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Big Tent and Programmatic Unity Can Coexist in DSA

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A line of young people in red T-shirts stretches the width of a street in front of a crows. They’re posed behind a banner that reads, “Democratic Socialists of America / Solidarity is essential/ May Day.”

Response to ‘The High-Stakes Strife in DSA’: To move forward, DSA must engage both its broad membership and core activists in building strategy, and strengthen its practice of unity in action.

Max Elbaum’s recent piece analyzing the political struggle within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) illuminates the clear necessity for a coherent national strategy amongst the entire US Left that can keep us from falling into irrelevance. Elbaum focuses on the decision by DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) to reject a demand by a minority within the organization to expel Congressmember Jamaal Bowman for his vote in support of US imperialist military funding for the Israeli government.

This internal debate spilled into the public discourse despite the fact that a supermajority of the organization, in terms of the 2021 convention delegates, opposed disciplining elected DSA representatives who disagree with specific content within DSA’s platform. The public debate created an illusion that the minority opinion had grounding, while those holding the supermajority opinion failed to publicly defend the democratically mandated position.

Elbaum’s piece correctly identifies some of the political strategic debates, particularly a re-litigation of disciplinary questions answered during the 2021 DSA National Convention. Still, readers are left with gaps in understanding the structural challenges that DSA faces as we seek to avoid the mistakes of the 20th-century US Left and build a 21st-century socialist organization. The core question facing DSA in this moment centers organization, not immediate political strategy:

How can a “Big Tent” organization function alongside clearly needed “cadre-layers” that can collectively establish DSA as a permanent US mass organization of workers in the 21st century?

This tension is not primarily ideological, but socio-structural. Ever since DSA’s exponential growth in 2016, the organization has been grappling with a false dichotomy between pluralism, framed as “the big tent” or “multi-tendency representation,” and centralization, often framed as “arbitrary discipline” or “suppression of minority tendencies.” Currently all “sides” deploy both terms in each internal debate, and this masks a continuous struggle re-litigating the purpose of DSA itself, and the way that its mass membership and cadre layers interact with each other.

By cadre-layer, I mean the committed core members that make DSA function, not that DSA should ever become a cadre organization. DSA does need to evaluate and train core members to develop high standards of work and organizational discipline, skills that the US left as a whole has failed to practice.

All socialist institutions, whether cadre organization, ideological group or mass party, have had diverse political tendencies alongside programmatic unity. DSA has yet to mature into this type of principled struggle between political tendency and unified institution. This maturity has not developed since the core has yet to come to terms with whether they will prioritize their factional ideological lines or the democratically mandated lines of the organization.

DSA’s structural tension will continue until we stabilize into a mass organization of workers, with a loyal cadre layer, that understands when to focus on internal disagreements and how to maintain the necessary discipline to unite and exert external power against our real enemies.

Re-litigation, obstructionism, and opportunism from minority factions

In the case of the recent political episode, a minority faction used DSA’s working group structures to re-litigate and advance an independent electoral strategy rejected at convention. The NPC gave the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) working group financial resources to lay out a strategy and workplan for DSA to play a role in international struggle, as long as it fit within the will of the membership’s electoral strategy: a party-surrogate model.

Instead of mapping out DSA’s role in the liberation struggle, the working group used Palestinian liberation principles as a bully pulpit to realign DSA toward its preferred electoral ideas. In support of the autonomist angle of the BDS working group, additional factions fetishized internationalist and anti-imperialist policies in an attempt to realign the political composition of the 2021-2023 NPC. Despite the fact that several factions previously supported integrating Palestinian liberation work within the conventionally mandated International Committee, tactical decisions have been made to heighten the tensions inside DSA: use BDS, interpersonal conflict, and external pressures to shift control of power within the organization. 

Re-litigation has evolved into an obstructionism that prevents follow-through on the convention mandates and has so far influenced public discussion on supposed internal differences rather than on real external efforts toward mass power. In doing so, a false narrative questioning DSA’s convention mandates may grow as part of a campaign to present an illusion of majoritarian support for marginal opinions and isolationist leaders.

Yet DSA has been succeeding so far on our convention mandates, from supporting our electoral candidates and expanding green energy campaigns, to establishing International Delegations inside the US and mapping industry-based workers’ circles. Without obstructionism many more work plans to fulfill our mandates would be implemented, and training to transform members into DSA cadre would surge.

Ultimately, this reveals how factions engage in a level of opportunism that prioritizes their own values over the will of the general membership.  After six years of political struggle, most factions who have prioritized their own cadre institution over DSA have self-marginalized or continue to amplify the risk of third-partying the organization. Such factions theoretically agree that DSA functions as a mass organization while politically expressing that it serves as a temporary coalition amongst a variety of socialists.

