Countries seeing mass revolt, now or recently:
- Puerto Rico
I’m probably missing some but we’ve had a lot going on in Chicago.
Chicago just had a massive strike involving the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their strike pulled in solidarity work from pretty much every organized leftist group in the city.
To my knowledge, no country in the world has a healthy, growing revolutionary organization that would be ready to seize the moment when one of these mass revolts emerged in that country.
Least of all: the US.
What do we have?
- Bread & Roses Caucus (within DSA, which has attracted many of DSA’s most talented members while also maintaining high-visibility on the ideological stage via Jacobin)
- Neighborhood Independent Political Organizations (IPOs)
- Chicago has the CTU
Political orientation of the radicalizing workers and students
Additionally, we have a political orientation that is very interested in electoral politics (both in terms of winning offices and passing referenda). As far as I can tell, there is a hesitancy within large sections of DSA (at least in Chicago) to engage in protest politics. This isn’t universal, but the numbers of DSA comrades that regularly attend protests is visibly smaller than the numbers that will participate in teach-ins or canvasses for candidates/issues.
This makes sense. The tiny revolutionary groups that exist(ed) in the US during my time as an activist (starting in 2006) had focused solely on protest and education. It is difficult to build sustained momentum and organization around protests because it isn’t always clear what to do next or how to turn the anger in the streets into concrete change.
Case in point: Black Lives Matter (BLM). The BLM movement has been absolutely crucial for rebuilding the Left in the US. It has been absolutely crucial in unmasking the “color blind” racism of modern US politics, particularly under Obama. It has been fundamental in reminding US society that the police are a racist institution and the enemies of the working class.
But it would be difficult to point to any concrete demands that have been won by BLM. There are still police, there is still racism, and there is nothing on the horizon indicating that these things will soon be weakened, much less destroyed.
The same could be said for Occupy. It was instrumental in bringing protest and class back into US politics. But there were no practical reforms that emerged from it, much less a practical vision of what should come next.
For all of the right reasons, many people that are currently radicalizing and turning to socialist politics want more than vague protests. They see the success of folks like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a concrete way forward: win elections, fight for referenda, etc. This is a logical conclusion to draw from watching/studying/participating in US politics between 2011–2019.
Those of us whose training and experience is focused on mixing protest organizing with study groups have to figure out how to blend our strengths with the new context of electoral and legalistic focus.
We absolutely should not jettison our training. The protests happening around the world clearly demonstrate that protest does matter. But it is equally clear that the US populace is nowhere near that level of mass struggle. Similarly, US radicals need to be convinced of our politics and leadership.
But they will get there. Something will set them off, just like some unexpected crisis has set off people in other parts of the world. In our context, we need to prepare a revolutionary organization now to prepare for when that crisis hits.
For now, we need to do two things:
- throw ourselves into the existing work that local DSA and local IPOs are doing
- prove our political and leadership skills through engaging in this direct work, build our reputations and trust within these groups
Over the long term, we need to figure out how to channel our revolutionary goals into practical work. I don’t have concrete positions on this point. It is something that US revolutionaries will have to discuss nationally and locally. But let’s examine Medicare for All.
It feels far-fetched to think that this would be something that could be won via door-to-door canvassing. However, in Chicago, this DSA campaign has gotten a ton of support and mobilized tons of comrades around the city. The same is true of the the fight for rent control via canvassing with the Lift the Ban Coalition.
If canvassing for Medicare for All, or to Lift the Ban, would have seemed far-fetched before: what else could we test out?
As revolutionaries, it is our duty to inject topics like race into these largely economic struggles. If canvassing is being successful around Medicare for All, could we also:
- canvass to defund the racist police and redirect those funds to social services?
- Instead of being a city that closes down schools and opens up police academies: could we do more to canvass for a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC)?
- How about canvassing to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) evicted and banned from Chicago?
These are just some ideas of what we could be doing to plug-in to this new moment, as revolutionaries. Definitely nothing clear cut.
To be clear: within the DSA there is a strong interest in revolutionary politics. Study groups around Marx’s Capital, Trotsky’s life, the Communist Manifesto, etc have all been successful and attracted positive attention. While the DSA in particular is open to all persuasions of socialism, and the Bread & Roses caucus explicitly states that they are “anti-insurrection”, the reality is that the vast majority of DSA comrades are very open and interested in revolutionary politics.
We just need to find an organized and practical way to relate to them.
Exclusively focusing on protest work will not connect us to more socialists. Exclusively focusing on study groups between protest seasons won’t help either.
Both are important and necessary. But they need to be worked into the general mood of most comrades today: practical work that involves canvassing, tabling, referendums, and elections into offices. If we play our cards right, we stand to win over sections of the growing socialist pool without having to behave like sectarian splitters.
On that note: we should absolutely avoid behaving like sectarian splitters. The last caucus in the DSA to gain any significant stature, while claiming the revolutionary credentials, was Reformation. They ended up putting themselves against groups like B&R instead of figuring out how to further the general work.
To be clear: I’m sure B&R also shares the blame with that sectarian in-fighting. But we need to beware the trap of being the revolutionaries that are more easily red-baited as splitters because of the real history of revolutionary sectarianism.
Build the organization
We should build up our own organization, just like B&R are doing, within the existing DSA and IPOs. Our work would further the goals and successes of the existing groups, while also building ourselves up so that we can be as ready as possible when the next crisis hits and be prepared to provide leadership in a context of crisis.
Last note regarding the success of Bread & Roses. Many of their most prominent members are prominent because they’ve been able to leverage Jacobin to promote their vision and raise the profile of the member-authors. We need to cohere ourselves as a revolutionary caucus in DSA, and promote the profile of our members via Jacobin. If we find that this road gets blocked by sectarians, then we need to think through how we develop our own revolutionary publication.