Revolution in the Time of COVID-19
COVID-19 has thrown the capitalist order into crisis. The Sanders campaign has been defeated. Once the quarantine lifts, where do we fight?
COVID-19 has thrown the capitalist order into crisis. The Sanders campaign has been defeated. Once the quarantine lifts, where do we fight?
These are dark times. The COVID-19 outbreak has plunged the US working class into uncertainty, fear, and chaos. As I write this, the toll of infected and dead are rising at an exponential rate.The country’s already murderously threadbare healthcare system has been stretched to its breaking point. Makeshift hospitals are being constructed in New York City’s Central Park, military hospital ships are being deployed to major coastal cities, and the reality of the staggering amount of suffering and death we face is beginning to set in. We should be clear - every death and every suffering and sick person should be laid at the feet of capitalism, which has left us so utterly unable to deal with this crisis.
Among those not yet sick, the luckiest among us contend with boredom, monotony and cabin fever as they work from home. Companies are already pioneering new forms of employee surveillance, chaining workers to their computers. Others now face financial uncertainty as their workplaces close and bills come due. Especially hard hit are undocumented workers eligible for none of the meager unemployment benefits or stimulus checks offered by the government. “Essential” workers report to their jobs terrified that they may sicken or be sickened by coworkers or the public, while receiving insufficient or no protection from their bosses.
Perhaps the cruelest irony of all is the refusal to provide protective equipment or testing to medical workers, who are at the most risk of all. These workers are being refused testing unless they are symptomatic, even though we know the virus spreads before symptoms arise. The very people we are depending upon to save our lives from this virus are working with improvised personal protective equipment, or none at all. In a fitting metaphor for how Capital thinks of them, many workers on whom our lives will depend have taken to using garbage bags to attempt to protect themselves and their patients. The numbers of sick and dead among these medical workers continue to rise.
The economic recession or depression we are about to enter may affect the working class even more deeply than the virus itself. As David Harvey writes, even before the virus, “protest movements were occurring almost everywhere (from Santiago to Beirut), many of which were focused on the fact that the dominant economic model was not working well for the mass of the population. This neoliberal model is increasingly resting on fictitious capital and a vast expansion in the money supply and debt creation. It is already facing the problem of insufficient effective demand to realize the values that capital is capable of producing.” This house of cards has effectively been hit with a sledgehammer in the form of the virus. We do not yet know the extent of the economic crisis we are facing, but the number of unemployment claims filed in the US has hit record highs - already topping 16 million. This may be far worse than 2008.
Make no mistake: capitalists and the richest among us will be fine. They are cashing in on the devastation, riding out the quarantine on multi-million dollar yachts, and refusing to use their billions to help workers and instead admonishing the public to take care of their employees through fundraisers and taxpayer bailouts. While they may sicken, they will have access to the finest healthcare the American system can provide, receiving scarce equipment like ventilators while thousands die in overcrowded hospitals. Despite being the ones who caused the disease to spread globally, they will not bear the awful, crushing weight of this catastrophe. We will.
These times are dark, but we cannot turn inwards into panic, depression, and inaction. Capitalism is entering an unprecedented crisis. The long history of the leftist movement has shown that uprisings, upheavals, and revolutions happen exclusively during and immediately after moments of acute crises. In Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin wrote that: “the fundamental law of revolution… is as follows: for a revolution to take place, it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.”
American history is no exception to this law of revolution. Reconstruction, the second American Revolution crushed by a Southern planter and capitalist counterrevolution, followed directly after the American Civil War. The leftist upsurge of the 1930s coincided with and followed the Great Depression. It may be that finally, the American working class is realizing the impossibility of living in the old way, while the ruling class can’t continue to function as usual.
