A Tactic is not a Strategy: On the Uses and Abuses of the Rank and File Strategy

Kim Moody’s Rank and File strategy is a text that many socialists claim to enjoy, but very few have actually read all the way through. Yet as is often the case, it’s used as a rhetorical cudgel in socialist discourse, constantly evoked as “the strategy” for radicalizing the labor movement and building a mass socialist left. Yet if no one has read the bloody thing, how can we actually follow the strategy? More importantly, is the “rank and file strategy” really the magic bullet many claim it to be?

Contrary to its popular reception, the “strategy” portion of the Rank and File strategy has less to do with taking over union leadership than you’d think. Rather what transforms it from a set of rank and file tactics1 into a rank and file strategy2 is the understanding of the necessity of raising consciousness through struggle to build working class unity across, through, and in affirmation of, racial, sexual, and social difference. Furthermore while this strategic vision appears to work, the tactical prescriptions meant to enact it have enjoyed mixed results.

The Rank and File Strategy in context: On Kim Moody and Solidarity

The “Rank and File Strategy,” hereafter the “RF,” was first published by the socialist group Solidarity in 2000. It was not published to great fanfare, and its later prominence is a bit of surprise. To understand RF, we need to put its author and his organization in proper context. Moody is, not to be mean, a product of working class defeat. From the late 1970s, Capital has systematically destroyed the power of popular counter-institutions such as unions, tenants associations, student movements, etc. After the onslaught, the socialist left’s political remnants reconstituted themselves into an alphabet soup of organizations. Many of them did not last, but several did. Those which survived did so because of hard-nosed strategies for political persistence. These survival tactics still shape the American left today.

Some like the ISO (International Socialist Organization) focused on college campuses, using the student bubble as a redoubt for socialist organization (given recent events, perhaps this was a poor plan). Others like the Workers World Party (WWP) and its successor, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), boosted actually existing socialism, and when socialism collapsed, transitioned into a generalized anti-US/NATO anti-imperialism. By contrast, Solidarity, Moody’s organization, followed a policy of “industrialization.”

“Industrialization” was not unique to Solidarity. Many socialist and communist groups (especially those like Solidarity in the Trotskyist tradition) tried throughout the 70s-90s and largely failed. Industrialization sought to place members of socialist organizations into industrial jobs. The goal was twofold: first, to move away from middle-class, college-educated, and counter-cultural recruitment and reorient towards a blue-collar working class. Second, to agitate amongst workers for a radical movement against the bosses and the conservative, bureaucratic unions who protected them. Industrialization was a failure. Employers screened out degreed applicants and long hairs. Those who got hired had trouble recruiting for a revolutionary party when workers’ political horizon shortened, caught up in defensive struggles over pay and pensions.

Of those who industrialized, Solidarity failed the least.3 They did not succeed, but by all measures came the closest to success. Solidarity’s quasi-success arose from two contradictory facets of their praxis: their early emphasis on workplace organizing over and above socialist recruitment and their infiltration of union staff positions.4 Solidarity used its network to support workers’ struggles, rather than use workers’ struggles to build its network. Other Solidarity members built up careers in union and labor adjacent spaces, giving them institutional clout. Emphasizing praxis over ideological line, Solidarity moved from a traditional dem-cent party to something between a socialist cadre and democratic socialist organization.5 This more diffuse network lead to several successful experiments in socialist industrial strategy, such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union-led UPS strike of 1997 and the ongoing Labor Notes journal and conference. Combining elements of rank and file agitation as well as institutional permeation within labor institutions, Solidarity exerted a net positive influence on American labor and the American left. There were problems to be sure, but fewer than most 70s survivors.6

Solidarity’s work in the labor movement and its half-born “industrialization” strategy led to Moody’s RF. The RF is a distillation of, and reflection on, 20+ years of praxis for Solidarity. Unlike a white paper from a Leninist organization, the RF is a strategy document for a socialist organization dedicated to raising class consciousness and building a mass movement. The document is not only relevant to would-be vanguard parties, but also to organizing socialists as a whole.

