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We Need a New Kind of Socialist Organization

The “hierarchical vs. horizontal” debate is old, tired, and getting us nowhere.

On October 10, 1917, the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee made one of the formative decisions of the 20th century when it voted to launch the revolution that created history’s first workers’ state. But only 11 of the committee’s 20 members knew it. The other nine didn’t bother to show up for the meeting.

The spotty attendance was normal, because the Bolsheviks were a complete mess. The party was going through a period of massive growth, but the Central Committee barely communicated with their provincial comrades—on average, just a single letter was exchanged between them each month. They formed committees they forgot about before the next meeting. Resources were scarce. The party’s entire administrative apparatus consisted of “five or six women party workers” housed in “two rooms plus a toilet,” Trotskyist activist Tony Cliff wrote in All Power to the Soviets. The toilet was where they kept party records. 

Yet, within a few years, the Bolsheviks had won a bloody civil war and resisted the machinations of Western imperialist powers to take control of Russia. An entire political theory could be built on understanding that brief interlude.

I first learned this story when I read Cliff’s book—the second in a three-volume biography of Lenin—two and a half years ago. I had just resigned after a two-year stint as co-chair of the North Carolina Piedmont chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America because I had begun to lose faith. Though DSA victories abounded across the country, I mostly experienced them through Twitter. In my actual experience, DSA was broken and disorganized, a growing membership list and little else. 

Major initiatives like organizing for Medicare for All, a new labor commission, or training programs had little impact on my chapter. Locally, there’s nothing I can point to from the time as a clear political victory, nothing that seems to have set the stage for those who came after me to do better. We had failed. 

I clung to that story of Lenin, a name synonymous with a tight-knit, efficient party, because I needed something to help me believe DSA could win—however disorganized it felt. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. 

The old question of socialist organization is back: discussions about how to reform DSA are a constant part of DSA. Around a dozen notable, unofficial caucuses are vying for power within the organization’s official structure. Bread and Roses wants to turn DSA into a “mass party of the working class.” Socialist Majority wants to institute a “bottom-up model of campaign development.” The Collective Power Network, a caucus-like non-caucus, advocates for a “mass organization organized along a party-structure model.” Build wants empowered local chapters. And that doesn’t even account for all the other socialists, communists, and anarchists outside of DSA.

Everyone involved seems to realize that to go beyond where we are now, DSA must become something else entirely. They just can’t agree on what. And that’s the problem. If socialists can’t develop an organizational model that meets the challenges of the era, we don’t stand a chance of taking power. The Bolsheviks won, eventually, because their small, clandestine core of activists was exactly what was needed to bring down a hated autocrat in a still industrializing country facing the world’s first global war. Today’s United States needs something far larger and far more flexible.

Beyond the War of Ideas

As we enter the Joe Biden administration, socialists sit in an odd position. Foundational demands—Medicare for All, higher minimum wages, guaranteed income, defunding the police—are either already popular or rapidly gaining currency. Pushed by an emboldened left, a constitutionally moderate president is delivering programs that could cut child poverty in half (if that left can keep pushing to ensure it stays around). There’s real energy in unions across many sectors, including hard-to-organize places like Amazon warehouses in Alabama suburbs. And nothing has shaped the world as much as Black Lives Matter, a transformational racial justice movement that, as Marxist ecologist Andreas Malm pointed out, combines widely popular mass marches alongside more forceful actions like lighting police stations on fire. 

And yet these radical movements are easily co-opted into a kind of rainbow capitalism. Black Lives Matter is reduced to H.R. training. Universal basic income has become an excuse to cut social programs. Voters have chosen cheap taxi rides over better conditions for gig workers. We live in what political theorist Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism,” an “era of commanded individuality” in which the working and downwardly mobile middle classes are separated and desperate for connection and support. Political action is increasingly redirected toward ever more all-encompassing kinds of market-based consumption. 

