For a Truly Pluralistic, Big Tent DSA: A Response to Jared Abbott and Momentum

by Adam S, Bronx/Upper Manhattan DSA

The Monday before the Democratic congressional primary in New York, I slipped out of work early to make one final canvassing push for the long shot challenge to ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Getting off the train and heading down the stairs, past a notably unenthusiastic Crowley canvasser, I walked over to to the volunteer coordinator, my Queens DSA comrade Aaron, whom I had grown close to during the campaign. As the 7 train rumbled overhead, I saw the small clump of volunteers surrounding Aaron’s makeshift table: not just from DSA, but from other progressive groups who also had endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot bid for the House, as well as unaffiliated volunteers who were just inspired by Alexandria’s candidacy.

As the volunteers milled around, getting their turf assignments and chatting casually, none other than AOC herself showed up. She addressed the assembled supporters with a version of her stump speech I had heard numerous times before, talking about the need to get corporate money out of politics, Medicare-for-all, and a $15 minimum wage. As she wound down her pep talk, she individually shouted out the groups that supported her. She moved from Common Defense (a progressive veterans group), to Our Revolution, to Justice Democrats. Then, she turned to my red-shirted comrades and myself. “I’m so proud to be endorsed by a group like the Democratic Socialists of America; a group that is always on the ground showing up for people. Whether it’s immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or women’s rights, you guys are always there, in the streets, fighting for people.”

I think about AOC’s characterization of my NYC comrades often now as debates about the organization’s future unfold. What she identifies as crucial and special about DSA — the diverse nature of our work that cuts not just across issues, but also across the various leftist ideologies and tendencies within our big tent — is what I have grown to value as well. However, I have come to learn that this is not the vision shared by all corners of the organization — that some do not view our big tent nature and diverse array of member-directed work as an asset, but rather a distraction from what should be our core organizational mission. This essay addresses that centralizing tendency within the organization, and argues that while it may have been useful for a certain set of historical conditions, it is the wrong perspective for the current state of DSA.

A bit more about my own organizing history within DSA: Since Alexandria’s unexpected victory, I’ve pitched in on various work in New York as part of the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch, particularly the Save Allen Psych campaign, the organizing committee of our branch political education working group, and volunteering to be a mobilizer. What I found I enjoyed the most about DSA was the relative freedom to participate in the wide variety of campaigns afforded by the organization’s big-tent nature. In contrast to the electorally-oriented Alexandria campaign, the Save Allen Psych campaign was a lesson in community organizing. Through my mobilizing work, I helped new members plug into working groups and projects across not just the geographical space in the city, but also ad relatively wide left ideological spectrum within the organization. In the political education committee, we read a wide variety of texts (including a socialist feminist led reading group of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which to this day remains my favorite DSA event ever), and helped on a Currents in Leftist Thought forum, which sought to clarify at least a few of the major political tendencies within the organization’s big tent.

For personal reasons, however, my tenure in New York was to come to an end. The city had worn me down, so when my company floated the possibility of a transfer to Philadelphia, my wife and I jumped on it. This, of course, got me researching the Philadelphia chapter of DSA, about which I had only heard vague rumors. So, while visiting Philly, I went to a meeting of their Local Initiative, Local Action Committee (LILAC, for short), and found a small-scale replica of the way things looked like in NYC: people self-organizing around issues that they felt important in their community. They obviously had issues with their steering committee, but at this juncture I had not been following the back-and-forth of invective and counter-invective well enough to know besides the broad outlines of them getting censured for holding an unsanctioned reading group, which seemed exceptionally silly.

Regardless of my positive association with the LILAC folks, I sought to look at the Philly situation with an open mind. I am not an ideologue — I am happy to do electoral, community organizing/base building work, and mutual aid, and while anti-fascist counter-demonstrating, civil disobedience, and other direct actions are not necessarily for me, I’m more than happy that my comrades are willing to put themselves at risk to participate in those activities. In general, I take seriously the idea that DSA is a big-tent, multi-tendency organization, where one can protest the closing of a mental health ward in the morning, canvas for a candidate in the afternoon, provide mutual aid in the evening and build a tenants union after dinner, all while not becoming an anarchist, social democrat, or revolutionary socialist.

