UNITING TO WIN POINTS OF UNITY
As the largest socialist organization in the US, DSA faces two critical questions: What is the most promising strategy for building socialism in the 21st century? And what kind of organization must DSA become in order to carry it out?
In developing our answers to these questions, we have drawn on the work of thinkers and organizers like Naomi Klein, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Jane McAlevey, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Mike Davis, and many others. But most of all, we have learned from our own experiences organizing in DSA, whether that’s raising voters’ expectations at tens of thousands of doors, leading coalitions to beat back right-wing power grabs, or moving people through discouragement and fear into action as committed organizers.
🤝 Build Class Alignment
Despite many differences within DSA, we are able to come together around a basic principle of socialist movements: We must organize the working class to win. Yet across US history, class consciousness has proven uniquely difficult to build, as workers must cross myriad divisions to find solidarity, including religion, geography, industry, skill level, ethnicity, immigration status, culture, gender, sexuality, and above all race. While we are now seeing very promising stirrings of renewed organization through labor struggles, we are nowhere near the level of worker organization that could begin directly implementing a socialist program, whether through revolution, concerted labor actions such as general strikes, or an independent socialist-labor party.
As such, we believe the most vital goal of the left in the near to medium term is class formation—politicizing the working class to support and fight for our socialist program as a unified, self-conscious force.
How do we go about this profoundly challenging project? History shows that organizing workers into class-based institutions such as labor unions can build both working class power and leftist worker consciousness. We must continue to follow this path, building independent working class power to the greatest extent possible. Yet because the US working class is uniquely heterogeneous and divided, even well-organized working class institutions cannot easily be cohered into a single workers’ movement.
In order to develop class-wide solidarity and struggle, we must combine direct organizing of workers—on shop floors, in buildings, and across neighborhoods—with the struggle to win and effectively wield state power.
We can use independent working class organization to seize enough state power to implement transformative reforms: state policies and programs that materially shift the balance of power towards the working class, whether by increasing share of social goods or expanding ability to organize. Successful reforms will help to build an increasingly unified working class political constituency, which in turn will open the way for more powerful working class organization. The goal is to repeat this cycle to the point where whole elements of the economy can be fully decommodified—moving us towards our ultimate goal of socialism.
We call this strategy, which reshapes the political terrain in order to unite the diverse elements of the working class, Class Alignment.
🧰 Organize Labor
The class alignment strategy relies on the dual goals of working class organization and state power. Along with many in DSA, we believe the best path forward for worker organization is building and ultimately helping to lead the US labor movement. As with the working class itself, the US labor movement is profoundly heterogeneous; as such we cannot approach it with a one-size-fits-all strategy, but rather a diversity of tactics. Our approach to labor should include all of the following elements:
- Continue to build union democracy and militancy from below. One crucial element of this longer-term project is the rank and file strategy, which we should strengthen and expand. Another element is support for democratic-militant caucuses contesting for power within their unions, when such support aligns with our broader strategy.
- Embrace working with union leadership when it advances the socialist project. Union leadership, like the labor movement more generally, is deeply heterogeneous—with some leaders closely aligned with our goals, others fiercely opposed, and still others in between. We should consider collaborating with leadership where we believe working together will help build longer term labor-left alignment and achieve our short- to medium-term goals.
- Make labor more visible. In order to develop the independent power of labor unions, we should collaborate with them on efforts to popularize the labor movement. Moreover, we should seek to support union campaigns that have national reach and visibility and can open the opportunity for large scale politicization of the public towards labor consciousness.
- Politicize workers. Our engagement with labor cannot stop with supporting the strengthening and expansion of unions. To build the power we need, we must also draw workers and their institutions into self-conscious political struggle that extends beyond the shop floor. A more aggressively politicized labor movement could be crucial in winning reforms that in turn remove barriers to even more widespread worker organization and politicization.
⚡️ Win and Wield State Power
Winning and wielding state power will allow us to accomplish the following critical goals, all of which are necessary complements to our independent working class organizing:
- Win transformative reforms that shift the balance of power towards the working class and enable further organizing
- Establish a visible, viable political alternative to the two-party system that can contest for hegemony and attract unorganized elements of the class
- Offer a shared policy vision for the transition towards socialism that can unify the diverse organizations and elements of the working class.
We believe the best way towards state power is combining our electoral and legislative efforts into a unified political strategy, coordinated across local, state, and federal government. We should understand our electoral and legislative work as fundamentally inseparable—two sides of the same coin. Here is how we understand these overlapping projects:
🗳️ Elect Socialists at All Levels
Our organization has succeeded in developing a winning formula for electing socialists; our present task is to better integrate our electoral work into a comprehensive, longer-term organizational strategy.
