Statement on DSA-CA and the Road not Taken

DSA Santa Cruz Executive Committee - 03.24.2021
A process is underway to create a California-wide chapter of the DSA which will be voted upon by locals across California. While a statewide organization is a step forward, the current proposal represents a missed opportunity to really think creatively and democratically about socialist strategy and the appropriate form of organization for building power beyond the local level. Instead we are being be asked to vote to endorse an organization that is conceived as little more than a turn-out machine for statewide electoral campaigns and patterned on the same lines as National DSA.

Over the past several months, DSA chapters across California have been coming together in an exploratory committee to work out a framework for a potential statewide “California DSA.”   That committee has produced a set of bylaws for DSA-CA which are in the process of being ratified by chapters around California, a majority of which have now voted to ratify.  There is much to hope for in the project of filling out DSA’s organizing infrastructure at scales beyond the local.  Indeed, building such intermediate-scale structures is an extremely important project if we are serious about building socialism, for while DSA chapters have made tremendous strides in recent years at the local level, Capital operates on a far vaster scale and will not be defeated in city council chambers or through local mutual aid projects alone.  

But while the impulse to consolidate our power on a statewide level is a good one, the conversations driving this project have thus far not been grounded in a discussion of a socialist strategy for building power across the state. There is much talk about the need to “project power” at a statewide level, but so far very little interrogation of what that means and how we need to organize ourselves to achieve our strategic aims. Instead, the approach has been the reverse: start with a technocratic and legalistic discussion of bylaws and we’ll figure out strategy and organizing projects later.  It is far from an inspiring beginning, and the result of this deferral of a serious (and participatory) conversation about strategy is that right out of the gate DSA-CA will look, at least on paper, very much like National DSA does.  To be clear, a powerful statewide organization will be a good thing, but our concern is that we are on a course to build into the structure of that organization precisely the problem that a statewide DSA should aim to solve: the problem of how to scale our organizing work and build institutions that are both beyond local organizing projects and independent of the bourgeois state. 

Electoralism and DSA’s Scale Problem

Currently, the DSA has a scale problem.  We tend to operate in two rather different modes at the local and national levels. On the one hand we have developed vibrant local organizing projects. It is easy to conceive of what building power at this scale looks like: tenant organizations, coordinating meetings with local orgs to protest police violence, workplace organizing committees, neighborhood canvasses… In all of these, politics happens at a human scale.  Here, our lack of access to funds and to media outlets can be mitigated by our ability to punch above our weight in limited geographical areas.  If we view the DSA from this local perspective, as a loose network of local organizations, the org has developed a relatively ‘thick’ conception of politics that situates electoral work as just one strategic component among many in a broader approach to building working class power and organization.  But a loose network of local organizing projects has obvious limits built into it. 

Then, at the national level, this ‘thick’ understanding of politics decidedly thins out and the national org predominantly orients toward electoral work. A gap opens up between the local and the national with very little in the way of mediating structures or institutions.  This makes it very difficult to imagine how our local organizing projects can scale beyond our chapters, with the result that at the national level the easiest projects to imagine all revolve around the institutions that already exist at that scale in the US: the state and its party structures.  

This gap in our imagination didn’t come from nowhere. The past half century has seen relentless, coordinated, and very successful efforts by capital to dis-organize the working class and undermine its institutions at all levels of social life.  Unions have been decimated, and have responded by retreating from the shop floor into electoral alliances with neoliberal Democrats; radical organizations like the Black Panther Party and SNCC that used to provide connective tissue between local organizing projects have been destroyed; and rural and agricultural worker organizing is a shadow of what it once was in the days of Cesar Chavez.  

A California DSA could be unprecedentedly effective in tackling the primary task confronting socialists today: rebuilding the forms of organization that used to exist, and inventing new ones that connect workers across localities in the twenty-first century.  Instead, the main impetus so far for the formation of a California DSA seems to be the failure of progressive ballot measures last November.  We are essentially assembling a turn-out machine for phonebanking statewide electoral projects with little attention to the much more fundamental project of building working class organization beyond the local level.  Our great fear is that DSA-CA’s politics will tend to gravitate towards Sacramento in the same way that National DSA politics revolve around Washington D.C.  In both, we will constantly be fighting to keep from becoming the junior partner of the Democratic Party–or surrender to that fate entirely.  

A Missed Opportunity

The process that generated the proposed bylaws reflects this gravitational pull of the electoral sphere, as well as the concentration of strategic initiative among a small group of chapter leaders.  Under the urgency of getting this done well in advance of the 2022 election cycle--an organization that thinks of politics in terms of electoral temporalities always has to rush things like this-- a group of about two dozen delegates met four times in a setting that replicated some of the same disenfranchising structures that we see in our existing state: single-member representatives that wield the full weight of their membership’s national delegate representation. This essentially gave two chapters, LA and East Bay, (or rather, two individual delegates) veto power over any decision.  Chapters were consulted, but the breadth of this consultation was patchy and unclear. It is far from an auspicious beginning.

This whole thing feels like a missed opportunity to think expansively and creatively about what form of organization is required to build socialism in the present.  A more deliberative, democratic and participatory process might have started with an open convention that focused first on the question of what a statewide organization should be for and what kinds of work need to be connected cross-regionally.  A robust, inclusive, debate about socialist strategy in turn might have led to much needed reflection on and experimentation with new organizational forms. Instead, we are starting with the baseline assumption of much of DSA leadership, that winning elections equals building power, and that the form of the DSA as it currently stands is adequate for this. 

But we should note how this structure mirrors the conception of politics we find in the Democratic Party and in the bourgeois state more generally: politics conceived as periodic mobilization around campaigns rather than as the daily work of building organization where previously there was none.  DSA-CA will likely be good at this kind of mobilization, but think of what it could be if we were to take things a different route: an organization designed to connect poultry growers in Petaluma to cattle ranchers in Coalinga; an organization that could foster connections between socialist rank and file caucuses in unions around the state; an organization designed from the outset around connecting renters who share statewide landlords or non-unionized workers who share statewide employers.  Of course, these things won’t be precluded by the statewide organization we are actually going to be asked to vote on, but they will not be built into its DNA. 

The bylaws have now passed the exploratory committee and have been ratified by a majority of chapters. We, the Executive Committee of DSA Santa Cruz, are recommending to our members and to other chapters still debating the matter  that they vote “no” on the bylaws; but we also recognize that the creation of DSA-CA along the proposed lines has, from the start, been a fait accompli. We therefore call on chapters to take this as an opportunity to engage in the serious debate about socialist strategy that should have preceded the drafting of these bylaws. We urge you to pose the question of whether the DSA, as it is currently structured, is really adequate to the monumental task of confronting the power of capital and transforming the capitalist state.  DSA-CA will soon be a reality, and so we further urge our comrades across the state who share this more ambitious and expansive conception of politics to get involved with DSA-CA and make sure that this organization is more than just a funnel for organizer time and chapter resources into statewide electoral projects.  And last, to our comrades outside of California, we urge you to consider the problem of regional and statewide organization with a less technocratic mindset than we have been able to manage in California.  If we are to win a better world, stronger regional and statewide organization will be necessary.  But we should approach the question of what it means to “project power” beyond the local in a way that doesn’t just reproduce the structure of national DSA. And, as in all socialist organizing, this process must be open, participatory, and democratic.

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