This is why I found the internecine fight going on in Philadelphia so alien: their way of running the chapter was in stark contrast to the more open local that I was familiar with. For example, to get the imprimatur of the chapter, be eligible for reimbursement, or to be included in bi-weekly membership blasts or get social media promotion, resolutions had to be approved in highly structured, quarterly general meetings. Unlike the working groups that could form on a whim in NYC by a group of interested in a particular campaign, get added to regular branch email blasts, collect funds, and generally work independently, committees in Philadelphia DSA could only be formed following a vote by a general assembly, and resolutions to form committees had to overcome quite a few hurdles. First they had to pass through a (closed, Steering-Committee controlled) Resolution Committee, then the SC-affiliated caucus would submit amendments oftentimes aimed at stopping those committees from undertaking campaigns (See: Amend 2018:11:06A on page 10, wherein a member of the SC affiliated caucus submitted a resolution to disallow the housing working group from being able to undertake its own campaigns), and then, if things did manage to make it to the floor, the SC-affiliated caucus would pass out literature whipping votes against resolutions they didn’t like.

It doesn’t stop there; while Robert’s Rules were used to run meetings, Philly’s Steering Committee had adopted a variation that prevented amendments from the floor, meaning that amendments had to be adopted or rejected wholesale, and one objectionable piece of language would ruin the entire resolution/amendment (and if it failed on the floor, better luck next quarter I guess). Without any chapter-wide communication platform (Slack, Facebook or otherwise), the debate had to happen entirely in these meetings, meaning that the stakes were incredibly high and that a great deal of power was given to the (SC-appointed) parliamentarian in shaping this debate. Lastly, the Steering Committee terms were two years long, with replacements for intra-term vacancies appointed by the Steering Committee, rather than elected (though their bylaws provided for an option to appoint or elect replacements, the SC had chosen the former option). Taken together, it definitely did not seem that there was a member directed, bottom up organization of heterogeneous political tendencies, but rather a relatively centralized, top-down structure where one tendency dominated and the others were sidelined. This was probably great if your politics generally aligned with the SC, but was likely to cause a great deal of frustration if they diverged.

This led me to ask the obvious question: why would a chapter choose to be run this way? It seemed silly that, with so many things to fight against with regards to the myriad injustices of our capitalism-dominated society, members should spend their time organizing internally against their comrades. Again, I sought an actual explanation, rather than assume bad motives, because I truly believe that assumption of good faith is essential to every interaction we have with comrades in NYC DSA. The Momentum-affiliated members on the DSA forums who came to argue with the (very vocal) Philly opposition were of no help in understanding the debate — they seemed to be speaking solely in terms of internecine conflict, of he-said-she-said interpersonal nonsense, assertions that everything was done “in order”; while the Steering Committee and its associated caucus was certainly allowedto take the actions described above, it seemed entirely separate from the central question of why the structure (which I viewed as the root cause, rather than individual actions of bad actors) existed in the first place.

As many may know, Philly’s steering committee is run by a caucus that is associated nationally with the Momentum Slate on the NPC. Members with the same ideological formation also comprise the leadership of East Bay (under the Bread and Roses slate), and many of their members work at the publication Jacobin. In a (laudable) attempt to make their vision for the organization transparent they’ve been publishing articles under The Call, with the purpose of starting a national, open caucus for members of their particular tendency. For the purposes of this essay, however, I’ll refer to them as Momentum, simply because I do not know what the Call’s caucus is going to be called. The thinking behind their ideal organizational structure (which aligns with the Philly local) is laid out in an essay titled “For a Democratic and Effective DSA” by Jared Abbott.

