The Meaning of Discipline and DSA’s Relationship to Elected Representatives

Thoughts on the question of electoral discipline and its relationship to resolutions for the upcoming national convention.

Organizational discipline over our elected officials endorsed by the organization has long been a question left unresolved by National organization principles. Prompted most recently by Iron Dome funding, the right to strike for railroad workers, and expulsion considerations in Boston, DSA has had trouble expressing its principles through representatives elected in government. While this is a very important thing for us to consider and discuss, the current form of these concerns is both drenched in idealism and premature in its form.

Discipline is an all-or-nothing issue – it is practically impossible to have some discipline. Until DSA is in a position to make or break someone’s political career – until DSA endorsements are the determining factor in an election’s outcome – DSA can not have meaningful discipline over elected officials. Censure votes and fiery denunciations currently have no impact on the power of our electeds’ base, either in their constituency or from supporters outside of it, and they have little to no power over the majority of voters. Political power is a self-entrenching system for more political power. Once an elected official gains access to the state, their actions and simple status as an incumbent further solidify their position. Unless a representative’s placement in an office is entirely due to DSA’s support of that candidate, it is quite likely they control a considerable power base separate from the DSA apparatus that will work to maintain their hold on power. Elected officials, even those who are members of DSA, balance many competing interests in their office. DSA has no power in most of these institutions, and, oftentimes, they are institutions we have no interest holding any power in: landlords, business managements, and political bosses. No matter the commitment the official has to the socialist project, elected officials must have at least working relationships with the existing power structure – it is the first rule to holding power in a capitalist state. In the author’s knowledge, no current elects have had to fully depend on DSA to gain access to office, meaning DSA has no meaningful “discipline” over them.

Compelling government officials to live and entrench the principles of socialism is vital to the enactment of socialism, especially considering we hold the reasonable (and accurate) view that socialism does not occur at the drop of the hat. Socialism will take time, becoming a truly never-ending fight for expanding democracy and destroying entrenched self-interest, something that will always exist in government. Every socialist party in history has had to deal with the issue of discipline, with the most successful example, sadly, being the Communists in the Soviet Union. Using their power within the party system, party discipline became synonymous with discipline in government. Holding power over the one-party state, access to political power comes only with access to power in the party. DSA must not ever work to emulate this system, as the tyrannical vices of client-patron-based appointments are nearly impossible to remove once they have been entrenched. The lesson in discipline, however, should be noted. For us to succeed in fulfilling our radical goals through time, we must have government officials living our values.

To avoid falling into the trap of establishing party/organization discipline, we must create an extensive apparatus of democratic action, culminating in the all-powerful effect of DSA endorsements being the determining factor of election outcomes. This will not occur through force of words or efforts to “enforce the party line” but by building DSA into the multi-tendency organized left that represents the majority of politically-engaged citizens. If this is achieved, when a candidate is able to overcome factional disputes and succeed in winning the majority of votes for endorsements, and these voters then follow that endorsement through to the general election, DSA will have an effective ability to confer discipline over elected officials. This is especially true when we are able to create an ideal government where the recall of government officials can happen anytime through a majority vote. When mass democracy directed by the majority of people is enacted and realized, both inside and outside of DSA, discipline can be held over political officials. This is the only way we can achieve meaningful discipline towards our ideals without resorting to authoritarian tactics.

Many members may reject this view as it essentially states we can have no discipline over candidates/officials until after the revolution, but it’s the simple truth. In a capitalist power structure, a socialist organization such as ours, operating and holding views so outside of the reigning powers, we will never be able to effectively wield power in a manner in line with our principles. Say, for example, that a principled DSA city council member is in the midst of creating a city budget. In their efforts, they were able to increase funding for social programs, union organizing, or other things we approve of. The DSA member will want to vote for this budget for this reason, especially if they personally worked for these additions. Inevitably, however, this budget will include funding for the police and other authoritarian structures of the state. For the DSA member, this is a lose-lose scenario – they either vote for the budget, approving the expansion of the police state, or vote against the budget and abdicate their role in providing better services to the people. It is impossible to fully live our ideals in a capitalist government. Even if we consider a completely socialist body, such as a completely DSA-lead city council, government officials will be restricted by capitalist courts, city bureaucrats, and probably the voters themselves, in achieving socialist aims; liberal reforms will always be preferred, as the capitalist system has not been uprooted enough for widespread social revolution. This, again, makes attempts to enforce meaningful discipline premature, fruitless, and void of any real strategy.

The fact that this is true should not trouble DSA members. The role of DSA elected officials is not to bring about the revolution – they could not and, frankly, we should not be wanting them to. Elected “representatives” within a capitalist state are never truly representative of the people, no matter how popular they are within the current voting population. Until democracy exists in the home and workplace, political democracy will be incomplete: until mass equality and democracy are established, members elected into the state are not representative of the revolution, but just another piece of the larger project working to advance it. Further, a revolution led by representatives elected into the capitalist state is not – and never could be – a socialist revolution. These representatives will inevitably base many of their policies on liberal ideals, as many within the current voting population hold liberal ideals. These representatives, as stated, are simply part of the continuing advancement of socialism in the state while labor leaders and tenant organizers advance socialism at work and home. If these representatives are true allies of the revolution, they must know and understand this. More importantly, they must be okay with knowing that, one day, they will have to lose office in favor of more complete socialist candidates. This is a hard thing to imagine – and even harder to truly emulate in practice – as no one likes to give up power once achieved. But the advancement of socialism must not be hindered. Truly democratic representatives must come from within the working class themselves as organic leaders developed through the work of empowering the status and economic and political power of the workers. This ensures that government officials are not just for the working class, but of the working class. These are the only officials who DSA can have confidence in propelling the cause of true socialist revolution. Officials within the current state will always be compromised – they must be in order to hold power. In the hands of working class, democratically elected representatives, we hold the hopes of socialist revolution.

