DSA’s Factions Explained

By Charles Lenchner. Originally posted on Facebook on August 2, 2019 under the title, “Analysis: The Central Conflicts in DSA.

Over 1,000 delegates from the Democratic Socialists of America are meeting this weekend in Atlanta. While this is written in hopes that my fellow delegates will read it, I’m doing my best to make it comprehensible to others who might not be following as closely.

The Caucus Wars

Over the last two years, caucuses have emerged as a defining characteristic of how DSA does internal politics. To me this is a sad development; I think the overwhelming impact of caucuses is to degrade the quality of our leadership, culture, and politics. That said as someone who cares and wants to be involved, I joined one of them and I’m pretty friendly to another.

Listing ALL of them doesn’t make sense — I bet I don’t know them all. That’s because in any chapter, one or more people could have run for delegate and declared themselves to be a caucus. Sometimes multiple such groups run together. Usually, they correspond to national groupings — but not always. So I’ll be sticking to the main ones, as I see it.

The first caucus to organize itself at the national level started off as Left Caucus. Then it ended and became Momentum. Then it became Spring. After a split, it became Bread and Roses. The same people (more or less) have been the driving force behind it for at least five years, though obviously today they have many who weren’t even in DSA five years ago. This group has been the topic of a lot of negative publicity over the last two years for a few reasons.

First, it had the largest bloc of votes on the [National Political Committee] NPC, DSA’s board. Second, in chapters where it won leadership, notably East Bay and Philadelphia, the internal conflicts created a ton of drama. And finally, its leadership had by far the most thorough political operation, which is expressed, for example, in the subordination of DSA’s Medicare for All committee to the caucus leadership, creating in effect a top down pyramid of DSA working groups at the chapter level that took their political direction from a specific caucus. This caucus elected six NPC members, but as a result of resignations, the number of seats they either controlled or influenced grew. (NPC has 16 elected members.)

At the last convention, only one other slate emerged as effective opposition to MBR. (My shorthand for Momentum/Bread & Roses). That was Praxis, which I supported at the time. They elected five members, but that dropped. One of their members resigned after a very public rape accusation. Another turned against the slate over time, and a third dropped out of political life almost immediately after being elected. The two remaining leaders are part of Build, which brands itself as an ‘un-caucus’ because they don’t have a shared ideological or political framework.

Build makes it clear that they were established around opposition to MBR, more so than any specific political argument.

The Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC) is more recent. It represents what I would call the DSA mainstream. Politically, not that far away from MBR, but made up of folks who mostly agree that MBR has done Bad Things which is why a rival caucus was formed. However, they are more emphatically against Build, for reasons laid out below. If I have less to say about the SMC, it’s that they are newer and subject to less drama.

Another important caucus is the LSC, or Libertarian Socialist Caucus. Most people think of them as the anarchist caucus, but not in a derogatory way. They are very anti-MBR for the most part, and seek to carve out more space at the chapter and national level for activities that don’t revolve around elections or legislation. (They are not demanding an end to those activities!)

Northstar is a small caucus that has the most support from long time DSA members. They tend to be older, and are most comfortable with DSA following its historic path. It would be easy to mischaracterize them as somehow stagnant and resistant to the new DSA; this is false. These are some of the most committed and productive members, and they share DSA’s historic resistance to caucuses. No surprise that they aren’t rocking that game.

Collective Power Network is another smaller caucus that to me, has a surprising advantage: no one dislikes them very strongly. Politically, they fit in the DSA mainstream, but with a cohort of folks who care a lot about process and internal dynamics and seek to elevate how DSA functions.

The Caucus Wars Are About Centralization vs. Decentralization

Trying to distill the many arguments and conflicts is hard. Remember that the vast majority of the organization is made up of people new to socialist politics in a mass membership organization. That said, here goes…

Parts of DSA want a strong fighting organization that is able to narrow the scope of its activities in order to have a strong impact on its top priorities. The vast majority of the organization proudly supports Medicare for All and Bernie Sanders. But even among that majority, some number feel that restricting the number of priorities, or subordinating all activities to the main issues, unfairly deprives members of opportunities to engage in other productive work.

For example, in the East Bay Chapter in 2018, there was a simmering conflict between members who wanted to engage in Brake Light Repair, which means teams set up locations where cars with missing lights are fixed, for free. This activity creates meaningful interaction between DSA and marginalized communities who suffer from police using minor car issues (like missing brake lights!) and is part of a Black Lives Matter or racial justice agenda. It is also a form of solidarity that can be engaged in regardless of the electoral or legislative timetable. Some members sought formal inclusion in the communications of the chapter as a thing that is happening and fully integrated into what DSA is about. They charged the leadership of the chapter with using rules and leadership structures to push them aside, in favor of ‘the most important’ tasks, such as a canvass for Medicare for All and/or helping to elect a local socialist. The ‘truth’ of the conflict is less important than its symbolic function.

