Beginnings of Politics: DSA and the Uprising

Date: 2020-11-12T23:05:07+00:00


Writing in August, Taylor B argues that we must look to new emancipatory forces arising in the current conjuncture instead of seeking to impose older forms of organization. We aim for this piece to be a jumping-off point for a broader debate about strategy and the party-form in our current historical moment. 

Back in August, DSA New York City’s Emerge caucus joined with DSA San Francisco’s Red Star caucus for a panel discussion on the workers’ party.1 The limits to this discussion were contained in the opening statement that contextualized the event: that in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ primary defeat and the Black Lives Matter national uprising, there is a need for an independent mass force for and of the working classes and that this force is necessarily a worker’s party. Here we see the problem: in reading the ensemble of forces that make up the current moment, Red Star and Emerge impose historical forms of organization on the conjuncture, rather than attempt to think emancipatory forms of organization through a concrete analysis.

I believe we lack a theory of politics that is adequate for our moment. To pose the problem quickly: the Marxist tradition contains a gap. It gives us critical tools to understand the capitalist mode of production, the insight that emancipation is immanent to the system through class struggle, and a concept of the transition to communism formulated by Marx as the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx does not tell us how to apply this emancipatory framework: this is the Marxist problem of politics that must be theorized under the conditions of the current moment, or conjuncture. 

Lenin understood this problem of politics. Like a great mountain climber, Lenin proved that the Marxist tradition could serve as the basis for the correct political practices to reach the emancipatory summit. But we are situated at the base of a new mountain. The interlocking and unfolding crises of our time–global industrial overcapacity, climate change, and ecological apocalypse, a global pandemic, mass unemployment, extrajudicial state violence and occupation of communities of color at home and abroad–present a singular set of challenges to which Lenin’s map does not correspond. We must study Lenin to understand his process of map-making, not to substitute the map of his mountain for ours. As Marxists, we cannot simply read and extract an emancipatory politics from Lenin that is appropriate to our moment. To do so would deny the particular historical developments of Lenin’s moment and our own.

We need a theory of politics that can account for the formation of the DSA and prescribe practices that move us closer to achieving universal emancipation. For this theory of politics to be valid, it must be able to account for political phenomena beyond the socialist organization. This practical theory is what I want to begin thinking about here. 

I propose to think of both the DSA and the current uprising as singular beginnings of emancipatory politics. As beginnings, these movements should be understood as necessarily incoherent attempts to discover the determinant, singular forms of emancipatory politics that emerge from the conjuncture. I see the process of discovery that is inherent to all beginnings of emancipatory politics as a struggle against an antagonistic force, which seeks to neutralize emancipatory forms.2 If an emancipatory politics can only proceed from our present conditions, then we are fortunate to live in the “exceptional circumstances” of a world-historic uprising. We must search for emancipatory forms in these circumstances through concrete analysis and political practice, rather than impose abstract and historical models.

What constitutes a beginning of emancipatory politics? First, we can say that all beginnings occur in unique ways. They must always be thought in relation to the conjuncture, which is to say that beginnings must always be thought of in their singularity. Second, we can say that all emancipatory beginnings necessarily coincide with overcoming an antagonistic force of neutralization. Thus, emancipatory politics occur in sequences, with the end of the sequence succumbing to the forces of neutralization. To conceive of a beginning, we must first understand the conditions of neutralization within our conjuncture.

The end of the Black Power era illustrates a complex set of neutralizing forces. Given the complexity of this era, I must limit myself to two broad points: First, the Black protest movement of the 1950s and 60s was the end of the last emancipatory sequence in the US. Some forces that neutralized this movement, and specifically the Black Power moment, remain active forces of neutralization in our conjuncture. Second, the neutralization of emancipatory politics must be seen as a determinate force in the state’s transition to its neoliberal form. 