As revolutionaries and organizers, we have no control over these conditions – we don’t get to decide the circumstances under which we make history. But with respect to Lenin, I’d like to add a third condition: revolution can only occur when there is an effective revolutionary strategy capable of exploiting the weaknesses in capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself. That means our task at this moment is critical. We need to understand how the situation has changed, how the terrain we are fighting on has shifted, what vulnerabilities have opened in the ruling class, and where have they reconstituted and strengthened themselves. If we proceed with a solid understanding of the ground we’re fighting on, we can triumph. If we do not, we will squander the greatest opening of our lifetimes. There are three options before us: a reconstituted capitalism, collapse into a new fascism, or a step towards human liberation.
There are four ways that the terrain has shifted from under us that should inform our tactics and strategy going forward. First, the route to social democracy through Bernie Sanders’ presidency and the Democratic Party is closed (if it was ever truly open). Second, the outbreak itself is causing a massive shift in the consciousness and leverage of the working class. Third, we are facing a massive economic collapse, recession, and possible depression. And the fourth is a deeper shift that has been taking place since the beginning of the neoliberal counterrevolution: the increasing reliance of Capital on vulnerable chains of logistics and transportation.
Over the past year, many of us on the left have pinned our hopes on Bernie Sanders. The prospect of a social democrat as the President was incredible and seemed achievable. But we underestimated the ruling class’ willingness and ability to reconstitute and defend itself. Literally overnight, the Party consolidated its forces and regrouped behind a shambling corpse from Delaware.
Beyond the tactical shift of the party to support the sundowning segregationist, the Democrats have now utilized the virus itself in their efforts to defeat the party’s left. The fear of the virus radically depressed turnout, well beyond international standards of legitimacy for elections. Turnout among elderly voters remained relatively high, both benefiting Biden and recklessly endangering the lives of every person who showed up to vote.
It is safe to say that Sanders was a uniquely well-positioned and well-liked politician with unquestionable integrity. We cannot wait for someone else like him to run as a Democrat, because someone else doesn’t exist. Looking back on the “Sanders Moment,” it may be clear that the objective conditions were always hopelessly stacked against electing Sanders to the top of a uniformly hostile party. That is not to say the efforts to elect him were futile or useless – but the current moment demands reckoning with our future chances within the Democrats.
If nothing else, the efforts to elect Sanders have definitively proved one thing: after a century of vacillation, the left must abandon the Democratic Party once and for all. If this Party can defeat the single most honest, dedicated, and principled politician in the country using a senile rapist with the blood of a half-million Iraqis on his hands, then we have reached the end of our long, strange adventure with the Democrats. Maybe the terrain has shifted under our feet, or maybe our position was indefensible all along.
Any future electoral activity should be focused on local efforts, running open socialists who can win and who have direct ties to the organized left. In San Francisco, Dean Preston ran and won a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors as an open socialist and member of the DSA. Since then, he has consistently outflanked the city’s “moderate” mayor and helped to push forward the cause of the left. If local conditions allow, our elections should follow this model. If local conditions do not, our efforts are better spent elsewhere.
One of the key ideological components of the neoliberal counterrevolution is the idea of the “End of History.” Put forward by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War in 1989, it declared that grand historical shifts had ended. Mankind had settled on the final form of government – liberal capitalist democracy – and that everything from here on out would be about making small changes to improve that form. The belief was summed up by the idea that there was no alternative to our current social, economic, and governmental systems.
Most of us have internalized this logic, including those of us on the left. For decades our organizing focused not on taking power or building leadership, but in finding small sites of resistance in the cracks within capitalism.
It’s likely that for most of the US working class, the thesis of the end of history seemed about right. Things were getting worse, but the overall pattern remained solid. Jobs got more menial and lower paid, healthcare got more expensive. Cars, televisions, and phones got cheaper while hurricanes and wildfires got bigger. US soldiers continued killing non-white people overseas. Police continued killing non-white people in the places we lived. The slow process of austerity continued hollowing out the remains of the social safety net. It was hard to believe that anything could ever fundamentally change.
Until suddenly, in March 2020, they did.
