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The Uprising and the Challenge Facing Socialists

25-Aug-2020Ty Moore

The mass uprising for Black lives is, in many ways, a perfect response to the cascading crises of global capitalism. Arising out of the horrific yet all-too-familiar racist murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and then George Floyd, the protests erupted in Minneapolis just 47 days after Bernie Sanders’ conceded defeat, which temporarily disoriented and atomized the US left. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating economic crisis meant the need for an independent working-class political response was more vital than ever.

With Sanders and other left leaders attempting to channel the “political revolution” behind Biden’s empty corporate campaign, it was left to the youth of America—with Black youth in the lead—to seize the initiative and organize a serious challenge to both Trump and the Democratic establishment.

The uprising for Black Lives delivered a powerful body-blow to the Trump administration, already deeply weakened by its bungled response to the pandemic. Of course nothing is certain, but with the intertwined public health and economic disasters still raging, Trump and the Republicans appear headed toward defeat in November. Under these conditions, it is the Democrats’ race to lose. Yet given the complete lack of enthusiasm for Biden and the party’s corporate establishment, millions remain fearful they will again blow it, with devastating consequences.

The outcome of this election does matter. While we completely disagree with those on the left who, fearing Trump, are actively disorienting left-wing workers by whipping up illusions in Biden/Harris and the corporate Democrats, we do agree that the terrain of the class struggle will be significantly different depending on which of the two deeply divided wings of the US capitalist establishment emerges victorious in November. In this context, the debate on the left over tactics for the 2020 presidential elections remains consequential.

At the same time, no matter what the exact outcome, mass disgust with both wings of the capitalist establishment is set to grow. While the year ahead will be thick with tragedy and widespread suffering, the potential exists for the US left to re-emerge as a bright ray of hope for millions. Especially in Black and other communities of color, the uprising has already begun to achieve this. To carry out the necessary transition from mass protest to mass politics, and to fully tap the wider potential, the initiative and decisions of the 70,000-strong Democratic Socialists of America could prove decisive.

This third print edition of Reform & Revolution, dedicated largely to the BLM uprising, aims to provide a clear Marxist analysis of the historic events we are passing through and, flowing from that, contribute to developing a program and a guide to action to help DSA seize the time. After skipping a planned Spring issue of this magazine due to the disruptions of the pandemic, this edition of R&R is packed with substantially more content than our previous issues, and includes more in-depth articles.

Uprising Enters a New Phase

The uprising for Black lives may be the largest in US history, both in numbers and geographic spread since the Civil War, the second American revolution. Less measurable, but central to the movement’s impact, is the intensity and duration of the protests. Following the initial uprising, marked by police riots and widespread property destruction, many cities have now seen over two months of ongoing protests. While the largest wave was mid-June, another crested in late July in response to Trump’s announcement that federal agents were moving into cities across the country to violently attack and kidnap protesters who the president dubbed “terrorists.”

Beyond the street protests, every institution in society is being shaken to its foundations. Challenges to the deep structural racism embedded into the fabric of US capitalism are emerging everywhere, as millions declare themselves in solidarity with BLM and challenge the silence or complicity of those around them. With the pandemic hitting Black and brown communities hardest, which we explore further in this magazine, anger is growing at the racism embedded into our for-profit healthcare system. Professional sports, from Nascar to the NFL, have been forced to embrace the BLM movement, with the NBA organizing an impressive display of solidarity as its season re-opened in late July. From corporate boardrooms to meatpacking plants, the anti-racist upsurge is leading to a profound shift in mass consciousness and deep questioning of US society.

For the new generation of activists, the need to link mass protests to a strategy to build political power is among the main lessons from the first wave of the BLM movement from 2013-2016. The same conclusion was drawn by the veterans of the 2011 Occupy movement, the climate strikes, #MeToo, Dreamers, and the whole wave of mass protests following Trump’s election. This understanding was given clearest expression in the mass support young people offered to Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. This sharpened political consciousness is also a central reason why DSA is growing so rapidly, as the rising generation attempts to construct a political organization capable of a sustained challenge to corporate power.

