For members of DSA San Francisco who have been in the chapter for several years, Red Star is probably a familiar name. However, there are many members of DSA, or people who are part of the broader socialist or communist left, who are not members of DSA San Francisco, so a brief reintroduction is probably in order. Red Star is a caucus of revolutionary Marxists within DSA San Francisco. The genesis of Red Star was initially as a local branch of Refoundation, a revolutionary Marxist formation within DSA that fell apart just as our branch was formally getting organized.
Refoundation was one of several projects that was built to be a counterweight to the Social Democrat hegemony of the early years of the new DSA, exemplified in the Bread and Roses Caucus. It adopted revolutionary Marxism as its pole and identified itself with the base-building tendency. Like several of these projects, the contradiction between the two tasks here - combatting the dominant Kautskyist tendency and developing a program for DSA - proved to be impossible for the caucus to manage. Maintaining practical and political unity across a national political formation was neither practically feasible nor politically useful. Refoundation dissolved in late 2018, and its fledgling San Francisco branch was suddenly untethered.
We spent the months after the collapse of Refoundation determining what course of action to take locally and hashing out new points of unity. Some members left, others came on board, and we announced ourselves as Red Star in February of 2019. We organized ourselves in response to the specific conditions in our chapter, conditions which may echo the conditions of other chapters and resonate with DSA members’ experiences in those chapters. Our core beliefs have stayed relatively consistent over the past few years, though we have worked to clarify them. We have also worked extensively to clarify our purpose, our methods, and the nature of our relationship to DSA and other internal DSA formations, all of which have shifted considerably since our inception. An examination of our history and trajectory seems to be a useful exercise at a moment when DSA and the broader socialist movement both seem to be in a great deal of flux and dealing with significant tension.
The Stars Come Out
Red Star arose for a number of reasons, but one particularly important one was a political tension that played out across the San Francisco and East Bay chapters in the time between DSA’s 2016 rebirth and the run-up to the 2019 convention. While East Bay DSA had existed prior to the Trump election and subsequent boom that saw DSA quintuple in size in just a few months, in 2017 DSA SF was barely getting off the ground as a new organizing committee –of which I was a member – after a long period of dormancy. The Bread and Roses Caucus coalesced readily in the East Bay chapter and constructed a pole in the chapter around the Medicare for All campaign which would become DSA’s national priority in the subsequent convention.
DSA SF, which was still getting its bearings, bristled at some of the ways the East Bay chapter comported itself and some of the decisions it made under Bread and Roses leadership. Some of this was wrapped up in East Bay’s approach to process, such as meeting facilitation, bylaws, and grievance processes, and some of this was more explicitly programmatic, best typified by the debate over brake light clinics and later the mobilizations against the far right that took place in the summer. One of the diagnoses that some DSA SF members made of the issues they observed in East Bay DSA was excessive centralization and bureaucratization, the alternative to which was horizontalism.
The horizontalism approach to DSA manifested organizationally in San Francisco as autonomy for its committees and working groups. DSA SF was able to be a political home for a wide breadth of political work, with many paths leading into the organization. However, the limits of horizontalism as an approach were eventually reached, and these limits presented in myriad ways. The organization's parts often failed to communicate with each other to constitute a whole, and committees and working groups struggled to perform more work that is necessary to maintain themselves. Much of the time, debriefs of projects were not performed, report-backs were not produced, and knowledge was not socialized within the organization. Critical collective reflection was performed in a perfunctory manner or not at all. Political tension between projects was rarely addressed, let alone resolved, in the planning stages of work, as organizers tended to be generally siloed in their own work and administrative capacity to ease friction between projects was always too low. Red Star began to coalesce as a response to this condition, first around the Refoundation pole and, when Refoundation failed, on our own. At first, our caucus activity took the shape of working within the horizontal structures of the chapter to pull people towards the work we saw as most valuable and agitating among fellow chapter members.
Red Star members have also been consistently in leadership within DSA SF, and the experience of leading DSA SF has on several occasions led chapter members into Red Star, or at least towards our political vision. During our first couple of years, this tended to take the form of contesting and politicizing leadership elections, attempting to use the chapter bylaws as a mechanism to drive behavior change, and framing chapter discussions in particular ways. It was, and is, a somewhat effective tactic, but rather than improving the issues of the horizontalist structure and proxy struggles across it, the tactic itself often contributed to the issues. The committee and working group structure has been consistently identified as a structural weakness in the chapter, and the general vibe is that DSA SF was less than the sum of its parts, but Red Star members on steering were generally unable to reform it while maintaining it. Moreover, Steering Committee elections were barely contested during this period, making chapter leadership effectively a component of the "do-ocracy" much like any other, with the added challenge of having neither the practical levers or the democratic mandate to lead the organization practically or politically.
