What does it mean to be in DSA?

San Francisco-based Red Star member Matt M. reflects on what it means for Red Star members to be DSA cadre and his experience in chapter campaign leadership.

What does it mean to be in DSA?
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023

Red Star believes in the significance and potential of DSA. We organize in DSA because we see it as the organization most capable of being conditioned into a workers’ party, a necessary vehicle for the coherent expression of mass socialist politics and coordinated resistance to capitalism and US imperialism. The lack of an organ that can coordinate, refine, and articulate working-class struggle, provide a durable institution that can be a home for a diverse set of political activities, and develop leaders with a revolutionary political horizon continues to hold back left-wing political activity in the United States. Red Star’s overarching political project is to work within DSA to develop it into such an organization.

What (or who) is a DSA cadre?

Since Red Star is a “center” within DSA for revolutionary thought and politics, we advocate a political line and strategy that we see fitting for the task of transforming DSA into a workers’ party. While many organizations across history have claimed to be a workers’ vanguard, far fewer have been decisive in revolutionary situations; workers’ parties, however, have always been decisive in socialist revolutions. While the necessity of a workers party is formally a position held by DSA, there is little unity around what would make DSA a party and what exactly the form and function of the party will be. Red Star thinks that questions of form and function cannot be meaningfully prefigured and are secondary to a culture and process of internal democracy. The way that we seek to reform DSA is to model a different mode of leadership within the organization. Our vision is one that promotes the best version of DSA: places a high value on internal democracy from members and leaders alike, expresses a socialist politics that is adequate to and informed by the struggles of working people in the United States and across the globe at our moment of historic crises, and takes itself seriously as an organization that can, and should have a historic role in working-class struggle.

The implication of this is that Red Star members should not just think of ourselves as Red Star cadre, but DSA cadre as well. This means active involvement in our local and national projects, but also good stewardship towards the organization: being measured and precise in our criticism and disciplined in our communication, modeling accountability for the will of the organization in leadership and delegation, and being conscious of actions that we take (or fail to take) individually or collectively that might have poor consequences. As opposed to groups that have taken a more oppositional approach to criticizing DSA’s actions and missteps, we feel that developing and participating in internal democracy requires acknowledging when votes don’t go our way, taking lessons from losses, and determining what we can change moving forward. This is the experience of having our political commitments tempered by the act of democratic struggle within a broad-tent organization.

Another key component of organizational stewardship is socializing and systematizing the knowledge gained through our efforts in DSA. While the caucus may develop or provide input on chapter campaigns, we devote most of our energy implementing chapter projects and putting our theory to the test. We endeavor to identify and recruit future leaders not just for Red Star but also for DSA, and we do our best to systematize knowledge gained within the organization. Regular report-outs and discussions of campaign goals, expectations, and outcomes contribute to political development and practical unity. It also helps us understand our organization’s strengths and weaknesses and the roots of conflict. 

We want to make DSA an organization whose cadre are equipped with a revolutionary horizon as well as the practical skills needed to push us, themselves, and everyone in their lives towards it. This is not to say that DSA membership should be limited to self-professed Marxists who adhere to our historical line - quite the opposite. We believe that by applying a rigorous standard of historical materialism when evaluating our political context and a scientific understanding of socialist transformation when developing tactics and strategies, DSA members will be inclined towards a scientific approach to organizing that continually refines and clarifies the organization’s strategy. This dialectical approach has informed much of the work Red Star has led in San Francisco, including my tenure on the Electoral Board that helped birth San Francisco’s Vacancy Tax; it is written into our proposed GDC amendment; it asserts that political conditions within DSA can and should be understood, developed, and applied methodically in arenas of struggle. How do we accomplish this? We can use the framework of protagonism to expand on the idea of the socialist organizer. Being a DSA organizer encompasses a great deal of practical and political skills and responsibilities; the lens of protagonism opens up that term, not unlike a prism opening up a ray of sunlight, exposing the spectrum contained within it. A socialist organizer must be dutiful and diligent, striving to maintain the trust of the organization and the people, but the socialist organizer must also trust the people with their own subjectivity. Protagonism reminds us that the ultimate goal of a revolution is the people in power, and challenges us to develop the capacity to lead like a muscle in every act we take.