The Text Itself: The 3 Keys to the RF

RF can be broken down broadly into three sections: an argument about ideological consciousness, a rank and file tactical plan, and empirical backing for sections 1+2 via long-ish historical discourse. I want to stress that there aren’t three official sections in the text. Rather this structure is my own gloss, and is structured not in the order in which Moody writes, but in the logical priority of his argument. I advise you to read the text in full and evaluate my claims for yourself.

Section 1: “Common Sense”, Class consciousness, and Socialist Consciousness

Few proponents of the RF mention the most important part of his argument, his analysis of class consciousness. Everything else in the RF flows from this point. Moody’s general taxonomy of consciousness can be broken down into three levels: the “common sense” of prevailing ideology, class consciousness in-itself, and class consciousness for-itself (socialist consciousness). Common sense for Moody is not just the ideology of the ruling class but drawing from Gramsci, “the contradictory accumulation of ideas, beliefs, and ways of viewing the world that most people carry around. ‘Common sense’ is not some consistent capitalist ideology. It was, as he [Gramsci] noted, ‘fragmentary, incoherent.’” Common sense then is the way in which average people see and understand the world. The gaps and contradictions within it present opportunities for socialists. Common sense is often racist, subservient to power, patriarchal, and all that horrid jazz, but also “both deeper and more contradictory because it also embodies experiences that go against the grain of capitalist ideology.” It leads “conservative” people in West Virginia to strike and a Fox News audience to cheer Bernie Sanders.

Moody argues that the systematic alteration of common sense, or as Jane Macaleavy might call it “raising expectations,” is the key to socialist strategy.

The experience of collective struggle against the boss challenges much of the old “common sense” even more directly as people begin to think through the real power relationships they are confrontingandstart to feel their power as a group.

Prolonged workers’ struggle can change and shape common sense, shifting it from mostly pro-capitalist, to class consciousness of various shades. Moody’s RF strategy is thus less about the tactics of rank and file revolt as it is about this movement or transition of worker’s consciousness. He wants to shift the way that people see the world so they will challenge capital with greater ferocity.

So what is class consciousness? Working class consciousness can be broken down into two types:

Marx made the distinction between the consciousness of being a class “in itself” and “for itself.” The first is the simple recognition that the working class is a distinct class with interests opposed to the capitalist class. This is something like what Lenin saw as trade union consciousness. It involves an awareness of class conflict and the need for organization, but a more or less unquestioned assumption that “the system” is here to stay and all that is to be done is to make it better for the workers. The consciousness of being a class “for itself” is the awareness that capitalism can be replaced and that it is the task of the working class to emancipate itself by doing just that. This is socialist consciousness.

Moody’s three categories follow a quasi-progression.7 Common sense is usually quite capitalist, such that it typically offers no “class consciousness”. In-itself or “trade union consciousness” understands that working people have distinct interests, but assumes that the capitalist system will remain. For-itself consciousness envisions the overcoming of capitalism in favor of socialism.

According to Moody, Leninists’ view of class consciousness is always “mired in reformism” because the organs of class conflict, such as trade unions, do not go beyond the “in-itself” stage of political understanding. He argues that Leninists need a vanguard party composed of professional revolutionaries because they cannot conceive of workers developing socialist thought on their own. As we’ve established, Solidarity unsubscribed from this model, so Moody doesn’t think that the vanguard party can induce this transition in consciousness. In section 3 of RF, he details how CPUSA interference doomed many attempts at radical unionism. Instead Moody argues that:

Drawing on the lessons of these major periods of class activity and rank-and-file rebellion, we need a synthesis in which socialists play a leading role in these rebellions without subjecting them to the control of any “party” or socialist organization. At its most basic, this leadership means confronting the bureaucracy within the unions and its policies by focusing on the fight with the employers over real conditions on the job and in society. This leadership role also draws on the concept of transitional politics to provide a bridge from today’s consciousness to deeper and wider forms of class consciousness and organization.