Yes, some members in many chapters have felt that local leaders were using rules to tilt the playing field in favor of certain things but not others. Yes, some of those leaders felt that they were dutifully representing the politics that members of the chapter voted for, when they approved leaders and priorities. And yes, in many instances the specifics of precisely how those conflicts were managed showcased a low level of organizational development — on both sides.

It is also the case that where these conflicts erupted most strongly, MBR folks were in the leadership (East Bay/Philly). Often the losing side of these procedural conflicts used social media to organize and alert others to their complaints — which makes sense since they didn’t have access to the formal communications channels in play. And since the local chapter leaderships in question were networked at the national level as a caucus, and that caucus had dominance on the NPC, it was easy for two narratives to emerge.

The first, presents the NPC and staff as complicit in numerous misdeeds as a result of the drive to centralize and focus on a more limited number of priorities. In order to repair the damage and liberate the energies of people and chapters that don’t fully subscribe to that centralized vision, it is necessary to ‘correct’ the problem by weakening the central authority of the national organization, weaken the NPC’s power, and increase the autonomy and resources available to chapters (on the one hand) and any group of members trying to do a thing (on the other.)

The second considers the most vocal proponents of that the position above as problematic people who are eager to weaken DSA as a national organization. They fear that a more decentralized DSA, nationally or at the chapter level, will make it impossible to intervene coherently in US politics as a socialist force. They would argue that while they lean more into prioritizing certain issues over others, that this is a democratic choice being made by active members.

For my part — I think both sides have good points. It’s very hard to debate this central conflict in general, because on all sides people have done disgusting things. (That’s a harsh judgement that I’m just not going to elaborate on.)

One of the resolutions, Pass the Hat (PTH) would redirect funds raised through dues, and give a certain amount to all chapters. This is proposed by Build, which is on the ‘decentralize’ side.

Another resolution is in support of the Rank & File Strategy and seeks to prioritize a certain method of labor work across the organization. Passing a resolution like this has a symbolic effect; anyone at the local level seeking to elevate this kind of work can point to the resolution and make the case that ‘DSA supports THIS so we should do THIS.’

The spectrum of caucuses on the question of centralization is as follows:

  • Momentum/Bread & Roses strongly supports more centralization, and supports resolutions that establish priorities that it can project nationally and at the chapter level in accordance with it’s politics.
  • Socialist Majority mostly supports those priorities, but it is more committed to a big tent approach that creates space — procedurally and emotionally — for other things. It is less committed to ‘my way or the highway’ but still agrees on the road to follow.
  • North Star is very close to Socialist Majority on this question, but includes people who are even more suspicious/critical of MBR.
  • Build should be the far pole on the side of decentralization. But this is complicated by the fact that they have built a national infrastructure, including publications, training, conferences etc. That requires a kind of organizing mentality that isn’t quite the same as anything resembling ‘horizontalism.’
  • The LSC isn’t ‘more’ against centralization, as compared to Build. But it has an ideological component that is absent in Build, and some of its members don’t feel comfortable with various aspects of Build. On many resolutions, I’d expect Build and LSC to vote similarly.

But ‘Centralization’ Barely Begins to Cover It…

In no particular order, here are other aspects of the conflict that I observe, deduce, or know.

Post-Trotskyism (PT). Most DSA members and delegates are not well versed in the ideological leaders of a prior time. If you hear words like ‘Maoist’ or ‘ML’ or ‘Trot’ it’s a kind of shorthand from another age, and while some people use them in the most straightforward manner, it’s usually at least a little tongue in cheek. There are straight up big ‘C’ Communists in DSA, but a national caucus that might have represented (Refoundation) disbanded.

However, there are a ton of what we can say are ‘Post Trotskyists.’ And folks who subscribe to those ideas are on a spectrum between knowledgable ideological fighters on the one hand, and new recruits who barely understand that the positions they support come from that world. This makes it hard to debate or argue against; most of the PT’s don’t use that label in public communications, most of their supporters are still in the process of being educated.

