In the Democratic Socialists of America today, we see a healthy and welcome skepticism of authority in the organization — a sign of our members’ commitment to building a truly democratic movement. Many chapters are experimenting with more participatory forms of governance, from consensus-based models to mechanisms to give members agenda-setting power at chapter meetings, to requirements that most or all significant decisions taken by a chapter are debated and voted on by the full membership rather than just the elected leadership.
At the national level, we have seen the emergence of informal accountability task forces to monitor the work of the National Political Committee (NPC), livestreams of NPC meetings available for all members to view online, proposals for more frequent national conventions to increase member participation in national DSA decision-making, and plans to develop stronger regional structures, among others.
Many of these efforts represent positive steps in the organization’s internal functioning and culture. We should develop new mechanisms to incorporate the broadest range of perspectives within DSA in organizational decisions; wherever possible we should err on the side of transparency; and within practical constraints, we should always try to approximate direct democracy as closely as possible in organizational decision-making.
If DSA stands for anything, it stands for radical democracy, or the principle that everyone affected by a decision should have a roughly equal say as everyone else in making that decision. As Nicos Poulantzas put it, “socialism will be democratic, or it will not be at all.” Democracy is what socialism is all about. It is why we focus so much on putting economic decisions in the hands of workers rather than bosses, who otherwise have free reign under capitalism to take whatever decisions they want, regardless of how those decisions might affect workers and the communities they live in.
This is also one reason we focus so much on addressing racial, national, gender, and other forms of oppression that give some individuals and groups arbitrary control over the lives of others. These practices undermine a core value at the heart of democracy, namely that everyone should have the right to participate equally with others in important decisions that affect their lives.
If we don’t put the principle of radical democracy at the heart of our own organizational practice, there is little chance that we will ever be able to do so on a larger scale as we transition away from capitalism and toward a democratic socialist society. This is especially true given the limited experience most DSA members (and most people generally) have with participating in organizations that aren’t hierarchical, and which don’t involve being exploited or oppressed in some form. Without the sustained practice we get debating and deliberating as equals in democratic decision-making at DSA meetings, most of us would have few if any other avenues through which to develop these skills that comprise a fundamental pillar of any egalitarian society.
Given the limited experience most of us have with collectively building democratic spaces of a significant size of course, it’s no wonder that some of our democratic experiments are less successful than others or that we sometimes proceed momentarily down paths that in hindsight might not have been the most productive.
But after a year and a half of democratic experimentation following DSA’s membership surge in late 2016 and early 2017, many of us now have the opportunity to draw some lessons from our experiences building a truly democratic organization. We’ve come up with four key lessons that we think will help move us still further along the path toward creating a truly democratic organization, while being more attentive to the practical limitations that make building a “horizontal” organization fully committed to direct democracy impossible.
Give People the Benefit of the Doubt (Democracy Depends on It!)
We always want to encourage DSA members to raise issues around transparency and democratic decision-making with local and national leadership to ensure our leaders are fully accountable to the membership. But it is important both to act in good faith and also to use common sense to distinguish between minor, passing issues — that inevitably arise within an organization as new and dynamic as DSA — and genuinely serious threats to internal democracy.
Most of the time (though certainly not all of the time), what a member perceives as a disturbing lack of transparency is just the result of a volunteer organizer having one more thing on her to-do list than she could take care of in a given week. Under ideal circumstances, the volunteer organizer would update the membership on every important development, but this is simply not always possible. Acknowledging these practical limitations, assuming good faith on the part of DSA’s elected leadership and staff, and asking questions before pressing the denounce button are critical to maintaining a healthy internal culture.
Without giving people the benefit of the doubt, we can’t build trust, and without trust we simply can’t have real democratic deliberation.
Democratic deliberation depends upon recognition among all participants that their fellow participants are acting with the best intentions. When this baseline trust is absent, debates devolve (explicitly or not) into personal attacks, and when votes are taken the losing side inevitably views the outcome as illegitimate. What could have been a vibrant culture of internal democracy that serves to focus and refine our organization’s strategic vision devolves into counterproductive infighting, factionalism, and obstructionism. If we don’t engage with each other from a place of good faith and trust that we are all sincere and well intentioned participants in organizational discussions, we are doomed to organizational sclerosis and ultimately marginality.
