The Abolitionist Road to Socialism

Sean Larson

In the US, the struggle for revolutionary socialism and the antiracist struggle for abolition are one and the same.


We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Socialism: a free society in which all people have control over their neighborhoods, their workplaces, their lives, and their bodies. This vision has guided countless heroic struggles to build a path out of a cruel, dream-killing capitalist reality. The best of strategic courses have recognized that working people possess the ultimate weapon against capital: by collectively withholding our labor, we can grind the system to a halt. The crucial strategic question for socialists then becomes: how can we unite the working class in order to use this collective power and transform society?

One prominent strategy among socialists today aims to tap into our side’s power in numbers by prioritizing “class-wide demands, policies that directly benefit all or most of the working class (in a given area or industry) at the expense of the capitalist class.”[1] While this approach generally comes from a good place, striving toward solidarity and building our forces, its implementation remains largely detached from the realities of capitalist power in the United States.

A central feature of those realities, and a central barrier to working-class struggle in the US, has been racism. Any socialist strategy with a hope of defeating the capitalist class will have to grapple with racism as such. What follows is an analysis of the centrality of racism to the capitalist state project in this country today. That systemic feature is the reason why struggles against racism, if they are successful, have historically had to confront questions of state violence, capitalist class power, and imperialism. Antiracism, particularly when driven by an abolitionist mission, is thus what political class warfare looks like.

This article may just as well have been titled “The Antiracist Road to Socialism,” but there is a political specificity to abolition that deserves highlighting. Abolition, as conceived and practiced by Black feminist thinkers and organizers, is a revolutionary struggle to eradicate the conditions which give rise to prisons, police, and profit extraction. It is an eminently socialist aim.

Now, at the beginning of a renewed period of unrest and struggle from below,[2] the need to abolish key elements of capitalist state machinery is a prominent part of the nationwide antiracist movement, identifying the police and prisons as the irreducible problem to be eliminated. Like all social movements, antiracist movements have faltered when they relied on the capitalist or ruling class instead of the collective action of the multiracial working class. The working class, as the agent of abolition, has the collective power to carry this struggle through to the end. It is abolition, however, that the class struggle strives toward.

Subjectively, antiracist struggle plays a key role in the formation or composition of the working class, generalizing a revolutionary and socialist consciousness in a way unmatched by socialist projects that treat workers as a mere constituency or a passive audience of politics. Historically, the Black liberation struggle in particular has been central to working-class confidence, militancy, and self-organization. Of such things, socialism is made. On both structural and historical grounds, it is critical for socialists to make a pivot toward the antiracist struggle for abolition, the struggle for workers’ power.

Racism is a Political Project of the Capitalist State

Many contemporary socialist strategies, to be elaborated later, rely upon a theoretical paradigm notably lacking precision with regard to the concept of racism. In the cases where racism is defined, it is usually discussed as a psychological bias of individuals. In more rigorous analyses, racism is presented as an effect measurable by disparate impacts in a number of social, political, economic, and medical categories. At best, these disparities are explained by reference to the enduring legacies of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, which deprived Black people of control over their own lives, plundered their collective wealth, and entrenched a social hierarchy so thoroughly that it has persisted well beyond the legal existence of these two systems of social-economic control.

Racism is undoubtedly perpetuated in individual ideas and practices, and excruciating disparities for racialized populations in all areas of life cannot be explained except by way of real systemic racist patterns in institution after institution. But if it stops here, this analytic paradigm obscures the fact that racism is fundamentally about power, and class power specifically. For socialist strategy, it is important to understand racism in the US as a political project of the ruling class,[3] carried out by the vehicle of all collective ruling class projects: the capitalist state.

Racism is fundamentally about power, and class power specifically.

State power underpinned the slavery economy in the antebellum South, just as state legal and punitive structures underwrote the post-Reconstruction system of Jim Crow before its toppling. Over the last forty years of neoliberal ascendency, sprawling structures of mass incarceration have arisen in the wake of these prior systems, reaching deep into the working class to create and reinforce physical, institutional, legal, and psychological barriers between working-class people. Pervasive racial profiling by police ensures that intake into the penal system targets populations of color at much higher rates. The “negative credential” associated with a criminal record or felony conviction functions as “a unique mechanism of state-sponsored stratification,”[4] and adds a legal gloss to the racialized segmentation of the labor market. “Predatory inclusion” of African Americans in the housing market continues to drain Black wealth.[5] Legal disenfranchisement of wide swathes of the Black population, particularly in the South, deprives African Americans of even formal participation in democratic elections or jury decisions.

Cook County Jail. Photo by Stephen Hogan / Flickr

Beyond the individual cases, “the system of mass incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.”[6] When layered over the terrifyingly real legacies of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, racist lynchings, persistent segregation in housing, communities, and schools, and a yawning wealth gap, these penal structures have created what Michelle Alexander calls a “racial caste system” in the United States. In too many crucial respects, Black—and Indigenous[7]— people do not live in a democracy in this country.