Case study: San Francisco’s Electoral board and Empty Homes Tax

To elaborate on what some of this looks like in practice, I will detail some of my experiences as a member of DSA San Francisco’s Electoral Board, a structure that was established in 2021 that I served on from 2021 to 2022. The structure replaced DSA SF’s electoral committee, which had been the chapter’s de facto electoral decision-making and coordinating body. The board was a five-member elected group that was charged with carrying out the chapter's electoral strategy.

The board structure was drawn up in response to an electoral strategy that had caused problems in the chapter. The influence of local Democratic Party clubs on the chapter’s electoral strategy and goal of political independence, as well as the influence of campaigns staffers who were committee members on endorsement decisions, kept the chapter’s electoral committee involved in the left-liberal, “progressive” political milieu that is recognizable in many large cities where the Democratic party is effectively the only game in town. While DSA SF had been electorally successful in our own right, particularly in a June 2018 election that saw us both pass a universal tenant right to council initiative and run a successful opposition campaign against a measure that would have authorized SFPD’s use of tasers, there was a dearth of analysis of the electoral arena’s prospects and pitfalls for DSA SF’s goals. This provided an environment ripe for lesser-evilism, opportunism, and careerism where it was hard for the chapter to pick our battles, say no to doomed campaigns, or even hold members accountable for running against one another in the same race. 

In 2021, DSA SF adopted an electoral priority centered around ballot measures, in response to an electoral strategy report that reviewed the previous several years’ worth of electoral campaigns. Strict prohibitions on staff and consultants serving on the board were written to prevent conflicts of interest. Charged with creating a slate of ballot measures that could articulate a socialist political position on local issues, the board facilitated a research, development, and strategization process that uprooted the old electoral paradigm entirely. The board-priority structure also created an imperative for the new board to act as a group, reach decisions democratically, delegate work intentionally, and work through conflict constructively, as well as design ancillary structures that brought chapter members into the project as leaders-in-training instead of identifying with an undifferentiated committee structure. 

The crown jewel of DSA SF’s ballot measure campaign was our Empty Homes Tax, legislation inspired by a report on residential vacancies in San Francisco commissioned by our DSA supervisor, Dean Preston. One of the major victories for DSA running this campaign was the opportunity to identify and polarize the affordable housing shortage in a way that challenged the technocratic rationalizations of capitalist housing developers (and their stooges) and resonated with a broad swath of the SF electorate. Now with the experience of closely partnering with a socialist in office on this project and establishing the value of DSA SF as a long-term home for this political capacity, many of the initial safeguards against conflicts of interest may not be as necessary, and the experience of the chapter and our SIO working as partners puts a new standard of cooperation in place for future campaigns and endorsements. The other campaigns that the chapter ended up endorsing and putting on our ballot measure “slate” were a successful Dean-sponsored measure that rescheduled Mayoral elections to higher-turnout even years, and an unsuccessful parcel tax put forward by a labor coalition to fill a funding gap at City College of San Francisco that led to devastating job cuts. These were much more conventional ballot measure efforts that DSA SF endorsed and supported with a traditional field campaign and cross-promotion with our main campaign. Nonetheless, we learned a lot by participating in those campaigns as a partner, and those are lessons that can inform our negotiation and coalition-building strategies on future ballot measure efforts. 

Passing the Empty Homes Tax was a significant achievement for DSA SF, but running the campaign also catalyzed significant positive developments within our chapter. The campaign was a significant departure from other endorsed electoral initiatives that we as a chapter had previously supported in that building the organization’s internal, independent capacity to advance policy was an explicit aim. DSA SF developed an internal outreach program, integrated our internal member rolls with campaign lists, and developed a peerless mobilization strategy for the final weeks of the campaign. But this was not an inevitable outcome, and it was not always popular: at times, it was at odds with some of the conventional expertise that campaign experts use to win races, as well as many of the habits of longtime DSA organizers. It was not always successful, either: efforts to integrate some of the electoral project’s capability with other chapter efforts such as a tenant outreach initiative fell flat. But ultimately, putting the organization first when conceiving of the campaign’s goals and the structures required to support them allowed the electoral board to speak and act confidently on DSA’s behalf in conversation with political allies and coalition partners, and as a result, the chapter became an agent in its own right, not just a highly desirable volunteer base for the progressive political apparatus.

