DSA’s National Convention beginning in just a few days, and assembled every two years as the highest decision-making body of the organization, will bring together some 1,300 delegates from DSA chapters around the country. After the last convention two years ago, I shared with my comrades in Emerge and with other self-described communists in DSA a hope that, come the next outing, we would be better organized and ready to unite behind a common vision for DSA. Now, with the 2021 convention almost upon us, we’ve made progress towards that goal, but we haven’t come as far as we might’ve hoped two years ago. Through many starts and stops, obstacles, and mistaken expectations, we’ve learned a lot about the difficulty of doing politics on a national level, and we think a report-back to DSA members in caucuses or outside of them is in order.
I attended the 2019 DSA National Convention in Atlanta as a delegate of NYC-DSA along with over 30 comrades of my caucus, Emerge. At the time, we were all very excited about the new trajectory that ideological struggle had taken in DSA. Communist Caucus formed in 2017, prior to Emerge’s formation. Commie Caucus is a formation that many in Emerge feel a deep kinship with, and whose writings and conversation deeply impacted our own development. At the time, Build was also active in surveying the on-the-ground particular terrain of individual chapters. I and many other Emerge comrades attended Buildfest in Philadelphia in January 2019. It was actually the first time many of us announced to people outside our cadre of “founders” that Emerge intended to form.
Emerge publicly launched in April 2019, amidst both the formation of Socialist Majority (SMC), the dissolution of Spring Caucus, and its later reformation as Bread & Roses (B&R), both of which we considered positive developments. The members of SMC and B&R operated tactically in sync in our chapter, so the development of caucuses with public political lines made me hopeful for a generative new avenue for struggle, reconciliation, and mutual transformation. Additionally, B&R’s reformation was spurred by a split which left behind the more undesirable wings of Spring Caucus. While we still had our own fault lines with B&R, our local convention that year proved to be a largely positive experience of collaboration; for example, B&R members largely supported our resolution on Open Borders when we brought it to the floor. Meanwhile, the Refoundation caucus had dissolved. Like the now also dissolved Spring caucus, Refoundation was a descendant of the pre-2016 DSA Left Caucus. Their strategy of building a caucus on the national level was not as successful as they hoped. Political and interpersonal differences seemed to pull the group apart, all the more pronounced by overemphasized ideological fault lines and shallow connections between members in different chapters, culminating in a swift dissolution. However, in the wake of that dissolution, several “local” caucuses formed, such as Red Star in San Francisco and Red Caucus in Portland, Oregon.
Since Emerge began forming in the wake of the 2018 NYC-DSA Citywide Convention, we have understood part of our political project as coalescing, cohering, and synthesizing a new communist tendency in the US tailored to our specific conjuncture. Disappointed by the citywide convention’s results, but inspired by the nascent, if undeveloped, affinity towards a different political project, we began conceiving how to develop and coordinate this affinity into a more ambitious vision of what we could accomplish as socialists. Since our inception, we have worked diligently to discover and distill this vision in concrete projects from what was only a nascent affinity. In our first collective writing piece, “Our Approach”, we stated:
We are in the midst of a generational resurgence of socialist activity in the United States, of which the growth of the DSA is just one part. As members we are trying, many of us for the first time, to expand the field of class struggle through organizing… The form, shape, and structure of our organization is determined by the needs of the people, their current conditions, and their demands for change. The dream of the society that we fight to win does not emanate fully formed from the minds of a select few, but is developed collectively in the course of struggle together.
As we soon learned after being thrust into the 2019 National Convention, as DSA is continuing to build towards a more integrated national organization it becomes more pressing to develop a communist tendency beyond just one city. However, the methods we chose to develop our caucus had been explicitly predicated on strong and tight unity, and organizing practices, at the local level. This has made it difficult to think through what our place should be in developing a communist tendency within the larger DSA. And while Emerge has its points of unity as a north star, as a self-conceived “big tent communist caucus” our political program is not fully developed, nor is it immediately clear what concrete practices a communist tendency on the national level should champion. In what specific ways would we distinguish ourselves from other tendencies, latent or developed, in the organization?
