Should The Poor Organize? Redux: Reflections on a Decade of the American Left

Organizations are a necessity for people taking the kind of mass action that results in transformative change.

There was a time, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, when “the movements of the Left… knew just where they wanted to go and just what… they ought or needed to do to get there. Now they no longer do.”

“Should we organize” is not a question that has not been asked on the Left often – and for good reason. As Hobsbawm points out in this article’s namesake, historically the case for organization “seemed so evident and so clearly proved in practice that the belief itself was hardly ever investigated seriously.” What debate around organization has existed – at least within the labor movement – was primarily concerned with its scale, not its utility. The left wing of the labor movement, Hobsbawm observed, consistently championed “national unions against local or regional ones; for industrial against craft associations, for big against little unions.”

Yet there have been times in the Left’s history, specifically when our movement has been “broken and weak” or “becalmed” and stagnant, when some have called the value of organization itself into question. Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, authors of the book Poor People’s Movements, are two such critics, famous for condemning “those who call themselves leaders” of movements for being more “preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations will enlarge and become powerful” than with “escalating the momentum of the people’s protests.”

Piven and Cloward’s book focuses on four different movements in the United States during the twentieth century – the movements of unemployed and industrial workers in the 1930s, and the civil rights and national welfare rights movements of the 1960s. Central to their argument is the assertion that “all too often, when workers erupted in strikes, organizers collected dues cards; when tenants refused to pay rent and stood off marshalls, organizers formed building committees;” during the brief periods when “the poor” were roused to action, organizers channeled their energy towards building mass organizations, rather than pushing militant action as far as it would go.

It would be a grave mistake to consider Piven and Cloward’s work in isolation from the historical context in which it was written. Their book, first published in 1977, was written in the shadow of two of the greatest mass movements in American history – the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the peak of the American labor movement in the 1930s, both of which are subjects of their book and were in advanced stages of decay by the time of its publishing. These were movements which, for all their flaws, had accomplishments we could not dream to match on the Left today. These are the mass movements that created the forty hour work week and ended segregation, and which had mass-organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at their heart.

It’s been over forty years since Hobsbawm first published his essay “Should the Poor Organize?,” a blistering review of Poor People’s Movements. Yet despite the passage of time, the questions the Left faces today are not so different from those faced by Hobsbawm, Piven, and Cloward. Just like them, today’s Left is embroiled in a struggle between its factions over its future. Wrapped up in that battle is a less visible debate over our recent history.

Yet while the Left of their day might be accurately described as “becalmed” or stagnant, today we are noticeably closer to “broken and weak.” Every mass movement of the Left from the past decade – from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to the Bernie Sanders campaigns – had one thing in common, defeat. But, the nature and legacies of these defeats are qualitatively different in character – and are an active subject of debate on the Left. For example, in a piece on Socialist Forum David Duhalde traces a direct lineage from Occupy Wall Street to the Sanders campaigns, while Christie Offenbacher and Benjamin Fong’s piece in Catalyst convincingly argues that Occupy was not the birth of a Left-wing revival, but instead marked the end of the Left’s self-imposed irrelevance.

It is past time for us to rationally contend with these failures. We’ll begin with Occupy.

Occupy Wall Street

Of course, before we can judge the legacies of any of these movements, we first have to establish metrics by which they can be measured.

First and foremost, what we as socialists want is a society built on justice. “Justice” means many things to many people, but there are some aspects of it that almost anyone can agree on. Fundamentally, a just society is one which cultivates genuine human happiness and ingenuity to the greatest degree possible – where people are free to determine the course of their own lives, and possess the necessary resources to do so. Therefore capitalism – a social system which systematically deprives a large majority of people of both basic material resources and control over their own lives – is inherently unjust. To remedy this injustice, it is our mission to ensure that both resources and freedom are shared by the many, not hoarded by the few. A given movement’s success in doing so is the greatest measure of its victory.

