Stuck in a Loop?

A critical assessment of DSA’s strategic orientation towards the fight for reforms.

On April 7th, 2021, the New York State legislature passed the 2021-2022 State Budget. 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 messaging begs an important strategic question: in the context of an issue-based legislative campaign (e.g., the fight for reforms), what does it really mean to win?

The Campaign Form in Today’s DSA

DSA’s strategic orientation towards issue-based campaigns is important, especially because the reform campaign is one of the primary modes of political activity within the organization (particularly in NYC, where “Priority Campaign” status is one of the only ways to gain access to chapter resources).

While a more detailed history is outside the scope of this article, the current dominance of the campaign in NYC-DSA emerged (like much else has in today’s DSA) from the Bernie Sanders campaigns. The Sanders campaign, and subsequent state- and city-level campaigns, were effective at spreading socialist propaganda, at building the number of engaged, dues-paying DSA members (albeit skewed towards a white, educated, downwardly mobile middle class), and, in New York, at electing five DSA-endorsed state legislators by 2020. After these 2020 elections, NYC-DSA’s organizing work became a bit more quiet, and much more siloed into specific working groups or branches. At this time, across DSA, the Sanders membership bump was starting to end, and membership growth stagnated and even reversed in some places. The Tax the Rich Campaign was developed as a way to bring the energy and boost in membership that 2020’s electoral campaign (and electoral campaigns before it) brought to our nonelectoral work. To that end, it was structured very similarly to an electoral campaign.

A primary reason issue-based campaigns became dominant in NYC-DSA is this post-Sanders legacy: DSA leaders know how to run campaigns, and DSA members know how to volunteer for them. This can be characterized as a snowball theory of change: campaigns will bring members in, which will increase our ability to win elections and legislative reforms, which opens the door for more campaigns, bringing more members in, and on and on. It is a form of normative, organizational social reproduction.

But just because something is easy does not mean it is strategically effective. On the one hand, is there anyone in DSA who would seriously argue that Move On, Greenpeace, or any other campaign-style NGOs fighting for reforms represent the seed of a mass working class movement capable of forcing the state to bow to its transformative demands? And on the other hand, this logic would leave us without a strategy for engagement in rank and file labor organizing, tenant organizing, community self defense, mutual aid and rapid response to autonomous, spontaneous movements like Occupy, BLM, and the “Cancel Rent” movements: all work that is on the rise in the wake of 2020’s socioeconomic crises of COVID-19 and police brutality, but that can be difficult to organize and agitate around.

This “snowball effect” position also reinforces a self-selecting phenomena within DSA’s leadership, where those with the traits needed to drive campaign work (free time and flexibility during the workday, ability to engage at all hours on Slack) skew younger, more affluent, and more likely to work in the non-profit advocacy world.

At the end of the day, while it does seem clear that reform campaigns became popular because they effectively harnessed the energy activated by the Sanders campaigns, the fact that this period essentially ended in a failure to maintain membership growth and develop a diverse range of leaders within the organization means that a critical re-evaluation of this strategic orientation is necessary for DSA’s health as an organization.

There is one analysis of issue-based campaigns that has become quite popular in recent years, and is worth engaging with in some detail. It is “policy feedback,” the idea that, in our present moment, policy changes play a central role in transforming the political system and class formation.

Policy Feedback: A Strategy Centering the Campaign for Reforms

The “policy feedback” approach to campaign work comes in the present context of a historically weakened left. Today, there is no mass working class party in the United States, and there is no revolutionary political current capable of exercising leadership over that party. In that absence, socialists have rightfully taken to asking the question of how to build a constituency for socialism. Using a framework derived from political science, NYC-DSA’s legislative campaigns have been posed as ways of implementing “policy feedback” – where enacting a policy creates a base supportive of said policy. Under neoliberalism, the theory goes, public services are racist, carceral, and dehumanizing. By enacting reforms, socialists could legitimize the state in the eyes of the working class, a supposedly necessary step for creating a mass working class political project.

