DSA’s International Politics: As It Is, and As It Should Be

As DSA continues to grow and develop, our approach to doing international politics needs to reflect and build upon those changes.

For the last year and a half, I have served as one of two co-chairs of the DSA International Committee (IC). Our committee has just sent a proposal to DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) that would radically restructure the national organization’s approach to international work going forward, which would also render my own co-chair role redundant. I will summarize the contents of that proposal below, but first I want to provide my own assessment of DSA’s international work as it has developed and currently stands.

DSA’s International Politics As It Is

The IC is one of DSA’s oldest bodies, first commissioned in 2003 and provided renewed mandates by the NPC in 2015 and 2018. For much of the past two decades its role has been commensurate with the size of DSA, that is to say, relatively small and at times fairly sleepy. Nonetheless, the IC has consistently played its commensurate role, fulfilling its principal mandate to serve the NPC as an advisory body and point of entry and exit for formal international relations. At times it has also contributed to DSA’s international solidarity work.

Since 2016 the membership and activity of DSA has exploded. Today the organization has more than 55,000 members, and a base that is as active as any left-wing organization in the world. One of the good problems of such a rapid expansion is that DSA very suddenly outgrew its own structures, with its pre-existing membership largely left to reconstruct them after the fact to accommodate new members. In the case of the IC this reconstruction started later, because the body was mandated to respond to the directives of the NPC, as opposed to acting with its own autonomy, and the NPC at that time was prioritizing other issues (Bernie Sanders, down-ballot elections, housing justice, labor solidarity, etc.).

However in mid-2018, and following pressure from the IC, the NPC did formally task the committee to reform its structure to better meet the needs of the organization that DSA was fast becoming. The general directive was for the IC to develop a more coherent internal structure with clear responsibilities and systems of accountability, as well as a mechanism to bring in fresh faces and cycle out less active committee members. The details of what exactly this meant were left to the IC to figure out.

We began by holding the co-chair elections in which Carrington Morris and I were selected by our peers (and subsequently approved by the NPC). We then pared the committee down to its 35 active participants and created both world-regional and thematic working groups to oversee work including the drafting of statements and other informational notes, production of educational materials, miscellaneous support for solidarity campaigns, and rapid response to emerging political issues. As part of this process we also created a code of conduct and working directives, all sent to the NPC for approval in December 2018 and subsequently in March 2019. In this latter communique, we additionally received approval to make an open call to DSA membership for the selection of new committee members, with the goal to raise our total number to around sixty, thus beginning the process of injecting fresh energy into the committee.

Since then, the IC has done its best to fulfil its duties as instructed by the NPC. We organized a 15-person international delegation to the DSA National Convention; penned a dozen or so statements, mostly at the NPC’s request; helped to organize political educational series on subjects ranging from China to trade policy to the international component of Jane McAlevey’s Organizing for Power webinar; provided miscellaneous support for a wide range of protests and solidarity actions, most recently #NoWarWithIran; supported DSA members traveling abroad with contacts and talking points; served as the point of entry for requests from foreign political organizations and media; and responded to numerous requests from the NPC for information and advice pertaining to international politics and DSA’s relationships abroad.

All of this represents only one piece of DSA’s international politics. One obvious example of international work taking place at the national level is the enormous activity of the Ecosocialist and Immigrant Justice Working Groups, both of whose mandates are necessarily international in scope. Other national bodies, such as the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission and Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus, also regularly connect and work with like-minded groups in other countries. And of course, there’s also our National Convention, where many of our top-level political priorities are decided by delegates elected from among our membership.

Among other resolutions, in 2017 the organization voted to leave the Socialist International, to prioritize support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and to strengthen solidarity efforts around the decolonization of Puerto Rico. In 2019, a working group was created to lead BDS work, while several resolutions provided renewed mandates for DSA to strengthen its work around decolonization, and to give greater priority to solidarity and relations with like-minded organizations throughout the Americas. And a resolution to prioritize organizing around the Green New Deal, which must be international or will not be at all, was endorsed rather incredibly without a single dissenting voice.

