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Four Theses About the DSA Budget from Communist Caucus

Given the budget deficit crisis engulfing DSA, we in Communist Caucus are compelled to examine the political moment which we find ourselves in and what kind of organization DSA needs to become in order to weather it.

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The discussion surrounding the budget deficit of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) reveals long standing contradictions and open questions for the organization. Communist Caucus has no members on the National Political Committee (NPC), the body tasked with making these important fiscal decisions, but our members are doing spadework at all levels of DSA. CC members hold leadership positions in various chapters and national commissions and are deeply involved in organizing projects, particularly labor and tenant union work. 

Communist Caucus is generally associated with the left wing of DSA’s internal politics, and during the most recent convention, our delegates supported candidates who currently make up the left voting bloc on the NPC. While we have broad agreement with many of the choices this bloc has made on the budget, our reasoning behind that support and our vision of our organization differs. Our ultimate vision of DSA is an organization of organizers focused on addressing the challenge of our time, proletarian disorganization. This work will transform the class and it will transform DSA into a home for the advanced forces of the communist movement. 

Rather than offer a specific budget proposal or specific suggestions of priorities, we are compelled to examine the political moment which we find ourselves in and what kind of organization DSA needs to become in order to weather it. 

The following are four theses on the subject: 

Thesis #1: The DSA developed in a very particular moment characterized by intense growth. Previous NPCs and Director-level Staff erroneously made staffing decisions tied to the assumption that growth in staff would fuel growth in membership.

Thesis #2: A democratic, rank-and-file led culture requires radically reimagining the current role of staff in a political organization. 

Thesis #3: The type of electoral & legislative “campaign work” DSA prioritizes is no longer sufficient to ensure growth or even continuity for the org. We must instead work towards becoming an Organization of Organizers.

Thesis #4: The current crisis is deeply connected to an inability to devise, deliberate and democratically decide upon an overarching strategy for socialists in the twenty-first century. 

  1. Thesis #1: The DSA developed in a very particular moment characterized by intense growth. Previous NPCs and Director-level Staff erroneously made staffing decisions tied to the assumption that growth in staff would fuel growth in membership.

DSA’s budget issues must be understood in the context of its rapid expansion in membership over a relatively brief 4-year period of its 42-year existence. DSA grew to be the largest socialist organization in the United States in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ failed run for president in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump, ballooning from its pre-Bernie Bump membership of 6,200 to over 50,000 dues-paying members today. 

Witnessing the so-called “End of History” in the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of equally ruthless neoliberal and reactionary politics across the globe, DSA evolved in a sea of disorganization. The organization’s meteoric growth can be primarily attributed to the particular political moment characterized by the lightning rod of Bernie’s 2016 & 2020 campaigns, street rebellions politicizing a generation of young people, and the Trump presidency engendering an acute sense of urgency. 

With a membership comprised of students and college graduates, whiter and wealthier workers, and people concentrated in major urban areas, the national DSA 501c(4) adopted a standard NGO organizational model prioritizing staff dependent campaigns and a strategy for growth based on mass passive recruitment of people politicized by broader social forces. The rapid growth of DSA and other organized forces on the left brought new political questions to the table- the Bernie campaigns, Trump’s election, and the election of congresspeople like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez undeniably brought in new members, often through self-activated people who learned about the organization and had a few bucks to spend on a membership. 

Successive generations of DSA’s elected National Political Committee (NPC) and biannual Conventions, along with director-level staff, saw this growth of the organization as a reason to continue staffing up, strengthening both the technical and organizational staff rosters by double digits. In 2020, DSA had 20 staffers, accounting for a third of the organization’s spent income. Now, in 2024, we have 32 staffers, comprising slightly more than two thirds of income. This shift occurred because our dues-paying membership went from its claimed peak of over 90,000 to just 50,000 during the same period.