This is part of the background to the new phase the uprising appears to be entering. Protests and campaigns are increasingly focused around demands for city government to defund the police, among other policies to end police brutality and the systemic racism of the carceral state. One of our feature articles in this issue, “Unreformable: Police & the Capitalist State,” grapples with how to both win every reform possible within the framework of capitalism, while rooting campaigns to defund and dismantle repressive police machinery in the deeper fight for fundamental and lasting change, including police abolition, the overthrow of capitalist rule, and a socialist transformation of society.

That article is, in part, the product of the important debate within DSA—including within our own caucus—over how to link the growing calls to abolish the police to a wider socialist strategy. Reflecting a somewhat different emphasis on these questions, we’re also publishing an analysis of CHOP in Seattle, which many saw as an attempt to establish a police-free zone.

A central challenge facing DSA is how best, as a predominantly white organization only just beginning to establish a base in Black working-class communities, to offer effective solidarity and to bring our experience and socialist ideas into the living debates on the way forward. While the protests will continue to force through important reforms, socialists are far from the only activists to warn that the Democratic Party politicians who run most city governments—and who have overseen police departments for decades in many cases—cannot be relied upon. This harsh reality is opening huge possibilities for DSA to initiate or support movement-based election campaigns that link calls to re-allocate police budgets with a wider program of wealth redistribution to address the economic and public health crises.

From Mass Protest to Mass Politics

The huge potential to translate the mass scale of the movement into working-class political power is already apparent, as is the potential role that DSA could play. On July 23rd, a slate of five openly socialist candidates, backed by NYC DSA’s developing electoral machine, won their seats for New York state legislature. They all included the fight to defund the police and to end evictions in their platforms, and the uprising was clearly a factor fueling the energy of NYC-DSA campaigns.

“We couldn't have done it without NYC-DSA,” explained Zohran Mamdini, one of the candidates. “They were the first organization to endorse us and helped build every aspect of the campaign, from the field program to the communications strategy, that allowed us to overcome everything the establishment threw against us. I'm incredibly honored to have earned their support, and so proud to have run alongside a slate of comrades like Jabari, Phara, and Marcela. Together, we will tax the rich, heal the sick, house the poor, defund the police, and build a socialist New York."

The impact of the mass protests were also reflected in the decisive victories for “the Squad” against their corporate-backed Democratic challengers for Congress, alongside Jamaal Bowman’s victory over the powerful Democratic incumbent Eliot Engel.

Cori Bush speaking at a rallyEven where the left has not built as strong an electoral machine as NYC-DSA, the political power of the uprising for Black lives was on display in the successes of left-wing challengers across the country. In Missouri, a local Black Lives Matter activist from the Ferguson uprising, Cori Bush, won her congressional primary against long-standing incumbent, William Lacy Clay. She received endorsements from Bernie Sanders, AOC, and DSA. Included in her program are calls for housing and health care for all.

DSA-backed Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist who’s been calling out the racist inequalities in healthcare and the pandemic response, became the first Black woman to win a Tennessee primary for US Senate. Her main opponent, James Mackler, was backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and out-fundraised Bradshaw 250 times over ($2 million to $8,000) and still lost!

The success of these and other candidates underscores the potential role DSA can play in linking mass protests to building working-class political power. They add to DSA’s impressive chain of electoral victories in recent years from the six Chicago city councilors elected last year, to the successive waves of socialist triumphs in New York, broadening the horizons of what is possible for activists across the country. How effectively DSA connects with and fights for the demands emerging from the uprisings for Black lives remains a crucial question.

