Welcome to The Stacks
Thank you for subscribing to The Stacks, a monthly newsletter produced by the DSA Political Education Committee. The work of education can be daunting, and the reading list can be overwhelming — so we’re here to serve as your guide through the voluminous back catalog of leftist literature and theory. We think the classics of the socialist intellectual tradition can be used to illuminate the issues of the day, and vice versa, as today’s headlines often serve to illustrate the continuing relevance of arguments the writers and scholars of the Left have grappled with before. We’ll also be connecting you to educational resources produced not just by the national Political Education team, but by all the other corners of DSA that are developing engaging, thought-provoking material — resources that can be used in your chapters, shared on Twitter (if you must), or that at least make for entertaining and informative socialist bathroom reading.
The Extremely Offline
It’s hard to take a break from the 24/7 news cycle to reflect on the deeper lessons of today’s big political events. In this section, we connect you to the commentary of socialists — past and present alike — drawing out the more enduring ideas beneath the most-tweeted topics of the month.
A strike teaches workers to understand what the strength of the employers and what the strength of the workers consists in; it teaches them not to think of their own employer alone and not of their own immediate workmates alone but of all the employers, the whole class of capitalists and the whole class of workers.
— V.I. Lenin, On Strikes
Last month West Virginia teachers kicked off a strike wave that we’re still seeing develop. Teachers, parents, and students across the country are demanding better healthcare, fairer pay, and improved working and learning conditions. Bucking their more cautious union leadership, which was divided across three bickering unions, members went on a wildcat strike (that’s when a strike is not approved by the union leaders) and demanded more. And they won!
By striking, West Virginia teachers were using one of the most powerful weapons in the working class’s arsenal. Countless socialists, from Lenin’s time to today, have dedicated entire pamphlets and books to it. One of them is Joe Burns, whose 2011 book Reviving the Strike argued for the tactic’s return to the modern labor movement. While the whole book is great, showing parallels between strikes of the past to the strike wave we are seeing today, we want to focus on the section titled “Militancy and Union Growth” in Chapter 5. Burns discusses how solidarity and class consciousness develop through the act of labor struggle itself:
“Solidarity develops as part of a process. For anyone who has gone through a strike, this phenomenon is not hard to explain. In the process of striking, the workforce develops a group consciousness. The most militant workers pull along their hesitant coworkers. This prompts people to do things they might not do as individuals. Ultimately, this is how large social movements are built.”
For a gripping narrative portrayal of this process, everyone should watch the incredible documentary Harlan County, USA about the 1973 Brookside Strike against Eastover Coal Company in Harlan County, Kentucky. It was Appalachian mineworkers’ strikes like the one portrayed in Harlan County, USA that provided West Virginia teachers with a cultural context for their strike. Teachers even donned red bandanas in homage to their state’s early-twentieth-century Mine Wars. This goes to show that when one group of workers strikes, they do more than just battle their specific employer. They set an example for other workers that can resound across industries and generations. These examples are crucial in an environment where bosses and austerity-committed politicians collaborate to lower expectations and dampen militancy.
As socialists, we are hugely inspired by this outburst of rank-and-file radicalism, recently reborn in West Virginia and now spreading from Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona and all across the country. These strikes have done more than just demand raises and defend pensions; they’ve brought the whole model of defunded public services and minuscule taxes on the rich into question. As Burns reminds us, “this is how large social movements are built.” And it’s the working class that will build them.
The Political Education Committee is developing a guide on how to build a Socialist Night School in your chapter. Look out for it on DSA’s Resources page and in future editions of this newsletter. As we roll out the guide, we’ll also be matching chapters to mentors who can help them build political education programs step by step.
Our national committees are constantly producing useful materials for chapters. This Wednesday, April 25, our National Electoral Committee will be hosting a webinar on “Using Data in Your Electoral Campaigns.” Clink the link to RSVP and receive a Zoom link. Medicare for All has shared a comprehensive Organizing Guide for free on their website and will be hosting a webinar on the intersections of feminism and health-care organizing on Wednesday, May 2. And just in case the Democratic Left’s rose-covered new print issue wasn’t enough for you, the Democratic Left blog has juicy new articles on censorship, the upcoming Janus decision, and The Death of Stalin (the movie, not the historical event that caused many a sectarian split).
