The October 15 convention of DSA’s largest chapter brought together more than 200 worker organizers, climate activists, seasoned electoral campaigners, anti-racist organizers, internationalists, and housing activists. The New York City chapter’s many ideological tendencies were all represented.
Over the course of eight hours, the delegates voted on ten proposals and two endorsements for City Council (the latter sailed through — Tiffany Caban and Alexa Avilés will be the chapter’s candidates in next year’s council elections).
By far the convention’s most popular proposal, the Union Power Priority Campaign, won the votes of 183 delegates (only 3 voted against).
The Union Power campaign will bring together the chapter’s rank-and-file worker organizers with a broad array of DSA activists to push four tactical priorities: 1) support for new organizing at Starbucks, REI, Apple, Trader Joe’s, Amazon, and elsewhere; 2) a new campaign to fight for citywide just cause legislation to strip employers of the power to fire workers at will; 3) a commitment to labor solidarity work, especially around possible strikes and the expected national strike at UPS next summer; and 4) building out a new organizing project to collaborate with DSA electeds to organize workers in strategic sectors, including logistics.
Union Power’s popularity and potential is a testament to the work that New York socialists, inspired by the Rank-and-File Strategy, have been doing over the last few years to root themselves in workplaces and build DSA-union alliances. The chapter includes relatively experienced organizers who can now link DSA to workplace struggles, connecting NYC’s small but feisty socialist movement with the potentially extremely powerful labor movement.
By a closer vote (122-73), the chapter also endorsed a re-run of the 2020-2021 Tax the Rich Campaign, aptly titled Tax the Rich 2.0. The new campaign will fight to increase state funding for redistributive and ecological demands. Critics noted that Tax the Rich will primarily be a grassroots lobbying campaign aimed at moving hostile legislators in Albany, fearing that such a focus will reduce the chapter’s capacity for doing base-building work.
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One of the most controversial proposals at the convention was the 1-2-3-4 Plan to Build a Party-like Structure (a proposal I helped write), defeated 70-123. The 1-2-3-4 Plan stood for one slate, two words, three issues, and four rules.
“One slate” asked our candidates to be part of a collective DSA slate that would have presented itself as such in mailers, literature, and conversations at the door. It called for a centralized communications and design plan to tie our candidates together and to push the idea that our candidates were DSA candidates first and foremost.
“Two words” meant that our candidates would all explicitly, publicly, and prominently identify as “democratic socialists,” including on their literature and mailings and in the conversations we encourage canvassers to have — places where we often don’t currently promote DSA significantly.
“Three issues” meant that our candidates should run on a short list of shared issues that would come to define what NYC-DSA is all about and that would help us build a popular base around redistributive and emancipatory demands.
Finally, the “four rules” were four expectations for potential candidates. The rule that our electeds should bloc vote was most important. Those of us who wrote the 1-2-3-4 Plan believed that we should enter Albany as a united organization and vote together. We argued that NYC-DSA puts an enormous amount of effort into our campaigns and made the case that our electeds should represent the democratically determined priorities of NYC-DSA once in office.
This proposal would have helped unify our electoral and legislative work and built a more explicit base for DSA in NYC. It’s impossible to build a base for a project if the project isn’t explicit about its own existence to the people it’s trying to organize. Currently, we rarely encourage people to talk about DSA in canvasses, and DSA appears on literature and mailers usually as a tiny red circle with only the letters “n y c d s a” tucked at the bottom with other endorsers.
We wanted to change this because we wanted to be proudly representing DSA in all our interactions with the tens of thousands of people we engage with every election. In DSA we often say that elections are one of the few times people pay attention to politics. If we really believe that, we argued, we should make sure that we’re representing DSA when we have people’s ears. We also made the case that if we don’t define DSA for people, our enemies will do so for us.
Convention delegates opposed to the 1-2-3-4 Plan, on the other hand, came mainly from the Socialist Majority Caucus and a slate called We Win Together organized primarily by the chapter’s ecosocialist working group (though some individuals from those groups did support the 1-2-3-4 Plan). Together, these slates represent the dominant tendencies in the chapter, with many of their members serving in chapter leadership.