Two ideas central to the “policy feedback” theory are incorrect: first, that reforms necessarily lead to class organization, and second, that socialists should aim to legitimize the bourgeois state. History shows us that, for socialists, material gains are not the same as political gains, and that the struggle for reforms must be subordinated to the class struggle (not vice versa). History also shows that socialists must aim to thoroughly delegitimize the bourgeois state while fighting for working class democracy in the economic and political spheres. A failure to understand these strategic principles has resulted in many socialist movements being fundamentally weakened through a reliance on compromises with the ruling class for short-sighted political or economic goals.

It is hard to find a successful historical example where policy change created a mobilized working class constituency for socialism. In one pertinent example for today’s DSA, the massive progressive policy shifts of the New Deal Era were preceded, not followed, by decades of mass activity by the working class (and mass repression by the capitalist class, although this repression was sustained and expanded after the New Deal period). The policy shifts that resulted from this mass activity did represent serious material gains for the working class. However, the reforms were also designed to stabilize the capitalist system, which seemed at the brink of collapse world-wide. Take the struggle of the unemployed. The state could pay a moderate amount of unemployment insurance, provided that the workers asked for it through forms and made their complaints known through evenly worded grievances instead of mass marches to the factory gates. Ultimately, the relief machinery served to buttress not independent working class activity, but the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition, which would move to kick out the left after World War II. The state was legitimized at the price of class independence.

In another example, the growth of the new unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were aided by the labor laws passed by the New Deal coalition, but the CIO would not have been built without the decades of struggle to build unions that preceded this. It is no accident that many of the leaders of the CIO began as IWW militants in the 1910s. Here too, policy shifts didn’t create a permanent constituency for socialism, but helped manage and regulate the labor peace of the post-war Fordist era.

The failure of the New Deal to usher in an era of sustainable growth in independent, working class organization highlights the theoretical weakness of the “policy feedback” strategy. It is certainly true that changes to policy do result in changes to class formation and consciousness (many of them positive for the working class, e.g., the abolition of slavery, the introduction of a minimum wage and a five day work week, etc). However, without an organizational component, a policy’s influence on changing class formation and consciousness is unpredictable. And more fundamentally, the object of socialists is not simply to change class formation and consciousness at a legislative distance: it is to organize the working class into a class-conscious force capable of understanding and fulfilling its world-historic mission of socialist liberation. It is within an organized and politically educated form that the working class is capable of exerting its collective power to win concessions from the state, thereby furthering its consciousness and commitment to socialism. Positioning working class organization as secondary, or flowing from, policy, is to put the policy cart before the organizing horse.

It’s not unusual in times of crisis and disorganization to look for new forms of social organization as a way out. But these will never be found through tinkering on white papers. The brilliant theorist A Sivanandan’s work on migrant movements in Britain in the 1980s speaks to this. While left intellectuals were writing about new social classes forged through technological and social revolutions, Sivanandan believed that they were “overlook[ing] those myriad others who are being unmade by the self-same revolution.” These “communities of resistance” were formed through common cause against state racism and discrimination. In “the struggles of the people in those spaces that Thatcherism and new Marxism alike have obscured from public view,” Sivanandan saw a community that was cohering into a movement, a movement that would explode in rebellion at times like the riots of 1981. Outside of these unignorable moments, this community remained invisible for a British Left forever looking for the right electoral coalition to defeat Thatcherism. While we look to policy to build constituencies that would have won Bernie the White House, the communities that sparked the George Floyd rebellion seem once again invisible. Sivanandan’s warnings about the “hokum” of those looking to create new constituencies out of thin air while ignoring the struggles formed from resistance to the permanent crisis rings true to this day.

Socialists must not forgo the terrain of struggle for the terrain of policy. We cannot wait to build a mass, multiracial, class-independent worker’s movement until the capitalist state is legitimized, or until social conditions become more favorable for organizing: if we wait for those things, not only will we be waiting forever, but we will be ceding ground to our class enemies. And, to reiterate, this is the case because, as a fundamental strategic principle, socialists should not aim to legitimize a bourgeois state that is fundamentally opposed to the working class and which we aim to replace with a working class democracy. Socialists must aim to delegitimize the state while promoting the socialist alternative.

