Disclaimer: This essay is part of a current string of DSA-focused articles we are offering in the lead up to Maine DSA’s winter convention. You may notice this one is longer than our usual articles. After consideration, we have decided it works best to publish this particular piece in its entirety instead of serializing it. We hope you read, enjoy, and share.
Maine DSA recently finished a study group on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? This perhaps was an attempt to use Lenin’s framework to categorize the myriad of political demands emerging within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in a post-Bernie world. In this essay I want to briefly lay out some of the theory around the purpose a political demand serves before moving into an analysis of the main political demands circulating within DSA right now. But first, what is a political demand?
In chapter 3 of What Is To Be Done? Lenin discusses the difference between trade-unionist politics and social-democrat politics. He asserts that trade-unionists restrict themselves too much in their focus on economic struggles and reforms, between the workers and bosses. He contrasts this with social-democrat politics which must unite all spheres of oppression and struggle through political agitation. This agitation comes from a political demand positioned outside the factory floor and is felt widespread across classes. In 1905 for Lenin this demand was to enact democracy and end the Tsar’s autocracy. In 1917 the political demand was to end Russia’s involvement in World War I. Lenin insisted this agitation must occur amongst all classes for the working class to be a vanguard. With economic struggles still centered as the main lever, the political demand is what enables the working class to act as a political agent. Not only a class in itself, but a class for itself.
I believe the concreteness of the political demand is an important lesson to take from Lenin. Yes, we are all pointed towards a revolution, but what is the next step? The rebirth of DSA as the largest socialist organization in the United States can be credited to the political demand of ‘Bernie Sanders for president.’ A powerful demonstration of how a figurehead can stand in for many different abstract ideas simultaneously. There has been debate around whether his two primary runs for president or the terrors of Trump’s presidency lead to the membership explosion of DSA. What I don’t think can be denied is that the shared vision of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run had a mediating effect on almost all conflict within DSA. I believe much of the turmoil DSA has experienced since 2021 comes from an inability to articulate a unifying political demand in the absence of a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Though a variety of political demands have emerged across the organization, for a long time we have avoided a conversation about priorities.
My goal in this essay is to lay out some of the most prominent political demands within DSA and examine their benefits and drawbacks. I am not an adherent to any one of these demands, but of course I am also not without my own bias. I do not think these demands are mutually exclusive. Lenin’s point was that a single issue like democracy can be the keystone of an entire program. In many ways these political demands could all be seen as advocating for true democracy in the United States. They could also be seen in their own way as advocating for the formation of some party down the line. But our question is, what is the most effective route? There is likely much overlap and general agreement about these goals. The question of political demands is a question of the purpose of our organization, which is a question of priorities for our modern circumstances and time.
Having won seats of power both nationally and locally, DSA has had to deal with the slow parliamentary process of legislating, and as a result has encountered an increasing amount of concessions. These can be implicit such as the subtle goal shifting of dropping Medicare for All as a short term priority, or shifting away from the PRO Act to simpler demands like increasing funding for the NLRB. These concessions can also be made explicit through bad votes by national electeds. When the destination of an organization is unclear, these concessions can lead to increases in internal conflict among members of that organization.
If I am biased in any way, it’s in believing that the most important aspect of a political demand should be to unify the membership of DSA. This doesn’t mean unanimous consensus, but it should at least strive towards the high water mark of the Bernie Sanders campaign. When we look to mediate conflict within DSA, our conversations should center on our political demands. The demands discussed below have been judged on how well they help us do that.
With this essay I hope to clarify disagreements and solicit responses. I would like this discussion to spur the creation of new political demands or syntheses and ultimately strengthen the coherence of the organization.
“For all of the working class to achieve collective liberation we must constrain, diminish, and abolish the carceral forces of the state — from prisons and police themselves, to their manifestations in all forms throughout society. Each step forward in reducing the size, power, and authority of the repressive forces of the state expands the space for mass, organized, and collective action of the working class, and clears ground for us to build the institutions of a society to serve our communities with real justice and equality.”
-Abolition of the Carceral State DSA National Platform
This political demand is founded on skepticism of state control, and has deep resonance with mutual aid projects which seek to build resources and support outside the coercion of the state. There are parallels between the criminalization of poverty and the social control the state exerts through welfare programs. Within DSA, this political project is most often expressed through Defund Police campaigns, or Brake Light Clinics.