We should not underestimate the power of this moment. We have been shaken awake, and our assumptions about what is possible have been thrown out the window. That in and of itself is a radical shift in the terrain we stand on.
More specifically, the virus has highlighted how truly hollow American institutions have become, and how completely incapable our system is of handling this. The hollowness extends far beyond healthcare. Schools are closed, so families go without childcare, while millions of children rely on school for their food. People are ordered to shelter in place while thousands are homeless. The state offers unemployment insurance, while capitalists depend on workers who can’t apply for it due to immigration status. And crucially, you are not earning money, but you still have to pay your rent or mortgage.
But most importantly, many people we know – our older relatives, heroic medical and essential workers, our immunocompromised neighbors, our friends forced to live on the street—are going to die. Already over 25,000 have died in the US in the first month of the outbreak. There will be no way to describe the depth of pain that will be caused by this pandemic, given that our system is completely incapable of managing or mitigating it. Not all change is good. Our job will be to make it mean something, and ensure that those who died did not do so in vain.
After the initial wave of the pandemic subsides, we will undoubtedly be in an economic recession or depression. Most likely, this economic collapse will be more akin to 1930 than 2008. The economy was already shaky, and the virus has shoved it down the stairs.
During the week of March 21, 3.3 million workers in the US filed for unemployment. The next week, 6.9 million filed for unemployment, with 6.6 million more the following week. Many more who have lost their jobs have not yet filed.
The highest weekly filing numbers during the Great Recession of 2008 didn’t even come close to this. We’ve never experienced a collapse of demand this total or this sudden in history. We don’t know the full extent of the impact it will have on the economy, but only 3 weeks into the crisis, 10% of American workers have lost their jobs. Tourist industries are already collapsing - airline companies in particular are begging for relief from the government. It is possible that the consumer economy that existed before March may be entirely changed by the time the quarantine orders are lifted.
To again quote Harvey: “COVID-19 is underpinning not a wild fluctuation but an almighty crash in the heart of the form of consumerism that dominates in the most affluent countries. The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inward from one part of the world to every other.”
There will likely be no “going back to normal” from this – in no small part because for many of us laid off, our jobs will no longer exist. Our organizing strategies will have to pivot to focus on this mass of newly unemployed workers.
Before the chaos wrought by the virus, a much more literal shifting of the terrain was taking place. Throughout the 20th century, workers fought and died to establish organized strongholds in manufacturing industries, , the most significant of which was Detroit. It took decades of organizing, struggle, and bloodshed, in the factories and in the streets, but Detroit workers had carved out their place in the vanguard of American workers.
Capital’s response in the neoliberal counterrevolution was simple and brutal – leave Detroit. This was repeated throughout all the organized strongholds of the United States, and capital packed up and opened manufacturing in the safer terrain of the American South or overseas. Manufacturing workers, central to Marxist strategy, have become so dispersed that the prospects of organizing them are much more difficult. Capital now holds a trump card – if their labor force becomes too troublesome, they can pick up and move to a location with a less organized or restive labor pool. This poses a significant challenge to controlling manufacturing – unless we organize the global working class to a point where there is no safe haven for capital, this sword will be held over our heads.
The efforts of the United Auto Workers to organize Volkswagen production plants in Tennessee demonstrates the difficulty of our position, even when production remains in the US. These facilities were built well outside the reach of traditional sources of labor power, and in “right-to-work” states that mandate that workers do not have to pay dues to receive the benefits of a union contract.
The UAW has struggled for years in multiple unsuccessful attempts to organize these factories. Some of this can be attributed to UAW’s failures and pervasive corruption, but the deck is stacked against them. Successful large-scale union organizing drives rely on the strength of the members already organized in a region. The Justice for Janitors campaign of the ‘90s relied on unionized janitors taking action to organize new members. UNITE HERE organizing drives rely on the density of their members in metropolitan areas. The UAW had no such organized base in Tennessee, and Volkswagen knew this.
