Reflections on the 2021 DSA Convention: Theory and Practice

Reflections on the 2021 DSA Convention: Theory and Practice

The 2021 DSA National Convention was marked by considerable agreement across the board on the direction of the organization. Of course, like all large socialist organizations, there were some issues on which disagreements arose. Some of those were political, such as the support of BDS concerning Israel and the forms opposition to U.S. imperialism should take. Some were more substantiative including reservations about what some perceived as an over-commitment to electoral politics and parliamentary processes like lobbying for specific legislation. Some were organizational revolving around new powers allocated to the National Political Committee versus greater autonomy for local chapters. All of these issues are important. However, on reflection, they may all reflect a larger concern.

DSA is a very large organization committed to a “big-tent” strategy. That’s all well and good. But like all large organizations, there is a natural tendency to increase bureaucracy, centralize power, and sublimate some of the reasons for the organization’s existence to its perceived need for growth, expansion, and control. Ironically, those are the same concerns that drive capitalism itself. A persistent criticism of “established” leftist organizations in Europe and the United States has been a tendency to substitute the needs of the organization (or the party) from the actual working-class struggle in society at large. A quick historical perusal of socialist, communist, and labor parties in France, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain demonstrates the point. In those countries, left-wing political parties became more and more divorced from the actual needs and concerns of the proletariat as they became more and more engaged in parliamentary politics. This has been illustrated in what is known as the “within and against” strategy of the British Labour Party as that organization has tried to operate both within the state and the trade unions. So, in Europe, some “revolutionary” parties have become rigid and calcified by the “within and against” framework. In DSA that argument has taken the form of trying to work both in and against the corporate-dominated and funded Democratic Party and NGOs which often seek to make capitalism more palatable. Obviously “entryism” into capitalist or social-democratic parties like the Democrats or Labour requires a very different set of operating principles when contrasted with an organization dedicated to class struggle and the abolition of capitalism.

So, what does all that mean to DSA in particular and class struggle in general? It would seem that it requires the creation of a new concrete unity on the Left which once again ties political parties and socialist organizations to the working class. Any movement for socialism, by definition, has to start at the point of production and must recognize the needs of workers. Those needs are not just expressed at work, but also in housing, health care, the abuses of the carceral state, as well as racial and gender discrimination. The political program of any socialist organization should be developed by asking people what they want. It should start with works’ inquiry, an idea brought forward by Marx himself in 1880.

Workers’ inquiry is a tactic that attempts to combine some basic research with labor organizing. The point is to seek workers’ perspective on work itself and subsequently their views on class, exploitation, and capitalism itself. The easiest way to achieve this is through a form of ethnographic research in which workers themselves produce the information and create a useable knowledge base. Of course, that requires that organizers themselves are active in and have close relationships in the workplace and community. The knowledge that can be developed from works’ inquiry is not just important for understanding capitalism, but is, in fact, vital to organizing against it. It seems obvious that socialist politics should reflect the ideas and perspectives of the working class. Such an approach makes it easier to develop strategy and build workers’ confidence in taking action.

There are two main rationales for focusing on work from a workers’ perspective. First, it is often hard for an individual worker to understand how his or her work recreates capitalism, exploitation, and alienation day in and day out. But all workers, to varying degrees, know that if they stop working the entire economy would shut down. Helping to build class consciousness requires that workers understand how their efforts are vital to production and distribution. Understanding that enhances both workers’ understanding of alienation and their power to work against capitalist exploitation.

But workers’ lives are composed of much more than the exigencies of their workdays. Their lives involve a wide range of struggles beyond wages and benefits. Those struggles are intimately tied to housing and rent, immigration and borders, the availability of social services, and many other considerations. Think about workers when they are not at work when they are trying to recover from the rigors of the workday when they are trying to relax. We have to understand how they eat, recreate, sleep, and engage with family and friends. Socialist change must begin from below.