The article is long but the argument is as such: each chapter must balance out the need to be effective with the need to have members participate in decision-making, and this is done through members electing a steering committee to run most of the day-to-day organization, and voting on chapter-wide priorities that the chapter will be mainly focused on. All other high-level chapter business will be run through general meetings, which are very important, large productions because they are the main venue by which the general membership can exercise decision making power, but in the interim, the SC has a great deal of power and discretion compared to the rank and file (also, there’s a long digression about why you should cut leadership slack, but zero discussion of how to initiate meaningful oversight or transparency mechanisms, like a recall procedure, save for the suggestion that those unhappy with leadership simply wait their terms out).

Abbott sees the necessity of representative democracy to counter the “tyranny of structureless” wherein “leaderless” organizations devolve into informal leadership based on clique rather than transparent leadership. To hammer this home, he brings up the example of Occupy Wall Street general assemblies, where nothing got done because too much had to be run through direct democracy, leading to informal leadership hierarchies based on social status. (As an aside, there’s an irony in that the organizational structure proposed in the Jo Freeman essay is far more horizontalist than the structure advocated by Momentum. Read the “Principles of Democratic Structuring” at the end of the essay)

However, as the specter of Occupy fades, this structure has to contend with actually existing left formations, like the working group structure of my home NYC branch which has neither the level of power invested in the steering committee nor the bureaucratized democracy of a general meeting. Instead of “leadership,” we have a set of branch-level organizing committees whose responsibilities mainly include scheduling branch meetings, which mostly serve as educational events and pep rallies, with the odd candidate endorsement debate happening every once in a while. We have a Citywide Leadership Committee tasked with high level organizational decisions, but generally, they stay out of the way of the branch-level work. Our citywide convention sets priorities for the year, deciding who gets special resources like dedicated committees/working groups and extra funding, but working groups are able to to work independently on whatever campaigns they see fit. Pretty much all the actual “work” happens in branch and city level working groups, which make their own bylaws and elect their own leadership, and generally act as small-scale cells that allow for experimentation, both in terms of how they run campaigns, and how they choose to self-organize (Some, such as the Bronx/Upper Manhattan Political Education group, are themselves experiments in radical democracy). To get a sense of the wide variety of the work that goes on in our chapter: you can read our branch wrap up here and our working group wrap up here.

However, I find the charge that this “structureless” leads to tyranny and ineffectiveness to be puzzling. Far from being an ineffective, aimless organization, NYC has accomplished quite a bit, including electing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, and it is deep in the fight to push for stronger rent control laws in 2019. You’d be hard pressed to find people who feel tyrannized by our structure, as most people who want to can find their niche within the large amount of diverse and successful work that we are doing. There’s arguments and differences, sure (the debate to endorse Cynthia Nixon got quite a few hackles raised), but in general, the stakes of contested elections — positions on the City Leadership Committee, candidate endorsements, priority vs. secondary campaigns — are relatively low, so everyone can be relatively happy with the results of an election even if they lose it.

Regardless, the general meeting model does have a decent justification: as we grow, we should perhaps limit members from taking part in activities that would be detrimental to the organization as a whole (perhaps to head off the possibility of the DSA Class Collaborationist Working Group on one end and the DSA Weathermen 2.0 Working Group on the other), and GM’s can at least provide a referendum on those activities. However, that does not explain the hostility towards priorities that differ from those of the Steering Committee, as shown in Philly and East Bay, which seem extra-structural. After all, one could imagine a version of the GM model where pretty much every member-generated resolution sails through unless highly objectionable, which is what I believe is the structure of other large urban locals like MDC DSA, Chicago, and Los Angeles (my comrades in these cities can correct me if I’m wrong).

The answer is in The Call piece. In it, Abbott describes the necessity of focusing around a few, narrowly-defined demands.

“It is important to recognize both the considerable value of DSA’s character as a multi-issue, pluralistic organization and the fact that achieving our strategic goals as an organization requires significant concentration of resources and coordination. We only have so much capacity as an organization, so we must make difficult (often excruciating) decisions about which campaigns to prioritize. This is why it is crucial for chapters to develop a set of priorities, voted on by the entire membership, to serve as a strategic guide for the chapter’s elected leadership. Ideally these priorities will consider and significantly reflect the organizational priorities approved democratically by the most recent national DSA convention as well.”

