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Mourn and Organize!

We all love Joe Hill, but his famous piece of advice — “Don’t mourn, organize!” — is only half right. Given the state of the world today, with Bernie Sanders out of the presidential race and hundreds of thousands dead from the coronavirus, we ought to be doing both.

A campaign rally with Bernie Sanders on the Central Mall of the Utah State Fair Park on March 2, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Ever since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary last week, his supporters have been exhorted constantly, “Don’t mourn, organize!” We heard this a lot, too, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, as well as in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat. The expression comes from a telegram from labor hero Joe Hill, close to the time of his death, to International Workers of the World (IWW) leader Big Bill Haywood. Jacobin reprinted it on the one hundredth anniversary of Hill’s death (along with another great letter on how the American labor movement needed to follow the Swedish example and organize women):

Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning — organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.

It’s a splendid telegram, but the phrase has become overused and often feels gratingly insensitive and crude, the political equivalent of motivational speaking. Who could disagree with the sentiment that we have to keep fighting, or with the exhortation that we must do so? But nonetheless, the phrase can, in a time of sadness, make you want to smack someone. It is emotionally tone-deaf, perhaps a bit of silly machismo. We do need to mourn, and we also need to organize.

Many of us are in mourning right now. Many are grieving the deaths of family members, comrades, and close friends from coronavirus. We’re also mourning the deaths of thousands of people we don’t know who deserve to be alive still — ten thousand in New York City alone — many of whom would still be alive if elected officials, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Donald Trump, had acted more quickly. Many are also grieving our own hopes and aspirations, as we face a fearsome recession.

And yes, we are grieving that Bernie Sanders is not going to be president of the United States — as well as the short-term hopes and possibilities his campaign embodied. We’re also mourning the losses to the way we build our socialist movement, which we hope are temporary but are undeniably huge setbacks: we can’t canvass, rally, hold house parties, or organize people face-to-face. And what about all those things that make life so exquisitely worth saving? Taking our kids to baseball games, meeting in bars, hugging our friends, walking past playgrounds full of noisy schoolchildren. Will people have love affairs again? How about dinner?

We are also bracing ourselves for more pain. We’re grieving in advance, for the people we fear will die of the virus, for the further economic suffering to come, and for the possible reelection of Donald Trump. Sometimes this speculative grief feels just as paralyzing as our sadness over things that have already happened.

Our mourning is real and needs to happen. Freud distinguished “mourning” from “melancholia.” Although they may look the same, he argued, mourning is not pathological: it’s natural, necessary, and we must make room for it. In fact, grief is part of political struggle. Anarchist Cindy Milstein, editor of the 2017 collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, argues that when our grief has structural causes, it can be a political force. Milstein said in an interview with Shadowproof:

Sharing our pain collectively, I think, will strengthen our social relationships.

And right now, when we’re told to keep it inside and not share it with others, I think the burying of that, the hiding of that . . . actually allows for these structures that are killing most of us or destroying us to further be hidden. It also means that we feel divided from each other, as if we are the only ones experiencing this.

But while the admonition not to mourn is wrongheaded, the exhortation to “organize” is right on. Many people are so discouraged by Bernie’s defeat that they may disengage from politics altogether if we don’t organize them. We cannot take time to check out of political struggle.

Luckily, there is plenty to do. Workers are walking off the job in protest of bosses’ indifference to their lives and safety under COVID-19, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has signed up a record number of members since Bernie dropped out of the primary, and New Yorkers are organizing a rent strike.

We all love Joe Hill, and he meant well in his telegrammed plea to Big Bill Haywood. But his advice is only half right.