Moody does not want a vanguard party, but rather wants a vanguard movement. He sees the role of socialists as cultivating militancy and pushing radicalization through the development of mass organizations devoted to fighting capitalism at the point of exploitation and domination. They do so through a transitional politics:

The task of socialists in this situation is not simply to offer an alternative ideology, a total explanation of the world, but to draw out the class consciousness that makes such bigger ideas realistic. The notion of atransitionalset of ideas is key to this strategy. The socialist analysis of capitalism and what capitalism is doing to workers today relates directly to the daily experiences of more and more working-class people. But the fact that the vast majority of working people lack even a consistently class-conscious way of looking at the world makes it difficult for socialism to get a hearing.

For those familiar with Trotsky, the notion of a “transitional demand” is a common one. Moody emphasizes that while Trotsky saw the transitional program as a short hop from socialism, the politics of socialist transition are based on the long distance between the socialist horizon and our capitalist reality. Unlike Trotsky, Moody sees socialists’ role not in yoking the mass struggle to a vanguard party, but of building networks and organizations that will stoke the fires of struggle. Underlying the RF then is a base assumption: Class struggle and it alone will generate the changes in consciousness necessary for a socialist society. It’s up to socialists to guide and nurture that struggle to produce a vanguard movement, not party,8 of workers impelled by socialist consciousness.

Sections 2+3: A Rank and File Tactic to Unite through Difference

We’ve established that Moody wants a transitional politics to move the masses from a position of pro-capitalist common sense to one of socialist consciousness. This transition need not be total, or evenly distributed, it just needs to be widespread enough that it can exert political power:

The problem has always been organizing that power and giving it conscious expression for a common purpose. What is being argued here is that there is already a starting point in the form of the rank-and-file resistance and rebellions, community-based organizations, and transitional formations discussed above. While socialists can and do play an important role in building and providing direction for such movement, they don’t have to invent them.

This is where most socialists will go “aha! I know this part!” Section 2 is what most associate with the RF. And they assume this is where the strategy lies. They are wrong. Section 2 offers not so much a strategy, but tactics for socialist organizers to promote collaboration and base building within their unions and other working class organs. If you’re reading a socialist theory journal, you’ve probably heard the main points of this tactic, but let’s briefly summarize the so-called “strategy.”

Moody argues that to use unions to build class power we must first address their current dysfunction:

Unions, of course, are far from perfect political organizations. They are bureaucratic. They often embody or protect racist and/or sexist practices. Their official ideology, which we will call business unionism, is a mass of contradictions…Their leaders generally do their best to straddle class conflict. Yet it is precisely some of these contradictions that makes the Rank-and-File Strategy realistic.

The RF works in unions because of the inherent contradictions of business unionism. As capital seeks greater profits, it cracks down on unions. This forces union officials to “straddle class conflict” while their counterpart engages in all out conflict. The RF tactic calls for workers to organize for class struggle, focusing on the boss as a target. Union bosses, by their straddling nature will be “caught in the cross-fire”. Moody acknowledges the more “omnipresent” nature of union bureaucracy today. Socialists will need not just the cross-fire tactic, but a systematic confrontation with union leadership, principally through elections, wildcat strikes, and new organizing. The third is most crucial, because by adding new units composed of militant workers, union conservatism can be diluted and then overcome. This fueled the radicalism of the old CIO, and what pushed many AFL unions into a more militant position.9 This militancy must also link up with deliberate unification of the class. Moody argues for networks and organizations that can bring unions and other movement groups together to form cross-class alliances. Workers must see themselves not as part of a particular union, but of a larger class.

Yet while these tactics are useful for thinking about militancy within unions, they don’t explain why Moody places strategic emphasis on unions as sites of socialist consciousness making. What makes unions special? Moody gives several reasons, many of them obvious: money, member resources, organizational infrastructure, etc. The most interesting, and one that isn’t stressed enough, is the diverse nature of unions, “One reason for focusing on the unions is that with some notable exceptions they are the most socially integrated organizations in American life…As America and its workforce changes, so do the unions.”10

Obviously the more diverse a movement, the more numbers it can generate and the more power it can exert. Moody’s support goes deeper than this though. We should not and cannot assume Moody is some class reductionist, or class separatist. He is careful to argue that far from pushing a basket of so-called “universal demands” that apply to everyone in the working class, the RF seeks to unify across and through difference, rather than flatten and renounce said difference:

We want to make it clear that we do not proceed from some faceless, raceless, neutered idea of the working class. We endorse the thoughts of the Caribbean revolutionary Aimé Césaire who rejected the crude Stalinist version of class “universality” held by the French Communist Party when he resigned in 1955. In his resignation letter he wrote, “I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particularities there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.” Nowhere does diversity shape the particularities of the working class more than in the US. Nowhere is this diversity more central to the divisions, diversions, and strengths experienced by working-class people in different ways. Nowhere do working-class people see themselves and one another in such different, usually distorted, ways.