But every time you hear the phrase ‘Rank & File Strategy’ know that this refers to a strategy promoted mostly in the orbit of Trotskyist groups of the past, most prominently International Socialists (IS). One former member of that group is Kim Moody, who wrote a pamphlet about RFS in 1980. He is also among the founders of Solidarity (a descendent of IS) and Labor Notes (a project linked to Solidarity that embodies the RFS. One component of RFS is fighting for leadership of unions in strategic sectors; the largest example of a caucus doing that is Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

This milieu also included the International Socialist Organization (ISO) a recently disbanded organization that was also a descendent of the IS. Collectively, the people and groups part of this world had a fundamental assertion that is a crucial part of Trotskyism and Post-Trotskyism in the United States: rejecting the Democratic Party as a vehicle for advancing socialism. Phrases like ‘independent working class power’ are code for ‘we won’t run on the Democratic Party ballot line no matter what!’ In 2015, as Bernie Sanders prepared to run for President on the Democratic Party line, the entire Trotskyist/Post-Trotskyist world was adamant on this one point: he should run as an independent, not as a Democrat.

But in response to Bernie’s amazing success, a new division emerged in the left. Those who took advantage of Bernie’s run did much better than those that did not. ISO no longer exists, DSA is the largest socialist organization in 2–3 generations. Portions of the PT world have migrated into DSA, including many members of Solidarity, but also from the ISO and Socialist Alternative. This folks have political advantages that most of DSA lacks. A shared, deep political language that goes back many decades. Knowing each other across geographies. Practice at organizational behavior, ranging from sectarian infighting to labor organizing skills.

While portions of this world have always existed inside of DSA’s big tent, the success of Momentum in 2017–2019 at winning control of the NPC and in some large chapters, has meant that PT-ism emerged as a kind of default ideological background across large swathes of DSA. But this happened without most members understanding its roots, strategies, conflicts and downsides. That gap — between the disciplined, rooted, structured politics of PT folks, and a large membership of people inspired by Bernie or AOC to join DSA — has meant an uneven playing field when it comes to organizational infighting. One side has a shared history, tactics, personal relationships. The other is still in the process of getting to know itself as socialists and political actors.

That gap explains a lot of the fight over centralization. The early adopters who moved fast to win control of parts of DSA were much more likely to be from the PT side. They used their experience and relationships as an advantage that manifested in elections for chapter leadership, controlling who was on what committee, which committees were allowed to exist, which training materials and resources were prioritized, and how rules and bylaws were interpreted. It wasn’t necessary for any procedural ‘crime’ to have occurred, for lots of people to feel that it was manifestly unfair, undemocratic, and above all — ugly. Momentum/Bread & Roses owns that.

Its leadership had a plan, for many years, of pushing DSA away from an inside-outside relationship with the Democratic Party, and away from very friendly relationships with many unions, in favor of using third-party ballot lines and explicitly supporting oppositional caucuses inside unions. This is the practical meaning of PT-ism. But Bernie Sanders created havoc, by ‘proving’ that massive gains for socialism are indeed possible on the Democratic Party ballot line. So the PT forces inside DSA (and outside of it) are caught in a bind: they carry the legacy of a well thought-out political program along with a recognition that major parts of it have to be shelved because of reality.

An example of how this manifests is the desire to talk about DSA as ‘someday’ forming a political party and running on other ballot lines. Not now of course, because that makes little sense even to people who supported that position just a couple years ago. But the dream is to displace the Democrats with a new political party that will be run as a real party, not just a ballot line.

To get there, DSA would need to start introducing structures and behaviors that are more like a party and less like a ‘non-party political organization’. What defines parties in most of the world, if not in the US, is that the party structure has command and control power over elected representatives. It can exclude people from its ballot line, discipline wayward members who sit in office, and allocate resources according to a political and electoral strategy that comes together at a national level.

Endnote

In writing this, I imagined explaining things to a trusted friend who also trusts me not to lie or obfuscate. It’s entirely possible that here and there I’m wrong or emphasizing things the wrong way — and I did this on Facebook so that people can tell me so. Full disclosure, I’m a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus, which clearly has some affinity with the PT legacy. But that is not my legacy — I’m from the more traditional DSA big tent outlook, and think that forming a party, even talking about someday forming a party, is misguided. But I recognize that vicious factional infighting is a problem, not a solution to anything. The only way I can influence DSA so it’s more of what I personally want, is to fight for the big tent nature of it, to weaken the ‘caucus culture’, and above all, to demand that the spirit of inclusion and democracy permeate ALL of its structures. That’s the only defense against small groups of sophisticated actors seeking dominance. May none of them succeed.

UPDATE: Meyerson of the Prospect linked to this post! He did a much better job than me of describing things concisely. Folks should consider this as a set of detailed notes that Meyerson used to write a better article.

RELEVANT LINKS:
Public letters about Ravi and Zac, leaders of the Build caucus, current NPC members and NPC candidates.
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MavkwnHfhEftN91XCIG7mv2lUH7cfUAAHq-7QqEcGU8/ (Nate)
https://medium.com/@alliebcohn/principles-before-personalities-my-experience-on-the-2017-2019-npc-249329b526ca (Allie Cohn)

Groupthink is a contradiction in terms.