Another consequence of this approach is that Red Star was perceived as a party in conflicts that involved the Steering Committee, as well as a "shadowy cabal" that was circumventing democracy. While there was and is not a desire in the caucus to function autocratically or via minority rule, "leadership" as it was constructed and practiced in the chapter was ultimately not as effective a method of enacting change as we hoped. A particularly disastrous chapter meeting where a grievance was relitigated and order nearly collapsed prompted serious reflection and self-criticism, a process we have made use of on several occasions since. The turn towards self-awareness and self-criticism in this regard marks, in a way, a major milestone in Red Star's political maturation.
The Bernie Bust and Aftermath
At the beginning of 2020, we published a set of prescriptions for us and DSA SF. Our political goals were strengthening our effort to build an anti-imperialist pole, supporting the work of the chapter’s Labor Organizing Committee, building out our education program, and being more transparent in our engagement with the chapter. However, reality had other designs. The simultaneous failure of the Bernie Sanders campaign and onset of COVID-19 left DSA adrift and rudderless. The summer’s uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder exposed an organization that lacked the tools needed to connect the summers’ revolts to a project of genuine socialist transformation, and one which tried to cling for dear life to a Democratic party which could hardly disavow it enough when the rubber hit the road in November’s presidential election.
After spending most of 2020 in a reactive mode, Red Star decided to test out a system for prioritizing our work as a caucus. We narrowed the aperture for our projects and tried to set more concrete goals. We stopped publishing individually-authored work for our website entirely. We spent perhaps too much energy trying to quantify and measure our capacity, eventually settling on a total of three main projects that would be decided on every three months. We came up with a more robust program for democratic accountability within our caucus, and have been pushing forward in this mode since.
Some of this work has been fruitful, such as our Red Start political education effort. Altogether they have been a decidedly mixed bag. We joined Partisan but eventually fell out over lack of capacity and political differences. The Cardinal slate effort around the 2021 convention ended in disaster as internal conflicts within the Collective Power Network spilled out into Cardinal, and insufficient internal agreement on our own goals led to conflict within Red Star as well. While all of the resolutions we contributed to passed, including Resolution 14 (despite an attempt to remove it from the consent agenda and quash it from the floor,) the effort spent on Cardinal and the 2021 national convention did not succeed in electing a majority to the NPC. What exists thanks to the priorities process, however, is a record of our expectations versus our experience, something that we can measure and critically analyze our work with.
As a member of Red Star and DSA SF that has pushed for institutional programmatic reflection, both in the chapter and the caucus, I believe Red Star’s 2020 goal-setting exercise and subsequent course have been a qualified success. It was not perfect; not all of the conditions in the chapter we identified were resolved. We have not been immune to burnout, attrition, and political disagreement. However, two years since the release of that program, much of its analysis has borne out, its stated goals have been largely accomplished, and the seeds of a more scientific approach to organizing have taken root. Additionally, we have matured as a formation from a purely ideological pole to a group that has a concrete vision of the organization we are building and how we seek to build it.
To The Stars Again
One of the priorities we adopted this past year was a series of internal alignment discussions. We took up a number of questions, such as organizational structure and function, our relationship to DSA SF and the national organization, and our vision on anti-imperialism, democratic discipline, and historical materialism. Through a series of discussions over a period of several months, we sharpened our understanding of ourselves, our goals, and our methods. The positions we aligned on through these discussions serve as the basis for our revised points of unity and a broader understanding of our political context and tasks.
Fittingly, as part of a subsequent priority, we have committed as a caucus to do more writing, an exercise we have largely ceased to do since mid-2020. We have decided in this journal to expound on our ideas, explain our methods, and apply them to the political and organizational challenges that affect us all as members of DSA. The conditions we are working through in DSA SF are particular, but by no means are they unique. There are broad trends, familiar arguments, and repetitious modes of failure across many different chapters and within the national organization.
Red Star was founded on the principle that we need a revolutionary workers' party that can take control of the state. Our work over the past three years has clarified our understanding of this task a great deal. Despite its shortcomings, Red Star sees working in DSA as our best shot at building this party in the United States. We believe our experiences, insights, and theories gained through our efforts are of use to members in any DSA chapter that believe, as we do, that a workers’ party is the organization we must be building.