“Means as Ends” Socialism: A Reply to Sam Lewis
In his response to “Stuck in a Loop,” Sam Lewis writes that the Universal Rent Control campaign of 2015 (which predated our chapter’s involvement in tenant organizing) motivated him to revive his building’s tenant association. This was an experience that several others shared at that time, and again during the 2019 rent law campaign, when we were working within NYC-DSA’s tenant organizing committee. Sam’s piece targets our support for tactical diversity, but his own experience demonstrates a clear agreement that socialist campaigns must think beyond canvassing when imagining how socialists should engage with politics. When we wrote our article, it seemed as if all the chapter had to offer was “policy feedback,” with the idea that organizing would happen somewhere downstream of legislation passing. As Sam writes, campaigns “can have an overwhelmingly positive relationship to starting, reviving and politicizing working-class organizations.” In order to make sure that relationship exists, we need to think deeply and critically about the ways in which our campaigns are coming up short of this goal.
Unfortunately, Sam leaves us with an incomplete story. He revived and politicized a working-class organization, but what was the result? Does the tenant’s association (TA) still exist? How do Sam’s neighbors remember the struggle? How did they move on after the campaign’s initial failure in 2015? These aren’t easy questions, but they are essential for gathering meaning from the experience. Experience is stonelike, but meaning is volcanic—lessons from one struggle explode forward into our present work. Our goal is not to just provoke tenant organizing to happen, or to get wins, though both are indispensable. Our goal is also to build collective understanding—of the meaning of the TA’s experience, of the lessons of the past, and of the roadmap for how to get to a world without landlords. Organizing, again, is storytelling, and the story we tell matters. That is why open political discussion is so crucial, and why our story (or our program) must address our thoroughly transformative end goal.
While we laud Sam’s commitment both in word and in deed to the principle of diversity of tactics, the policy he recommends creates serious obstacles to that objective. In 2021, we were active in DSA’s housing work as it transitioned from the more radical demands of the pandemic period (“Cancel Rent!”) to the more modest demand for Good Cause Eviction. Given the change in political mood from the most radical moments of the pandemic, this transition was probably necessary for DSA’s work in Albany. But, due to DSA’s lack of a firm program that named the eviction machine as an evil to be overcome and that affirmed our commitment to those further transformative goals, this potentially tactical concession took on the character of a full scale reworking of DSA’s policy orientation in the eyes of the most radical and effective tenant activists both within the organization and the city at large. Many of these activists left DSA to expand existing organizations like Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU), or, rather than joining DSA in the first place, they built their own organizations like Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED) that were willing to name the system and make the radical demands that activate tenants into more militant activity. This divide has meant not just the exit of some of DSA’s most effective organizers, but, consequently, that literally hundreds of tenant organizers that could be building direct relationships and driving members to DSA from working class communities of color are now telling those same communities that we are, at best, fickle and weak allies of independent tenant struggle and, at worst, enemies of that struggle at the behest of Democrats. To be clear, we are making no such claim, but given our current political orientation such results are fairly predictable.
The response from those close to the Good Cause push was to point out that its passage would give tenant organizers much stronger tools to win concessions for tenants. While correct on its own narrow terms of policy analysis, for the working tenant organizer, such demands are not theoretical questions of policy, but weapons used to build the consciousness that provides meaning and coherent narratives that tenant and labor organizers need to build militant, fighting organizations. What this narrow policy focus misses is what Bernstein failed to grasp in his phrase “the movement is everything, the end goal nothing.” Without the final goal of socialism (the abolition of class society by the workers themselves, as distant as it may be) in view, and without clearly naming the capitalist system as both the primary obstacle and primary terrain for achieving that goal, the many facets of working class organizing lose their principle of coherence, and the competing tactical needs of each branch break the movement down into its component parts, each of which alone is easily crushed by capitalist forces.
This, again, is not to contrapose policy objectives like Good Cause, Just Cause, or Defund the Police to these higher ends. The fight for these reforms is essential to the higher end of socialism. They are not simply propaganda pieces that socialists know can never really pass; whenever we fight we should fight to win, not least because winning establishes the credibility of our movement. Instead, our real concern is that in the absence of a shared strategic vision, program and narrative that names and knows what it fights, these reforms (the means of strengthening working-class power) come to stand in for ends (the conquest of power by the working class and the creation of a democratic socialist society).