The forces that neutralized the Black Power era can be summarized in a very schematic way: First, an increase in federal social welfare programs under Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society. These programs not only provided assistance but unofficially doubled as a jobs program for college-educated Black workers. The result was a small but stable Black middle class from which a new political class emerged. Second, violent state repression and harassment through counterinsurgency programs like COINTELPRO that forced political radicals like the Black Panther Party to take a “pragmatic turn.”3 At its peak the Panthers were an organization of 5,000 members across 40 chapters. By the early 1970s, “50 members had been killed, 200 injured, and another 300 arrested.” Third, praise of the movement’s “political maturity” upon entering the political mainstream of electoral politics with an emphasis on “community control” through municipal elections.4 

It is clear that entering municipal government was not sufficient for addressing issues around “housing, jobs, public education, and health care amid shrinking tax revenue, cuts to federal spending, and growing hostility to welfare as an entitlement to the poor.5 And why is this? Because the moment the Black Power movement “matured” and a new class of political representatives began to enter the state, a crisis of capitalist accumulation was unfolding. This crisis of profitability began in the late 1960s through productive overcapacity in the global manufacturing sector.6 With profits no longer secure, the New Deal consensus broke down. Both production and the state itself required reorganization. Thus we see not only the deindustrialization of American cities through a shift to overseas production via distributed supply chains, but the formation of a disciplinary state of social insecurity to reinforce the system of wage labor amidst worsening employment opportunities in an era of deregulated capitalism.7 Through a “double regulation of the poor,” social welfare programs were gutted as police targeted street crime along the lines of class, race, and place. While Black mothers were disproportionately harmed by generalized welfare cuts, Black men in particular urban zones were swept into the rapidly expanding penal system.

I am well aware of the fact that the sketch I have provided is extremely schematic. But I feel this rough sketch does illustrate how the emancipatory politics of the Black Power era were neutralized. The result of this neutralization was a new class of Black politicians presiding over a restructured state of social insecurity that contributed to the death of Black people, among others.8 While all new emancipatory beginnings must break with and struggle against neutralizing forces, I believe this rough sketch gives us an idea of what elements require further study in our current moment.

There is one element of neutralization we see during the end of the Black Power era that I want to pay particular attention to: the political party. The political party was not only a form through which emancipatory politics was integrated into the mainstream during this period, it was also a determining factor in both securing the necessary federal aid to build the Black middle class and coordinating the actions and policies of the repressive state apparatuses. Political parties are clearly an active force of neutralization in our conjuncture. It is for this reason that in the United States a beginning of emancipatory politics must break with the corporate, two-party system in particular and state organizations in general. 

For our purposes, we can note that the Democratic and Republican parties are barely parties in the bourgeois parliamentarian sense of the term. It would be more accurate to say they are networks of statist interest groups tangled in a complex set of pay-to-play schemes. Their control of the state is contingent on a particular set of interests taking a dominant position within these overlapping networks, but it is secured through the disorganization of working people. This disorganization is achieved at least in part through the successful neutralization of politics.9 As we have seen, one way in which this neutralization occurs is by absorbing representatives of emancipatory movements into its ranks. A head is created so it can be decapitated, thus killing the body.

We should also note that in addition to the corporate parties, the Black Panther Party was not only neutralized, but became a force of neutralization itself once it made its “pragmatic turn.” This is not a criticism of the Panthers; they clearly had no other option. The point I want to make is that the Panthers are just one example of a larger development in the twentieth century: the neutralization of the party-form itself.

As Sylvain Lazarus shows, the twentieth century saw “the notion of the party” become “central” to politics.10 This was inaugurated by Lenin, the theorist of the Bolshevik mode of politics, with his 1902 text What Is to Be Done?. For Lazarus, the notion of Marxism-Leninism obscures Lenin’s real break with Marx on the question of politics. The Bolshevik mode of politics that Lenin theorized was preceded by the “classist” mode of politics. The primary theorist of this mode was Marx, which had insurrection as its basis.11 The classist mode, or sequence, existed from the publication of the Communist Manifesto and ended with the Paris Commune in 1871. 