This expansion in staffing and campaign budget expenditures, although perhaps a reasonable course of action based on data at the time, did not prove sufficient alone to continue the trend of DSA’s upward growth. That is not a unique failure of staff, who are both comrades and political actors within the organization. Staffer-comrades consistently provide high quality work that is clearly responsive to the political decisions of DSA’s elected leadership. That leadership, and to an extent Conventions, pinned finances on more staff continuing the growth of the organization. Unfortunately, the organization lost that bet.

We must interrogate those political decisions and examine how we can make different ones if we hope to turn the corner on the budget debates and go forward with a coherent political vision for advancing the organization of all oppressed workers in the United States.

  1. Thesis #2: A democratic, rank-and-file led culture requires radically reimagining the current role of staff in a political organization. 

Communist Caucus supports a vision of a robust member-led democracy because member-run initiatives ensure continued dynamism of political work, prevent the emergence of an unaccountable organizational bureaucracy, and build a necessary dialectic of criticism between the rank-and-file and leadership. 

We are not against staff in a political organization, and especially not against the staff of DSA, with whom all of us have had positive experiences. Many in our caucus work as staffers in the labor movement and understand the opportunities staffing provides for political work, along with the many contradictions for those committed to rank-and-file leadership. That such a contradiction exists is evident to those engaged in rank-and-file labor work, but it is a complex problem beyond the scope of this particular piece. As a caucus, we are engaged in critically examining this question further, but for now, our inquiries have yielded that staffers certainly provide opportunities for organizing, but also risk concentrating functional decision-making power in their own hands and thereby support bureaucratization. Ultimately, even well-meaning and principled comrade-staffers cannot be a substitute for genuine rank-and-file leadership in a union or movement organization. 

The Socialist Majority Caucus, Groundwork, and their allies strategically attempt to bury this contradiction by adopting a shallow analogy wherein the current NPC is an unscrupulous boss to union employees. Such arguments flatten the distinction between management staff and those in the bargaining unit, try to turn DSA’s biggest expense in a budget crisis into a third rail for discussion, and most importantly, treat elected DSA leadership as any other boss in capitalist society. Rather than attempt to bury the contradiction between retaining staff and ensuring rank-and-file leadership, we believe it must be addressed directly. 

As DSA grew, after 2016, it developed along two parallel paths. The first grew into the mass membership-run organization we know today. DSA’s political development and strategy has often been messy and uneven, and we in Communist Caucus have shared our critiques of its dominant tendencies. This organization is also something the American Left has not experienced in decades, making it an exciting and worthwhile avenue for building institutions of class power. At the same time, the national 501c(4) nonprofit called DSA rapidly grew its staff as many left-liberal NGOs did during the Trump years, as discussed in the prior thesis. The relationship between DSA as a staffed national nonprofit and a mass membership-led organization remains unclear and contradictory, much like the relationship between National and its local chapters, and has led to political disagreement that tends to obscure the root of the issue. 

In the current budget debate, there are dramatically different approaches to resolving this contradiction. One side, represented by the current NPC minority, cannot see DSA as anything other than a staff-run NGO. They have repeatedly demanded zero cuts to DSA’s staff while advocating for extensive cuts to every other part of the organization’s budget. When news about a slightly improved budget projection for 2024 broke, they rushed to demand more cuts to non-staff portions of the budget. They are increasingly open about this position: arguing that member organizers are less adept at political work and that staffers deserve final say on political decisions by virtue of their role. The argument we’ve seen throughout this debate is that staff are needed to ensure the success of priorities picked by membership. They say, without keeping all of our current staffing, the organization will falter and members will not be able to pick up the current campaign work supported by staff. 

While we agree that paid staff are helpful towards DSA projects, SMC/Groundwork’s approach functionally reduces the terrain of political work down to only what is possible with the labor of staffers. Most members are then relegated to a primarily advisory role where we are only meant to vote on resolutions during DSA’s tightly organized conventions, pay our dues, and support national campaigns primarily driven by staff and a few cadre volunteers, usually by phone-banking or canvassing. 

