Blue-Collar Workers: Let’s All Support the Green New Deal

July 08, 2019 / Steve Morse

Green New Deal banners at rally

Blue collar workers have been wrongly portrayed as uniformly against the Green New Deal. Photo: Peg Hunter, CC-BY-NC-2.0, cropped.

A recent article in Politico (“Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California,” June 6) alleged that blue-collar workers in California reject the Green New Deal.

I am a blue-collar worker—a retired member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, which represents workers throughout northern and central California. The union leaders quoted in that article certainly don’t speak for me, nor for tens of thousands of other building trades workers.

I live on a fairly decent union pension and Social Security. I don’t have to worry about being retrained, but I am quite aware that my pension depends on contributions from working members of my union. I’m also concerned about my family’s well-being and the general welfare of humans and our planet.

I see no contradiction among these concerns. We can have growth of well-paying union jobs in a green economy, and my grandson can thrive in a just and sustainable world.

The Green New Deal is a strategy to achieve both objectives. If you haven’t read the text, please do—it’s not long! This is a Congressional resolution, not legislation. It defines a framework and establishes values and objectives for legislation that is yet to be written.


Sections 4G through K address many of labor’s issues: high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages; vocational training; wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition; family-sustaining wages; retirement security; the right of all workers to organize; workplace health and safety; anti-discrimination; and more.

All these provisions are intended to ensure that the transition to a sustainable energy system is just, and that working people and frontline communities do not bear a disproportionate share of the social cost.

It’s not at all about exporting jobs—quite the opposite! Academic studies have shown that a just transition to renewable energy would create a greater number of high-quality jobs than investing the same amount of funds in the fossil-fueled status quo. My union, for example, can have lots of well-paid work under a Green New Deal retrofitting buildings to be energy-efficient. And union electricians stand to gain a lot as electrification generated by renewables gets a huge boost.

The Politico article should have reported about the Zero Net Energy Center, the union office and training center built by Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595 in the East Bay. That’s a building trades local leading the way!


To win the Green New Deal, it’s going to take a broad, diverse political alliance. Workers need a strong voice in this alliance, and by being part of it we can speak up on our concerns. Some in the climate movement surely are little aware of the short and long periods of unemployment that we have faced.

We can educate others about these issues, even as we have a lot to learn from those who have been working on climate justice for a long time. But we have to be part of the alliance, on the right side of history—helping to shape the future, rather than resisting it.

Retraining for the green economy is no small task. However, much is in place already. Many unions, including my local, pride themselves on their commitment to training programs, not only the apprenticeship but also throughout our working lives.

In 1983, I was among 50 members of Local 104 (out of 700 members total in San Francisco at that time) who for a year went to a weekly three-hour class to learn energy-efficient retrofitting of buildings. It was quite new for most of us. It wasn’t easy to stay alert and focused after doing construction work all day. Yet we stayed with it for the promise of union work in this opening field where we could make both a good living and a social contribution.

Then the Reagan administration sabotaged energy conservation and efficiency (removing the solar panels from the White House was a telling symbol) and the promise of those jobs disappeared.


This is the same Reagan administration that attacked workers up one side and down the other, starting with the air traffic controllers; that oversaw huge exporting of jobs and the gutting of factory towns; that favored the 1% and aggravated inequality that has reached obscene levels today.

That government, the current corrupt corporate regime, the oil mega-corporations, their bought politicians, Wall Street—none of these are our friends. They’ve all attacked our unions and come after our Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Fellow workers in the trades and other blue-collar workers, do not front for them! If we do their dirty work, who will support us when they attack us even more directly?

Our training in 1983, which never developed into jobs, is one of many examples of environmental initiatives that society should have started many years ago, but didn’t. The need is still there, more than ever.

At present, workers will continue performing fossil fuel-based work, but we and our unions should not promote that work. Instead, we should advocate for a just transition through the Green New Deal. We can protect union members while also protecting our children’s and grandchildren’s future.

Steve Morse is a retired member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, living in Oakland, California. Email him at

What is Democratic Socialism?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory in New York City in June added fuel to the fire that Bernie Sanders started in 2016: a resurgence of interest in democratic socialism. And there is no strand of left politics that provokes more confusion than democratic socialism. All of a sudden, it seems everybody wants to know what democratic socialism is. Here’s what you need to know.