This strategy was effective in DSA SF not only because I – as a Red Star member – was in a highly leveraged position as a leader on this campaign, but also because of a number of struggles that had happened in DSA SF before this body was even conceived of: over questions of structure, governance, leadership, political independence, and more. The Electoral Board was born from years of trial and error and the hard work of looking critically at the good and the bad in previous efforts. Simply attempting structural reform without meaningfully engaging with the organizing conditions that produce problematic outcomes is an undialectical approach that has led to conflict and failed to produce the desired result in the chapter. The campaign also brought in or built up a cohort of current chapter leaders who are undoubtedly DSA SF cadre, even though most are not Red Star members. As DSA nationally considers our less-than-rosy membership picture, the ability of our campaigns to serve as gateways into active involvement ought to be front of mind as we consider where our next steps should lead us.

How do we view disagreements between Red Star’s politics and DSA’s?

Being in DSA and believing in its future potential as a working-class formation does not mean that it is not without flaws; beyond the litany of public conflicts we have birthed over who is accountable to whom and which betrayals of principle are most damning, there are ongoing debates about the organization’s commitments to anti-imperialism and our political independence from the Democratic party, how we relate to working-class insurgency, our opinion of the institutions that comprise working-class struggle, and the political horizon we are moving toward. One of the most crucial indications of DSA’s maturation and long-term viability will be our ability to bend appropriately under political pressure without splitting or shattering

What is that political horizon, more precisely? Is “democratic socialism” a coherent ideology and political economy that stands apart from other socialisms or social democracy? Is it a mode of socialist organizing that engages with the bourgeois state and liberal democracy to extract reforms? As revolutionary Marxists and scientific socialists, we have a critical understanding of DSA both from a historical and contemporary perspective. The Harringtonian specter of class conflict managed within a social-democratic framework still haunts DSA. We live in the long shadow of the DSOC-NAM merge: it is the subtext of debates about influence versus impact, deference versus independence, reach versus power. The notion of a “democratic socialism” that stands apart from historical socialist projects and shies away from class conflict is one that DSA ought to dispense with. Preserving the illusory “brand” of democratic socialism ultimately requires foreclosing on the possibility of historical transformation, and negates the work of the past several years to make DSA more internally democratic, meaningfully internationalist, and embedded in and connected to working-class struggle. Building and maintaining an internally robust, meaningfully democratic culture that supports critique and analysis, trial and error, and sticking to our principles when the political apparatus threatens them is the heart of the matter within DSA.

DSA is still small and relatively marginal in the broad US political landscape - this was true when there were 90,000 active DSA members, and it is still true now. But DSA is also unique in the way that it has struggled with these problems of political possibility in a way that more mainstream liberal political organizations and many other leftist movements tend to eschew. For all DSA’s shortcomings and contradictions, its internal democracy and ability to direct itself is the thing that will make it a lasting and durable institution for socialist politics, and the thing most worth defending and developing through continued practice.

What do we think DSA membership entails?

At bottom, DSA membership is a commitment made in money and time. A member pays their dues, attends meetings, and perhaps gets involved in the organization’s projects. This may be supporting a campaign to elect an official or pressure a legislative body, it may be a politicized service project or mutual aid campaign, it may be attending demonstrations or reading groups, and it may be organizing in their workplace, union, or community. DSA has a low barrier to entry, both fiscal and political, especially when compared to other socialist organizations. This has the upside of being an organization that draws in large numbers of people during moments when the instability of the political system is front of mind for large numbers of people, but loses members through public political conflicts, burnout, attrition, and maltreatment. A qualitative change that we hope to see in the organization is towards an idea of organizational cadre that speaks to the question of organizational stewardship. 

This is something that committed members should strive towards, but is absolutely crucial to engender as we develop leaders and movement spokespeople, be they elected officials or not. Sadly, in the eyes of the current organizational leadership, the reverse ought to be true; censure of members is worthwhile in service of protecting the “brand” of democratic socialism while censure of leaders and spokespeople in order to protect the organization’s hard-fought positions is beyond the pale, petty infighting, and purity politics. Ultimately, however, it is not our network of influence or the reputability of democratic socialism that will be the basis on which final historical judgment of our movement is rendered. It will be the degree to which we were involved in the socialist transformation of society: a transformation that has never happened exclusively in halls of power, but rather is brought to bear by working-class leaders and revolutionaries who were in decisive positions and acted accordingly.