Since most manufacturing has been moved out of the reach of labor strongholds, organizers face a catch-22: To make an organizing breakthrough in manufacturing, they need an organized and fighting base in the region. To build an organized and fighting base in a region, they need an organizing breakthrough. And if after years of struggle they accomplish this task, Capital can do what it did to Detroit: pack up and leave.
This current iteration of capitalism feels invulnerable – we seem to be doomed to chase capital around the globe attempting to organize. However, each iteration of capitalism offers new vulnerabilities to exploit, and the more advanced capitalism becomes, the more glaring those vulnerabilities are. At the dawn of mass industrial production, labor organizers despaired at the gigantic factories. It seemed impossible to organize thousands upon thousands of workers in a single location, to foster solidarity between different demographics and language groups. Leftists now think of that era as the height of our power in the United States.
The system of dispersed production does not appear to be going anywhere. Commodities are still produced in cheaper labor markets and transported to consumer markets. If anything, given the level of isolation we need to survive the pandemic, this system may become even more entrenched. However, it may provide even more leverage for organized workers taking industrial action than the old system of concentrated manufacturing.
Building the Barricades
If we have a sense of how the terrain has shifted underneath us, our next step is to put a strategy in place that best exploits that terrain.
There are four parts to the strategy we should implement. First, those not working or working from home during quarantine should agitate as much as possible, hammering on the failures of capitalism and the Democratic Party made so clear by this situation. Second, leftists working in “essential industries” during the pandemic should throw everything they have into pushing industrial action and supporting those already taking place. Third, leftists should build Unemployed Councils on the model of those organized in the 1930s, to be implemented as soon as quarantine orders are lifted. Fourth, our longer-term labor strategy should be to organize workers in the logistics chain, who hold the most amount of leverage over the US and global economy.
What Won’t Work
The call for a rent strike has been circulating online since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdowns. In some ways, this is a heartening and exciting development. “You’re not getting paid, but you still have to pay” is one of the most clearly unfair aspects of capitalism. However, the rent strike does not appear to have an organized base, and the demands do not appear to go farther than the tactics. Strikes of any type are meant to be temporary – they extract concessions from a boss or landlord, and then the strike is ended. For example, tenants may organize a rent strike to force their landlord to remove lead from the building. The strikers’ leverage is that if their landlord makes the demanded changes, the landlord will receive rent once again. The version of a rent strike being proposed currently gives no leverage to prospective strikers: the only demand is to not pay rent, and the tactic utilized is to not pay rent. A rational landlord would do whatever they can to force the strikers to pay rent or simply evict them, as they gain nothing by agreeing to the strikers’ demands. Furthermore, unless the majority of tenants of a particular building or landlord are withholding rent, isolated strikers can easily be evicted.
Likewise, some (mostly online) have called for a general strike to institute COVID-19 protections. This call has been circulating for some time among leftists. A general strike would be a great way to win any and all of our demands, or even topple the government. However, leftists have not yet discovered a secret “general strike button” that allows us to instantly fill the streets with militant workers. The goal, over many years, is to build the level of organization and militancy where we could pull off an action of that magnitude. The way there is long, difficult, and unglamorous.
Agitate, Agitate, Agitate
The current moment has the potential to be incredibly radicalizing. The fiction of capitalism being the most efficient and rational system now seems laughable, and we can clarify the necessity of a different economic and social order. The short term task for those not physically at work has to be to agitate among the people in our lives – which is difficult at the moment. We’re out of work, or working from home, and we’re cut off from our usual public life. Regardless, we can’t let this moment slip past us. Whether these conversations happen through mutual aid networks, remote workplace meetings, or within families, we have to have them.
These conversations should focus on the total failure of the political and economic system in the face of this crisis, but crucially, they should emphasize the necessity of an alternative. Talk through how a socialist system could handle a crisis like this. Ask why working people in the US shouldn’t have their own party when the Democrats have failed them so thoroughly. Talk through how a workers’ party is not a far off dream, but a practical necessity.
