Synthesizing Visions of Power & Autonomy: Party & Organization for DSA & the U.S. Left
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
by Nick S
As the U.S. left rebuilds after decades of prophetic critique—and terminal marginality and sectarianism—we confront a question of organizational structure in an environment unlike any before. The growing atomism of society in developed countries; the emerging crises of neoliberalism; institutional illegitimacy; and the displacement of traditional workplace and social movement institutions, from unions to newspapers to social clubs, to some degree by emergent and ad-hoc organizations in addition to social media, continue to undermine our attempts to regenerate past formations. This is evident whenever left or “progressive” organizations have attempted to replicate the templates that both industrial capitalism and its leftist antagonists adopted, with their tiers of hierarchy and centralization. The trajectories of now-defunct or moribund vanguard organizations similarly include a legacy of abuse and self-serving leadership. While they occasionally have been effective at achieving limited electoral and substantive goals, the nonprofit and Alinskyite program of board-driven and increasingly virtual, fundraising-dependent, single-issue “activism” has alienated members and undermined the strategic coherence of the broader left. The limited scope and instrumental focus of purely electoral organizing, similarly, has resulted in some victories while thus far failing to reconstruct or develop sustainable institutional models.
The evidence in the developed world and the Americas, however, suggests that there are effective organizational models we can adopt in the DSA to avoid the failures of the past and the present. We should distinguish the unresolved question of whether or not to operate within a party framework—whether the duopoly or an existing third-party or micro-party—from the question of how to develop the existing structure of DSA, which blends nonprofit and membership forms, and the distinct trajectory of a complex of emerging left formations. An investigation of political parties and organizations in the U.S. shows that effective formations incorporate social movement organizing, regional and intermediate structure (present even in more authoritarian party models), neighborhood and affinity group systems now being developed through mutual aid campaigns during the Covid-19 crisis, recallable representatives, protections for minority caucuses, and direct membership decision-making, in person and virtually. They also require building independent institutions of dual power rather than exclusively focusing on participation in corrupted political and electoral processes.
If we adopt these rhizomatic institutions, ones based on the multiplicity and organic development of natural structures, we might move beyond a dichotomy of decentralization and centralization toward resilient and robust organizations that can debate and synthesize different ideological positions, adjust to new challenges, and are not reliant on a small group of fallible leaders. By taking those steps, those of us in DSA and other institutions of the emerging left can move away from the graveyards of social movements and pre-party formations alike.
What Can We Learn from the Part(ies)?
While there are several models for a rebuilt organization that include vanguardist parties, traditional U.S. political parties, the nonprofit and organizing institutions connected to parties, and the confederal institutions of the emerging U.S. left, only the latter offers a viable pattern for developing a sustained and powerful left.
The pattern for vanguardist Leninist, Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist, or Maoist organizations in the U.S., for instance, is exemplified by the limited membership and influence of organizations like the former International Socialist Organization (ISO), committed to a Trotskyist project of communist transformation that was rooted in a tradition of building strong but brittle cadres responsive to a leadership that controls the ideology and direction of the organizations. Along with organizations such as Socialist Alternative, ISO represents what appears to be a response by the left to growing industrialization and proletarianization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mimicking the forms and leadership structures of large-scale businesses and parties as well as the revolutionary organizations that responded to intense state repression. Despite a strong presence in the academy and in social movements, the cadre organization failed to move beyond academic and protest spaces they could control. The centralization of authority led to a political perspective tied to a single ideological strand—and helped their leadership to allegedly cover up long-standing sexual abuse and harassment. It was the latter issue that led to a decision—by high-ranking leadership—to dissolve the ISO in 2019. Haymarket Books, a research institution, and a yearly Socialism Conference have survived the collapse while former ISO members have gravitated toward different tendencies of DSA—making it essential that we apprehend the lessons of that failed movement.
