The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has espoused the rank-and-file strategy since 2017, which among other things encourages young radicals to change careers and build the labor movement as shopfloor union activists.
The rank-and-file strategy is a strategy for winning socialism, with an understanding of the specific challenges the socialist movement faces in the 21st century. The first major challenge is the level of political consciousness of the working class can be discouraging. Many workers are resigned to the capitalist status quo, with huge numbers voting for reactionary politics represented by the GOP, and others settling for the “lesser evil” corporate-controlled Democratic Party. Second, the union movement today is weak and conservative, and it will not be possible to revitalize these organizations primarily by joining the bureaucracy as staff or top leadership. This used to be known as the strategy of “permeation” long de facto favored by DSA prior to 2016, for example. Finally, the small socialist movement that does exist is largely confined to a relatively isolated, middle-class population — a section of society that might be quick to take up radical politics but isn’t strategically located to exert much power at the heart of capitalism, nor to build struggles alongside those workers who are.
When thinking about the relationship between the rank-and-file strategy and socialist politics generally, we need to remember three things. First, labor organizing is essential for the socialist project. Second, socialist political action — including socialist media, election campaigns, legislative fights, protest movements, and political parties — are essential for building a powerful labor movement. And finally, the rank-and-file strategy is an essential part of building independent, working-class political action.
The rank-and-file strategy is therefore more than a labor organizing tactic or a calling for young radicals, as some would claim. As labor scholar Barry Eidlin writes, it addresses a much more profound question: “how best to form the working class into a revolutionary agent and make it fit to rule?” The rank-and-file strategy is therefore nothing less than a strategy for building towards a socialist transformation from our current moment of low levels of working-class organization and consciousness.
Independent Political Action
We cannot win progressive reforms, let alone a socialist transformation of society, without militant action by masses of ordinary oppressed and exploited people. Not just socialist revolutions, but democratic rights and welfare states were won in the 19th and 20th centuries by workers movements, strikes, and mass parties. Recent experiences illustrate this power, too. Just in the last few years alone, movements from Chile and Peru to South Korea and India have shown that people have the will to fight back against authoritarianism and neoliberalism at a massive scale, and even the power to win sometimes.
While we haven’t had comparable movements in the U.S. in recent memory — we would have to think back to the Civil Rights, anti-war, and rank-and-file strike movements of the 1960s and 1970s — since 2016 we have seen the power workers have to change society in action, most importantly in the teachers’ strike wave.
All of these events prove the truth of Marx’s famous first principle: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”
This kind of militant action will, however, be hard to bring about; once it exists it will be hard to sustain; and even if it is sustained, it will lack unity and leadership if there are no organizations of the class to cohere, democratize, and direct the movement.
Unions play this role in the economic sphere, as vehicles through which workers can fight for their interests at work. Yet economic struggles alone are not sufficient for the workers’ cause, even at work. Political action is necessary too.
In order to wage the political struggle, workers need political organizations to fight for the whole working class in the streets, at the ballot box, and in legislatures at every level. In particular, the working class needs its own national political party, independent of capitalist influence.
In most countries, left-wing social movements and trade unions have been able to channel the interests and power of their base into national parties. No such organization exists in the U.S. today. The result is that the movements that do arise lack national leadership and clear programs. As a result, they typically exhaust themselves quickly or they become politically disoriented or co-opted. For example, the teacher strike wave did not result in major federal legislation to fund public schools. BLM protests in 2020, the largest protests in U.S. history, likewise failed to force Congress to take meaningful action on police violence. Instead, independent protest energies either dissipated or were absorbed into electing Biden and Harris, two champions of neoliberalism and mass incarceration. Eidlin argues that “many U.S. policy failures — particularly the lack of a public healthcare system and its skimpy, punitive social benefits — can be chalked up at least in part to the lack of a labor party.”
But a left party based in the unions isn’t a silver bullet on its own. The once mighty socialist labor parties of Germany and other countries famously capitulated to imperialist pressures to support World War I, fatally fragmenting the powerful international socialist movement of the time. And today’s Labour Party in the UK has become a vehicle for neoliberalism, despite maintaining its links with unions. The problem isn’t just the lack of a labor-based party in the U.S. — which on its own is a major challenge — but also that the unions themselves have become top-down and conservative, while most of the millions of union members who remain are disengaged, disempowered, and/or won over to right-wing politics.
Most union bureaucracies today are tied to the capitalist-controlled Democratic Party. This is part of their “class compromise” or business unionism strategy, and its modern progressive cousin that Joe Burns calls “labor liberalism“. This strategy rejects class struggle in favor of a “what’s good for the employer is good for everyone” philosophy. As Communist labor leader William Z. Foster wrote in his 1927 book, Misleaders of Labor, “The theory of class collaboration denies the basic class struggle. It is built around the false notion of a fundamental harmony of interests between the exploited workers and the exploiting capitalists.”