For Lazarus, the classist thesis is this: ‘Where there are proletarians, there are Communists.” Crucially, there is no theory of organization in Marx, nor is there a “real theory of political consciousness.” Instead, there is a “major and fundamental” theory of “historical consciousness and of consciousness as historical consciousness.” In other words, Marx’s “Communists” are made by history, rather than any organization.

Thus, Lenin breaks with Marx once he rejects this spontaneity. For Lenin, “the appearance of revolutionary militants” could not be a spontaneous occurrence, but just the opposite. For Lazarus, the “political core” of Lenin’s theory of politics is a “nonspontaneous consciousness” that is antagonistic to “the entire existing social and political order.” It is this nonspontaneous consciousness that is the heart of the party. The party is the “mechanism of realization of the conditions that will permit the emergence of a political consciousness.” For Lazarus, this is a critical development: “Lenin brings the foundation of modern politics in the fact that revolutionary politics is required to announce and practice the conditions of its existence.”

So through Lenin, we have the Bolshevik mode of politics, a politics of the revolutionary party. The sites of the Bolshevik mode of politics were the party and the soviet. This mode, or sequence, ended with the successful completion of the October Revolution. In other words, after the October Revolution, the party and the soviet were no longer active sites of emancipatory politics. This is because, upon the Bolsheviks taking power, the party and the soviets entered into a new relationship with each other and the state. The party fused with the state and subordinated the soviets to it. As Lazarus tells us: “From now on, ‘party’ would be assigned to power, to the state.” The party would now be:

an attribute of the state, or even its center. We enter the global era of state parties: Stalinism, Nazisim, parliamentarianism — multi-partyism being an interstate muti-partyism. At all events, parties exist only as state parties, which means that in the strict sense, these parties are not political organizations but state organizations.12

Thus, the success of the October Revolution coincided with the end of its political forms and the neutralization of its emancipatory sequence.

I believe we can see why I have equated overcoming the neutralization of politics with a break from the corporate two-party system. In the first place, a beginning of politics must proceed from a break to do politics under present conditions. Marx broke with the utopian socialists. Lenin broke with Marx. The Cultural Revolution can be read as Mao’s break with Marxism-Leninism to free politics from the party-state.13 Since we cannot know the forms of collective emancipation until we discover them within our conjuncture and put them into practice, we must begin by breaking with the neutralizing elements. For us, this means state organizations in general and the party-form in particular.

Over the last decade, there have been at least four beginnings: Occupy, Ferguson, the 2016 and 2020 defeats of Bernie Sanders Democratic primary campaigns, and the recent uprisings following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. Each of these beginnings have their own thrusts and limits: they are structured in their particularity. Now, this is not to say that these beginnings are antagonistic or incompatible with each other: they are all beginnings of emancipatory struggles.

Since the growth of DSA is closely associated with the Sanders campaigns, I will begin there. To this point, I do not believe we have a strong analysis of the 2020 Democratic primary. I will limit myself to a few comments to continue my larger argument.

First, the 2020 Democratic primary election can only be understood in reference to Trump’s presidency and the strength of the ruling class. Trump’s violation of norms and traditions marks a discontinuity and period of adjustment for the ruling class within the two-party system, rather than the state’s weakness or new forms of governance. While discontinuity has given the appearance of a political crisis, Trump has energized an otherwise rudderless GOP and created an ideal foil for a similarly bankrupt DNC. This is the positive side of Trump’s discontinuity. From this positive perspective, the Bush and Obama administrations were the end of a sequence that played out within the ruling class. In 2016, all of the most unpopular aspects and contradictions of this regime manifested in the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, who was unable to carry it forward. While Trump is a poor administrator of empire who may fail to adequately contain domestic and international crises, they do not originate with him.14

Second, far from the Trump administration constituting a new political crisis, it would seem that Trump’s presidency has functioned as the prevention of one. Trump’s mostly stylistic discontinuity with the previous regime is what makes it possible to even conceive of the DNC and GOP having any legitimacy whatsoever. Take the COVID-19 relief packages for example. The only relief the so-called “normal politicians” in Congress have provided is a one-time $1,200 check and a temporary $600 weekly boost to unemployment benefits. Trump has functioned as an incredible shield for the political establishment’s complete unwillingness or inability to respond to the pandemic.

