Pine & Roses is a project of the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Our publication mainly focuses on news and opinions about issues affecting working class Mainers and U.S. leftists. While the following piece is primarily focused on DSA, its broader message about democratic organizational issues speaks to themes in the broader U.S. left. This is the first in a number of articles by Aaron Berger on the topic of internal debate in working class organizations, member conduct, and how leftists can avoid toxicity and harness difference and debate as productive tools.
Organizing for socialism can feel like being part of a church whose predicted judgment day has come and gone. It’s common for internal disputes to break out in such situations. What does it mean to carry forward now? To keep the flame of socialism lit? Frequent also for dissent to be treated as sacrilegious. As if to question is to lose faith. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is not a church, but organizing post-Bernie can often feel as if judgment day has come and gone. Unrest and anxiety should be expected in the closing of such an opportunity. A frequent deflection is to continue to rally focus on external projects and campaigns. The rationale being that external projects will lead to organizational growth, which will hopefully outweigh any possible attrition occurring. This ignores the possibility that internal reflection can be a source of rejuvenation. Though within DSA, internal deliberations have often been the exact opposite of healing, with disagreements only exacerbating the attrition. It’s because of this hollowing out that we’ve been unable to carry lessons forward from the past, but it is possible for our organization to metabolize dissent to grow stronger from it.
There is a balance between deliberation and action. It is better to have more things to do than things to meet about. Meetings are imperfect tools, often their procedural fights act as proxies for deeper disagreements, and the substance of issues is hidden. With just this small glimpse into the problems of meetings, and the paranoia it can encourage, it’s clear that it is important to build trust and understanding amongst each other. This is why action or externally focused campaigns are emphasized for building out a chapter. By working alongside each other towards a common goal you gain an understanding for each other’s quirks and interests. It is often the best onboarding and confidence building experience for an organization.
As time goes on though, it doesn’t do much more than that. Maybe this only becomes obvious when you start to lose momentum, but a campaign does not teach you how to find unity when it comes to strategy. Some chapters have found a way to address this, but it’s been lacking at the national level since Bernie’s defeat. Many national organizations have struggled to maintain strategic unity. Some may read this as undermining leadership, but if it happens across several different organizations then there is something else going on here. This is in part what I mean to metabolize dissent. It is vital that we learn to make these moments generative.
DSA’s internal democratic culture was developed during the Trump presidency which was a time of exponential passive membership growth. Our leadership core is filled with brilliant socialist organizers, but many reached self actualization through a mixture of autodidactism, ambition, and pure chance. During this same period the candidate pool of members willing to take on national leadership shrunk from 64 in 2017, to 32 in 2019, to 21 in 2021, all for a 16 person leadership body. This unsustainable cocktail is even more dangerous now that we don’t have new members joining every day. It has left us with a short institutional memory, and similar conflicts seem to recur as if on a cycle, as we are unable to carry any lesson forward. The reproduction of the socialist movement means not only finding leaders to replace ourselves, but then having enough energy to stick around and mentor those leaders.
The hardest challenge we have in front of us is the reproduction of the socialist movement. To maintain what little mass DSA has in a time of stagnation. This not only requires developing leaders who can replace those currently leading. It will require even more leaders than we currently have so that our structures can grow. Which means accepting when someone takes the opportunity to step forward to offer dissent, that they are stepping up to be a leader. Now, not every poster on Twitter is a leader, but DSA has a history of organized agitation. This organized agitation is often how members discover the contours of DSA, and develop skills to navigate meetings and votes. It often does not succeed on the first attempt. Ideally, this engagement with the organization leads to reflection and a deeper relationship with DSA, but more often than not members assume change is impossible.
The desire for instantaneous change is a misunderstanding of how organizations function. Some may think of DSA as a single organism with a central nervous system; where the local chapters or working groups are different appendages of the body, and leadership is housed within the brain. If you stub your big toe, you expect the whole body to react. All limbs acting in concert to relieve the pain or danger, but this misunderstands how DSA operates as an organization. Instead of a living organism, DSA is much more akin to a humongous block of clay. A block of clay so large it’s impossible to see the whole of it from any vantage point. Leadership may have a birds eye view, but even that vantage point is incomplete. Any one person, even leaders, pushing or pulling on this block of clay is likely to see little movement. To make a dent in DSA you must be organized with others. Bringing together relationships, trust, and experience to effect that change, and even then that organized agitation will likely only leave an impression. It is only through the steady accumulation of impressions that the shape of our organization changes, but it does in fact change.
For better or worse, DSA is an institution. A social structure that does not end because of any one person coming and going. It is our best tool for sharing the radical knowledge the left has gained or rediscovered since its revitalization of 2016. As members attempt to influence DSA, DSA will exert its own influence on its membership. Being part of this process requires the surrendering of a little bit of your own agenda. Any collective action relies not on the smartest individual or leader within, but the baseline understanding across the entire collective. Voluntary association often means learning together through success and failure.
It is very hard to follow what DSA is doing, let alone what lessons people are taking from past actions. The turnover rate in DSA’s membership means many members have a short institutional memory. Without being able to see the long view, it could be easy to assume it’s impossible to affect change within DSA. When in fact, there have been many shifts on issues and practice over the short lifespan of the revitalized DSA. Here is a quick list of such shifts. DSA’s adoption of abolition of police and prisons as a strategic goal was not immediate, and took time. In 2019 there was a National DSA leadership transparency pledge which met some opposition within DSA, but by 2022 those opponents started their own calls for transparency. In the aftermath of the teacher strike wave there was a major focus on socialists getting unionized jobs in strategic sectors like teaching, nursing, or logistics, but as time goes on more attention has been given to organizing the unorganized.
You could credit these shifts solely to contemporary events, such as the George Floyd Protests or Starbucks organizing, but part of being ready to seize the moment is having had a discussion beforehand. Many local chapters were more ready for 2020 protests, because the 2017 national convention highlighted prison abolition as an area for organizing. DSA members were able to coordinate around Starbucks organizing, because of the groundwork the Restaurant Organizing Project had laid. Institutional reform is often done through half measures and accommodations, and few agitators stick around long enough to see the full lifespan of these transitions. However, this does not fully explain DSA’s attrition problem.
One of the best things National DSA could do to help metabolize dissent is to formalize a process to collect reflections from local leaders. Many members have come to their own conclusions about Bernie’s defeat, Covid, the George Floyd Protests, or the failure of the Build Back Better agenda. We have not been able to bring those thoughts together in one place. To compare them and identify the common themes. While writing is important for the reproduction of the socialist movement, reflection should be a time to deepen relationships, and you cannot do this through writing alone.
To metabolize dissent is to learn to reconcile different perspectives on the same project. It means recognizing local leaders may be offering their own analysis based on information you don’t have. It does not mean conceding to any and all demands, but recognizing such demands as an opportunity. This is not a problem DSA can solve through organizational democracy and meetings alone. DSA has often emphasized growth over retention, but without intentional leadership development we will never expand our capacity. It is also important for the membership of DSA to understand that no change is instantaneous. Over 90,000 members have left impressions on the block of clay known as DSA. Change takes a while to surface, but that’s all the more reason to get organized.
There is a lot to say about how the democratic culture of DSA plays out in practice. In future articles we’ll look at the large impact the conduct of the membership has on sustainability.