Socialism from below after Bernie: Local organizing and rank-and-file militancy

Stephen Mahood and Promise Li

Posted April 21, 2020

With Bernie Sanders dropping out of the presidential race, the Democratic Party has once again succeeded in eliminating a working-class challenge from below within its ranks. In the face of the Bernie campaign’s rising momentum in the early primaries, a historically-diverse pool of candidates quickly whittled away to back one of the most right-wing and anti-worker candidates seen in years. While history tells us that the Democratic Party, traditionally representing the interests of corporate elites, allows no space for an anti-capitalist mass movement, the Sanders campaign has opened up a new terrain and movement for socialist organizing both in the electoral sphere and beyond. As the pandemic further heightens the stakes of the class struggle, socialists can continue to develop militant mass politics in areas like local community organizing, labor movement and local electoral organizing. 

Last year, in Chicago, open socialists, supported by working-class, community organizations like Chicago Teachers Union and United Working Families, ousted long-time establishment members on the city council. Working-class people of color have spearheaded Sanders’ electoral surge, and have been at the forefront of local struggles against bosses and landlords. 

“Many of these local efforts gained steady momentum after the electoral season.”

These efforts should not falter with Sanders’ exit from the race. On the contrary, his defeat demonstrates the need for an independent, rank-and-file-led movement from below, beginning from socialists and progressives organizing locally and autonomously from their immediate communities, from workplaces to housing complexes. The unprecedented threat of COVID-19 has not displaced these battles, but only underscored their necessity. Over a third of all U.S. renters failed to pay rent on time this month, and millions have filed for unemployment. Workers around the country are autonomously taking militant action to demand basic rights through wildcat strikes and walk-outs. Sanders’ campaign laid the groundwork for a socialist movement from below to directly challenge the two-party establishment elites and the corporate interests they represent. These conditions suggest that, with the end of the Sanders’ campaign and the beginning of a new global crisis, refocusing the energy generated by Bernie to local, militant organizing from below is all the more necessary.

Rank-and-file local organizing 

At the heart of Sanders’ multi-ethnic and coalitional campaign was its everyday local organizers – those who knocked on doors for a candidate for the first time to veteran organizers who connected local, community struggles to the ballot. Organizers gained political experience, in other words, not through insulated reading groups, but through engaging new people in the movement from their own locales. The Sanders campaign energized a new generation of activists to begin this work, but we are only beginning to understand the power of local organizing in many communities. The campaign’s end reminds us that these are the necessary paths we must continue to cultivate with patience and receptiveness to take the movement beyond Bernie.  

Two years ago, California’s Proposition 10 – the fight to repeal the Costa Hawkins Act, which disallows the addition of new rent control units at a local level in the state – showed how activists used a state-wide ballot initiative to stimulate local struggles from where they are. Though the initiative, also backed by Sanders at the time, had failed, the demand for state-wide expansion of rent control reinforced Californian tenants’ everyday struggles with ever-increasing rent and displacement. In Los Angeles Chinatown, for example, the ‘Yes on 10’ campaign directly dovetailed with tenants in a senior housing unit fighting excessive rent increases. The campaign for rent control directly energized their ongoing fight, as they organized their neighbors to continue their pressure against both the developers and for the bill.

Many of these local efforts gained steady momentum after the electoral season. Pasadena Tenants Union, which formed mere months before Prop 10’s campaign, continues to grow and pressure city politicians for expanded tenant protections, as it prepares itself with its allies for a reenergized battle this November to repeal the Act again. 

Any effective and long-term socialist movement depends vitally on the building blocks of people organizing with others in their local milieus. This is a core practice of socialism: modeling a political praxis in which ordinary people, not staff activists or NGO organizers, encourage each other to collectively take power, challenging the country’s privatized institutions and capitalist elites. Even if Bernie Sanders had won political office, his victory would not have guaranteed this collective mass practice. But the organizing generated by his campaign has laid the groundwork for movements to grow and emerge.

Similarly, the labor movement continued its upsurge in recent years with the momentum created by the 2016 Sanders campaign and the growth of the DSA. What is particularly pertinent for us now is the type of bottom-up, rank-and-file centered politics that guided many of these recent workers’ struggles. West Virginia teachers in 2018, which spearheaded a wave of teachers’ strikes from Los Angeles to Oklahoma, were activated by militant rank-and-file members involved with the DSA and the Bernie campaign. These organizers drew exemplify what is called the ‘rank-and-file strategy’, popularized by advocates like Kim Moody, which prioritizes collectively building workers’ power from bottom-up over staff-driven union leadership, though it does not dogmatically preclude socialists from ever taking staff positions in their unions. 

The Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 for educational reforms in their schools after years of school shutdowns and privatization, was a clear example of rank-and-file organizing: spurred by a caucus of militant members, teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union built alliances with community organizations and prioritized empowering members to participate in contract committees in their own schools to practice organizing, from mock strike votes to coordinating strike logistics.  