With a climate apocalypse looming and a minoritarian Republican party still clinging to power across the country, now more than ever, socialists need to capitalize on the vitality of our ideas. Yet my experience in DSA was largely defined by tired debates. Are the Democrats really on our side? Is race or class more important? The more I tried to sift through DSA’s various groups and internal squabbles and political conflicts, the less productive they felt—just old slogans repeated in new contexts that no longer matched. The important questions contained in the debates were lost among the noise. It’s one of the reasons I resigned: the bickering took up so much energy, we never got around to organizing anything else. “Shifting the blame” between each side, author Rodrigo Nunes writes in his forthcoming book Neither Horizontal nor Vertical, “thus allows each side to claim revenge for the other’s failings at the same time as it exorcises its own doubts.” The balance sheet of our actual power goes uncalculated.

The problem is familiar to socialist organizers. Nunes refers to it as the “two melancholias”: on the one hand, a fear of the ineffective sect-like socialist parties that have proliferated since the 1970s, and on the other, the disempowering experience of Occupy Wall Street and other decentralized movements burning out without real gains. Nunes only oversimplifies a little when he refers to it as the debate between 1917—the demand for a vertically integrated party of the Leninist type—and 1968—the demand for a diffuse, horizontal movement. In DSA, it meant a bipolar analysis in which the organization was either too centralized (chapters pushed toward national priorities that didn’t make sense locally; bigger chapters having too much power) or too weak (not generating enough common ground; not providing enough support). 

But in today’s context, Nunes argues, we need new thinking that asks the organizational question of an era in which both traditional political parties and “spontaneous” mass movements feel impotent, all while digital media reorganizes our lives. “We cannot think organisations in isolation from one another until we have first conceived organisation as pertaining to the entire ecology to which they belong,” he writes. “Each situation demands an answer appropriate to that situation, to the balance [of forces] verified at that moment,” Nunes continues, arguing that whatever answer we find “is only ever good for a determinate end, in determinate circumstances.” By redirecting away from stagnant debates about past forms, Nunes points toward a way out of the impasse so we can develop the forces to shape the present.

Analyzing DSA in that ecological manner makes one thing clear. The organization had a singular purpose during its much-vaunted explosion: popularizing socialism at a moment when the neoliberal consensus had devolved into a Trumpist backlash. It provided, above all, a flagship community for those separated and abandoned by the new gilded age, around which they could gather and find one another. It was less a group of political positions and more a rhetorical claim. “The point is to say, ‘Here’s a left,’ in a way that just could not possibly be co-opted by Andrew Cuomo types,” writer Ryan Cooper told Washington Monthly in 2018. 

That function is inseparable from DSA’s digital base. It’s telling that one of DSA’s most prominent voices in the mid-2010s was an anonymous Twitter account that referred to itself as “the Larry Mays of socialism.” (The actual person behind it was later voted onto DSA’s governing body.) When I asked all the newly identified socialists flocking to my chapter’s meetings what brought them, the answers were almost inevitably Twitter personalities and leftist media. Our attendance spiked with anything that drove coverage on those outlets: first with Trump’s election, then the airport protests, Charlottesville, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. If DSA was a community, it was bound together less by the deep familial ties captured in feminist writer Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism (a book that was reissued to wide celebration last year) and more a creative reuse of the social media networks that historian Gabriel Winant has called “the refuge of society.” DSA grew by using capitalism’s new tools against it.

Yet, what gave the organization life was its attempt to escape those networks. The most reliably popular events we had in my chapter were social ones: happy hours and reading groups and meet-ups and abortion fundraiser bowl-a-thons. The rhetoric of socialism brought people into the organization, but it was the friends that kept them there. To feel like you are part of something, that you have people invested in a new world with you: that’s what DSA offered unorganized socialists. And that’s why so many of our members were political novices, students, and new arrivals in the area: it was those who didn’t have robust social networks of their own, those who didn’t have socialist friends. A social network can feel frustratingly fragile as a political project, because it is. It’s also substantial. As Winant writes, “Fighting for someone you don’t know is a beautiful idea; fighting for someone you do know is how you win.”