Crises lead to shifts in consciousness, but they are not always shifts to the left. Absent a concerted effort from leftists, many workers may land on a right-wing solution to the crisis. Some may take the bait of a “foreign” virus, demanding an even more intense crackdown on immigration. Others may turn in an eco-fascist direction, celebrating the idea that the virus will kill off the weak and useless. Our job has to be to push in the other direction. This is our chance to convince many people that a world that guarantees the essentials of life, reconfigures our economy to prevent pandemics and climate disaster, and puts control into the hands of working people is one we deserve, need, and can achieve.
Strike While the Pandemic is Hot
For those who remain at work during the pandemic, the task is simple: fight and strike for what you deserve, whether it’s protective equipment, hazard pay, or just to shut down your workplace with pay. Workers are putting their lives on the line with little to no protection—a radicalizing experience in itself. As “essential” workers, they have an incredible amount of leverage. Their bosses will cave much more quickly than usual due to public pressure, tightened profit margins, and their desire to keep production moving as quickly as possible. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by fighting and striking in this moment.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking workers are sitting around waiting for the leftist vanguard to issue the order to strike. There has already been a huge upsurge in worker actions during this pandemic, from union and non-union workers. 10,000 construction workers struck in Massachusetts. Whole Foods workers have staged sickouts. Hyper-exploited Instacart workers have struck. Multiple Amazon warehouses across the country have staged walkouts for sick leave, personal protective equipment, and hazard pay.
Possibly most inspiring are the GE workers who walked off of their jobs demanding to produce desperately needed ventilators rather than jet engines. This action goes beyond what most unions have fought for over the past 70 years—it makes demands on how the company itself should be running. It’s ironic and heartening that these workers are members of the IUE – the union created in the 40s specifically to destroy the militant UE, who never ceased fighting for worker control over the industries they worked in. Perhaps workers are beginning to rediscover they do not need to be shackled by business unionism, and that they can run things better than the bosses.
Beyond what protections workers win in these fights, the experience of fighting and winning is something that will last beyond the pandemic and into the fights to come. The more workers know their own power, and know that they can win, the stronger the left will be. We should throw everything into building and supporting these actions at work.
At least 16 million workers are already unemployed as of this writing – and we’re only at the beginning of the ripple effects this crash will have throughout the economy. Millions more workers will be out of a job through no fault of their own, facing landlords that still demand rent, bills and groceries that still need to be paid for, or no housing at all. This mass of unemployed workers will represent a new political force, which has the potential to gravitate towards the right or towards the left.
Luckily for us, we don’t have to come up with anything new. Throughout the Great Depression, the Communist Party organized unemployment councils throughout the country. These councils were democratically organized along neighborhood lines, drew thousands of members, and were among the CP’s most successful organizing efforts.
While unabashedly communist, the councils focused on what they could concretely win. If there was an eviction in the neighborhood, council members would move furniture back into the house and defend it. They would fight utility shutoffs, and won benefits for those who would otherwise have received nothing. Unemployed workers were no longer individually begging relief agencies for help, they were demanding action as part of an organized force. Many of the most effective CIO union organizers got their first experiences fighting in the unemployment councils.
While most of our work will have to wait until shelter-in-place orders are lifted, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for 2020. Unemployed workers will be facing eviction and utility shutoffs, undocumented workers will have no access to public relief, and the councils give us a basis on which to fight them.
These councils can also serve as the organized basis on which to carry out successful rent strikes. In San Francisco, a particular point of focus should be the six-month window within which renters do not need to pay. At the end of this grace period, they will be expected to pay the entirety of the previous six months’ rent in full. Councils can organize all of the tenants in a building to refuse to pay rent until the entire back payment is forgiven. This type of focused strike tactic, organized through a democratic structure, could shift the balance of power between renter and landlord rather than simply being a symbolic protest.
