The 2021 NYC-DSA Citywide Convention marks the first convention wherein we can fully take stock of the defeat of Bernie Sanders, the George Floyd uprising, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ouster of Trump from the White House and Cuomo from Albany, and the much-vaunted “end of neoliberalism” — or at least a return to a Federal government willing to spend its way out of an economic crisis. More locally, we’ve seen the electoral victories of our socialist state legislators and City Council members; the sick-out led by UFT’s dissident caucus, MORE, which successfully closed NYC schools; socialists winning leadership in DC-37; the participation by tens of thousands of New Yorkers in mutual aid projects; the Cancel Rent campaign and its mobilization of tenants across the city, many of whom went on rent strike, organized their buildings, or joined neighborhood-wide tenant unions; and the first anti-austerity state budget in decades.
At the same time, we’ve seen the increasingly catastrophic effects of the climate crisis; rollbacks of bail reforms and unchecked police power, even in the face of record deaths on Rikers Island; looming mass evictions against the backdrop of the Supreme Court striking down the eviction moratorium and, at the time of writing, less than 5% of the $2.5-billion funds for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program being distributed. At both the city and state level, the balance of power is in upheaval and contradiction. City Council is swinging leftward, even as Eric Adams, backed by the Democratic machine, the PBA, pro-development forces, conservative labor leaders, and outer-borough homeowners, will govern firmly to the right of De Blasio. Cuomo’s resignation has created a power vacuum, and New York’s political class is already scrambling to contain the fallout, even as Governor Hochul attempts, perhaps only briefly, to stake out a progressive position against potential challengers.
We have, so far, navigated this changing scene with some significant wins. We have increased our membership over the 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and elected principled, effective, and responsive members of the organization to state, local, and federal office. We have won legislative reforms that shift power towards the working class, developing our strategy of co-governance and creating ties between the socialist movement, organized labor, tenant organizing, and abolition.
Nevertheless, as we strive to become a mass organization capable of winning socialism, we will need to do much more. Specifically, we need to consider how we organize ourselves as DSA members, and how socialists organize amongst the wider working class.
Our chapter, like the organization more generally, has a small core of leaders, a larger body of volunteers and implementers, and thousands of relatively inactive members. While this model has proven to be well-suited for mobilizing volunteers for certain kinds of campaigns, it has in-built limitations and serious political risks. Taken together, it will not yield a full strategy for winning socialism, or even some of our transformative demands we’re fighting for in Albany, City Council, and elsewhere. In our view, that will require a more capacious, deeply engaged, and effective organization, whereby our members are equipped to think dynamically with one another, act strategically, and activate others in class struggle. We want an organization where each DSA member can be a vector for socialism.
As our hopes for a shortcut to the White House are sunset, there’s a choice before us: would we like to become an organization of volunteers or an organization of organizers? We see the distinction in the following terms: how we relate to our members, where we conduct meaningful political work, and the degree to which we preserve our hardwon culture of internal democracy.
Volunteers or Organizers: How we relate to our membership
DSA frequently and effectively mobilizes people into political activities like phone banking, canvassing and door hanging, all of which can have a significant political effect for our campaigns but exist in the limited space of a campaign, and lean on cadre organizers to connect the campaign to other areas of the already-organized working class — including, but not limited to, triple-prime voters.
This means our own members are approached as atomized individuals, rather than members of the working class embedded in various workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. In this model, what you bring to the organization is above all your disposable free time to lend to a campaign. Following this model, some electoral and legislative campaigns have built new layers of leadership, particularly by using the field lead position as an entry-level point of intermediate responsibility. They have a track record of success in bringing in fresh energy to the movement where members can develop their skills as organizers.
But the kind of leader we develop is largely drawn from the cohort that has stamped DSA from its revival: while by no means exclusively, we are still largely young, working jobs or in school or with other prevailing life situations that can provide us with disposable time in front of a computer. We are considerably whiter than the working class of NYC. This is a layer of people who are often working class in many senses of the term, but only a fraction of the working class, and with few ties to its other ranks and layers.
Beyond the composition problems, this model has other challenges as well, because it makes our non-campaign structures somewhat redundant and confused in their functions. We attend branch meetings where we’re asked to attend further meetings where votes will actually take place, where discussions are being had, and where the work is getting done. This raises the barrier of entry to the organization: how many people have time to attend a meeting as well as the meetings that they’re additionally directed to for political education or external-facing work?
Moreover, the campaign and field churn leads to burnout, compels people to exit the organization, frustrates newer leaders, and fails to reproduce expertise. It also places a high barrier to entry for leadership, which appears to require dozens of hours a week for phone calls and internal organizing — a hard ask for any working-class person who might have long hours at work, multiple jobs, childcare responsibilities, and/or limited internet access.