At the 2019 convention in Atlanta, Emerge hosted a gathering of members from across different formations and chapters whom we thought might share some level of our politics. Present at that gathering were members of Red Star, Red Caucus, Commie Caucus, Build, LILAC (then a committee of Philly DSA but since dissolved and reformed as an independent group), and Rural, Suburban, and Small City DSA (RSSCDSA), along with various independents. It was our hope that while perhaps a national communist formation was not immediately possible, we could align under some sort of network that could foment more local left caucuses; “let a thousand caucuses bloom.” This would allow us to build relationships and get organized so that, come the 2021 national convention, we would be much better positioned to represent our politics at the national level.
After the convention, we went about trying to operationalize concrete relationships with many of the people we had talked to in Atlanta. This included not just the existing local caucuses, but also cells of people that had what looked like the ingredients for a local caucus in chapters like Ithaca NY, DC, Chicago, and elsewhere. A nebulous concept of a ‘network’ emerged, referred to as the “Left Caucus Network” (LCN). The thought was that, learning from Refoundation’s dissolution, we would focus on cohering local organizations which could then gradually find unity together, instead of jumping the gun and declaring a national caucus without a firm foundation. And, unlike Build, we would attempt to ground the effort in concrete political unity and shared communist politics rather than a shared critique of national DSA or a suite of organizational reforms. We drew inspiration at the time from the then still recently formalized Marxist Center, a group outside of DSA that attempts to unite local collectives under a national federation. In those years we shared with Marxist Center an affinity for “base-building,” and some of us had even attended the Marxist Center conference in December 2018 that officially founded that organization. (This was where we first met some members of both Communist Caucus and Refoundation). So our plan in DSA would look somewhat similar: unite local groups of communists in DSA into a network that might eventually become an organized communist formation.
The first blow to this vision was at the convention itself. Build was dealt quite a few big defeats around resolutions like Pass the Hat and others. While I and others in Emerge were not completely aligned with the Build program, their interest in developing DSA at the level of chapters is one that we did have an affinity with. The defeats seemed to collapse the formation, and after the convention not much else was heard of Build. While I originally was hopeful that Build’s collapse might yet sow the seeds for the development of several new local caucuses constituted on explicitly ideological grounds, that never came to be. This was the first of many of my incorrect assumptions.
While there was initial excitement for a national network after the convention, enthusiasm quickly waned as the difficulties and contradictions became apparent. Without the concrete task of the formal construction of a National Caucus, no one really had a good sense of what the scope or objective of the LCN should be. There was also the fact that this network contained groups that weren’t formalized into caucuses and often didn’t have an affinity with the more practical vision of the caucuses. These groupings were tied together by mutual grievances with the organization; in other words: these groups shared negative affinity but were not necessarily bound by a positive vision. While this is to be expected (Emerge went through this initial stage as well), the caucuses that had already formed were at a loss as to how to help transform this given the lack of shared social context. Some of these groupings were also tied together only by sloganeering, by a shared commitment to the rhetoric of “revolution” against the supposedly uniform reformism that plagued the rest of DSA. On the other hand, there were some groups of practical-minded organizers who were deeply involved in their DSA chapters, but existing organizing obligations almost always meant that building a local caucus seemed like a bad investment of effort. It took Emerge a year to figure out what we wanted to be, to get organized, and write points of unity; that was time that organizers in other chapters just didn’t have. And so, given all these obstacles, this attempt at a network of local caucuses petered out. The listserv probably still exists, unused for nearly a year and a half.
While this was happening, Emerge formed an internal External Caucus Relations committee (ECR). Originally conceived to facilitate interaction between other DSA caucuses or friendly socialists groups in general, by nature of the fact that many of the groups we were regularly talking to were outside New York, it soon took on responsibility for carrying out national DSA strategy. When LCN petered out, ECR went back to the drawing board, still committed to developing a communist national strategy. We wrote up a proposal that committed Emerge to develop a political organ in collaboration with other caucuses. This organ would be:
…a public-facing zine/blog, which shall publish pieces from the caucuses, members [of those] caucuses, or pieces of interest to caucuses. The purpose of these pieces will be, primarily, to examine, discuss, collectively develop, project, and legitimate left caucus politics to DSA nationally. As such it will prioritize strategy and organizing over theory, while not being antagonistic to the latter… [it will not] maintain a “political line,” as the organ shall exist to, among other things, productively hash out differences between the caucuses and contribute to national left DSA coherence, but to delineate the scope of affinity, and determine if and when something falls outside of it.