Finally, there is the place where the majority of DSA’s international work actually takes place: its local chapters. The greatest strength of DSA, particularly in its current construction with a central body that is infinitesimal by international standards, is the whirlwind of energy produced by its hundreds of local chapters dotted across the country. It is most often in these chapters where people learn about what’s going on elsewhere in the world, the role of the U.S. in perpetrating all manner of horrors, and what DSA activists can do to stand in solidarity with like-minded organizations and all the people in the world who suffer the conceits and violence of the powerful. It is here that the vast majority of protests, solidarity campaigns, and political education projects related to international politics are actually hatched, planned, and executed.

DSA’s International Politics As it Should Be

For the most part, DSA’s international political activity should continue to be as it already is. Much hand wringing takes place within our membership about the enormity of the challenges we face and, on occasion, our own imperfections and inefficiencies in tackling them. This is also largely a good thing. It speaks to an organization whose membership understands the urgency of the crises this planet faces, from climate change to racist nationalism and the rise of the far right. This same urgency pushes us to demand the most from our comrades and the organization we share. It also, at times, obscures the many things we are doing well.

DSA’s internationalism is shaped and developed firstly by the political positions and passions of its activist base. This is what drives the overwhelming support for BDS, for example, in the organization. It is this energy that has brought together actions across the country in recent months to protest the coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia and Trump’s sabre-rattling assassination of Iran’s top military official. It continues to demand that any movement for a Green New Deal include an internationalist perspective to ensure carbons emissions and labor exploitation are not simply off-shored to poorer nations.

This fact, combined with the current diffuse structure of our organization, means that DSA’s internationalism is also diverse, and sometimes contradictory. We are a big-tent organization and a welcoming space for lots of different ideas on the democratic socialist left. We hold within us different, and mostly reasonable, political positions on Maduro’s government and the war in Syria, to give just two examples. These differences manifest through different orientations in our chapters and even on our NPC, and the resulting debates are largely healthy. Show me an organization that claims to have the single “correct” position on a complex international issue like Syria, and I’ll show you an organization that has become intellectually and politically ossified through sectarianism or attrition.

This said, I don’t want to give the impression that DSA’s international political positions and praxis are perfect. After all, we wouldn’t be good socialists or critical thinkers if we couldn’t find room for improvement. One issue worth mentioning is how to tackle important issues that are not on the front burner for much of our membership base. I’m thinking here especially of trade policy and international tax evasion, but these are not the only worthy examples. We should continue to strive to be member-driven in our politics, but we must also find ways—through political education and, in some cases, the use of expert analysis—to ensure we pursue important political goals that are less likely to trend on Twitter (and as a relevant aside, nor should we mistake our members’ positions in toto for the tiny minority of our membership involved in Twitter pile-ons).

We also at times struggle to differentiate between our international solidarity work, which is driven largely by our chapters, and the “formal” organizational relations that should be overseen by our highest elected bodies. In the case of the former, we as an organization should continue to abide by the creed that has brought us to where we are: the more the merrier. We should always treat it as a problem in our organization if we have people who want to do political work but are unable to find the mechanism or outlet, and too often in recent times that has been the case regarding international solidarity work..

At the same time, we also require somewhat more cloistered spaces for what we might call diplomatic work. The goal of this work is to foster formal relations with like-minded organizations abroad at the organizational (as opposed to personal) level. Those tasked by the NPC to carry out this diplomatic work must represent DSA in its entirety, including tendencies with whom they might disagree, in accordance with the internal balance of power resulting from the democratic input of our membership. Likewise, it is the responsibility of this group to engage foreign organizations on the basis of the democratic will of their members, without seeking to play favorites.

The opening of such a diplomatic space makes it vulnerable both to ideological power grabs and, quite simply, to anybody being able to say they speak for DSA (and in so doing, to establish “formal” dialogues) in any number of different contexts. In the case of the IC, and of DSA’s international work more broadly, a generalized confusion between solidarity and diplomatic work has led to spaces that are simultaneously too open and too closed, with neither distinct sets of political needs adequately met.

