Articles Issue 6

On Discipline in DSA

An argument for redefining discipline in DSA: socialist organizers must develop skills for navigating social and political differences, and commit to discussion and self-reflection.

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As a non-centralist organization, there are no structural means within the Democratic Socialists of America by which to call for strict discipline. In many ways, this has been to DSA’s advantage: our culture of open debate, frequent internal dissent and flexibility has allowed us to grow into the largest socialist organization the US has seen in a century, with comrades who call themselves anarchists, communists, socialists and many other tendencies sharing the same tent.

At the same time, our behavior during moments of historic upheaval where some semblance of unity is required has threatened our socialist mission all too frequently. Arguments over DSA’s political direction, structure, relationship with endorsed elected officials, and heated, interpersonal exchanges between members dominate the discourse cycles within our organization, driven by the billionaire-owned social media algorithms which are designed to force us apart.

The invasion and ethnic cleansing of Gaza by apartheid Israel offers only the most recent example of DSA members falling into a pattern of infighting that, at its worst, threatens to tear at the seams of our organization. However, it also offers a lens through which to reexamine our own struggles and perhaps make different choices than our socialist ancestors when it comes to the question of how best to struggle together.

The response to this routine of infighting is frequently an abstract call for more discipline. But what does discipline mean in DSA and how can we build a discipline which combats the disunity we experience in its ranks? Answering these questions requires first, an understanding of the disunity itself and the political circumstances which creates it, and second, an analysis of discipline as something which can be built and has been before. 

If we seek, as Karl Marx put it, to construct a “real movement which abolishes the present state of things[1],” then we must be prepared to set aside preconceived notions of what that movement must look like and instead reconsider our analysis of material reality in the present moment. Through this fresh reexamination of our own history of struggle, we might re-learn how to engage with one another as fellow protagonists in determining that movement’s future.

The Politics of Disunity in DSA

Although not contrary to our lofty and strictly factual claim to being the largest socialist organization in the United States, DSA is only one small section of the militant working class movement in the US. With roughly 80,000 dues-paying members, and with the active cadre an unknown fraction of that number, in terms of size our organization falls between the Communist Party and the Socialist Party at their peaks in 1947 and 1912, respectively. 

Were DSA as young an organization as many have experienced it to be, this would be abnormal: the Socialist Party took over a decade from its merger and foundation to reach its height of 112,000 members[2] and the Communist Party over two decades to reach 75,000[3]. Were DSA to do what these parties did in a mere seven years, from Bernie’s first presidential run to today, would be a momentous achievement in socialist organizing.

But DSA is not as young an organization as many of its post-2016 members may like to imagine. DSA as we know it today was founded in 1982 as a merger of the New American Movement (NAM) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), itself a split from the Socialist Party as it looked to rebrand as the Social Democrats USA. For decades of its existence, DSA numbered no more than a few thousand members, topping at 6,000 before its explosive growth as a consequence of Bernie Sanders rekindling interest in Democratic Socialism through his failed 2016 presidential campaign.

A 40 year rise to comparable membership levels held by past left-wing organizations should not be seen as a failure unique to DSA, however, and certainly not a failure of those who joined after the “Bernie Bump.” From various Trotskyist and Maoist formations to the Social Democrats which DSA’s forerunners split from, there is not a single left-wing organization which managed to overcome the deeply rooted anti-communism and reactionary politics instilled in the American public through centuries of capitalist counter-organization. Breaking through the never-ending Red Scare to become the political home for thousands of socialist organizers is no small feat, and certainly one which DSA’s leaders should take pride in.

The lesson to take from this brief history, however, is how disconnected DSA is from what Vincent Bevins calls “repertoires of contention” in his new book, ‘If We Burn: the Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution’. As Bevins writes, citing US sociologist Charles Tilly, “…when people protested, they tended to reproduce practices that already existed around them. They drew upon an existing “repertoire” of contention… In moments of rebellion, people turn to what is familiar, even if something unfamiliar might work much better.”[4]

In founding DSOC and subsequently DSA, Michael Harrington, himself a product of splits within both the Workers Party (later the Independent Socialist League) and subsequently the Socialist Party, consciously rejected those repertoires in which he had come to political maturity: the Leninist form of cadre-based, socialist party-building. Although our debates do not center around our orientations to “progressive anti-Communism” or “realignment” in 2024, our history of contention remains deeply rooted in those past struggles, even as we experience a generational severance of ties with the breadth of historic left-wing organizing in the United States. 