That said, not every action or movement produces results that are immediate – but may set the stage for those that do. One example might be “Bloody Sunday” 1965, when a small band of roughly 600 protestors led by John Lewis embarked on the first march from Selma to Montgomery. The march itself accomplished little – it was small compared to civil rights actions that came before and after it, and was brutally repressed by state police. But within days it was followed by marches and rallies with thousands, then tens of thousands of protestors. Within six months, President Lyndon B. Johnson, no friend of the civil rights movement, signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. All of this to say that specific tactics or actions that do not immediately result in substantive change are not pointless, provided that they are part of a long-term strategy that will.

In both respects, Occupy Wall Street was largely a failure. It did not substantially change the lives of any significant number of people in our country, nor did it clearly pave the path for future success.

Few people would attempt to argue that Occupy Wall Street made much progress with our first metric. Mark Naison for example, a professor of Black Studies at Fordham University and one of Occupy’s defenders, includes in his list of Occupy’s accomplishments that it “created political pressures” that led Obama to eventually cancel construction of the Keystone pipeline and “inspired a wide variety of actions to prevent foreclosures and evictions” including stopping the eviction of a 103 year old woman in Atlanta. Of course stopping the construction of a massive pipeline and the eviction of an elderly woman are obviously good things, but the connection between Occupy and these wins is tenuous at best, and they have done little to prevent rising global temperatures or  increasingly unsustainable rent and housing costs. While Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr. literally looking over his shoulder, President Obama’s eventual announcement vetoing the Keystone Pipeline made no mention of Occupy Wall Street – or any grassroots organizing- and instead focused nearly entirely on State Department economic calculations. If Occupy’s amorphous “political pressures” were more relevant to Obama’s calculus than economic considerations, that certainly wouldn’t be obvious to most Americans.

As for a long-term strategy, Occupy distinctively lacked one. Writer and protestor Doug Henwood described his experience in the movement, noting that it had “no vision of life beyond the parks and other spaces it was occupying. … Nor was there any sense of how the larger world would be transformed along Occupy’s principles; there was no serious theory of social change circulating.”

Rather, the reason most often cited for Occupy Wall Street’s continued relevance today is that it “shifted the overton window” by “planting seeds” or “raising consciousness” and other more or less nebulous claims culminating in Michael Levitin’s declaration that “at its core, Occupy made protesting cool again.” Unfortunately, as Levitin himself notes, “coolness” has seemingly failed to stop the wealth gap from continuing to widen.

Despite being routinely criticized for “having no leaders and no goals,” perhaps the greatest legacy of Occupy Wall Street is the organizations it did leave behind – groups like Solidaire, IfNotNow, and the Debt Collective; it also helped lay the groundwork for a revitalized DSA. One of the larger of these organizations is Rolling Jubilee, which touts its success in buying up about $4 million in student loan debt from a private college as one of its major accomplishments. The fact that this constituted less than a drop in the bucket of $1.2 trillion in student loan debt which existed at the time aside, Rolling Jubilee’s strategy of mutual aid – essentially redistributing wealth among people who aren’t themselves extremely rich – does not address wealth inequality. If we recognize that the fundamental problem of our time is that the 1% is hoarding most of the wealth of our country while the 99% are left with crumbs, how does redistributing wealth from people who are poor to people who are poorer address that? That isn’t to say that Rolling Jubilee’s work doesn’t help some people, simply that it doesn’t help most people particularly much. If we want to fundamentally transform society in the interest of working people, we will need a vision that goes beyond fundraising to buy back student debt, or six hour meetings to establish consensus. Occupy had no such vision.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter was likely the largest protest movement in US history,  yet resulted in little more than what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor called “the low-hanging fruit of symbolic transformation.” Logos were changed, statues were taken down, and life went on.