The idea behind building a political organ was that we could ameliorate some of the shortcomings of our first attempt by prioritizing a concrete task. We would also focus on working with existing caucuses, and so hopefully avoid some of the obstacles we encountered in building a network. The final clause of the proposal stated that “this organ will act as a point of relative easy collaboration amongst the Left Caucuses, engendering different forms of cooperation, as originally intended in the formation of the LCN.” To us in Emerge, and I hope to our collaborators, it was clear that while producing this organ would be a task in and of itself, it would always be secondary to creating the ground for working relationships between communists across the country.
It was this proposal that laid the groundwork for Partisan Magazine. This project has been deeply rewarding and quite successful. One of its stated goals was to help project communist politics to a larger audience, in the hopes that our appeal was greater than the sum of our parts. This organ is clearly going to play a great part in our national strategy going forward. However, it’s worth naming some of the difficulties and limits we’ve faced so far in the project.
If in theory, the main goal of this project was the construction of a national communist terrain and secondarily to produce a quality communist journal, in practice this has been reversed. When I wrote the initial proposal for a political organ a little more than a year ago, the hope was that the project could be put together in time to project a somewhat coherent communist line by the 2021 convention. To make this possible, our original plans were to be publishing by late Summer of 2020. Another miscalculation. The project wound up being quite labor-intensive and required the construction of precise workflows, policies, rules, procedures, and an editorial collective to implement it. Furthermore, it has required a lot of very specific expertise in website design, art, editing, coding, etc. In the end, the magazine’s first issue was finally published in December, which foreclosed the possibility of us being ready to tackle the national convention as a unified front. The reproduction of the magazine has taken precedence over its loftier ambitions. Furthermore, its reproduction is still not something that is 100 percent streamlined. Our second issue only had 5 articles, as there were major breakdowns in the processes of soliciting articles, completing them promptly, producing art on time (all in-house), or just getting quality writing in the areas that we are most specifically interested in organizing. While the editorial collective is mostly confident that this reproduction will be more streamlined by our third issue, this reality has prevented the group from deliberating or strategizing more ambitiously about the nature of the organ for DSA or Communist politics. (Note: Issue 3 has been published since the writing of this article).
Another difficulty with achieving our goals through Partisan has been that the project has mostly been maintained in a black box. So while I have developed a great relationship with the editors from the Communist Caucus and Red Caucus, those relationships don’t necessarily translate into parallel relationships between the caucuses and all their members. The trouble of coalition building is that it is very much about relationships of leaders/representatives of different formations. Often it leads to decisions or alliances brought back to the membership that can feel out of touch, since their origin lays outside of the formation. We’ve attempted to ameliorate this specific problem by creating a Discord server to house all work on the publication, in hopes of developing more relationships. While good for productivity, I think it has been a mixed bag in terms of developing more inter-caucus relationships, though this approach has potential if we can move more people into the Discord and make it a deliberative space. Perhaps we could even invite our Newsletter subscribers to non-locked parts of Discord to discuss the politics of the articles.
Another limitation we’ve run into was that since Partisan is strictly a collaboration between existing caucuses, it de facto abandoned the idea of having “1000 caucuses bloom,” or at least abdicated our direct role in stewarding them into being. In my naivete, I assumed that caucus pollination would happen organically across the national in a visible way after the convention. I also assumed that Emerge would have more capacity to nurture these formations. Both these assumptions were wrong. There haven’t been many left caucuses formed in the last few years and between our work on Partisan and preparing for the 2021 national convention, Emerge’s ECR committee hasn’t had much capacity to devote towards mentoring them. Additionally, between the dead-on-arrival left caucus network and the Partisan effort, Communist Caucus expanded into a national formation. Emerge has been following our comrades’ work closely in hopes of gaining insight into what a good national caucus structure might look like. However, this development has also signaled the end of a vision for a confederation of local communist caucuses.