Those who joined DSA before and in the wake of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign came with either no other political background or with prior experience in other post-New Left organizations, parties and movements, ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the similarly Socialist Party-splinter International Socialist Organization (ISO). These immediately post-Bernie members brought with them their own repertoires, their experiences with forms of organization and structure, or lack thereof. They attempted to shape the previously moribund organization of several thousand members according to their beliefs about the successes or failures of their past experiences in politics, whether that be Bernie 2016, a previous socialist organization, or the Anti War-on-Terror and Occupy Wall Street movements. 

These repertoires, and new ones that have entered DSA in similar upsurges around the 2020 George Floyd uprising or the resurgence of the militant labor movement, define and form the disagreements we have in the organization. The caucuses we see in DSA reflect a range of orientations toward the driving questions which have been carried to us from Michael Harrington (though he may be disappointed with our answers today): what do we want Democratic Socialism to mean? What tools, tactics, structures and strategies will we need to achieve its creation?

Our myriad disagreements about how to resolve these questions is the animating force behind nearly all of the serious conflicts within DSA, often becoming personalized through lack of experience with and structures for navigating within a heterogeneous political body. The various political tendencies which have made DSA their home see great value in the largest socialist organization in the US – this much we all agree on – but often place little stock in the diversity which has made DSA the clearinghouse for the vast majority of socialist organizers in the US that it is today.

Many involved in DSA today experience the political life of the organization as much through social media as they do through in-person or Zoom events. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly exacerbated the situation, but by all accounts, “DSA Twitter”, “Leftbook” and similar social media phenomena like large, insular group-chats have preexisted the illness by several years. What has resulted is a sniping, often petty culture where having a 280-character take on any given round of debate is seemingly required to be considered DSA cadre. 

This stands in stark contrast to the practices of pre-internet socialist organizing, mostly done in person at meetings or through snail-mail and telephone. The socialist tradition of lengthy debates, both in written and vocal forms, sometimes spanning entire book-length treatises or multiple days of party conventions, has been lost. In its place we find a culture of speeding through even the most important debates to reach their conclusions, even if analyses of the material circumstances surrounding a proposed course of action are only half-finished.

This is not a primitivist appeal against technology: there are clear benefits to the wealth of information and knowledge that is accessible at a moment’s notice. We live in a time of such immense technological advancement, particularly here in the United States, and it would be foolish not to make use of the tools at our disposal. The question, then, is how much we should rely on these new routines of discourse, which have replaced other, perhaps better, methods.

There have been glimpses of hope as the whole organization commits to the struggle against Israeli apartheid and genocide, but even as the global tide of reaction threatens to drown Palestinians in a wave of retaliatory bloodshed, members carry out old grudges, exclude others based on differences in caucus, and rage against each other on social media over minor slights.

If we see value in struggling together – not at all a given, in any organizing project – we must navigate these disagreements toward productive ends. Tragically, it has seemed the case that recrimination, despair and failure are within the repertoire of contention for the US left: to break out of that pattern, we must consider what obligations we have to one another as people sharing a political project, even when we may not always agree.

Where Discipline Comes From

Discipline, defined broadly, is the practice of subordinating yourself to a set of rules. Whether those rules are defined by yourself as an individual or by a collective body like a political organization, union or religious group, the process is similar: laying out a series of boundaries and expectations, as well as consequences should they not be met. We are all likely familiar with the basics of self-discipline: we commit to New Year’s resolutions, as one example, with the consequences for failing to meet them being self-disappointment and, if we’re disciplined, getting back on track with your commitments.

