EDEditors of Notes From Below

CCCommunist Caucus

EDWhat is the Communist Caucus?

CCWe’re a cadre group of organisers that are intervening in the labour movement, the tenant movement, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), with the ambition of rebuilding the musculature of working class collective action and organisation.

After Bernie’s race and Trump’s election in 2016, the DSA became the place where new and seasoned activists were converging. Then and now, there were questions about what kind of organisation DSA might become. Tendencies and caucuses began to form around strategic and programmatic viewpoints. Some of these formations were regional, some were national. One aspiration of our caucus from its outset was to push the organisation away from electoral work and towards mass work.

While we consider ourselves a cadre crew, we do not think of ourselves as a pre-party formation. We’re a crew of people who are nationally distributed and aim to equip our members with both the practical and theoretical resources to be troublemakers and communist organisers where they live and work. Towards that end, we sometimes coordinate on national projects, and we conduct political education together, but we are principally doing politics in our specific workplaces and neighbourhood groups. The caucus is a space to share resources and reflect on that ongoing work.

EDWhy “communist?”

CCWe’re not following any specific section of communist thought. We’re extremely heterodox. We call ourselves communists because we believe in working class self-activity and organisation as the basis for political practice. Our unity is strategic, not ideological.

EDWhat does DSA have to do with the caucus?

CCDSA is the largest socialist organisation in the United States in many generations. It has high-profile members. It is also regionally distributed, with members in big urban coastal cities and in the rural south. We’re not in DSA because we agree with some real or imagined minimum program that the organisation holds or because we agree with all of its members. We’re a part of it because it’s a sizable and democratic organisation and because we believe there is meaningful political work to do within its ranks. To put it bluntly, DSA is often where the action is.

Because of its size, however, it’s a highly uneven organisation. So, our members relate to it differently, depending on where they are. Some of our members are doing intense internal work in the organisation–working on national projects like EWOC (Emergency Worker Organizing Committee) and ETOC (Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee) to leverage DSA resources to organise tenant and labour unions across the country. Many more members don’t interface with DSA much at all in their day-to-day political work due to the state of their chapters and their own bandwidth and capacity. So, we participate in DSA to the degree that we can provide beachheads to the mass work that we think is strategically valuable.

As much as we can, we want to push DSA to be an organisation of organisers, rather than a collection of individual volunteers mobilised for the purpose of an electoral campaign. For better or worse, DSA is not a terribly centralist organisation, so we have a modest estimation of what can be accomplished through formal, top leadership slates. We tend to say that other methods of promoting and developing an alternative practice of politics are necessary: propaganda of the good project, programs that train organisers, making the most of existing movement educational resources, and meet-ups like Labor Notes and the Autonomous Tenant Union Network. We have tried to use the sort of union organising projects like EWOC and ETOC to provide scalable examples of what work DSA chapters can do as an alternative to the central policy and electoral toolkit that we believe is demobilising and self-defeating in most contexts.

EDWhat kind of political work is the caucus involved in?

CCWe primarily organise in the labour and tenant movements because they are spaces to cultivate working class organisation and build power. We encourage members to be rank-and-file leaders and stewards in their labour organisations to organise their shops, or to be involved in a program like EWOC at the national or local level to provide auxiliary support for people organising their workplaces (something national unions, for the most part, do not do). We organise in the tenant movement to bring the union movement into the buildings and neighbourhoods where people live. Our hope is that these projects can also be brought to bear on broader social movements as they unfold.