This happened despite the fact that during the time, the movement commanded the attention of the nation. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, as many as tens of millions of people took to the streets in protest of the unambiguous murder of George Floyd by armed police. That summer saw tremendous acts of heroism and bravery by protestors. Yet despite their size and obvious militancy, the largest protest movement in US history came away with little more than a national holiday and a conviction for second-degree murder. Having a day off and a murderer in prison are great, but they don’t address the scope of the problems in the racialized justice system that we are concerned with.

This was even despite the fact that, in terms of raw numbers, the BLM movement in 2020 far exceeded the scale of involvement achieved by the civil rights movement even at its height. As Professor Deva Woodley points out, “if we added up all those protests during that period [the Civil Rights Movement], we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people, but not millions.”

What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had that BLM lacks is a theory of social change that extends beyond getting as many bodies in the street as possible. It would be hard to argue that BLM in 2020 didn’t conform about as closely to the Piven-Cloward formula as one could reasonably hope for. More than anything else, BLM activists were capitalizing on a “brief period in which people were roused to indignation” and were “prepared to defy the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer.” The result is now history: organizers pushed blind militancy as far as it would go, and reaped scraps of concessions compared to their forebears.

That’s because what matters is not just how many people are involved, but how they’re involved. If public opinion were all that mattered, we would be living in a very different country: one where cannabis would be legalized federally and healthcare would be universal. But just because large majorities of Americans support universal healthcare, legalizing cannabis, and “increasing funding to build economic opportunities in poor communities” to reduce crime doesn’t mean that these things happen.

The civil rights movement transformed US society not by convincing masses of people to post black squares on Instagram, but by giving them the confidence to utilize their collective power. When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a bus, organizers didn’t just call for protests, but pieced together a 40,000 person boycott of Montgomery’s bus system, involving a majority of the bus riders in the city, and they won. At the heart of organizing that boycott was the nascent predecessor of the SCLC, and a young Martin Luther King Jr. Years later, the marches on Selma were barely fractions of the scale of protests organized by BLM, but when accompanied by coordinated and intentional civil disobedience – and high-profile labor leader Walter Reuther – demonstrators won transformative federal voting rights legislation that puts our modern sloganeering, symbolism, and hyper-localism to shame. Piven and Cloward’s pessimism aside, reducing social change to endless movementism and militancy without strategy clearly are not the lessons to be taken from the 1960s.

Bernie Sanders

This brings us, at last, to Bernie Sanders. Bernie lost – but not, arguably, in the same way as BLM and Occupy Wall Street. Sanders’ political project differed from Occupy and BLM in a few key ways.

That isn’t to say the campaigns materially and fundamentally transformed the lives of most Americans – it didn’t. Just like Occupy and BLM, the legacy of the Sanders’ campaigns have been left in the shadow of still rising income inequality, a still dying environment, a still entrenched system of racial discrimination, and the numerous other inequalities and injustices that plague modern life.

That being said, the Sanders’ campaigns bucked the “Establishment” of even the past forty years of left-wing American political culture. From the beginning, “Sanders’ democratic socialism grate[d] uncomfortably against Occupy anarchism, both ideologically and practically,”  and unlike both Occupy and BLM, the campaigns were “more directly socialist, vying for state power, focused on both elections and workplace organizing, and armed with concrete demands.” The Sanders’ campaigns did have a theory of change, even if that theory was limited.

One essential part of that theory that the Left had been missing for decades was organization – and not just any kind of organization, but mass organization, rooted in the working class. In less than a week after the launch of Bernie’s 2020 campaign, more than 1 million volunteers signed up to make repeated and long-term contributions to the campaign that extended far beyond just showing up to this or that rally or voting on election day. Rather, the Bernie campaign engaged the largest number of ordinary people in active political campaigning in American history – in knocking on doors, and in having explicitly political conversations with their friends, families and coworkers than ever before. Not only did people’s consciousness transform en masse, but it was coordinated. We knocked every door in my town twice, and the same thing happened all across the country. Those conversations didn’t stay at home either; people took them to their workplaces and to their unions.