The DSA Right’s position flows from their analysis that the road to socialism is through legislative campaigns and they strongly critique alternate tendencies which invest in working class self-activity, such as rank and file work in the labor or tenant movements. Investment from DSA in that class self-activity therefore, in the words of NPC member Rose DuBois, “should be opposed.” This approach stifles dynamic rank-and-file initiatives, expects a “natural constituency” for socialist legislative projects which is actually far smaller than thought, and leaves us “stuck in an impasse characterized by deference to the centrists who swept the most recent leg of the Democratic Party’s long civil war.” Theirs is the organizing model of the non-profit industrial complex combined with the occasional Marx or Lenin quote, which in the end leaves DSA no more than a junior partner in the progressive wing of the Democratic party. While we believe their claims towards a shared horizon with the Left of DSA, their present political strategy is unable to develop DSA into the organization it must become in order to meet the demands of the moment.

On the other side, our comrades on the majority of the NPC—Red Star, Marxist Unity Group, Bread & Roses, and uncaucused members Ahmed and Luisa—have argued for the prioritization of member-run initiatives, understanding the key strategic role of rank-and-file leadership over the NGO model of organizing. At the same time, we worry about the organization backsliding into a crude partyism which insists invocation of “the Party” is necessary for political work to become real and/or sufficiently revolutionary.  On the contrary, Communist Caucus conceptualizes politics as happening on the terrain of everyday life and in expanding working class self-activity. While we do not necessarily oppose DSA developing into a party-like formation, we find that its associated discourse, such as hyperfixation on a ballot line, often eclipses the more fundamental question of proletarian disorganization, which severely limits the terrain all our projects operate on. 

We do not pretend to have all the answers—certainly more investigation is needed. As a start, we believe we should move towards an organization where staff continue to be democratically accountable to rank-and-file decision making, including any shifting of priorities, where elected leadership is paid for their labor, and where staffers are hired for a wide range of political work outside of the usual electoral/legislative campaign focus. At the current moment, this means bargaining with DSA’s union over layoffs that set us up for a stable financial future. It means putting more organizing work into the hands of our membership. 

Decisions about the jobs of our DSA staffer comrades are not and should not be taken lightly. However, we agree with our comrades in Bread & Roses, an organization in which staff interests come before member-led organizing is an even worse scenario. 

  1. Thesis #3: The type of electoral & legislative campaign work DSA prioritizes is no longer sufficient to ensure growth or even continuity. We must instead work towards becoming an Organization of Organizers.

The budget debate has revealed DSA’s difficulty in adapting its strategies to a post-Bernie conjuncture. 

In the Trump years, DSA sought to ride the wave of what seemed like unstoppable growth by launching a series of major electoral & legislative campaigns, both as a national organization and as local chapters. The electoral project gained definite ground, particularly in major cities, in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s insurgent 2016 campaign, surprising an unprepared Democratic Establishment. As that particular political moment has passed and the Establishment has re-entrenched itself, it remains unclear if DSA can continue its relative electoral success, especially outside of key neighborhoods in major cities. Even in the cases where DSA has succeeded in winning elections, too often DSA electeds take actions that demoralize and demobilize our membership- though a fuller accounting of the organization’s electoral project is beyond the scope of this particular piece. 

The organization’s legislative record is far more mixed, with many of its national priorities and those of major chapters stagnating and failing to make progress year after year. When DSA does win these campaigns, it is almost exclusively as a minor partner in a liberal coalition. This approach raises questions about our ability to enact so-called “non-reformist reforms” and whether these “non-reformist” reforms meaningfully shift the balance of class forces. Then, there are the anti-democratic mechanisms of the capitalist state that have and will continue to interrupt DSA’s work, such as NY Governor Kathy Hochul’s appointment of fossil fuels capitalist Justin Driscoll to oversee the implementation of the “Build Public Renewables Act,” or the defeat of the Nevada DSA comrades who briefly controlled the state Democratic party. 

