A Critique of the Strategic Campaign

Red Star members Victoria B. and Matt M. look in the rear-view mirror at what strategic pressure campaigns have accomplished in DSA.

A Critique of the Strategic Campaign
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023
"Speak the truth:
1) There is no revolution. There is only a deal between the liberal bourgeoisie and the tsar....
2) There is no struggle for liberty. There is only the bartering away of the people’s freedom.
3) There is no struggle for popular representation. There is only representation for the money-bag.

We are weak ... from this inevitably follows all treachery to the revolution.
If you want a revolution, freedom, popular representation ... you must be strong."
- V. I. Lenin

The Organization and Our Principal Task

Red Star has written at length about our enthusiastic belief in DSA's potential as a proxy for a real revolutionary workers party in the US. In our view, DSA already has the latent democratic structures required to develop itself into a mass organization that can one day unseat capital in the US. However, there is serious work to be done to strengthen the organization to reach this goal. In order to create a DSA robust enough to facilitate a transition to socialism, DSA must mature into an organization capable of replicating the necessary functions of a new worker’s state. Red Star believes that a scientific method of organizing is essential to and prerequisite for reaching this higher form and uniting the US working class against capitalism. The party must bind together all sectors of the working class and its allies in order to bring this about – we believe that DSA can contain the means and methods needed to drive history forward, but only if we develop them through struggle together.

DSA is at a crucial early stage in its democratic development – its chapters represent the beginnings of a real working class democracy in the US. Through practicing this democracy and assigning itself new tasks, that is, the social practice of democracy, DSA can advance in this regard. But it is not automatic or guaranteed – the deliberative body that aims to become the revolution must be scientific in its approach, choosing projects to take up and moments to pursue strategically in order to reinforce itself by way of internal development, new member recruitment, or new levers of social influence and power that the party takes up. This is the principal task of any socialist organization, proto-party or party – we must support one another in our service of these goals in order to strengthen the organization and advance towards our revolutionary goal.

However, not every campaign that DSA carries out uses this scientific and democratic method or even aims to reinforce one of the three key avenues – we have a history of wasting significant time and resources on projects that are not “DSA first”, embarking on campaigns that serve to disregard DSA itself and subsume our organizing to an external focus, a struggle in a terrain that we cede “ownership” of to another less revolutionary cohering bloc or coalition, which ultimately only serves to drain the organization of our capacity and resources, pointing them away from us towards less radical struggle. With this in mind, we must examine a particular failure that emerges again and again in DSA’s organizing, one that highlights the pitfalls of organizing without respect to our stated goal of winning socialism in America: the “strategic” pressure campaign. Regardless of the issue at hand, the actual legislative and political outcomes of this style of campaign fails to concretely grow the power of the working class. At the national, state, and local levels this mode fails to create working class power because from the onset, it does not challenge existing power relations or build revolutionary consciousness in others through struggle - instead, it only agitates for some minor reform within the system, and that will never be enough.

New York State’s BPRA

If we recognize that DSA must build itself up to be the cohering structure of class struggle, why then do we allow external-focused campaigns and coalition work to drain our resources and time for middling results? The recent Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) from the Green New Deal priority is one such campaign that serves as an example of this inadequate theory of power. It is an attempt to ensure positive public and union control over the state of New York’s Public Power Authority, as well as guiding the direction of its activities in the (already codified) transition to renewable energy in that state. Make no mistake, it is a commendable goal that indeed aims to presage the future of a greener and greater democratic handling of energy; however, an examination of the campaigns shortcomings is an excellent case-study in the legislative results which we can expect with the pressure campaign:

Despite leaving concessions for private-enterprises and board appointments going to a spread of NY power brokers, the language to seat the board of the authority with union members was ripped to shreds after adoption by the budgeting process. Now, Governor Hochul, a Democrat, is angling towards appointing a Republican to lead the direction of the Authority. The Public Power NY Coalition released the following statement while DSA celebrated the win:

“...Unfortunately, Governor Hochul and her handpicked NYPA interim CEO Justin Driscoll vehemently opposed provisions that would make NYPA more accountable to New Yorkers, and were able to strip them from the version of the bill included in the budget. They also weakened the mandate to build new projects after 2035, which means that strong leadership is now even more important.
NYPA needs leadership that understands the potential of public power and will use NYPA’s resources and capacity to ensure that affordable renewable energy gets to New Yorkers who need it most and that New York meets its climate goals. Driscoll has proven he is not the leader NYPA needs, and we will mobilize the powerful movement that passed this bill to oppose his confirmation.”

