Assessing the 2020 Protest Wave

In May of this year, commentators on the left looked back on the mass protests that ignited in 2020, in the wake of a racist police killing, an economic crisis, and an unprecedented pandemic. However, the mountain of articles and social media posts offered mainly commiseration and elegies for the beautiful revolt, rather than insights as to why this sequence unfolded the way it did. The authors avoided the underlying class structure of these events, namely the struggle between factions of the petty-bourgeoisie and the imperialist ruling class.

In our analysis, we have identified four main conditions for the mass rebellion in the streets during the summer of 2020.

First, a month before the George Floyd protests, the liberal imperialist elements dominating the Democratic party defeated Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. With Sanders’s capitulation, the petty-bourgeois reformist trend lost another chance to gain political leadership of the Democrats. It was in this mood of helplessness that activists in the urban petty-bourgeois milieu turned out to protest the violence perpetrated by Trumpians and their comrades in the police force.

Second, many cities ended the COVID-19 lockdown toward the end of May. For the first time since the pandemic began, people were going outdoors in large numbers during the summer weather and a respite between surges of the virus.

Third, unemployment in the US in May 2020 was estimated at 20%. The economic crisis that began in March 2020 had disclosed the full extent of capitalism’s decay. The brunt of the crisis, as always, was laid on the backs of the working class: mass unemployment, wage reduction, and intolerably hazardous conditions for so-called essential workers. In such a dire juncture, the ruling class had no way to channel the reflexive anger of the working class and the other impacted social layers.

Fourth, the government failed to address the pandemic in a serious or competent way. Such a failure was structural. Even if the ignorant and ludicrous Trumpians, who downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, had been absent, the American federal system ensured that a uniform response to Covid would have been practically impossible to implement. Furthermore, the needs of capital were consistently prioritized over the interests of public health and any long-term strategy to contain and eradicate the virus.

It is clear in hindsight that the waves of social unrest in 2020 were fundamentally revolts under the leadership of the petty-bourgeoisie against the state bureaucracy. On the one hand, the radical urban petty-bourgeoisie were protesting the racist violence of the police and judiciary. On the other hand, the rural and suburban petty-bourgeoisie worked to counteract the former’s movement, including forming their own militias. The two camps collided openly in the streets, resulting in deaths. But on their common social basis, both sides were making their own appeal to the bourgeois state; to protect basic democratic rights (the progressive demand) and to fight against the liberal bureaucracy that mandated face masks and called for defunding of the police (the conservative rallying cries). The petty-bourgeoisie cannot mount its political struggles independently, so they turn to the ruling class in hopes of finding representation. Their class projects can only amount to negotiating new terms with the big bourgeoisie.

A flurry of articles reflecting on the George Floyd protests have been published by left collectives and the organs of social democracy and libertarian socialism, including Unity and Struggle and Endnotes. Looking over this material, you can find romantic paeans to the “proletariat” flexing its muscles by burning down a police precinct (strategically abandoned by the cops): inaccurate both in terms of the class forces at play and their relation to each other. If these pieces are not bogged down in first-person details—more like memoir than political summation or analysis—then they are self-absorbed lamentations. The high of the Great Uprising gives way to the harsh comedown and return to stifling social peace.

There was no realistic endpoint for the “defund” (or the radical alternative, “abolition”) movement other than absorption into the Biden campaign. Such is the inevitable result for all reform movements when a leading, independent, and revolutionary center – a center that would lead the struggle against racism and the bourgeoisie – is absent. That the flashpoint murder of George Floyd was ultimately the trigger for mass protests, rather than the economic agonies and deteriorating quality of life in imperialist society, is itself a symptom of this absence.

But how can we expect a sober analysis from the petty-bourgeois reformist circles when the past two years have confirmed the vacuity of their politics? Since 2020 nothing has improved for them. Both imperialist electoral parties collude to erode democratic rights. The political crisis has only worsened, as the Democrats face both electoral defeat and disaffection from their base. Meanwhile, President Biden works to continue Trump’s legacy, from building the wall (and letting Mexico pay for it) to solidifying the reactionary Abraham Accords in a visit to Israel. The reformists are not prepared to address heightening inter-imperialist competition after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They are busy being perturbed over why the “militant tactics” of the 2020 revolt failed to coalesce into the revolution by itself.

The way forward at our juncture lies not in popularizing tactics or other practical schemes for a bigger revolt next time, but in attaining proper awareness of our real location in the correlation of class forces. Only on such a basis can new initiatives, new student organizations at the regional and national level, and new structures for passionate and revolutionary youth take shape. Such work would be committed to political maturity and independence for the working class from the beginning, against reformism that merely renegotiates their social contract with the ruling class, and against identitarianism that constrains the current movement to its weak and divided state. Organizations that agree with this vision may hold joint meetings, exchange documents, visit each other’s campuses, and mount conferences further down the line. Such is the necessary future work for a new movement, a movement interested in making the Left a serious presence in this country once again and disinterested in telling stories to itself.