For a Better World

Some commentators have tried to invent differences between the kind of society “democratic socialists” fight for and the kind envisioned by so-called “traditional socialists.” On MSNBC, Stephanie Ruhle confidently declared that democratic socialists make “no call for communal ownership of production.” According to Ruhle, the excitement around the emerging socialist movement is much ado about nothing: democratic socialists want good things like free college and public libraries — and that’s pretty much it.

While we definitely support good library systems, democratic socialists’ vision of a better society and how to achieve it goes much further.

The world we live in now is called a democracy; the United States is the wealthiest country in all of human history, and we all learn about how important of an American value “freedom” is. But the United States today is defined not by freedom and abundance, but exploitation and oppression.

A tiny number of rich and powerful families lives off of the profits they make from trashing the environment and underpaying, overworking, and cheating the vast majority of society — the working class. They get richer precisely because the poor and working class get poorer.

This capitalist class turns workplaces into mini-authoritarian regimes, where bosses have the power to harass and abuse workers. And they protect their power in all corners of society by fanning the flames of racial, national, and gender conflict and prejudice in order to divide working people and stop us from organizing.

Democratic socialists want to end all of that.

Like many progressives, we want to build a world where everyone has a right to food, healthcare, a good home, an enriching education, and a union job that pays well. We think this kind of economic security is necessary for people to live rich and creative lives — and to be truly free.

We want to guarantee all of this while stopping climate change and building an economy that’s ecologically sustainable. We want to build a world without war, where people in other countries are free from the fear of US military intervention and economic exploitation. And we want to end mass incarceration and police brutality, gender violence, intolerance towards queer people, job and housing discrimination, deportations, and all other forms of oppression.

Unlike many progressives however, we’ve come to the conclusion that to build this better world it’s going to take a lot more work than winning an election and passing incremental reforms.

What We’re Up Against

The democracy we live in falls far short of what we’re taught to believe it should be. In our society, normal people — when they’re not organized — have next to no power.

Instead, power is determined by what political scientist Thomas Ferguson calls the “golden rule”: those with the gold rule. Capitalists use their wealth to buy politicians from both parties and their lobbying power to kill progressive legislation that threatens their profits.

And even if we could elect a well-meaning government that could withstand the pressure of lobbyists, chances are they would eventually cave under the capitalists’ trump card: a capital strike. To oppose new social programs and redistribution, the capitalist class can, as a last resort, withhold their investments and provoke a recession, undermining the social support of a progressive government.

This reflects another key problem under capitalism: not only do capitalists exploit workers on the job and hoard all the wealth they steal from us, but they have the power to determine whether or not we have jobs and thus the ability to provide for ourselves. If capitalists don’t like our democratic demands to, say, stop polluting the planet or pay workers a living wage, they can simply pull their investments and move their jobs to another state or country — and we have little recourse to stop them.

In rare instances — usually following massive wars and economic crises — progressive governments have been able to win victories. The Scandinavian countries are what we call “social democracies,” societies with robust social safety nets and labor movements that check the worst tendencies of capitalism and limit the power of the wealthy in key ways.

Over the course of the twentieth century, workers in these countries won full employment, a strong welfare state, and high levels of unionization. But they never successfully challenged the source of capitalist class power: their ownership rights over the major national corporations.

As a result, in the last thirty or so years, a reinvigorated capitalist class in these countries has led a persistent and successful campaign to roll back these progressive achievements. These failed progressive experiments show that our democratic socialist vision has to go far beyond the narrow limits that today’s newly minted socialism experts on cable news will allow.

That’s not because we are gluttons for politically difficult tasks, or because we are political purists. If we could win the better world that progressives, social democrats, and democratic socialists all want without challenging and eventually eliminating the power of capitalists, we’d happily take the easier route.

It’s precisely because it’s not so easy to change the world under capitalism that we are socialists.

The Democratic Road to Socialism

It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.

What’s needed is a strategy that takes seriously the particular challenges and opportunities that come with organizing in a liberal democracy.

It’s why we focus on uniting all working-class people. Workers — everyone who makes their way in the world by working rather than skimming off the profits generated by other people, from factory and construction workers to teachers and nurses and white-collar office workers — have the strongest material interests in fighting capitalism, the power to stop production in workplaces and bring the capitalist system to a halt, and (as the vast majority of society) the potential power in numbers to overturn the political system.

