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The 2019 DSA Convention: Showdown at the Caucus Corral | @curaffairs

The 2019 DSA Convention: Showdown at the Caucus Corral from @curaffairs
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As you may have noticed from your Twitter timelines, the biannual convention for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) started yesterday in Atlanta. It will last four days, and in between all the retail politicking, the whipping of votes, and yes, the socializing—some important decisions will be made, decisions that will have far-reaching effects for the most important leftist organization in America. 

The 2019 convention is much bigger than the 2017 convention, when the organization numbered about 25,000 members. Now, DSA has more than 60,000 dues-paying members, a fraction of whom will be at the convention. Most of these delegates are extremely active in their local DSA chapters; most, in fact, probably have leadership positions within them. And importantly, most have allied themselves with internal caucuses: formations of like-minded DSA members who have come together in a coordinated way to advocate their vision for the organization. 

If you’ve witnessed any of the public spats between prominent DSA members on Twitter, you may be worried that the organization is at the brink of an ideological split: over labor and electoral strategy, over the worth of base-building, and especially over the concept of identity politics, as The New Republic’s Miguel Salazar outlined in an important piece last year. When reading indignant Medium articles (responses to the responses to the responses to the Facebook post that started it all), which document all the disagreement over matters of policy and personality, you may come away with the impression of serious internal strife within DSA.

But the truth is, there isn’t much hugely substantive conflict between the larger caucuses themselves, as Doug Henwood astutely pointed out in May. So is it useful to delineate the various caucuses and their positions? Should we bother to understand the differences between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, when we could just take this space to dissect the democratic socialist platform as a whole?

I think looking at the caucuses is valuable: they do tend to diverge considerably on questions of strategy, and strategy, as we’ll see, is not inseparable from ideology. And besides, the strategy that DSA embarks upon in the next two years will determine how well the organization grows, which will in turn determine whether or not the DSA and the project of developing 21st century American socialism will be successful or not. 

(As an aside, the rest of this essay will deal with mostly two caucuses, Bread & Roses and Build. This is because the rancor between these two caucuses is probably the strongest. They are by no means the only caucuses—there are five major ones that are getting attention from observers. For a more comprehensive picture, I refer you to Andrew Sernatinger’s excellent convention breakdown.) 

If you’ve heard of any caucus, it’s probably Bread & Roses. This caucus has a relatively long intellectual history; a history that spans the entire modern era of DSA, which, admittedly, is only about two years old. It used to be the Spring Caucus, which itself grew out of Momentum, as it was known during the 2017 convention. To its detractors, Bread & Roses is known as the “Jacobin Caucus”, who point to the large number of members who are contributors to and editors of Jacobin Magazine. The members of the caucus are broadly stereotyped as class reductionists, and social democrats with relatively tame, “boring” politics. 

And on top of all that, they have the nerve to be authoritarian and centralist in their orientation, dictating strategy to local chapters. It’s basically the Terror all over again.

But are they truly as authoritarian as their critics claim?

“I would not say that’s a fair assertion,” said Marianela D’Aprile, delegate for Bread and Roses, current National Political Committee (NPC) member, and member of Chicago DSA. I spoke to her a few days ago on the phone, and she was eager to set straight some misconceptions that some DSA members hold about her caucus. 

It’s true that Bread & Roses doesn’t make any pretense about having more than a couple overarching goals for the organization, citing the limited capacity of DSA as a whole. These priorities include a commitment to a rank-and-file labor strategy, the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, and fostering mass political movements around large policy objectives, such as Medicare For All and the Green New Deal. But it would be a mischaracterization to say that Bread & Roses is opposed to political activity outside its stated, centralized priorities. Above all, above even its ideological convictions, Bread & Roses has a commitment to democracy. 

“We want to marshal resources in a specific way, and that specific way should be according to the vote of the membership,” said D’Aprile. Regarding what happens when decisions are not made democratically, she added: “It’s…difficult for people to feel like they have ownership over a decision or to feel like the decision belongs to the group as a whole.” It’s hard to get buy-in from your comrades, in other words, if a majority disagrees with your actions. This is what democracy means, to Bread and Roses: majority rule. 