Isaac KD and Jack L, New York City DSA
Support for a “diversity of tactics” is not at issue in the debate between Jack L and Isaac KD and I in the recent issues of Socialist Forum. In their initial article, the authors criticized a socialist politics that they say is singularly focused on electoral victories and legislative reforms at the expense of other tactics including base building and institution building. I argued in response that pulling away from the innovative model of grassroots political and legislative campaigning our chapter has pursued will actually harm the prospects for building a deeper working-class base for NYC-DSA, and that our task as democratic socialists is to unite the projects of building independent organizations of working people, winning reforms that strengthen class power by democratizing the state and expanding our capacities to organize, and the ultimate goal of winning a working-class majority to our politics and taking state power. In their response, Isaac and Jack agree that we should not “contrapose policy objectives like Good Cause, Just Cause, or Defund the Police to these higher [socialist] ends” and that we should not just agitate around these issues, but actually fight to win. So in the end, it shouldn’t be a surprise that as active members of NYC-DSA we agree on a lot. We all think that base building with tenants, workers and immigrants, engagement with spontaneous mass movements, socialist political educational programming, openly socialist electoral politics, the struggle for reforms, and the articulation of a socialist horizon are all part of our struggle.
The authors say that if, as I claim, our campaigns can have a positive relationship to building more permanent and rooted class organization “we need to think deeply and critically about the ways in which our campaigns are coming up short of this goal.” I agree. When I co-founded the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group in early 2017 I was optimistic that electoral engagement alone could help transform and deepen the social base of DSA. That turned out to be a much bigger organizing challenge than anticipated. While voters have been extremely responsive to our democratic socialist message, our growing ranks of campaign volunteers – the non-members who are most likely to join DSA – often come from a similar social strata to existing DSA members. NYC-DSA members have thought deeply and critically about these challenges, and one of the best things about the organization is how we are continuing to explore new approaches. In the David Alexis campaign for State Senate this year, for example, our innovative “Door to Ballot” (DtB) program showed real promise for building much deeper relationships between canvassers and voters. Our post-campaign backyard barbecue brought together campaign staff, volunteers, and voters we met through the DtB program – an event that looked and felt different from your average DSA activity, and which pointed toward what our organization might look like if we keep working toward it.
In the aftermath of our 2020 legislative victories, many NYC-DSA members have turned towards working with our chapter’s elected officials to support labor and tenant organizing through their offices and establish a visible democratic socialist presence on the street in neighborhoods across the city. In fact, I see the development of the legislative “campaign form” that Isaac and Jack criticize as another promising step in this direction. Unlike electoral campaigns, a legislative campaign initiated by our chapter frees us from the rigid calendar of the electoral cycle, and allows us to deliberately approach segments of the working class (tenants, workers, people paying high utility bills, CUNY students, etc.) on a basis that we can shape to clearly reveal the exploitation of the capitalist system. It’s vital that democratic socialists who are involved in these campaigns continue to develop their organizing skills,innovate in their approaches, and explore new areas to apply our skills. The commitments made at NYC-DSA’s 2022 local convention illustrate a commitment to doing that, though the Tax the Rich, Union Power, and base building campaigns our chapter endorsed.
Where we disagree, though, is how much promise we can put into approaches to building class organization that consciously divorce themselves from the existing political and legislative arena. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the forms of left-wing political activity that have caught on and engaged many millions of people have been relatively “spontaneous” mass mobilizations making a wide variety of social and economic demands on the state, as well as progressive electoral movements that have often come from outside the institutional left. The Occupy movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Red for Ed mass strikes, and the Bernie Sanders campaigns are the most vivid expressions of these trends. While we have seen masses of people protest and vote, so far this fermentation has not yet translated into mass organization bringing together the political Left and the working class. There may be some bright spots, from the growth of DSA itself to the recent wave of union elections sweeping Starbucks. But so far these are engaging only tens of thousands, not tens of millions of people. So socialists have a lot of work to do! The legislative campaign model NYC-DSA has carried out locally is one very exciting approach that holds promise for mass engagement on the basis of working class demands on the state. The Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee is a similarly exciting attempt led by socialists to take a scalable, grassroots approach to new labor organizing. As the housing crisis unfolds across the country, tenant union organizers are similarly developing and refining new models of tenant organization.
None of these projects are so different from each other, and none of them have been so perfected that they don’t have something to learn. In my view, it seems that the motivation behind Isaac and Jack’s initial essay is a worry that in NYC-DSA, legislative campaigns are outpacing other projects. That growth is something to celebrate, study, and replicate – not something to fear.