The institutions responsible for mass incarceration and the racist patterns detailed above—the prisons, the police, the military—these are the constituent parts, the “bodies of armed men,” that make up the core of the capitalist state. They are also the primary elements of the racist system of mass incarceration, just as Jim Crow system was implemented through state legal systems and the violence that enforced them.

States within capitalism are not autonomous operators, somehow above the imperatives of the market. But the state is the guarantor of the contracts that make up the free market. It ensures the conditions for capital accumulation domestically by the creation of a profitable business climate and around the world by imperialist domination and intervention. This is what is happening when broken windows policing cements the frontiers of racist gentrification while shoring up and expanding property values in a neoliberal environment dominated by real estate capital.[8] The US empire has long consisted of debt peonage of third world countries and ongoing settler-colonialism in North America,[9] not to mention military intervention and illegal coups of foreign left-wing leaders who pose a threat to capital accumulation for US corporations. Insofar as it functions as a vehicle of ruling-class interests, the state carries out all that is required for profits to be extracted and multiplied.

State power legitimates itself through tales of ageless and natural right, nurturing a common sense among the governed that results not so much in consent, but resignation. At bottom, however, state power is built on violence, the power to take lives as if they belonged to state officials. That unique power is the source of states’ utility for capital, and racism is the means by which state death-making is routinely realized and made acceptable.[10]

For socialists, the “structures” of what we call “structural racism” have to be understood as the structures of the capitalist state. These structures have historical origins, develop within historically and socially concrete circumstances, and result from a series of decisions made by real people. But they are structures nonetheless, and are subject to the imperatives of capitalism. The question then arises, is racism necessary for capitalism?

Racial Capital

At the highest level of abstraction, capitalism is a classed structure, compelling people into the class position of the worker by stripping them of the means to reproduce themselves and reducing them to selling their one remaining asset, their labor power, on the labor market in order to survive. The market works to ensure the ranks of these dispossessed only increase, while the wealth and power of the capitalists—owners of the means of production—accumulates and multiplies through the exploitation of the workers. To maintain their power and their livelihoods, capitalists have an interest in exploiting workers and keeping them divided. To secure their livelihoods and their freedom, workers in turn have an interest in joining together regardless of gender, race, or nationality and reclaiming the means of production under democratic control.

Foundational as it is to understanding the dynamics of our capitalist world, too many socialists confuse this theoretical model for a political strategy.

Although constructing a theoretical model which designates the class interests, compulsions, and constraints of the individuals and groups reproducing themselves under capitalism is analytically clarifying, it is not a substitute for a materialist examination of historically developing societies. That is to say, actual capitalist markets operate in conjunction with states of various kinds, organizing and exploiting human beings who understand themselves as more than sheer vectors of their class interest. Many a strategic problem could be clarified by rising, as Marx suggested, from the abstract to the concrete. It is also worth pointing out, however, that even on a high level of abstraction, capital accumulation requires the existence and reproduction of racism on a structural level.

Too many socialists confuse a theoretical model for a political strategy.

Class may be universal, but employment is not. Capitalist competition ensures the continual production of a surplus population of unemployed people, rendered redundant by the advance of labor-saving technologies or cast out during periods of cyclical economic contraction.[11] Because the system is designed to produce profit rather than fulfill needs, full employment doesn’t result from its normal operation. Indeed, full employment is incompatible with the private ownership of the means of production. “The reproduction of the capacity for work would be prevented if the labor market were a “cover-all” institution; it would consequently destroy itself,” as Claus Offe has pointed out.[12] That is to say, labor power (and the humans that own it) has to be physically maintained and reproduced by a system of work largely outside of the labor market contract.[13]

Capitalist societies thus face a dilemma: “they cannot possibly force the entire population into direct participation in the labor market, while at the same time they cannot make generally available the option of non-participation in the labor market (and thus dependence on means of subsistence external to it.”[14] To resolve this dilemma, capitalist societies have historically relied upon ascriptive categories (race, gender, nationality) to justify the relegation of entire segments of the dispossessed populations to a status of reserve for the labor market, subsisting outside of the formal employment relation in various informal economies. In this way, the expectation of participation in the labor market is enforced, while non-participation is only made available in severely restricted or criminalized ways.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

On the basis of the same racialization and ascriptive categories, the looming threat of replacement by this reserve army disciplines the most exploited, “essential” workers, installing systematic political obstacles to their collective action. So-called “essential” workplaces (typically health care, food service, and transportation, among others) share an unavoidable reliance on wage labor, as opposed to labor-saving technologies prevalent in other sectors (notably many white-collar sectors). As Howard Botwinick has explained, such “essential” sectors depend most heavily upon cheap labor, and maintain slim profit margins.[15] They therefore depend far more upon repression and the threat of replaceability than, say, a tech firm with a high dependence on technology and wider cushions of profit margins. Even before the threat of the unemployed reserve army is brought to bear as downward pressure on “essential” worker wages, the differential between these sectors in the labor market is highly racialized by design.[16]

“Racial capitalism” is just the name for capitalism that exists in the real world.