And it’s why we believe in a democratic road to socialism — one that builds movements and contests elections.

Bernie Sanders made a point endlessly in 2016: a “political revolution” in the United States will only happen if we can build mass movements, especially the labor movement. These movements have the potential to win concessions from capitalists and politicians. And through struggle, we can begin to transform people’s consciousness — by spreading an awareness that we can win if we organize together.

New possibilities that seem fantastic now will become real in the process. As people’s expectations rise, they will realize what it will take to win a better life. And as the capacity of our movements grows, people will realize that they actually have the power to make those changes.

Alongside this movement work, we have to start contesting elections as insurgents who challenge the political leadership of both major parties. This work will lay the foundation for building a political party of our own, one with a mass social base that eventually can fight to elect a socialist government.

But because of the capitalist’s class’s immense power, we know that electing a socialist government alone won’t be the same as winning the power needed to transform society. A socialist government would have to see its primary task as taking away the power of the capitalist class.

That will mean nationalizing the financial sector so that major investment decisions are made by democratically elected governments and removing hostile elements in the military and police. It will mean introducing democratic planning and social ownership over corporations (though the correct mix of state-led planning and “market socialism,” a mix of publicly-owned firms, small privately-owned businesses, and worker cooperatives, is a matter of some debate in our movement). And it will mean rebuilding our democracy by instituting public financing of elections, a ban on corporate lobbying and private campaign donations, and even more radical demands like writing a new constitution.

Even with such an ambitious agenda, a socialist government will come under immense pressure from the capitalist class to back off. Bold twentieth-century attempts to check corporate power and redistribute wealth, as in countries like FranceJamaica, and Sweden, all came up against that pressure, often in ways that severely weakened or sank reform efforts. We know that in some cases, like when Salvador Allende tried to put Chile on a democratic road to socialism in the early 1970s, the ruling class has even stopped tolerating the norms of liberal democracy.

At that moment, it will be the job of democratic socialists in movements and in government to do everything necessary to defend the democratic mandate they won.

This brings us back to the critical importance of building the power of working-class movements, the all-important complement to the state power exercised by a socialist government.

Such movements can hold socialist governments accountable, helping them resist the pressure to give in to capital. But those movements also have to act on their own initiative in a transitional period to democratize workplaces and communities. Through building bottom-up, democratic social movements, we can not only build the power we need to defeat the wealthy, but build the kind of democratic institutions that would be central to the future socialist society we want to live in.

Only by combining a committed socialist government and a powerful, self-organized working class can we take on the capitalist class from above and below.

Our Tasks Today

The democratic road to socialism is a long one. We know that in the United States we have years of hard work ahead of us. And in the short term, beating back the right-wing populist politics of Donald Trump has to be a top priority.

Our most important, immediate task as democratic socialists is to build the power of social movements.

We are active builders of movements against deportations, police brutality, pipelines, and war. We build support for wildly popular universal demands like Medicare for All and rent control. We work to link up with and help build movements of rank-and-file workers in unions fighting to make the labor movement militant, progressive, and democratic — including projects like Labor NotesTeamsters for a Democratic Union, and committees of rebellious educators in teachers unions across the country.

We also support building the broadest alliances possible, without sacrificing our principles, to elect candidates who support our immediate demands.

We know not everyone on the progressive left agrees with us yet that beating right-wing forces in the United States and building a better society will take the far-reaching changes that we think are necessary. And many have not come to the same conclusion we have that the leadership of the Democratic Party is in the pocket of big business and criminally incompetent (although after the 2016 disaster, many others now agree). In the short term, then, the task of democratic socialists in elections is to support campaigns that fight to improve the lives of working people and build working-class power.

Some of our candidates — like Julia Salazar in New York City and Jovanka Beckles in California — are democratic socialists. Others might be more accurately called “social democrats” because they believe in checking the worst of capitalism but don’t share our perspective about the need to go beyond it.

But what all of our candidates have in common is support for Medicare for All, labor rights, a higher minimum wage, environmental protections, stopping deportations, and ending mass incarceration. In fighting for these reforms, our goal is to get millions of people who have given up on politics to join the struggle, test the limits of what concessions can be won in the here and now, and to persuade our co-fighters on the progressive left that a more ambitious, socialist strategy is needed to build the kind of world we all want to live in.