Third, the false notion that Trump’s presidency constitutes a political crisis is the basis for Sanders’ 2020 defeat. As others have pointed out, it is with great irony that the most prominent activist for Medicare for All was defeated during a global pandemic. Sanders’ 2020 defeat was not orchestrated by an underhanded media and omnipotent DNC, though the media and DNC played their parts. The decisive force was the large turnout of Democratic primary voters who rallied to Joe Biden.  

Biden’s victory was the result of a mobilization to protect “American Democracy” from the singular danger of the Genius Fascist Russian Crook Moron President. Trump’s “singular danger” to institutions, the Constitution, and the whole “exceptional” American project was reinforced time and again by both liberals and conservatives despite the strong continuity between his administration and the previous ones. Even Sanders held this position as he tried to rally voters and nonvoters to his social-democratic program. Presumably, this is why he is ending his political career campaigning for the Democratic establishment.

So while it seems that voters were failing to identify and vote for their “material interests”–public healthcare, student debt relief, etc.–we can see they were in fact voting for a different set of material interests. Biden’s primary voters chose to remove a bug from the machine they depend on for material and symbolic satisfaction. Even though the machine runs on blood and oil and cannot deliver public goods or a better life for the next generation, these voters ultimately affirmed in an exemplary way that politics is not something we can afford. The crises were too dire to consider any semblance of change or social transformation. Their decision was to right the ship, rather than begin the process to build a new one.

Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 defeats created surges in DSA membership growth. DSA now claims more than 70,000 members across 300 chapters. I believe these moments of growth are evidence of a beginning of politics. This is to say that through the defeat of Sanders 2016 and 2020 insurgent campaigns, truths have been produced for people that have “punched holes” in existing knowledge.15 These truths have fundamentally corresponded with the idea that the two-party system is incapable of delivering desired political outcomes on its own, and that therefore political organization is necessary in some form beyond the given bourgeois forms.

There are three points I want to emphasize. First, the reason a beginning of emancipatory politics could occur in a presidential primary is that Sanders was an insurgent candidate. To vote for him was to agree that some form of political organization was needed beyond the DNC. This is epitomized by his call for “political revolution.” Second, the fact that Sanders has betrayed his revolution by actively campaigning for Biden does not mean the beginning is over. Extinguishing a match used to light a fire has no bearing on the fire. Third, the neutralization of Sanders in 2020 that has seen him become a neutralizing force is a repeat of 2016 when he was defeated and campaigned for Hillary Clinton. What this should indicate to us is that the struggle between emancipatory beginnings and their neutralization are dynamic. Beginnings of politics can only be understood in relation to the force of neutralization.

The movement for socialism in the US is dominated by the Sanders beginning. So much so that I believe the term “socialism” in its current popular usage is the name for the recognition that additional political forms are needed beyond bourgeois ones. As a “socialist organization,” it would seem that the DSA is one of these non-bourgeois political forms. To be more specific, the DSA is neither a bourgeois form or a proletarian form: it is a political form of the petty bourgeoisie. But the economic character of the DSA is not sufficient to explain the incoherence within the organization. 

As a beginning of politics, DSA’s coherence is necessarily blocked by the forces of neutralization. As I have indicated, this is because a beginning of politics is a struggle against the neutralization of politics. The struggle between this unevenly developed balance of forces is playing out in DSA within its membership between different defined and undefined tendencies. Ultimately, I believe this struggle can be located in a problem of interpretation that arises from the recognition of the need for additional and supplemental political forms in a capitalist society. Are the additional forms of political organization meant to supplement the existing two-party system as a pressure group or third party within the capitalist mode of production? Or should additional forms of political organization create an irreconcilable and radical opposition to the organizations of the US state and the capitalist mode of production? DSA is dominated by the former. 