The political backgrounds, ideologies, and tendencies which comprise DSA’s membership have varying levels of experience with the concept of discipline. Some may have experience with the practice of “Democratic Centralism,” the idea of strict adherence to democratically-decided positions, in name or in practice. The only experience others have had with adhering to the will of a democratic process may have been poorly attended union meetings, Occupy Wall Street’s attempts at consensus building, or local town government.

What very few have experience with, however, is discipline within an organization which is multi-tendency, as in, consisting of not just a single dominant political viewpoint but a whole range of views and positions on any given subject. And for those that do, such as union members, DSA is unique in being entirely volunteer, i.e. having no explicitly economic or contractual self-interest in being involved. 

DSA members, particularly those who are involved enough to be aware of caucus beef and internal debates, are a mostly self-selected group with a different sort of self-interest. Typically, this is an ideological or political interest: DSA is the political instrument for socialists in the US today, and so being a member is vital. But something is missing from it, or there is not enough agreement on and effort behind the parts of it which you think are most important. So you join a caucus and push for that vision within the organization, as you do in the world at large through DSA.

All of this is perfectly reasonable behavior for a politically conscious person, and this type of self-activation was a key component of socialist organizing in the past. Vivian Gornick records in her interview with CPUSA member Selma Gardinsky, from ‘Romance of American Communism’, “Every time I wrote a leaflet or marched on a picket line or went to a meeting I was remaking the world. . . . My father’s bitter, forgotten life. I felt myself vindicating that life, and the millions of lives like his, pulling my father back inside the circle of the world, pulling him back off the edge of the map, because I was doing what I was doing. Because I was a Communist.”[5]

The skill of organizing is ultimately in supporting people in making the choice to become a protagonist in history, and in reclaiming protagonism in their own lives. But it is a decision that one makes as an individual, and many of us will make different and frequently contradicting choices about how to engage in being a DSA member. That incongruity in expectations – abiding by different rules, which we often set by ourselves or in heterogeneous political bodies like caucuses – generates conflict, as members who see themselves as protagonistic actors within DSA find other, similarly-armed protagonists with different ideas of what it means to commit to the organization and its political mission.

The solution offered up to this problem is often programmatic in nature: that is, if we simply adopt this goal or commit to that campaign, we will build consensus through the struggles to adopt and then implement those visions. And there is truth to this: from labor and tenant union organizing to election campaigns, finding and executing on shared visions and strategies is a fundamental process to organizing. But within an organization like DSA, where the ground of what democratic socialism means is contested by numerous self-activated poles, discipline must necessarily take a different form.

In ‘Our Moment: Proletarian Disorganization as the Problem of Our Time,’ my comrades in the DSA Communist Caucus wrote that “facing the problem [of what is to be done] calls for humility and openness. But urgency also demands facing the problem with intentionality and rigor, both in thought and action.”[6] If you see value in DSA as a political instrument for struggle, it stands to reason that others will too. How we choose to engage with one another is a choice, although not one made without having learned these routines from past experiences with organization.

Discipline, then, is the question of how to struggle productively. It is the process by which a person finds within themself, to quote LeftRoots’ ‘Developing Mass Protagonism’,  “the ability of everyday people to be the subjects, not objects, of their own individual (private) and collective (historical) stories—to be protagonists.”[7] Embracing our protagonism, and what it means to work alongside other protagonists, is at the core of what is necessary to break the routine of disorganization which has dominated the left in the US since at least the 1970s.

Discipline For Yourself & Discipline With Others

The question of discipline is often applied exclusively as exterior to the self. That is, discipline is for other people, and to identify that requires discipline. Frequently this takes the character of debates about the discipline of elected officials: are DSA’s endorsed politicians sufficiently deferential to the organization? Or, in the reverse, are DSA members sufficiently deferential to the elected official as a fellow member of the organization?