Another debilitating tendency or implicit orientation in left-wing and “progressive” political organizations is the adoption of the strategies and structures of nonprofits within institutions engaged in more complex political and electoral projects. Though rarely theorized, the organizational strategies and structures of nonprofits and electoral organizations present salutary lessons about how the status quo prevents the generation of new, working-class power. The Working Families Party (WFP) is an example of the limitations of both tendencies. The WFP is a social-democratic party originally formed with union support and money that has adopted numerous political iterations and has state sections that are more democratic than others—some closely aligned with the DSA. But it has largely concerned itself with the machinations of achieving state power in a system in which even obtaining ballot status for parties is a time-consuming and costly task. It has done so through fusion voting and offering polling and outreach services to liberal candidates. In its historic heartland of New York State, it is a fusion party able to nominate candidates who also run as Democrats and has employed that power at times to support incumbents against progressive challengers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in 2018.
Despite its cautious approach, the moderate and accommodationist unions that once supported the WFP have acquiesced to the threats of Gov. Andrew Cuomo--who now threatens the party’s fusion ballot line--and ceased their alliance after the WFP backed challenger Cynthia Nixon in the 2018 gubernatorial race. The party’s transformation into an institution dominated by its central committee and concerned with its financial survival and relationships within a nonprofit ecosystem were made evident in its decision to back Elizabeth Warren for President in the 2020 Democratic Primary. WFP refused to release membership vote totals or an assessment of party leaders’ preferences in a complicated multi-constituency determination that included community nonprofit and political nonprofit (i.e. electorally focused) groups. There are allegations that think tanks aligned with Warren, such as Demos, gave money to the party before the vote. The fractiousness between the WFP and leftists backing Bernie Sanders for President—and the collapse of Warren’s campaign after launching allegations against Bernie Sanders—illustrates the risks of an approach based on alliances with high-level, non-elected leadership in organizations with corporate-style boards and a leading role for staff who are subject to hierarchical employment structures. When those leaders take unpopular or strategically inept actions, it is difficult if not impossible for members to vote out or otherwise remove them.
Though very different in form and power, the U.S. Green Party and Democratic Party both demonstrate the fundamental limitations of traditional electoral strategies and of embracing the formal structures of democracy, such as elections and party structures, without providing for debate, mass participation, or membership control. After its birth in a growing ecological movement, the Green Party merged electoral campaigns with issue-based campaigning. The party’s turn toward high-profile electoral races and away from building robust party structures and organization outside of the electoral realm is associated both with greater visibility for its member-developed, increasingly ecosocialist platform but also with a series of electoral losses and difficulties sustaining power both with liberals who unfairly blame the party for the defeats of Democratic Party candidates and a broader socialist base. The party has remained strong where it has continued organizing on the ground and for electoral politics in enclaves like the working-class refinery town of Richmond, California. Leading GPUSA Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, it is important to note, cites the distinct and member-driven, dues-funded strategy of the historic Socialist Party of America and challenges the leading tendency on the left to employ the Democratic Party ballot line and hierarchical, non-membership models for building an insurgent, working-class force.
By contrast, the Democratic Party has developed structures that, while vulnerable to challengers, also implicate the candidates and institutions that participate in their processes. It has successfully impeded leftist candidates and membership demands despite a lack of formal structures or membership requirements, all of which have encouraged socialists to run on the party’s ballot line or develop internal caucuses in preparation for the development of an independent, working-class party. Those restrictions, which reformers fought for after Reconstruction to combat corruption and, sometimes, to combat racist disenfranchisement, arguably are only effective by virtue of the party’s control of the ballot mechanism in the two-party parastatal party formation unique to the U.S. The party’s elections, in other words, are run by the state for the benefit of two institutional parties, while other parties face steep obstacles such as single-member districts, a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, requirements for parties to attract significant vote shares, and to present extensive numbers of signatures on nominating petitions. There are means by which the party still controls the behavior of legislators and institutions such as fundraising, the power of allied media, corporations, and nonprofits, voter mobilization data and support, and technology. As the party’s connections with urban machines and labor unions that could deliver benefits for their members have diminished, it increasingly resembles a shell manipulated by corporate consultants and insiders. The party arguably now functions as an operational wing of more capital-intensive or cultural industries that do not oppose formal civil rights protections as opposed to the overtly anti-democratic and hierarchical or fascist aspects of a Republican Party linked to extractive industries, finance, and small business owners.