In the political realm, this strategy is reinforced both by labor’s weakness — and dependence on liberal politicians who might seem to have more power than workers these days — as well as the lack of independent alternatives. In effect, virtually all unions today follow the leadership of a capitalist political organization, the Democratic Party, and union members’ dues money goes to support capitalist politicians all too ready to toss workers’ interests overboard if capitalists press them too hard.
Imagine this dynamic at a local level: You and your boss both donate to the same Democratic Party mayor, but your boss donates 100 times more than you do, and their business is an important part of the local economy. When it comes to conflicts between you and your boss, conflicts which are bound to arise since you have fundamentally opposed interests, do you think the mayor will take your side? The mayor still needs workers’ votes, but also can’t alienate business supporters. And if businesses feel the city is too worker-friendly to make a profit, they might leave and damage the whole economy which relies on profitable private businesses for jobs and tax revenue. The mayor’s popularity therefore usually depends on keeping your boss happy. Occasionally the mayor might help you, especially if they think they need your electoral support against a progressive challenger or if the local union movement is strong. But often, the best you can hope for is they pay lip service to your cause while remaining neutral in practice.
Of course, this is what we’ve come to expect from the Democratic Party in general. And this is one reason why workers need a class party: the bosses have two parties, workers need one of their own. The Democratic “stranglehold” on union politics, writes labor activist and scholar Kim Moody, “undermines labor’s independence and power on the job and in the political arena.”
Political action is also essential because a party is needed in order to organize the diverse working class into a united force across the country. This is first of all because workplace organization will always be tied to the wellbeing of their employers, profits, and other capitalist compulsions. Workers are also divided, often along racial and gender lines, into different sectors, trades, and geographies. And capitalism is constantly changing and reorganizing itself. It regularly throws certain industries or areas into crisis, meaning that we can’t expect worker organization to survive permanently if it is isolated in specific sectors or cities.
A national party of and for the working class binds together different sectors of the workforce, social movements, and geographies, while electoral campaigns provide a political vision for the diverse working class to fight for together.
Finally, unions are limited by one of their most important features: they must represent all the workers in the workplace, including right-wing Republicans, committed Democratic Party liberals, and people totally uninterested in politics. While this inclusiveness and solidarity is essential for building power at work, it prohibits most unions from being strong fighters for a broad, left-wing political agenda before workers themselves have been organized to understand why that agenda is worth fighting for. Since working-class consciousness is mixed, and especially now that very few workers are avowed socialists, socialist political organizations and parties are therefore needed to bring socialists together, recruit more workers to socialism, and fight for socialist ideas in legislatures and the streets.
Socialist Consciousness Develops Through Struggle
Unfortunately, a new mass party can’t be simply “built” by those of us who want it. A party needs a social base in the working class. That won’t come about until workers are both organized at work and conscious of the need for political independence. And none of this can develop without struggle.
Here’s what Kim Moody said in 2000 in his must-read pamphlet on the rank and file strategy:
The gaping lack in the U.S. at this time is the lack of a sea of class-conscious workers for socialist ideas and organizations to swim in. How do we help create that sea? Socialists can build transitional organizations and struggles that help to raise the class-consciousness of activist workers, in order to enlarge the layer of workers in the class who are open to socialist ideas. The existence of a strong current of active, class-conscious workers is a precondition for the development of a strong current of socialist workers — and a socialist party. We need to be, at the same time, bringing our socialist ideas directly to workers who are already ready to hear them, and also helping to create the struggles that produce more such workers.
Along with other members of the International Socialists (IS) in the 1970s, Moody helped found Labor Notes, which the IS hoped would be one such transitional organization, not unlike William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Education League (TUEL) of the 1920s which helped lay the groundwork for the labor upsurge of the 1930s. As labor historian and former IS member Nelson Lichtenstein writes, IS labor activists, who hoped to build revolutionary socialist consciousness in the auto factories, trucking, and other important industries learned through their experiences in the 1970s that even “union consciousness could hardly be taken for granted.” Labor Notes was launched with the main goal of “educating, connecting, and animating a layer of labor activists” — the “militant minority” — who could “build effective rank-and-file unions capable of fighting the boss on a sustained basis,” writes Lichtenstein. IS leader and early Labor Notes writer, Mike Parker, recalled that, in order for socialists to have any influence, “we had to create a lake to swim in.” The idea was that, through their immediate struggles, this militant section of the working class could become open to socialism.
In 1966, socialist and rank-and-file union activist Stan Weir gave a talk about the growing rank-and-file rebellion which was very influential for the people who went on to form the IS and Labor Notes. Weir talks about the 1966 airline mechanics strike over “chain-gang” working conditions, which for five weeks stopped 60% of the nation’s air passenger traffic. The mechanics continued striking even after their international president signed a deal to end the strike with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. In response to the strikebreaking efforts of the capitalist-backed Democratic Party, the heads of the four largest airline mechanics’ locals on the Pacific Coast proposed:
[T]hat ‘immediate action be taken to form a third political party that will serve in the best interests of labor.’ They issued a press release carrying the text [of the proposal] simultaneously with their unequivocal rejection of [President Lyndon Johnson]… [The mechanics had] rejected the Democratic Party as a place for the worker’s political allegiance.