Legitimate Representation Is Direct Democracy’s Cool Cousin
As democrats, socialists’ first choice for decision-making is always direct democracy. To the greatest extent possible, decisions in a democratic organization should be made directly by the membership in general meetings. This is essential to avoid the inevitable misrepresentation of the people’s will by representative institutions.
Karl Marx’s writings on this question are instructive. For example, he warned against the potential dangers of representation in “The Civil War in France.” For Marx, traditional representative institutions of liberal democracy served primarily to misrepresent the people’s interests, and limited the role of the people in decision-making to deciding every three or six years who would serve as their agent of misrepresentation in parliament. In contrast to this, the Paris Commune offered the only political form capable of ensuring the people would be able to represent their own interests, namely through direct democracy.
“The Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet… The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”
Yet Marx also acknowledged that it is not feasible to run a large-scale organization if each and every member must participate directly in every important decision. This would create chaos and extreme organizational inflexibility. To the extent possible, decisions would be taken directly by the people, through communes, but additional decisions would remain that could not be taken directly by the people. And here an effective system of representative leadership would be necessary.
So what makes representation legitimate? Three criteria stand out.
First, as described in the quote above, Marx advocated levels of democratic representation, where the membership at one level (say the local level) would elect representatives to serve as their agents at a higher level of organizational decision-making (say at the regional or national level). If these representatives were elected by universal suffrage of the entire community, Marx believed the decisions taken by these higher-level representatives were legitimate.
But, while Marx believed legitimate representation depended upon as close an association as possible between the will of the people and the decisions taken by their representatives, he also believed that as a practical matter, representatives needed some degree of flexibility in taking decisions. Consequently, he believed that representatives should not be viewed as passive agents of the people with no latitude to take decisions not explicitly sanctioned by their constituents. In other words, a representative needs to have the freedom to allow deliberation with other representatives to sway her opinion in an assembly or meeting.
Marx’s insights into political representation are just as valid for DSA today as they were for the Paris Commune in 1871. In an organization of DSA’s size, all important decisions taken either by large locals or by the national organization simply cannot go to the full membership for a vote. (Full direct democracy is much more feasible within smaller chapters.) This would take an inordinate amount of time — time that we desperately need to continue growing our ranks and increasing the impact we have in U.S. politics.
Further, including all members in every important organizational decision would privilege those members who have the time to spend hours and hours each week paying close attention to the minutiae of DSA. It would marginalize the overwhelming majority of DSA members who simply do not have the time to stay constantly informed about every decision the organization takes.
This is precisely why we have legitimately elected representatives who do have the time to stay informed, sometimes to an excruciating degree. And if the membership believes their representatives have ceased to act in their interests, they have the right to elect alternative representatives in the future.
Second, while legitimate representation is the most practical mode of day-to-day decision-making for DSA, the most important chapter and organizational decisions should go to the full membership, regardless of how cumbersome the process may be. Some of these instances are mandated by chapter bylaws (such as making bylaw amendments), but the list should also include other decisions that could meaningfully impact the chapter’s political reputation and broad strategic orientation. That includes candidate endorsements and chapter priorities. However, it is critical to guard against attempts to unreasonably stretch the definition of “meaningfully impact,” as such attempts are generally efforts to impede work that a minority of the membership simply doesn’t like.
Using direct democracy in these cases is critical not just because they are decisions with the potential to impact the chapter’s work well beyond the term of a given leadership group but also because DSA is a radical-democratic organization whose legitimacy depends (and should depend) on the membership’s confidence that they are the ultimate decision-making body in DSA. This is what ensures that members will feel a sense of ownership and personal commitment to the organization — a commitment without which we are lost as an organization.
The third factor needed to generate legitimately elected leadership is for certain criteria to be met in the process of electing chapter and national leaders. First, candidates for leadership positions should run on clearly stated and consistent political platforms that allow members to make informed decisions between candidates with contrasting political visions for the organization. Second, members should be able, and indeed encouraged, to organize together in caucuses to promote their visions for the organization during and between leadership elections. Finally, there should be a significant period of open debate around candidates’ positions leading up to the election, including published candidate/slate platforms (offered well in advance of elections), candidate debates open to all members, written Q&As published in a bulletin available to all members, etc.