This here, perhaps to the chagrin of many acolytes of the RF today, lies the key connection between sections 1, 2, and 3. Moody’s emphasis on the rank and file tactic within unions is born not merely of their economistic utility, but also their strategic utility as a site of consciousness making. The problem of socialist consciousness comes not just from our sense of confusion, not knowing the true enemy, but from the active distortion created by the divisions through bigotry and social domination.

The rich particularities of the unions, their representative diversity, will produce and strengthen the kind of socialist consciousness needed to unite through division. This unity in diversity cannot be accomplished through the universalism of class-only demands, but only through the true universalism of full-class demands. Whereas class-only demands seek flat solutions to the problems of working class life, full-class demands understand that to fully express the needs of the total working class, particular needs must be addressed. Organizing at the intersection of multiple burdens within the working class is of supreme importance for a full-class politics.11

This is not an ethical or philosophical point, but a strategic one. The point which takes the RF from tactic to strategy is this unification through difference. The more effective at unifying the working class across and through particulars, the more likely that socialists can actually produce a universal working class capable of defeating capitalism. There cannot be a world of “proletarians and capitalists” if the proletarians are divided by social domination and bigotry. There can be no papering over of these divisions either. They are not merely ideas in our minds, but matters of material consequence, of harm and benefit. Only by the active equalization of these harms and benefits, and affirmation and celebration of these differences, can we create a unified and thus universal working class politics. Moody says as much:

People are compelled into struggle by real conditions and these are mostly shaped by capital and its endless attempt to regain or improve profitability. These efforts to increase exploitation impact in all areas of working life including the different position of white and Black, men and women in the workforce and the union. We build these rank-and-file groups, acts of resistance, and movements on their own terms, but offer an analysis of the roots of the problem and a bigger vision of how to address them when appropriate. We call this social-movement unionism: a unionism that is democratic, acts like a movement and not just an institution, and reaches out to other working class and oppressed people to build a mass movement for change.

After establishing these points, Moody’s argument moves from the theoretical to the historical. There’s a lot of rich history to cover in this section. For the purpose of this argument, we should focus on one theme running throughout: the division of the US working class is a constant impediment to mass rebellion. This division is endemic to US labor history, as unions developed along lines of exclusion, attempting to restrict labor market entrants, typically through racial and gender barriers, rather than organize them. Various groups opposed this: the Knights of Labor, the IWW, and communists in the CIO, but they lost every time. The capitalist class’ structural encouragement of white supremacy and patriarchy enhance these divisions, providing increasing benefits for those at the top of the gender and racial status ladder.12 This practice of division and bribery reached its apex in 40s and 50s with the development of what Moody calls “private welfare states.” Under the system of private welfare states, union workers separated from the general working class by accessing a slew of benefits only available to union members: healthcare, pensions, preferential housing, etc. These private welfare states gave unions incentives to oppose social democratic reforms like socialized medicine or sectorial bargaining, which would universalize these benefits. They also linked the health of the welfare schemes with the health of their parent companies, forcing unions into a junior partnership with their employers, acting as additional lobbying muscle. This encouraged a “special interest” sensibility where they began to act like the lobbying groups their employers used. To give an egregious example, Peter Brennan, head of NYC Building Trades Council, Nixon Sec. for Labor and instigator of the Hard Hat Riots, swooned at the racist and sexist building schemes of Robert Moses. He lobbied for Moses and his programs no matter how many working class folks were displaced and lives destroyed by them.13 He only cared about construction jobs and how many he could get. This kind of short-sighted self-interest dominated the post-WWII labor movement.