Furthermore, the Sanders’ campaign was the largest in American history to also be financially independent from the capitalist class. In the final quarter of 2019, Bernie outraised all of his opponents with a haul of $34.5 million, raised from over 5 million contributors and averaging at $18 a donation – while refusing to accept contributions from corporations and super PACs This meant that the campaign had the necessary resources to conduct a nationwide campaign competing for votes in all 50 states, and did it without sacrificing their political and financial independence from the Democratic Party establishment and ultra-wealthy donors.

With money for staff organizers and a massive army of volunteers, the campaign was able to run a ground game that out-competed the vast majority of the TV and ad-based campaigns run by his corporate opponents, and it took Pete Buttigieg and Amy Kloubachar rallying behind Biden to kill Bernie’s momentum.

By rooting itself in diverse workplaces and communities, the Sanders’ campaign mobilized a massive base of support grounded in the multi-racial working class that nearly won him the Democratic nomination. In the Nevada Democratic primary in 2020, one of Bernie’s early victories, taxi drivers helped organize 5 out of the 7 caucuses on the Vegas Strip to go for Bernie. This happened in a community where a large majority of voters were working people of color, many of whom were immigrants and many of whom had never participated in a caucus before or had even previously supported Trump in 2016.

For a moment, the Bernie campaigns gave the American Left a glimpse of what mass worker organization could look like. One of the greatest mistakes of the campaigns was that it only ever remained a glimpse – once the campaign ended, its grassroots army and fundraising juggernaut largely evaporated along with it. Speaking as one of those grassroots volunteers, I remember the end of the campaign came with a half-hearted call for volunteers to go out and join one of dozens of other organizations and campaigns to ambiguously “stay involved.” Thankfully one of those organizations was DSA – which grew from barely 6,500 members to over 94,000 during the course of Bernie’s two campaigns. But Sanders and his campaign staff did not ultimately have a long term vision of how to keep the momentum for a “political revolution” going in the event of an electoral defeat. The failure of Sanders to  build a mass organization into which to bring the legions of potential organizers activated by the campaigns greatly limited our ability to transform a uniquely powerful political moment into a genuine and lasting movement.

A New Labor Movement?

Unlike the other movements we’ve discussed so far, the modern American labor movement is not one rooted in masses of ordinary people – and yet it has arguably made an obvious, more lasting difference in the lives of many ordinary Americans than  other movements discussed so far, even despite being a shadow of its former self.

Take the example of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), whose 2012 strike prevented Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel from gutting tens of thousands of teachers’ tenure and establishing ‘merit’ pay.  Or the case of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike in 2019 which transformed the lives of LA students by lowering class sizes, lowering counselor-student ratios, ensuring the presence of nurses and librarians in secondary schools four days out of the week, and an immediate six percent raise for teachers with no contingencies.

Then there’s the John Deere strike from last year, which “essentially doubled” the raises offered to workers in the company’s initial proposal. Or the Kellogg’s strike, which won workers a 15% raise over three years and thwarted the company’s threats of raising health insurance premiums or establishing a tiered payment system.

At Amazon and Starbucks, we’ve seen the highest profile union drives in decades. Today, well over 300 Starbucks locations have voted to form a union – meaning the labor movement at last has a beachhead in the service economy where it has long struggled to take hold. Even without a contract, the growing unionization threat has forced Starbucks’ hand in raising pay for baristas who have been with the company for two years. Meanwhile, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizers are bringing together workers in the frontiers of the logistics industry – the lifestream of a modern capitalist economy. Railroad workers are now also threatening that same lifestream.