To the extent that previous social struggles from the New Left, Farmer-Labor movements of the Upper Midwest, and reform movements of the West have built democratic internal structures and party membership organizations in the states, they are unable to impose discipline on party officials or advocate for the program of the party. The party at all levels is dependent on funding by corporate donors opposed to even the mild social democracy or reformist regulation proposed by Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In some areas, it has used voter restrictions, closed polling stations, and changed rules in primary contests. State and local party machines in areas like the borough of Queens in New York City are a source of lucrative patronage for insiders but engage in little or no debate over party positions or organizing. There are allegations that the party in NYC tampered with registrations and vote-counting in 2016 and in Los Angeles engaged in the same misconduct in 2016 and 2020. In locations like Brooklyn, NY, party committees meet irregularly at times and locations that are difficult for working people. They rely on proxy voting, sometimes by individuals signed up without their knowledge, and present candidates and meeting agendas that are difficult to challenge.
Though the DSA has secured victories on the Democratic Party ballot line, there are corresponding challenges to adopting the organizational forms of the party or its affiliated nonprofits. Depending on internal leadership or contested Democratic Party elections to build a base, likewise, is risky for left-wing organizations precisely because electoral campaigns and representative governance in the U.S. system demand immediate mobilization and reward organizations and donors that engage in transactional influence. There are limited mechanisms by which popular organizations can ensure the accountability of leadership and representatives.
It is especially concerning for those reasons that even as leftists critique the formations of the Democratic Party and affiliated membership organizations like the Sierra Club and the American Federation of Teachers, they replicate similar structures that churn member donations and employ permanent staffers largely to mobilize them while failing to develop either disciplined membership formations or members’ political autonomy. We must acknowledge the limitations of centralized unions controlled by dominant leadership factions, whose concerns are often those of a well-paid, permanent professional class interested in preserving their own power rather than rank-and-file or even shop-floor leadership. These institutions operate within the constraints of traditional party politics and therefore often decline to embrace transformative or revolutionary changes or even respond to the wishes of their members. They adopt campaigns and strategic objectives that typically turn on achieving instrumental, short-term objectives or contractual demands. The nonprofits, in particular, often are constrained by the interests of donors although their distance from the material concerns that are central to transactional or business labor organizations sometimes leads them to embrace more left-wing if not revolutionary campaigns such as Bernie Sanders’ Presidential efforts. While it may be necessary to work in alliances with these groups, their strategies and organizational forms should not be central to our work.
While electoral campaigns that embrace popular movements and distributed organizing methods, such as Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 races for president, can educate the public, develop political programs, shift the balance of forces, and even win, we should nevertheless also be cautious about the lessons learned from organizational centralization and the expedient alliances and actions necessary during campaigns. There are debates, in fact, about whether the campaign took full advantage of autonomous networks—to the extent permitted by electoral law and its limitations on coordination with outside groups—rather than merely relying on distributed organizing to expand beyond the capacity of paid field staff to operate canvasses, phone banks, and texts. As DSA-NYC’s Emerge Caucus argues, the Sanders 2020 campaign allowed the left to contest high-level politics but demonstrated that the left needs to build independent working-class institutions to challenge the establishment’s dominance of the media and party structures.
When we take a step back from the specific entanglements of U.S. politics, it becomes clear that similar principles apply to parties and organizations throughout the world. Where they have developed internal democracy, robust institutions for members, and moved away from reliance on charismatic leadership, they have thrived. For instance, we can contrast France Insoumise (FI) and Podemos as two organizations that are informed by ideas of left populism. But while the Spanish political formation Podemos has created social clubs and decision-making structures on the subnational level and affiliates such as Barcelona en Comú have transformed assemblies into municipal power, FI has only gestured toward a fundamental transformative vision of politics, instead primarily relying on the personal appeal and decisiveness of leader Jean-Luc Melenchon instead of the organizing of its members.