The Rise of DSA

This might feel like a daunting task. But the prospects for democratic socialist politics today looks brighter than they have in half a century.

Thanks to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and to the meteoric rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which is now at 45,000 dues-paying members and rising, thousands of activists across the country are carrying out these tasks; millions more identify as socialists.

The emergence of an organized socialist movement is a gamechanger in US politics. Until recently, the Left downplayed the importance of political organizations, preferring a “movement of movements” perspective that never added up to more than the sum of its parts. And within organizations, activists tended to embrace a “horizontalist” politics that rejected elected leadership and democratic decision-making structures. In its place, a “tyranny of structurelessness,” in which organizations seemed to be nonhierarchical but came to be dominated by a small number of unelected and unaccountable leaders, reigned.

That was a mistake. Socialist organizations like DSA are essential for doing the day-to-day work of developing and popularizing a long-term political strategy, winning and then educating new activists, and helping turn members into leaders.

Our organization is also a rare creature in the United States: one that is truly democratic and member-run. This is crucial to our mission.

Ultimately, socialist organizations like DSA and a revitalized labor movement will need to come together to build a new political party of millions that can lead the fight for a better world. But DSA is an important starting point.

For now, democratic socialists’ tasks are clear. Link up with movements in the United States and around the world fighting against exploitation, domination, and war. Build our forces. Win elections. Achieve all that we can under capitalism. And build a consensus that we need a real political revolution to go beyond it.

Our ranks are open to all those who are ready to fight. Together, we have a democratic socialist world to win.


Excerpt from Popular Resistance, July 2019

In its more radical form “democratic socialists” propose that a party committed to socialism could use the state to enact reforms that would break the old capitalist scheme. This would mean, according to Neal Meyer “nationalizing the financial sector so that major investment decisions are made by democratically elected governments and removing hostile elements from the military and police. It will mean introducing democratic planning and social ownership over corporations (though the correct mix of state-led planning and “market socialism,” a mix of publily-owned firms, small privately-owned businesses, and worker cooperatives is a matter of some debate in our movement).”

Here we see one of the traditional problems with electoral socialism: A tendency to think of socialism in terms of nationalization — state takeover and management of banks and other industries and “state-led planning.” This problem seems to fall directly out of the electoralist strategy. After all, politicians are seeking government office. For that reason their program focuses on what they propose to do through the state once elected.

Reformist Versus Non-Reformist Methods

For libertarian socialists with a syndicalist orientation, our strategy is fundamentally different than the electoral socialists. The syndicalist strategy is based on the development of movements built on non-reformist forms of action and organization. But what is the difference between “reformist” and “non-reformist” methods?

A “reform” is any partial change in society that is within the power of movements to fight for. There are different ways to fight for “reforms,” different ways to organize and different forms of action. And this will have effects on the development of working class power to make change.

reformist approach relies upon paid “professionals of representation” to win gains “for us” — the layer of paid officers and staff in bureaucratic “service agency” unions, the paid staff and executives of non-profits that “advocate” for us, the politicians who we vote into office. The method of action is indirect because it doesn’t rely on the direct participation and action of working class people themselves. The activists may do door-to-door canvassing to get working class people to vote for candidates, but this does not bring these people into organizations they can control and use as vehicles of direct activity of struggle by working people themselves.

The electoral socialist parties tend to be controlled by the paid layers at top, such as the politicians who are focused on retaining government office and not losing votes. This means they have a lifestyle that will lead them to oppose the development of direct action such as strikes and occupations when these reach a level of social conflict that may threaten their institutional position.

When the focus is on electoral campaigns, this will tend to lead electoral socialists to look to the paid apparatus who control unions, and have financing and staff to support candidates. This has often led electoral socialists to support the positions of the paid officials of unions even when these conflict with the rank and file. In other words, they will tend to accept bureaucratic trade union methods and structures.