These theoretical weaknesses (legitimizing the state, subordinating class struggle to reforms) lead directly to strategic weaknesses. When the goal of passing policy comes before the goal of a class-independent worker’s movement, compromises and coalitions with the capitalist state and its bourgeois supporters (especially Democrats and liberal NGOs) become palatable. The strategy of compromise and coalition has been rejected by many of the masters of revolutionary Marxist strategy: from Marx and Engels to Lenin to Kautsky to Wilhem Liebknecht, a leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the late 19th century. Liebknecht’s pamphlet, “No Compromise – No Political Trading,” presents a clear and compelling critique of the coalitionist approach. In it, Liebknecht writes that “[t]he stupid and cruel outrages perpetrated by the police politicians, the encroachments of the Anti-Socialist Law, the Draconian law, the law against parties that advocate revolution, may evoke feelings of contempt and pity; but the enemy who proffers us his hand for an electoral agreement and worms his way into our ranks as a friend and brother is the enemy, the only enemy we have to fear.” Lenin elaborates on this point: “the strength of fighters [is] real strength only when it is the strength of class-conscious masses of workers. The class-consciousness of the masses is not corrupted by violence and Draconian laws; it is corrupted by the false friends of the workers, the liberal bourgeois, who divert the masses from the real struggle with empty phrases about a struggle.” To see the truth of this assessment, one only has to look to the removal of the left from the New Deal coalition, or the right-ward, neoliberal turns of the British Labour Party and the French Communist Party (chapter 6 of Mike Macnair’s “Revolutionary Strategy” outlines this well).

Of course, this is not to say that socialists cannot temporarily align with bourgeois parties on specific matters. As Liebkencht highlights, “[i]f the circumstances and necessities of the situation demand cooperation with other parties, this can always be accomplished without a compromise.” Socialists can always aim our political guns in the same direction as liberals and progressives. But, we should not make compromises or binding allegiances with these actors, and should always be willing to critique bourgeois institutions when they inevitably betray the interests of the working class: without this critical distance, the socialist movement drifts closer and closer to the bourgeois parties.

Finally, the example of the New Deal highlights an additional, structural risk when applying the “policy feedback” strategy: a de-emphasis on the politicization and democratization of organizations. In the trade union movement at the time of the New Deal, the CPUSA’s members were seen as mere instruments to carry out higher level policy. They weren’t given the tools or ability to do politics – that was reserved for the chess players at the top of the leadership. By subordinating its organization solely to the New Deal Agenda, the CPUSA made a political choice that fatally affected its membership’s ability to fight against the ensuing co-optation of the CIO’s fighting unions into instruments for enforcing Fordist labor peace. Reflecting on this period in the New Communist Movement journal Theoretical Review, Paul Saba wrote that “the fault was not in the energy or the organization which Communists brought to these struggles, but in the line which they sought to impose on them.” This historical failure stems in part from a theoretical failure to absorb the position outlined by Rosa Luxemburg (and supported by Karl Kautsky, among others): in the socialist movement, “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” Without the great goal of working class democratic control to guide strategy, the socialist movement risks getting stuck within Bernstein’s reformist banality: “[t]he Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” While this failure to engage democratically on an organizational strategy’s relation to the movement’s great goal is not limited to “policy feedback,” it is key to address because it is the lack of such engagement that has consistently prevented socialist organizations from correcting course until long after the damage is done.

This section has demonstrated the authors’ main points of contention with the policy feedback strategy: put simply, it de-emphasizes the importance of class-independent organization and principled agitation against the bourgeois state and its allies in favor of short-sighted compromises that dilute the socialist movement until there is nothing distinguishing us from run-of-the-mill “progressives” who are allied with the state in their continued, structurally-determined betrayal of the working class.

(It is no surprise, then, that there is overlap between those promoting the policy feedback strategy and those working full-time jobs with progressive NGOs or with elected officials in the halls of bourgeois state power. These leaders have excellent skills as organizers but also come with political sensibilities shaped by a primary professional goal of working within the confines of the state to pass reforms.)

What Do We Miss When We Overemphasize The Campaign Form?

The conclusion to be drawn from the above critiques is not that reform campaigns should be dropped completely as a tactic from the socialist playbook. Rather, these criticisms highlight what is missing in the policy feedback strategy of “policy cart before organizing horse,” or in any other number of strategic orientations present in the DSA that confusedly overemphasize the campaign tactic as a comprehensive strategy.

