Against a Centralized DSA

An argument against resolutions concerning Covid protocols, the relationship between YDSA and DSA Chapters, and the question of anti-Zionism.

DSA is, by its very nature, a decentralized, grassroots organization. The true power of the organization lies in the Chapter – the national bodies have little to no power to compel actions from Chapters except in circumstances related to the National organization (such as the biennial National Convention). Convention delegates sent from Chapters elect the National Political Committee (NPC), Chapters have complete discretion over what work they want to engage in, and Chapters have no financial obligations to National.

This is, by far, one of DSA’s greatest strengths. The people actually doing the work are most likely to be engaged in the political decisions, strengthening the effectiveness of the work and promoting general buy-in. This also allows our elected National bodies to be more representative of the population to a greater degree. Top-down decrees would not effectively mobilize workers towards socialism – the local issues directly facing them will. We, as an organization, have so far been lucky in that we have not challenged this effective organizational apparatus and strategy.

There are, however, Resolutions under consideration at this Convention which strike at the heart of “bottom-up” organizing in DSA. These Resolutions seek to impose restrictive policies and mandate internal structures and cultures not rooted in the specific circumstances and conditions of the Chapters, but dictated by a National body.

Three resolutions: “DSA Organizing for Pandemic Justice,” ”YDSA: Young Democratic Socialist of America Consensus Resolution,” and “Make DSA an Anti-Zionist Organization in Principle and Praxis” all take considerable steps to impose actions and structural formations onto Chapters without any consideration of our larger goals and the local conditions of the Chapters.

“DSA Organizing for Pandemic Justice” imposes incredibly strict meeting requirements upon Chapters with no thought as to the capacity, resources, or strategy of those Chapters. The mandated creation of “Health and Safety Committees” (HSCs) is an unacceptable demand to make of DSA leaders at a time when capacity is our leading issue, and more leaders are experiencing intense burnout. Many Chapters are still plagued with uncompetitive elections. Luckily for us, many of these leaders are dedicated enough to the socialist project that they work to fill all Chapter positions. While maintaining the existence and momentum of the organization, this leads to some leaders serving multiple years as elected Officers. To ask those Chapters to fill entirely bureaucratic positions not directly engaged in the work of their specific circumstances is an unacceptable burden for the National Convention to impose. Beyond the simple bureaucratic nature of these HSCs, they are further tasked with policing DSA Chapter activities, even calling for a “subtraction of participants” from events if a reading from a CO2 monitor rises above a specific threshold. The practical implication here is that Chapters would have to remove people from meetings if too many of them happen to show up. Adoption of such a requirement is counterproductive to our organizing and theory of change. Further, the Resolution would have Chapters stop offering food and drink at all indoor meetings, eliminating one of the cornerstones of successful meeting attendance – free food. Beyond being entirely unenforceable – I guarantee that many Chapters would simply ignore this provision if the resolution were adopted – working to make meetings less exciting, cordial, and inviting is, again, entirely counter to the work we are doing. We should reject attempts to bureaucratize DSA’s work and place these restrictions on Chapter organizing.

The “YDSA: Young Democratic Socialist of America Consensus Resolution” creates a YDSA organization that is not a stepping stone into the broader DSA organization, but an institution all of its own with considerable political and economic power over Chapters. The Resolution calls for the NPC to create independent YDSA voting positions within Chapter leadership committees, which would have the effect of segmenting YDSA leadership as a separate power base in which to drive Chapter policy. Instead of creating separate avenues for young DSA members to hold independent positions in DSA Chapters, we must create extensive engagement pipelines between YDSA work and general DSA work. Forcing YDSA appointments on Chapter executive bodies of Chapters destroys all incentives to engage with DSA more generally. If a leader successfully entrenches themselves in a YDSA branch, they are guaranteed voting power within the local DSA Chapter; there would be no reason to engage with DSA as a whole or build a larger constituency. This makes YDSA an entirely separate organization from DSA while at the same time holding considerable power over it. The Resolution’s authors seem to know this too, noting YDSA members should “take on further responsibilities as full members of the body.” Anyone with even a little political knowledge wouldn’t do this – they would have no reason to. This, combined with massive amounts of financial resources and mandated Chapter activities (fundraisers, even!) makes this Resolution unacceptable.

Finally, “Make DSA an Anti-Zionist Organization in Principle and Praxis” would not just impose new work requirements on Chapters, but create factionalism as DSA policy. Many Chapters, especially Chapters dealing with capacity issues, do not have a strong focus on internationalism. The fight for socialism is – and will always remain – a global fight, but to require Chapters to alter their work to conform to the provisions of the Resolution, regardless of context, is an unacceptable nationally-imposed directive on the work Chapters do. What is most unseemly about the Resolution, however, is its call for DSA members to begin reporting other members as “Zionist” to facilitate their expulsion. This is a direct appeal to factionalism, creating socialist purity tests that are unbecoming of a democratic organization. Instead of fighting the capitalists, the Resolution’s authors would have DSA members monitor, denounce, and “reform” fellow DSA members deemed to be “Zionists.” These purity tests would only facilitate conflict and suspicion among members and undermine DSA’s democratic culture.

These Resolutions should be cause for concern for national convention delegates. For the health of our organizational democracy, for the effectiveness of our work, and in service to our principles as a big-tent, mass organizing force with a national and even international scope, these Resolutions should be defeated.