As the organization also shifted more resources towards national campaigns, such as the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Green New Deal for Public Schools, comrades typically focused on national phone-banks of DSA members or other lists acquired through coalitions. We have since exhausted the brief hope that COVID-19 stimulus spending and political crises might extend to the Biden administration being moveable on other New Deal-esque political horizons. While campaign messaging was mixed, particularly after both pushes met failure, the strategic logic of these campaigns made member mobilization a victory in its own right. It is clear that other forms of political work must also be prioritized given the end of the Bernie moment. 

The pivot to building what Communist Caucus calls an “organization of organizers” is already happening among dedicated DSA cadre and a few individual chapters. DSA members continue to develop our ability to move less active members into mass work cadre. We don’t see those members as a volunteer pool – we see them as protagonists in building a new world from the ashes of the old. The deeper organizing projects we hope to engender and support in DSA, such as EWOC and ETOC, invest in the self-activity of the working class, develop cadre, and recruit comrades outside of our usual activist milieu. These projects expand the experience of solidarity in everyday life and provide new strategic options in struggle.

  1. Thesis #4: The current crisis is deeply connected to an inability to devise, deliberate and democratically decide upon an overarching strategy for socialists in the twenty-first century. 

At all levels, from local chapter working groups all the way up to the national Convention, DSA suffers from a notable incapacity to have a sustained strategic conversation across tendencies and priorities. In her parting letter, Maria Svart called out the Convention in particular for leading to the current impasse by passing more priority campaigns than we can afford. In Svart’s patronizing articulation, the problem was an irresponsible membership that doesn’t understand the intricacies of the organization’s budget and is thus incapable of responsibly deciding on the direction of the org. This moralizing framework is obviously inadequate, especially because, according to DSA’s bylaws, budgetary responsibility lies with the NPC and the Budget and Finance Committee. However it is important to recognize the kernel of truth in her critique and to understand the structural and ideological features of our organization that lead to a situation in which, Convention after Convention, some of the most thoughtful and intelligent socialist organizers in the country are incapable of settling on a unified strategy, making even modest modifications to our organizational structure, or even agreeing on what would constitute a “strategy” in the first place. 

Structurally, DSA lacks spaces for sustained strategic deliberation. The tightly stage-managed Convention is obviously not such a venue, and while we are hopeful the revitalized DSA publications will have a role to play, their loss of funding means they will reach fewer members than they previously would. Compounding this problem, the “choose your own adventure” working group and campaign-centered structure of the DSA means that people self-select into different projects and can spend their whole time in the org without having to grapple with how different projects relate to one another. Lacking this clear articulation of how we build power—not for this or that campaign or particular objective, but for Socialism as a movement—lacking an agreed-upon understanding of how policy work, electoral work, base-building projects, advocacy, propaganda, and coalitional work could be combined into a unified plan to get us out of this broken world into something better, lacking even a shared framework for how to relate these things to one another, we are left in a situation in which the only common currency left to mediate between our various priorities is measured in staff labor-time. 

This is how DSA’s structural incapacity to settle upon a strategy and lack of deliberative spaces creates an ideological incapacity for the organization to follow a strategic thought through to conclusion. One of the gifts left to us by half a century of neoliberalism is a tendency to reduce multidimensional democratic decisions to a single quantifiable axis, measurable against a common currency and subject to austere economic reason. If we want to escape the morass we find ourselves in, we will need to develop an approach to strategic thinking that gets us outside of the uni-dimensional logic of economic reason. Concretely, one thing that this means is that we need to start thinking about DSA Conventions as more than just a space to allocate staff time. It means that we need to consciously and deliberately open up spaces where we can have bigger-picture discussion about what a transition from capitalism to socialism actually looks like.

Absent these kinds of deliberative spaces and this kind of ideological deprogramming, the only real venues for strategic thinking will continue to be DSA’s various caucuses.  Strategic thought does happen at this level, but without deliberately opening up org-wide spaces for this kind of discussion, we will be trapped in a situation where strategic thinking can only be articulated in the mode of factionalism. 

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

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