Member-initiated work, however does not really constitute part of Abbott’s plans for a chapter:

“Committees and working-groups whose work falls outside the scope of the chapter’s democratically-approved priorities can serve the vital function of building solidarity with a wide range of social movement allies, but legitimately-elected chapter leadership must still oversee their strategy and orientation.”

This framing sketches out what I think is the most important point of divergence with my experience in NYC and the more closed structure of Philly and East Bay: the belief that narrow prioritization is essential for DSA’s success. Philly has had some great wins: good cause legislation, fair workweek, their near-miss in flipping Kristen Seale’s house seat, but so has New York, with far less restriction on member activity and less resultant organizational friction. This is also true of other medium-to-large urban locals: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco all have put some pretty great numbers on the boards, while maintaining a robust culture of member-directed work. How does the existence of wins in these cities square with the idea that the only way to be effective is to focus narrowly on a set of priorities? And, if this restriction on member activity is causing more friction and frustration with no discernible benefit to the organization as a whole, what purpose does it serve?

I do not think that Abbott’s ideas are necessarily bad, but I do think they’re misapplied to current conditions. I fully believe Philly and East Bay models may have been effective in a particular set of historical circumstances: if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, for instance, and DSA became a recruiting ground for disaffected Bernie Supporters/ex-progressives who realized the limits of liberalism and the Democratic party and became actual socialists. Chapters in the structure of Philly and East Bay would’ve been useful for waging a focused, protracted people’s war for demands like Medicare-for-all and a large scale implementation of the Rank and File Strategy and the Ackerman Plan; I could see this structure of leadership cadre + rank and file being an excellent way to push for a narrow set of socialist demands by riding off of Bernie coattails, and as part of a larger broad left movement of which DSA was one part.

However, these historical conditions are not true in a post-Trump-bump, post-Ocasio-Cortez world, and the justification of limited resources is a bad one: DSA is not the Bernie-to-leftism pipeline envisioned by Momentum, but rather, has accumulated members who fall all across the (wide) ideological spectrum of the left. As a result, DSA suffers not from a lack of focus and a limited amount of member enthusiasm, but rather, a large, unengaged membership; though we boast 55,000 members, we have a ton of paper or marginally engaged members who have already taken the plunge and given us their membership dues, we just have to get them involved. When you have a lot of campaigns — some big, some small, most of which are self-started by membership interest with as little friction as possible, free bureaucratic wrangling and obstruction — you have more opportunities to engage your paper members who may have paid their dues, and are on an email list or two, but just need to find the right campaign that gets their juices flowing (this is why mobilizing is so important).

Not only that, but by offering the membership the opportunity to take part in the day-to-day strategic decision making of small-scale, locally oriented campaigns, you both grow their capacity as organizers and deeper their commitment to the organization. Democracy is a process that extends far beyond voting at an infrequent general meeting and handing off those decisions to an elected representatives, it’s about exercising sovereignty over the structures that shape our society, including the organizations we are a part of. I did not sign up to DSA to simply be a footsoldier in Momentum’s Left-Kautskyite program, I joined precisely because there was no party line so there was less pressure to define exactly where my politics lie. However, it’s pretty clear that, if able to seize control of a branch (not to mention national) levers of power, Momentum’s ideal vision does not include the full spectrum of left politics, but rather, an organization singularly focused around their own priorities and ideology.

Which brings me to my own organizing history: what might have seemed like a long and self-indulgent diversion of my organizing experience earlier in this essay is illustrative of an important organizational point: by having multiple ways to plug in, you have far more openings to grow as an organization, both by bringing people in and by deepening the engagement of people already in it. As a mobilizer, I took great pleasure in following up with a mobilizee I hadn’t seen in a while, only to find that they were deeply involved in an entirely different part of the organization. The Save Allen Psych campaign did wonders for strengthening our connection to local community groups — we deepen our connection to medical students and the nurse’s union who were outraged at the closing of the psych ward, local progressive activists who found the work as a dovetail to talk about the New York Health Act, and DSA members from around the city, who had a personal connection to the importance of access to mental health services.

