A cab driver never transports a passenger without knowing where they’re going. An engineer never designs a machine without knowing what purpose it will be put to. A surgeon never operates on a patient without knowing what needs to be fixed.
Imagine a cab driver who exclusively focused on what kind of gas to fill their car with. Or an engineer who only cared about what material to build a machine with. Or a surgeon consumed solely by the question of what tools to use. We would charge them all with malpractice.
The cab driver, the engineer, and the surgeon have adopted from generations of cab drivers, engineers, and surgeons before them these basic points of common sense. You need to figure out the “why” and “where to” questions first. Then you take up the “how” questions.
Why then do we often practice the art of politics so differently? That is to say, why do we spend so little time discussing politics — the “why” and “where to” questions of our craft — and so much time talking about the organizational and procedural issues — the “how” questions? By “political questions” I mean questions about what we as a group do in the larger society, and why we do it. By “organizational questions” I mean questions about how we as a group are internally organized.
Let me sketch out the lopsided focus in DSA on organizational questions over political ones in more detail, lest you think I’m making this issue up. Then I’ll say why I think this is one cause of our problems today. And then I’ll suggest a solution: put politics first.
Lopsided Focus on Organizational Questions
Here are some data points. At the 2021 National DSA Convention, delegates spent three days in heated debate. Notes are here. They give us a good sense of what delegates discussed, and in what ratio.
Let’s start with political questions. The two years prior to the convention were defined by the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Black Lives Matter rebellion, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the notes, Bernie was mentioned 20 times, BLM 1 time, and the pandemic 8 times. The organization was at least on paper committed to fights for the PRO Act, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, but those three campaigns received only 9, 10, and 14 mentions respectively. The convention met during the eighth month of Joe Biden’s new presidency — which, depending on who you asked on the broad progressive Left, was either potentially transformational or actively betraying and suppressing social movements, or something in between. Biden, however, was mentioned just once during the entire convention, according to the notes. Trump was never discussed, and the Right was also mentioned only once. Possible allies and relevant actors on the left like the Sunrise Movement, the Working Families Party, and various unions were never discussed (the AFL-CIO got one nod, but only in a moment of silence for Richard Trumka).
In the year following the convention, our National Political Committee, some chapters, and various online forums have been consumed by controversies around Israel, Palestine, and BDS (none of these topics were mentioned at all at the convention according to the notes); the role of AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and the Squad (mentioned 1, 1, and 0 times respectively); and Russia (mentioned once, in reference to an NPC candidate’s biography). Many agree that the U.S. may be entering a new cold war with China, potentially reshaping politics as we know it. Yet China was never discussed at the convention. And issues of immediate concern to working-class people like expiring unemployment benefits, the child tax credit, and canceling student debt were — according to the notes — discussed once, never, and never, respectively.
Contrast that to mentions of organizational issues. DSA’s governing body, the National Political Committee, was mentioned 227 times. The terms Borda and STV (the possible methods for electing the NPC) were mentioned 29 times. Bylaws (34 times), the organization’s constitution (34 times), and its financial situation (11 times) were debated with gusto. DSA itself was mentioned 201 times. Credentials were discussed 31 times. And terms like organization (99), structure (21), steering committee (32), national director (17), and staff (66) were frequently employed.
Does DSA’s lack of shared political analysis and mission lead to problems? I think so.
Take the major controversy in the last year that DSA found itself embroiled in. The organization had an intense debate about Jamaal Bowman’s support for sending military aid to Israel. For months, the NPC, chapters, and working groups debated whether he should be expelled.
At the core of this debate lay political questions that DSA has so far not taken up. What are the boundary issues — the uncompromisable goals towards which we’re working — that define what it means to be a DSA member? Should support for the Palestinian national liberation struggle and opposition to the Israeli state be an integral part of what it means to be a DSAer?
Furthermore, for what purpose did we endorse members of the Squad like Jamaal Bowman? What role do we expect them to play in Congress? When and on what issues is it acceptable for them to compromise to advance other goals, and which ones? What is the composition of their political base, and where do we as DSA fit into that base?
Had we answered those political questions and developed some shared agreement on them, at least among a majority, we could then use those answers to guide organizational considerations. Such considerations include: What kind of relationship can we expect to have with Squad members? And under what conditions would we break off ties with a member of the Squad?
But as we saw, these critical political questions have rarely been discussed in DSA until now, and when they have it has usually been only in passing or in the heat of a national controversy. At its 2017 national convention the organization endorsed BDS as a strategy for supporting the Palestinian national liberation movement, but it was never given the wide and full discussion it deserved. Even the controversy around Bowman and BDS quickly got sidetracked into organizational questions (what rights do working groups have to issue statements? can and should the NPC suspend the leaders of a working group?).