The organized left has a lot to learn from this movement, and we also have rich experiences and socialist ideas to offer the new wave of youthful activists awakened through the uprising. More clearly than ever, the protests again demonstrated that mass action and movements in the streets must be at the very core of any serious socialist strategy to build power, including our electoral strategy. Let’s seize this moment with both hands, and fight to establish the kind of mass multi-racial working-class movement needed to mount a serious challenge to the capitalist system.

Towards November

More immediately, the dumpster fire that is the 2020 presidential elections looms over everything. Despite mass hatred of Trump, millions are correctly worried that Biden’s weak and thoroughly establishment campaign could still lose.

With COVID-19 adding new obstacles to voting for millions of working people, and Trump’s campaign against mail-in balloting, a cloud of uncertainty surrounds this election. Trump’s immediate threats to undermine mail-in balloting through “cost-cutting” measures at the US Postal Service seem to have been paused under intense public pressure. But much damage has already been done, and the episode reveals the lengths Republican leaders are prepared to go to suppress the vote in progressive working class constituencies—especially in communities of color.

Hearings in Congress are not enough. We need to be ready for coordinated mass direct action to defend voting rights. In this political moment, with a bold lead from figures like Sanders, AOC, and especially the postal workers’ union, millions could be drawn into the streets.

Trump clearly remains very dangerous, but we should also be clear that his recent antics all reek of desperation and reflect the political tides turning against him. Barring a dramatic new political turn, a Biden/Harris victory alongside significant Democratic gains in Congress remains likely.

After Bernie’s defeat, the instinct of many socialists and BLM activists is, understandably, to simply avoid the terrible choice in front of us and focus our efforts on movement building. Yet up through November, the elections will increasingly dominate the discussion among tens of millions. In this context, if the organized left fails to publicly engage in the mass debate unfolding, the main impact is to simply leave the field clear for left-liberal Biden apologists to strengthen support for their mistaken strategy.

Alongside their display of broad establishment opposition to Trump, including from many Republicans, the Democrats’ virtual convention was effectively one long infomercial to whip up illusions in Biden, Harris, and the party leadership. Even in Sanders’ opening night address, he promised Joe Biden would really “fight" for a broad suite of progressive policies.

Former Sanders Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir claimed Biden “envisions a massive public sector role for job creation” (Vox.com, 7/18/20). Similarly, Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the Justice Democrats, argued Biden is running on “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party.” Shahid continued: “the most transformative presidents in our nation’s history — Lincoln, FDR, LBJ — were not ideologues fully aligned with the most radical movements of their time.”

This is a dangerously superficial spin on history, aimed at bolstering the growing idea that our movements have a potential partner in Biden, even if a half-hearted and tepid one. While there is no doubt that mass pressure from below can force Biden to the left, the ability of our movements to achieve this will be deeply undermined if we peddle the idea that Biden is a potential ally rather than a trusted representative of our class enemy (more specifically, of its liberal wing).

This same mistake is also a central lesson from the labor upsurge of the 1930s and the Civil Rights movement, when movements were undermined as liberal leaders preached false hopes in FDR and LBJ, even as these presidents ordered the National Guard to suppress strikes and protests. The attempt to draw a parallel between Lincoln and Biden is even more ludicrous: the former was the candidate of a new “third” party, shaped both a mass multi-racial abolitionist movement and the still-rising bourgeoisie, who combined to carry out a radical social revolution to destroy the Southern slavocracy.

Many on the left are also celebrating Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris for VP. It’s a reflection of the depths of US sexism and racism that Harris is the first Black woman on a major party presidential ticket, but tragic that they chose a prosecutor for the war on drugs to fill that role. In reality, this choice represents a careful pivot away from Biden’s short-lived series of empty gestures to win over Sanders’ young, diverse base. As The New York Times observed (8/11/20), Harris is a “pragmatic moderate who spent most of her career as a prosecutor,” and “among the safest choices available to Mr. Biden. She has been a reliable ally of the Democratic establishment, with flexible policy priorities that largely mirror Mr. Biden’s.”