Allen Psych is an especially interesting counterfactual: it is my understanding that Save Allen Psych grew out of New York Health Act (our version of M4A) campaigns, because locally, the conditions were not right to canvass for NYHA (Our local state senator supported NYHA) and there was a pressing issue of the closing of a Psychiatric Ward in our backyard. If Bronx/Upper Manhattan was run the way Philly or East Bay was, would Allen Psych have gotten off the ground, or would we had to stay the course on the original canvassing-first strategy for M4A/NYHA? Would our political education working group been willing to try something new and run a fiction reading group, which brought a whole new set of paper members on the socialist feminist listserv, many of whom are now active DSA organizers? Would we have been able to run a political education event that highlights differing political tendencies, or would we be too focused on running a night school that focuses around a bibliography to highlight a particular political tendency shared by those in leadership?

As a final point of illustration, take my comrade in the anecdote in the beginning of this essay: Aaron, now on the Organizing Committee of the Queens chapter (congrats, Aaron!) has put his organizing skills built on the Ocasio-Cortez campaign towards the fight against Amazon’s HQ2 deal. The Queens branch has turned the skills and expertise built on a national campaign to bear on a local issue, and engaged the community in ways that electoral canvassing never could. This is the vision I want for everyone in DSA, the vision that Alexandria pinpointed as the special quality of the organization: to see the various manifestations of capitalist domination, and to engage our heterogeneous membership to join in solidarity with the local, on the ground fights against it. That’s not to say we should take our eyes off the prize of legislative and electoral wins, but rather, that we should reject the framing where these trade-offs need to be made in the first place. The labor and engagement of our members is not a finite resource to be parceled out among a narrow set of priorities, but rather, a pool that deepens and widens as their skills and commitment to the organization grows.

I hope that I’m not pissing on my chance to have a positive, comradely relationship with my future Momentum-affiliated Philly comrades by writing this essay — after all, the Call’s editors themselves have stated that they encourage clear, open, and principled debate within the membership and I feel like this essay has fallen within those parameters. I also do not want this to come off as an anti-Momentum sectarian screed; I consider members of Momentum and the Call to be my comrades, and I have done a lot of work to model one of our core community agreements of “assume good faith, but challenge” to give these ideas a fair analysis. I think that their focus on mass action and mass demands should definitely be part of our work within DSA, and perhaps could even form the backbone of our national organizational strategy (but with freedom to adapt to local conditions). But I what I strongly believe is that their perspective on how the organization should be run — top-down, centralized, with member initiative stifled by bureaucracy and decision making power generally taken out of the hands of the rank and file — is anathema to what made my experiences in organizing in DSA so great, and would impede the process of member development that turned me and many of my close comrades into the organizers equipped for the long term fight to secure a socialist future.

In conclusion, I quote Abbott himself:

“Given the limited experience most of us have with collectively building democratic spaces of a significant size of course, it’s no wonder that some of our democratic experiments are less successful than others, or that we sometimes proceed momentarily down paths that in hindsight might not have been the most productive.”

Indeed, the Momentum chapter structure was a noble idea and a worthwhile experiment but ultimately, its structure leads to organizational friction, member frustration, and, if left unchecked, complete foreclosure of the multi-tendency nature of the organization. I am glad for the work Momentum comrades put into the organization — I’ll probably even work with them on some of their priority campaigns. I consider them valuable comrades, and if the open caucus they are forming is oriented around connecting like-minded members and sharing best practices for those of their ideological and political tendency while still respecting the federated, big tent structure of DSA, then the development of their caucus in my view is a wholly positive one for the organization. However, if their caucus results in seeking out power in order to proliferate their vision for attenuated chapter democracy, and their internal organizing is aimed at imposing that vision on the National organization as a whole, then I fear it will irreparably hamstring our efforts to build a diverse, multi-tendency mass movement necessary to build our socialist future.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the author’s personal Medium – https://medium.com/@adamschlesinger1/for-a-truly-pluralistic-big-tent-dsa-a-response-to-jared-abbott-and-momentum-48cc12a6b500

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