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 Jackson
If you’ve been following debates in DSA since 2016, then you’ve probably seen “horizontalism” used to describe, and sometimes criticize, the views of a tendency in our organization that has come together as the Libertarian Socialist Caucus. But what is horizontalism?
In December 2001, after years of worsening economic crisis, the people of Argentina took to the streets with a cry of “¡Que se vayan todos!”, forcing the resignation of five governments in less than two weeks. During that revolt and in the days that followed, neighbors met together in those same streets to deliberate on their future. Mutual aid networks were organized, shuttered factories were occupied by their workers and transformed into cooperatives, empty banks were transformed into community centers. The egalitarian character of the relationships built in those neighborhood assemblies and occupations was described by those involved as horizontalidad, and the realization of their personal and collective power transformed their lives.
What happened in Argentina at the beginning of the 21st century has echoed through the last two decades, particularly in the short-lived, but pivotal, Occupy movement. Occupy, like the movements that preceded it, was messy. The often contradictory desires expressed in its unwieldy general assemblies reflected a newly rekindled revolutionary consciousness in a “99%” grasping for a future which could be seen all around us, but which remained just out of our reach.
The Libertarian Socialist Caucus, while committed to that same spirit of radical democracy, has never collectively defined itself as horizontalist, but what have we learned from the movements that were?
First, we’ve learned that we should see consensus-building as a task that is necessary for effective organizing, not a hard and fast rule requiring unanimity. When more voices are heard, better choices are made. When we listen to each other, we learn from each other. When we learn from each other, we learn to trust each other. Without trust, building consensus is impossible. We should be careful to listen to dissenting voices when making decisions, and no decision should be irrevocable. We can’t force unity with an election; rather, our votes should - as much as possible - ratify a unity arrived at through persuasive dialogue and compromise.
Second, that we should see DSA’s members, like all people, as protagonists capable of working together to transform their lives and their world. Every member of DSA is capable of leading, and we believe it is necessary to break with the distinction between leadership and rank-and-file, between organizers and organized, if our members are to become those protagonists. Leadership should be understood as something that we do whenever we take initiative and responsibility and are held accountable by our comrades, and we should be building democratic structures that can facilitate true collective leadership.
Third, that we should see DSA’s chapters as laboratories of socialist organizing. We should develop our strategies from a continuous evaluation of the experiments happening in them, and we should develop those experiments from a continuous investigation into the circumstances in our communities with the potential to catalyze class consciousnesses.
Fourth, those movements which resist co-option aren’t tolerated indefinitely. We ignore the repressive institutions of the state at our peril, and we can’t be satisfied with strategies that are unconcerned with countering their power.
Finally, if it’s true that we make the road by walking the road, then inevitably there will be moments when we stumble, moments when it seems like we’ve lost our way, and moments when it feels like we can’t go any further, but we walk on, and with each step, we renew our faith in each other and in the future.