On Wednesday, New York City progressive newspaper The Indypendent created controversy by wading into internal DSA factional disputes, posting on Twitter:
2/2: @DSA is a big tent org w/ many caucuses and 2 broad tendencies — one that leans into mass politics & building an org to meet the moment. The other is more sectarian & prone to performing ideological positions for their own sake. For @nycDSA, it's mass politics all the way.— @TheIndypendent (@TheIndypendent) December 7, 2023
Forces are gaining ground on the National Political Committee and in DSA overall to build a worker’s party that can democratically guide the work of our endorsed electeds. The 2023 convention resolution amendment “Act Like an Independent Party” won overwhelmingly, and the resolution “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy” received a larger share of the vote than a similar resolution at the 2021 convention. As this process continues, the “mass politics” vs “sectarian” framing has become more widely adopted by those who fear that these changes will derail DSA’s electoral project.
An article from a group of DSA organizers writing as The Rose Garden framed the 2023 convention as a “Mass Politics” wing represented by the Socialist Majority caucus and the Groundwork slate, contrasted with the “Dirty Break” and the “Party Discipline” sections (of which Red Star is considered to be in “Party Discipline”). In a statement written after the events of October 7 called “Stand Up for DSA,” the North Star caucus argued that “ill-informed sloganeering” from “sectarians substituting dogma, purity, and vanguardism for real democratic debate” has “corroded DSA's organizational culture.”
It’s an interesting week to hear this criticism from the Indypendent. The day before this tweet was posted, 2,000 people packed City Hall to support DSA SF-endorsed Supervisor Dean Preston as he introduced a resolution in favor of a ceasefire, with massive organized support from local Arab-American organizations. This was enabled in no small part by Red Star members’ years-long work to establish a democratic electoral infrastructure, as well as a chapter-wide effort to put forward strong socialist politics of unequivocal solidarity with Palestine in our nascent socialist-in-office program.
In response to the criticism, we wanted to write briefly on the chain of events leading to Tuesday’s mobilization, and how they reflect on DSA’s debates around mass politics and the growing consensuses and divergences within DSA.
Moving Thousands into Action: Demanding a Permanent Ceasefire at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
An October 9 statement, drafted by DSA SF’s Steering Committee co-chairs soon after the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, announced that the chapter stands “in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for decolonization.” Supervisor Preston’s office released a statement as well. The statements, like many within DSA, prompted internal discussion about messaging, on topics like the utility and moral necessity of condemning violence against civilians.
After these internal conversations, as Israeli bombardment and incursion into Gaza only continued to escalate, the Steering Committee decided to guide the drafting of a second statement. This would be ultimately considered and approved by the chapter’s membership.
After drafting in consultation with San Francisco’s proto-Socialist-in-Office structure, leadership put the statement up before at-large membership at the chapter’s November meeting. Members engaged in lively open debate and presented several amendments. This created an opportunity for democratic deliberation, in which all members regardless of leadership status are formally equals in the larger group. Leadership should have a say, but it is the membership who are in charge.
The statement, “Reaffirming our Commitment to Palestinian Liberation,” adopted member amendments that reasserted the Palestinian “right to all forms of resistance – peaceful or otherwise,” and “reject[ed] all forms of antisemitic and islamophobic bigotry.” The statement drafting process had internal impacts, helping build broader chapter alignment and developing a sense of buy-in to the chapter’s position.
And far from being an insular “line struggle” exercise, the statement had a tangible impact on the chapter’s external organizing work. When Dean Preston decided to introduce a resolution to the Board of Supervisors calling for a permanent ceasefire in Palestine, he was able to quickly build connections with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, the Palestinian Youth Movement, and other pro-Palestinian organizations who mobilized in support of the resolution
Preston’s legislative office had few prior working relationships with these groups. While Preston had previously spoken out in support of Palestinian liberation and a ceasefire, his statements had limited reach to working class Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim people in San Francisco and grassroots pro-Palestinian organizations. DSA’s eager participation in actions over the preceding month signaled that we were mobilized and invested in the issue. The chapter’s actions in the street and publicly stated positions built a level of trust that helped us hit the ground running in the lead up to the introduction of the Ceasefire Resolution.
These connections led to Tuesday’s all-out mobilization, where 2,000 people showed up to stand with Supervisor Preston and demand passage of the resolution. While the future of the resolution and the organizing relationships remain fluid, we believe this chain of events demonstrates the power of a strong principled socialist vision in helping move working class people toward conflict with U.S empire.
An updated chapter statement with a vociferous defense of the Palestinian right to resistance was not merely a performative act. This chain of events materially affected our relationship with other organizations and constituencies, enabling the mobilization of thousands for justice in Palestine. We contend that this, too, is mass politics.
Mass Politics and the Path Forward
Though there are real political differences between different factions of DSA, the reality is that the divergences supposedly covered by a “mass politics” vs “sectarianism” framing are, in reality, differences of strategic orientation around points of core alignment. The idea that DSA should allow membership for a wide range of working class people and allow robust internal debate is settled policy, even as we deliberate the best methods for internal political education. The importance of electoral campaigns for advancing DSA and the broader working class movement is now a consensus in DSA — though there are major differences in how much focus DSA should put on acting in an oppositional role.
And though there are major differences in how we analyze the political terrain and put forward socialist principles, we all agree on the need for a mass politics that can move millions into conflict with the state and to demand socialism. Therefore, the point for us when it comes to mass politics is not a question of if, but of how.
DSA organizers face an array of organized forces. Each of them have their own class character and position somewhere between allyship and opposition to our goals for socialist transformation. Our relationships to these forces can change across issues and develop over time. They wax and wane in relevance and influence. As we engage in internal debate, decide on slogans or public statements, and steer campaigns, we are always confronted with this fluid array of forces. We have many paths ahead of us and continuously decide on who and how we should attract or oppose in order to advance the working class movement.
This is a basic definition of strategic decision making in political organizing, and is not the domain of a particular faction or wing of DSA. Yet the “mass politics” vs “sectarianism” framing smugly erases this reality, asserting that one wing of DSA makes considered, deliberate decisions about concrete realities, while the other chooses to make statements out of some metaphysical commitment to purity.
To move forward, we should offer DSA organizers, particularly all those in leadership, the basic respect of alignment on building some form of mass working class opposition to capitalism and the autonomy to think critically about our organizing work. From here we can continue the difficult work of deciding, together, where the ship we are steering should head.
If you're interested in discussing this piece with other DSA members, head on over to the DSA Discussion forums at https://discussion.dsausa.org/t/principled-socialist-values-are-mass-politics/28984
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