Unless these illusions in Biden/Harris are actively combatted now, they will act to disorient and demobilize protest movements at every level: fights like defunding the police or stopping budget cuts require confrontation, not accommodation, with the Democratic Party establishment in order to win.

In this context, we are publishing a debate among members of Seattle DSA over a proposal for DSA to support the strongest left protest candidate in “safe states.” As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara argued, in a debate published in The Nation, a vote for Howie Hawkins, a democratic socialist, pushes back against the dominant strategy on the US left, including from Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that “would have a young democratic socialist movement use its finite resources to defuse frustration with corporate party leaders and whip votes for Joe Biden. How is this a better choice for socialists than pursuing their own agenda, which envisions transformation rather than accommodation with the status quo, and which does not benefit Trump in any way?”

This debate among socialists over how to engage in the presidential election is just one feature of a wider debate over how DSA, and the working class more generally, can organize a more serious political challenge to the rule of big business in the years ahead. For DSA, which agreed to a “dirty break” strategy at our 2019 Convention, including the goal of building a mass workers’ party, Democratic control in Washington in 2021 will offer unprecedented opportunities to grow our movement.

Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress would enjoy a very short honeymoon, presiding over the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and an ongoing public health disaster. Attempts to lay blame at Trump’s feet would ring hollow with big majorities of their base who are demanding Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, defunding the police, abolishing ICE, and big hikes in corporate taxes to expand, not cut, education funding and social programs. There would be growing tensions and conflicts between an emboldened Left and the Democratic Party leadership, who are tied to corporate America and believe appealing to middle-class moderates is the key to electoral success. Already, establishment Democrats at the city and state level have enraged much of their base by authorizing police repression of the protests and deepening austerity as the economic downturn worsens.

What We Learned in the Great Recession

It’s worth looking back to 2009-2011, when the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, only to carry out the bailout of Wall Street even as foreclosures, budget cuts, and the demolition of living-wage jobs devastated working-class communities. Under Obama and Democratic rule, Black wealth in America was literally cut in half, mainly due to Wall Street’s illegal subprime loan schemes. Yet bank executives walked away with bonuses instead of jail time. The wave of popular revolt that propelled Obama and the Democrats to power was left deeply demoralized, disoriented, and disorganized.

In a grand historic irony, the failure of labor and left leaders to organize mass resistance to Obama and the Democrats meant that the Republicans—the most ferocious defenders of big business—emerged as the main political beneficiaries of the popular revolt against Wall Street. In the form of the populist Tea Party, the Republicans made sweeping gains in the 2010 and 2012 state and Congressional elections (though a weakened Obama still held onto the White House). The rise of Trump’s brand of far-right populism can be traced directly back to the Tea Party, and to the failure of labor and progressive leaders to provide working-class people a fighting lead against the entire political establishment in the first years of the Great Recession.

It was left to the Occupy protests of 2011 and the Ferguson BLM uprising of 2014 for the left to regain some initiative, to begin a real fight-back. And it wasn’t until Bernie’s historic 2016 campaign that the left found a real political expression to begin translating our power in the streets into sustained political power.

The experiences and mass struggles of the last decade means the working class today is politically in a much stronger position than it was when the last economic crisis washed over the country. But that is no guarantee the US left will successfully seize the moment. Even if Trump is defeated, in the tumultuous years ahead we can be confident the corporate Democrats will disappoint working people and offer endless opportunities for right-wing forces to regain the initiative. Amid the worst economic crisis in living memory, the only path to cut across an even more dangerous revival of the right is for the organized forces of the left and labor movement to construct a coherent, mass political challenge to corporate America. A sharp and sustained confrontation with the corporate Democrats at every level of government and society is therefore required to avoid the terrible mistakes labor and left leaders made after Obama’s election.