Our efforts in tenant and labour organising activity focus on developing a base layer of working class leadership - people who can get their coworkers and neighbours to take action - with projects that bring working class people together around specific contests for power against a shared antagonist. Importantly, this means using an organising method and culture that insists that their participation and leadership is what are both decisive and what ultimately count. Some call this base building. Increasingly, we’re talking about this as the practice of politics at the base. Our aim, in other words, is to build a real current of working class militants engaged in mass work organising projects, and who share this political orientation to self-activity and self-emancipation against the rule of private property. At the moment, our efforts are modest, but we’re not alone in developing out this lattice-like layer of organisers and militants in the United States: in this effort we’re joined by some other caucuses in DSA and others who help steer its class-struggle projects; the trouble-making wing of the labour movement anchored by Labor Notes; other activists behind ambitious tenant and neighbourhood organising projects; a live-tendency in the Abolitionist movement; and some groupings around street-focused social movements.

We distinguish this approach from others who emphasise top-down campaigns, ‘influential’ and high-profile leaders, or more spontaneous notions of how classwide collective action takes place. In short, we want to build out a culture of troublemaking, solidarity, and fightback, anchored in mass organisations that move through the leadership of stewards, building captains, and other names for base-level leadership.

In our political work, we try to oppose a service model of organising, where problems are to be solved by experts and not people themselves. While we recognise the importance of struggle on the terrain of the state, we take some similar distance to electoral and advocacy approaches that predominate the movement and which expect class formation to trickle down from the ballot box or the legislature. We’re opposed to these approaches not only because it doesn’t bring about basic solutions to the problems we confront every day, but because it fails to develop the capacity of working people to fight back against capitalist domination and ultimately govern society from below.

EDEarlier, you had mentioned mass work. What do you mean by that?

CCThere is a tendency on the US left to think about mass politics simply as a matter of numbers rather than as a matter of where initiative lies. When we talk about mass work, we mean the direct organisational spadework that makes explosive classwide collective action possible.

EDWhat are the characteristics of direct organisational spadework?

CC1. Engages in a form of organising work that breaks barriers between different kinds of working class people.
2. Brings working class people into an organisation as active participants, not as passive members guided by professionals.
3. Engages in a practice of politics that, taken together, can shift the balance of power more in the favour of the working class.
4. Builds the power of working class people in their everyday lives through their own organisations, not simply as a constituency relating to the larger political system.
5. Develops DSA members organising abilities and transforms our movement into a tribune for diverse working class concerns and fights.
6. Lays down organisational infrastructure through fighting against real instances of exploitation and domination, and therefore that makes socialism synonymous with solidaristic fightbacks.

EDHow is the caucus structured? How do you organise yourselves internally?

CCNationally we communicate over WhatsApp (with project focuses) and in Zoom meetings, although we have the ambition of a nationwide meet-up. We meet once a month nationally via Zoom. We try to meet and talk as much as we can in real life or via Zoom and try as best as we can to limit chat discussions or decision-making. If there are hot-button issues that come up in the chat, members are encouraged to schedule a time to chat about it over Zoom. When there is a group developed in a local area, they meet regularly in person. That’s where the bulk of our capacity for political intervention rests.

The national group exists primarily to coordinate projects that we share - participation in national bodies like DSA - but also as a space for practical and theoretical formation as communist organisers. Mostly that happens within ‘wings’ that members can join around our primary areas of strategic focus: the labour wing and the tenant wing. On both sides, in chats and meetings, members can solicit advice and organise support, as well as share resources with one another. Crucially, both wings also put on internal talks and presentations at a consistent clip. The aim is to provide a space for members to reflect on our organising and to draw broader lessons from the fights we’re involved in.

On the tenant side, we’ve had presentations on rent strikes in Connecticut, on efforts to organise a rent strike in San Antonio, a city in Southwest Texas, and on stewards programs, we’re developing for tenant unions in New York City. We’ve discussed language justice translation programs, on the ways we can leverage housing court, and how to engage diverse parts of working class in tenant organising. On the labour side, we’ve hosted panel discussions on strikes and struggles members of the caucus (as well as friends of the caucus) played leading roles in the UAW2865 strike (the largest in the country last year), the Teamsters strike authorization campaign, Starbucks solidarity, new organising in the service sector, San Francisco municipal workers, and the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike. We’ve also discussed reform caucuses, K-12 organising, the NewsGuild-CWA’s ‘member-organiser’ program, and new organising initiatives like EWOC, among other topics.