Both the “run better Democrats” and “build a worker’s party” tendencies in DSA correspond with the forces of neutralization. Why? Because they attempt to employ historical forms of politics that are emancipatory dead-ends. Since these tendencies dominate DSA, even if they can oppose each other, it is clear the DSA is constituted through an extremely unbalanced development of emancipatory and neutralizing forces. At best these strategies will only continue to block the development of emancipatory forms and reproduce our incoherence; at worst they will be coherent in their neutralization. If we are going to advance the emancipatory struggle, we must continue to fight the forces of neutralization that are consistent with our beginning by discovering the new political forms and building radical institutions.

Given DSA’s close association with the revival of “socialism,” tendencies within DSA that advocate electoralism and building the worker’s party threaten to neutralize the revival of socialism itself by stamping out its emancipatory potential. We can already see the logic at work. The failure of socialism to constitute a radical politics will likely follow the logic of Joe Biden’s primary voters: the crises we face will be deemed too great to entertain de-emphasizing electoral work or abandoning the worker’s party. Collective emancipation will be something we cannot afford. We must turn to forms that cannot deliver emancipation because it is not clear what else we can do. Once again, the ship must be righted because there is “no alternative.”

Now I realize I appear to have entered a tired debate. This is the debate that puts electoral work on one side and mutual aid on the other and ends with one person quoting Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” on Twitter.16 Fortunately, my argument exists outside of this problematic. Why? Because this debate is completely abstract and idealist: it supposes that we can simply choose the arena we wish to fight in based on what is strategically expedient, rather than do politics in relation to the specific ensemble of determinate forces that make up the current moment. Worse, invoking texts like “Left-Wing Communism” supposes we can extract transhistorical “wisdom” from a text written in relation to its conjuncture and apply it to ours. We cannot do either of these things. We must begin with the goal of universal emancipation and construct a theory of politics from within the conjuncture that allows us to move toward it. This must include identifying and combating the forces of neutralization. This is what Marx did. This is what Lenin did. Their specific proposals must be understood in relation to their moment instead of being imported into ours.

To this point, I believe we have made positive steps toward a concrete analysis so we can get an idea of the correct way the movement for socialism must proceed. But we cannot say we have yet articulated a concrete basis. Why? Because we must recognize that our movement for socialism coincides with other beginnings: both the Ferguson uprising and this current uprising of world-historic proportions that has been sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. As Marxists, we cannot hope to advance the emancipatory struggle in our moment without thinking through the Black Lives Matter beginning.

The uprising is another singular beginning of politics. Between 15 and 26 million Americans have taken part in this uprising, making it possibly the largest protest movement in US history.17 We must note that the present uprising has not been led by any single mass organization, much less a Leninist party. We must try to understand the various forms of organizations that have been operative in this struggle, both formal and informal; we must also try to understand the uprising’s “spontaneity.” This will be essential if DSA is to make new connections and undertake organizing practices that deliver organizational forms that are appropriate to emancipatory politics. 

The uprising is a beginning of politics that must be understood in its singularity. What set off this beginning? Was it the video of George Floyd’s murder? Was it the one in 2,000 deaths of African Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Was it the concentration of unemployment in communities of color that are forced to live in greater numbers in substandard housing? Was it the failure for meaningful reform following Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and the Ferguson rebellion in 2014? I think we can say the event was the moment in which these realities fused in thought for people. This fusion, this rupture, led to the discovery that a past truth is still true: that in the US, Black lives largely do not matter. And it is this truth that has led a heterogeneous mix of people in Minneapolis and around the world to take to streets to combat it: to say that if life matters, Black lives must matter. 

It seems to me that Black Lives Matter is the name of an anti-racist movement against the police in particular, and the state in general. Like the socialist movement, reformist and radical tendencies have been produced within it. I should note that this simple opposition is not abstracted from the movement, but coincides with the necessary struggle between the neutralization and beginning of politics. On the one hand, Black lives will matter once police have the right amount of diversity, bias-training, and public oversight. On the other hand, Black lives will matter once the police are abolished and the carceral state is destroyed. Here we see additive and antagonistic demands coexisting as a beginning of politics.

