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US Dilemmas of Humanity conference: Organise a working-class movement to defeat the empire

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Picture: Yuwei Pan/The Peoples Forum/ via Peoples Dispatch/taken September 2, 2023 – Three hundred (300) working class leaders, activists, revolutionaries converged in Atlanta on September 2, 2023. Socialists, organisers, and working-class leaders in the United States describe the challenges the movement faces, and what is to be done to overcome them, the writer says.

By Natalia Marques

“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 organised 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 Neighbourhood Church on September 2, and supported by organisations 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 percent despite worker productivity rising three times faster at 61.8 percent. Homelessness rates have been growing nationwide by a steady 6 percent 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, organisers highlight, this will not be easy. Cecilia Prado, an organiser based in Nashville who has years of experience organising 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 organisations”, said Prado. Now, as a result, “organisations 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 “fetishisation or tokenisation 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 organising”.

“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: “organise the unorganised”.

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 organising, 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 organising with say something that you think is ignorant, you do not walk away from those people.”

An organisation present in strong numbers at the conference, the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), has put “organise the unorganised” into practice in one of the most difficult sectors for labour 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 labour organising seemingly insurmountable. However, USSW is taking on the bold task of organising 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 organised 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 organisation, 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 organised, but we can’t just be organised in an amorphous sense.

“We have to organise in a very specific way, and history teaches us this. We have to organise 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 Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organiser, and a graphic designer based in New York City

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch