Which way, NYC-DSA? - Cosmonaut

Date: 2022-11-23T21:22:44+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Partyism or Liquidationism? Bureaucratic Centralism or Democratic Centralism? Campaigns for what, how, and why? Jack L reports back on NYC-DSA’s 2022 Chapter Convention.

On Saturday, October 22nd, 2022, around 200 delegates from all across New York City converged upon the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the NYC-DSA Chapter Convention. The convention is NYC-DSA’s highest democratic decision-making body. It is where the most critical decisions for the chapter are made. 

Around the time of convention, the critique of “resolutionary socialism” often goes around: i.e., passing a resolution is one thing; getting people to “vote with their feet” and practically carry out a resolution’s mandate is another. However, this critique does not touch on the core value of conventions: namely, that they are crucial bodies for democratic, deliberative decision-making. In a moment where many find politics (within DSA and within the US) to be undemocratic and inaccessible, spaces where large groups of people gather as entrusted representatives of an organization’s membership to discuss political questions and make democratic decisions, are all the more crucial to foster. DSA conventions offer us preliminary, democratically-determined answers to some important questions:

  1. What work will NYC-DSA prioritize?
  2. How will the chapter organize itself to carry out work and make decisions?
  3. What are the major political questions facing the chapter? What disagreements exist, and between which factions? What is the balance of forces between factions?
  4. Who will be elected to lead this work?

Thankfully, this 2022 convention has provided socialists in New York and beyond with some clear and detailed answers to some of the above questions, with one long-time NYC-DSA member remarking that the 2022 convention was one of the most politically open and honest in recent memory. 

Unfortunately, this article will not be able to examine question #4 at length. All roles on NYC-DSA’s Steering Committee save one were uncontested races. This is because it is almost impossible to be in leadership without an incredibly flexible professional and home life. All our leaders are to be commended for their commitment to DSA, but it cannot go unstated that this self-selecting aspect of NYC-DSA’s leadership has a certain ideological and class-structural skew that is unrepresentative of NYC-DSA, much less the working class writ large. The combination of political leadership with a high administrative workload means fewer political choices for membership and the dominance of the politics of educated professionals and non-profit industrial complex staffers by default (to the above point, this is exactly why accessible political conventions are so crucial). This is a big problem for the democracy of our chapter, although the situation may be improved by the resolutions that passed on the consent agenda to create two more Steering Committee roles and hire an additional paid staffer.

At convention, NYC-DSA committed itself to four primary campaigns: a campaign focused on building labor power, a campaign focused on building independent working-class organizations (through tenant, labor, and abolitionist community organizing), a membership drive, and a campaign plan focused on affecting New York State’s 2023 budget.

While spearheaded mostly by labor-focused comrades in the Bread & Roses caucus, the “Union Power” campaign passed resoundingly with an almost unanimous vote in favor of the resolution. Indeed, the biggest applause line of the convention was when the speaker motivating the resolution spoke about the possibility of UPS strike activity in the next year. The passage of this resolution suggests an almost universal belief within NYC-DSA that the chapter must take an active role in the struggles of the labor movement, which has been seeing increased militancy in the past two or so years. The question, then, is what form this work will take and what its strategic orientation will be. The resolution seems to have adopted a mixed orientation, blending aspects of the rank-and-file strategy (both for new organizing and existing organizing within key industries like Starbucks and UPS) with a plan to utilize NYC’s Socialists in Office to push for legislation and create labor organizing on-ramps through their constituent services, as well as encouraging broader DSA member involvement through a “labor solidarity” arm of the campaign. The strategic goals of this campaign, as framed by the authors of the resolution, had a similarly expansive scope:

To create entryways for any NYC-DSA member to organize for worker power;
To make labor organizing a foundational element of our chapter’s socialist strategy;
To grow NYC-DSA’s role within New York’s labor movement and its ability to
organize its workers;
To make concrete wins that increase workers’ power to organize in New York;
In other words, to better reconnect the labor movement with the socialist movement.

Can these pieces fit together successfully, and can they succeed in increasing socialist consciousness, working-class organization, and DSA’s presence in the labor movement? Only time will tell: NYC-DSA has not had a chapter-wide labor campaign in the past, so this year the challenge is on!

Another campaign that passed with support from all tendencies in NYC-DSA was focused on independent working-class organization. The aim of the project, per the authors of the resolution, is for NYC-DSA to

support independent working class organization through labor, tenant and abolitionist base-building. The chapter will support and expand infrastructure for industry sections, tenant associations and safety networks. The aims of building this infrastructure are manifold, including:

  • Building independent, political organizations in NYC to strengthen working class power and socialist consciousness
  • Strengthen DSA members organizing skills
  • Locate members’ politics in their everyday lives – where they work and live and interact with the state and its forces
  • Create more spaces for working class people to gain exposure to DSA, have the organization play a role in their lives, and become members

Like the “Union Power” campaign, this organizing project also received public support from all caucuses, despite being drafted and put forward by Emerge and MUG comrades. There was some criticism of the proposal from a fraction of the Ecosocialist Working Group: also known at the national level as the “Green New Deal” slate and currently organizing under the “We Win Together” slate, they are a group known for an almost-singular focus on an “insider strategy” of lobbying pressure campaigns and electing officials with the primary aim of passing climate legislation. Their criticism was that the resolution creates too many complicated structures and requires too many leaders to be effective. However, this argument was not particularly persuasive: leaders had already been identified to do this work, and, functionally, the only structures that will be put in place are the ones that the chapter has the capacity for. The hypocrisy of this criticism coming from the Ecosocialist faction, who pride themselves on a large leadership body creating organizational capacity, and who put forward one of the more complex structural resolutions of this convention, did not go unnoticed, and suggests that the real reason for not supporting the resolution may be closer to a rejection of the tactic of an independent working-class organization (in favor of their preferred “insider strategy”). Nonetheless, the resolution passed resoundingly, demonstrating a near-universal commitment to building independent working-class organizations with relationships to DSA. This resolution will hopefully address a problem faced within NYC-DSA, where DSA members who want to do tenant, labor or neighborhood-based organizing work that falls outside the scope of the typically legislative working group priorities are forced to do so outside of NYC-DSA.

Another campaign with near-universal support was a chapter membership drive, which aims to reactivate DSA members. Despite some criticism around who this campaign targets for organizing into DSA (lapsed members, not newly politicized members of the militant working class), this resolution also passed pretty resoundingly. The Ecosocialist Working Group seems committed to expanding the scope and capacity of NYC-DSA’s “Membership Committee,” which is aimed at improving how the chapter onboards and retains new members. No doubt a valuable goal.

The most divisive campaign at convention was the highly-debated Tax the Rich 2.0 (TTR2) campaign. In the words of the campaign plan authors, this campaign aims “for NYC-DSA to intervene in the 2023 state budget fight with a left vision for the state economy. Specifically, to campaign to tax the rich so that we can spend on free child care, free CUNY/SUNY, social housing, and lower energy costs.” Another valuable goal, on its face. In a vacuum, this campaign would be relatively uncontroversial – given the pressing importance of inflation and the cost of living crisis today, DSA ought to intervene with a bold agitational campaign where we fight for a truly transformative program to address the cost of living crisis. However, this campaign does not exist in a vacuum: it is the second iteration of a similar campaign that was run a year and a half ago. This “Tax the Rich” campaign is somewhat controversial in NYC-DSA. As I wrote with MUG comrade Isaac KD in the Spring of 2022:

The Invest in Our New York Campaign (with the NYC Democratic Socialists of America alongside many of New York State’s top progressive political organizations and NGOs like Communities for Change and the Working Families Party as steering committee members) had spent countless hours door-knocking, phone-banking, holding marches and more to win $50 billion in new revenue. The new budget featured only $4.3 billion in new revenue. According to NYC-DSA’s social media account, “[t]his budget is a massive victory, but it’s short of the $50 billion we called for…[w]e won enough money to fund the things we have, but not enough to transform our society to work for the many, not the few.”

So, the Invest in Our New York Campaign (or the Tax the Rich campaign, as it was referred to within NYC-DSA) was a “massive victory,” yet not enough to “transform our society.” Barely enough for DSA’s endorsed state legislators to vote “yes” on, but also a campaign NYC-DSA called “one of the most successful campaigns in NYC-DSA history.”

This contradictory understanding of the success or failure of the first iteration of the Tax the Rich campaign motivated some of the convention’s concerns. Generally speaking, delegates were concerned about the $132,000 budget and a near-total investment of other chapter resources for half a year when previous attempts to run this campaign did not demonstrate an ability to meaningfully grow DSA, organize the working class and increase their socialist consciousness, or win the transformative material gains that were promised. Delegates also expressed concerns that the tactics of the campaign would be ineffective, and that they would fit into the rubric of an “insider” strategy of backroom deals and lobbying, as opposed to an “outsider” campaign more focused on agitating for a socialist program and organizing the working class around that program. These are concerns based on experience: the primary field ask of the last campaign was for people to call their representatives and demand that they support DSA’s demands (which doesn’t bring people closer to DSA, and doesn’t really affect their targets, who can just delete their voicemail inbox and move on with their day). These strategic concerns are also motivated by the “insider” nature of New York State’s budget process (where the Governor, the leader of the Assembly, and the leader of the Senate gather behind closed doors to make the final decision on what goes into the budget). 

Comrades also raised concerns about DSA’s organizational independence and commitment to its transformative program. DSA is waging this fight as a steering committee member of the liberal “Invest in Our New York” coalition of (mostly) non-profits, despite playing the driving role in (seemingly) all tactics deployed by the coalition (campaign leads were unable to clarify for comrades what resources the non-DSA coalition partners are investing in this campaign, and what strategic differences exist within the coalition). Further, last go-around, the chapter compromised on our commitment to the initial transformative demand by declaring victory despite the outcome being an increase that amounted to only 10% of what was initially demanded. In the lead-up to the convention, TTR2 campaign leads were asked to explain the conditions under which DSA would vote “no” on the budget (which, again, is determined by “three people in a room”), to provide some sort of plan on how to retain independence if our liberal coalition partners compromise on our preferred messaging and strategy, and to outline the story they plan to tell in the likely scenario where we win some but not all of our demands (center wins snatched from the jaws of defeat, the negative role played by Hochul and the Democrats, our as-yet-unfulfilled socialist vision, some combination of these narratives, or something else entirely). The concern here is that the more we stray from our transformative program to try and sell a half-victory as a full victory, the more we risk falling into the trap of trying to dupe the masses with half-truths. This would be a mistake – people can see clearly what’s in front of them, and if we try to paint an overly rosy picture they will see right through us.

To their credit, the campaign leads did address some of the tactical concerns by highlighting their flexibility on tactics and a commitment to experimenting with fieldwork, with an eye towards maximizing working-class organization. However, beyond stating some nominal commitment to independent organization, they failed to provide a plan to address the other concerns of class collaboration and the liquidation of DSA’s politics, brand, and program into the liberal-progressive IONY coalition. Given the history of class collaboration and liquidationism within NYC-DSA (and in relation to this coalition’s non-profit members), the TTR2 lead’s nominal commitment and failure to articulate a clear plan read like an admission of guilt by omission.

As a result of these concerns, and the failure of the campaign leads to articulate a compelling plan to address them, the Tax the Rich 2.0 campaign resolution passed with a slimmer majority than those previously discussed, with only 60% in favor. This split highlights a primary political division within today’s DSA: the Partyist minority, and the Liquidationist majority.

If you take nothing else from this piece, let it be this: the primary political split in NYC-DSA (and, I’d hazard to guess, nationally) is between the Partyists, who view a class-independent political party with a disciplined bloc of socialist electeds unified around an explicitly socialist program as a strategic priority for DSA; and the Liquidationists, who view DSA’s primary strategic role as orienting towards a loose progressive force capable of winning reforms (even if it means liquidating our class independence and explicitly socialist program into the liberal bourgeois politics of these broader coalitions). 

How can I say so decisively that this is the case? First, as was just discussed, the 60-40 split on the Tax the Rich 2.0 campaign suggests 60% in favor of and 40% opposed to a campaign strategy that, if the past is any indication, would liquidate DSA’s politics into the liberal-progressive blob. Second, and perhaps even more clearly, is the vote on the Bread & Roses caucus introduced resolution, “1-2-3-4 Plan to Build a Party-Like Structure.” The motivation for this resolution is to “build a party-like structure (a ‘proto-party’ or ‘surrogate party’) that unites all our candidates around a single strategy and platform…[and] to build a base of people who believe in our project, identify with it, and fight for it…” The resolution does not establish DSA as an independent political party, and may be considered a “party surrogate” resolution as much, or more, than it is a “dirty break” resolution. As a result of the relatively modest scope of the resolution (you can read more about the content of the resolution in this Socialist Call piece), the 1234 Plan was able to draw support from all the Partyist forces in NYC-DSA, ranging from those who believe DSA should break from the Democratic Party to become an independent party immediately (the “clean break” approach), to those who believe DSA should become a party in all but name and ballot line (the “party surrogate” approach), to those who believe DSA should become a party surrogate on its way to becoming an political party independent from the Democratic Party (the “dirty break” approach). That is why it is safe to consider the 1234 Plan vote as a reliable proxy of the balance of forces between Partyists and Liquidationists. In NYC, the split is about 40% Partyist (actually 36%, comprised mostly of Bread and Roses, Emerge, and Marxist Unity Group comrades) and 60% Liquidationist (comprised mostly of Socialist Majority Caucus and Ecosocialist Working Group-linked members).

Another major question examined was how DSA ought to build internal political unity, and, relatedly, how it ought to resolve political and personal conflict. The answer to this question took two predominant forms: a form of bureaucratic centralism that aims to fudge unity through the restriction of working groups’ ability to publicly criticize any of NYC-DSA’s nine Socialists in Office (SiO), and a form of democratic centralism that aims to forge unity through open political disagreement, freedom of speech and information, and electeds made more accountable to DSA’s democratic decisions and socialist program. 

