Struggle in action: Elmwood Starbucks workers on strike (Picture: @SBWorkersUnited )
Kim Moody has for many years charted working class and socialist organisation in the United States. His latest book, Breaking the Impasse, looks at the growth of a new left and the issues for socialists it raises. He spoke to Charlie Kimber
What’s changed in the United States, and what are the new challenges?
There is a sense of new possibilities, but also the danger of repeating mistakes from the past. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) grew from a few thousand members in 2015 to 95,000 a year ago.
It brought together everyone from very mainstream social democrats to existing or former members of revolutionary groups. There was a real sense of growth and a new left. There was mass enthusiasm for the presidential primary campaign of self-defined socialist Bernie Sanders in 2016.
And of course the Black Lives Matter movement brought millions onto the streets. On one level such developments are on a similar scale to the great working class movement of the 1930s and 1940s and the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
But this has now hit a wall. The DSA’s official membership has fallen to about 69,000. The key problem is that the DSA
is focused on an electoral orientation, not the power of mass grassroots movements.
Quite remarkably, as the catastrophe of the Joe Biden presidency unfolds, many DSA members become even more obsessed with what is happening inside the Democratic Party. And socialists are drawn increasingly into internal rows, not concentrating on the real struggles.
We have a left that is bigger than it has been for decades but is also focused on believing that the Democrats are the route to change. Part of the reason for writing the book was that I have seen this process before. It’s the road to disaster.
Traditionally revolutionaries have said the Democrats are the “graveyard of social movements”. But today it’s even worse. The Democrats are now a complete dead end, a graveyard of itself.
It’s always been a capitalist party and armoured against change.
It doesn’t even have members, so the leadership shift that saw Jeremy Corbyn
come to the top of the Labour Party in Britain couldn’t happen in the Democrats. But more recently its class base has shifted.
All the time fewer working class people vote for the Democrats, and its base comes from wealthier groups, more middle class people and more drawn from higher education levels. It’s what I’ve called a “stealth realignment”.
One of the DSA’s problems is that it doesn’t have a coherent political strategy or an accountable national leadership.
And it can’t even discipline its own members when they are elected to state or national office. That explains why you have DSA members who take terrible positions on issues such as educational provision or arming Israel.
How can radical change come about in the US?
US history has shown over and over again that social transformation results from mass upheaval from below, not changing the people in office. The gains working people have made, the challenges to racism, were not the result of electing radical politicians to Congress or to the presidency.
They were because people fought outside the electoral process. The lack of such struggles is the reason why the last examples we had of real reform legislation were nearly half a century ago. What the left can do is to turn its attention to the elements of real hope at the moment.
For me the important recent developments are the Amazon
and Starbucks organising initiatives, the surge of teachers’ strikes, the rank and file action during the pandemic. It’s very important to note that this resurgence is not coming from the trade union bureaucracy. It’s coming from workers organising at the base.
The official labour leaders suck up to the idea of building unions through militant methods, but they are clueless about how to do this. For decades the bulk of the labour bureaucracy has been thoroughly integrated into the Democratic Party.
The limitations imposed by the Democratic apparatus’s intervention and field of influence in the labour movement remains a major barrier to winning gains whether in the workplace or politics. It is these limitations, among others, that rank and file movements and organising are meant to overcome and destroy.
We need a national push to continue and build on the union organising breakthroughs. The left could and should be part of this. For example, in the battles that have been successful so far, socialists have at points played a useful role as educators.
The study that socialists encouraged of Communist William Z Foster’s 1936 manual called Organising Methods in the Steel Industry was very helpful for a layer of activists.
The left can be part of a new momentum for change from the basis of society.
How can we tackle oppression as workers’ struggle rises?
We can’t deal with racism simply by talking about unified class action. Of course that action is essential. But within that it’s not true that you can just talk about more struggle and expect issues such as racism and sexism to take care of themselves.
Usually that means self‑organisation of the oppressed inside unions. That’s not divisive, it ought to be supported as part of a wider process of tackling oppression. The battles in society and inside the unions have won some gains.
For example, before the 1980s the unions were generally very hostile to migrant workers. The main position was they weren’t wanted and drove down wages and conditions. Now unions have to at least say they want to organise migrants, and have adopted better positons.
The impetus of the Black Lives Matter movement ought to be taken into the unions. Activists should highlight the struggles of black people but also the way racism is built into the system and is the enemy of all workers.
Why must we go beyond elections, and how can we do that?
My book is particularly centred on the US. But there are questions that apply to Britain as well.
Trying to win change through parliament or Congress inevitably means that activists are entrapped in a mechanism and a system over which they have no control.
Such bodies present themselves as a way for people to change society. In fact they are there to block change. They are designed to halt progress towards a green new deal, or a system like the NHS in the US.
We are not going to get socialism because one day Congress passes a resolution for workers’ councils and the president then signs it into law. Even a savvy socialist such as Alexandria Ocasio‑Cortez
is drawn into electoral campaigns.
They inevitably followed the norms of contemporary elections in terms of low turnout, big money, professional consultant-driven campaigning, and dependence on a party that has no internal democracy or membership from which to seek support.
That leaves behind no independent mass working class organisation. For regular Democrats, whether liberal or moderate, this is not a problem. For democratic socialists it should be.
The political impasse blocks even modest progressive reforms, let alone any real solutions to today’s crises of climate change, poverty, racism and pandemics. It can only be broken by a mass social upsurge in which the organisation of millions of workers currently outside the organised labour movement is central.
That, in turn, requires transforming most of today’s unions. It is through this alternative path that the new socialist movement can become a major force in US politics. We need to reassert the transition of the “militant minority” in the workplace who relate to wider groups of workers around struggle but also take up political questions.
This minority needs to take up a political fight inside the new socialist movement and stop the stampede toward everything being taken over by electoral considerations. There may be electoral possibilities down the road. The way US electoral districts have been manipulated at a local level means there are fewer places where there are close contests.
So independent workers’ candidates and openly socialist candidates could stand against the Democrats without facing the argument that they will just let in the Republicans
. But any serious electoral intervention has to be based on, and follow from, the creation of a mass base of workplace-based fighters.
The rank and file perspective offers an exciting prospect with a potential for very big changes.