A Revolutionary Position for DSA

Will Sw. discusses how building up democratic discipline within DSA improves DSA's political independence and revolutionary potential.

A Revolutionary Position for DSA
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023

The Democratic Socialists of America prides itself on being a big-tent organization, home to a myriad of caucuses and political orientations. Our caucus, Red Star, describes itself as a “revolutionary Marxist” caucus in the Democratic Socialists of America. We grew from a local caucus in DSA San Francisco, where we focused on solving serious political contradictions in the Chapter and moving it into a revolutionary direction - towards a Workers Party that can create a Workers State. Although we have expanded beyond San Francisco to chapters across the country, our mission, strategy, beliefs, and goals have remained fundamentally the same. We are dialectical and historical materialists who believe that a revolution will be necessary to bring about a Workers State and move us into the next phases of historical development - socialism, and eventually communism. DSA may or may not be the revolutionary Workers Party we need in the future, but we do believe that it has the potential to lay the material and political groundwork for such a party through building up a radical and militant labor movement, exercising disciplined and democratic control over our DSA electeds, and developing and practicing a democratic culture that can serve as the foundation of an organized and democratic working class movement that can bring us to revolution.

As dialectical and historical materialists, Red Star believes that revolutions are key to any fundamental alteration of society. Capitalism itself did not simply emerge one day out of the blue – it was the consequence of bourgeois revolutions that moved the levers of state power from the monarchies of Europe to the emerging capitalist class. Farmers were forced off their land where they had lived as serfs for generations and into cities where they had to sell their labor for a wage, and you know and have lived how the story goes from there. Only revolutions have the power to create truly new economic, social, and political realities – and only a revolution can bring us to the Workers State we desperately need. That said, we know that building a revolutionary organization out of DSA is no small task. We need to take honest stock of what DSA is at the moment and where it needs to go. We also need to look at local examples in order to formulate a response to our national conditions.

Red Star wrote an internal piece in 2020, “Towards a Revolutionary Direction for DSA SF” in which we write that DSA SF needs “organizational coherence and discipline. It’s hard to answer what specifically DSA exists to do, and different people have different answers.” Our revolutionary vision is guided by democracy and discipline, and this is something that Red Star has worked towards in San Francisco. For example, we helped implement a yearly priority system that unites various parts of the chapter in working on common, democratically-decided, goals. One of the defining characteristics of a revolutionary party, or any political party for that matter, is discipline - something that DSA severely lacks. This lack of discipline manifests in many ways: examples include the Bowman affair, among other DSA elected failures, as well as the tendency of different factions within DSA to organize their own projects and groups outside of the organization’s democracy when the organization doesn’t endorse their vision. In order to build a revolutionary party capable of overthrowing the capitalist order, we must first develop organizational discipline within DSA. This means that when we make democratic decisions as an organization, we stick to those decisions and try to carry them out to the best of our ability. When charged with a task, we don’t betray the will of our organization just because we as individuals might disagree with it. We must act with accountability to the democratic process. This is a key part of what Red Star means when we say we need a robust socialist democratic culture in DSA. Nobody is exempt from our program or democratically decided positions whether they might be an elected official, a member of a national body, or don’t feel like upholding our principles. In order to be an effective democratic organization that furthers its political development, DSA needs to be both principled and disciplined.

Since 2016, DSA has evolved from a small sect of the American Left to its torchbearer at the forefront of the movement for socialism in the United States. While there are many reasons for DSA’s unexpected growth (like the “Bernie Bump” or other popular electoral struggles), one important facet of the organization that has supported its growth is its openness to socialists of many different tendencies and traditions. The ability to put aside differences between factions and work together in a comradely fashion has allowed DSA to succeed in a number of arenas. However, at both the local and national levels, the failure to organize effectively across factional lines has led to petty feuds, power struggles, and purges. These are all symptoms of an anti-democratic NGO culture in DSA that negatively impacts our ability to effectively build a revolutionary party. The majority of people in DSA have never been part of a truly democratic organization in their lives - from school and work to our political apparatus, the experience of collective decision-making leading to concrete changes in the world we live in is exceedingly rare. We need to build a responsible and democratic culture in order to counter the instincts enforced upon us by a system that is inherently undemocratic. This requires conscientious work from the rank and file, as well as a firm commitment from leadership.

Rank and file membership, by and large, have very little knowledge of what happens at DSA’s national level. Many members only find out about national events and crises when they themselves are in a caucus or part of a national body, or when conflict spills onto social media. DSA has vast potential, but it is at risk of being squandered by poor leadership, an inability to maintain sustainable membership, and financial mismanagement. This is a decisive moment. In order to correct our course to a revolutionary position, Red Star believes that the National Political Committee is in a highly leveraged position to foster – or squander – the nascent democratic culture that we need to build. Based on the structures that currently exist within DSA, we need a National Political Committee that will uphold and implement the principles of Good Governance that Red Star is promoting. We have created this Pledge and promoted it because we believe in DSA. We are running three NPC candidates: John Lewis from New Orleans, Megan Romer from Ithaca (At-Large) and Sam Heft-Luthy from San Francisco. These three candidates created the Good Governance Pledge and are firmly committed to implementing it, and we’re pleased to see that NPC candidates from other caucuses have signed on to the pledge as well. Looking forward to the NPC election at this summer’s Convention, the Pledge serves as an indicator of which candidates take DSA’s problems seriously and are willing to step up to help solve them. 

This commitment to good governance will move us towards a revolutionary position because one of the most important features of a revolutionary organization is a democratic discipline that allows the organization to act with unity and clarity, as well as make conflict a productive process. All great revolutionary organizations have this in common, and DSA would be wise to learn from them. Our organization needs leadership that is guided by the principles of Good Governance, scientific socialism, and a revolutionary outlook - all things that Red Star takes very seriously. We, as DSA, need to get our house in order if we want to be successful, and that can only happen through rigorous democratic decision-making and a commitment to expanding and developing DSA in a principled and disciplined manner. In order to rise to the challenge of overthrowing American capitalism, we must practice building a strongly disciplined and democratic DSA that is actively building for a revolutionary Worker’s Party.