This inspiring example raises a few issues.
First, could this political radicalization have happened without massive struggles in the workplace? Probably not. People are radicalized by all sorts of experiences — think of Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns. But the experience of class struggle at work is uniquely important for giving workers frequent shared experiences of oppression, democratic and collective resistance, and the sense of empowerment that comes from taking back some control over your life.
Imagine that when Sanders was running in the primary, there was a higher degree of struggle in the working class. Instead of several hundred thousand workers going on strike in the year leading up to the 2020 primaries, several million went on strike, as happened in class-struggle peaks in the mid 20th century. Imagine that socialists were playing an important role in these struggles, and that workers were learning who their friends and enemies were in politics — made clear by socialist politicians’ support of strikes and capitalist-backed Democrats’ abstention at best, or strikebreaking at worst. We would expect that a lot more working-class people would have voted for Sanders.
This is not just speculative. Socialist leaders of the 2018-2019 teacher strikes did fight for union endorsements for Sanders: the Los Angeles and Oakland teachers’ unions went all out for Sanders, while rank-and-file radicals from Arizona and West Virginia fought to democratize their national union’s endorsement process to open the way for a Sanders endorsement.
As labor reporter Hamilton Nolan put it bluntly in 2020, “Bernie Lost Because America Doesn’t Have a Strong Labor Movement.” Sanders’s own National Labor Organizer, Jonah Furman, argued the same in a campaign post-mortem. We should, in general, expect that greater class struggle at work will help grow the base of workers open to left-wing ideas and bolster left-wing political campaigns like Sanders’s, not to mention future party-building efforts.
Second, if we take this logic further, it leads in socialist directions. As workers’ struggles grow in size and militancy, workers will start to realize that they can’t solve the crises in their industry through economic struggles alone. For example, if workers win higher wages and benefits at one company, that company might go out of business because it can’t compete with the lower costs of nonunion companies. A radical political solution becomes necessary: nationalization and the elimination of profit and competition from these important industries. Localized and merely economic gains are isolated and fragile without a broader political project.
The perspective of the rank-and-file strategy is that, through workers’ struggles, through the leadership of socialists in these struggles, and given the endemic crises in capitalism which repeatedly threaten to undo the workers’ movement’s achievements, that workers will come to see democratic socialism as the solution to society’s problems.
But as Lenin famously argued in What Is To Be Done?, this process is not automatic, with union struggles leading by a straight line to socialist politics. Instead, socialists need to carry out political action, build socialist organizations, and promote socialist ideas in the here and now to win over those workers who are already looking for radical ideas to explain their oppression.
Meanwhile, socialists must aim to change the calculus of even the most conservative labor bureaucrats. We can do this by growing the class struggle and building independent politics and socialist organization. This increases the benefits and decreases the risks of political independence for unions. Simultaneously, class-struggle unionism increases the costs for union leaders of relying on class compromise and Democratic Party leadership.
Therefore, contrary to critics who argue that the rank-and-file strategy is merely a “tactic” of getting jobs, “the rank-and-file approach to union work,” writes Moody, “points toward a broader strategy for achieving socialism” involving many tactics rooted on the shopfloor and beyond, including independent political action. The thread tying this approach together “is the centrality of independent working-class self-activity and self-organization that has always been at the center of Marxist theory and practice.”
We have seen some glimpses of this process in the last few years, most of all from the teachers strikes, the growth of DSA, and the remarkable (albeit limited) labor support for Bernie Sanders’s campaigns. All of these struggles have been inspiring. But we should think of these as the floor of what socialist labor organizers and party builders can accomplish, not the ceiling.
The new generation of socialist and labor activists will have to learn how to nurture these promising seeds into a flourishing and united movement of independent, working-class struggle. We must also support independent candidates when possible and build intermediary political organizations like DSA, Chicago and NYC DSA chapters’ de facto socialist caucuses in the city council and state legislature respectively, and broad progressive formations like in Rhode Island and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which is winning against oil companies and bloated police budgets in California. And at a national level, Bernie Sanders and the Squad should embrace an independent movement-building strategy against the Democrats’ right wing. As I argued in 2020, Sanders’s campaign acted as a workers’ party in miniature: a fleeting and imperfect version to be sure, but one that had an enormous effect on changing consciousness and encouraging working-class resistance.
While not entirely independent of the Democratic Party yet, these are all importants steps towards greater political independence in practice. The path is not straightforward, and isn’t even totally revealed to us yet. But we won’t make progress in developing our strategy or carrying it out without far more experience.
Together these struggles can lay the groundwork for a future mass workers’ party, a necessary vehicle for the working-class to ultimately win a radical transformation of society — democratic socialism.
Note: This article was adapted from a talk delivered at the March 29, 2021 “Labor Movement and Politics” session of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA)-sponsored “Rank and File School.”