But the existing trade unions tend to be controlled by a layer of full time officials and staff. As with the professional politicians, their way of life is based on their institutional role. They tend to favor negotiations staying in their own hands so that they can negotiate deals that the employers can be persuaded to sign onto without risky levels of mass struggle. Like the professional politicians, they will tend to oppose direct action getting to the point of threatening severe risks to the union that is the basis of their prestige and way of life. The present trade unions in the USA tend to be obsessive about not breaking the law. They accept no-strike contracts and stepped grievance systems that take struggles and disputes off the shopfloor and place them in the hands of lawyers and paid officials — thus discouraging direct action by workers themselves. But it’s very unlikely for unionism to be revived in the private sector in the USA without a revival of militant methods of direct action that are likely to violate the restrictive labor law regime in the USA.

When people propose a strategy of seeking changes or improvements to our situation by voting for politicians to enact a reform, or through “mobilizations” crafted and controlled by staff-driven non-profits, or relying on the paid officials of trade unions to negotiate with employers, or building alliances by schmoozing up politicians and other bureaucrats in unions and non-profits, this approach does not encourage participation in decision-making or control of organizations by working people. These methods do not build self-reliance and confidence in our own capacity. The rank and file are not learning about democratic organizing or public speaking or other skills learned through direct participation in building a membership organization and direct collective struggle.

The upshot is this: A reformist strategy tends to build up these layers of political and union bureaucracy apart from the working class. And these layers tend to become a roadblock to the development of wider mass action and direct solidarity that can lead to major class confrontations — conflicts that challenge the power of the dominating classes and threaten the capitalist regime. Thus a reformist strategy will tend to keep the working class captive to the capitalist regime. In Germany Kautsky’s reformist approach necessarily built up layers of trade union careerists, professional politicians and the party apparatus. Already by World War 1 this layer had become a roadblock to a mass struggle for socialism.

We can say that an approach to action and organization for change is non-reformist to the extent that it encourages a reliance on direct struggle (such as strikes and occupations), and builds rank-and-file controlled mass organizations, and builds self-confidence, self-reliance, organizing skills, more active participation, and wider solidarity within the working class.

Non-reformist forms of organization are self-managed by the members — rooted in direct participation (as in the direct democracy of a union meeting) and forms of accountable representation (such as elected shop delegates who still work the job or an elected rank-and-file negotiating committee). Non-reformist forms of action are disruptive forms of collective action based on direct participation — such as strikes, occupations, militant mass marches.

Syndicalism can be defined as a strategy that is based on non-reformist forms of action and organization. The idea is to work to build self-managed forms of mass organization, such as unions controlled by workers themselves and other grassroots mass organizations. By “organizing the unorganized,” we help to build a movement that working people can use to fight the employers, landlords and powers-that-be. By building up the capacity of working people to organize and run their own movement, and build a form of social power they control themselves, we encourage the self-reliance, confidence and links of solidarity needed for advancing the struggle against the system.

To the degree that working class people do not see themselves as having the power to directly change the society, they are likely to see the ambitious agenda for radical change offered by socialists as “pie in the key” or “nice ideas but unrealistic.” On the other hand, growing levels of direct struggle and a stronger development of solidarity in practice builds more of a sense of potential power. When working people participate directly in building unions, or in carrying out a rent strike with other people in their building, or in reaching out to others in the community to build solidarity, this directly engages people in the action — and helps people to learn how to organize, builds more of a sense that “We can make change.” To the extent that the working class builds power through its mass participation and disruptive challenge to the system, this encourages people to develop aspirations for deeper changes in society. In this situation mass organizations of struggle form a setting that allows those active workers who have a radical agenda for social change to connect with the grievances and concerns of other working people.

As this process develops in the course of a growing crisis in the system, the possibility for a fundamental break to the system becomes possible as the working class develops the organizational strength, confidence, participation and aspirations needed for a fundamental challenge to the dominating classes. This consciousness can develop rapidly in periods when large numbers are brought into mass struggle and solidarity is built through widening connections that working people create among the various groups in resistance to the system. The working class needs to develop its own class-wide agenda and “gather its forces” from the various areas and sectors of struggle to form a united bloc with both the power and agenda for change.

What I’m describing here is the process of class formation. This is the more or less protracted process through which the working class overcomes fatalism and internal divisions (as on lines of race or gender) and builds the confidence, organizational capacity and the aspiration for social change. This is the process through which the working class “forms” itself into a force that can effectively challenge the dominating classes for control of society.