The 2019 general election loss by the U.K. Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn after a long period in which the left was in control of the party machinery demonstrates the need to rebuild what made social democracy possible in the first place: participatory membership structures that could decide on policy and strategy, independent media organizations, and independent organizations that could build the social and party base. The alternative is a top-down, electoral vision of socialism that runs into the opposition of the mass corporate media, ideologically opposed staff, and the alienation of its mass base. In Germany, meanwhile, the Left Party (“Die Linke”) maintains a big-tent structure that allows multiple tendencies to vie for power. The electoral results and importance of the parties in the ideological framework in their respective countries’ discourse, with Podemos winning while FI and UK Labour have been bleeding support, are suggestive even if there are other complicating factors such as the role of the media and the ongoing and possibly terminal economic and social crisis of the European Union.
Another set of structural templates has become visible in local chapters within DSA and in allied socialist and anarchist groups like the confederation Symbiosis, which includes Cooperation Jackson, LSC, Black Socialists of America, and other organizations developing assemblies, worker cooperatives, mutual aid projects, and workplace organizing projects. There are efforts to develop mutual aid working groups on the national, chapter, neighborhood, and building level, tenant unions, and dual power responses to the economic, safety, and social crises of Covid-19 and late capitalism. In repeated disasters that are connected to climate change, communities have begun organizing mutual aid and disaster relief efforts that presage a turn toward forms of confederal networks or disaster communism. These efforts can potentially build a viable set of counter-institutions that demonstrate dual power and can oppose the tactics of reactionaries, from coups to capital strikes. They can point toward the coherent structure of democratic confederalism and participatory democracy introduced in Northern Syria during the decade-long civil war. We can also rethink, along the lines of communist comrades, whether to embrace and expand the notion of the party to include a multiplicity of organizing institutions under the control of their members.
A global revolutionary wave that has moved throughout countries peripheral to the world economy like Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, but also Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Canada suggests lessons that transcend but are dependent on formal structure at moments of economic and social rupture. In those places, sustained political organization involving indigenous, environmental, anarchist, left party, union, and ad-hoc groups, popular assemblies, autonomous power and farming institutions, and direct action have altered the balance of social forces and directly challenged long-standing political realities. In Chile, most notably, a wave of protests against austerity and the constitutional and economic legacy of the Dictator Augusto Pinochet continues to move forward and build on the power of popular assemblies even during a period of lockdown in response to the growth of the Covid-19 virus. These developments point toward ways in which the left needs to reconceptualize party and political formation.
The Impasse in DSA:
What do these varying institutions have to teach the DSA and other organizations with which the LSC is associated? There is an argument that the parties and traditional or single-issue nonprofits are too different from what is a quasi-party political organization, that the U.S. situation is sui generis, or that DSA’s internal capacity and strategic flexibility to conduct electoral and issue-based campaigns is much greater despite our smaller size.
The organization, to be clear, blends nonprofit forms that include an elected leadership and permanent staff with the practice of a true membership organization; it is designated under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code as an organization able to endorse candidates and has a separate training fund without that capability and a separate electoral Political Action Committee. It permits a considerable degree of autonomy for local chapters for purposes of expanding capacity and defending against a historical pattern of entryism by which predecessor organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society were invaded or destroyed by centralized organizations. DSA Bylaws, Art. I, Sec. 3; Art. III, Sec. 4; Art. V, Sec. 4 (avail. at. https://www.dsausa.org/about-us/constitution/.)
But the DSA has struggled as it has gained an enthusiastic but inexperienced new membership that in another country would be described as a youth wing or youth movement of a party. Proposals from members of LSC and Build for organizational transformation that included the Democratize Everything platform, the regional and chapter power vision in the Assembly of Locals, and reforms that would allow for the recall of NPC members and membership voting on proposals were rejected by delegates to a 2019 national convention which was dominated by procedural tactics and fighting rather than synthesis and consensus. An NPC study commission has been tasked with the project of developing regional reform policies, but the organization has failed to set up regional and state-wide structures in the face of opposition from leaders in NYC and at the national level.