The Challenge Facing DSA

With DSA’s growing electoral strength, and with increasing numbers of socialist union activists joining our ranks, we have a growing responsibility to help ensure the left succeeds in the year ahead. The present uprising for Black lives is reshaping popular consciousness and bringing millions more into active struggle, but it remains an open question how effectively this mass movement will be sustained. Similarly, despite Bernie’s losses, the proud legacy and mass base built out of Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns offers tremendous potential to organize a mass political force in the years ahead. But what shape should this force take?

There is a lively and healthy debate in DSA around these exact questions, which already is a tremendous step forward compared to the position in which the left found itself at the onset of the Great Recession. Among other contributions, the widely read recent book by Jacobin’s Megan Day and Micah Uetricht, outlines a broad roadmap for our movement. In this third edition of our magazine, we review Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From The Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, laying out both the great strengths of the strategy outlined in this book as well as key points of disagreement.

In particular, we take up differences over what a “dirty break” strategy should look like, and the need for DSA to more actively, consciously, and publicly prepare the ground for a mass working-class socialist party. While the left and working class are not yet strong enough to immediately launch such a party, we should anticipate that the massive shocks of 2020 are only a precursor of events to come. Capitalism is in deep crisis, economically, ecologically, and politically. The global wave of revolt in 2019 and 2020 is set to grow larger in the years ahead, and the more conscious layers of the working class, especially the youth, are looking to get organized on a larger scale than ever.

Rather than pointing to a viable long-term strategy, it is exactly all the important gains made by DSA and the left within the framework of the Democratic Party since 2016 that point to the looming limits of this strategy. As the decades-long crisis of capitalism deepens, the sharpening class contradictions within the Democratic Party cannot be extended indefinitely; at a certain stage these contradictions will burst the diffuse Democratic Party coalition asunder. Especially with the Democrats presiding over the economic crisis, from Washington D.C. to our City Halls, popular anger at the party will rapidly grow and the need for the left to sharply distinguish itself will become more urgent.

More broadly, to offer genuine answers to the existential economic and ecological challenges of our time, socialists will need to consistently agitate, educate, and organize for the working class to take the largest corporations that dominate the economy into democratic public ownership. Only in this way can we break the economic power of the billionaire class, and open up the possibility of democratically deciding what we produce and how. Rather than being at the mercy of the blind forces of the “free market” and capitalism’s insatiable thirst for profit, we can rationally reorganize society to democratically develop an economic plan to meet our collective needs. This would finally allow us to guarantee jobs for all, Medicare for all, free education, a just transition to a carbon neutral economy, and measures to overcome centuries of racism, imperialism, and gender oppression.

Running through all of this must be the need for a revolutionary strategy, clearly aiming for the multiracial working class to take power; to take over the running of society from a destructive and oppressive capitalist class. An essential first step along this road is for working people to organize ourselves into a mass political party which is independent from the ruling class politically, ideologically, and organizationally. Such a force would need to be far more than a simple electoral machine. To win serious reforms within capitalism, much less prepare our class to take power, such a party would need to be a democratic, mass membership organization that actively supports and helps lead mass movements from below.

The main question now is whether or not the left will be prepared when history comes knocking at our door. Unless DSA consciously, pro-actively prepares its ranks now for this perspective, the danger exists that events will overtake us and DSA could find itself disoriented and in crisis, providing new opportunities for both right-wing and left-liberal forces to once again co-opt working-class political anger. Despite the profound challenges of our era, we see more reasons for hope than at any time since the global wave of working-class revolt in the late 60s and early 70s. A new generation of activists has been politically awakened and inspired by the uprising for Black Lives. The present debates in our social movements carry the seeds of future successes, of building a mass socialist movement in the historic heart of global capitalism, capable—alongside the global working class and oppressed majority—of fundamentally remaking our world.

Ty Moore was the National Organizer of 15 Now from 2014-2015 and helped lead the successful campaign to win a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis. Before that, he drew national attention on the left after narrowly losing his campaign for Minneapolis City Council in 2013, running as an independent socialist with significant union backing. Ty now lives in Seattle and is active with DSA.