2023 DSA National Convention: Mini-Issue

Building DSA as an Organization of Organizers

A vision for DSA’s future that responds to the problem of proletarian disorganization.

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In Prisoners of the American Dream , the late Mike Davis wrote that each cycle of class struggle sets the “objective conditions of accumulation“ and “subjective capacities of class organization” in the next period. Our moment, using Davis’s analysis, is circumscribed by what the Communist Caucus has collectively defined as the problem of “proletarian disorganization”: the hollowing out of traditional institutions of class power existing in everyday life and associated habits of organized struggle. As the defining problem of our moment, proletarian disorganization has, within our lifetimes, severely limited what is politically possible for the DSA and the Left broadly. 

The Trump years saw the unique eruption of militant social movements and a related phenomenon of self-identified “democratic socialists” being elected to public office. Remarkably, despite the energy behind these ruptures, very little remains organizationally. The remnants of these movements are cohered in a network of nonprofits stuck in the sisyphean tasks of legislative advocacy- taking those demands once made in mass movements and turning them into easily digestible policy soundbites to be presented to politicians. The role of the class struggling for itself has been replaced by a few NGO staffers mobilizing dwindling numbers of activists. 

Just a few years ago the DSA approached 100,000 members but is now hemorrhaging by tens of thousands. In the post-Bernie, post-uprising moment, DSA must make a stronger political case for members to stay involved. 

The post-Bernie DSA’s political practice has crystallized into legislative advocacy, most notably in NYC-DSA’s “Albany strategy” which prioritizes the election of DSA cadre into State assembly and Senate in order to, at least theoretically, advance the project of “non-reformist reforms.” 

Recognizing the limits imposed by proletarian disorganization, proponents of this strategy try to substitute  class struggle with policy advocacy from elected officials and their staff. In New York’s Socialist in Office (SIO) committee, electeds have on several occasions bowed to pressure from Democratic Party leadership, such as elected State Senators not endorsing NYC-DSA’s full electoral slate in 2022 after being threatened with removal from committees if they did so. Albany strategy partisans argued that appeasing establishment politicians was necessary to pass key reforms, specifically “Good Cause” protections for tenants, which recently failed to pass for the fourth year in a row. This insider strategy to win reforms eschews publicizing these threats to agitate a base of constituents, does not organize the class, and often even fails to deliver on the reforms it promises. 

Most of NYC-DSA’s legislative priorities have ended in defeat. In the few legislative fights the chapter has won, it only did so as part of a far more politically heterogenous coalition, thus limiting the organization’s advocacy to what liberal nonprofits will support. Far from the original goal of “non-reformist reforms”, DSA socialists in office can only achieve a degree of success by formally cohering itself as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, a strategy that works against the project of working class self-emancipation. This is not to advocate for complete electoral abstentionism, but rather to recognize the real limits of a strategy that views legislation as the primary terrain of struggle for the movement. 

Another political practice in the organization, rising in opposition to the right-wing of DSA, wraps itself in the symbols of defeated 20th century revolutionary movements. This “left of DSA” tends to valorize past organizational forms, namely a bolshevik style party, without serious consideration of distinct political contexts. As such, these comrades hyperfocus on the struggle for the correct line in internal political fights and too often fall into the trap of a “resolutionary socialism” that neither builds the class nor successfully advances communist politics within the organization. The challenges of our moment cannot be adequately addressed by the DSA adopting the right line, even by declaring ourselves communists, but by building “an organization of organizers.”

Such an organization of organizers would work to build institutions of class power in order to produce what Viewpoint editor Bue Rübner Hansen called the “continued production of solidarity in the everyday.” The social atomization and alienation inherent in capitalism reifies everyday exploitation and oppression as a natural reality rather than as something socially constructed and thereby subject to change.
In order to fight this demobilizing ideological paradigm, it is not enough to proselytize socialism. We should instead build organizations that develop working class people into organizers themselves. Instead of limiting the terrain of political practice to the bourgeois state apparatus or insisting politics must involve the exhaustive preaching of a “revolutionary” line, we must conceptualize a “new practice of politics” based in autonomous organizations of the working class. Through building such organizations on the terrain of the everyday, we engender a new politicized subjectivity and affirm in action Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis” that the existing world is not necessary. 