But simple majoritarianism is not what DSA is about, says Connor Lewis, a delegate for Build, a non-ideological caucus that probably forms the most popular and robust opposition to the Bread & Roses platform. “People have sort of a rigid perspective,” Lewis says. “It’s not always a zero sum game, with one idea winning over another, necessarily.” Instead, Build member and NPC candidate Ravi Ahmad says that what’s more important than consensus on an ideological platform is a commitment to “generative disagreement”. In a big tent organization that is explicitly multi-tendency, it’s inevitable that members will disagree on strategy and tactics. So, rather than bulldoze minority viewpoints, Build prefers to work with them, incorporating those other viewpoints in a holistic way. “What ties us together is a commitment to working across our differences, so that we can come to something that works for everybody,” said Ahmad.*

Further complicating the division between Bread & Roses’ view of majoritarian democracy and Build’s more anarchist conception of “generative disagreement” is the fact that D’Aprile doesn’t believe that a minority point of view, once defeated democratically, will always stay in a minority position. “We shouldn’t assume that being in a minority is static. You can always organize to popularize your ideas, to make the campaigns and projects you want to see happen,” she said. 

At this point, dear reader, you can probably be forgiven for being confused. It seems as if Bread & Roses’ commitment to democracy-as-majoritarianism doesn’t necessarily preclude minority viewpoints from being heard. Minorities will not be purged, dissidents will not be exiled to another socialist organization. This is not the Bolsheviks versus the Mensheviks, at least not yet. So why does Build care so much about protections for minority viewpoints?

To understand the extent of Build’s animus towards Bread & Roses’ political project, we need to understand how Bread & Roses’ politics have actually played out on the ground since the 2017 convention. 

Up until earlier this year, the Steering Committee of Philly DSA was led by members of the Spring Caucus, an earlier iteration of Bread & Roses. They were accused of engaging in anti-democratic procedural maneuvers in order to outplay their political opposition within the chapter, according to Doug Henwood. Proposals to form a Socialist Feminist working group were summarily shot down without receiving a proper vote, as were proposals to get involved in local politics, as the Steering Committee argued these were all distractions from the DSA’s big mass campaign goals of Medicare for All and the Sanders campaign. Even more painful for the political minority—and here there’s real cleavage—Philly’s leadership nixed any attempt to include antiracist and antisexist language in Philly DSA’s platform, claiming that “identity politics” was too divisive a strategy. (Philly DSA’s then-leaders have a lot to say in their defense here: read this for a full rebuttal.)

While some in DSA still hold up what happened at Philly DSA as a worst-case scenario for the fate of political minorities under Bread & Roses’ rule, it’s worth noting that the Spring leadership did the correct thing, and rather than simply hold members in Philly accountable for what happened, they actually dissolved their entire caucus. Of course, they reformed it a few weeks later under the name Bread & Roses, with a more politically convenient membership, the offending leaders from Philly purged from the ranks. (They’re like, still alive, just not in leadership positions anymore.)

This incident might seem like a good argument for Build’s “generative disagreement” model. Build describes itself as not possessing a specific viewpoint. Their website extolls the worth and value of being a non-ideological, non-caucus caucus. As their site claims: “We don’t call Build a ‘caucus’ because most in DSA define ‘caucus’ as a group with a defined policy platform or prescription for political action.” Build doesn’t have a defined platform; ergo, they are exempt from the word “caucus”.

But is Build really “non-ideological”? Is that even a thing? Build isn’t, like most of the other major factions, running a slate of candidates at the DSA convention. Instead, they have recommended candidates, from a whole host of major caucuses. (Not endorsed, mind you, recommended. In their view, endorsements imply there’s a “personal” reason for choosing a candidate. Recommendations can somewhat elide this problem.) For example, Build has recommended Kristian Hernandez, a candidate running with the Socialist Majority caucus, despite her significant tactical disagreement with Build on an important issue related to funding the organization. “The thing is, [Kristian] has a track record of supporting other chapters, developing new organizing committees and chapters. That’s incredibly strong. We just disagree on one tactic,” explained Ahmad. Recommendations are to be made on the basis of how good an organizer is, not on the granular details of what someone believes, or their track record in promoting one’s political program. 

But is Build recommending any candidates from Bread & Roses? If they were so committed to a non-ideological recommendation process, if it was truly, entirely about how good an organizer someone is, shouldn’t they be recommending across the aisle? 

“No,” said another delegate from Build, Bryan C., flatly. The political platform of Bread & Roses, no matter how great their individual organizers may be, differs too fundamentally from the non-platform of Build. 