In the absence of distinct, coherent, and publicly articulated political alternatives in leadership elections, the results tend to be more or less random. They are determined by apolitical aspects of candidates that members learn at the last minute through a cursory scan of candidate statements and by candidates’ preexisting social networks.
While some of these guidelines for legitimate representation can be written into bylaws and election rules, by and large it is our collective responsibility to develop a culture that encourages them.
A system of representative leadership may not be ideal, but in the context of an organization on the scale of DSA, it allows for the greatest possible representation of the membership without producing the undesirable side-effects of large-scale participatory democracy discussed above.
Beware the Weaponization of Democracy
Legitimate representation can also help organizations like DSA tackle what Jo Freeman called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” If you ever attended an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly you likely have some sense of what this refers to: In the name of democracy, individuals and groups reject any formal organizational structures within movement spaces. The argument goes that the imposition of these structures — including leaders, representation, and formal procedures for organizational decision-making — are inherently exclusionary. They serve to increase the power of the minority of members who understand exactly how these procedures work.
Within reason, these concerns are understandable and capture problematic dynamics that almost always arise in democratic organizations. But the proposed “solution” of minimizing structure is far worse than the problem. Rejecting clear, regular, and transparent structures for organizational decision-making in favor of “horizontalist” practices in fact produces informal power arrangements. Small groups of self-appointed and unaccountable leaders come to direct the organization or movement in the name of democracy.
These “leaders” gain their positions not because they have the best ideas, but simply because they have resources (time, money, education, social networks, etc) that other members do not have. They will constantly demand increased participation of the membership in organizational decisions, but in practice will favor informal, non-transparent methods of “including” the membership in these decisions. They will favor methods of member inclusion they can control without being burdened by the oversight of legitimately elected leaders who are chosen by the membership to work on their behalf. The result is radical democracy in rhetoric and informal, rule-by-clique in practice.
This kind of informal participatory democracy is the worst possible outcome for a democratic organization. In representative democracies, leaders have a legitimate claim to represent members and members have recourse to clear and consistent mechanisms for holding elected leaders accountable. But this model runs the risk of allowing leaders to take decisions that serve their own interests (or the interests of a small subset of their constituents) while ignoring the will of their constituents. In formal, full participatory democracy (something that is achievable only in small groups) the people (or an organization’s membership) take decisions directly, thereby limiting the capacity of elected leaders to misrepresent them. But this method privileges individuals with the time and inclination to participate constantly in organizational decision-making, while also increasing the organizational costs of decision-making and limiting organizational flexibility. Informal participatory democracy, by contrast, puts power in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable leadership.
Always beware of those who constantly denounce institutions and individuals as “undemocratic” without offering a clear and plausible alternative that will not produce more problems than it solves. Just saying people should be included in decisions without considering the implications of how various actions might increase or decrease the overall quality of democratic decision-making in the organization is not only unhelpful, but also counterproductive — and even destructive of the kind of organization we all want to see.
Build Power First, Utopia Second
Marx and Engels famously referred to socialism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” By that, they meant that the socialist movement involves building the massive collective power necessary to overthrow the capitalist system in order to create the conditions for the future development of a socialist society. They contrasted this to utopian understandings of socialism that argued that a socialist society had to be created first in miniature (through planned communities and cooperatives for example) before it could be scaled-up to the society at large. In Marx and Engels’s view, it made little sense to focus on building model versions of a future socialist society, since this work serves mainly to divert socialists’ energy away from building mass working-class movements and political parties. And without these elements, no socialist society can emerge.
Marx and Engels’s critique of utopian socialists is equally applicable to those in DSA who make the argument that our internal decision-making structures must anticipate (or “prefigure”) the most ideal decision-making processes we expect to exist in a socialist society.
According to the reasoning of these DSA members, it is impossible to imagine building a socialist society without a political organization that itself embodies the core principles of that society in its day-to-day organizational practices. The practical corollary of the argument is that DSA’s internal decision-making practices should always be as inclusive and transparent as possible, even if that means greatly diminishing DSA’s capacity to organize effectively and build real working-class power. From this perspective such a tradeoff between process and outcomes is reasonable: What is the point of building working-class power if the end result will be an oppressive system that marginalizes the voices of all but a small leadership clique?
