Caucuses and ideological currents within and around DSA take many forms. They include tight cadres or loose affiliations of members based on various ideological poles, as well as independent or “inside-outside” formations that seek to direct DSA while also maintaining some remove from it. Many formations within DSA advocate for a break from the Democratic party and the formation of a workers’ party, whether sooner or later. However, the structure, function, and path towards this future party are not commonly agreed upon within DSA, and even among DSA members who consider themselves Marxists.
Red Star believes that the formation of a workers’ party should be a primary focus of DSA. Workers’ parties cannot simply be declared, however, and must be built through practical struggle and activity. While DSA is not a workers’ party, we believe it is possible to essentially treat it as if it were one - a placeholder for a future workers’ party. We have identified useful theories and terms that clarify the task as we understand it and how we will work towards it as a group. These ideas articulate not just a program for DSA, but for ourselves as well. We describe Red Star as a revolutionary Marxist center within DSA, we use the tools of dialectical and historical materialism to guide our courses of action as scientific socialists, and we act according to a system of democratic accountability for collective and delegated decision-making. Taken as a whole, these theories show a blueprint of the organization we need, a guide to building it, and a manual for making it move.
The Center, the Party, and the Class
To clarify the organizing tasks in front of us, Red Star defines three levels of organization. These levels come in part from other writers, and in part from our own writing.This involves some jargon, so we will introduce these levels one by one. The smallest, and most interior, is the Center, followed by the Party, and lastly the Class.
Red Star understands itself as a Center, as defined by Hal Draper in his piece “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect.” Draper defines a center as an ideologically coherent group that organizes for specific approaches and spreads ideas in a broader organizing space, such as a party, a workplace, or neighborhood. He contrasts the center with the sect - the latter being a small cadre that envisions its growth into a mass party via the gradual but inevitable accumulation of members that are inspired by the group’s correct program. Sects, Draper says, have never produced a vital socialist movement, and moreover, are an existential threat to a socialist movement in the United States, should one arise.
Draper cites the “Iskraists” - contributors to and adherents of the journal Iskra - within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party as one such political center. They argued for revolutionary Marxism within the RSDLP, but did not do so in a sectarian manner. Iskraists saw the development of their center and the party as a whole as mutually conditioning struggles. From the outset they hoped to eventually become dominant within the party, but did not attempt to split off as a faction from the party in order to achieve this, nor did they attempt to institute a requirement that party members adopt revolutionary Marxism. Instead, members of the center sought majorities within the party while maintaining its broad character, and spread the center’s ideas in their own circles - their workplaces, communities, and socialist circles. Per Draper, the Iskraists were an example – but not the only example – of a center helping to birth a real socialist movement.
Red Star aims to play the same role within DSA and within a potential Workers’ Party. We advocate for Revolutionary Marxist positions within DSA, educate members of DSA and the working class in Revolutionary Marxism, and organize campaigns that increase the independent power of the working class. We attempt to maintain coherence within our center, and attempt to enact our program democratically within DSA. We do not seek to enforce a particular historical tendency within it, as deciding on a particular framework and applying it whole-cloth to our present situation is not as scientific as drawing from methods we think have been historically effective and discarding methods we think have been historically ineffective. We democratically decide our strategy and tactics internally and act as a unified bloc within DSA, a future Party, and the outside world.
We define the Party as a broad, democratic membership organization that fights for socialism and builds power for the working class. The Party does not need to have its basis in a specific ideology and will necessarily be less ideologically coherent than our center, but it should still understand itself to be socialist, and that working-class power and organization are key elements of the struggle for socialism. This party has the capacity to direct its members and resources to participate in campaigns in particular Arenas of Struggle. We recognize this party does not yet exist, and that it is our task to help build it. We also understand that Red Star itself cannot become this party or simply will it into existence. Whether DSA can become this party or not is uncertain, but we believe it is correct to act as though it may.
The Class is the broadest, least-coherent scale of organization, as it is shaped by capitalism itself, and all of capitalism’s contradictions. To us, class is not a signifier of some inherent virtue, a universal solvent into which all other conflicts readily dissolve, or a personal identity trait that stands out among others. It is not a rhetorical stance or a line of argumentation. It is not a slab of granite out of which we attempt to chisel a perfect proletarian subject, or a sleeping giant waiting to be roused, either by calamity or incantation. The class, more than anything, is the primordial ooze - the raw organic matter - from which change springs, and is always-already springing, under the correct conditions. The working class is, in its resting state, disorganized. However, there are particular loci at which the class is to some degree organized, self-conscious, and fighting, coordinated by some form of organization that is on a spectrum from nearly-diffuse to highly-centralized, as well as from contingent to institutional. The working class, to Red Star, is the class of the great majority constituted of oppressed and exploited people, in need of a common weapon to wield against the system which is the root of that oppression and exploitation, who are able to wield it precisely because the working class is the foundation on which that oppressive and exploitative system has been built.