In the absence of those reforms, the organization has struggled to build capacity or expertise in key issue-based and electoral campaigns and has struggled to retain and develop membership. On the national and local level, there are disputes over the interrelationship of staff with members’ elected representatives on the National Political Committee. There are also arguments about how closed committees and working groups have devolved into leadership or factional circles that hold infrequent meetings, do not permit members to make decisions, are unsuccessful in developing campaigns and infrastructure, and are immune to influence by the membership. Chapters such as Philadelphia have suffered repeated splits over issues of internal democracy, including fair voting processes, the use of internal discussion forums, development of member projects, and responses to discrimination, and failed to achieve even the limited electoral goals they have set out. By contrast, there are board-type representative structures in NYC-DSA rather than membership assemblies, resulting in a lack of transparency and difficulty members face in discussing chapter priority and structural proposals. There are allegations that abusive members have been protected by both staff and leadership at every level which not only risks harm to individual members but contributes to an environment that weakens the organization—leaving it potentially vulnerable to infiltration by bad actors who thrive in an environment of impunity and leading to the resignation of some of the most committed members.
The organization at the national level, arguably, has failed to build on the left’s momentum following movements beginning with Occupy Wall Street and failed to build its power not just by inadequate outreach tactics but also a strategy focused on a core of organizers rather than the broader working class. Despite our increasing numbers, we lack the capacity to tackle statewide races and move beyond the lobbying and canvassing tactics of allied NGOs like Indivisible and the Sierra Club that have large e-mail and donor lists but relatively demobilized membership bases and centralized control; we cannot claim the deep social base and focus of certain Alinskyite and other community organizations but they also tend to lack a broader vision or democratic accountability. The organizational tendency within DSA to default to legislative and electoral campaigning, notably, has not disappeared even in the midst of a pandemic that threatens the economic and political structures of the society.
In a culture where decision-making and power are concentrated at the top of organizations, how do we transform our institutions? If we want to develop strong left organizations and ensure they are inclusive and robust, it will be necessary to ensure that power is diffused through those organizations. With transformed institutions and the aid of aligned social organizations, we can respond to new crises and conditions. These include the growing atomization of society, a reliance on social media, the rise of concentrated media power, and the ecological, economic and inequality, health, and social catastrophes that we face. All of these problems are facets of a growing crisis of legitimacy in which political institutions are incapable or unwilling to respond to the problems of ordinary people or are so divorced from ordinary life that even social democratic programs appear to be delusional fantasies or, simply, irrelevant to people’s lives.
DSA is not unique among contemporary U.S. political organizations in its re-creation of the non-participatory structures of the wildly different world of single-issue nonprofits and, community organizations, bureaucratic unions, and--not least--professional workplaces. Yet instead of addressing the limitations of those structures, leftists have become subsumed in a high-level debate about the nature of the organization as revolutionary formation, party, pre-party, internal pressure group, or social-movement alliance.
If we want to rebuild a party or simply a political organization that can respond to emerging social conditions, however, we need a set of far-reaching internal reforms at the national and subsidiary levels that ensure a robust and organic structure. On the procedural level, we will need to secure voting in person and online by membership referendum on national and local issues that involve changes to constitutions and bylaws, endorsements, platforms, and organizational transformation. We will need to ensure real discussion and deliberation, including through the introduction of forums and websites with resources, meeting notes, and tools accessible to members. The alternative is to have governance solely by representatives who are often self-selected based on their proximity to social media and their ability to expend time and energy on an unpaid and volunteer project. To combat this tendency, chapters and the national organization can employ a random sortition of members for tasks and leadership, train members, and rotate leadership frequently to give more members control over the organization. This will facilitate methods of decision-making that include limited forms of consensus, delegation of projects and tasks to a rational cross-section of membership, and sociocratic decision-making to prevent decisions from being a referendum on messaging and propaganda rather than substance.