Marxist Unity Group put forward the democratic centralist vision, through a resolution that would make SiO decisions binding (subject to disciplinary measures such as censure) and information about decisions and structures of the SiO committee more public (currently, much of the SiO committee’s work is under a “cone of silence” preventing any information from leaving the inner sanctum of DSA leadership), and a resolution that would implement twice-a-year town halls, where rank-and-file DSA members and working class New Yorkers can gather with DSA’s SiOs and leaders to affirm our socialist politics and work through our political disagreements in the open. NYC-DSA’s steering committee (the executive leadership of the chapter) put forward the initial bureaucratic centralist resolution, which focused almost entirely on empowering them to censor and even suspend working groups who publicly criticize DSA’s electeds. 

A well-intentioned amendment was submitted and ultimately incorporated into steering’s resolution that attempted to soften the original language of the resolution by gesturing more towards the creation of effective processes for working groups to discuss criticisms and the need to resolve political conflicts in private. But without mechanisms to hold electeds accountable, and with a rejection of the importance to socialists of freedom of open political speech and information, the political effects of the amended resolution will be functionally the same as the initial resolution: censorship of membership bodies’ rights to political speech through by forcing them to use only bureaucratic back-channels or face discipline.

The convention ultimately backed the amended bureaucratic centralist approach to resolving political disagreement, leading to a troubling contradiction within NYC-DSA: electeds have total “freedom” of speech and action, meaning they can vote however they want with no clear and open accountability to DSA, whereas working groups (comprised of ordinary dues-paying DSA members) have their right to public, political speech suppressed, both through overt censorship and through internal processes aimed at resolving political conflicts behind closed doors. It’s easy to be sympathetic to the idea that DSA should speak as one, united voice. But the path to that cannot come through the bureaucratic suppression of political disagreement. Political unity comes through adherence to a socialist program, established and reaffirmed (or revised) through political discussion and democratic centralist structures. 

Some major political questions will be tested by the next year of NYC-DSA’s campaign work. Can DSA effectively contribute to the project of building a fighting labor movement, and in doing so increase the degree of working class political organization and socialist consciousness? Can we execute on the merger formula by building more connections and trust between our proto-party and the autonomous tenant, labor and abolitionist organizing projects that, until now, have existed mostly outside our orbit? Can we run an agitational legislative campaign that increases working class organization and consciousness, manages to pass transformative legislation and bring “material gains” to working class communities, and avoids the pitfalls of class-collaboration and the liquidation of our socialist politics, program and organization; and can all these things be done at the same time? Can we continue to build consciousness and organization around a clear-eyed socialist program, in the face of a rightward, tough-on-crime social and political turn being carried out as we speak by Democrats and Republicans alike? These questions, while complex, can be answered at least in part through careful observation, measurement and reflection. Proactively evaluating our strategies and tactics is of incredible importance to our scientific socialist movement, and should be prioritized by campaigners in NYC-DSA and beyond.

Going forward, in the face of increasing bureaucratic centralist tendencies in NYC-DSA, Marxist Unity Group will continue to be loud and proud in our fight for freedom of political speech, freedom of information, unity through open public disagreement and practical adherence to a democratically elaborated program, and a democratic centralism that subordinates leadership to the democratic will of the rank-and-file. In Trotsky’s words

The foundation of party democracy is timely and complete information, available to all members of the organization and covering all the important questions of their life and struggle. Discipline can be built up only on a conscious assimilation of the policies of the organization by all its members and on confidence in its leadership. Such confidence can be won only gradually, in the course of common struggle and reciprocal influence.

In other words: down with the cone of silence! Down with bureaucratic centralism! Up with free and open democratic deliberation!

A primary task for Marxist Unity Group going forward is to help cohere the Partyist forces nation-wide to become a majority bloc going into DSA’s national convention next summer 2023. The outlook for this is decisively positive: in an indication of broader support for Partyism beyond the 40% voting in favor of 1234, even DSA-endorsed elected officials and members of the Liquidationist factions who voted no on the 1234 plan expressed their belief in the importance of unifying DSA along a programmatic line. This could be a verbal smokescreen for Liquidationism in practice, but it may also be the case that Liquidationism’s appeal comes from its claim to be the only practical strategy, and some of its adherents could be swayed. Many in DSA believe in the importance of more unity in politics, principle, and practice and a strong socialist program for the organization: it is up to DSA’s Partyists to put forward clear and compelling plans to move DSA towards that unified, independent party that emphasizes our transformative program for socialism and democracy.

Liked it? Take a second to support Cosmonaut on Patreon! At Cosmonaut Magazine we strive to create a culture of open debate and discussion. Please write to us at CosmonautMagazine@gmail.com if you have any criticism or commentary you would like to have published in our letters section.