Democracy, Togetherness, Building Power

Democracy, Togetherness, Building Power
Zenith Volume 3 - DSA Convention 2023

At an Intro to DSA meeting recently, a Red Star member who was leading the event was asked by a participant what the most important thing they’d learned during their years in the organization. Our member thought about it, and replied “It’s more powerful to be together than to be right.”

To some, that sentiment might seem insufferably Liberal, a deeply incriminating admission of unprincipled Big Tentism, the once-dominant strain of thought that left DSA marginalized for decades and floundering in the wake of the Bernie candidacies. I’d like to explain why it is in fact a thoroughgoing critique of a damaging trend in current DSA politics, and how we feel this political commitment to Togetherness in DSA is essential to theoretical development and effective power building.

DSA is the future Party

Despite sometimes unbearable flubs by DSA, Red Star is fully committed to developing it as a proto-party. We believe the org is worth fighting for, not simply as an accumulation of members and resources, but as a home for a political movement whose structures, functions, and internal politics are worth engaging with seriously. As a result, our political efforts tend to be directed inward, towards resolving the contradictions of our organization, rather than outwards. As a rule, Red Star does not take on independent political projects (with the minor exception of Red Start, our reading group), but rather proposes, advocates for, and leads projects that the whole chapter or organization has voted to take on. 

In San Francisco, where our caucus started, this has looked like our Ballot Measure Priority, where Red Star members worked with other chapter leaders to develop a Vacancy Tax for residential units being kept off the market by landlords. Working with our local DSA Socialist in Office, Dean Preston, we collected signatures, got the measure on the ballot, and won. Red Star members held various levels of leadership and did on-the-ground signature collection, but all throughout, we made sure to get the democratic mandate of the chapter membership that was authorizing the project.

Another example is the Anchor Steam union campaign. Red Star members were involved in salting and external organizing of the campaign, but from a very early stage, they made sure to turn this into a chapter project, coordinating with the Labor Organizing Committee, and giving chapter Steering updates on the campaign’s progress. What could have easily been a caucus effort that was dumped at the feet of the chapter as a fait accompli was instead brought under the DSA aegis to request chapter democratic approval.

At times, this commitment to developing and acting through official DSA channels has meant that things that we consider important are left undone, or done in ways that aren’t really what we’d hoped for. Accepting losses and using them as an opportunity to learn is a central part of Red Star’s politics, and a critical component of how we relate to the organization at large. We don’t take our ball and go home, and we work to make sure that whatever the outcome, we try to extract useful lessons from it and socialize them across the chapter.

The Dangers of “Spinning Off”

Suffice to say, this attitude is by no means universally held across DSA. For caucuses and political tendencies that are out of power currently, DSA can at times seem like an impediment to tasks that are essential to developing working class movements. Sometimes, a lost vote can lead to spinning a chapter project off into a new structure outside of DSA. Some of these projects have persisted; most have perished.

We’ve seen the results of taking work partly or completely outside the chapter, and it rarely ends well; “inside-outside” projects like the Defund SFPD project in San Francisco often turn into a mess of competing claims to leadership, hurt feelings, and the complete evaporation of any supposed “Power Building'' that would benefit DSA or the working class. I'm sure we can all think of examples from our own chapters.

DSA’s tremendous membership growth that began in the runup to the 2016 election, combined with a chapter structure that allowed this new membership to quickly get their hands on genuine levers of democratic power, made it at once both the  most powerful and accessible socialist organization in the U.S., without any serious competition. For Red Star, this status makes DSA the sole realistic vehicle for socialist struggle. We see ourselves as part of the crew of a ship, setting off on a long and difficult journey. If our comrades decide to steer the ship off the course we’d hoped for, we nevertheless continue to work the sails and swab the decks. Without our ship, we won’t get anywhere, and detours on the voyage are infinitely preferable to taking our chances in a lifeboat on the open seas.

Part of the reason we have this approach is the humbling acknowledgement that, by and large, the “work” that DSA is capable of doing in its current state isn’t going to change the world. DSA is smaller than the smallest union and less resourced than the poorest NGO. I include Red Star’s own work in this analysis; union shops and local tenant protections are great to have, but as socialists, we can’t be satisfied with these alone.

We envision DSA as the very early stage of a powerful, independent political party, capable of conducting and coordinating a wide range of struggle and tactics into a cohesive whole. The scale and power of such a party would be incomparable to the early steps that we’re taking currently. Socialism is the only solution to the problems that capitalism presents us with, and the party is an indispensable tool for achieving socialism. For that reason, every project we take on now should have the principal goal of moving DSA closer to such a party. Every project that is brought outside of the org is a growth and development opportunity that we are deprived of. Every attempt to shield a project from democratic oversight and intervention is a missed chance to develop our ability to make collective decisions.