These three scales of organization - center, party, and class - interact at different sites. The center interacts with itself in internal correspondence and debate. Within Red Star, this includes caucus meetings, communication channels, and our editorial process. The center interacts with the party through the party’s mechanisms. Within DSA SF and DSA generally, this includes contesting leadership positions and convention delegate seats, taking positions on chapter issues, and participating in chapter projects. For example, we advocated for the chapter’s current Electoral Strategy and Ballot Measure Priority as a corrective against an approach to electoral politics that we saw as directionless and prone to opportunism. The party interacts with itself, conducting business, organizing campaigns, and generally carrying out its program. The center also interacts with the class, both by proxy through the party and through its own organizing. This includes events like Red Start and public conversations with other caucuses, where we promote our ideas as our own, and Red Star members organizing in their workplaces and industries through DSA SF’s Labor Organizing Committee and Labor Circles, among other efforts.
Last, the party interacts with the class in Arenas of Struggle. Arenas of struggle are the terrain on which class struggle is waged. They may be any site where the class may come into conflict with the ruling class, particularly at the point of exploitation. Examples of these include labor and union fights, electoral contests, tenant organizing, or street demonstrations. The party may choose to engage in a certain arena of struggle for any number of reasons. Those participating in these struggles do not need to have any level of ideological coherence. A Center organizes to get a Party to direct its resources to fight in particular Arenas of Struggle. Participants from the Arenas of Struggle may be recruited to the Party, and Party members may be recruited to the Center. Each level of organization is distinct from the others, but they all exist in relation to one another, and it is precisely the interplay between them at various sites which drives forward the political and practical development of all.
We are scientific socialists, as well as dialectical and historical materialists. We believe that our project requires experimentation, rigor, and ongoing dialogue between theory and practice. Our theories come not only from the long history of the socialist movement and labor struggle, but from our own experiences as well. In order to be able to effectively direct tactics and strategy in arenas of struggle, we must always strive to operate on correct assumptions and theories about these arenas, ensure that these theories are well-understood within the party, and educate the Class on these theories.
As scientific socialists, it is essential for us to develop, act on, and promulgate theories that explain our concrete situation and our interventions into it. We should be clear about our intentions, assumptions, and hypotheses when we undertake work, and we should update our theories when our expectations aren’t met. Red Star understands Marxism as a living, breathing history of class struggle, and not a set of dogmatic ideals to apply to this or that situation. We read history and theory, but read it critically, in order to understand the context, motivation, and method of revolutionaries, organizers, and movements. We also seek to understand the way that capitalism operates, in order to think and plan long-term about where crises, choke points, opportunities, and ruptures might arise.
An important activity within Red Star, and one that we believe DSA should invest time and energy into doing well, is self-criticism. Setbacks and failures should be interrogated to avoid comforting and self-serving excuses, and reflections on outcomes should be socialized to improve organizational knowledge and memory. Understanding what happens through our organizing and why is imperative as we attempt to struggle in different arenas. Red Star has used Gracie Lyons’s “Constructive Criticism: A Handbook” as a guide to giving and receiving criticism. Criticism and self-criticism done right are not rituals of self-flagellation or shaming, but a concerted effort among comrades to advance our common understanding of the struggle at hand, and to work productively through conflict. As a part of our approach to organizing, it helps us form hypotheses about root causes of conflicts and errors, and identify when it might be a good idea to adjust our course of action.
This scientific approach to organizing, and the framework of Marxism as a method, is inseparable from our understanding of class in a broad sense. The working class is not a monolith, its majority opinions do not constitute a minimal program, and even its most august and steady institutions do not represent the outer limits of our vision for organization. When we consider past and present struggles against exploitation and oppression, it is not to pick winners and losers, but to understand the many interactions at play during revolutionary situations, periods of socialist power, and times of great upheaval. We do not reject any tactic out of hand, nor do we leap into action for action’s sake. We strive to interrogate and prove every assumption and principle we hold as we work. Our most important task is to build the organization which prepares people for revolutionary struggle which can move mountains. We endeavor to build organization within the class, through whatever means are effective and strategic for the time and place.
Red Star envisions a future workers’ party to be a democratic membership organization. The specific meaning of “democratic” within DSA (and even as it fits into the name “Democratic Socialists of America”) is itself an open question. We seek to build a workers' party that allows its membership to democratically decide its tactics and organizing strategy within the class and in particular arenas of struggle. Through this party, we seek to engage in struggles that allow the working class to implement its authentic vision in the world.