On a more serious — and urgent — note, the new DSA Anti-War Think Tank is providing illuminating material and useful discussion questions for members grappling with the United States’ brutal imperial role overseas.
The Ground Game
Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter, in the interest of inspiring new ideas, collaboration, or just jealousy. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
This month’s featured project isn’t just the work of one chapter, but a whole region. It’s called the Midwest Socialist, and believe it or not, it’s a print publication.
Midwest Socialist grew out of Chicago DSA’s long-standing New Ground newsletter. When we set out last fall to figure out the purpose of a socialist print publication in an era when a lot of political discourse has moved online, we decided to focus on its purpose for tabling and new-member outreach. The goal was to create something accessible to the Sanders voter, the rank-and-file union member, or the DSA paper member who needs a push toward activism. We handed out copies at this month’s Labor Notes conference and at various Chicago DSA events over the past few months, and in the near term we hope to make paper copies available both to DSA-allied groups in Chicago and other chapters in the region.
The first issue covered protests for police accountability in St. Louis and a speech by Chicago alderman and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. We’ve also published explanations of the basics of socialism, like Chicago DSA member Ramsin Canon’s series of primers on topics like class. Our next issue is set to feature a report back from the Socialist Feminist Convergence of Iowa, a recap of Chicago DSA’s successful push for a rent-control ballot referendum, and more.
We still have a lot of work to do reaching out to chapters across the region, but we have recent or forthcoming articles from DSA members in Chicago, St. Louis, Dubuque, and Milwaukee with more on the way. Whether or not you’re in the Midwest, feel free to sign up for quarterly updates — including PDFs of the most recent issues — here.
— Charles Austin, Chicago DSA
Class Enemy of the Month:
or, the Martin Shkreli Award
We’ve talked a lot about labor, but now let’s shine a spotlight on the people who really make this country run — for their own benefit. These are the men and women who game the system in such fantastically depraved ways they deserve not just prestige and riches but an official award — like the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, but for outstanding contributions to the world of class war, rather than the entertainment business.
And who better for the inaugural honor than the award’s namesake — the man, the myth, the legend, Martin Shkreli himself. The guy who raised the price of a vital AIDS medication from $13 to $750 per pill, just because he could. Who bought the master recording of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album, and kept it for himself, just because he could. Who defrauded his investors of many millions of dollars, just because he could — until he couldn’t, because it turns out there are some things that are still sacred in America, and the investments of the wealthy just happen to be one of them.
He was convicted in August 2017 of securities fraud for what amounts to a Ponzi scheme, scamming other rich people out of a small fraction of their riches. He’s currently serving a seven-year sentence in a cushy minimum-security prison, and plans to appeal.
And there’s the rub: while Shkreli is certainly the punchable face of the for-profit medical-industrial complex run wild, he’s also an indirect illustration of the priorities of our justice system. Holding vulnerable populations ransom through price-gouging and illness profiteering is absolutely, perfectly legal. In fact, it’s standard practice.
Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals’ business model is that of a scavenger, buying medicines as they fall out of patent just to jack up the prices before they can be released in an affordable generic form. But Mylan, the owners of the EpiPen patent, are no less guilty of profiteering: they raised prices from $94 to $609 for two of their single-use syringes, and ran an ad campaign to promote “allergy awareness,” extracting hundreds of dollars in profit from a life-saving product that’s easily (but not legally!) replaceable with a generic equivalent.
All of this is not just technically legal, it’s practically required by the logic of for-profit healthcare. What Shkreli’s eventual conviction proves is that it’s only when you step on the toes of the one per cent — or the one-tenth of one per cent — that there’s any hope of a measure of justice, however hollow.
So what can we do about it? First of all, we pass Medicare for All, a comprehensive, universal healthcare program which will reduce costs and profiteering by imposing strict price controls on pharmaceutical companies. We demand treatment that’s free at the point of service for everyone, non-citizens included, so that it’s the government, not individuals, negotiating with the Turings and Mylans of the world. And finally, we will pool our funds, drawing on DSA’s member dues, to buy the Wu-Tang album and distribute it online, for free, for the betterment of all of society.*
Until then, please join us in congratulating the first Class Enemy of the Month, Martin Shkreli. Martin, we’ll present you with your plaque in approximately seven years.
*May not be an official plank of the DSA Medicare for All platform.