Organization Is Our Principal Task! On Socialist Electoral Work

Organization Is Our Principal Task! On Socialist Electoral Work

By Sam H-L

DSA caucuses have spent endless time squabbling at the national level about “the break” from the Democrats: when this break should happen, and how clean it should be. Regardless of where you stand, the question remains the same: what should our relationship to the Democratic Party be?

This question is emblematic of the kinds of arguments that DSA is having at this stage in our development: one could imagine this political question having real stakes behind it, but only if DSA were the type of organization whose decisions at the national stage mean much of anything at all. Without a clear and sober analysis of the actual conditions facing our electoral work — both the nature of the Democratic Party and the practical implications of DSA’s organizational structure — the question of our relationship to the Democratic Party will remain untethered from our practical activity. The political questions that we struggle through matter! But they mean nothing without a strong institutional coherence and scientific outlook. Our principal task is organization: building a robustly democratic working-class system to contest power and exercise it. We must not stray from this goal.

As students of history, we know that revolutionary activity is successful when formations have both the political orientation to call for action in decisive moments, and the practical apparatuses and trained leaders able to act collectively on that political line. Without both, DSA will either falter and act incorrectly in the critical moment, or watch helplessly from the sidelines as history chugs along without us there to change its course.

This is a narrow and difficult path to chart, and so we must be deadly serious about understanding the nature of the terrain. This piece is not intended to be a thorough electoral strategy, but will seek to describe some of the limitations of current theories of electoral work in DSA and make a few prescriptions for organizers to apply to their local conditions and incorporate in the run-up to the 2023 national convention.

Democratic Party as Anti-Organizer

The Democratic Party is not a membership organization, or even in most normal senses of the word an “organization” at all. The Democratic Party is best understood as a loose confederation of technologies (such as fundraising email listservs, media properties, and voter outreach systems), unevenly distributed membership structures, and social norms with a generally bourgeois class character; it is held together from above by a cadre of political and economic élites and from below by voter self-identification mediated through popular culture among a shrinking and increasingly middle-class electorate. Due to factors within America’s historical development, two parties, Democratic and Republican, have molded themselves to absorb, respond to, and diffuse political conflict.

The Democratic Party exists, and I don't claim otherwise (despite how Tempest Magazine may misrepresent my position.) It’s just important for us to acknowledge that the Democratic Party “exists” the same way the State, or the working class, or the commodity form “exists”: as a useful abstraction to describe a set of concrete phenomena with their own particularities and contradictions. Within this framework, a ballot line is best understood as a technology with a class character.

The analysis of the Democratic Party as a capitalist party has political and rhetorical power, and advocates for class-independence should be recognized for a clear-eyed analysis of the conditions we face. But this can easily lead us astray when dealing with the practical questions of organizational activity. For example, in “Strange alchemy: the party surrogate and socialist politics in DSA,” Andrew Sernatinger and Emma Wilde Botta characterize the counter position: “They use a lot of complicated formulations and arguments (ballot lines are state institutions and there is no Democratic Party) to end up saying something simple: socialists should just run as Democrats.”

“Socialists should just run as Democrats” is an opinion so lacking in specificity I am not even sure how they would prove it incorrect! There are a wide variety of elections for socialists to contest in different ways, with a wide variety of paths to do so. Different localities in America have differently developed Democratic Party apparatuses that structure and condition what “run as Democrats” even means for races other than president and Congress. Almost 16% of Americans live in states with top-two primaries or instant run-off for state and federal offices (AK, CA, LA, WA). 22 of the 30 largest U.S. cities have non-partisan primaries for city office. It’s obvious that the implications of “just running as a Democrat” are wildly different across the country. Furthermore, the approach of “tactical flexibility” would imply that running an election in a Republican primary would be an equally valid tactic, assuming the analysis supports it (though it generally does not).

Here in San Francisco and generally across California, for example, the Democratic Party has little formal organizational or financial capacity, but operates via a confederation of self-organizing Clubs as well as strategists, consultants, and nonprofit organizations. The step towards “not running as a Democrat” largely involves political messaging and clear boundaries between a candidate and the diffuse network of influence. Building towards this separation is a guiding principle of much of the work our chapter has done to restructure our electoral work this year, and though we still have much to struggle through, the ballot line question here is not the principal one. But we must acknowledge that in other places with more developed Democratic Party machines and structured ballot lines, the process to be able to reasonably and effectively contest political races through a swearing off of all Democratic Party technologies will take a much longer time; our approaches need to respond to the conditions we face in different locales.