What really “Builds Power”?

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we have to admit that none of the victories DSA has won up to this point represent serious milestones on the road to socialism. We haven’t seized the commanding heights of the economy or stormed the barricades of bourgeois democracy. Despite the effort invested into them, they’re all too easily swept away, like past generations of labor power, legislative wins, and militant activism were. Many people accept this in principle, citing the need to “build power,” but it’s rare to see this seriously investigated. When does a project or campaign “build power” and when does it squander time, energy, resources, and opportunities by fighting unwinnable fights or winning pyrrhic victories?  

We should be single-mindedly focussed on genuine opportunities to “build power”, and be willing to admit when important work needs to be left undone or when we need to give up and accept that a project has failed and should wind down. When we thoughtlessly spend our resources on projects that won’t yield a return in some form, be it the development of organizing skills, the gain of new members, or forging valuable alliances with working class formations, we are prolonging our organization’s infancy, and preventing the invaluable development necessary to turn us into a genuine force against capitalism.

Part of that development will consist of being wrong, and making mistakes, of taking our eye off the ball and taking big swings and misses. It will consist of scandals, outrage, political missteps, purges of allies and enemies, and disappointment. It will mean losing some valuable members to burnout or intractable disagreement. But that internal struggle is an essential ingredient of political development, and diffusing it into dozens of more-or-less depoliticized organizing “projects” means that almost all of it is lost, disappearing in dozens of silent drop-offs and wind-downs. When these projects split off from DSA, carrying precious cargo of our time, energy, and resources, it’s nearly inevitable that within a year or two, they’re completely gone, signal lost, no survivors.

On the other hand, projects that are rooted in DSA have the possibility of incredible growth and durability, and can become tentpoles of the organization. EWOC, while by no means a perfect example of integration with DSA democracy, has nevertheless thrived due to its robust interfacing with chapters and the national org, and recent developments, such as the creation of local EWOC chapters like EBWOC in the East Bay, point to the value of organizing inside of DSA rather than outside it.

The most unvarnished, final analysis looks like this: winning an NLRB vote isn’t “building power”; getting a socialist elected isn’t “building power”; getting a law passed isn’t “building power”;  while any and all of these can be valuable campaigns, at the end of the day the essence of socialist power is collective action, and it’s only in DSA that the apparatus to wield power collectively on a mass scale is being built. Isolated wins evaporate; wins earned through the apparatus of DSA can build lasting power because the organization provides a durable foundation and political context for the broader struggle that these victories are a part of


By now, some readers may have gone from thinking this line was overly Liberal to thinking that we’re vanguardist zealots. Not so. Our vision of DSA isn’t as a tightly controlling apparatus that squashes valuable campaigns in the name of conformity, but rather as an apparatus for resolving contradictions about strategy and tactics that would otherwise pull the organization apart. Taking DSA seriously as a political project means deferring to it on what projects should be prioritized, and organizing within it to get things you want. That’s a messy process with lots of gray areas, but the central operating principle is simple; democracy requires ardent striving for a desired outcome, an acceptance of an undesired outcome, and an effort to scientifically examine the results as they unfold.

Our conflicts within DSA are nothing but a training ground for the real struggle against the global capitalist hegemon we live within. Developing the necessary ability as an organizer to achieve your desired outcome within a democratic organization consisting almost entirely of the people most closely politically aligned with you in the world, is absolutely essential. By splitting when you fail to achieve what you want, you rob yourself of political development, and you rob DSA of a valuable resource for achieving revolutionary transformation: you.

All of that brings us back to the starting point; it’s better to be together than to be right. DSA’s power comes from the valuable process of dedicated comrades developing each other politically, sharing their strategic analyses, making collective decisions, and coordinating their efforts toward democratically decided ends. In terms of our final goals, any single missed opportunity now pales in comparison to the opportunity that we’d miss by staying small and undeveloped and shedding members into dead-end splinter projects.

Togetherness doesn’t mean papering over ideological and strategic differences; on the contrary, it means committing to struggling together until a unifying plan of action emerges. These differences go unexamined when the faction that holds one view decides to remove itself and its approach from critique, thereby preserving it from potential defeat and disbandment. Togetherness means exposing every aspect of our working to ongoing critique and democratic accountability, to developing our collective ability to scientifically assess our goals and the means we’re using to pursue them.