The development of business unions into bureaucratic and bigoted patronage networks demonstrates for Moody the very real danger of “bread and butter” unionism, even when successful. The RF strategy combats this through full-class demands. Unions must break through their private networks to build cross-class solidarity. When UTLA went on strike, they demanded not only better pay, and smaller classrooms, but an immigration support fund, an end to random school sweeps, and the creation of more green space. These demands, which seek to address historical inequalities created by social domination, are the meat of any RF strategy. It’s not enough to be militant for your coworkers, you must be militant for everyone in your class.

Conclusion: RF tactics are necessary, but not sufficient, for the RF strategy

Now that we’ve established the difference between the strategic aim of the RF and the tactical prescriptions for achieving that strategy, let’s evaluate. While the strategic vision of the RF has been vindicated, its tactical plan is less so. The insurgent tactics of RF militants may be necessary to develop or sustain union reform, but these tactics are not sufficient on their own. It’s not enough to capture the leadership of unions, or to organize the membership base. You must have total institutional capture: member base, leadership and staff inclusive, both in terms of power and ideological influence.

The RF argues that rank and file unionists must confront union leaders to produce the new militancy and the full-class demands necessary to make socialists. There are examples, such as CORE in Chicago, Union Power in LA, or the TDU-led UPS strike, where left wing unionists took office and/or led insurgencies with successful results. Yet the Verizon strike of 2013, the Marriot strikes of 2018, and the current (at time of writing) Stop and Shop strike of 2019 did not come from any concerted caucus activity.14 West Virginia and other #RedForEd cases also offer mixed results, with a combination of not only RF pressure/organization, but also local union leadership ready to fight. Moody notes in the RF that local union officials are often better, and that the true rot is in the internationals. Even so, in cases like the CWA, the internationals have also pursued more class-consciousness politics and strategy.15

The uptick in labor strife also has clear structural influences. The current job market offers poor wages, but high employment, giving workers more leverage if they choose to strike. Without a reserve pool of unemployed labor, scab wages need to be much higher, weakening most boss positions. Stop and Shop stores sit empty as of writing because Ahold Delhaize simply can’t find enough scabs.

Moreover, union leaders, who Moody claims “at best straddle class struggle,” have moved towards a more confrontational position with Capital out of sheer necessity. While RF caucuses push for an “organizing instead of service” approach, many union leaders have too. After Janus and the spread of RTW laws, many unions must organize or die. I’ve found this impulse within my own union, the CWA. It doesn’t have an insurgent RF caucus, but it has systematically built an organizing and political education system that emphasizes social movement unionism and the politics of full-class demands. I have seen these programs produce impressive results, transforming locals of heretofore “conservative blue collar white guys” into something approaching leftists.16 It was also the only major union to endorse Bernie Sanders, which should count for something too.

This leftward shift amongst union leaders, especially local and mid-level leaders, has developed in tandem with the systematic permeation of union staff by socialists. Socialist union staff are so numerous that the DSA Labor Commission reserved spots on its executive board for “rank and file workers/elected union leaders” to avoid a board composed almost entirely of staff.17 This permeation wasn’t some strategic plan, but a natural outgrowth of socialists being socialists. If you’re a rabble rouser, union employment is one of the few stable jobs open to you. Socialists also often dominate the activist layer of union membership, the same layer from which most unions hire staff.

Moody specifically inveighs against the Communist party’s policy of permeation, arguing that they were often at cross purposes with RF militants:

But the Popular Front alliances and the permeationist orientation that flowed from it meant that the largest group on the Left had checked out of any fight against the growth of bureaucracy in the new unions and in some places contributed to it.

It’s not clear though that the permeation itself caused these problems so much as the overweening power of the CP. As I noted above, socialist infiltration of union staff was not planned, but a natural consequence of their temperament as socialists. There’s no centralized command, and staff must follow their own ethical/political compasses viz internal union politics.

Altogether then, we’ve witnessed in the present labor resurgence, not a concerted RF tactic bearing fruit, but the confluence of beneficial structural factors (the breakdown of labor peace, tight labor markets, fed-up workers) alongside the patchwork and somewhat contradictory application of tactics to pursue the RF strategy of social movement unionism (insurgent caucuses, reform elections, socialist staff, newly enlightened leaders). Caucuses and rank and file rebellion have helped, but they’re not the sole factor. To fully succeed we must break the business union system and this requires total institutional capture.