The road to socialism will be long and slow. So, does all this mean that socialists should abandon reform and electoral politics? No, for several reasons. First, and most importantly the revolutionary left must stay in groups like DSA to prevent a movement, borne out of frustration, toward social democracy. We know that reform will never challenge capitalist stability. Capitalists are clever. They can easily subvert movements for green energy, Medicare extensions, and social justice. But we also must be careful. Does anyone working for socialism believe that the rich and powerful will simply accept social reforms or a democratic outcome of an election, or will they resist it politically, legally, and even militarily? History is instructive here.

In 1930 Germany was a liberal democracy. It only took four years for that democracy to pass into a Nazi dictatorship. After a military defeat in WWI and before the great depression the Nazis received only 2.6% of the votes in German parliamentary elections in 1929. The resulting government was a “reform” coalition of “moderates” and social democrats (SPD). The SPD had played a key role in joining the German right-wing to put down a radical workers’ uprising in 1918-1920. They were “socialists” committed to working within the electoral system. That was a disastrous decision. While the SPD controlled about a third of the electorate before the 1933 elections, its commitment to elections and reform was a disaster in 1933. In the 1933 elections, of the 647 seats in the Reichstag, the SPD managed to win only 120 seats. The Nazis won 288. Adolf Hitler came to power with only 30% of the popular vote in the first round of presidential voting and only 36% in the second round. The Nazis came to power as a minority party because the “moderates” and “reformists” valued a coalition government over a workers’ revolution. Minority democracy could not withstand the humiliation of World War I and the advent of the Great Depression because reforms offered no answers. Laws would be passed, ostensibly make things better. Then they would be repealed and replaced and the cycle would continue again. The failure of these cycles of failed reforms left Germans in a very bad mood. The result of the inherent instability of parliamentary politics handed the world, Adolf Hitler, a coalition compromise.

But that was Germany. Surely that pattern could not be repeated elsewhere. But failed reformist parliamentary strategies in Italy and Spain gave the world Mussolini and Franco. It was Mussolini who taught us that in the end compromise, incremental reform, and electioneering will always give way to the power of wealthy capitalists:

“Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the 'right', a Fascist century. If the 19th century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the 'collective' century, and therefore the century of the State.”

It was Mussolini who made that definition even clearer once in power: “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

History teaches us many things. But to see and understand those things we have to ask some hard questions. January 6 was a flashing warning light. Remember, we have been here before. Industrialists and right-wing politicians plotted a coup against Franklin Roosevelt. In a very convoluted twist of history, the Japanese may have saved American democracy at Pearl Harbor.

Does that mean elections and campaigns for reforms are meaningless? No. But electoral politics have to be approached with realism, not a “Hope” poster. They must be viewed as tactical organizing efforts to recruit people to a militant, politically conscious workers’ movement. In the United States, power will inevitably change with regularity. The Presidency will pass between parties. Control of the House and Senate will go back and forth. The Supreme Court will weigh in on the legality of reforms. The usual answer to this dilemma is the well-worn phrase “two steps forward, one step back.” But as Germany, Italy, and Spain demonstrated it doesn’t always work that way. Reforms are important to fight for, at least symbolically, but substantial structural social change requires much more. It requires the power of a militantly organized political base.

It is that requirement for political power that makes base-building essential for socialist organizers. The hard, nasty, grueling work of base-building through labor, tenant, and abolitionist organizing has to take precedence. Capitalism will not reform itself and it cannot be fixed by legislation and elections. It can be replaced by an organized, politically conscious, militant workers movement. If we build the base, we will win the struggle.

So, what can be done in a socialist organization like DSA? Maybe, the answer is that we should return to processes that created a socialist movement, to begin with: theory and experimentation, trying new things, experimenting. Thinking about organizing by putting forth hypotheses; testing those hypotheses with experiments; and then developing workable, but flexible theses going forward. The experiment is the critical component. It starts with talking to and learning from workers about their work, their politics, and social lives and then intervening in their day-to-day struggles in ways that move them from bureaucracy, reform, and politics as usual to revolutionary consciousness.