The only reason DSA could succeed in that strategy is because its form followed the function. DSA maintains a “big tent” approach with such broad principles that it can welcome everyone from the Harringtonian socialists who founded the organization to Trotskyists, communists, anarchists, left liberals, and everyone in between. Barriers to entry are kept especially low. Dues are a scant $60 per year, and there are no other requirements to become a full, voting member. Local chapters have almost complete autonomy to do whatever they want, even if that means ignoring national priorities. Everything is aimed at making it simple for membership to grow and for DSA to become a catch-all for a revived socialist left.

DSA’s success on that front corrects a decades-long failure that has plagued other socialist groups. Finally, leftists in the U.S. have a real mass organization. Both words are key. The 1917 model, author and activist Max Elbaum argues in Revolution in the Air, his history of the 1970s New Communist Movement, failed because it ignored the importance of numbers. Socialists and communists of the time failed “to grasp in a timely fashion the fact that large-scale forces were driving US politics to the right, and that for a lengthy period galvanizing resistance to the conservative onslaught would be the main political task.” 

Those forces, seen in Trumpism above all, are still with us. But the times are different: there is already an equal counterforce to the right, built on the 1968 model—Occupy and Black Lives Matter especially. Our task is not to launch a popular resistance, but to wield it. Yet, because the resistance movements of the past decade have largely eschewed durable organizations in favor of loose coalitions, actions, and movements, we are now dealing with a deficit of concrete power to effect lasting change. It’s Steve Bannon who got into the White House, not the left. Righting that wrong needs more than happy hours and the occasional phonebanking party: it needs a strategy and the capacity to enact it.

Overcoming Today’s Weakness for Tomorrow’s Victories

By launching a national organization aimed at bringing a mass movement together, DSA has taken an essential step. But succeeding at the task of 2016 does not mean it’s well situated to succeed at the tasks of 2021 and beyond. There are limits to the forces DSA’s structure enables. The very form that fueled DSA to 80,000 card-carrying socialists, helping elect its members to the U.S. Congress in the process, also means that its elected officials aren’t actually accountable to the organization. If DSA provided the activist base for the election of AOC and other members of the Squad—its most visible successes—it didn’t provide the strategy. That came from Justice Democrats. Instead, DSA’s only real influence is “its newly elected allies’ desire to avoid backlash and bad press from the group,” Marie Solis wrote at VICE. That’s more or less the same relationship it has with any non-DSA member in Congress, too.

The fact that DSA relies on media is the key, in both directions. By working within the networks of communicative capitalism, DSA has taken on some of their structures, which are defined by “a ‘power-law distribution,’” Dean argues in Crowds and Party (her own defense of the 1917 model), in which a few wildly popular items generate immense influence over the rest. In capitalism, it creates “blockbuster movies, best-selling novels, and giant internet hubs,” Dean writes. In DSA, it means growth and influence are not defined by bylaws or strategy, but by the means of networked growth itself: social media, friendship networks, and unofficial influence.

Those elements exist in any organization (Dean argues as much, citing Robert Mitchell’s iron law of oligarchy, which says every democratic organization tends toward rule by elites), but DSA’s structure feeds on it. The reason it grew so fast is because DSA became the blockbuster of the left. That means it also grows inequitably—limited to those already plugged into the same capitalist networks it has used to recruit, ensuring an organization that is predominantly white and college-educated, and cutting it off, in important ways, from the most important political movement of the era, Black Lives Matter. But it also means DSA can very quickly begin to feel like the networks it’s meant to supplement. There’s constant infighting that can feel personal even in the cases when there are actual principles involved. Organizing energy can quickly be sucked into the social elements that once gave the organization life, and it often feels just as demoralizing as a Twitter fight. If the relationships are what give DSA real staying power, they are also what often drive people out.

The fact that there are hundreds of essays and blog posts in which former members of the socialist parties of old explain that their demanding ways—years of sacrifice and study and newspaper selling before new recruits became full members—became toxic environments is proof that all organizations face that problem. But in DSA it takes on a specific form that prevents other political work.