We can do so by following these guidelines:
- We should understand socialists in office as force multipliers. DSA elected officials are able to amplify many kinds of power, including but not limited to the power to pass legislation, the power to shape state action, the power of mass media and propaganda reach, and the power to organize people through direct outreach in their neighborhoods and institutions. As the inside component of our inside-outside strategy, electeds channel our external movement power directly into the levers of the state and state-adjacent bodies, exerting force in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
- Our races should be coordinated with legislative campaigns. By running electoral and legislative campaigns in tandem, we multiply the force of both efforts: candidates can popularize our legislative goals and frighten incumbents into supporting them; legislative campaigns can in turn promote our candidates as the best way of winning what we want.
- Our races should popularize socialism. Because the majority of people as well as the media engage with politics chiefly through elections in the US context, electoral work offers an unparalleled opportunity to contest capitalist hegemony. We should seize this opportunity to politicize the working class and bring more of it into the socialist movement as supporters and ultimately organizers.
- Our races should build the organization. Before taking on a race, we must gauge its potential to recruit new members and train new leaders. Once we commit to a race, we should set measurable goals for both recruitment and leadership development. After a race, we must seek to consolidate our gains, returning to voters both to draw them into organizing for our political program and to recruit them into DSA.
- Our races should experiment. The more races DSA wins, the more the establishment fears us and takes measures to adapt to fight off our challenges. Moreover, unexpected conditions such as low voter turnout sometimes cause our usual electoral strategy to fall short. Given these challenges, we must continue to evolve both our overall electoral strategy and our individual tactics.
- We should run to win. Given our currently limited resources, as well as the critical need to build power within the state, we should only run races where there is some realistic chance of winning.
💥 Fight for Transformative Reforms
We believe that legislative campaigns should be our third major priority alongside labor and electoral. By passing sweeping reforms, we can use the state to create new politicized constituencies that can then be organized into further, more ambitious struggles. In developing our legislative campaigns, we should follow these guidelines:
- Our legislative campaigns should be coordinated with electoral campaigns. Here we repeat the principle stated above: the force of our legislative and electoral campaigns will be multiplied if we conduct them in tandem.
- Our legislation must build class alignment. If our aim is to cohere and politicize the working class, our legislative program must speak to the shared needs of multiple segments of the working class. Regardless of the specific reforms, we must develop the capacity to clearly communicate to our potential working class base how the legislation will not only benefit them, but also build their power relative to the ruling class.
- Our legislation should allow us to build coalitions. Within any given legislative context (whether local, electoral, or federal), we must develop our legislation in light of not only the broader working class considered in the abstract, but also the specific segments of the working class that we are seeking to unite. For example, if the building trades constitute a critical political force in a state where we are organizing, and we need to build ties with their workers to advance our overall political program, we might develop a climate bill that includes building retrofits that would create new jobs for the trades, as opposed to a bill that advances decarbonization but doesn’t create new jobs.
- Our legislation should be winnable in the medium term. The class alignment strategy outlined above relies not only on proposing but actually passing transformative reforms. As such, we should select legislative priorities that—while highly ambitious—are, in our best judgment, winnable in the medium term.
➕ Unify Our Struggles
The three-fold program articulated above—labor, electoral, legislative—is designed entirely around the project of class formation. Yet this project is doomed to fail if we do not analyze and engage with the many other vectors of oppression that exist in US society alongside class-based exploitation: white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia and ethnonationalism, homophobia and transphobia, and ableism, among others.
Stuart Hall famously posited that “race is the modality through which class is lived”; taking up the spirit of his statement and expanding beyond the category of race, we can say that one’s objective position in relation to production—i.e., one’s class—is frequently mediated by and experienced through other categories of identity. For example, in a society so profoundly structured around white supremacy it should not be surprising that a Black person may experience Blackness as the primary cause and marker of their oppression. One may say that fundamental tool of Marxist analysis is class, and in the final analysis our goal may be a classless society, but if our organizing does not meet people where they are—in their own experience of their oppression, which includes factors beyond class per se—we can hardly hope to unite the class. To put it simply: We are unlikely to win the class struggle without winning all of our other struggles.
From a concrete organizing perspective, this principle means that in all of our organizing we must acknowledge the multiple structures of oppression people face and seek to overcome not only class exploitation but the entire suite of oppressions that structure US society.
🎉 Act Like a Party
Much debate about the organization and activity of DSA has centered around the party question: should we form an independent party, seek to realign the Democratic Party, or establish a party-like formation somewhere in between? We deemphasize this formal—and almost always ideological—question and instead concentrate on a practical one: How do we build durable political power in the context of the chaotic, highly uncoordinated party system of the US? We believe that DSA should build a Party Infrastructure, which can carry out the functions of a political party, whether it legally constitutes one or not. We should focus on developing the following functions:
- Cohere the socialist movement. The DSA party infrastructure can and should become the political home of individuals who identify with socialist values. Meanwhile, DSA should seek to form a connective tissue linking and coordinating all forms of left activity, from electoral politics and labor organizing to issue based campaigning and direct local struggles against landlords and energy companies.