These debates, while perhaps necessary for navigating the realm of electoral politics, overshadow the more serious question of self-discipline and how we practice it with others. In fact, how we deal with those debates is a consequence of such choices regarding discipline: whether we target our ire at the politician or the critical members, and so on. Muddling such debates, and the wider question of discipline, is a presumption of correctness, that others must be moved to your position, rather than meet each other as co-organizers tackling the same problems.

One potential answer to these tensions is re-learning how to listen. In ‘How Much Discomfort Is The Whole World Worth?’  for Boston Review, Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba write, “We might need to hear something true that makes us uncomfortable. Listening deeply makes space for that to happen. But even if the person who’s talking is off base, we can often still learn by listening to them. Why do they feel the way they do? … If you are in an organizing space together, how has that issue brought them into a shared space with you despite your differences?”[8]

We might redefine self-discipline, in the context of a socialist organization like DSA, as our capacity to listen, to analyze what we hear, discuss it with others, and act with new purpose based on that information. We cannot possibly guarantee that there will never be differences of opinion on strategy, tactics, and minute details of the class struggle, but the process of navigating those differences starts with hearing one another out and coming to terms with each other’s positions as co-equal actors within the same organization, rather than presuming opposition due to those disagreements.

As individual protagonists seeking to build a collective protagonism, we have an obligation to put form to structures which must outlive us and reproduce and sustain more protagonists. Discipline, in this context, means taking a long view of the process required to nurture class reorganization: everything we do now matters, insofar as it creates the terrain on which our future comrades will struggle. 

When considering if something is worth doing, we can perhaps ask ourselves, “what will this do for the socialist generations that follow us?” From this angle, things like drama on social media become small. Leaving behind strong examples of powerful working-class organization, democratic institutions with effective leadership, archived organizational memories like minutes, essays, and recorded debates, and the living record of good organizers and committed members: these things become much more central to the process of engaging in organization.

DSA has as good a chance as any of its predecessors to break through the disorganization which has dominated the left for the past forty years. But doing so requires its cadre to make a choice: do we commit to long-term engagement, to respectful debate and transparent democracy, to sharing an organization for the next two, ten, twenty years? Or do we follow the dominant tradition from which we all descend, with all its ruinous, interpersonal factionalism and ultimate fragmentation? The choice is ours, both individually and collectively, and will necessarily be made every day across the organization’s thousands of active members as they learn to navigate within it.

An earlier draft of this piece ended with an ominous conclusion: “We have run out of time.” This is wrong. We have so much time ahead, although much of it will not be to our liking if we do not address the disorganization which dominates the global class struggle today. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ “Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.”[9]

The struggle of our lives has entered a new phase, as the left begins to rethink our repertoires and learn from Palestinians, who are disciplined protagonists in their own 76 year struggle for liberation. All that we seek to do in solidarity with them, and others in struggles around the globe, requires that we become protagonists in our own place and time, and reexamine our own histories and methods of struggle, both for successes that have been forgotten and mistakes which have calcified into routine. 

Doing so will require discipline of a new, or perhaps old, type: a discipline which values analysis, discussion, and self-reflection above all. It is up to us as individuals to decide if this, or any, collective project is worth all the trouble of treating it so seriously, but I believe the thousands of socialists and communists, fellow travelers and fellow workers who have chosen DSA as their home were right to do so, and perhaps having that in common is enough to build on.

Edit: We are including a link where you can discuss this piece with other DSA members!

[1] “The German Ideology,” part one, section five, Karl Marx, 1846

[2] “Mapping American Social Movements Project – Socialist Party Membership by States 1904-1940,” James Gregory and Rebecca Flores, Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, University of Washington

[3] “Mapping American Social Movements Project – Communist Party Membership by Districts 1922-1950,” James Gregory, Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, University of Washington

[4] “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution,” chapter one, Vincent Bevins, 2023

[5] “The Romance of American Communism,” chapter two, section one, Vivian Gornick, 1977

[6] “Our Moment: Proletarian Disorganization as the Problem of Our Time,” DSA Communist Caucus

[7] “Developing Mass Protagonism,” LeftRoots

[8] “How Much Discomfort Is The Whole World Worth?” Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba, Boston Review[9] “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1963

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