For me, the switch came when the organization began to feel more like an affinity club than a collective project. Our era, as Dean argues, is one in which “individual acts of resistance, subversion, cultural production, and opinion expression, no matter how courageous, are easily absorbed into the circulatory content of global personal media networks.” So when our meetings devolved into members insulting others with claims that they were “latte liberals,” when my time was more devoted to mitigating personal conflicts than building relationships with other organizations, when I realized there was more interest in making T-shirts than working for political transformation, it all suddenly felt pointless. I might as well have been on Twitter. 

That feeling is also what made the actual debates taking place between DSA’s various groups and caucuses so trying. At one point, I was willing to join in myself. But now the 1917 vs. 1968 split has been reduced to the shorthand of elections vs. mutual aid, and the real issues driving it—rooted in what Nunes calls a “dispute on how to do revolutionary politics”—are hard to see amid the vitriol. If it’s not the traditional sectarianism that plagued past socialists, it hews uncomfortably close to thinking that “adopting a certain set of principles meant being anointed by history,” as Elbaum says happened in the New Communist Movement. The real risk, it seems to me now, is not that DSA will choose the wrong option, but that it won’t be able to choose at all. The organization is so broad, it won’t be able to generate any momentum for either: for far too many of its members, the experience of DSA will be nothing but online arguments.

When my chapter felt like a real political home, it was because the relationships were rooted in a shared vision. Members were excited about organizing for Medicare for All, beginning with the effort to protect Obamacare from Republican repeals. Others were drawn to mutual aid projects like a brake light clinic, which has spread through DSA chapters across the country. 

But the problems became clear when I started comparing our work with Cooperation Jackson. The Mississippi-based project has built a home for municipal socialism in the deep South, electing two mayors alongside a series of cooperatives and people’s assemblies. It is rooted in Black radical tradition, in contrast to DSA’s oft-discussed whiteness, which felt especially necessary in the South. At my DSA chapter’s meetups and Slack discussions and official meetings, people proposed similar ideas, dreaming of our own version of Southern socialism. But Cooperation Jackson “took years to formulate, and it was built on decades of hard work and experimentation, that was synthesized through years of study and reflection,” wrote Kali Akuno, Cooperation Jackson’s co-founder and co-director. He also noted that they were “highly influenced” by the 1917 model. 

Other DSA chapters, I gathered from Twitter and a handful of national events, may have been able to start down that path. For various reasons—the local history of the chapter, the networks who joined, the luck of having more skilled organizers than me as co-chair—they have a shared vision and the skill to follow through. We didn’t. The waves of new members who came were mostly new to the area or to politics in general, and few of us had the knowledge of local conditions necessary to put together an effective strategy, much less the connections to act on it. DSA’s big tent meant efforts were splintered across every project others had an interest in: supporting a state General Assembly candidate in another part of the state, launching a feminist discussion group for men, trying to do political education, canvassing for Medicare for All. Agreement splintered, and we weren’t able to provide any real direction—myself above all.

But if the problem is that we weren’t good enough organizers, the efficacy of DSA’s model is still implicated. The test of it is not just whether people join, but whether DSA can support them after they do, especially those who are newly politicized. And, in North Carolina anyway, it didn’t. We could barely figure out how to run meetings. And though that’s a constant struggle—Dean quotes an internal 1930s Communist Party USA publication in which organizers lamented that their meetings were “a group of strangers speaking a jargon [new recruits] didn’t understand” and that they weren’t “snappy enough”—DSA had little support to offer, outside of pushing people to the same social networks that brought them into DSA. Just two field organizers were working in the whole country at the time. Even getting membership rosters was a struggle. At one point, my chapter was suffering through a harassment issue we were in no way qualified to handle. The only resource available was the text of a recently passed national resolution, and the only place we could find it was on Reddit. The core group of members who provided what little momentum we had eventually burnt out and left, and our growing roster was barely engaged at all.

After I stopped actively organizing with DSA, I was searching for a new political home, one that could provide the social belonging DSA offered at its best while generating some real political projects at the same time. Eventually, I found my way to a local organization called Durham for All. It was founded in the same year as North Carolina Piedmont DSA, but in that time it has won multiple elections and built real relationships with unions and other organizations. Some of its founders have gone on to launch the Carolina Federation, a nascent state-wide network that is crucially important in a red state where municipal power is strictly curtailed.