The potential for this process of mass struggle to develop into a fundamental challenge to the system depends on the way this dynamic of mass struggle interacts with the political and economic crises of the capitalist regime. We can’t predict exactly how a basic “rupture” with the capitalist regime will develop.

For syndicalists, a key part of a revolutionary process is the takeover of the collective control of the industries by workers, and a process of breaking down the old top-down bureaucratic state and building new self-managed institutions, such as neighborhood and workplace assemblies, and councils or congresses of delegates. From a syndicalist point of view, the democratic promise of the revolution is rooted in the self-managed character of the mass organizations that are driving the process.

Even when this kind of fundamental challenge to the system is “off the agenda,” we need to encourage forms of organization and struggle that leave open the potential for mass extension that can break the framework of the capitalist regime. To do this we need to avoid building up institutional barriers to this movement from below.

Of course many activists are likely to continue to look to electoral politics as part of their strategy. Although much of the working class doesn’t vote, many people do think about candidates for office. Not only because of the media frenzy around elections but also because it can make a difference who is elected in some cases. Even if “democratic socialists,” Marxists and other radicals continue to look to electoral politics as part of their strategy for change, many of them also favor a focus on building grassroots organizations and direct struggle — building more democratic unions, pushing strikes to gain working class power, and building other forms of grassroots social movement protest. For many activists in DSA, this may be their main personal focus. To the extent the focus is on building democratic mass organizations, building participation and support for militant struggles, syndicalists and other socialists may be able to work together in a kind of “united front from below” in the organizing situation.

A Revolutionary Path?

In “Our Road to Power,” Chibber concedes there was an era when mass movements did pose a revolutionary challenge to the system:

“Now there’s no doubt that the decades from the early twentieth century all the way to the Spanish Civil War could be described as a revolutionary period. It was an era in which the possibility of rupture could be seriously contemplated and a strategy built around it. There were…socialists who advocated for a more gradualist approach, but the revolutionaries who criticized them weren’t living in a dream world.”

But, as Chibber sees it, a revolutionary strategy is permanently off the agenda:

“Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917. What that means is, while we can allow for and perhaps hope for the emergence of revolutionary conditions where state breakdown is really on the cards, we can’t build a political strategy around it…Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the left has to acknowledge. What is in crisis right now is the neoliberal model of capitalism, not capitalism itself.”

For Chibber, this means that “left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within [the state]…and erode the structural power of capital.” To do this “democratic socialists” propose to use the labor movement (and “mobilizational politics”) as a social base for participation in electoral politics.

The history of the electoral socialist parties in the 20th century does not provide much reason to hope this strategy will work. By the mid-1980s the various electoral socialist parties in Europe had abandoned any idea of a transition to socialism. They had become parties focused on “managing” capitalism — and quite willing to adapt to the elite demands for a politics of austerity, privatizations and cuts.

In its radical form “democratic socialism” proposes a series of gradual structural reforms to achieve socialism through electoral politics. In fact the capitalist elites will wage a fierce fight against radical reforms that attack capitalist control over the work process, or attack the basis of capitalist profits or capitalist ownership of the industries.

In the 1970s the Swedish social-democrats proposed a fund for the unions to buy out shares of Swedish companies (the 1970s-era Meidner Plan). This plan was opposed at the time by the syndicalist SAC union in Sweden because it would leave the corporate managerialist bureaucracy intact. It was not actually a proposal for worker control of industry. Nonetheless, it was enough of a threat to the owning class in Sweden that the major capitalists mobilized effectively against it. The social-democrats were forced to retreat. They soon moved towards neo-liberal politics — including extensive privatizations of the public sector. The French Socialist Party under Mitterand in the early 1980s had to retreat from an ambitious plan of nationalizations when it was faced with vast capital flight (a “capital strike”). For Chibber, “mass mobilizations” and actions, especially in the workplaces, will be necessary to force the state to grant concessions. But he wants to combine this with “democratic socialists” gaining power within the existing state — pursuing reforms for a series of “breaks” with the inherited capitalist regime.

In fact, this strategy is highly unrealistic because (as I’ve argued above) there is an inherent contradiction between an electoralist strategy and a strategy of mass working class struggle from below. The reformist approach of relying on elections and conventional bureaucratic trade unions builds bureaucratic layers that form a roadblock to the emergence of a mass working class movement with the organizational capacity and aspiration to make a fundamental challenge for power from below. The reformist strategy discourages the development of an independent working class movement with the capacity for an effective challenge to the system.