Because many of these projects exist outside of institutions, they are able to set their own timelines for working towards their goal. They aim to alleviate the effects of poverty and oppression while not trying to stop them outright. When providing prison support, you think in terms of years and not electoral cycles. The stakes are low while at the same time very high. You’re facing a lot of poverty, but you’re not expected to solve that poverty immediately.
The George Floyd Protests were a watershed moment for abolition, similar to Bernie’s presidential run in 2016. Nowadays, people on the left are just as likely to self-identify as abolitionists as socialists, although Ruth Wilson Gilmore has made clear that abolition has a communist horizon. Because the project is often about effecting change outside the system it often finds more resonance with people who were depoliticized by losing faith in the existing system. Abolition organizing is frequently prioritized in red states where hope of access to state power is limited.
Demands to defund the police have been a useful tool in demarcating a line between liberals and socialists. Any attack on the neoliberal project of law and order will reveal your enemies quickly.
Historically abolition organizing has been fairly defensive, focusing on slowing down the expansion of state coercion. It wasn’t until recently that it looked to try to reverse that course with the demand to defund police. Early efforts came from communities that were disinvested of capital or state interest. A famous example would be the Black Panther Party stepping up to support black communities with their free breakfast program. This is what Huey P. Newton would term “survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution.”
Because abolition is focused on building resources outside of state institutions, there is a large challenge around scalability and sustainability. Even when concessions from the state are won, such as a government-backed free lunch program, abolition organizers need to maintain their survival programs lest they become demobilized and depoliticized.
Finally the demand to defund the police presents a contradiction for most abolition organizers. In order to effect the budget of police forces, representatives must enter state institutions to push forward such demands. This inherently rubs up against the state skepticism of abolition organizers, and can cause the disarticulation that all political demands are trying to prevent.
Base-Building is the focus on building working class institutions such as tenant and workplace unions. This is not a political demand, but I include it here because many of the base-building organizers are acutely aware of this. Base-building analysis starts from the assumption that before the working class can act for itself, it must first be reconstituted as a class in itself. In Lenin’s terms, base-builders would say before we can focus on social democrat consciousness, we must first rebuild trade unionist consciousness.
Base-building was first popularized in an essay by Sophia Burns titled “The US Left Only Has Four Tendencies,” but the best contemporary articulation is the essay “Our Moment: Proletarian Disorganization as the Problem of Our Time,” published by the DSA Communist Caucus. Base-building overlaps in some ways with abolition organizing and mutual aid projects which strive to build institutions of their own. However, polemics like “Mutual Aid: a Factor of Liberalism” by Gus Breslauer show that some base-builders put primacy on economic struggle to the extent that it should be distinguished from these other tendencies.
In the modern left, this tendency is best represented by the rise of the Autonomous Tenants Unions Network. These are tenants unions that have popped up within the past six years that are entirely dues funded, and claim class independence because of this. Class independence is an important factor for base-builders and is emphasized as complete separation from the informal Democratic party apparatus, specifically their funding.
The focus on class independence is the main reason I would not include the Rank and File Strategy as advanced by National DSA Labor within the tendency of base-building. Whereas base-builders focus on building new, independent working class institutions, the RFS seeks to repoliticize the leadership of existing labor unions that are undoubtedly enmeshed within the Democratic party funding network.
The major advantage of base-building’s focus on economic struggle is that it lays out the immediate task quite easily. Look at how you are situated in society: your place of work and where you live. Then get to work organizing. Recent history has shown that there are winnable fights in both of these arenas. While workplace struggle has a way of reinforcing the demographics of DSA because co-workers often share similar economic backgrounds, tenant organizing has shown a real ability to cut across demographic differences. Apartment buildings can have tenants from a wide variety of different backgrounds. In order to win, identifying organic leaders with informal networks leads to exactly the type of outreach that is so hard to replicate in other forms of organizing.
The admittance of a lack of political demand allows base-building organizers to be very flexible when it comes to internal conflict. Stronger working class institutions would make whatever political demand is chosen more attainable. By defaulting to the long view, they are able to move past a sense of urgency that makes most internal discussions fraught.
At the same time, this long view comes with its own set of risks. The chief criticism against base-building is that it leads to depoliticization. Much of What Is To Be Done? is targeted at exactly this type of economism. Base-builders are often aware of this danger, and work hard to maintain politicization. This is largely where LATU’s slogan of “a world without rent” has come from. ATUN has been making space for this debate, but has yet to resolve it. The fact that tenants still represent a minority within a nation of home-owners represents another key limitation to tenant organizing as a means of base-building.