What’s left over after all of the horse-trading, despite an explicit socialist campaign putting on immense public pressure, is only Greener Capitalism in one locality. It is extremely difficult to get any progressive policy passed, but it’s clear that DSA is happy to celebrate wins for the working class that do not make it stronger, do not effectively serve to raise the level of democratic control over the economy, and do not make DSA more responsive to class struggle. BPRA won some union representation and some expanded public control of some parts of the in-progress renewable energy transition in the greenest city and one of the greenest states in the country. Private energy operations will continue operating in the state under the New York Independent System Operator, and hazy implementation details will be decided by a director and board that do not have working class interests in mind. This doesn’t have to be the result - political power can actually be built and won, but it requires operating within the correct theory of power, one that recognizes our disenfranchised liberal democracy for what it is, and realizes you cannot legislate within it to revolution.

This was neither a problem with the specific language nor the concept of the legislation - renewable energy is good and a transition from fossil fuel will be essential! Rather, it was doomed from the start – doomed to become a twisted version of its strong working class vision on the way across Governor Hochul’s desk, or through the budgeting committee, or some other lever of Capital’s expression of political will. This is the persistent fact and the first of two fail states of the strategic campaign: a regular and longstanding method of suppression of working-class power, a reality that cannot be navigated by ignoring it and continually ramming our heads into the very same concrete barriers of political power while burning out our most motivated organizers in the process.

San Francisco’s Free MUNI Full Service

This is not to raise Red Star above the struggles and hard work of comrades in the BPRA campaign. The goal in mentioning it is to critique the approach and theory of power as methods that, from the onset, do not build power, but only agitate within that incorrect framework. Red Star has had its own struggles with biting off more than it can potentially legislate; as a bloc in DSA San Francisco, we voted in favor of a Free Muni Full Service priority campaign, and it was adopted as one of our chapter priorities for the past year. The work took the form of acting in-coalition with less radical organizations that were tangentially connected to the issue, in this case, concerned with the future funding and survival of transit service in San Francisco. 

The coalition investigated and agitated around a potential ballot measure to secure the funding deficit of over $100m by a regressive parcel tax, a pipe-dream ballot measure in context: San Francisco progressives and labor had just recently attempted a similarly structured tax in Prop O to make up a deficit in City College of San Francisco funding, and it failed due to the regressive costs it would impose on the poorest members of our community. Working in coalition presented more struggles than just a doomed funding approach. Less radical coalition groups were not interested in organizing for fare free operation or connecting back to a strong socialist demand. This is not to say that all work in a tangential agency to state power like transit is useless, for example, one more concrete and focused approach that has been discussed in San Francisco is a potential ballot measure that moves our MTA board to elected positions, in an effort to improve public opinion and increase the number of realistic venues the people of San Francisco have in controlling our transit future. This is precisely the difference between a campaign that aims to simply agitate and a campaign that has a realistic goal to win – one makes an impossible demand that ends up reinforcing the status quo, while another can increase the levers the working class is able to pull, and ideally - tie back to the organization that is doing that building of power.

Again, the theory of power at play in this type of organizing falters - we cannot expect to work alongside and within liberal majority coalitions without being sidled with ineffective liberal theories of power and change that only seek to address the symptoms of capitalist failure without challenging the underlying relation. To the extent that we engage in this type of work, DSA should be maximally centered and steering the coalition to our revolutionary theory of power and goals drawn from a realistic view of the terrain before a given campaign - not the other way around.

DSA for Medicare For All

DSA’s Medicare for All campaign, at one point our most significant national effort, shows the pitfalls of using a strategic pressure campaign as the national organization’s flagship organizing effort. Medicare for All was one of the signature elements of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and as the organization ballooned in 2016, Medicare for All became one of our most popular slogans. Central to the theory of change that drove DSA, Medicare for All was the quest to become the mass-organizational home of the Medicare for All movement. DSA’s Medicare for All “Campaign in a box” was meant to be a launchpad for new DSA chapters, which were springing up at an incredible pace. The campaign issued a clear platform about what Medicare for All is and is not, and had speakers and writers producing a wealth of polemic and analysis with the intent of fomenting a mass movement and articulating its demands.  

