strategy out in the open. Whatever our initial expectations about the direction of a movement, we must make our organizations democratically responsive. In 1930, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote:
Even though the actual development of the struggle never fully corresponds with the prognosis, that does not absolve us from having recourse to political prediction. One must not, however, become intoxicated by finished schemas but continually check on the course of the historic process and conform oneself with its indications.
What is to be done?
The first phase of the national uprising peaked on June 6 when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States. Demonstrations have continued in a more scattered fashion since then, and many activists have begun to focus on local campaigns to defund the police and kick cops out of public schools. The Chicago DSA chapter, for example, voted to establish a “Defund the CPD, fund our communities” campaign. These are worthy campaigns, and any national movement has to be rooted in such local struggles.
But there is a danger of the movement becoming just another campaign for municipal reform that misses the big political opportunity of the moment.
I think Martin Schoots-McAlpine, in a recent Monthly Review online article, overstates his argument when he writes, “How, within the space of two weeks, [did we go] from burning down a police station to making small budgetary demands?” After all, moving billions of dollars away from policing to funding schools and other desperately needed programs for underfunded Black and Brown communities would make a demonstrable difference in people’s lives. It would also mark a huge political defeat for some of the most reactionary political forces in the country. Yet, I think Schoots-McAlpine’s political point is valid. As liberals, NGOs, the Democratic establishment, and allied trade unions rush in to defang the defund movement, will we be able to use these local fights to strengthen a longer-term abolitionist and socialist strategy?
For Marxists, the police and other armed forces of the state are not some cancerous growth on a healthy body of American democratic governance. These “special bodies of armed men” are the very essence of capitalist class rule. In the two weeks following the murder of George Floyd, when the uprising was burgeoning across the country, the capitalist state showed its sharp teeth and was stripped down to its bare essentials. Political power was exercised by two executives—in most cases, governors and mayors—working with police chiefs, National Guard commanders, and the help of federal “intelligence” efforts to put down the uprising with violent force and mass arrests. The democratic veneer of the capitalist state—state legislatures and city councils—became irrelevant. Our movement was nonetheless able to prevail and stay mobilized for a significant period of time.
But if we are to defeat such a potent political force, we need to begin to construct new mass organizations that can marshal the potential economic and political power of the multiracial U.S. working class. The Communist Party and other radicals created the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized the non-union bastions of the industrial economy in the 1930s. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged out of more conservative organizations to be the vanguard of the Black liberation and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Today’s DSA emerged out of a moribund version of itself over the last few years—and can be central to creating lasting democratic mass organizations, fit for this task.
What will the millions of demonstrators do in the workplaces, union but mostly non-union, over the next few months as they are pushed back to work in dangerous health and safety conditions? With a new insurgent attitude towards racism, it’s hard to believe that this won’t have an importance in the U.S. workplace and union movement. A new Black insurgency could not only raise the level of struggle, but dramatically shift discussions in the unions and their associated reform movements, which at present tepidly, if at all, deal with racism in both the workplace and union structures.
Socialists in the United States today need to think in bigger terms coming out of the most important uprising in modern history. We need to help create the type of national anti-racist organization—some speak of a new SNCC—that can truly defund the police and continue a transformation of our oppressive society. The twenty million people who came out on the streets following George Floyd’s murder show that we have the forces to do that, if they are organized.
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Joe Allen is a longtime labor activist and educator. He is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service. He has compiled several reading lists for labor activists that cover the rank and file strategy, the auto unions and auto industry, and, most recently, the upcoming Teamster election.