This is especially difficult for DSA members who are also a part of the ATUN movement. Because DSA has already entered the political arena by running successful electoral campaigns, the political question cannot be avoided forever. In some ways, base-builders’ insistence on class independence is the first step of a political demand, which can lead to conflict with other visions. Some of the most fraught disagreements come about when DSA electeds act as facilitators of capital for things like ‘affordable’ housing developments. Base-builders can say they are not organized enough to talk about a class-for-itself, but the disarticulation by capital is already occurring.
Another problem with this tendency is that it requires participants to take on greater risk than other forms of organizing. You’re risking your home or job with this sort of organizing, and that naturally has a narrowing effect on who is willing to engage in it
Break from the Democrats
This political demand comes in many different shades. Much of it has to do with what ballot line we use in an election. A clean break says we should never use the Democratic line, while a dirty break advocates using the Democratic line opportunistically before eventually breaking away. There are still others who have no plans to abandon the Democratic ballot line, but think it is essential to agitate against the Democrats just as much as against the Republicans. For the working class to cohere into a political agent there must be a party that distinguishes itself from both of the capitalist parties of Congress. This political demand asserts that the most immediate task for socialists is to demonstrate that distinction.
There has honestly been so much written about strategic use of the ballot line that it seems unnecessary to explain it anymore. The most recent effort to prioritize this demand was the 1-2-3-4 plan proposed in NYC-DSA recently.
The staying power of the dirty break in DSA discourse comes from the fact that it is a political demand, an immediate task that a program can be built around. Some organizers believe that concessions would be easier to accept if there was agreement on this long term goal, or that our electeds would make fewer concessions if the preservation of alliances was less of a priority.
As DSA chapters have built up their capacity, they have increasingly come into conflict with Democrats as they pursue their objectives. Law-and-order Democrats are often the chief defenders of the police state, and military industrial complex. Focusing on the differences between socialists and liberals can create clear channels for the anger and frustrations of members.
The biggest hurdle for this tendency is that its advocates do not have many examples of how this would play out in practice. Many fear it would be a return to the politics of the pre-Bernie 2016 era, when the socialist left was marginalized and insignificant. There is the possibility of a party surrogate model which still agitates against the Democrats in the way described in the 1-2-3-4 plan, but few DSA electeds have taken up the call to act as the tribune of the people.
The call for ignoring concessionary reforms in favor of agitation and propaganda is also far less compelling when there is still an opportunity to pass possibly transformative reforms. Much of the internal conflict in DSA comes from the question of whether that window of opportunity has in fact closed.
Make DSA Big
This demand is perhaps simultaneously the most ambiguous and most widespread within DSA. It could be called many other things, such as ‘DSA as the Flag,’ or ‘Winning While Socialist.’ This political demand, which emerged from the void left behind by Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal from the 2020 election, is the practical electoral program built by local DSA chapters. The basic concept was that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run revealed winnable electoral victories in a variety of deep blue cities. If DSA’s core demographic of college-educated-but-downwardly-mobile millennials were able to organize and secure these wins, DSA would be able to build momentum. From those victories a political project could emerge that felt irresistible and could lay the groundwork for the democratic socialist revolution of Bernie Sanders and Medicare For All.
It was unclear to many how much work the vision of a Bernie Sanders presidency was doing to hold DSA together. When the possibility of that goal evaporated, advocates of this tendency have tried to fill in the space left behind with different economic demands, from the Green New Deal to the PRO Act. None of these national campaigns have had the same unifying effect as the political demand of a Bernie Sanders presidency. Almost in acknowledgement of this weakness, the political demand of this tendency has been reduced to ‘make DSA big,’ a sort of electoral base-building that, instead of focusing on building working class institutions, focuses on electoral and legislative wins with an eye toward growing the membership of DSA and voting base willing to support DSA.
Instead of articulating what is to be done with the power DSA builds, much of the writing in favor of this tendency has emphasized the negation of every other political demand within DSA. Olivia M’s essay The Path to Class Independence is a good example of this argument. This essay also shows how this tendency is distinct from the political demand of ‘fight the right.’ Whereas Bill Fletcher Jr. says there is no middle ground when it comes to preserving democracy, Olivia insists there is still value in setting oneself apart from liberals. If base-builders try to give political character to their economic struggle through their emphasis on class independence, then this tendency attempts to do the same through their emphasis on DSA as the unifying brand.