Even in the abstract, capitalism thus requires ascribed categories such as race, nationality, and gender to regulate the supply of labor. The concrete development of the United States social formation has historically featured race-creating systems of social control, particularly those of anti-Black racism, in a central role: from slavery,[17] to the post-Reconstruction reaction known as Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration.

Racism is ultimately generated and reproduced by the state as an essential condition of capitalist social and market relations.[18] It is not that capitalism and racism are separate and distinct systems; it is that racism is the essential interface that grafts an abstract capitalist system onto living, thinking humans and their societies. “Racial capitalism” is, therefore, just the name for capitalism that exists in the real world, i.e. the only kind.

In the United States, racism has been and remains the central political weapon of the ruling class, conducted through the repressive core of the state.[19] Any political struggle against capitalism in this country must grapple with this reality. Put simply, taking on and ultimately defeating the capitalist class will require a conscious class movement that can politically counter their key political project, racism.

Black Liberation as Independent Force

If racism is central to the capitalist state project in this country, the Black liberation struggle has shown us how to defeat it: by fighting racism on its own terms.

The repression of freedoms, human and civil rights, and meaningful human relationships among populations the world over has been a catalyst and driving force behind mass movements. Economic inequality has been a very important part of this generalized struggle, almost always deeply shaping the context in which they break out. But there is no sense in which economic equality can be said to encompass the highest aspiration of social movements. “The struggle against racism regularly intersects with struggles for economic equality,” as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written,

but racism does not only express itself over economic questions. Antiracist struggles also take place in response to the social crises Black communities experience, including struggles against racial profiling, police brutality, housing, health care, educational inequality, and mass incarceration and other aspects of the “criminal justice” system.[20]

Racism infiltrates all aspects of working-class social and political life, which is why the struggle against it is a life-affirming struggle in an expansive political sense. Racism has to be fought not only as peripheral to a class struggle happening elsewhere, but on its own terms, the terms of capitalist political power. That is what it means to fight racism as racism

As noted above, the oppression of Black people is rooted in a fusion of class position and political-social oppression that is so fundamental to the operation of the American capitalist social formation that even the “struggle for daily survival” of Black people “generates anti-systemic elements of protest and political solidarity.” As Mike Davis argued thirty years ago, it is “a central contradiction at the heart of the American bourgeois democratic system.”[21] Twentieth century descriptions of this dynamic[22] have been resoundingly confirmed in the new millennium.

A march for Troy Davis, 2011.

Black Lives Matter, just like the Black liberation struggles of the past and those to emerge, has proven to be an independent power that can shape (and has shaped) the entire political terrain and social life of this country. Beginning with the night of rage after Troy Davis was murdered in 2011 and exploding after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the sharpest edge of radicalism in the US over the last decade was consistently expressed through the militant BLM street protests, open rebellions in defiance of a neoliberal ruling class (including Black officials), and the marked socio-cultural shift that these engendered in their wake.

The ideological coherence and farsightedness of the Movement for Black Lives’ anti-capitalist, internationalist 2016 platform[23] was a significant landmark of the movement’s political growth and preparedness to assume general leadership. As historian Barbara Ransby has charted,

There is a direct link between the Black Lives Matter movement of 2012–16 uprisings and the protests of 2020, between Ferguson and Minneapolis, and between Mike Brown and George Floyd, both of them stand-ins for many others, including many women and trans victims of police, vigilante, and even intimate partner violence. The debates, local campaigns, organizational infrastructure, relationship building, and self-critiques that have occurred since Ferguson have prepared a new cadre of leaders for the biggest battle of their lives.[24]

Through all of this, the movement for Black lives has re-emerged as “an independent force that has its own timing, logic, and perspective based on the history of racism and oppression in this country.”[25] Recognizing the depth of the Black liberation struggle’s independent power necessitates recognizing that antiracist social rebellion has long been the proper path to the revolutionary transformation of American capitalism.

Class-Wide Politics

It should be noted that such a priority is far from common sense among socialists today. According to one prominent strategy mentioned above, so-called universal class demands (e.g. raising the minimum wage to $15) are the best way to build a broad, effective coalition because they can speak to the needs of workers across particular sectors, identities, and circumstances. The most-repeated arguments for this strategy are:

  1. It has a unique ability to build a majoritarian coalition, because it speaks to workers across particular sectors, identities, and circumstances.
  2. It helps highlight the central class contradiction of capitalist society and pushes on that central contradiction, as opposed to treating secondary effects or symptoms.
  3. The benefits, if won, would disproportionally impact and uplift workers of color and others who face particular oppressions anyway.[26]

These points are unobjectionable. Building broad coalitions, seriously challenging capitalist power and interests, and fulfilling the needs of the most oppressed in society are all indisputable aims for anyone calling themselves socialist.