The capture of elected leadership and the base of a union isn’t very useful if the staff, those who keep the institution running day-to-day, ignore or twist the desires of new leadership. This bureaucratic inertia is the death knell of many reform movements, union or otherwise. Luckily, while Bernie must contend with the military-industrial blob, RF insurgents will contend mostly with other socialists. The permeation of socialist union staff, and the conversion of many union officials to leftism, are thus necessary parts of a complete strategy of institutional capture.

Moody’s vision is thus a contradictory one. His strategic aim of a transitional politics towards socialism have been vindicated. Social movement unionism works. Full-class demands inoculate unions against divide and conquer bigotry and address the bigotry internal to their own membership. Militant class wide strikes built on community support have worked. “Bargaining for the Common Good” works. Yet while the caucuses socialists love to celebrate are good, they are not alone capable of the elaboration of this strategic vision. We fetishize them at our peril. For every UTLA Union Power and CORE, there’s a TDU, struggling 50 years on against the same decrepit Hoffa machine. If we want to actualize the vision of the RF, one of mass consciousness raising through full-class struggle, we can’t limit ourselves to the holy writ of insurgent caucusing. We must use all tools at our disposal and use them all at once. All aspects of the union institution must be captured and all aspects must be transformed, if we are to break business unionism once and for all.

Andrew D is a member of Suffolk County DSA.


^ 1. Tactics are the tools you use to achieve your strategic goals. For example, if a union wants to increase its wages in the next contract, it can choose from a variety of tactics such as: going on strike, flyering the employer’s neighborhood, informational picketing, lobbying politicians to support, lighting the factory on fire, occupying the workplace, or initiating a general strike.

^ 2. A strategy is the overall plan of victory you use to achieve your desired end or goal. So while a union may employ various tactics, the strategy is how said union chooses which tactics, how to combine them and when/when not to use them. For example, going on strike is not a strategy and isn’t strategically intelligent if you don’t have a larger plan of victory.

^ 3.Perhaps the worst case is the Maoist, Revolutionary Communist Party. Yes, the Avakian people. They took industrialization so seriously they adopted the social bigotry of their illusory blue collar coworkers. This included a party ban on homosexuality.

^ 4. Something Moody is not a big fan of and yet continues to influence the labor left today. More on that later on.

^ 5. They also adopted what has been called a “Third-Campist” position, arguing that the USSR was a “state capitalist” state doing battle with regular capitalist states. The ideological contortions of the post 50s Trotskyist left are too numerous to cover in this piece, so I won’t say more than that.

^ 6. Many of the problems arise from vestiges of their Trotskyism. They can still tend towards dogmatism, groupthink, and cultishness. But like I said, they’re the least bad at this than anyone else in the Leninist left.

^ 7. These should not be treated as hard categories as consciousness is “fluid” according to Moody.

^ 8. Contrary to recent reports, magazine editors couldn’t be the vanguard of lunch, let alone a revolutionary party.

^ 9. This was co-opted and destroyed later on. You can find more details on this within Moody’s piece.

^ 10. TThis has increased since time of writing in 2000. Many unions, especially the militant teacher, nurses, and hotel workers unions, tend to be led by women or people of color.

^ 11. Many forget that Crenshaw’s Intersectionality starts with an imagined road intersection, with multiply burdened people facing physical damage from multiple directions. Intersectionality is not some liberal feel-good clap trap, it’s a cold-eyed legal analysis of material harm. As materialists, socialists cannot ignore these harms.

^ 12. Moody notes how the genocide of the Indigenous provides capital with a great reserve of cheap resources from which to bribe the white working class.

^ 13. Conservative count of at least half a million.

^ 14. UNITE HERE is even notorious as a cultish, tyrannical, but effective union.

^ 15. CWA’s Reversing Runaway Inequality Training system offers a good case study of this.

^ 16. There are contradictions, of course. CWA’s backing of Joe Manchin is an obvious misstep, but the overall tenor has been positive and efficacious.

^ 17. This was then cynically exploited for electioneering purposes, but that’s a story for another time.