The new demand to “defund the police” and reinvest in public goods seems to straddle the reformist and radical tendencies. This demand seems to best contain the struggle over the beginning and neutralization of politics. It can be read as both a transition to abolishing the police and a reformist move that says once the police are properly funded in relation to public goods they will finally be effective and worthwhile. Nevertheless, “defunding the police” is a reform of more radical character than requiring police to wear body cameras. It would seem the Black Lives Matter movement, from Ferguson to now, is both expanding its popularity and its radicality. I think this should be viewed as a positive development of a beginning even if it remains blocked by forces of neutralization.

Compared to the movement for socialism, it seems the Black Lives Matter movement is better positioned to resist the neutralization of politics. The development of this uprising seems to contain a more even development between the forces of politics and its neutralization. I believe the greater momentum behind the radical tendencies within the movement is due in part to the failure of reforms that emerged from Ferguson to resolve similar problems. This truth, that the police cannot be reformed, has been produced for more people through the failures to reform, thereby increasing the radical character across the whole movement. Given the movement for socialism’s primarily electoral character, it would seem that for some reform cannot yet be discounted since it has not elected a sufficient number of authentic socialists to political office to test this idea. But this is the same flawed logic we see in the reformist version of defunding the police. Both ideas in these beginnings suggest the state can be reformed once a magic number is reached: the number of socialists in government and the number of dollars going to police in municipal and state budgets.

While there is undoubtedly an economic dimension to the current uprising (mass unemployment is certainly a factor), the heterogeneous, multiracial mix of protestors does not adhere to a stable set of sociological categories or political consciousness. The forms of protest within the uprising, at first insurrectionary in character and then increasingly “peaceful,” have also shifted the longer the uprising has gone on. But this does not mean these elements have disappeared entirely. Different places are expressing their own time as they develop in their own way, with Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle, and Portland producing their own rhythms. I believe the key insight is this: The uprising is composed of contradictory situations that cut across different levels of the totality. Since the uprising has extended beyond US borders, with mass protests and demonstrations occurring around the world in solidarity and for their own particular reasons, it seems the totality is international in character.

Who are the people taking part in this uprising? I want to answer this question in a way that pushes back against Marxist “common sense.” I do not believe “the working-class” is an adequate category for the uprising. It would be more accurate to say that the uprising contains the working-class, petty bourgeoisie (with an emphasis on private and public salaried employees), and even bourgeois elements. This is reflected in the apparently not insignificant number of protestors who earn salaries of more than $150,000, and the support, if only nominally and cynically, by major multinational corporations. I do not think it is appropriate to say this particular beginning of politics is simply an early form of a general “class politics” that must be channeled and led by a worker’s party. We must address the moment in its singularity and resist any appeal to “Marxist” theory consistent with an abstract, Hegelian dialectic.18 I believe we must accept that the “spontaneous” and “unorganized” masses appear more radical than the largest socialist organization in the US, including many of its Marxist tendencies.

That being said, class antagonism is certainly present in the uprising. The problem is that this class antagonism seems to be expressed through a fusion of contradictory elements that take different forms of protest in different places. Marching and looting have occurred at different times of day by what appear to be different groups. Thus, the class antagonism is not reducible to a classical Marxist proletarian struggle, but appears in an overdetermined, anti-racist movement against the state that is particular to the moments of protest occurring in different places with their different rhythms. The complexity of the conjuncture shows we are in (yet another) “exceptional” circumstance.19