One aspect that is missing is the importance of tactical diversity. As discussed above, campaigns foster the development of certain members within DSA. In order to allow for a broader range of leadership development, membership growth, and socialist agitation, DSA should be emphatic in pursuing to the fullest a broad range of tactics: prioritizing not just electoral and legislative campaigns, but also base-building activities (rank and file labor organizing, tenant union organizing), crisis mobilization (community self defense, mutual aid, rapid response to protests and uprisings), political education and agitprop. DSA’s failure to engage deeply in spontaneous movements (which are leaving an unexamined political legacy and memory within the working class) time and time again is a clear example of this strategic failure to prioritize tactical diversity. As individuals, DSA members have dropped everything to support these movements. But as an organization, we have been unable to develop a strategy of collective, socialist intervention that goes beyond merely showing up. The NYC-DSA’s Defund campaign’s experiments in base-building is a hopeful sign that this may change.

In NYC, tactical rigidity and strategic (as well as programmatic) flexibility rules the day. While a range of work is being done by NYC-DSA’s members, the priority campaign structure (where priority campaigns have the most access to chapter resources) effectively means that electoral and legislative campaigns dominate. During the 2021 campaign approval process, all the campaigns already in place were renewed fairly easily, in a strangely apolitical approval process (and, to reinforce the argument above around DSA’s lack of organized engagement in spontaneous movements, it was actually the Defund campaign that received the most organized pushback). Every campaign centered on passing legislation through the tactics of canvassing likely voters and lobbying politicians, but this tactical unity obscured key strategic differences. For example: the Ecosocialist Working Group’s labor strategy was presented as lobbying top labor leaders, while the Healthcare Working Group’s was supporting reform caucuses.

By overemphasizing the campaign form, it becomes unclear exactly what DSA’s strategic goals are: is it to win reforms and legitimize the state in order to build a constituency for socialism? Build a base through advocacy for popular demands? Win over electeds or high-powered lobbyists or reform labor caucuses? Put simply, an overemphasis on campaigns results in a tactic being confused for a strategy, when in reality the tactic stands in for a number of different strategies. When overemphasizing the campaign form, DSA operates as if socialism exists only in one sphere, when in reality, socialist organization and agitation must be integrated into every level of working class life.

A second aspect missing in strategic orientations that overemphasize the campaign form is space for reflection and generative conversation on political strategy. Issue-based campaigns are on a rigid timetable: they revolve around the yearly legislative calendar. This results in a pattern of work that is repeated, year after year: go around the organization to build support for a campaign, launch the campaign with a splashy event, conduct regularly scheduled events like phonebanks and canvasses (as well as one-off marches or lobby letters, etc), and make one big final push before the legislative cycle ends. Then, when the legislative cycle ends, have a quick debrief and start building support for the next campaign: and thus the cycle continues. Within such a fixed schedule, it is hard to make space for thorough, wide-ranging discussion on political strategy. DSA needs spaces where members can conduct a thorough examination and discussion of strategy – where we’re going and how we get there – with the end goal of reaching some unifying, guiding goals and strategic principles.

Finally, there is a third aspect that is missing when the campaign form is overemphasized: organizational discipline and unity along a principled, Marxist line and program. Arguably, this is what our Political Platform, adopted at the 2021 Convention, could represent. This is a key feature of a strong socialist party, but when a campaign victory is viewed as the primary strategic goal, programmatic discipline can fall to the wayside in favor of political compromise. The argument against unprincipled compromises is outlined in more detail above (see the section on Liebknecht’s “No Compromise – No Political Trading”).

Principles to Improve DSA’s Engagement with Reform Campaigns

The analysis and criticisms of the “policy feedback” strategy (and other strategies that overemphasize the reform campaign) suggest a number of corrective principles for engagement in the campaign-based struggle for legislative reforms. While the following three concrete proposals are tailored for NYC-DSA specifically, we have based them on broad principles that should be applicable in any number of organizational contexts.

  • Encourage Tactical Diversity.