Red Star has an internally democratic structure, where we determine what work we will undertake and who will be responsible for it, as well as our position on questions of strategic import facing ourselves and DSA. Our principles are as follows:
- All directing bodies of the caucus, from top to bottom, shall be elected. These bodies can be recalled by the general membership at any time. A robust internal democracy allows us to put trust in leaders we elect.
- Caucus bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to the caucus. The caucus as a whole should be able to assess the work of groups delegated to carry out caucus work and draw conclusions about the progress of projects.
- Democracy is not when everybody gets to do whatever they want (a “do-ocracy.”) It is when members of a group vote as equals to bind themselves collectively and make decisions in line with democratically agreed upon principles. The utility of being a coherent center is acting collectively to accomplish the things we’ve set out to do.
- All decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all caucus members. The highest body is at all times the general membership of the caucus. This is not a principle that is broadly and uniformly applied in all situations; we do not operate via a strict “party line” on all matters within DSA that we hold ourselves to. Rather, this enshrines an ideal circumstance where the caucus resolves political tensions and disagreements with political clarity and collective action in mind rather than striving to maintain total consensus, and places special importance on decisions arrived at through democratic struggle.
This is not necessarily the vision of democracy that we believe is most appropriate for a workers’ party or DSA. However, a crucial feature of any democratic organization is that elected leadership and delegation be expressions of — and accountable to — majority rank-and-file will.
Putting It In Motion
Referring back to Draper, the reason that sects fail to mature into mass parties is thus: the organizing principle of a sect, as well as the yardstick by which they measure the working class and its movements as they exist, is its political program. Growth of the organization occurs as members of the working class come around to the program, whether independently, through conversion, or at the decisive moment of rupture as the sect’s prophecies inevitably come to pass and their position at the vanguard is realized. However good or correct it may be, the program-as-organizing-principle is an exercise in idealism, and has been around in many forms since Marx himself. DSA’s massive growth in the years following the election of President Trump in hindsight seems in some senses like an antithesis of that — an influx of people into one organization that almost overnight broadens its base and expands its political horizon. The DSA resurgence of the past five years, while complex and contradictory in its own right, was resolutely not the self-conscious growth of a sect by sectarian methods. This is in short why, despite its historical flaws and present shortcomings, DSA is useful to us and we are a part of it. What the party is, and says it is — its specific political program and its self-conscious branding — is of secondary importance to its practical relationship to the class. Whether DSA is attractive to (or repellant to) the class matters less than whether or not DSA is instrumental to members of the class in our efforts to organize it and raise its self-consciousness. So long as DSA maintains a broad, democratic, and diverse nature, and intervenes self-consciously in arenas of struggle, it has utility and promise.
For the past two years, however, DSA has suffered the consequences of political miscalculation, inaction, and misleadership at many key areas of the organization. The defeat of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the absolute malaise of national politics under the Biden administration has sapped much of the organization’s vitality. Many members have burned out and have left, whether due to frustration or attrition, and the organization, while still largely functional at the chapter level, has lost much of its 2017 sheen. The political conditions within the organization feel like molasses, even as new and dynamic class struggles are being waged across the country. Public internal fights are dominating the organization, not struggles we are fomenting, aiding, and abetting.
This is not necessarily a death spiral — more likely a tidal recession. We are seeing the reversal of the great influx of the Trump years, and even the effort needed to keep the organization running feels herculean against the draw. Yet as the tide recedes, we can take stock of our ecosystem from a new perspective. We can see the contours of the sea bed, and understand more concretely the terrain we have been organizing on. And we will find tidal pools that remain, teeming with life that is struggling to adapt, lest it perish. The task for Red Star is to resist the urge to consolidate within a tough shell, take comfort in our principles and wait for the next tide — the evolutionary path of the sect — and instead use our methods to try and adapt to the pressures which face us, learning to breathe the air and walk on the land as we continue following our polestar.
This will not be an easy process for DSA — the conflicts we are in are bitter and deeply entrenched, and the tools we have for resolving them at the broadest and highest levels are brittle. There is so very, very far to go under deeply unfavorable conditions. The mountain has not shrunk nor the path to the top cleared itself. The setbacks and retreats we have faced so far are dwarfed by those to come, and we have done frightfully little to reckon with them. Every real step into action against capital brings a momentary catharsis followed by the grim realization of how many more there are to go. The challenges we face and decisions we make as we climb will only become more consequential. But the task remains, and we must keep climbing.
In short, what Red Star endeavors to do is to develop and test our ideas, derived from a revolutionary Marxist perspective, within our center, within DSA through conscious and democratic engagement, and within the class through struggle. We do so with the belief that a workers’ party can and will take shape through these efforts. Our political horizon is communism: the right return of all fruits of labor to the working class and the end of all forms of political, social, and economic domination. Only through principled organization can we even begin to see a path out of the mounting crises we are in.