Because it is a strategic intervention, of course, this strategy also comes with certain prescriptions for what not to do. The chief polemical target of the “universalistic” paradigm is a strategy that would have us prioritize the fight against particular oppressions on their own terms (e.g. reparations for slavery). These kinds of strategies are rejected as inadequate because:

  1. They are particularistic, only affecting a portion of the class and therefore unable to mobilize a majority of the class.[27]
  2. They shift the focus of struggle away from material demands and toward culture wars and bad ideas, which are presented as merely an effect of material circumstances.[28]
  3. They can alienate other workers who share a class interest but may not be culturally accustomed to the antiracist, genderqueer, or other norms of a left-wing “fringe.”[29]
  4. And finally, they not only fail to challenge the neoliberal ruling class project, they actively reinforce it by normalizing calls for “equality” within an accepted wider framework of capitalist exploitation.[30]

These arguments in the negative begin to reveal the limitations of this paradigm. The problem is not that the universalist strategy has the wrong aims, and should be oriented toward a different goal. Rather, it is that by failing to recognize the nature and role of racism in this country, this nominally universalist strategy undermines its own goals and our ability to build broad, active coalitions, challenge capitalist power, and meet the needs of the most oppressed. Its assumptions (whether explicit or unstated) are wrong:

  • In this framework all “particular” or sectional demands of “parts of” the working class are cast as narrowing from the start. Fidelity is maintained to an imagined potential universality in place of a living struggle with potential to universalize in the concrete.
  • These arguments assume that the working class is already constituted, ready to be addressed as a political subject. There is no recognition of the dynamic process through which antiracist struggles are crucial, especially in the US, for class formation in the first place (more on this below).
  • As discussed above, racism here is taken for granted to mean psychological bias of individuals or disparities in effects rooted in bygone systems of racial oppression that no longer shape contemporary capitalism.
  • In the worst cases, a teeming, widespread antiracist movement of millions is collapsed into the attempts by neoliberal state managers and corporate spokespeople to co-opt that very movement.[31] The fact that “identity” can be and often is cynically appropriated[32] by neoliberal shills is not a compelling reason for socialists to scrap struggles against oppression.

Not all of these arguments critical of prioritizing antiracist or anti-oppression struggles are necessary to the strategic approach being described here. The most compelling, though, rest on a special, perhaps singular connection between so-called universal demands and working-class politics.

Historically, many nominally “universal” programs like the New Deal or the Housing and Urban Development Act, have not in fact been universal. Despite the militant struggle required to win them and the significant reforms they involved, many of these programs have included provisions designed to exclude Black people via various explicit or implicit markers.[33] This remains a very live possibility today.

Medicare for All, for example, is a brilliant proposal that would significantly better the lives of all working people. A good way to strip it of meaning for millions of people in their daily lives, however, is to denigrate all particular, sectional issues through which it could be implemented. As Lillian Cicerchia incisively argued in the case of another “particular” demand, reproductive justice:

The Left can’t expect to “sneak” controversial provisions onto a more universal demand without developing a coherent defense of those provisions. It needs to pre-emptively inoculate the public against the Right’s anti-abortion attacks lest these attacks lead either to compromise on reproductive justice, or to the defeat of Medicare for All itself.[34]

Ending racist police brutality or winning reparations for slavery are not usually included in the catalogue of “universal demands” that unite the class. But victories for the Black liberation struggle against racism have either directly included or triggered wins for much wider sections of the exploited and oppressed. As the Black feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective argued, “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”[35] To begin from the particularities of working-class life is not an abdication of the universal, but the first real-world step in achieving it.

By seeing class struggle through this lens, we eschew what Aimé Césaire aptly called an “emaciated universalism” in favor of building a living universal class movement, “enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.”[36] It is not just a question of moral obligation or solidarity—though it is that too—it is most pressingly a question of strategy. For socialists, the formation of the working class into a political subject is central to that strategy.

Social Movements are how Classes Struggle

The political strategy that presumes the existence of an undifferentiated “class” as our starting point is the same strategy that insists upon reducing the sprawling political dreams and fears of real workers to a pure, singularly economic antagonism with the boss. In this conception, the working class becomes a passive background, united only in slumber. Instead of building a unity out of the circumstances in which workers find themselves, this conception holds up a model to the world and demands that workers conform. Such a method tends to produce poor strategy.

As outlined above, the labor market at the core of capitalist social relations depends and thrives upon exclusion. Because of this, workers come into the world not as a class, but disorganized, competing with one another, and forced into various hierarchies. Overcoming these divisions and obstacles is a process of political struggle against the capitalist state that depends upon them; a process which is constitutive of a class in the first place. In the beginning is not class, but class struggle.