The reduction of this whole conversation to “to run as Democrats or not” also often reflects a misunderstanding of the specifics of DSA’s work beyond the superficial national layer, including its electoral operations. For example, Charles Post’s “What Happened to the ‘Dirty Break’?” starts with another strange and reductive statement:

“Since the fall of 2019, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist formation in the US since the 1940s, has devoted the vast majority of its membership energy and financial resources to contesting elections as Democrats.”

On what basis is this claim even being made?

With regards to “vast majority of its membership energy” - given that DSA members perform most work on behalf of the organization locally, was there an effort to survey chapters before making this claim? Are chapters even spending the vast majority of their energy on electoral work of any kind? Even if so, how many of those chapters are “contesting elections as Democrats”?  

With regards to “financial resources” - DSA’s national budget goes 40.8% to staff and 15.3% to dues sharing with members - were staff consulted on how they spend their time, and were those timesheets calculated as going in “vast majority” to contesting elections as Democrats?

Similarly, Nick French’s article in The Call supporting a move towards separation from the Democratic Party commits the same error of discussing the question before DSA as whether “our candidates [will] continue to run as Democrats.” This might make sense if DSA chapters were actually spending the majority of their electoral efforts contesting Congressional races, but any survey of local work would seem to show that Federal and in many chapters even State races are the exception, not the rule. (This is of course difficult to prove given a lack of systematic national apparatus for tracking and directing local work).

To fail to reckon with the specifics of the types of races DSA is contesting and what challenges we face in them, and to choose instead to highlight the vibes of our (admittedly moribund!) national organization is a waste of energy.

The Other Side of the Coin

But many who advocate for a more “moderate” direction for DSA’s electoral work also make major theoretical and practical errors in their advocacy. They tend to either reflect a deeply opportunist analysis of power or severely overestimate the extent to which DSA’s current approach actually resembles the vision they outline.

In Eric Blanc’s recent piece for The Call, He states that “most workers who we should be aiming to politically organize — into DSA and into a broader proto-party — currently are Democratic voters,” not reckoning with the increasing disengagement of working-class voters from the primary election process. He also makes a basic mathematical error, mistaking “the Democratic Party has more working-class people in it than the Republican Party” for “most working-class people are Democratic voters.” He also refers to the support of “militant” non-socialist labor unions as the “vanguard” of the working class and claims that developing a strong political perspective would harm our ability to recruit those unions into our struggle.

While Brad C’s writing for the now-defunct Collective Power Network includes a reasonable analysis that the ballot line is a “red herring” from the upstream political and organizational questions, its accompanying vision is an almost pitch-perfect example of Marxist opportunism - the sacrifice of revolutionary struggle for shallow “victories.” Brad C dismisses the idea that “the rhetoric and aesthetics of our campaigns for elected office matter more than the actual material outcomes that we offer working class voters.” Of course the material outcomes matter, but they matter to the extent they demonstrate that the change we need cannot come from these objective outcomes alone. Brad C’s piece fails to qualify this important point, demonstrating a bleak vision in which 20-30 years from now our theoretical party surrogate is simply chugging along and “delivering all the material results for the working class that we can” rather than developing towards a break from our sclerotic political system.

And while in his piece for The Call, Blanc also describes a vision for independent socialist politics that feels like it’s hitting the right notes, it’s clear upon examination that he isn’t really outlining a path to build much of any of that.

Though the prescription of “committed fighters who are answerable to an independent, democratic organization” sounds great, there’s little attempt to reckon with the limitations of DSA’s current approach to our electoral work. Repeatedly, Blanc mistakes the work of politicians with a loose connection to DSA for the work of DSA itself, asserting that DSA’s growth was due in “large part” to “the insurgent primary campaigns of people like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and others on the Democratic ballot line,” and stating that “what Bernie, the Squad, and candidates like India Walton are attempting to do is new and we don’t really yet know how far this process can go.”

Note that Blanc’s article was written several months before incumbent mayor Byron Brown kicked into overdrive after losing the primary, leading a successful write-in counter-revolt that beat Walton by an 18-point margin. While the Walton campaign was able to capture the technological apparatus of the ballot line, the Democratic machine had more technologies at their disposal, including a $100,000 effort to distribute stamps with Brown’s name on them. Here is a clear example of how the ballot line is only one technology among many that make up the whole of the Democratic Party apparatus.