Labor and tenant unions, which organize collectively against a shared exploiter, deserve particular focus as institutions of class power. While unions have suffered from decades of disorganizing offensives, they still represent the primary source of organized working class political subjectivity for millions of American workers. Whereas the Left broadly has suffered from a disorganizing malaise after 2020, the labor movement is advancing on new fronts with new union drives happening at Starbucks, the ongoing WGA & SAG strike, and the Teamsters militantly organizing for contract demands. Tenant unionism is on the rise as well with neighborhood and citywide unions cohering in cities such as LA, Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Oakland, and New York. The DSA can support such initiatives by investing members’ ability to organize where they live and work, through projects like the rank-and-file strategy, EWOC (the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee), and ETOC (Emergency Tenants Organizing Committee). 

Labor and tenant unions also provide new strategic options for the movement in moments of social rupture. In Hammer and Hope’s reflections on the 2020 uprisings, philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argued that unions have unique advantages in popular struggles given their ability to democratically decide on demands and withhold labor if those demands are not met. A key lesson from the defeats of 2020 is that mass marches and theatrical direct actions, while important tactics, cannot enact revolutionary change by themselves without being able to draw on existing institutions and networks of class power. Our task can be understood as an oscillating war of maneuver in moments of rupture and war of position, where our role is to build up working class organization to be ready for those periods, based on the particular political moment. 

There are two reductive approaches on the Left to labor and tenant organizing. The first claims union work should be prioritized as “class first” organizing rather than what is considered frivolous identity politics. The second claims a focus on building working class institutions is “economistic.” The former is a chauvinistic misunderstanding of how united class solidarity forms: the struggle for universal class liberation is necessarily built from particular emergent struggles against exploitation and oppression acting in solidarity with each other. To draw from abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s reflections on anti-carceral organizing, opposition to a prison being built in a particular community often begins with “not in my backyard”, a place-based identity that can be either progressive or reactionary, but through the experience of struggle is transformed into “not in anyone’s backyard”- in other words, true universalism built out of particularity. 

The latter argument draws on a restrictive view of organizing as a series of mostly unrelated issue areas instead of as a means to connect and scale up political struggles. In the labor movement for example, anti-racist and feminist struggle is key, both inside and outside the union, from Amazonians United successfully fighting back a racist anti-union campaign, Newsguild workers at the NY Times advocating against their employer’s transphobic coverage, or the thousands of starbucks workers who went on strike for the ability to openly celebrate Pride in stores. In the tenant movement, it is impossible to do any successful organizing without immediately confronting gentrification and the displacement of black tenants by the landlord class. The category of “tenancy” also creates a precarious relationship to housing and the possibility of criminalization and so, tenants organizing together in our unions directly confront oppressive realities of private property, racist displacement, anti-houseless sweeps, and the carceral state. 

Building an organization of organizers will also involve experimenting with new strategies and organizational forms on the terrain of the everyday. Given the pervasiveness of the carceral state in everyday life, abolitionist organizing provides a key opportunity to experiment with new forms of community base-building. In several places, local abolitionist collectives, such as the Crown Heights Care Collective in Brooklyn, have worked hand-in-hand with the tenant movement as part of a shared struggle for community control over neighborhoods. 

Ultimately, these last six years are a case study in how proletarian disorganization severely limits the Left’s ability to pass and enforce reforms, “build power” both in and outside of electoral politics, hold socialists in office to their commitments, and rely on a mass base of support beyond a homogenous group of mostly white professional activists. Without the institutions of class power that can articulate and engender specific subjectivities in its members, the Left is limited to being a junior partner in a liberal coalition and/or a statement writing collective with a Twitter following. There is no working class waiting in the wings to be mobilized with the right electoral campaign or slogan. The class must instead be built for and by itself. 

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