This is part of a broader problem which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the relationship between local-chapter and national-level action. This is of course an organization-wide dynamic, with some comrades considering national-level groups—including the International Committee—cloistered and inadequate in terms of responsiveness and output. National-level actors are likely to respond that their working area is badly under-resourced, driven by overwhelmed volunteers, and under constant pressure from both more and less reasonable demands. The difficult truth is that both sides are right.

Various attempts have been made to bridge this gap between local and national work, but it remains a major structural problem in the organization, and short of large scale reform, including the introduction of intermediary institutions (for example at the regional level), the gap will continue to be a source of some trouble. That said, this is no excuse for not seeking solutions—no matter how imperfect—in the here and now.

The Future of DSA’s International Committee

I now return to the proposal the IC recently submitted to the NPC. In our letter we propose a radical opening, and also diversification, of the committee along the following lines. All DSA members in good standing would instantly become eligible to join IC Working Groups (to be retitled Subcommittees as part of a broader process to streamline the language we use in DSA). Membership would be considered provisional for a period of one year, after which all active participants would have the right to candidature for the IC’s two newly created leadership bodies: the Steering Committee and the International Secretariat.

According to the proposal, the Steering Committee would become the executive body overseeing the IC’s Subcommittees, and connecting the copious amounts of international work being done by our local chapters to the national level, and vice versa. This committee would in its first instance be chosen by the NPC from a mixture of pre-existing IC candidates and new applicants, and following one year of operations would hold open elections from within the radically expanded IC to fill out all positions for two-year terms.

Meanwhile, the International Secretariat would be tasked to provide the NPC with a range of support, including informal advice, informational/political memos, and drafts of statements for NPC consideration. The International Secretariat would also serve as the entry and exit point for authorizing formal diplomatic relations with foreign political organizations. Like the Steering Committee, this body would have two-year terms, but its members would be appointed by the NPC—which after all is DSA’s highest elected body and executive of its political will under the organization’s constitution—following an open call for applications from the entire DSA membership.

I believe this proposal would allow DSA to take an important next step in its international political work. An enormous amount of space would open up for DSA members to get involved in international politics, to platform the international work they and their chapters are already doing, and to connect that work to movement allies as well as other chapters and our national apparatus. All DSA members would at the same have a clear pathway toward national-level responsibility, should that be of interest to them. In effect, the International Committee would begin to serve an explicit function as a national-level meeting place, workshop, and clearinghouse for all manner of projects related to international politics.

At the same time, the creation of the International Secretariat would give the NPC a more explicit version of what it originally mandated the IC to be: a small body to provide timely advice to the NPC and serve as their gatekeeper for the organization’s formal international relations. In this way, both this smaller body and the now much larger IC would be better able to respond quickly to their respective duties of advising our leadership and supporting the actions of our base.

In spite of a small-but-vocal online presence, there is actually great agreement among DSA membership about the international democratic socialist organization we strive to be. And even in spite of whatever principled yet intractable disagreements that might blur the edges of our shared political project, it is clear that we as an organization are committed to climate justice, anti-war and peace, anti-racism and immigrant justice, fighting the rising far right, and supporting the wellbeing and aspirations of working people around the world. And I believe we also must share a desire to build the international community that will be required for our brand of democratic socialism to flourish in the twenty-first century.

Right now, and for all of our flaws, there is no explicitly socialist project in the U.S. (and to be frank, few anywhere in the world) doing as much as we are to advance this shared vision. That we will continue to do so as a member-led, and largely volunteer-run, organization is right now a given. But as we continue to grow, in size and in stature, these sorts of questions—of how we continue to accommodate our institutional structures to our new size and political profile—will only become more important, and might ultimately determine our political horizon.

For this reason if no other, I am grateful for the opportunity to have served for a time as co-chair of our International Committee. For me, as much as anything, it has been a challenge and an opportunity to grapple with how we organize ourselves internally to make our outward-facing work as radically effective as possible. And going forward, whether playing a role in a remodeled International Committee, or as an activist helping to plan solidarity actions and political education projects for our membership, I look forward to asking, and never ceasing to try to answer the question of what, and how, DSA’s international politics should be.