And that’s the fundamental incoherence in Build’s premise. They have a commitment to disagreement, as well as an inborn hostility to any caucus that promotes a political line. But one can’t help but feel that perhaps, the animus isn’t motivated by anger that someone is promoting a political vision at all, but the content of said political vision. Is it really possible to be non-ideological? Does Build maybe just disagree with the ideas that Bread & Roses is putting forward? 

The thing is, that wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not wrong to disagree with someone on how to run a political organization, and the organization’s priorities. What is irritating is the constant assertion that it’s not a disagreement with Bread & Roses’ platform, but Bread & Roses’ decision to have a platform at all. 

Let’s be real. Build has a platform. You can figure out what said platform is, even though Build loudly states that it refuses to publish one. It can be found in how they criticize the Bread & Roses positions. Build is fundamentally opposed to Bread & Roses’ desire to elevate mass electoral campaigns at the expense of local projects, like the brake light clinics that individual DSA chapters have embarked upon. It is irritated by the lightness of Bread & Roses’ commitment to intersectionality—although, it seems that Bread & Roses has learned from the debacle in Philadelphia, and has included anti-oppression demands in its limited political program. Build’s recommendations for policy endorsements imply that it finds Bread & Roses’ rank-and-file labor strategy incoherent, and wants to do much more than simply run progressive candidates for management positions in already-existing unions, as Bread & Roses has advocated. Much can be inferred by reading between the lines. 

I think we need more conflict in this organization, rather than less. We need an explicit and outright commitment to policy positions. We should have policy positions; we should have platforms. Yes, a commitment to “generative disagreement” is laudable, but in practice, it’s nonsensical. Build should have the courage of its convictions—it should explicitly state what it believes in. Rather than trying to foster endless debate, it should actually have one

One caucus that isn’t afraid to take positions that oppose those of Bread & Roses is the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), composed mostly of anarchists: socialists who are extremely suspicious of centralized authority, and who push for increased transparency at every level. They have a platform that explicitly calls for the national organization to be more accountable to local chapters. While LSC is quite small and hasn’t inspired the same level of pushback from Bread & Roses that Build has, its commitment to staking out actual positions is laudable. 

As it stands, Build’s positions, as put forth in its unstated platform, are often the stronger ones. Bread & Roses might now have an explicit commitment to anti-oppression, but I wonder if the stench of what happened in Philly (and to a lesser extent, East Bay) will ever truly wash off. I think it’s clear that other caucuses have a stronger commitment to intersectionality—Build, but also Socialist Majority. I think there’s a healthy suspicion of electoralism in Build that is missing from the ranks of Bread & Roses.

Bread & Roses’ rank-and-file labor strategy is also too limited in scope; from conversation with Ahmad, Lewis, and Bryan C., I’ve gathered that the Build labor strategy, which is not wedded to working within existing union structures, makes much more sense. The Build labor strategy—also known as the “whatever works” strategy—takes its inspiration from labor victories that have occured in previously unorganized sectors, like craft brewing. I personally am excited to see what a more creative labor strategy might yield, in the next two years.   

Where Build is weak is absolutely in its commitment to a national platform—important if DSA is to grow into anything resembling a force for change. While Build’s commitment to smaller chapters being kept in the conversation is admirable, their de facto vision of a DSA as a “network of locals”—to borrow Andrew Sternatinger’s vocabulary—doesn’t do enough to promote long-term growth.   

Tatiana Cozzarelli, a member of the NYC chapter, wonders why DSA doesn’t have more robust political debate. She argues, forcefully, that DSA should be much, much more suspicious of the Democratic party and Bernie Sanders than we actually are. It is true that the questions on the table this year are less substantive than the questions that were being debated at the 2017 convention, when weighty matters such as an endorsement of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement were being discussed. Her argument is persuasive; it shouldn’t be the goal of DSA to become another Democratic party organ. 

If DSA is a truly democratic movement, it shouldn’t be afraid to consistently and constantly question its direction, rather than simply the construction of the ship it has decided to set sail in. We should hope for a contentious convention, not a dinner party.

The writer is a card-carrying member of DSA, but not a member of any faction.

*Update: since the original publication of this article, the writer has been made aware that Ahmad is the subject of controversy, due to alleged misconduct with secure information, as well as allegedly supporting a former member of the NPC after he had been credibly accused of sexual assault. There is currently a campaign to prevent the re-election of her comrade Zac Echola to the NPC. Echola has been accused of the same abuses of power.)

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Originally posted by Current Affairs on 2019-08-02 19:15:35

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