The strategy allows room to manifest in different organizing contexts, though its key principle is clear: as Wisconsin rank-and-file worker Joe Evica writes, to “increase the consciousness, confidence, and combativity of the working class at any given moment.” In other words, this politics understands that the site for the most effective kind of militant organizing is right there in front of workers: their own immediate workplace, not necessarily electoral politics or the union staff positions.

The end of the Sanders campaign, and the widespread economic instability for workers induced by the failure of companies to provide for their basic needs, like paid sick leave, prove the relevance of this organizing strategy. What was a growing tactic in recent years has now become a necessary trend in the new reality wrought by COVID-19: workers around the world have no time to wait for union staff and other bargaining intermediaries, and have demonstrated their power to bring company officials to the table on their own terms. From chicken processing plant workers in Georgia to Amazon workers in Staten Island, wildcat strikes have peaked as workers are denied basic sanitization measures, compensation, and sick leaves in their workplaces. Unionized Instacart workers, who are already treading uncharted territory by becoming the first gig workers depending on contract labor with tech companies to form a union, collectively held a strike early on this month to protest Instacart for not providing essential protections for workers. Moving forward, socialists can choose to find employment in these sectors to help amplify this insurgent militancy alongside other workers, to build the movement locally right from capital’s weak points. 

Delivery and other service workers, caregivers, medical workers, the unemployed, among others would need to continue fighting for a system that serves the needs and interests of the working classes and the marginalized, with or without Bernie Sanders. COVID-19 has revealed the failures of our system in meeting medical needs and providing care resources: now, more than ever, is the time to demand a more equitable healthcare system from the workplace itself. With the systematic failure of more and more industries in the pandemic, exacerbated by years of privatization and anti-worker policies, many socialists, not just those on the frontlines, will find that the possibility for militant change from below has not been vanquished by the inevitable demise of the Sanders campaign. Instead, the conditions show that the key to change lies in everyday people transforming their workplaces and communities one step at a time, which can begin from workers organizing each other to demand paid sick leave or protective equipment to organizing unions from the bottom up. 

But what about November?

Reframing our attitudes toward rank-and-file power is the answer to navigating the impossible choice this November. The most successful electoral campaigns recently in which socialists are crucially embedded required thinking of alternatives beyond the two-party system through harnessing local organizing power, particularly at the municipal level. The Richmond Progressive Alliance brought together progressive Democrats, Greens, and other independent activists throughout the last decades, successfully divesting hundreds of millions of dollars from Chevron to support city-level social programs. Chicago activists’ collective attempt to unseat long-time aldermen last year, as mentioned earlier, saw the formation of a multi-racial coalition of community members from teachers to criminal justice activists. Principles of mutual aid may also effectively cultivate local, self-sufficient communities that, to use Nicos Poulantzas’ words, build popular power in order to “shift the relationship of forces on the terrain of the State itself.” These types of campaigns, drawn from building collective, coalitional, rank-and-file power from ordinary people in their own communities, are the constituents of any larger movement that can challenge global capital at its core.

Richmond Progressive Alliance and their city councilors marching

Bernie’s defeat demonstrates that the working-class must begin from their own power locally, not by settling for the lesser evil in the electoral realm. We need systemic change now, and with the pandemic, there is no normal to which to return. Trump is indeed a terrifying culmination of what capitalism has brought to working communities, and some may turn to Biden as a desperate measure, while others may look to third-party, independent candidates or even abstain. While we recognize that any efforts to vote Trump out of office can uplift and empower the working-class, Biden and his corporate funders will not energize the mass movement at all in the same way that Bernie has, and exploitative material conditions will remain essentially the same, if not further decline, for workers and marginalized communities. As a senator, Biden has advocated for scaling back Medicare, supporting the Iraq War, and calling for one of the biggest expansions of mass incarceration policies this country had seen, even to the right of Republican presidents. 

And even though we see that the Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins’ political platform has strengths that decidedly rivals that of Sanders, the Green Party model, broadly speaking, has focused too much on top-heavy initiatives instead of building a mass movement through empowering local leaders at the base. Prioritizing national and state-level ballot access before effectively building mass movements through local organizing puts the wagon before the horse. The Greens offer the best paths forward for the movement when some of its members work in coalition with others in initiatives like the Richmond Progressive Alliance. As Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker reminds us, any vanguard is “not something a party bestows upon itself but something that is earned through struggle and that there can’t be a vanguard without a rearguard.” Building the capacity of local people on the ground to organize and make autonomous political decisions in their own communities is more important than party-level, vanguard organizing without a base. 

So, as socialists, we must work swiftly to move the goalposts. Instead of organizing our efforts around this fruitless electoral choice, socialists should work to translate the will and skills, cultivated by the mass movement in the Sanders campaign, toward organizing around concrete issues in their immediate communities that are sure to persist, even exacerbated, regardless of the winner in November. Only by strengthening and building the movement from below can we effectively bring about a socialist alternative – in the electoral realm and beyond.     

Stephen Mahood and Promise Li are dual members of Solidarity and DSA. Stephen is active in the PUEBLO coalition and Promise was a tenant organizer in Los Angeles Chinatown.