We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Cops: A Critical Reply to Class Unity Caucus

As the massive protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism develops and presses on, we on the Left find ourselves at a critical historical moment. Uprisings of this scale and scope have not been seen in the United States since the late 1960’s, and it is therefore absolutely vital for us to thoughtfully assess these events as we continue our efforts to build a new, more just society. That being said, we in the Red Caucus feel as though the Class Unity Caucus analysis fundamentally misunderstands the nature of these protests. Even worse, on the basis of this flawed analysis the authors recommend that the DSA and other socialist organizations should not prioritize involvement within this widespread movement. This is, undoubtedly, a grave error. We are in a moment of acute crisis in which masses of people are rallying behind longstanding Black radical demands against our violent, racist system. We in the Red Caucus not only support participating in these uprisings, but feel that socialists everywhere have a duty to do just that. Here we respond to Class Unity’s misguided position, and argue that these protests do, in fact, have great potential for building a liberatory political movement that can fight against our racist, capitalist society.

On “Actionism,” Strategy, and Praxis

One of the central theses of the Class Unity position is based upon a flawed use of 20th century Marxist, Theodor Adorno’s critical concept of “actionism.” They argue that Left organizational support for these spontaneous uprisings is rooted merely in a sense of desperation. If organizations like the DSA seek to support these protests, they claim, it is because we still lack a coherent, mass movement to engage in truly revolutionary politics. Therefore, they contend that action for the pure sake of action has become fetishized as an end in itself. However, actions without strategic coordination cannot lead to the goal of fighting for a socialist society. Since these protests, so their thinking goes, do not have a single, unified strategy, they do not “have the potential for the type of politics that we want.” Class Unity proposes instead for us to simply “push ahead with [our] (hopefully) pre-existing efforts to build the kind of democratic institutions,” and stay out of these events altogether.

What acrobatic reasoning! First, let’s assess their crude use of Adorno’s concept of “actionism.” This refers to the notion that any revolutionary movement can exclusively rely on spontaneous revolts in an unorganized and unthinking way. Adorno – along with other thinkers like Lenin, Fanon, Luxemburg, CLR James, Angela Davis, and Paulo Freire, etc – was rightly critical of this idea. “Actionism,” for Adorno, is the idea that theory and reflective strategizing are secondary tasks or are altogether unnecessary for revolutionary movements. We reject mere actionism; any revolutionary movement to radically change society will, of course, need thoughtful strategies in order to successfully fight for that end. Paulo Freire nicely captures this idea when he claims: 

“Human activity consists of action and reflection: it is praxis; it is the transformation of the world. And as praxis, it requires theory to illuminate it. Human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action. It cannot…be reduced to [one or the other]” 

To Freire, any revolutionary movement will only meet success through theoretically thoughtful organization, developing the kinds of coherent strategy and tactics required to wage such a struggle. Well and good. 

Participating in these protests in no way hinders our ability to build that kind of organizational infrastructure. It can, on the contrary, help build that very movement.

But, we must ask here, does this somehow imply that we must be opposed to all spontaneous expressions of revolt, protest, and discontent? This seems to be the logic of the Class Unity Caucus analysis, and that kind of ham-fisted conclusion is, frankly, ridiculous. How does Class Unity think revolutionary movements have begun in the past? Are they aware of the fact that spontaneous uprisings, like these, have played a role in all of them? From the many spontaneous uprisings of the French Revolution, to the slave revolts in Haiti, and other countless examples, revolution has nearly always begun by the spontaneous action of the masses. It is one thing to argue that these protests will eventually need to develop into a more organized movement if we are going to actually win the revolutionary demands associated with them. But it is another thing entirely to suggest that because that has yet to occur (a mere week into all this) that we therefore should not be fully supportive and participatory in these events! In fact, contrary to the one-sided reasoning of Class Unity, we go so far as to say that our full-fledged participation in these uprisings is a necessary task for building the kinds of mass revolutionary organizations that can wage a struggle along the lines of well thought out strategies. Participating in these protests in no way hinders our ability to build that kind of organizational infrastructure. It can, on the contrary, help build that very movement. 

Towards a Pre-Revolutionary Conjuncture

We do need strategically informed action, but any serious analysis of these protests should show that there are real strategic reasons to support them (to say nothing of the obvious moral reasons!). We are clearly at a moment of immense crisis in the United States. Racist and class-based violence on the part of the police continues to be endemic nationwide, and the grotesque murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery have sparked these unprecedented uprisings against this brutal, racist system. In addition to this, the current COVID19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated widespread economic woes for the working class, and it seems as though we are heading towards a genuine economic depression. Our want-to-be fascist, reality-television president has also led to widespread doubts about the legitimacy of our governing institutions. Socialist ideas and organizations, like ours, have also seen a major resurgence. Taken altogether, this moment of converging crises has the real potential to develop into a pre-revolutionary situation. This will, of course, not simply happen on its own, but can only come about through concerted involvement in struggles against capitalism, racism, and colonialism.

