Kim Moody’s Breaking The Impasse offers an incisive analysis of what the US labour movement needs to do to bring radical change, finds John McGrath
Social change and progressive legislation in the United States have always come about as a result of mass disruption and social movements from below, argues Kim Moody in his excellent new book Breaking the Impasse. Important gains won during the New Deal era of the 1930s and of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s were not the result of electing left-leaning politicians but rather by coordinated working-class social movements that organised campaigns disruptive enough to make Congress take notice and legislate accordingly. Moody reasons that today’s US left needs to relearn this lesson.
Breaking the Impasse reads as strategic analysis and advice to the latest iteration of socialism in the US, popularised largely by Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020, and the emergence of the DSA (The Democratic Socialists of America) as the country’s largest socialist organisation in decades, with a membership that peaked at 91,000 last year.
Many Counterfire readers will be familiar with Kim Moody already. He is an influential American socialist, writer, and labour strategist who currently is a visiting scholar at the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment of the University of Westminster in London. He is widely known for his writing on the rank-and-file strategy in the labour movement, and he was a founder of Labor Notes.
The DSA, which grew rapidly between 2015 and 2020, is a multi-tendency organisation with chapters in every state. Socialism is most popular among the younger generations in the US, and as the DSA grew in size, the median age of its membership dropped from 68 to 33. However, Moody suggests that like the rest of the country, the new socialist projects emerging are stuck at an impasse of sorts, and the movement is overly focused on electoral politics, and electing Democrats in particular. This is implied subtly as the DSA is mentioned only passingly in the work, and if anything, it represents the intended audience for the book rather than its subject.
The main arguments in Breaking the Impasse work off the premise that the US political economy is trapped in a form of gridlock. This stalemate can be seen in all forms of US economic and political expression: do-nothing congresses, stagnate wages, bloated military budgets, etc. The US political system and economy has been hijacked by special interests, corporations, and the billionaire class. Traditional parties of the left have moved to the centre around the world, and US voters are routinely stuck in a ‘Macron vs Le Pen’ trap of supporting a pro-capitalist centrist or an increasingly rabid right winger.
The failures of the US political system played out in real time when Biden’s Build Back Better agenda wasn’t able to get enough support from the Democratic Party to pass. It’s not far off to say Biden’s Build Back Better would be standard fare for most centre-right governments in Europe. Likewise, the DSA decided to go all in on a campaign to pass the PRO Act (Protect the Right to Organize), a proposed law which would expand labour protections.
Unfortunately, this law was never voted on in Congress despite the resources DSA devoted to a national campaign, which included joining forces with major unions, making hundreds of thousands of phone calls to voters in key legislators’ home states, and organising in-person rallies and town halls. By the end of 2021, Build Back Better had died on the vine and the PRO act went down with it. The inside game hasn’t worked for The Sunrise Movement either, who hitched their wagon to electing progressive members of Congress and lobbying them to support Green New Deal legislation, which died in committee and never made it into an actual bill, much less one that had the support of the Party.
Bernie Sanders and the Squad haven’t pushed the Democrats leftward despite what you might have read about Biden being the next FDR this time last year. No threats of ‘packing the court’ in light of the recent decision to overturn Roe vs Wade. No Green New Deal in light of increasingly horrific IPCC reports. No Medicare For All despite a global pandemic that killed a million US citizens.
Structures of party politics
Why is politics so frustrated in the US and why are there only two political parties? Moody dispels the notion that it’s entirely the first-past-the-post single-member district system to blame for the lack of a progressive party in the US. Instead, he highlights how having Presidential elections inherently helps to promote a two-party system, as do US primary contests which allow the public to elect party candidates despite not really having organised political parties at all.
Also contributing to US political disfunction are a number of ‘reforms’, including voting registration, literacy, and citizenship requirements, put in place during the Progressive era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which resulted in reducing voter participation and creating an overrepresentation of wealthier, better-educated, older voters. Primaries in particular have low levels of voter participation, especially with regard to working-class voters lacking a college degree.