Tactical diversity is necessary for socialists to achieve the numerous goals we have on the path to socialist revolution: build a mass, organized, class-independent party; win the reforms needed to bring about proletarian control of the state (before it is finally smashed); and build mass socialist consciousness through principled agitation that exposes the crimes of the capitalist state and it’s bourgeois allies. These goals are fought for within and outside campaigns. Other tactics (such as mutual aid, community self-defense, rapid response, base-building through labor or tenant organizing, political education and agitation) must be elevated to a similar organizational prioritization as the campaign, so that a diverse set of engaged socialists and/or workers can plug in and grow to occupy leadership in the DSA. Concretely, in NYC, this may look like passing “priority campaign” resolutions that focus on base-building or other non-campaign tactics, granting these projects the access to chapter resources that are reserved for priority campaigns which are currently only focused on electoral and legislative goals.

  • Encourage Open Discussion on Political Strategy

Overemphasizing the campaign, or confusing it as a strategy, can result in broader confusion on DSA’s strategy for achieving the socialist revolution. This confusion is heightened by the campaign’s tendency to split membership into two, depoliticized camps: the base layer of volunteers who show up and do the grunt work, and the leadership layer of bureaucrats who implement our campaigns. However, this strategic confusion and depoliticizing tendency are far from limited to the campaign form: longer-term base-building tactics and short-term crisis response tactics also suffer from these flaws if there is not an intentional effort to engage in a democratic and political way with the work being done. This tendency results from the inherently political nature of our work, where liberal, capitalist ideologies and practices that oppose collective analysis and decision-making are hegemonic.

Relatedly, a real positive development in the campaign process in NYC are the new requirements (initially proposed by one of the authors of this article) to lay out more detailed plans in front of the whole membership and to produce yearly summations of activity. These summations should be brought into democratic forums for political discussion on DSA’s strategic orientation. These forums should be hosted in branches and working groups, and open to all DSA members in good standing. Space for strategic discussion should be made on a frequent, recurring basis (e.g., before and after key periods like the election cycle and legislative cycle; before and after spontaneous movements emerge; before, after and during the patient work of building militant labor or tenant unions). These spaces must also prioritize wide-ranging democratic engagement (i.e., not overly facilitated and heavy on speeches from leadership), open political discussion (i.e., making space for disagreement, not relying on procedural or bureaucratic obfuscations to shut down debate), contrary to the tendency within many of NYC’s working group and branch spaces (see above re: hegemony of liberal ideologies and practices). Finally, these discussions should result in tangible outcomes. In other words, DSA’s internal leadership and elected politicians should be encouraged to make strategic decisions based on insights gleaned in these discussions. These ideas on political, strategic discussion can easily be applied to all areas where DSA is doing work, not just to legislative campaigns.

  • Fight for Programmatic Unity and Discipline

As we have demonstrated above, a reformist strategy that compromises organizational unity and the ability to freely criticize the capitalist state and its allies is short-sighted, and it will only dilute and weaken the socialist movement in the long run. This is a problem that is not going away. As DSA runs more issue-based campaigns and elects more socialists to office, the number of compromises offered by Democratic politicians and the liberal heads of NGOs and labor unions will only increase. DSA and its elected officials must resist this temptation, and remain principled in our commitment to unity (on a class-struggle oriented program and organization) and unstifled Marxist critique. (The fact that these compromises are offered to DSA as the way reforms get done suggests that the bourgeois stewards of capitalism know which, between progressive reforms and a unified, uncompromisingly agitational socialist party, is more important to the socialist movement that they oppose: the question is, does the DSA know?)

Concretely, a disciplined adherence to programmatic and organizational unity could take the form of Resolution #6 put forward at DSA’s 2021 Convention (Tribunes of the People and Democratic Discipline). In NYC, this could look like revamping the relatively ad-hoc Socialists in Office (SiO) committee (work that is already underway) to make it more politicized and electable, more transparent and democratically accountable, and more emboldened to discipline or censure DSA’s elected officials when they fail to adhere to the principles of programmatic and organizational unity.

This article and these proposals are not meant to present the definitive word on the question of how socialists should engage in campaign work. It is merely an initial attempt to think through these questions, based on the authors’ experiences in NYC-DSA and insights from other comrades. The authors welcome further dialogue on this question, and more broadly on questions of DSA’s strategic, political orientation. The more we can succeed in having these political discussions in the open (rather than relying on bureaucratic or procedural obfuscations), the closer we can get towards a stronger, more organized movement of revolutionary workers and socialists, marching in lockstep to fulfill our world-historic duty: the socialist revolution.

This article originally appeared at Cosmonaut and is republished here with permission. – eds.