There are other measures to which the organization can commit that would affirmatively ensure inclusivity. We need to protect formal or informal ideological caucuses by allowing them to publicize events and develop projects in DSA to preserve the leftist big tent, build institutional capacity, and avoid re-creating systems of domination where a majority slate can take power and change internal rules and prevent minorities from acting. This expanded capacity also will limit the control of white, male, and professional-class leaders and the sometimes exclusionary cultural practices and default structural forms they bring to the institution. In this regard, we must implement rules to ensure inclusivity and address harassment so that people of different classes, parental status, ages, and backgrounds are able to participate and, as is currently the case, that leadership reflects a diversity of gender, race, ethnic origin, disability status, and sexual identity. This will expand institutional capacity and eliminate a reliance on a small pool of experts. It will also remove bottlenecks to political and technical projects while moving the organization away from duplicating the mobilization models of well-funded nonprofits and focused community organizations alike.
Finally, there are structural reforms that we can implement at the national and subsidiary levels to ensure an accountable and robust organization. At the national, state, chapter, and branch levels, steering committees, administrative committees, working groups, caucuses, projects, and their equivalents should generally be open to all members, run by elected leadership, and incorporate open meetings with pre-publicized agendas and voting on key decisions. It is just as important for the organization at each level to be able to easily or automatically recall leaders acting ultra vires, beyond the scope of their authority and contrary to the will of the membership. If we develop structures and distribute financial resources at the level of neighborhoods (where possible), branches, chapters, states, and regions that intersect with each other or are responsible for each other, we can structure the National Political Committee, Steering Committee, and the paid organizing staff generally necessary in mass organizations so that they are responsive to the concerns and will of the broader membership and the racial and social dynamics of particular areas. Through these measures, we can achieve a collective project and vision that is distinct from the limited temporal horizon and instrumental focus of electoral and issue-based campaigns alike.
If the party and pre-party formation has been a dead-end in the U.S. for nearly a century, we have to investigate what steps will help us unify a political organization around projects developed by the working class inside and outside the organization even if we cannot secure fundamental organizational reforms. Those of us in DSA are just one segment of a multi-tendency left that is engaged in a multiplicity of projects. But as the history of the early U.S. Green Party and the current Democratic Party demonstrate, we should take our prominent position in that ecosystem seriously and move beyond an approach rooted in pure electoralism even if our goals are simply to secure state power through the electoral process. We must also embrace the visions within Symbiosis and similar organizations for developing forms of dual power and counterpower--and not simply intermediary organizations between the state and public--by building media cooperatives, worker cooperatives, popular assemblies, tenant unions, and disaster relief/mutual aid projects that respond to the needs of members and broader communities. We must provide social clubs, insurance programs, and political education and training for new and existing members, following a model of critical pedagogy rather than indoctrination, so that we develop a culture of care and solidarity far different from the mechanistic forms of traditional and left-wing micro-parties. Through these efforts, we can address the anomie and depoliticization of networks of nonprofits and issue-based coalitions as well as the fragility of an emerging left in the U.S. that is significantly online and personality-driven. As we proceed, paradoxically, we have to acknowledge that changing material circumstances that include the response to Covid-19 and the ongoing transformation of an affluent society into one that is increasingly alienated, online, unequal, and unsustainable will require us to shift our organizational strategies.
These measures will move the DSA from a spoke to a nexus in a larger movement, coalition, or confederation and can help inform the actions of Symbiosis or the Marxist Center as they unite local organizing groups. These changes will help the organization reform itself rather than rely on a crisis or splits for changes in direction and will prepare a powerful network of dual power institutions that can once again govern where the state does not. They will permit the development of an organic upsurge from below that can respond cohesively, as no single institution is currently able to do, in moments of political and economic crisis like the current pandemic or the global revolutionary wave.
In this dark moment in which we confront a deadly worldwide pandemic and the intensifying, multiplying catastrophes of late capitalism, we need to invoke something more powerful than formulas and organizational specifics. If we adopt measures that give members and those in left social movements the ability not only to carry out orders but to engage in self-organization and grow a network of institutions, we might unite a vision of utopia with the practical elements necessary to turn that vision into a reality.