The notion that the US doesn’t have participatory political parties is sometimes lost on Europeans. One can’t join the Democratic Party like you can the Labour Party; there’s no membership or party architecture; it’s essentially a glorified bank account with consultants and ad buyers on one side of the ledger, and campaign contributions on the other. The Labour Party is deeply flawed and undemocratic, but consider how much worse it would be without membership input or accountability of any kind.
Also contributing to the rightward drift of US politics is the gross amounts of money poured into campaigns in the modern era as a result of ‘money-equals-free-speech’ court rulings. Moody details how the problem continues to get worse with every election cycle. Initially it was corporations purchasing political candidates and outcomes; now it’s just a handful of individual billionaires leveraging their private wealth to get what they want. In short, Moody views the Democratic Party to be unfixable and something socialists should avoid.
Likewise, Moody argues that the losses of organised labour have greased the wheels for the corporate coup d’état of the last fifty years. Trade unions have shifted from representing workers to promoting the growth and longevity of industries in what Moody describes as a business-union ideology. Anti-labour laws, compromising trade-union leaderships and a toxic, co-dependent relationship with the Democratic Party have left their mark on a weakened labour movement.
The antidote to much of this, according to Moody, is the rank-and-file strategy and a self-organised trade-union movement. Workplace self-organisation won the vote at the Amazon plant in Staten Island, not a professional campaign run by staffers and consultants outside of the workplace. It’s also worth pointing out that Bernie Sanders was called to help rally the vote days before the failed attempt to organise an Amazon union in Bessemer, Alabama by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Bernie Sanders and AOC weren’t involved in the successful union effort in Staten Island and only helped promote the victory after the fact.
As Moody sees it, socialist politics has to centre working-class self-organisation. Moody devotes a chapter of the book to a pointed criticism of Jane McAlevey’s union organising model, much of which he admires, but which he finds overly reliant on professional staffers and consultants in every phase of union life. As Moody writes:
‘The advice McAlevey offers in her “model” is mostly good and useful. But it addresses institutional arrangements that have decayed without suggesting how to transcend them. At the same time, the “model” preserves or even enhances a dominant place for the professional organizer that can miss or even discourage the most fundamental ingredient of power - collective worker initiative from below. The time has come to reverse the model’ (p.151).
Moody comes from a tradition of American socialists that has a firm belief in not working through the Democratic party. Some DSA caucuses and no shortage of articles published in Jacobin point to the recent growth of the left by competing in elections as Democrats. Sanders was able to draw more support as a Democratic contestant than third party or socialist candidates have ever been able to achieve historically, including Eugene Debs (admittedly the comparison to Debs is unfair because Sanders is really a social democrat). It is also true that DSA surged from a relatively insignificant, moribund campaign pressure group to the organisation that it is today, flaws and all, as a result of participating in electoral politics as Democrats and riding the Sanders/AOC wave, so to speak.
But that was then and this is now. While the Sanders campaigns helped popularise social-democratic reforms, the word ‘socialism’, and ultimately the DSA and a handful of other socialist organisations, it hasn’t produced much in the way of material gains for the US working class legislatively. The argument that it is futile for a socialist or a left social democrat to try to have an impact within the Democratic Party is real, especially in Congress, where they have had no effect at all. This has become a problem within the membership of DSA which is often at odds with the four DSA members elected to congress (Rashida Tlaib, AOC, Cori Bush, and Jamal Bowman), especially on foreign-policy positions. The squad aren’t accountable to the DSA and have been largely consumed by the Democratic Party.
Going forward, it’s unlikely DSA members in office will be able to stick to the organisation’s agenda. Moody points out that the pressures and constraints leveraged by the Democratic Party will redirect radical tendencies from members in Congress to conventional party positions. Unfortunately, this seems to be a lesson that every generation has to learn for themselves. Organising a new, left party which incorporates participation and accountability to a membership base might give socialists a chance to further their positions politically.
Prospects for a workers’ party
What are the prospects of starting a workers’ party? Part of the political impasse in the US relates to how the country is divided by safe Democratic or Republican districts. Simply put, the Democrats win overwhelmingly in urban areas and the Republicans clean up in rural areas, and marginal districts play out in the suburbs among wealthier voters, which limits the scope of debate. Moody points out how the current Democratic coalition has come to rely on support from the wealthiest counties in the country. Democratic voters are becoming less blue collar, more college educated, and wealthier: an obstacle to class-based politics to say the least. Moody’s analysis on this is excellent and complements important work done by Mike Davis and popular essays by Matt Karp.