Even where he acknowledges developments that look more like a strong electoral apparatus by pointing to the work of New York City DSA, there’s a worrying lack of specificity as to what that actually looks like in practical terms. What he points to as a success seems to show some deep contradictions in the discipline our electoral work — for example, he cites Phara Souffrant Forest’s constituent work as an example of the power of our current approach to build power for DSA but neither Blanc’s piece nor the tweet he links nor Forest’s Twitter page mentions DSA being the ones performing this work or explains the formal relationships governing how this work grows the organization. He mentions that “this approach is still the exception rather than the rule inside of DSA,” but has little discussion for why that’s the case or how we effect that shift across the country within DSA chapters.

DSA members would do well to listen to calls for clear organizational structure and power-building in our electoral work. But when those calls make few practical critiques of DSA’s current path, they act to diffuse responsibility and push the horizon of political independence even further. Scientific socialism requires a clear-eyed analysis of what works — and more importantly what doesn’t. Without that, any calls to stay the course will keep us lurching in wrong directions and keep us from making the deep restructuring we need.

Organizational Prescriptions

With the limitations of these other arguments in mind, what shifts do DSA organizers need to make in our local and national electoral work?

A Revolutionary Horizon, With Eyes on the Road

No tendency within DSA has been quite successful at articulating how to address the contradictions of electoral work that we face - either drifting towards political polemicizing while ignoring the concrete realities DSA operates under, or deferring the important political questions in order to win marginal victories that will never bring us to socialist transformation. We should demand an organization that can synthesize both the ambitious and the realizable aspects of our political work. We need to take tangible, achievable steps towards the unimaginable.

Organizers should seek to marry both the political and the practical in their organizing, keeping in mind a thorough political analysis while also acknowledging the difficult and contradictory work required to achieve that political analysis in modern conditions.

Organizational and Political Class Independence

Those who advocate for a strong break from the Democratic Party are essentially correct about its class character. But there are plenty of technologies and tools that “belong” to the capitalist class that revolutionary socialists can lay hands on as part of a dedicated class warfare strategy. It would be similarly silly to insist that socialists shouldn’t use Google Drive because it is a capitalist technology. What matters most at this moment is an organizational and political independence from the Democratic Party apparatus, with a flexibility of tactics used on behalf of that independence. If DSA’s membership chooses to run a DSA cadre candidate on a Democratic ballot line where it is essentially mandatory in order to win a campaign, while running a more agitational strategy in a different nonpartisan city election, and does so with full institutional control over both candidates’ messaging as well as their work once elected, we should look upon that as a positive development for DSA.

But losing the ability to say with certainty that the at-large membership were the drivers of the decisions we made is where the greatest danger of Democratic Party co-optation lies. We should be suspicious of those who claim to be fighting for this organizational independence but have no real plan to bring us there.

Organizers should outline a clear analysis of how the Democratic and Republican parties manifest themselves in their local conditions, and work to ensure that it is the at-large membership of their chapter, guided by the national organization, who determines how and when to contest races and what the messaging needs to be.

Strong National Leadership

The fact remains that without a strong national leadership and electoral apparatus able to actually implement any of the decisions we make, we are consigned to endless contradiction. We need to build up the capacity and instinct for bodies like the National Political Committee and the National Electoral Committee to proactively steer the work of chapters according to the decisions made at our National Convention. While it’s possible, and in current leadership conditions probable, that guidance from the national organization will not always be given towards positive political ends, debates like “how we relate to the Democrats” need to have practical implications on all of our local chapters or there will never be any opportunity to build something better.

Organizers should take every opportunity to demand that the National organization take its responsibility as leadership seriously, seeking guidance where possible and demanding more proactive engagement. Organizers working nationally should be building out the National organization’s capacity to gather information, analyze trends, and prescribe changes to chapters in order to ensure we reflect the best of our local lessons.

There are many questions still to answer for DSA on the electoral terrain, but with a clear revolutionary focus married with a diligent and practical work ethic, DSA can position itself well to meet the crises facing capitalism in coming years. We cannot declare this position and expect the world to get in line, nor can we continue muddling along in our current path and celebrate our half-wins as if they are flawless victories. Organization is our principal task, and we need to build a tendency able to demand and realize the socialist Electoral strategy that can build our ability as leaders to contest power in decisive moments.

Sam H-L is a member of Red Star, a former co-chair of DSA San Francisco, and the secretary of California DSA.