Success for a working class movement from below works to a different logic than electoral politics and bureaucratic trade unionism. Here the movement builds power by building disruption collective action, such as strikes, and building wider solidarity, overcoming internal divisions (for example, along lines of race or gender). Self-managed, democratic organizations are essential if people are to control the struggle — crafting demands and working out the tactics. The working class develops the capacity and aspiration for challenging the system from below by relying on non-reformist methods of action and organization.

Moreover, the course of world events since the Sixties does not suggest the capitalist regime has either the popular legitimacy or stability that Vivek Chibber seems to think. From the 1960s to 1980s there were a whole series of crises where mass-scale working class movements posed a nearly revolutionary challenge to the system: the general strike in France in 1968, the revolutionary collapse of the state in Portugal in the 1970s, the mass strikes of Solidarity in Poland in 1980. In these cases the movements weren’t defeated by the stability and power of existing states. Rather, they were defeated by the role of Socialist and Communist parties which saw the mass movement from below as a threat to their bureaucratic ambition of sharing in state power.

Given the vast ecological crisis that capitalism faces, the steep financial crash in 2008, the overthrow of various rulers in the Arab Spring or the emergence of radical right-wing populist movements, it’s not clear that the state has the kind of stability or popular legitimacy that Chibber claims. In the USA, elections rarely attract much more than half the eligible population to vote — 55 percent in the 2016 presidential election. And studies show that the non-voters are poorer than the voting population. Much of the working class doesn’t vote. This makes elections a poor venue for working class struggle because our numbers cannot be marshaled there. Left candidates will depend on votes of middle class elements who may not favor a radical working class agenda.

A plausible path to self-managed socialism is going to lead through a revolutionary crisis. If the working class does develop high levels of direct struggle and solidarity through the growth of non-reformist methods of action and organization, this builds organizational strength, wider solidarity among sectors of the oppressed, and greater aspiration for change as people develop a growing sense of their own power. In such a period, the working class needs to develop its own class-wide agenda and “gather its forces” from the various areas and sectors of struggle to form a united bloc or front with both the power and agenda for change. In this way the working class becomes a revolutionary factor in its own right.

The working class front or alliance (made up of grassroots unions and other social movement organizations) that acts as a force of social transformation may have ideologically specific organizations (such as various socialist groups) participating in it. As syndicalists, however, we are opposed to the idea of a party “taking state power” and then implementing its program through the managerialist bureaucracies of a state. The history of the mid-20th century “communist camp” countries suggests where that will lead.

As syndicalists, we believe that a process of social transformation should aim at worker self-management of all the industries but also democratic accountability of social production to the people in the ways they are affected by it — through effects on ecology, through quality of services and products, and by producing for social benefit. This means rooting the governance of society and industry in the democracy of neighborhood and workplace assemblies and councils or congresses of elected delegates.

A revolutionary working class strategy is not about building a small armed group to assault the heavily armed state from outside. In the syndicalist concept of an “expropriating general strike,” the idea is that workers throughout the economy “defect” from management control, taking over control of the places where they work. This includes the public sector. In the Russian, Portuguese and Spanish revolutions there was also very substantial “defection” of the personnel of the military forces to the side of the working class. There was very little initial violence in the October, 1917 transfer of power to the Soviet Congress in Russia because the rank and file of the army and navy were already loyal to the soviets.

An argument against a revolutionary strategy is often based on the kind of dismal, authoritarian regimes that discredited the Communist movement in the 20th century. The problem here is the idea of party hegemony and seizure of state power by a “centralized cadre party.” When a revolution is propelled and controlled by a guerrilla force in the hands of a top-down political group (as in China and Cuba) or a single political party works to gain a top-down party monopoly of state power (as the Bolsheviks did in the Russian revolution), this prefigures the power of a bureaucratic class that rules over the working class.

But guerrillaism or the seizure of state power by a “centralized cadre party” are not the only forms of ruptural strategy. The syndicalist strategy is designed to avoid the bureaucratic class power that emerged in the Communist states. This is accomplished by a strategy centered on democratic mass organizations.