At the University of California, where I organize, UC-AFT reached a “historic agreement” the day before their strike last year was set to begin, an agreement that included an over 10% raise over 6 months and multi-year appointments, vastly improving lecturers’ pay and job stability. My union – SRU-UAW – is currently in week three of the largest strike of academic workers in US history, alongside our comrades in UAW 2865 and 5810. Our story is still being written, but as of my writing this we have already won a 20% – 23% raise for postdocs in 5810 in just the first year of their contract. Other articles that have been tentatively agreed to include eight weeks of fully paid parental leave for postdocs, academic researchers, and student researchers (SRs) plus over two weeks of paid personal time off for SRs – which is twice as much time off for parental leave as postdocs had received before and the first time SRs have had a contractual right to parental or personal time off at all. While the battle to end rent burden for graduate students is still raging, we have also already won historic anti-bullying protections for all 48,000 academic workers in the UC system across all four bargaining units.

Despite the fact that none of these struggles ever approached the sheer size of BLM or the publicity of Occupy Wall Street, they had a far larger and more obvious material impact on the lives of those involved. Even with a modern labor movement that is a dim shadow of its former self, workers have been able to win dramatically better deals not just for themselves, but also for their surrounding communities, as demonstrated by the Chicago and LA teachers. How is that possible?

The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary People

What the labor movement has that other movements generally don’t is what I call the extraordinary power of ordinary people. As the song Solidarity Forever goes, “it is we who plowed the prairies and built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops with endless miles of railroad laid.”

As socialists we recognize that capitalism was built off the blood, sweat, and tears of working people. It is impossible for that system to function without workers – people whose labor is essential to the basic functioning of society, yet who see little of its wealth. People who are forced to sell away much or most of their waking life to someone else. Working people are systematically screwed over by capitalism and have every reason to overthrow it – and we have the power to do so as well.

And that power is quantifiable, literally. If a company makes $30 off a worker per an hour, but pays them $15, then for every hour that worker is on strike the company loses $15. Since most companies can’t produce commodities for sale without workers, then if most or all of a company’s workers are out on strike, the company’s ability to produce profits evaporates.

That’s another key ingredient that Piven and Cloward miss – they focus their study of left-wing organizing around “poor people” rather than “working people,” sparking a larger transition on the Left in the language of class as well. Before long, class became defined by how much you make, not what you do. The focus of conversations on the left shifted away from who has the power to change society for the better, to who is most screwed over by the status quo.

As Occupy and BLM demonstrate, being radical without having a strategy is not enough. To win genuine change for the majority, we’ll need an actual theory of power as well.

That theory has to be one which is rooted in the working class – the only class of people with the physical strength to stop capitalist society in its tracks. Not only that, but that theory has to also recognize, as Hobsbawm did, that “what is lacking” today “is not popular unrest but organizations that could mobilize that unrest” in a fashion that seeks to make revolution, rather than playing at it. For that to be possible, the working class has to be transformed from a class ‘in itself’ to a class ‘for itself.’ We as working people must come to recognize our common interests, and collectively take action to advance those interests.

This is only truly possible through mass organization. As Robert Michels (no friendly witness) pointed out, “democracy is unthinkable without organization, [for] organization gives consistency to the masses.” Without formal processes for decision making and accountability, large groups of people easily fall victim to a ‘tyranny of structurelessness,’ where decisions are made by small cliques of people under the guise of equality.

Organization also fixes some of the barriers working people face in taking action together. Having a union means the difference between quitting your job by yourself and losing your livelihood, or walking out on strike with your coworkers to change all of your lives for the better. Organized workers with a strike fund,  legal protection, and collective confidence are far more empowered to fight for themselves than any of them would be alone and without those advantages.

While something may still be said about the Left needing a “diversity of tactics,” we know that some strategies work – and some don’t. If the past forty years of the Left’s decline has taught us anything, it’s that organizations – with all the flaws and contradictions they entail – are a necessity for people taking the kind of mass action that results in transformative change. That action is the kind which threatens the material basis on which our society operates, which effectively forces corrupt politicians and wealthy businessmen to their knees. If we want to ever make any progress toward the just society we’re fighting for, we need to stop asking ourselves whether we should even bother organizing, and start talking about how we’ll do it.