We have committees dedicated to political education - which put on reading groups and political education schools, as well as ‘monthly Marxist talks’ by an academic or organiser that members can attend. There’s an onboarding committee which helps vet and orient members into our crew, developing a “workplan” that allows our members to be intentional with their time and development as an organiser. Finally, we have a committee dedicated to anti-racist organisational practice, which has primarily featured discussions and report-backs from militants on the frontlines of fights around defunding NYPD, the Stop Cop City campaign, the Union of Southern Service Workers, and other abolitionist organisers.

Our caucus wants to imprint communist politics onto the fights we are participating in. Our internal organisation reflects the way we think that’s most possible, which is by developing the capacity of our members to be skilled cadres capable of producing effective organisational and political interventions in the places where things are in motion. It is less about fighting for leadership than it is about developing leadership as a way to grow a militant, socialist and ‘troublemaking’ current within our movements.

EDYou’re involved in labour organising in different sectors, at different scales, what are the lessons you’re drawing from this?

CCOne of the biggest lessons that we’ve drawn from our work is the necessity of building up a fighting rank-and-file culture. By this, we mean the gradual build-up of experience and confidence among wider circles of workers that often comes with concrete workplace struggles over issues that workers are dealing with on the job, day in and day out. We’ve found that these kinds of issue-based campaigns, rather than abstract fights for “unionisation,” lay the foundation for militant fight-back because they require workers to think through the problems they are encountering every day and initiate a collective response. In our experience, promising campaigns tend to:

  • Analyse the composition of the workplace, build relationships, identify points of possible division
    Figure out where your leverage and power in the workplace comes from – it will not work the same in every workplace, and that’s where the tactics and strategy come in
  • Combine an issue that resonates with workers, a concrete strategy to win, and mass strategic/agitational discussion (COLA demand and the long haul strike or “we’re staying out until the harassment and safety issues are solved,” etc)1
  • Downplay the importance of union recognition, contract ratification, or other legal/procedural victories over rank-and-file power + enforcement
  • Don’t focus too much on union top brass and leadership – build stewards’ networks and primary workgroup organising committees

We’ve also realised how critical it is to get our coworkers thinking in terms of power rather than in terms of legal frameworks which predominate the labour movement. It has been a huge achievement to break away from this reflex in workplaces where peoples’ first response to the possibility of taking action is not “what does the law” or the lawyer say about this.

Lastly, we’ve seen that there is a vitality to cross-sectional and intra-workplace organisation. EWOC and Local EWOC, “industry sections” and “community union organising” meetings that bring together workers from different parts of the labour movement is an especially important element of politicising the labour movement and increasing our cross-organisational capacity. It’s a great way to engender a rank-and-file culture that cuts across bureaucratic divisions in the movement too. To be specific, in some places where we’ve helped build a local EWOC cohort, that’s provided opportunities to bring rank-and-file leaders from one shop into contact with other shops and fights, as picket-line support, to speak at rallies, to join in marches with local tenant and worker groups. On an immediate and practical level, it’s helped build out the sort of community support necessary to win fights in small shops. More broadly, it’s provided a space for workplace organisers to understand the scope of their fight for dignity, power, and democratic action to be broader than their specific fight with their boss. It’s given these fights a different, more movement oriented character. Or at least that’s our hope!

EDThere are some socialists who think that the workplace is the most important site of struggle. As a caucus, you’re very involved in tenant organising. Why is tenant organising important?

CCStruggles over housing, land, and landlord exploitation have been essential in the history of the US working class. It remains so today, with tenant unions developing beachheads in almost every major city in the country. Tenant organising has especially exploded in cities like Los Angeles (where there are 6,000 dues-paying members of the union, including amongst monolingual Spanish speaking leaders), New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area, but also Kansas City, which boasts something close to 10,000 dues-paying members in their recently launched tenant union.