So, the question socialists must ask is this: do these protests have the potential of furthering the development towards a pre-revolutionary conjuncture? Or are they, as Class Unity would have it, simply futile expressions of despair and “political nihilism”? We, in the Red Caucus, believe that these uprisings do, in fact, have the potential to build a sustained movement against our racist, capitalist system. These events are not simply signs of despair, but are uprisings rooted in the hope that collectively we can fight against injustice in our society. How else could we account for how popular, multi-racial, and widespread they are? Does Class Unity really think nothing of the fact that these events are happening all over the country (and around the world) simultaneously? It is simply absurd to suggest that a mass movement like this has no potential whatsoever for advancing the cause of socialism. The Red Caucus remains firm in our conviction that these protests are justified expressions of outrage at racist police violence, and that they can help us build a revolutionary, socialist movement.

First and foremost, these protests have built immense momentum towards the revolutionary ends of abolishing the police and prisons within our society. Millions of people all over the country are witnessing the brutality of our police forces firsthand and are out making a noble stand against them. The widespread nature of these events is leading many people to see that the police as an institution is in need of radical change. While these protests alone will not bring that change about (which seems to be the flimsy basis of Class Unity’s position), they are undoubtedly building momentum for those kinds of goals. Radical Black organizers have been fighting for these just ends for many years now. As socialists, we must recognize that these causes are essential to our movement. There is no socialism without the thorough destruction of our racist institutions. The fight for a socialist society demands that we confront and abolish our oppressive police and prison complex. Now that a mass movement is underway challenging those very institutions, we must be involved in those struggles in order to promote these ends. We do this by supporting the Black organizers who have fought for abolition for decades. We believe it is only through our involvement that we can continue to develop the kind of strategic organizing we will need to further these causes, and it is by furthering these causes that we can help bring about a pre-revolutionary political moment. 

Radical Black organizers have been fighting for these just ends for many years now. As socialists, we must recognize that these causes are essential to our movement. There is no socialism without the thorough destruction of our racist institutions.

People are out on the streets not solely because of a single police murder, nor even a pattern of police murder. Millions of Black, brown, Indigenous, and unemployed folks are out right now because of these things and because of the skyrocketing unemployment rate with its imploding economic outlook. People are sick and tired and want change. There is real potential for this widespread unrest to coalesce into a pre-revolutionary political moment. But this can only come about if socialists fully involve themselves in these efforts. If Class Unity were to exercise the strategic acumen they claim is crucially lacking from these protests, they might see that this is a compelling strategic reason for us to be involved.

The protests are also showing the people that they do, in fact, have real power to stand up to our oppressive institutions. Building awareness of our collective power is a necessary condition of developing towards a pre-revolutionary situation and building a socialist movement. People will only band together in the struggle to change our world if they believe they actually have the power to do that. For many people, these uprisings are a demonstration of exactly this, of our ability to work together to challenge the powers that be. Along with this awareness, many people are clearly being radicalized by these events. Struggle teaches. People are seeing that the issues we face, like police brutality, or racism more generally, are systematic in nature. They are seeing that events like Breonna Taylor’s murder are not isolated incidents, but have everything to do with the racist, capitalist structure of policing in the United States. Consequently, they are becoming more open to political ideas that seek to change the system as such. There is a growing mass base open to socialist politics, and by participating in these protests we can grow our movement, and encourage people to join us in the struggle for a better world. 

But, what would we have to say to these people if we were to adopt Class Unity’s position and refuse to participate in these protests as an organization? Do you think anyone radicalized by these events would give the DSA any consideration if we took this line? Why should they? Ah, but the intellectuals in Class Unity have already thought of this. And, as with the rest of their analysis, they have a wholly pedantic answer for us here. Citing Adorno they suggest that solidarity with these protests, which they deem doomed to “ineluctable failure,” is simply an exercise in narcissism and they do not seem to realize or care that this is utterly demeaning for those protesters who are making a sincere stand for racial justice. They claim “[t]he idea that the protesters need to trust us for us to be able to build the socialist movement infantilizes the very workers that need to organize.But why exactly is this necessarily the case? How on earth could any socialist movement build a mass base without earning the trust of working people? Clearly our organization needs to continue to grow if it is going to effectively build a true movement towards socialism. Earning the trust of radical protesters by showing them that we stand with them in the struggle for racial justice against our oppressive police and prison complex as a matter of principle and not only strategy, is certainly a worthy enterprise. We will do this by elevating Black leaders and organizations who are fighting for the total abolition of policing and joining them in these efforts. This can also help us build coalitions with other Left organizations involved in these uprisings, which can, in turn, help bring about a united revolutionary front. 

No one is suggesting that we cynically use these protests solely to recruit people. Nor is anyone arguing that people should simply make us their leaders, as Class Unity speciously implies. Rather, we are trying to encourage more people to join radical organizations like ours so that together we can democratically build our movement to create a just, egalitarian society. We similarly have a duty to expand our coalitions and our solidarity with Black-led organizations with whom we are aligned. With so many people being radicalized by these events, we would be fools if we did not encourage them to get organized so that we can sustainably wage this struggle. It is only by doing this, i.e. organizing with more like-minded people, that we can create the kind of infrastructure and coherent strategies that push our movement onwards. Class Unity Caucus bemoans the lack of organization in these protests on the one hand, and decries the attempt to organize more people in these events on the other. Must we really waste our time with such contradictory nonsense? Fortunately, the answer is no! These protests mark a beginning, not an end, and through our involvement we can truly further our movement against racism and capitalism towards socialism. By participating, socialists can carry on the fight to abolish our oppressive police and prison complex, and can build momentum towards bringing about a pre-revolutionary political moment. Go out and protest, make a stand for racial justice, and organize! Through our concerted efforts we still have a world to win.