Opponents from SMC and WWT made a mix of arguments against the 1-2-3-4 Plan, indicating that SMC and WWT did not collectively develop a shared criticism or alternative vision.
Some from SMC and WWT argued that the proposal was too “rigid” and “prescriptive” and that we needed more flexibility in our electoral work and our relationship with candidates and electeds. Others from SMC and WWT argued that 1-2-3-4 wasn’t prescriptive enough, and that it needed to offer more in the way of disciplinary action should electeds buck the proposal’s suggestions.
Likewise, some from SMC and WWT argued that the proposal was unnecessary because the chapter already does what the proposal called for. Others from SMC and WWT argued that if adopted the proposal would be a disaster for the chapter. Foregrounding our socialist identity would push away people who might otherwise vote for us, and requiring that our electeds vote together might alienate them from the organization and would be impractical to boot.
RIP Party Surrogate?
The debate around the 1-2-3-4 Plan was interesting because of what it tells us about the state of debates around “party building” in DSA. It also raised new questions about the evolving strategic perspective of the dominant tendencies in NYC-DSA.
Since DSA’s revival in 2016, members have debated what kind of organization we are building.
A few have argued that there needs to be an immediate break with the Democratic Party, and that DSA should run its own candidates on its own ballot line. This “clean break” perspective has been a minority perspective of the organization’s left flank.
Many, including myself and members of DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus, have argued for what has come to be known as the “dirty break” perspective. In a nutshell, we’ve argued that democratic socialists and the working class need a party of our own, independent of the Democratic Party, that can present an alternative to both the Democrats and the Republicans.
But we acknowledge that creating a third party in a period of relatively low social struggle and class organization, in a two-party system without proportional representation and without an experienced cadre of organizers, would be extremely challenging. We’ve argued that there is a strategically preferable alternative: that DSA could incubate an independent political alternative by using the Democratic Party ballot line at this early stage while still building its own and its candidates’ separate political identity. But we’ve always held that we will need to break from the Democratic Party in the future, and that that break ought to include creating our own ballot line.
A third current, which until 2022 was the most popular one in the national organization and included many leading electoral organizers from the Socialist Majority Caucus, offered yet another perspective: socialists could use the Democratic Party ballot line indefinitely and shelve talk of a formal break with the party. But within the Democratic Party we ought to operate as a more-or-less formal faction with disciplined candidates, an independent infrastructure, and a public persona — in other words, a party in all but name. That party would slowly primary and defeat members of the mainstream Democratic Party. This was the meat of what Seth Ackerman proposed in an influential Jacobin article in 2016. It was the essence of what came to be known as the “party surrogate” position in 2019.
A much smaller and unorganized current in the organization has advocated for DSA’s traditional “realignment” position. Realignment is the idea that democratic socialists can collaborate with liberals to transform the Democratic Party and its leading elements into a party for social democratic reforms.
The vigorous case made against the 1-2-3-4 Plan by members of SMC and WWT, however, raises serious questions about whether the party surrogate model is still the perspective of NYC-DSA’s dominant tendencies.
First, opponents of the 1-2-3-4 Plan argued that it erred in proposing that NYC-DSA’s candidates campaign explicitly as DSA candidates. Talking about DSA on social media was fine, they claimed (presumably because social media primarily speaks to DSA’s activist base). Doing so prominently in literature, mailers, and canvasses, however, would alienate many loyal Democrats whose votes the organization and its candidates need to win. They also argued that doing so would alienate DSA’s coalition partners, like the Working Families Party, who endorse our candidates. These coalition partners want to be seen as equal partners in DSA’s campaigns.
This argument cuts strongly against both the Ackerman proposal and the surrogate party approach’s argument that a party surrogate must develop a public and widely recognized identity to tie candidates together and build a social base. Ackerman, for example, proposed that the “party of a new type” he was arguing for ought to have “a single, nationally recognized label” that “its candidates and other activities would come under.” Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella proposed in their “party surrogate” article that a new party ought to have “an identifiable political profile” that would “generate a positive feedback loop among electoral success, name recognition, and electoral credibility.”