There are some with a more industrial orientation who can be sceptical of tenant unionism, so we think it is worthwhile to outline why we consider these projects to be strategic. Firstly, in many places where we live, tenant organising has tremendous potential - and demonstrable evidence - of bringing together very diverse parts of the class together, organising around shared issues that cut across the cleavages that otherwise divide up many parts of the metropolitan proletariat. People with various education and income levels, vocations and immigrant statuses, races and ethnicities, can be living in the same building or neighbourhood, or share the same landlord. And so, the union has the challenge but also the opportunity to facilitate the conduct of their shared collective action together, in a way that develops their leadership and cooperation. It’s the promise of a sort of working class unity across its divisions. That alone - this newfound associational culture of an otherwise divided class - is really worth prizing.

We also find that our efforts to fight at the neighbourhood and building level can rebound back to other arenas of working class fight back, training organisers, building connections, and practising politics in ways that can later be deployed on other fronts. In the Bay Area, tenants have turned to the tenant union to get connected to projects that organise workplaces; in New York, our tenant unions held solidarity events with UPS ahead of their (aborted) strike. These are places where we are learning to raise the bar and expectations and to grow our confidence to act together as a class.

Also, though, tenant unions are places where we can collectively push back on a key site of extraction; our living situations remain a core site of intensive exploitation. They are, of course, much more than this: they are proven vehicles to demonstrate that there are other ways to be safe besides calling the cops (an issue that we work through frequently in our tenant associations). They are conduits for reclaiming space on our block and in our city, to mobilise in situations of emergency response. Our unions focus on repairs and rent, to be sure, but they also are vehicles for raising demands around democratising control of our city.

EDHow do you conceive of your relationship to other groups?

CCWe are proud to be in a multi-tendency organisation like DSA, and continue to be in dialogue as much as we’re able with other tendencies beyond the organisation. We frequently collaborate with others on projects big and small. We do not imagine ourselves as a pre-party group, or a vanguard of any kind, and we scarcely have a monopoly on good political practices or an accurate assessment of the conjuncture, so maintaining that sort of dialogue seems key. We do think that we hold a relatively unique analysis and organisational practice on the US left, and for that reason we continue to develop the caucus alongside our constitutive projects.

EDHow has the caucus evolved over the last 7 years?

CCMany things have changed in the last 7 years, but we will just focus on a few things.
One of the most basic and obvious things that has changed is the growth, geographically and numerically, of the caucus. When we started, we were a small group that had been around the Bay Area left for a long time looking to do something new and were excited by DSA’s post-2016 growth. This small group in one area has grown tenfold and has expanded across the US (something we never envisioned at the onset). I think that being in the DSA has taught us a lot and helped us mature in a way that being outside of it may not have led to. Even when we have found ourselves in disagreement with others in the DSA, it has largely been a productive tension and has forced us to sharpen our politics and analysis. When we were a small group, we put our energy toward fighting internal DSA battles locally, which we soon realised was not the best place for our energy. From that experience, we shifted our focus to building a tendency within DSA focused on building a cadre that can engage in struggle together.

When the caucus first started out, we were mostly figuring out how to start new organisations, like tenant unions. This involved some line struggle - arguments within the DSA and sometimes outside of it - but also a lot of practical outward-facing struggle to figure out how to build new organisations that can fight. Now, we are doing similar work in some locals, but in many others we are now at a different stage. In many cases, we are now figuring out how to relate to organisations and institutions that have grown past their initial spark into dynamic class organisations in which we only play a role. I think this is a big adjustment that some comrades can easily struggle with. Once you build something functional, you have to step back and relinquish agency over the project. The political work changes at that point, and we have done a pretty good job of not falling into the trap of not understanding how this transition works.

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Communist Caucus

A US-based caucus of communist organisers in the Democratic Socialists of America