Councils could also serve as the vehicle to spread the tactic of taking over vacant homes by homeless families. In Oakland and Los Angeles, before and during the COVID-19 crisis, groups of homeless families occupied vacant properties, declaring their right to shelter over the right of landlords to profit. Councils could spread these relatively isolated occupations into a wave of direct actions against private property.
The plans to organize these councils will have to be based on local conditions - there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. One difficulty we face in the 2020s is the general degradation and breakdown of American social life over the last century. The CP’s unemployed councils were largely organized on a neighborhood basis, which may prove difficult now. Many of us have no real connection to our neighbors, so a more promising starting point may be organizing workers along (former) industry lines. Most people have some level of connections with their former coworkers, and can begin to form networks between former workplaces.
A particularly fruitful target may be restaurant and service industry workers. These workers are facing incredibly high levels of unemployment – in the Bay Area nearly every restaurant has laid off the majority of its workforce. In most cities, these workers also tend to have a high level of mobility between jobs – most know many workers at different restaurants, bars, or cafes. These workers already have a sense of solidarity between jobsites, and already have the building blocks of an organizing network. Additionally, tipped workers in urban areas tend to be higher paid than many other workers, and many states’ unemployment benefits do not take tips into account, meaning they may have higher expectations for what they deserve. And in many cities, service workers tend to have higher levels of education, and more connections to leftist groups or left-oriented art and music communities. The combination of established social networks, raised expectations, and higher levels of education means that these workers may be ready to organize and willing to fight.
While councils should be organized with unapologetically anti-capitalist foundations, a council whose members consist only of existing socialist organizations cannot be considered a success. For example, it makes sense to begin an organizing campaign by recruiting existing DSA members who have lost their jobs. However, if the council does not expand its membership beyond a subset of an existing leftist group, it has built no power. We have to build the power of our movement, and that means recruiting outside of the existing demographics of American socialist groups. On the other hand, we cannot fall into “NGO-ism” and allow our demands to stay narrow and confined to municipal reforms.
Again, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that these unemployed workers are inert masses waiting for the socialist vanguard to arrive. Real leadership will not be simply telling people what to believe, but building real community and connection, and a real radical culture.
Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Hammer and Hoe recounts the organizing efforts of the Communist Party in Alabama during the Great Depression, which built a militant organization led overwhelmingly by black workers. Kelley writes: “Far from being a slumbering mass waiting for Communist direction, black working people entered the movement with a rich culture of opposition that sometimes contradicted, sometimes reinforced the Left’s vision of class struggle. The Party offered more than a vehicle for social contestation; it offered a framework for understanding the roots of poverty and racism, linked social struggles to world politics, challenged not only the hegemonic ideology of white supremacy but the petit bourgeois racial politics of the black middle class, and created an atmosphere in which ordinary people could analyze, discuss, and criticize the society in which they lived.”
We should learn from their example and aim to organize our own movement along these lines.
New Worker Power
In his book On New Terrain, Kim Moody lays out the vulnerabilities in our current iteration of capitalism and identifies the logistics sector as where we should focus our efforts. By logistics, he means transportation, warehouse work, anything responsible for the physical movement of goods. He describes how manufacturing has become more geographically distributed and the system of lean or “just-in-time” production that has accompanied that shift.
Lean production is a system where manufacturing facilities do not keep large stockpiles of materials on hand, but rely on regular shipments of precisely the amount of materials needed to produce commodities. This allows them to cut production costs significantly. As production becomes more geographically dispersed and reliant on precisely timed deliveries, the logistics chain becomes more crucial, more centralized, and much more vulnerable to industrial action.
To put it in plainer terms: commodities are made all over the world, but they are still going to the same consumer markets. An item can theoretically be produced anywhere, but capitalists are forever dependent on where people actually live. If a capitalist grows tired of the rebelliousness of a group of warehouse workers outside the Los Angeles metropolitan area, he cannot simply relocate the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area.