To make things more complicated, the class antagonism itself contains different tendencies due to the economic, political, and ideological relations of the classes involved.20 Let’s take the petty-bourgeois element as an example, which we should point out is also an element that has assumed a dominant role in the movement for socialism. As Nicos Poulantzas has made clear, the petty bourgeoisie is a complex class made of groupings of subgroupings.21 Crucially, it has no real ideological position of its own. Instead, the petty bourgeoisie creates a “sub-ensemble” of ideology by “twisting and adapting” bourgeois ideology to its “aspirations” of mobility while simultaneously borrowing in greater degree “from working-class ideology,” which it similarly “deflects and adapts” to its “own aspirations.”22 One result of this is the petty-bourgeois “status quo anti-capitalism” that takes a position “against ‘big money’ and ‘great fortunes’ and “aspires to ‘social justice,’ through State redistribution of income.”23 Since the petty bourgeoisie “fears proletarianization” and “upheaval,” the petty bourgeoisie

aspires to ‘participate’ in the ‘distribution’ of political power, without wanting a radical transformation of it…It aspires to be the ‘arbiter’ of society, because as Marx says, it would like the whole of society to become petty-bourgeois.24

I believe the socialist and Black Lives Matter movements must combat this dominant petty-bourgeois tendency. This tendency is a force of neutralization that seeks to simply alter the state and maintain class society: it is the same force of neutralization that emerged from the end of the Black protest movement in the late 1960s early 1970s. More importantly, this “status quo anti-capitalist” tendency is obscured if we reduce the Black Lives Matter movement, or the DSA for that matter, to “working class” politics.

We can see that we must take the Black Lives Matter movement in its own terms and think about it in its singular complexity. It is still unclear what lasting political forms the Black Lives Matter movement will adopt, if any. But if the beginning of politics coincides with a break from the two-party system in particular and state organizations in general then perhaps its amorphous, “spontaneous” character makes it more difficult to neutralize. This is to say that the beginning of politics the uprising expresses is more unknown and comes with greater uncertainty as it reaches across various groups and organizations and the many people who are returning to the streets and entering them for the first time.

While I have discussed the Black Lives Matter and socialist movements separately to attend to their singular beginnings, it is clear these movements meet in various ways. I believe both movements must be open to the other if they are to make the break from their beginnings and constitute an emancipatory politics. 

Given that the Black Lives Matter movement has a more radical character, given that racism has proven time and again to be the stumbling block of previous movements for socialism and communism, the movement for socialism must embrace it in an emphatic way. While labor and tenant organizing, eviction defense, and unemployed councils are all great starting points for advancing emancipatory struggle, these abstract tactics must be thought through and alongside the organizations that compose the uprising and Black Lives Matter movement. Rather than turn to the historical dead-ends of the Democratic party and CPUSA, we must trust that appropriate emancipatory forms will emerge as we engage in the local, national, and international organizing that this moment makes possible.

The rally and demonstration around the ILWU’s Juneteenth work stoppage of seaports down the west coast is an excellent example of these two beginnings meeting. This demonstration brought many organizations together, including the DSA, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and others. For the DSA in particular, this was an extremely rare coordinated action between the San Francisco and East Bay chapters. Thousands turned out for the morning rally at the Port of Oakland to hear speeches from the Black leadership of the majority Black ILWU Local 10, Danny Glover, and Angela Davis. We marched in the streets shouting the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to Oscar Grant Plaza. We should note that “Oscar Grant Plaza” is this place’s unofficial name, and that this name began with Occupy Oakland.

What organizing projects put anti-racism at the center of our work to destroy the capitalist mode of production and the political and ideological relations it depends on? How might a commitment to anti-racism express itself in an organization that is majority white? How can relationships be formed and deepened with trade and tenant unions around this cause in addition to advancing their struggle for better working and living conditions? What resources can the DSA make available to assist local anti-racist organizations in an effort to build and potentially lead anti-racist coalitions? I believe we must pursue these questions together.

Before I close, I must admit that the Juneteenth event was not without tension. The morning ILWU rally began with a blessing from a Black preacher who stated that “Black lives matter” and that “all lives matter.” Following him, a member of the ILWU forcefully declared we would be having a “peaceful” protest; either the preacher or this ILWU member affirmed the importance of voting. Later, a member of ILWU leadership said that “good cops need to start checking bad cops.”