The meaning of class struggle – perhaps surprisingly – is regularly taken for granted. Once the working class can become conscious of itself as a class, it is assumed, it can assert its interest, the universal human interest, against the capitalists. In reality, long before that imagined glorious day on which the entirety of the working class rises, as one, to overthrow the capitalist order, there are politicized minorities of the class in movement, contesting for ideological leadership of the rest of the class, even while pulling other strata with them.

By nature of their activity and ideological contestation, these “movements” contribute to the self-definition or formation of the working class. “We cannot understand the way capitalist societies work without constant awareness of class struggle as a general process that underlies and shapes everything,” Colin Barker has observed. “However,” he continues,

class struggle always appears in ‘mediated’ forms. Classes, as social wholes, do not directly appear as political entities with formed wills and purposes, acting as homogeneous subjects. Nor should we assume that they ever will. Rather, actual class struggles never involve all workers equally, even at the very peak of mass revolutionary battles, and it is exactly for this reason that such struggles always pose vital questions about strategy and tactics. Nor, indeed, do actual movements ever involve simply members of ‘one class’. Further, the issues that arise in social struggles are not, mostly, capable of being simply ‘reduced’ to ‘class issues’ without taking account of a whole series of additional mediations.[37]

Movements move: they are both active and convincing on a visceral level. Their omnipresent activity makes their politics unavoidable, surging through channels of everyday life, making clear the dividing lines between oppressors and oppressed, until even previously unconcerned or apolitical spectators feel drawn into the maelstrom, compelled to choose a side.

June 5, Defund the Police demonstration in Chicago. Photo by author.

Solidarity

If this moment has shown anything, it is that white working-class people can be won to antiracist political demands on their own merits. As a New York Times analysis found, “nearly 95 percent of [1,360] counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white.”[38] Contrary to popular left representations, white workers are not just robots who can only be misled into the antiracist movement by bread-and-butter demands. Solidarity is brewed in the cauldron of social movements, and movements against racism are particularly suited for this process.

The dehumanization inherent in racism and policing[39] has become palpable to millions of people this summer. It is a violent dehumanization that catches wide swathes of the population in its net: Police also criminalize and kill poor and working-class white people, and prisons are the new poor houses across all racial categories. This attack on the entire class, and the legitimacy of the state carrying it out, is made coherent, tolerable, or even acceptable through the logic and practices of racism.

White workers are not just robots who can only be misled into the antiracist movement by bread-and-butter demands.

Social movements against racism cannot rest on a solidarity consisting of a cost-benefit calculation in the abstract. Instead, antiracist movements tap into this deeper level of revulsion at dehumanization, they grow from and counteract the deeply personal, yet shared experiences among the dispossessed: invasive attacks against personal and bodily autonomy, affronts to dignity, blatant subversions of a commonly held moral sense of right and wrong, and degrading contempt for the aspirations of ordinary people. In short, dehumanization. In a culture where racism defines what is valued as human life and what is not, to take action against racism is to affirm a deeper level of shared life, worth, and interest.

In this way, the social movement functions as a second work of grace, socializing and re-socializing generations of workers. Through participation, they come to feel what is acceptable, who is to blame, what to expect and who to trust. There may be very little critical reflection on these questions while they are happening, but in the midst of struggle is when the deepest political commitments are instilled for life. This is the kind of solidarity needed by a working class contending for political power.

Challenging capitalist power is inseparable from challenging its incarnation in racism. Our side is not building, and cannot build power independently of how people make sense of the world or these narratives. We cannot build up an abstract power and only then combat their racist project; we combat their racist project in order to build up power on our side.

Class-Struggle Antiracism

The power of workers to collectively withdraw their labor is the ultimate weapon our class has in this system dependent upon exploiting that labor. Social movements from the Arab Spring to the Pink Tide to Occupy Wall Street achieved their peak power when they incorporated the weapon of workers’ political strikes that halted the production and distribution of crucial goods and services. For socialists, organizing workplaces is not an expendable extra, it is central to building working-class power. The kind of practical knowledge and mutual trust that any strike requires in order to be carried out successfully can only be built up over longer periods of common organizing.

If workplace organizing is not preparation for social explosions, we’re limiting ourselves to rebuilding a labor movement within a more humane capitalism.

But as indispensable a tool as it is, workplace organization is not an end in itself. Such organizing assembles the tools, relationships, and infrastructure for the moment of political crises—crises which capitalism generates on a recurring basis. If we do not see our workplace organizing as preparation for these social explosions when widescale transformation becomes possible, we are not really building a socialist movement, we’re limiting our horizons to the rebuilding of a labor movement within a more humane capitalism. The difference between that more economistic vision and a strategy preparing for social and political transformation manifests in organizing strategies today. 