What’s more, the “just-in-time” system of production means that industrial actions in the logistics sector would have massive ripple effects throughout the entire economy. If there are multiple factories or retail locations supplied by one warehouse, a strike by the workers in that warehouse would stop production in areas far beyond their own workplace. If workers in the logistics sectors that feed into major metropolitan areas were to organize, they would have a nearly unassailable position with an incredible amount of leverage over the global economy.
The union that best demonstrates the strength of such a position is the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). This union represents dockworkers all along the West Coast of the United States, Canada, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. All goods being transported internationally through the West Coast of the US and Canada are handled by ILWU members. There is probably no one union in this country more hated by the capitalist class.
Since its founding in the 1934 West Coast Waterfront and San Francisco General Strike, the members of this union have won some of the best contracts in the country and have taken bold action against the ruling class over and over again. For their part, the capitalists have tried everything in their power to destroy the ILWU. They attempted to deport the union’s president for years, they sent police and the military to break up their pickets, and most recently have attempted to litigate them into oblivion. But try as they might, the capitalist class cannot relocate the West Coast of the United States and Canada. They cannot move the islands of Hawaii, and they do not seem eager to re-dig the Panama Canal somewhere far away from ILWU organizers.
If we were to learn from the example of the ILWU, establish a left-led labor movement in the heart of the logistics chain of capital, it would allow us a position far stronger than any one presidential candidate could provide. How do we, as weakened, scattered leftists, move towards this type of organizing victory? What did the founders of the ILWU and other left-wing unions have that we don’t?
The answer is simple: organizers. The CIO labor upsurge of the 1930s did not spring into existence out of nowhere. The workers who participated in the heroic organizing drives and risked their lives on picket lines brought a wealth of experience from earlier labor struggles. For the ILWU, much of their workforce was supplied by former loggers and sailors, two groups who had been organized heavily with the Industrial Workers of the World, and who had a strong tradition of militant syndicalist organizing against their bosses. Others had their first experiences organizing with the unemployed councils of the Communist Party. What we need more than anything is to develop our own cadre of experienced organizers.
We also need to begin by organizing workplaces closer to the current bases of our support. In DSA San Francisco, our Labor Organizing Committee has not focused on organizing warehouse workers, and has instead supported workers organizing in bakeries and breweries to join the warehouse division of the ILWU.
While this doesn’t plant our foot directly in the logistics chain, it builds up a network of workers experienced in organizing, ready to continue the fight at the next workplace. Some of these workers were leftists when they began working there, and some are rapidly developing politically through struggle. Our task is to continue to grow this network of rank-and-file organizers until we are strong enough to take on capitalists in a more fundamental way. To put it simply: we organize where we can, then we organize where we need to.
Capitalism is entering a crisis that is possibly unprecedented in its history. It will be more vulnerable than it has ever been in our lifetimes. The amount of work we will have to do is extraordinary, but we have a bigger opening than we ever have to push forward towards liberation. Unfortunately, that same crisis will also affect our lives as human beings. The luckiest among us suffer frustration, boredom, and anxiety. Others suffer daily terror at the prospect of sickening themselves or their loved ones.
The question then is, with so much mourning before us, how do we take up the task at hand? Rather than the old slogan, “Don’t Mourn, Organize,” we have to learn how to mourn and organize, organize and mourn. We have to remember that the heart of the socialist project is allowing the humanity of every person to flourish completely, and that this is their right by birth. We have to remember that the anger we feel grows from a place of love – a love that understands that people can be more than what capitalism allows them to be.
Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs said 102 years ago that the socialist movement allowed him "to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister—and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life."
We fight because we are motivated by that same love. The grief and the anger we feel all stem from it. We're not allowed to turn away from it, because it's what will keep us fighting. And this may be the most important time in our lives to fight. Our task is not easy, it is not glamorous, and our success is not guaranteed, but it is the only way forward. If we throw all we have into it, we have the best chance in our lifetimes at winning the world we deserve.