With this is mind, Moody recognises an opportunity developing in electoral politics. He points out that in about 100 congressional districts (there are 435 of them), the Democrats win two thirds of the vote. These seats aren’t currently competitive, and a workers’ party to the left of the Democrats could compete and there would be no ‘spoiler effect’; there is no chance a Republican will take office should a third-party siphon off votes from the Democrats. It’s Moody’s opinion that socialists should experiment in creating a new political party which competes in these urban, Democratic Party strongholds which already rely on multi-racial, working-class support. Equally important, Moody argues: ‘They are the key centres of the giant “logistics clusters” and infrastructure nodes on which production, circulation, social reproduction depend’ (p.170). In this way, cities are optimal locations for coordinated class struggle.
DSA membership is disproportionally strong in urban areas as well. The 120 DSA members elected to state and municipal office are from Democratic safe districts, predominately urban. In short, Moody thinks that the conditions are ripe for third-party experimentation by socialists. He also points out that the political system has become so bankrupt in the US that rural districts, which vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, can potentially become an ideological home to a workers’ party, at least in time, in ways that a cosmopolitan, professionalised Democratic Party cannot. In this way, the current hyper polarisation of US politics might provide new opportunities not seen in many decades.
Debating the prospects of starting a new, left party has been around since the beginning of time, and the pros and cons will no doubt be familiar to socialists in the UK who are more or less in the same situation. Moody is clear eyed about how establishing a third party isn’t a silver bullet for establishing political outcomes that benefit the working class. Moody writes:
‘Both the “hollowing out” and decline of most traditional social democratic parties, and the new radical parties in Europe such as Podemos all tell us that focusing mainly on elections for members-based parties leads to setbacks or defeats. So does the focus on individual leaders and candidates that often accompanies an electoral emphasis’ (p.169).
So even though a fair amount of the book argues that the time is right for creating a third party, Moody’s main point remains that social movements and mass upsurge are the driving engine of change, and that this example is not something US socialists need to invent from scratch; it’s part of American history.
The need for social movements
Here's a quotation from Breaking the Impasse which sums up the point well:
‘But, like the labor movement of the 1930s, the movements and actions of the civil rights era also showed that if meaningful, even though limited, reforms are to be wrenched from capitalism’s representatives, it takes more than electing the “right” people, even when the “right” people do represent an improvement or a “lesser evil,” much less making the right case for social justice or the salvation of the planet. Those who council that strikes, demonstrations, occupations, riots, etc. are “not enough” have it backward. It is the deeply flawed “political process” of capitalist America that is not enough. Self-activity and self-organization of the oppressed and exploited from below are the first principle in any strategy for social change. To put it another way, it has generally been the case that in the US it takes revolutionary means to achieve meaningful reforms from an unwilling system’ (p.128).
Since Moody wrote the book, the right-wing Supreme Court delivered its ruling on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), limiting the EPA’s authority under a provision of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector. This is an all-out attack on executive agencies and the administrative state in a way that would have made even Milton Freedman blush.
The best resistance to this reactionary lurch, orchestrated by the judiciary with support from sections of corporate America, will be for socialists to work outside the political arena and invest in social movements. The pressures will have to come from women’s rights groups, climate activists, trade-union militancy and other movements outside the realm of elected politics, or, as Moody might characterise it, ‘from below’. Popular movements will have to force the political system to bend to the popular will in ways that can’t be accomplished from within the political system.
Moody’s recommendations are very timely. If the new socialist movement that is rising in the US is going to make a breakthrough, it’s going to be as a result of a mass action and social upsurge. Socialists can’t create an upsurge entirely by themselves, but they can help direct the energy and take a leadership role when events happen. If socialism is to ever take a foothold in the US, it’s impossible to imagine it getting legislated into existence by bills passing in Congress. Moody’s research and analysis in Breaking the Impasse is excellent, and the book is a great read for those interested in US politics, both historically and in its current form.
For more from Kim Moody on Breaking the Impasse, listen to a recent interview with Kim Moody by Unjum Mirza.
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