While struggles over jobs and working conditions are a permanent and necessary feature of working-class life under capitalism, these do not in and of themselves necessarily pose questions of political power. It is certainly not out of the question that bread-and-butter trade union campaigns may eventually lead to confrontations with political powers,[40] but these confrontations tend to happen when the union campaign itself takes on larger social questions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union “bargaining for the public good” against racist police murders or reopening schools in a pandemic, or nurses collectively fighting for PPE and other political demands. More to the point, it has been through supporting and participating in wider social movements that unions like the CTU and the UTLA have taken on larger social questions of resource distribution, the same questions at stake in the political project of racism.[41]

CTU teachers on strike, 2019. Sarah-Ji / Love+Struggle Photos

The summer of 2020 saw the shutdown of ports on the West Coast of the United States, a proliferation of small-scale workplace actions against racist management, and what looks like the COVID-induced resurgence of a militant educators’ movement. Workers at Ford, which manufactures 62 percent of police vehicles, have begun demanding the company stop producing vehicles for cops.[42] These largely symbolic examples do not compare to the proliferation of wildcat strikes in a period of muscular class struggle, but they do represent the tissue knitting together the organizations of the class around political demands.

When issues of racism, and (with the prominence of the #Defund the Police demand) state power become subject to workplace discussions and actions, workers are laying a claim on the political and social direction of their society, and in some cases, demonstrating their structural power under capitalism to achieve these political aims.

Uniting against racism is what uniting on a class basis looks like.

The antiracist movement, like all social movements under capitalism, will run aground if it does not sooner or later incorporate the structural power of labor. If our strategic vision can rise to the level of society as a whole, however, we can recognize that racism is the linchpin of American capitalism, and the central political link in the chain of ruling class power. Accordingly, the struggle against racism is not a side issue for organized workers, it is a key political struggle to which we have to bring our organized class forces. Socialists are at their most useful not when steering struggles against racism into the workplaces, but when steering workplaces into supporting the explosive class struggles against racism.

Socialists should have a political horizon expansive enough to recognize that the antiracist struggle is not dropping unity on a class basis in favor of uniting on a race basis. Uniting against racism is what uniting on a class basis looks like.[43] That the antiracist movement confronts the question of capitalist state power directly and answers this question with “abolition” is what it means to have a perspective on actually winning the class war.

Abolition is Anti-Capitalism

Quite rapidly in the month of June, the summer rebellion cohered around a more specific demand: defund the police. This demand is a qualitative political step forward from liberal reform conceptions, identifying as it does the institution of police and policing as the irreducible problem in racist murders. But this movement cannot be reduced to that demand, which was always meant as top billing in the larger conceptual universe of abolition.[44]

#8toAbolition Demands. 8toabolition.com

A growing proportion of the movement is making the salient connections between police abolition and the work that prison abolitionists have been methodically carrying out for decades. These organizers and theorists have always been clear that police and prisons are part of a vast prison-industrial complex, and cannot be abolished without fundamental transformation of our collective way of life. For so many of these demonstrators filling the summer streets, abolition is, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.”[45]

These are the conditions of capitalist-induced social crises experienced most acutely and consistently by Black communities, Indigenous communities, and other communities of racialized people. They are the conditions of daily life: racial profiling, the community disinvestment behind food and service deserts, housing insecurity and inequality, the death gap in health care, educational inequality, and insults to dignity in the workplace. At bottom, these are social manifestations of capitalist social relations and class rule. Antiracist struggles against these conditions must inevitably confront these questions of property, state violence, and even imperialism in order to advance.

The abolitionist movement has shown the meaning of revolutionary politics in its concreteness and its expansiveness. “This generation of abolitionists,” Robin D. G. Kelley has noted, “have the most visionary conception of abolition in history.”[46] The outpouring onto the streets, the militancy of the demonstrations, and the sheer number and lasting nature of these protests can only be understood as a mass rejection of late-capitalist ways of life. They are not interested in tweaking, tinkering, or slightly improving blemishes on an otherwise tolerable state of affairs. Black Lives Matter has become the focal point of a vast array of all-pervasive, inarticulable outrages, which amount to a budding rejection of the capitalist order itself.

But abolition is not only the great refusal. Divesting from police is consistently paired with demands to invest in poor communities and public services. As part of a sustained movement over decades, abolitionists have by necessity had to envision new possibilities in place of an oppressive reality. As Kelley wrote in Freedom Dreams, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”[47]

For decades already, the unbound vision of abolitionism has been tied to creative practices that offer a positive hope of a life beyond policing and beyond capitalism.[48] This is true of the politically expansive, internationalist abolitionism of Critical Resistance,[49] just as it is true of the feminist, antiracist abolitionist network INCITE! and their analyses of the constraints of the hegemonic nonprofit models of organizing[50] within a larger movement countering state violence. Over this period, abolitionists have diligently put forward concrete models, practices, and experiments of living without police and without carceral “solutions.”[51]

Abolition, then, is not some far off speculation or ideal state of affairs. Abolition is a presence, as Gilmore emphasizes. These long-term projects, along with the explosive rebellions in the streets, are happening now, already upon us. They are the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

Photo by Tyler Merbler / Flickr

As a further positive program, Black radicals and progressives alike have called for reparations.[52] The sheer scale[53] of the plunder and systematic murder of Black people in this country demands a sweeping program of reparations. Racial oppression cannot be understood only as a historical holdover, because the mechanisms of the market and state political imperatives constantly generate new racist imperatives, structures, siloes, and incentives daily. But making this gaping historical wound whole is a starting point.