However, as Marx and Engels’s critique of the utopian socialists suggests, the principal effect of this prefigurative approach is to limit DSA’s ability to win meaningful political victories. What should be straightforward tactical or strategic debates resolved by majority votes taken by leadership or the membership (depending on the issue) can quickly devolve into an obsessive proceduralism, leading to major delays in carrying out critical projects. For instance, spending months debating in general meetings technical changes in chapter bylaws, the relative merits of procedural questions around chapter incorporation, or other administrative tasks (website design, spreadsheet management, general meeting structure) generally produces little more than diverting many hours from concrete organizing and strategic discussion. These are all important questions, but given major constraints on our time as organizers, we need to carefully consider whether the tradeoffs are really worth it. Otherwise, we risk creating widespread frustration and burnout among the active membership and discouraging the participation of new members, which in turn undermines DSA’s organizational capacity.
In short, creating a healthy internal culture that ensures members have a stake in the organization and feel committed to its long-term success is essential, but veering too far away from the pragmatic balance of direct democracy and legitimate representation described above — even if it is in the name of building the society we want to see within DSA — is a recipe for self sabotage.
A Short Blueprint for Real Internal Democracy
With all that said, what would real internal democracy in DSA look like? How can general membership meetings, an elected steering committee, working groups and committees, a collectively agreed upon strategy, and caucuses — the building blocks of most DSA chapters — all come together to produce a truly democratic organization? Here are a few ideas.
General meetings should be held only as frequently as necessary, as they require a good deal of preparation and energy that should be spent primarily on external organizing. Depending on the chapter, the appropriate frequency will vary from once a month to quarterly.
General meetings should also be run by a set of commonly agreed-upon rules. In some chapters, a simplified version of Robert’s Rules is sufficient; in others, where there is more conflict, the full set of Robert’s Rules may be necessary.
An agenda should be set by the chapter’s elected leadership ahead of time. Robert’s Rules allows for sufficient flexibility in amending meeting agendas to match the will of the membership. It should be up to the steering committee to use its judgment in determining which agenda items should be prioritized at general meetings, but members can and should be able to request that items be placed on the agenda — and should be able to amend the agenda at the start of the meeting by majority vote if necessary.
A summary of and brief motivation behind all resolutions to be offered at upcoming general meetings should be sent to the membership well in advance of the meeting. Debates at general meetings should be substantive, focused, well-moderated by the facilitator, and conducted in good faith. Interventions based on ad-hominem attacks, grandstanding, or individual claims to speak on behalf of larger constituencies should be ruled out of order by a trained chair.
Steering Committee vs. Membership Decision-Making
As a general rule, chapter leadership should be granted a good deal of leeway in day-to-day administrative decision-making, in order to ensure maximum flexibility in responding to short-term issues that arise between general meetings. Only those issues that affect the medium to long-term reputation and strategic orientation of the chapter should be brought to the membership at general meetings. And to avoid potential abuses of this rule, the rule should be interpreted as narrowly as possible.
- The steering committee should set the agenda for chapter general meetings, subject to amendment by the membership at the start of the meeting.
- It should have the right to decide what events the chapter sponsors, including rallies and demonstrations.
- It should decide which communications go to the entire membership list.
- It has the right and the duty to determine if committees are acting outside their mandate, and to ensure committee leadership positions are filled transparently and democratically.
- It should be the only body that issues statements in the name of the chapter, and should oversee official chapter social media posts, including by committees.
As described above, the elected leadership is the only decision-making body in the chapter with the legitimate authority to make these kind of decisions on behalf of the chapter in between general membership meetings. And it would be deeply inefficient to wait for a regular general membership meeting (which can’t reasonably be held more than once a month) to make these. If the membership is uncomfortable with decisions taken by the leadership, they have yearly opportunities to change the leadership and monthly or bimonthly opportunities to intervene directly in critical chapter decisions.
This does not mean, however, that the membership should be excluded from a regular and fully-transparent accounting of key debates and decisions taken by the chapter leadership. Chapter leadership has a responsibility to share meeting minutes with membership and provide a detailed summary of their activities between general meetings to the membership.
Committees and Working Groups
The primary function of committees and working groups is to carry out the democratically-approved priorities of the chapter.