However, the programmatic clarity of the DSA Medicare for All platform did not translate to tactical clarity. Public canvassing, nonbinding resolutions passed by various legislative bodies, and pressure campaigns to support Bernie Sanders’s perennial single-payer legislation have done little to bring the goal of a single-payer closer to fruition in the short or long term. Proponents of the campaign proposed a march on Washington that was ultimately voted down by the organization; local actions in various chapters generated buzz but didn’t coalesce or broaden. As bad as the American healthcare system is, and even as popularly as single-payer healthcare polls, DSA Medicare for All advocates fell into a trap that single payer supporters before and after have fallen victim too as well, imagining healthcare and its grave injustices as a conflagration in need of a spark. It sidesteps the crucial questions of organization, drawing people into the fight as voters, workers, or consumers without a structure that creates some broader solidarity among them. This deviation is also what underlies the sectarian attempt to “force the vote” on single-payer, and undercuts any similar political “litmus tests”. Without a vessel capable of capturing and directing popular outrage at a system, both articulating the need for transformation and facilitating the relationships requires to enact it, these efforts will always be dead on arrival.

While DSA members are still party to high-level conversations about certain state-level efforts, those efforts are becoming something of a boondoggle themselves. In California, DSA’s support of the Healthy California campaign hasn’t kept a single-payer bill from being shelved each time it’s been introduced. Currently, DSA chapters and the state organization appear to be paralyzed while state assembly and senate bills are introduced by differing political factions and supported by different unions. The fixation on single-payer legislation has led to a myopic single-issue focus that ignores related struggles and fails to foster a working-class dynamism that can support sustained activity. The decision to rehouse the DSA Healthcare Workers Collective, itself a transformation of the 2020 Doctors for Bernie affinity group, under Medicare for All bears the trademark of this thinking, as do the lack of coordinated engagement with popular efforts to resist privatization, minimal support for other labor or community-backed health issues within legislative bodies, and non-engagement with popular reform campaigns such as Idaho’s Medicaid expansion. DSA’s rhetoric around Medicare for All has always stated that it would take a mass movement to enact and defend a single-payer healthcare system. But if the mass movement doesn’t materialize around us, are we to sit on our hands and wait?

Now six years in, DSA’s Medicare for All campaign has sputtered, and it finds itself stuck in the same mud as the broader Medicare for All/Single Payer movement. While a sober, thorough assessment of the campaign as well as the broader movement for single-payer is badly needed, suffice it to say for now that DSA’s campaign for Medicare for All shows the inverse outcome to the BPRA effort: that a firm line on key issues is meaningless if our coalition isn’t in a position to stand up for it. It demonstrates the pitfalls of using a legislative goal, no matter how popular, well-defined, or even feasible, to build a durable movement for socialism. And ultimately, it shows that a “strategic campaign” that relies on pressure on legislative bodies without taking up more fundamental questions of organizing principles isn’t strategic at all.

A Strategic Path Forward

The aims of the struggle to come are not unclear or hazy in the least; history is rich with examples of the work awaiting those willing to embrace a dialectical method of enabling and facilitating the growth of the party towards revolutionary socialism. We can and should commit to building on the successes and failures of past movements and our own movement, using them to guide us in building new power for the working class. Expanding DSA's ability to organize and support the working class and facilitate a transition to socialism under the thumb of Capital is no small feat, and it is one that Red Star endeavors to go about with serious consideration and democratic deliberation - but make no mistake, strength for the working class can be built here and now without getting sucked into agitational pursuits that do not challenge the power of Capital and will be heavily diluted by the time they become law. It will require realistic consideration of the levers we can aim for and reach, but it can be done.

There is great urgency to the fact that DSA must develop itself into a flagship of the working class, one that coheres the work of its own chapters and serves as a keystone for all facets of the organized Left in the US. We are facing an uphill battle in the most difficult terrain imaginable, which is precisely why our efforts should not be tied up in unrealistic struggles that will only amount to more reform – our work must cement DSA as the revolutionary organization by and for the working class here & now. We must, at all times, boldly place DSA and our revolutionary demand at the forefront of our organizing, in order to use that organizing to build more revolutionary socialists.

We cannot pretend, when the time comes, to have developed the proper capacity to synthesize revolution – it's a hard check, a pass/fail opportunity that presents itself more and more frequently as America loses its grip on hegemony and becomes less agile in responding to its own cyclical crises. We believe that DSA can start passing these checks and resolutely pitch itself as an alternative to the capitalist death spiral, a demand that will become more convincing as we facilitate the creation of structures within the organization, not without, that are empowering to workers - the goal of every campaign must be that it unites, facilitates, and consolidates our class struggle into our revolutionary vehicle, so that it can eventually be experienced enough to enable alternative governance and a transition to socialism.