One big advantage that electoral work has over labor and tenant organizing is it allows DSA to advocate for itself. DSA can never be a union itself, only an incubator for such structures. With electoral work on the other hand, it is allowed to be at the forefront. Organizations in some ways are collective dreams held together by a sense of shared purpose. If DSA were only an incubator with no work to truly call its own, it would struggle to maintain its identity.
It is to the credit of the local chapters across the country that DSA has managed to sustain itself past the Bernie bump in membership. Chapters have secured wins, and often those wins have brought in resources. This double duty of sustaining the organization and justifying its purpose should not be underestimated. There are probably other ways to accomplish this than electoral work, but an alternative has yet to be found.
There is a lot that can be transformational about winning a fight. Through practice, DSA has proven that there is indeed a key opening for radicalization around the ballot box. Not everyone knows how to organize their workplace or apartment, but everyone knows how to vote. There has been a demographic limit to this type of recruitment but it has undoubtedly been a source of growth for DSA.
If DSA did nothing but win, then this tendency’s approach would likely continue to go unchallenged. The euphoria of each win would continue to paper over differences as the organization moved forward, but an organization built only on the idea of winning is a very fragile thing. The true value of organization is the ability to deal with the unpredictability of the future, and part of that is being able to handle setbacks. The line does not always go up. It zigs and zags. Often to find the perseverance to keep going, you have to be tapped into some bigger picture than looking for the next win. There is something that makes this electoral base-building more vulnerable to setbacks than the more traditional labor or tenant-oriented base-building. This likely stems from how central electoral work is to DSA. If a tenant union loses, there are material consequences, but it is relatively easy to move on to new base-building. When DSA loses it raises existential questions about the future of the organization.
We have seen many internal caucuses within DSA that focused on growth over clarity, and ended up imploding. So it makes sense perhaps if some comrades are pushing to shrink the tent and narrow the scope of DSA’s work. At the same time, by jettisoning other tendencies, we make it harder for many to identify what the wins are leading to beyond the continuation of the status quo within DSA. In this way ‘make DSA big’ can fall into the background in comparison with the more political demands of ‘break with the democrats’ or ‘fight the right,’ which at least have a goal for the power we are building. By not articulating an actual political demand that transcends economic reform, ‘make DSA big’ avoids generative conflict, and the possibility of taking a leading role within DSA.
This emphasis on winning to the exclusion of all else, and unwillingness to admit to setbacks creates an internal pressure to change the definition of what counts as a win. However, some ‘wins’ are in fact concessions that should be identified as such. Material change that is won through subsidies to the capitalist opposition demobilizes us and strengthens our opponents. Things like insulin price caps or ‘affordable’ housing developments simply create islands of security. This is very similar to the way that unions in the 1950’s retreated from public healthcare as a demand in favor of good private healthcare for union members. These concessions only make our opponents stronger down the line, and should therefore be resisted more strongly rather than championed as historic achievements.
Another drawback to this approach is that while the triumphalism of DSA does help with recruitment of new members, it often leads to tension within coalitions. Because socialism has become headline clickbait for many publications, DSA advocating for itself can often end up obscuring the labor of good-faith coalition partners. This can contribute to a sense that DSA is at its best when operating alone.
Fight the Right
The insurrection on January 6th, 2021 changed many things, including how seriously many comrades took the task of fighting the right. Democracy as we know it is at risk. I mentioned above that any of the tendencies in this essay could be seen as routes towards defending democracy. What distinguishes them from each other is what they see as the next step. The ‘fight the right’ tendency sees the most immediate step as preventing a repeat of January 6th by winning electorally in 2024.
There are many writers outside of DSA who have opinions on DSA’s role in preserving democracy in the United States. That so many words have been written about DSA’s role in national politics demonstrates the gravitational pull of such discourse. It’s perhaps not surprising that so many of these articles reach the same conclusion: a broad front is necessary to defeat the return of Trumpism, so train your fire on Republicans and not Democrats.
There are many people who live outside of deep blue cities who were only introduced to DSA through national politics like Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns. While not able to create change at the local or state level, having a national project to participate in gave people the belief that change was possible. Similar national projects have popped up focusing on resisting Trumpism, such as Abolish Ice. In that light, trying to sustain a national project by continuing to agitate around Trumpism makes a lot of sense, but it’s also true the character of this agitation has changed under a Democratic president. Simple anti-authoritarianism no longer unifies as it could under the Trump presidency. The threat of Trumpism also seems diminished with the fact that Republicans barely retook a majority in the House of Representatives during the 2022 midterms, further complicating this story. It seems that the political center is resolidifying.