This does not mean that DSA electeds currently in office or those winning in the near future are not important or do not have a role in the revolution. In fact, they hold a vitally important position in the process, and this argument should not be evaluated as an argument against electoral participation. Socialist representatives in the capitalist state hold two tools in their hands: a megaphone from which to propagate revolutionary ideals, and a starer pistol for mass, physical disruptions of economic and political life which will bring about the first days of revolutionary action. The popular position of these officials – and the people’s natural deference to those they view as leaders – puts these representatives in the perfect position of beginning these actions when those on the ground view themselves as ready for them to begin. When truly socialist leaders take the housing from the landlords and assume control of the factories, stores, and offices, revolution will be underway. Those with the power of mass appeal are vital to helping ensure success.

The best-case scenario for socialist revolutionaries enacting revolution is that they are in control of events as the revolutionary action begins. This is an unlikely, possibly impossible, scenario, but one worth planning for and building towards. To favor this, revolutionaries must have public leaders in the existing state to give political cover and public promotion of the revolutionary actions being done by people outside the state, who the people will always view as less legitimate. When the offices and apartment buildings begin to be seized, it will be invaluable for the revolutionaries to have a public soapbox to glorify those seizing the people’s property for the people. It will further radicalize the population if the withering state is being attacked not only from outside the state but from within it as well, and government officials are able to push for legal changes to facilitate advancement to socialism.

The role of the elected, for DSA, must be solely focused on this and quit the undesirable vision of representatives as leaders taking us to the new world – we are taking ourselves to this new world. Elected officials within the state are just one of the many parts of the socialist project making that happen. This does not mean we should avoid punishing electeds who fail to help us advance our vision; a broken tool is just as invaluable as no tool at all. How the expulsion considerations in Boston unfolded should be looked to as an example: members internally followed the structure of local democracy to consider expulsion, and the half-baked socialist representative left the organization themselves as they clearly could not defend against an honest and true accusation of grifting off DSA. This should be the preferred method of enforcing discipline – let the democratic structures of the Chapter unfold, and the rest will take care of itself. But drawn-out fights over specific doctrine that does not align with the big-picture socialist vision are folly: no representative will always live our ideals while serving in the state. Losses must be accepted, and disappointments endured, as long as the larger revolutionary project is being advanced.

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign is the perfect example of this for many reasons. First, it should be generally agreed that Sanders is not a “socialist” as DSA defines the term. Sanders comes from a long history of left-wing activism and thought, but his current worldview and advocacy do not fully grasp the scope of the changes we wish to see – mass democracy

and complete worker control of the economy. Sanders was only fighting for incremental changes in that direction. Sanders enumerated specific reforms to implement, making them much more popular in political discourse, while calling for political revolution. This dual task – reforms to make the world better while highlighting the need for a next, and much bigger step, beyond the specific reforms currently being proposed, is what we should want to see from all DSA electeds. We simultaneously need reforms to improve the lives of working people today while acknowledging the need and purposely planning for the future, complete social AND political revolution. This must be the role of DSA electeds, and we must not accept electeds who wish to do less.

This is the task of DSA’s electoral work: build a coalition big and powerful enough to compel government officials to act within socialist principles now, while painting a picture of and building towards a revolutionary break with the government and implementation of mass democracy. This will require patience, and even if we do adhere to a more solidified idea as to the role of DSA electeds within the organization, we will still have many fights to endure as to the specific actions of representatives. But with a clearer and more realistic idea of power, along with a better-defined role of electeds within the organization, engaging in this work and navigating our battles will be much easier. Currently, some members envision electeds as reformers. Others as leaders of the socialist movement. Some want endorsees to be mere pawns of the organization, while others look to grant them the independence to act within their specific circumstances. As usual, everyone is a least a little correct, but DSA as an organization, collectively, must have a clearer idea of our relationship with people acting within the state. Here, we have a clear and purposeful plan which serves both our interests – reform AND revolution.

To my fellow DSA members: stop with the drawn-out fights over the actions of state actors. Let AOC endorse Biden – if the New York Chapters are not dissatisfied with her actions enough to rescind endorsement, National should follow suit. If Bowman continues to be endorsed at the local level, let the elected bodies of National DSA determine the next step: we have bigger things to worry about than the actions of one man. Our mission is massive, difficult, and global – we do not have the time, energy, or will to spend year after year rehashing the same arguments.

At this Convention, the issue of discipline should be put to rest. DSA National must follow the Chapters’ leads, and our NPC should be trusted to pick through the factions and nuance to come to reasonable decisions. Restrictions on who Chapters can endorse should be defeated: it is not the job of National figures to determine the actions of members doing the work at the local level. Attempts to rehash old political disagreements should be discounted: we have better things to worry about than the “purity” of actors within the capitalist system. To be pure is impossible. With sound strategy and thinking, DSA can break out of the cycle of factional infighting that has plagued the organization since the last Convention. Our Chapters – our members doing the work – must be trusted. All attempts to dictate their activities must be defeated.