To calculate the scale of reparations adequate to the historical debt is to forcibly pry open one’s imagination.

And that is precisely the point. Reparations are the bare minimum to reach an imagined “level playing field” under capitalism. But the actual achievement of a minimum program that cherishes Black life would “require levels of change dangerously close to the threshold of socialist transformation.”[54] In other words, it would require abolition. Land repatriation and other reparations to Indigenous peoples are also a bare minimum even by legal standards and yet also throw into question the entire order of settler colonialism. To calculate the scale of reparations adequate to the historical debt is to forcibly pry open one’s imagination, to dream of an altogether different world. Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in the socialist movement.

Socialism, the fully democratic society we are fighting for, is a matter of freedom, autonomy, sociality, and creativity. People fight for a better world when those brief windows open through which it can be seen, when they allow themselves to dream and fight to defend those dreams. You cannot bread-and-butter your way to that kind of freedom. Much larger questions of the human condition are at stake.

Abolition is the Road to Socialism

We are living through a historical moment of compounded political crises, global pandemic, economic recession, and looming ecological collapse. Sparks are inevitable in these fields of tinder. The question is whether the resulting wildfires will be coordinated nationwide and cohered in a trusted, organized, working-class force to contend for political power.

For too long, the left has been content with powerlessness, delegating responsibility and authority to trade union staffers and hoping desperately for a savior in electoral campaigns large and small. A left contending for power and mass influence should look to those times in US history when a left-wing politics rocked mainstream public discourse, disrupted business as usual, and effectively coerced reforms from the capitalist state.

History has always leapt forward in the US when the Black liberation struggle surged: in the abolitionist movement against slavery, in the core of Black Communists and organizers driving much of the militancy of the 1930s rebellions, and in the Civil Rights Movement that catalyzed a proliferation of other social movements. These social explosions could never contain themselves to the white bread and unsalted butter of the bureaucratic imagination.

Once again, a mass social movement is arising in this country. In myriad forms, it calls for abolition. It will have periods of advance and retreat, but the arc of its lasting rebellion against the conditions of capitalist rule cannot be denied.

Socialists now have a chance to participate whole-heartedly in this struggle. Participation will involve a deep learning process of internalizing the vast body of theory by Black feminist organizers and writers. Building socialist infrastructure to support and expand abolitionist objectives will also mean building real relationships while remaining active and involved between the uprisings. It will mean long-term implantation in the workplaces of strategic sectors of the economy, in order to bring the power of the organized working class and the strike weapon to the recurring social uprisings against racism. And it will, of course, mean directly naming and challenging racism in all areas of political work and campaigns.

One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, we should have the perspicacity to recognize a fundamental fact about the American social formation: the antiracist struggle for abolition is the struggle for socialism in the United States. Socialism is just a term. Beyond the democratic ownership of the means of production, it means full ideological, creative, bodily, and material autonomy, and free development in collaboration with a community. That is what the present abolitionist struggles are striving toward, and by contributing to and amplifying the fight for abolition, we are realizing in practice the struggle for socialism.


[1] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/11/democratic-socialism-class-organizing-racism-sexism

[2] Since the first protests on May 26, the hot summer of 2020 has seen an average of 140 demonstrations per day for more than a month. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html

[3] For a useful discussion of the concept of “political project” that eschews conspiratorial implications, see Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph E. Lowndes, Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity.

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow p. 151

[5] See Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit.

[6] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow p. 103

[7] See Charlie Aleck, “Black and Indigenous Solidarity

[8] https://rampantmag.com/2020/02/23/who-runs-chicago

[9] See https://newpol.org/issue_post/are-you-a-settler

[10] Or as Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s famous definition goes, “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Golden Gulag. Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007) p. 28. I read the “state-sanctioned” here as the indispensable political foundation for the no less violent “extra-legal” forms of racism.

[11] “The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works.” Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I ch. 25

[12] Claus Offe, “The Political Economy of the Labour Market” in Disorganized Capitalism: Contemporary Transformations of Work and Politics. Ed. John Keane. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985. P. 26

[13] For a piercing analysis of the severe consequences this has historically generated for gender-based oppression in capitalist societies, see Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women.

[14] Offe, p. 37.

[15] See Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity Under Capitalist Competition, ch. 4 and especially Charlie Post, “Comments on Roediger’s Class, Race, and Marxism.”