- Develop a platform. The party infrastructure should develop and popularize a political platform that clearly outlines socialist values and policy goals for the near to middle term. By a platform we mean not just a list of leftist policies, but a group of reforms that taken together offer a coherent vision of social democratic transformation of the US, and ultimately a springboard for full socialization of our economy.
- Build a mass messaging and communications infrastructure. To cohere a mass party base, we need to build and control a disciplined mass communications infrastructure that clearly identifies the struggles of working class Americans, diagnoses their root cause in our exploitative capitalist system, and clearly explains a socialist theory of change.
- Create a social and cultural infrastructure. To bind together masses of people for the long fight ahead, we will need more than solidarity—we will need shared culture and community. In the near term we can build social and recreational activities into as many organizing projects as possible; in the longer term we should work towards establishing independent socialist institutions where our members can build and nourish their bonds.
🗃️ Develop Our Strategy Making Capacity
Within DSA there is much debate over what our strategy should be, but very little over how to actually develop strategy. We believe a lack of consensus on the principles and practices of strategy making is an underappreciated cause of conflict in our organization. With an eye towards opening up this conversation, we propose the following vision of strategy:
- Strategy is dynamic. A strategy is not a fixed plan but rather a dynamic process. It should be revisited frequently to gauge efficacy, adjust to changing conditions, and capitalize on emergent opportunities. Our strongest campaigns have maintained an openness to revising strategy as necessary to meet goals. By contrast, campaigns grounded in fixed, ideologically predetermined strategies have generally fared poorly.
- Strategy must be grounded in current historical conditions and organizational capacity. Effective strategy starts from where you are, not where you want to go. As such, it must be based on a sober analysis of the current terrain and organizational capacity, and circumscribed by our understanding of what is possible at any given moment. By the same token, it must not be driven by a priori political precepts: on the contrary, our political vision can and should be informed by the lessons we learn from both successful and unsuccessful strategies.
- Strategy-making is a collective, democratic endeavor. A strategy is only as strong as the group of people involved in making it; the collective knowledge, experience, and insight of the group will determine how far it can go. Strategy teams should include everyone expected to play a significant role in a campaign or project, as well as anyone with special expertise, knowledge, or relationships in relevant areas. Moreover, we should seek to include potential leaders in the strategy making process, and cultivate an understanding of our strategy across our entire membership.
🛠 Build Constructive Politics
Strikes? Legislation? Elections? Mass action? No single tactic or issue area will win socialism. We need a dynamic, democratic strategy that ensures our diversity of tactics work in tandem instead of in competition. So much of disagreement in DSA stems not from conflicting values, but lack of consensus on what our near and medium term goals actually are, let alone how to assess them. With a guiding strategy, we can not only accurately assess our goals in a constructive, coordinated, and sustainable fashion—we can better win them.
And we can win them. While still far off, the level of power DSA has built today is enough that, if used strategically, can be grown into exponentially more. That means engaging in what Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls Constructive Politics: “a world-making project aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement, not mere critique of the ones we already have.”
A culture of constructive politics enables every one of us to have the courage to try to change the world, together. That culture, says Táíwò, “would focus on outcome over process, the pursuit of specific goals or end results rather than avoiding complicity in injustice or promoting purely moral or aesthetic principles.”
While many of us came to the left through our “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” and are even fueled by it, a constructive politics means using this critique in the service of action and improvement, not inaction and obstruction. Let’s leave behind the destructive infighting tendencies of a pre-2016 left more focused on avoiding the wrong action than taking the right one, and enter the unknown world of a left that is a legitimate player on the American political stage.
😎 Cultivate Socialist Community
We must treat every aspect of recruiting and maintaining membership with the same gravity as any other campaign—if not more. Too many who agree with our values and vision are driven away by a lack of standardized onboarding, limited pathways into meaningful action, and the toxic image that dominates social media.
When we actively cultivate welcoming, accessible, and engaging communities, we can make DSA a place we feel comfortable inviting anyone who shares our values.
As so many of the shared institutions and even physical spaces that let people meet have been privatized and destroyed, DSA can offer not just a political home, but also a rare place to make friends that isn’t a school or workplace. This is accomplished through the unique bonds of shared political struggle as well as more classic social events like block parties, sports clubs, and informal interest groups around hobbies like cooking, music, or even gaming.
These efforts must also extend beyond physical meetings and events. As tempting as it is to write off the toxicity of online political spaces as “not real life,” it is a mistake. The truth is, much of modern life is lived on digital platforms, and the communication there is just as real as any other kind between people. Given that these platforms are owned by corporations that profit by actively fostering conflict and amplifying the most bad faith forms of any statement, we must work to ensure the area in which most people first encounter DSA—including the media—looks like one anyone who agrees with our vision would want to be a part of.
Yes, the stakes are high, and righteous anger and sadness are an inherent part of organizing. But so are creativity and joy. The truth is, there is no better feeling than finding those who care about the same things you do, and fighting alongside them together to make it a reality. Let’s make sure everyone knows it!