Now there were a few grumbles around me when these things were said. It is clear there are more contradictions present in our emancipatory beginnings than I have been able to attend to. But perhaps these statements were allowed to pass because the day was only beginning. Perhaps we all understood that this movement itself is only a beginning, and that as such, the patience to struggle is necessary.

  1. As a member of DSA San Francisco, I want to thank these caucuses for putting on this event. We certainly need more mixing between chapters and thoughtful interventions on difficult topics like the worker’s party.
  2.  I must thank Asad Haider for his book Mistaken Identity and the articles “On Depoliticization” and “Socialists Think” that appeared in Viewpoint Magazine. This work has been very helpful for thinking about the neutralization of politics and depoliticization. I should add that I edited this essay while listening to his appearance on the Cosmonaut podcast.
  3. Ibid., 83-84
  4. Ibid., 88.
  5. Ibid., 88.
  6. Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (London and New York: Verso 2016).
  7. Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor (Durham and New York: Duke University Press 2009).
  8. The 2015 murder of Freddie Gray has become the classic example. As Taylor points out, in Baltimore “African Americans control virtually the entire political apparatus” (Taylor., 80).
  9. Here I am inspired by Nicos Poulantzas’ conception of the state. For Poulantzas, the state is not a simple monolithic instrument. Rather, it is a “material condensation” of class and social relations that contains divisions and internal contradictions across its various apparatuses.
  10. Sylvain Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party, 1902-November 1917,” Lenin Reloaded, ed. Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2007), 257.
  11. Ibid., 258-59.
  12. Ibid., 260
  13. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran (London and New York: Verso 2010) 153-56.
  14. Adam Tooze, “Whose Century?” London Review of Books 42, no. 15, July 30, 2020, Tooze’s discussion of the “China shock” provides a concrete example of a crisis opening the door for Trump. The years-long project to bring China into the World Trade Organization to fully integrate it into the global market was completed in 2001. This was meant to serve US business interests rather than the country’s interests at large. A new market and cheap manufacturing resulted in the loss of 2.5 million jobs to China. While this 2% loss of total jobs was a minor structural change, 20% of these jobs were concentrated in manufacturing. In the 2016 election, Trump won big in counties in which these job losses were highest. As Tooze says, “thanks to the rickety construction of America’s 18th-century constitution, all that Trump needed to do to win the presidency was exploit a series of concentrated local crises.
  15. Alain Badiou, Ethics, trans. Peter Hallward (London and New York: Verso 2012) 40-43.
  16. “How can one say that ‘parliamentarianism is politically obsolete’, when ‘millions’ and ‘legions’ of proletarians are not only still in favour of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright ‘counter-revolutionary’!? It is obvious that parliamentarianism in Germany is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the ‘Lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make.”
  17. Larry Buchanan, et al. “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History.” The New York Times (New York, NY), 3 July 2020,
  18. Red Star commits this idealist sin in their “Statement on the National Rage Against the Killing of George Floyd.” After defending rioting from moralistic attacks that center electoral reforms and “peaceful” protest, Red Star retains the logic of what we might call a “mature/immature” binary of political activity to launch an organizational criticism of rioting. Lacking the “proper” form of organization, the riot is characterized as an emotional reaction, rather than a political one: “Riots themselves are outbursts of anger that have been blocked from an organized political route to funnel themselves.” This idealist critique is driven home with an actual call to fantasy: “Imagine if instead of riots the response to the killing of George Floyd was Minneapolis bus drivers and delivery workers bringing transit to a halt, store stockers and essential workers walking off the job, and the entire city being paralyzed in a coordinated general strike.”
  19.  Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London and New York: Verso 2005), 104.
  20. Nicos Poulantzas, Fascism and Dictatorship, trans. Judith White (London and New York: Verso 2018), 237.
  21. Ibid., 238. On the one hand, we have the “traditional” petty bourgeoisie that consists of small-scale owners and producers; on the other hand, we have the “new” petty bourgeoisie that consists of non-productive salaried workers in the private and public sectors.
  22. Ibid., 240
  23. Ibid., 241-242
  24. Ibid., 241