In Durham for All, I found a shared analysis, a group of leaders who supported new members, and an intentional approach to growth that makes it the most diverse and welcoming political space I’ve ever been a part of. It’s not as open as DSA—when forming a people’s platform last summer, ideas were solicited from people working on specific areas, rather than allowing any member to make a proposal, as happens at DSA—but I still feel empowered. In fact, maybe even more so: the limitations provided a structure I needed. “The more complex a task,” Nunes writes, “the more its success is likely to depend on complex preparatory work, and therefore on a backbone of committed activists.”  

What I realized is that, given DSA’s loose structure and North Carolina’s place within it, joining DSA was less like signing up for an organization and more like starting one, and that wasn’t something I would have done purposefully. I knew I didn’t have the skills. What’s ironic, then, is that the more time I spend organizing elsewhere, the more I consider returning to active work in DSA. 

The simple fact is that we need to start winning, and quickly. In its first year, Carolina Federation ran the largest GOTV phonebanking operation in North Carolina, outside of the Democratic Party. We still lost almost every state race. I have no doubt we’ll grow in power—certainly more than my DSA chapter did—but in this era of catastrophes, time is not on our side. For too long the left, leaning toward the 1968 pole, has drifted into a network of different nonprofits and NGOs caught in the traps laid by the antidemocratic American legal framework that forces money and influence into the two parties. Some of those nonprofits do great work, with a clear analysis of the forces in their way. But funding constraints and an antidemocratic right that’s willing to crush any institution in its way have a funny way of moderating institutions. The same burdens are already striking Cooperation Jackson as it clings on to municipal power, at least as Akuno tells it. And as a result, this network of separate, local institutions has consistently failed to build the socialist movement we need. 

Moral victories will no longer suffice, and we can’t win without DSA or something like it. No socialist organization has been able to replicate its success at reaching people in the conditions we face today. We can’t sacrifice the 1968ish benefits of DSA’s model, able to scale quickly in the midst of disaster—especially as the impacts of COVID linger, Trumpist forces gather for another counter assault, and irreparable climate change looms. But to move beyond just reaching people and into training and organizing them, we need something more defined than what DSA has been. It needs a cadre of the 1917 type. “Such is the quandary of organisation, what attracts us and repels us in it,” Nunes writes, “it is both something we need and something we ought to fear, a means and an obstacle, what might help or hurt us. Too little and it may not be enough, too much and it might already be too late.” If DSA’s model is as necessary as ever, it’s also increasingly inadequate.

To that end, DSA might be best understood as an experiment, and it must be embraced in that light. The organization we need won’t be the same as the one that existed in 1917, when Lenin’s party won in the midst of very specific social and political circumstances, nor 1968, when revolution genuinely seemed to be just around the corner. Instead, we must be clear-eyed about both DSA’s successes and its failures, figuring out how to create a network at scale in the midst of communicative capitalism, but also better inspiring local cores that can more effectively push forward local projects. And, most difficult of all, we have to build the strategic cohesion necessary to ensure all of those cores amplify each other within the broader ecology of the left—which means not just the rest of DSA, but Black Lives Matter, renewed unions, and the reform elements of the Democratic Party. 

Maybe, in certain cases and for certain projects, DSA’s many caucuses and working groups will provide the perfect place. But others will have to work outside the organization. The more important thing is that DSA becomes a place where the lessons of both organizing models can be seriously considered so that even the failures can be productive, because the primary problem going forward is what Nunes calls “the problem of fitness.” Socialists must find the “capacity to address widely shared concerns, to speak to existing interests and desires, to persuade people of its own feasibility, to gather support and build a broad social base, to target weak spots and concrete points of pressure and leverage efficiently, to set in motion processes endowed with their own transformative momentum.” If the reasons the Bolsheviks won with a small party no longer hold, the reasons the New Communist Movement failed with the same model don’t either. The disappointments of Occupy linger, but the promises of Black Lives Matter remain. The old formulas don’t fit. What comes next can only be learned in practice.

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