Every day people join DSA because they’re mad at capitalism and want to make a better world — free of exploitation, subordination, and the suffering of the many for the benefit of the few. Many of us are new to explicitly socialist organizing, especially in this new political landscape where “socialism” isn’t a curse word anymore. We need to work out how to choose projects that take advantage of this moment and galvanize our power.
It’s not always easy to see the right way to do that, and we’re all trying to figure it out. Sometimes we just want to feel like we’re actually doing something, like the work we’re putting in is paying off, like we’re actually making a difference, even in one person’s life.
Soon after the outset of DSA’s explosive growth in 2016, a debate over one type of direct-service project, brake-lights clinics, gripped the organization. These clinics, where DSA members fixed the broken taillights of anyone who showed up, were meant to partially relieve people of color from racial profiling by giving cops one fewer reason to pull them over.
Just as DSA members were trying to establish the Medicare for All campaign in chapters across the country, after winning an overwhelming mandate at the 2017 convention, a group of chapters chose instead to organize these brake-lights clinics, and debate ensued. Should we as DSA spend our time and resources fixing brake lights? How far could such a project go in curbing racial profiling? Will police officers bent on racial profiling really refrain from pulling someone over because they have functioning lights? Is brake-light-fixing a skill that we want to prioritize for tens of thousands of new organizers to learn? Are we making solid connections with people whose brake lights we fix, and to what end?
These questions, and the debate as a whole, were a proxy for a debate that the organization at the time was likely still too young to really have: on what kinds of projects do we want to spend our limited resources?
Fixing brake lights isn’t the only direct-service project DSA chapters have taken on. In late 2017, Houston DSA organized relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey, a project that helped kick-start their chapter. San Francisco DSA organized smoke-mask hand-outs when the fires in Northern California rained smoke and ash onto their city. Comrades in Pittsburgh built free food pantries, and chapters across the country held flu-shot clinics as part of their Medicare for All campaigns. And more recently, a resolution for the 2019 DSA national convention proposed by Jordan H. would allocate $500 per chapter for local direct-service projects such as “brake light clinics, Narcan training, debt clinics, disaster relief provision, local agriculture/community garden programs, energy democracy programs.”
These projects do good for people; that’s undeniable. The question is, what do they do to build class consciousness and class struggle? We want our organizing in DSA to foster an understanding of capitalism and how its forces affect our everyday lives, which means that our campaigns should put people into direct struggle with capitalist power. We want our organizing in DSA to help people experience and exercise their own power and, through that exercise, to become socialists. And we want them to do it for life, which means that our campaigns have to be sustainable.
The proponents of a strategy centered on direct service make a two-part argument: they say that directly servicing their communities helps to build a feeling of solidarity, and that they as organizers learn from the conditions on the ground. Their politics develop as they help people. And, they argue, these projects are part of building today the world we want to live in tomorrow.
I can understand the roots of the first argument. It’s not totally dissimilar from the argument that socialist politics are developed through class struggle. We see our reality; we confront it; we become familiar with it; we take the side of our class; and our socialist politics become deeper and more nuanced.
But helping those more in need than us doesn’t quite have this same effect. If the project or campaign is oriented around providing something for someone that they don’t have — but we do — it’s difficult to build working class solidarity through it. It highlights our differences, not our shared interests. Still, I see and appreciate the heart of this argument, and understand that there might be moments to use our organizational infrastructure to support, for example, disaster relief. These efforts might even start a conversation about how disasters connect to climate change which connects to capitalism. But that’s something different from building institutionalized class power.
The second argument for a direct-service strategy, though, doesn’t convince me. Building the world we want to live in tomorrow requires building power where it is today. We can’t get to socialism by building one shining city on a hill and hoping others will want to emulate it; we have to offer avenues for class struggle so that people can understand where their power comes from. As Marxists, we understand that the power of workers comes from the fact that their labor makes the world run — and so from their potential to withhold that labor. As organized socialists, we understand that we need something bigger than ourselves to galvanize and exercise that power.
Our task as organized socialists should be to “bring people into open conflict with capitalists and their politicians around immediate grievances, while making connections between each specific issue and the underlying problem: capitalism. Our goal is to create a mass movement that can force elites to make concessions — and eventually remove them from power.” And because our time and resources are limited, we have to be discerning and strategic about which avenues we choose to build that mass movement.
Giving out a smoke mask helps a person breathe better, but it does nothing to change how they think about what basic services they deserve access to, in the way that, for example, DSA’s campaign for Medicare for All does. And as generous a task as rebuilding someone’s house after a hurricane is, it doesn’t activate people into struggle against fossil-fuel giants in the way that a massive grassroots movement for a Green New Deal might.
None of this is to say that DSA should never organize direct-service efforts, or that our members shouldn’t engage in them as individuals, or even together. It is to say, though, that we should take up such efforts tactically, when they fit into a larger strategy to build the power of our class, rather than seeing direct service as a strategy in and of itself.
An example of such an approach to direct service was East Bay DSA’s Bread for Ed campaign. The campaign served more than 30,000 meals to children over the course of the Oakland Education Association’s (OEA) seven-day strike in February, raised $172,000 from donors across the country, engaged more than 200 volunteers, and built relationships with about two dozen organizations in the area. Bread for Ed wasn’t charity; it was an essential part of a strike through which teachers won, among other things, an 11% salary increase and a five-month moratorium on school closures.
Bread for Ed was not just about feeding children because otherwise they might go hungry; it was about feeding students so that their teachers could go on strike, and their parents could go to work, without worrying that their kids wouldn’t have anything to eat. It ensured that the teachers could strike, could exercise their power, for as long as they needed. And because they were able to use their power, those same children will receive a better education.
Bread for Ed allowed East Bay DSA to make connections with striking teachers, students, and members of the community. Chapter members logged their interactions, tracked the volunteers who came out, forged relationships with organizations, and helped those organizations make connections to OEA that they didn’t have before. They treated Bread for Ed not only as a way to do something good for the community, or even just as a way to support workers in their strike, but also as a vehicle for building DSA’s capacity to organize.
Our East Bay comrades were, crucially, boosting OEA’s ability to fight. That’s because they removed the burden of having to figure out how to feed kids from striking teachers, but also because every day on the picket lines, they deepened relationships with the strikers and urged them to keep going. They talked with teachers about what they were going through; they used a class analysis when they talked about the contract fight; they led dance parties on the picket line to keep spirits up. Everything contributed to holding the line for one more day.
We can’t hope to be nearly as effective at humanitarian aid as NGOs with massive amounts of capitalist cash at their disposal. So, instead of spending our precious resources on projects that will never come close to equaling what an NGO could provide — or what the state should provide — we should put our time and energy toward organizing mass campaigns to make demands of and put pressure on the state to provide the things our class deserves. DSA’s Medicare for All campaign is a good example. Instead of trying to fill the gaps in healthcare in the U.S., we’re organizing a movement along class lines to demand a basic right. The campaign draws clear lines between the interests of the capitalist class and those of the working class. And it forges relationships based on shared interests within the working class, between progressive organizations, with unions — relationships that will last long after we win Medicare for All.
I can’t say the same for a strategy based on direct service, where many of the people who receive our aid remain anonymous to us. In the cases where they don’t, organizing them into DSA is tricky; it can seem like a precondition for receiving the help we’re offering. Ask any recipient of a Salvation Army meal: they resent having to listen to the sermon to get fed.
So let’s take on direct service strategically, only when it builds the power of our class to fight.