New committees should always be subject to approval by chapter leadership (and can be brought to the full membership for a vote if there is strong disagreement among the membership with the leadership’s decision with respect to a particular committee), and they should have yearly leadership elections.
Given the fact that the leadership of committees and working groups is not always voted on by the entire membership, and given that the membership of committees and working groups is often fluid and unstable, committees and working groups should not have the authority to issue statements or make major decisions independent of the general membership meeting or the elected chapter leadership. The purpose of committees and working groups should not be to serve as alternative centers of chapter decision-making since their decisions are reflections neither of the will of the entire membership nor of the membership’s legitimately elected representatives (i.e. the steering committee).
At the same time, in order to avoid needless bureaucratization and inefficient decision-making stemming from over-centralization, committees and working-groups focused on furthering the chapter’s key priorities should be granted as much autonomy from the steering committee as is practically feasible. Committees and working-groups whose work falls outside the scope of the chapter’s democratically-approved priorities can serve the vital function of building solidarity with a wide range of social movement allies, but legitimately elected chapter leadership must still oversee their strategy and orientation.
It is important to recognize both the considerable value of DSA’s character as a multi-issue, pluralistic organization and the fact that achieving our strategic goals as an organization requires significant concentration of resources and coordination. We only have so much capacity as an organization, so we must make difficult (often excruciating) decisions about which campaigns to prioritize. This is why it is crucial for chapters to develop a set of priorities, voted on by the entire membership, to serve as a strategic guide for the chapter’s elected leadership. Ideally these priorities will consider and significantly reflect the organizational priorities approved democratically by the most recent national DSA convention as well.
Choosing chapter priorities for the first time should be a multiple-month process. It should include drafting and circulating to the membership a range of proposals that are then debated in discussion bulletins and membership meetings. This should culminate in a final general membership meeting where a binding vote will be taken. In subsequent years the process may be less-involved if there is broad agreement that existing priorities should be extended, but some form of revisiting the priorities should occur yearly, in conjunction with the election of chapter leadership.
Once the debates are over and a majority vote has been taken, the list of approved priorities becomes the chapter’s guiding strategic document for the next year. It is important to emphasize that even those members who voted against approved chapter priorities would ideally devote at least some of their organizing time in DSA to the chapter’s priorities. In a multi-issue, multi-tendency organization like DSA no one can be required to do work on the chapter priorities, and certainly members are able and encouraged to also work on other issues not included among the chapter’s priorities. But respecting and honoring the majority position when you lose a vote is not only an essential part of democracy, it is also indispensable to the organization’s ability to carry out projects effectively. There will always be future opportunities to debate and potentially approve alternative chapter priorities.
DSA’s organizational strength derives in no small part from its character as a multi-tendency organization, inclusive of a range of ideological perspectives that have as their common thread a commitment to democracy, a socialist vision of ending exploitation and oppression, and the importance of both movement work and elections as means to achieve these goals.
In the interests of democracy and organizational effectiveness, all individuals from across tendencies should respect and carry out decisions taken directly by the membership or by their legitimately elected representatives. That said, tendencies must have the right to organize around their own political vision for the organization. Indeed, this kind of internal organizing, provided members of each caucus understand themselves first and foremost as organizers of DSA focused on outward-facing campaigns, is actually critical to cultivating and maintaining a healthy democratic culture in the organization. It is also really useful in clarifying and sharpening DSA’s strategic orientation.
Ultimately, the formula for real democracy in DSA is pretty simple: Always assume good faith and always strive for a balance between as much direct decision-making as possible without undermining the organization’s capacity to carry out successful projects.
The point at which radical democracy undermines organizational effectiveness comes considerably earlier than uncompromising radical democrats believe, but much later than hard-nosed “pragmatists” believe. With too much democracy we become incapable of making decisions and following through on them — and risk devolving into rule by informal cliques. With too little democracy, members’ sense of ownership over and commitment to the organization decreases and it becomes impossible to sustain and expand the core base of organizers and active membership upon which the organization depends for success. Too little democracy also causes leaders to make avoidable strategic mistakes due to insufficient democratic deliberation.
Finding the right balance between these extremes is a critical task for every DSA chapter (as well as the organization as a whole). It’s a difficult one, and one we’ll always have to work on perfecting. But our ability to build a massive and powerful working-class movement in the United States depends on getting it right.