Moreover, there is little shared analysis among DSA members about the role of, and experience with, the Squad. There’s not even shared agreement about whether they mostly play a positive or negative role in national politics. And there’s no agreement about what the boundary issues are that define what it means to be a DSA member or a DSA elected official. The organization adopted a political platform at its 2021 national convention after a cursory debate. But it included so many items that few really know what’s in it, what’s a priority, and whether or not being a DSA elected official means you have to agree with all of it (to be fair, some groups in DSA tried to address these issues at the national convention — but again these questions were not given much attention).
Instead, we spent the vast majority of the 2021 national convention debating organizational and procedural issues — and that experience has been replicated at many chapter conventions and general meetings. That focus leaves us ill-equipped for the political challenges to come.
Put Politics First
What national DSA lacks, and so desperately needs now, is a national political perspective and strategy that is shared by at least a majority of its active members. All the debates about how to compose or elect x committee, where to host conventions, which bylaws to amend, what rules to use at meetings, and how to structure chapters are not unimportant, but they need to be decided by reference to our plans for the future. Rules are no substitute for a shared purpose.
That’s why we need to put politics first. It’s past time we got to work figuring out a political program for the coming years. A program that picks short-, medium-, and long-term goals. That identifies the paths we’ll travel to achieve those goals. And that draws up a balance sheet of the challenges, enemies, and allies we might encounter along the way.
Here’s what putting politics first means (and doesn’t mean) in practice:
Putting politics first means having rich and full discussions and debates about our political direction. It means giving all perspectives in DSA a hearing. It means treating our comrades respectfully so that they feel welcome and empowered to contribute their understanding of the political situation.
Putting politics first does not mean just writing statements. Official statements are a useful tool, especially at the end of a debate for putting down in writing what has been decided collectively through discussion. I’d argue they’re indispensable. But an organization that leaps to publishing official statements before debate undermines its own democratic culture and will fail to develop shared analysis and plans — the very point of putting politics first. (DSA’s other major controversy in early 2022, over its analysis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demonstrates this problem. The organization’s International Committee tried to draft statements on behalf of the organization without first inviting a debate among the members.)
Putting politics first means that when an organization decides on a strategy, its members agree to act together and actually carry out the strategy. Putting politics first is not just about talking, it’s also about acting in the world together. There have to be consequences for debates, and that means when a course of action is decided on, it needs to be carried out. (Of course, in an organization like DSA there is room for plenty of dissent, but that can’t stand in the way of the majority acting to carry out its plans.)
How to Put Politics First
What steps can we take as DSA to put politics first?
A good first step is to reintroduce into the heart of our movement’s political life the practice of developing shared “tasks and perspectives.” This traditional phrase describes a practice common to many socialist currents, from the socialism from below tradition to the Maoists, Bolsheviks, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and social democrats. Even DSA has debated tasks and perspectives in the past, though since 2016 these discussions have been given short shrift.
A productive tasks and perspectives discussion takes on a number of questions. First, it develops an analysis of the situation in world, national, and (when relevant) local politics. Then it conducts a power analysis. It assesses the balance of class forces (is the working class getting organized? what leverage does it have over the capitalist class? is the capitalist class’s hegemony uncontested?), takes stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the left and the roadblocks to its growth, and looks at the potential for alliances with other groups and movements.
Then it decides on an action plan: the goals to be fought for, the slogans and tactics to be used. And then at the very end it sketches out organizational considerations: what new committees should be developed, what rules of operation should be adopted — keeping in mind that the best organizations are usually flexible ones that can adapt their structures and rules to the needs of the moment. They keep it simple and operate with the minimum of complexity needed to get the job done.
Of course, there are limits to what a tasks and perspectives discussion can do. Choices have to be made about which questions are relevant to the organization at the given moment and which can be sidelined. In general, it’s good to favor questions that have action items attached to them, but we shouldn’t make a rule of that. We are, after all, doing politics, and one responsibility of anyone involved in politics is to win those around them over to a way of seeing, thinking about, and changing the world. At times that means having a shared perspective about a problem that the organization has very little immediate control over. In the current moment I’d fit a question like “what is the socialist analysis of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?” in that bucket — essential to discuss even if there’s little we can do about it.
Nor is debating tasks and perspectives the be-all-and-end-all of putting politics first. Putting politics first needs to be a practice that enters into all our work. Speeches, articles, debates with fellow members, even regular meetings: all should put the focus on political questions. We need debates, in person and online, about the tasks that the organization should take on. Town halls with our elected officials. A lively culture of written arguments as well. And most of all: organizing together on shared campaigns that help shape the world, and then debriefing and learning from those experiences.
One final thought. There is a possible contradiction in this article. In calling for “putting politics first,” I’ve put a question of organizational culture first. So let me clarify. The argument here is not that organizational questions are unimportant. They are important. I have a hunch that for decades prior to 2016, the Left focused too much on political analysis and not enough on organizational issues. Our new generation of socialist organizers has “bent the stick” to correct for this mistake. And sometimes one has no choice but to put the focus on organizational questions.
But let’s acknowledge now that the stick has been bent to the breaking point. Politics needs to once again take its rightful place at the forefront of our debates. Only then will we be able to develop the unity around a shared strategy and plan that we all desire.