A characteristic that defines this tendency is how much emphasis it puts on the demographic limits of DSA. As chapters work through the easily attainable electoral wins in their locales, there is building pressure to be more flexible in messaging in order to reach new voters. This focus on fighting the right has greater appeal with the older generation of voters who form a key voting bloc in Democratic primaries.
One huge benefit of claiming the mantle of defenders of democracy is that it can be used as agitation across almost all classes. One reason this discourse has lingered in the media sphere for so long is exactly that it speaks to people from many different backgrounds. So many veterans of the left have not landed on this exact formulation by chance. This demand could fit the classic interpretation of Lenin’s prescription in What Is To Be Done?, with the modern day Republicans standing in for Russia’s autocratic Tsarist regime. In that sense, focusing all of your fire on the right fits within Lenin’s formulation.
Keeping DSA in the conversation around national politics makes it easier for people to find out about us. It actually takes a lot of effort to get people to start caring about local or even state politics. Chapters were able to do this in the past using Bernie Sanders as a way to open up the conversation. If the goal is recruiting new members around the ballot box, that becomes much harder if you have nothing to say about the presidential race.
Part of that focus on the national discourse also makes this tendency the most friendly to coalitions. Whether it’s the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, or a myriad of other non-profit organizations, ‘fight the right’ is willing to listen to the common sense of the non-profit world. This is the distinction that most separates this tendency from the ‘make DSA big’ tendency. Whereas ‘make DSA big’ is happy for our organization to act largely on its own, ‘fight the right’ emphasizes DSA’s role as a part of the broad front. However, this coalition question need not be a black-and-white binary. Because comrades advocating for this tendency may be the only ones willing to participate in coalitions, they are in the best position to find the actual benefits.
The drawbacks of this demand become clearer once you try to imagine what it looks like in practice beyond releasing statements. The strongest DSA chapters are housed within cities that already vote overwhelmingly Democrat. The electoral college means that helping at the margins in safe Democratic states does not help in presidential elections. In this way, the very composition of DSA makes following through on this demand difficult.
While chapters were able to mobilize to help defend abortion rights in several states this past electoral cycle, it’s unclear if these fights built up the organization. One of the chief downsides of the defensive posture is that it’s incredibly hard to follow up on any momentum gained through successful defense. By only reacting to what Republicans are doing, chapters never have enough time to actually plan out transformational campaigns to lead on their own.
Outside of these very real limits on this political program, there is also the perception that ‘fight the right’ is a retreat to the pre-2016 politics supporting the ‘lesser evil’. This is a mirror image of the fear that ‘break from the democrats’ will lead us back to an old model of politics that has proven ineffective. This perception has been reinforced by older generations scolding DSA for the 2019 ‘Bernie or bust’ resolution.
As an organization, the Democratic Socialists of America has a foot in both past and present. In a sea of foundation-funded non-profits, DSA stands out because of how freely it is able to move and effect change. Funded solely through membership dues, DSA can engage in almost any type of organizing on the left. This freedom can sometimes be overwhelming, but is also how many parties historically worked towards socialism. There are echoes of DSA’s chaotic scramble to fight on all fronts in Lenin’s description of a tribune of the people:
“…who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
-Lenin What is to be Done
At first glance, this can seem to be ambulance chasing, where DSA is constantly running from one crisis to the next, spreading our capacity thin and juggling half a dozen different demands. What made this strategy work in Russia was its ability to tie together many different struggles into one political demand: overthrowing the Tsar and enacting democracy. While this was a monumental goal, by 1902 Russians had seen it accomplished in many different western countries. It was a concrete objective.
For a time within DSA, electing Bernie Sanders as president was a similar unifying political demand. The task of the modern DSA is to find a demand to replace Bernie. Maybe we could discover another leader to embody our many different desires simultaneously, but we have also seen how their removal can leave our organization divided and struggling to find a path forward.
Some have looked towards focusing on a single national campaign to address the disunity within DSA. I believe Lenin would have called such a vision economism. Even the most universal demand like Medicare For All does not unify in the same way without the greater political demand of electing Bernie Sanders. The task of a party is not to be the best fighter in a single arena of struggle, but to show how many different struggles can be tied together into a greater cause.
The political demands included here are some of the broadest within the organization. At the same time, proponents of each tendency seem to be talking past each other. We object to the minutiae of each other’s plans rather than focusing on what the next positive step for the organization will be. I believe there are many generative conversations to be had around these demands as long as people are willing to address them directly and allow for some self-reflection.