It involves experimenting with innovative means of communication from online media, to print, to art. We have to get our ideas out there in an attractive, easily consumable, and understandable form. Then we must pay close attention to reactions from the audience; learning what to do better by listening to our constituencies of workers, tenants, and others. Then using those reactions to rethink and consolidate perspectives among organizers and produce new theories in a fast-moving social, economic and political environment. This was a strategy used most effectively by the French Situationists who used art, songs, and films to communicate in clear terms. It was also a strategy adopted by Italian organizers called “operaismo” in the 1970s. Such a strategy inevitably creates new organizing campaigns and reassesses relations with existing institutions on the left.

Within groups like DSA, we can try breaking with legally bound strategizing and organizational normality. For example, we often anchor our labor organizing within the legal boundaries established by a capitalist-controlled state. Laws like the National Labor Relations Act are used to set our organizing boundaries. We organize labor from within the parameters established by those we are trying to organize. But that may not be the only way. Experiments that step beyond those constraints like workplace slowdowns, wildcat strikes, sick-outs, and the like are worth a try. We are similarly constrained in tenant organizing by legal parameters which favor the landlord class. Within labor union and tenant organizing efforts it is possible, and preferable, to develop a network of militants, an invisible organization that tries new approaches which advance working-class struggles.

DSA and other left organizations need to think in terms of worker control of organizing, not organizational bureaucrats trying to dictate the forms of the struggle. We need to produce and continually reproduce proletarian strength. Such a strategy achieves two goals. First, it builds a real working-class movement. Second, it frustrates the implementation of reforms that are intended to assure the longevity of capitalism itself. The point of organizing a labor union or a tenants’ union is to create an opportunity for workers to reconstitute and organize themselves in a political force in society as an identifiable political class. Working-class institutions are inherently social, but they also must become political. The political nature of the class is created through struggle and struggle is achieved through organizing.

When we talk about the political as opposed to social, we mean that politics is not inherently a function of existing institutions such as political parties or labor unions. Politics is not simply a function of workers’ location in society. Instead, politics must be created from collective interventions (experiments). Those experiments need socialist militants to initiate them.

To prevent organizations like DSA from becoming a deadweight of calcified tradition we have to keep alive political militancy. We need a militancy that rejects bureaucratic forms of organization and goes beyond the traditional ideas of political organizations. A group of militant organizers who immerse themselves in political struggles can and will challenge the rigid, bureaucratic structure of socialist organizations committed to parliamentary democracy and reform. Sustained, militant political actions will inevitably create a counter-leadership born in new initiatives occurring in the workplace, in the tenements, and the streets. This new militant leadership, drawing its legitimacy from the workers themselves creates a process that takes theory, even at the highest level of abstraction, and develops real, concrete political lines for organizing.

Those new political interventions may well involve the politics of refusal; tactical organizing in the “within and against” organizations; work outside of parliamentary constraints; and a variety of experiments in militancy that lead to autonomous, anti-capitalist initiatives. These interventions require a series of focused investigations: to understand the cooptation of radical ideas and programs by the state and its managers over the past century; to understand the corporate domination of the Democratic Party; and, most importantly to understand the discontents and antagonisms emerging among workers. The contradictions produced by capitalism are the weaknesses that will ultimately create the crises which will bring it down.

I know this has been a long and complex argument. But for those of you who would like to explore these ideas further may I suggest these sources.

Anastasi, A. 2020. The Weapon of Organization: Mario Tronti’s Political Revolution in Marxism. Common Notions.

Althusser, L. 1965. For Marx.

Bordiga, A. 1952. The Historical “Invariance” of Marxism.

Dauve, G. and F. Martin. 1974. Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement.

Fanon, F. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth.

Gramsci, A. 1929. Prison Notebooks.

McLaverty-Robinson, A. 2012. An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: Hyperreality and Implosion.

Tronti, M. 1966. Workers and Capital.