I still think Partisan and Emerge can play a role in seeding local communist formations. It’s why I worked to write and publish Lessons From Caucus Building with my comrades in Emerge: to share our experience in the hopes that it can help comrades in other chapters. But it’s also time to reassess the efficacy of this strategy and these tactics. While producing that document was a sign of an optimistic commitment to the idea of caucus pollination, it was also an admission of a failure, that we could do no more than put out the signal and hope someone would lock on to it.
One big takeaway from the past two years of experimentation is that if a communist tendency in DSA proves to be viable it will need to have answered more precisely what the exact function and what set of concrete practices such a pole serves in DSA beyond the chapter level. While Emerge has, since Atlanta, thought consistently about what form a communist pole might take, we have not produced nor collaborated on a comprehensive vision for what a communist intervention or programme might look like for 2021’s virtual convention. However, perhaps with the four discrete resolutions that Emerge members thoroughly contributed to – Labor, Abolition, Grievance Reform, Internationalism – we may have begun sketching some answers.
I’ve been anticipating for a while the development of a position paper in Emerge about our Labor politics, and the work of our members on the cross-caucus resolution for a national Labor strategy brought Emerge members much closer to articulating a vision for DSA’s involvement in the Labor movement. Our efforts in Labor perhaps mirror our comrades in Communist Caucus in their resolution towards building power in the Tenant’s movement: in both arenas, we support the development of new organizers and class struggles organizations like Amazonians United or the Autonomous Tenants Network.
We also have an eye towards doing the same in social movements, with our resolution towards empowering DSA’s Abolition work suggesting that instead of a campaign in a box, the national Abolition working group can help chapters develop abolitionist campaigns suited to their local conditions. Thus, organizing on national terrain isn’t sacrificed but grows out of, and connects, chapter work. It also clearly attempts to keep Abolitionist organizing from being siloed into social movement campaign work by bringing abolition into our electoral campaigns, Labor movement work, and campaigns for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
With our International Committee Resolution, we argue to continue the work of opening up and democratizing the International Committee (IC). The IC has come a long way from an isolated group that enshrined a small core of DSA members that occasionally produced resolutions to and advised the NPC to a dynamic site of organizing on its own but it still has more to go. Furthermore, Internationalist work can not be relegated to the sphere of “experts.’ We need to create openings in the everyday work of organizing that pushes forward an anti-imperialist perspective. We can only realize our vision by creating and developing participatory democratic structures that directly empower our members in their organizing. Democracy is not only an end but the means of building socialism; a mass organization is an organization in which each member is a potential vector for socialism.
Our caucus includes several members on the NYC-DSA grievance committee and we support the Grievance Resolution (R.28) because we see healthy conflict resolution as a marker of an organization’s well-being and longevity. We think members need tools to deal with conflict, harassment, and other interpersonal issues outside of the investigatory grievance process; that members are likely already using creative solutions to address these issues but we need a space for information sharing and skill-building; that as we work toward the horizon of abolishing the police we need these skills to be able to resolve issues on our own in our communities.*
What we are beginning to point to is the specifics that a communist tendency nationally is one focused on deeply democratic, mass class struggle organizations anchored in social movements. Organizations and movements that don’t think of their members as disposable fodder for class politics but invested in theirs live as the immediate horizon of socialist organizing.
Regardless of what our strategy for constituting a national communist formation is going forward, I still firmly believe that it must reflect Emerge’s commitment to the idea that DSA must develop its members into partisans. Partisans who are deeply committed to the advancement of political goals and not just the correct administration of the organization. The process of developing partisans is also part-and-parcel with a commitment to the construction of democratic infrastructure that allows for real democratic deliberation and decision-making. If we resort to a political strategy of merely appointing the right people with the correct ideas to make the right decisions for us, not only has our strategy to constitute a national communist formation failed but our political-ethical commitments have also collapsed.
This is still the work, unfulfilled, before us.
Marvin G. is a member of the Partisan Editorial Collective and former co-chair of Emerge’s ECR Committee
Landry L. is the current co-chair of Emerge’s ECR Committee
*Thanks to Emerge Caucus member Martha. L for helping provide this language