[16] As Michael McCarthy very succinctly put it, “Capitalist differentiation in the labour market is racialized. Throughout this process, white workers tend to be concentrated in more efficient firms and capital-intensive industries whereas the opposite is true for people of colour. (…) Capitalism inherently produces unequal economic outcomes that do not always correspond to effort or skill level.” See Michael A. McCarthy, “Silent compulsions: capitalist markets and race,” in Studies in Political Economy (2016).

[17] See the landmark analysis by Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620-1877.

[18] That is, again, racism as a state and state-backed structure of political domination and violence, rather than the historically specific ideologies thereby produced. To understand e.g. “slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco” would be a reversal of material causality. See Barbara Jean Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the USA” in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life p. 117.

[19] Unsurprisingly, analyses and strategies that obscure or sidestep racism as a significant phenomenon in US society also tend to shy away from engagement with the class character of the state. See, for example, Adaner Usmani and John Clegg, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” an argument which also features a heavy and strange (for Marxists) reliance upon public opinion as an independent variable.

[20] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/black-lives-matter-slavery-discrimination-socialism/

[21] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, p. 321

[22] For example, W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America and Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement.

[23] https://blackoutcollective.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/V4BL-English-1.pdf

[24] https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/black-lives-white-left

[25] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, p. 205. Or as C. L. R. James put it, the struggle for Black liberation has a “vitality and validity of its own.” See C. L. R. James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US” (1948)

[26] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/12/bernie-sanders-racial-justice-presidential-campaign

[27] https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/bernie-sanders-democratic-primary-results-joe-biden

[28] https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/we-need-a-class-war-not-a-cultural-war

[29] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/mass-incarceration-prison-abolition-policing

[30] See https://nonsite.org/editorial/the-triumph-of-black-lives-matter-and-neoliberal-redemption and https://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence-2

[31] This is Adolph Reed’s hot take. https://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence

[32] https://theintercept.com/2018/08/26/beware-the-race-reductionist

[33] See Andrea Flynn, Susan R. Holmberg, Dorian T. Warren, and Felicia J. Wong, The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy, ch. 4 and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.

[34] Lillian Cicerchia, “What Medicare for All Means for Abortion Rights

[35] “The Combahee River Collective Statement” in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, ed. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, p. 23.

[36] Aimé Césaire, “Letter to Maurice Thorez,” 1956

[37] See the late Colin Barker’s groundbreaking, though neglected “Class struggle, movement, party” (2007), p. 14.

[38] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html

[39] “In the contemporary world, racism is the ordinary means through which dehumanization achieves ideological normality, while, at the same time, the practice of dehumanizing people produces racial categories. Old races die, through extermination or assimilation, and new races come into being. The process is not biological, however, but rather the outcome of fatal encounters that ground contemporary political culture. This culture, in turn, is based in the modern secular state’s dependence on classification, combined with militarism as a means through which classification maintains coherence.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag. Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007) p. 244-45.

[40] For example, the militant struggle for the eight-hour day.

[41] For an in-depth analysis of this dynamic on within an international context, see David McNally, “The Return of the Mass Strike: Teachers, Students, Feminists, and the New Wave of Popular Upheavals,” in Spectre 1:1 (Spring 2020).

[42] https://nypost.com/2020/07/10/ford-urged-to-stop-making-cop-cars-amid-george-floyd-protests

[43] As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it, “Winning ordinary whites to an antiracist program is a key component in building a genuine, unified mass movement capable of challenging capital. Unity cannot be achieved by suggesting that Black people should downplay the role of racism in our society so as not to alienate whites—while only focusing on the “more important” struggle against economic inequality.” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/black-lives-matter-slavery-discrimination-socialism/

[44] See www.8toabolition.com

[45] See the online discussion from April, 2020, “COVID-19, Decarceration, and Abolition,” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf3f5i9vJNM&list=PLcqXhvSDf0z11ryJT84qYfoVsosJ0Dq_l&index=4&t=0s. We can clearly add policing to the prisons noted here, not to mention the militarization and U.S. imperialism.

[46] https://theintercept.com/2020/06/27/robin-dg-kelley-intercepted

[47] Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams (2002) p. xii.

[48] Among many other resources, see especially chapter 6, “Abolitionist Alternatives” in Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003).

[49] See Angela Davis and Gina Dent, “Prison as a Border: A Conversation on Gender, Globalization, and Punishment” in Signs 26:4 (Summer 2001) pp. 1235-1241; The CR10 Publications Collective, Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex (2008) (available here), Introduction; and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence” in Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson (2017), ch. 14.

[50] See INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (2017) and the website of the national organization, https://incite-national.org.

[51] See the extensive Creative Interventions Toolkit, a product of years of experience and experimentation, here, and also a recent brief outline of some on-the-ground organizing work by Mary Hooks of SONG, here.

[52] See, most comprehensively, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

[53] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html

[54] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, p. 323

Sean Larson is a socialist in Chicago and a member of the Rampant editorial collective.