Second, opponents of the 1-2-3-4 Plan argued that NYC-DSA candidates should not be asked to bloc vote. Bloc voting, they argued, was neither feasible nor desirable, at least at this time. It was too “prescriptive” and “rigid.” Instead, politicians should be trusted to make the final decision about their votes, even if that means DSA electeds vote differently on important questions (as has happened recently).
This argument also cuts against both the Ackerman proposal and the surrogate party approach, which envisioned socialists running a disciplined slate of candidates who would enter office to challenge the status quo and aggressively present an alternative to the Democratic Party that all could see and understand.
Third, some opponents of the 1-2-3-4 Plan argued that DSA should shelve ideas about being a separate organization or faction inside the Democratic Party altogether. David Duhalde, a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus’s Steering Committee, put this most explicitly when he described the alternative “dirty stay” approach as the orientation of the majority in NYC-DSA. The “dirty stay” approach, according to Duhalde, involves “using [the] existing [Democratic Party] apparatus without necessarily seeking to transform the Democratic Party or even becoming a formalized faction. Importantly, it means avoiding or at least not taking necessary steps to build a new socialist party.” This vision of DSA’s role seems to reject the aspirations of both party builders (clean breakers, dirty breakers, and party surrogate advocates) and realigners.
Questions for NYC-DSA’s Dominant Tendencies
Unfortunately, much of the opposition to the 1-2-3-4 Plan was voiced in Twitter posts and forums exclusively accessible to convention delegates. Opponents so far have not written up their objections in articles that the membership can read and debate. This is regrettable, as it deprives the broader membership of the opportunity to understand the strategic thinking of the dominant tendencies in the organization’s New York City chapter. Debates around how to build what kind of party (or, as now seems to be the debate, whether to build a party of any kind at all) have been a rich strategic discussion in the organization in the past. The evolution in the thinking of NYC-DSA’s dominant tendencies should be shared with all.
Hopefully, some members of these tendencies will lay out their evolving perspectives in the months to come — a task that will become even more urgent as DSA’s August 2023 National Convention approaches. Should members take up this task, they might consider trying to answer a number of questions that were left unanswered at the end of NYC-DSA’s convention:
- On what votes and issues, if any, should we expect discipline from our elected officials? And, absent bloc voting, how do we explain to people inside and outside of DSA how there can be multiple DSA perspectives on important policy questions?
- How can we build a base of people who actively support NYC-DSA if we publicly downplay DSA’s involvement in our electoral work? What are the costs and benefits of reducing DSA to a tiny little red logo on literature and mailers? How can people identify with and join en masse an organization that, in a crowded field of contending political organizations and projects, won’t aggressively promote itself?
- How will we publicly push back against the demonization of DSA during elections that DSA’s enemies already have embraced, and will surely engage in more and more of? How do we go about defining DSA positively for people, beyond social media?
- What is DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party if we are neither an organization struggling to break out of the party or a formal faction? Are we, as the liberal Democratic senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, used to put it: “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”? Is the strategy now to present ourselves as the “real Democrats” against the “fake Democrats” and “Joe Manchins of New York” (as one DSA state legislative campaign in NYC labeled its opponent)?
- How do we relate to coalition partners? Are we now trying to build a new “rainbow coalition” with NGOs and the Working Families Party? Should we ditch talk of party building in favor of coalition making? Is this a short-term strategy or a long-term perspective? Is talk of party building quaint and out of date?
- Most simply, what are we trying to build, if not an independent party or a party surrogate? What is this project that NYC-DSA’s dominant tendencies lead? How do they understand it?
Leading a democratic organization is about inspiring activists, organizing campaigns, and raising resources. But it also requires articulating a strategy and persuading members that it’s the best course to follow. Unfortunately, for all the many successes and high points of New York City’s 2022 Convention, the chapter left the convention with a serious lack of clarity about its own electoral strategy. Taking up these six unanswered questions might be a good place for NYC-DSA’s dominant tendencies to start.