This structural tension between cadre and mass membership will continue unless cadre-layers shift how they interact with political decisions made at conventions. Elbaum states that “Issues of internal democracy and alleged ‘top-down’ leadership obscure the political issues underlying the internal conflict.” However, the internal debates do not reflect a politically mature dialogue, but reflect the public faces of the organization. Most factions have acted too immature to differentiate seeing their comrades as enemies rather than as comrades in principled struggle, establishing tactical alignment, neutrality perspectives, and eyes on the prize of stabilizing DSA. Here lies the main structural failure of the organization.

Understanding DSA’s structural failures

DSA’s structural failure emerged from a level of inexperience among all of us attempting to build an institution from scratch, without historical memory, and with little desire for political guidance from the Old Left and New Left’s mistakes. Tendencies sprouted ideas and presented paths to power, often without material analysis but with good intentions. As DSA gained strength, tendencies anchored themselves in their own perspectives rather than assessing how DSA itself shapes political struggle and develops its cadre to move the organization forward.

For example, working groups (commissions/committees) were initially established as issue-based semi-autonomous structures. This served well enough at a time when DSA did not know what the next major campaign would be, or how the national organization and chapters organized cohesively. But over time a more successful model for working group campaigns has developed, which includes provisions for dissolving if the campaign is won or conditions change drastically.

This model serves to assess how DSA can take power, not how DSA can raise awareness about any particular issue. However, this structural difference has resulted in working groups either following through on convention mandates regardless of political differences, or into mini-fiefdoms controlled by specific political factions to amplify their own biases rather than the organizational objectives.

At the moment, DSA faces a question of how to shift its ongoing practice of a federated coalition to a mass organization of workers model. Some chapters and factions continue to hold a level of opposition to national authority. Some national leaders, on the other hand, have been too frail to engage in generative conflict, to ignore the manufactured crisis, and to have the courage to direct the organization on behalf of the general membership which asked them to do so.

Organizational conflict in an individualist world

This conflict continues because members joined DSA assuming that the world, and its imperfections, would not follow us into a new institution. But individualism, egoism, arrogance, and pride are all human conditions we struggle with regardless of where we go. To transcend these personal biases we need to move away from centering decisions as individuals temporarily aligned for a greater cause and towards a collective organizational lens. We fail to address this because tendencies center their own opportunistic plans to take power or protect their own ideological purity. We fail to address this because factions spread false narratives about oppositional factions, rather than accepting the degree of programmatic unity developed through conventions and elections.

At times, such as in the months leading up to and at national conventions, principled ideological struggle should take precedence. However, outside of these internal debates, programmatic unity makes it a priority to defeat the real enemies: specific sectors of capital, the far right, and the liberals that defend those interests.

This means that the internal and external campaigns that DSA approves at national conventions, and the emergency response campaigns that NPC guides us through during national crises, are the central political activities. All elected leaders and general members have responsibility for publicly supporting them, as well as providing internal critique, and establishing clear channels of communication to improve campaigns while not silencing either majority rule or minority rights.

DSA has a path to stability

DSA, as a mass organization, needs to develop a coherent, consistent cadre-layer loyal to the will of the general membership. DSA needs cadres who place ideological tendency secondary to programmatic unity and political strategy. DSA has an NPC that steers, amplifies, and gives life to the programmatic unity and political strategy, but the cadre-layer needs to take collective responsibility for moving the organization forward.

This mass party model, with a loyal cadre-layer, does not contradict or erase political differences. In a big tent, obvious political disagreements exist, perhaps even fundamental ones. But “big tent” does not mean consensus or an acceptance of a variety of political constituencies. In a big tent, the majoritarian position will lead on key political strategy and minority critiques can support the general strategy.

If “big tent” means consensus or keeping political constituents happy, then it centers on factionalization rather than the programmatic unity developed through ideological struggle. Big tent does not mean all political tendencies get a seat at the table; it suggests a method to shape the direction of the organization, come to serious political strategy, and get to work.

Political strategy develops over time, with buy-in, political discipline, and processes that come through continuous national, regional, state and chapter conventions. DSA’s political strategy, then, is not assessed only by the cadre-intellectuals answering “a fundamental question such as where it positions itself within the politics of the country in which it functions,” but also by the general membership. The beauty of DSA is that a Black historian immersed in 20th-century labor struggles and an immigrant mother with no formal education can have the same level of ability to determine a collectively decided political strategy. Such a shift toward workers’ democracy will only come through experience and maturity, and only time can develop trust amongst comrades who center programmatic work with one another despite ideological differences.

However much I personally agree with Elbaum’s assessment and emphasis on a national strategy that builds a broad multiracial democratic front against white supremacy, that path has too many contradictions at a regional and local level, as in Los Angeles where the main enemy is the multiracial group of liberals eroding our public institutions. DSA is attempting to find a balance between a broad multiracial liberation strategy, and the more explicit multiracial working-class struggles.

Featured image: DSA-LA marches at May Day. Courtesy of Jack Suria Linares.