300 working class leaders, activists, revolutionaries converged in Atlanta on September 2 (Photo: Yuwei Pan/The Peoples Forum)
Socialists, organizers, and working class leaders in the United States describe the challenges the movement faces, and what is to be done to overcome them.
Originally published in Peoples Dispatch.
“We know this system is in crisis,” said Manolo De Los Santos, co-executive director of the People’s Forum and lifelong communist, opening the Dilemmas of Humanity: A Socialist Horizon conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This conference was organized by the International People’s Assembly-North America as part of the IPA’s international conference series, “Dilemmas of Humanity,” which will conclude with an international conference in Johannesburg in October. The US-based conference was held in Atlanta’s Neighborhood Church on September 2, and supported by organizations such as Community Movement Builders, Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Peoples Forum, Unión de Vecinos, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
“We see the crisis everywhere,” De Los Santos continued. “And maybe for the first time in many years, we’re not the only ones saying that there is a crisis. Us communists have been saying that there is a crisis for the past 200 years. But now you have even experts of the World Economic Forum saying the world is in crisis.”
If the world is in crisis, the working class is certainly feeling the brunt of it. Workers in the United States are no exception. Studies show that a majority cannot cover basic living expenses each week. Wages have stagnated since the early 1970s, only growing by 17.5% despite worker productivity rising three times faster at 61.8%. Homelessness rates have been growing nationwide by a steady 6% each year since 2017, as city streets crowd with those in the deepest of economic despairs. Climate change is causing natural disasters that wreak havoc on the already precarious conditions of the working class, whose neglected residential structures cannot handle the onslaught of extreme weather conditions and who must go to work whether or not they risk death in the process.
It is this world that the socialist movement is confronted with. And it is only the workers who change it—as De Los Santos said, “Our hands built this world. And the same way we built it up, we can destroy it and build it up again.”
Yet, organizers highlight, this will not be easy. Cecilia Prado, an organizer based in Nashville who has years of experience organizing low wage workers to win major victories, offered an analysis of some of the major obstacles facing the left in the United States during the panel “Building a Dignified Society.” The socialist movement has suffered “decades of American exceptionalism, anti-communism, and just neoliberalism permeating our organizations,” said Prado. Now, as a result, “organizations are stuck in a cycle of reaction. Our work is being driven by crisis, by personal emotions, and by funding patterns, instead of by a bold vision and an accurate analysis of root causes affecting our people.”
Prado also identified a “fetishization or tokenization of worker leadership” as a fundamental problem, “without actually putting in the work to raise the consciousness of the workers.” Prado proposed several solutions, including, a “struggle for political clarity,” to discover “the root causes affecting our people that we’re organizing.”
“The correct framework to do that is dialectical materialism—I don’t make the rules.”
Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, a Black working class formation that originated in Atlanta, speaking in the panel “Socialism and Democracy,” harkened back to the old Communist Party slogan: “organize the unorganized.”
Franklin elaborated on what that phrase means to him. “It’s one thing to say we’re going to get the folks who have already been reading, that’s a level of organizing, that supplies a certain base of operations for us,” says Franklin. “But what we really have to do is… we have to get into the various communities that we are a part of. And we cannot, cannot get at those communities like we know it all. Or we know better… when folks you’re organizing with say something that you think is ignorant, you do not walk away from those people.”
An organization present in strong numbers at the conference, the Union of Southern Service workers, has put “organize the unorganized” into practice in one of the most difficult sectors for labor to permeate: the service industry. The extreme precarity of service work—the high turnover, low pay, and lack of full-time positions—of service work makes labor organizing seemingly insurmountable. However, USSW is taking on the bold task of organizing a cross sector union encompassing all types of service work in the US South, from hairdressing to fast food to convenience stores.
Aeisha Franceis, worker at an assisted living facility and USSW member from Durham, North Carolina, told Peoples Dispatch about the first time she organized a walkout at her workplace, which at the time was a fast food restaurant. Her and her fellow workers were protesting unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When I tell you it was fear beyond belief, it was fear beyond belief,” Franceis said of her own apprehensions about losing employment before walking off the job. But she was transformed after seeing how many fellow workers and USSW members had her back. “All of that fear balled up, turned into the empowerment that I carry with me today.”
On the necessity of working class organization, BreakThrough News journalist and Party for Socialism and Liberation member Eugene Puryear was specific. In the panel “US Empire vs. the People,” Puryear declared, “If we want to win, we have to be organized, but we can’t just be organized in an amorphous sense.”
“We have to organize in a very specific way, and history teaches us this. We have to organize a communist party… A communist party just means working class and oppressed people coming together, sharing our experiences, and plotting tactics and strategy in order to win. The best weapon to defend ourselves when we’re under attack, the only vehicle in which we can take the offensive when we need to.”
“Learn from history,” Puryear continued. “It’s not me saying this, it’s history saying this. This is Claudia Jones, Amilcar Cabral, WEB Dubois, calling to you from the grave, saying we don’t wanna have died in vain, build a communist party! Take the power!”
Natalia Marquesis an organizer and a writer for People's Dispatch.