In short, we need to do more than mobilize our members: we need to train one another, including training in how we can engage people in socialist politics beyond our existing ‘field’ events, and providing more opportunities for people to lead while the energy is there. But we also need to approach our members not as free-floating individuals, but instead as people distributed variously across the working class, who have relationships that they can build, develop, or activate in the context of a campaign or movement: public workers concerned with austerity, neighbors who can attend a block party, or NYCHA residents thinking about an upcoming budget vote, to name some examples. The starting point of organizing isn’t just mobilizing people who relate to their city only via a VAN app. Instead, every one of our members can be equipped with the skills and training that allow them to organize relationally for socialism in significantly deeper ways than we typically have facilitated.
Volunteers or Organizers: Where Does Politics Happen?
Where is our external facing work directed? On the electoral front, there are reasons for optimism following our successes in down ballot elections in 2020. In office, our electeds have been effective and courageous tribunes of the multiracial working class, capable of reorganizing the map of power in legislative blocs, providing legitimacy for radical demands, securing real wins under tremendous pressure, and enabling people inside and outside their districts to identify and develop as socialists.
That said, we are clearly not in a position to carry out the wins we need equal to our justifiably radical and justifiably large political ambitions. In a sense, the checkered results of the City Council races demonstrated the limits of our field-first strategy. A number of historical events — Bernie’s campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic, crises of underemployment and displacement — have created new constituencies for socialism in NYC. NYC-DSA is only sometimes well-placed to take advantage of them, and more established actors can sometimes peel all or part of these constituencies away from our candidates and campaigns, leading to electoral losses and fracturing the coalitions that we’ve used in the past for legislative wins. In order to carry out significant strategic wins that can set us up in a stronger position in the future, we need to be alive to the points of class struggle where social forces are developing and can be realigned around an emerging socialist coalition.
NYC-DSA has proven itself capable of carrying out strong external campaigns — but these campaigns are only sometimes effective. With much of our legislation stalled in Albany, we must ask what can be done to secure these discrete legislative wins. In a clear sense, our external campaigns are only successful when they’re carried forward by sufficiently large and powerful constituencies to change the balance of power at the level of the state. This means that our legislative and electoral work is only one part of a larger process that both requires and facilitates building up working-class power. Legislative reforms can help increase the agency of working-class people — but, without an objective increase in the power of the class itself, only up to a point.
The tenants movement in particular in NYC has emerged as a coalition capable of securing wins, organizing working-class people, staving off displacement, and providing one of the bases for an emerging socialist bloc. Through large, militant tenant unions as well as other housing justice organizations, NYC-DSA has some strong relations to the tenants movement, and we need to participate in the significant growth of the movement in order to keep people in their homes, win real community self-determination, and organize otherwise unorganized segments of the working class.
Organized labor in New York clearly commands significant power, capable of swinging electoral blocs towards or away from politicians, and securing or defeating critical legislation — but the leadership of NYC’s largest and most influential unions remains firmly conservative, bound to machine Democrats and opposed to the socialist movement. (Witness the DC-37 endorsement of Eric Adams, or UFT’s opposition to the New York Health Act and endorsements against socialist candidates.) Moving forward with electoral and legislative successes will in some sense only happen through dedicated use of the rank-and-file strategy, which could, in addition to other effects, move these unions to a supportive or at least a neutral position.
The George Floyd Rebellion demonstrated a significant convergence of people across racial and class lines; despite the right-wing pushback against the Defund movement, we need to think about how to build up these social forces, especially people who are regularly criminalized, to create a durable bloc that can sustain the abolitionist movement. For a brief few months in 2020, people in their tens of millions recognized and rejected the disorganizing force of white supremacy, united in a collective demand for justice against the violence of prisons and policing. The socialist movement needs to be alive to the potential of this multiracial class power, and able to articulate the goals of socialism and abolition together. That requires an ongoing commitment to translating social struggle into concrete demands that develop working class power.
We cannot win changes on the scale that we need without reaching and creating constituencies that can recognize socialist goals as their own, and pursue the power necessary to win them. This might look like organizing critical sectors, industries, or businesses, for instance through unionizing service workers and Amazon workers; radicalizing already-existing unions through the R&F strategy; establishing neighborhood-, borough-, or citywide tenant unions, and increasing the power, reach, and radicalism of currently existing tenant unions; supporting the organizing efforts of currently and formerly incarcerated people, IV drug users, squatters, and other less canonical constituencies of the working class; or meeting people at yet further critical sites of class struggle and emerging forms of organization. Base-building is not a distraction from our external campaigns: it is the key to their success.
Additionally, there are a range of institutions and places of working-class density and organizing where DSA stands to gain by engaging. Our YDSA work should be resourced and active on CUNY campuses dense with radicalizing working-class students sympathetic to our program. Our tenant work should engage both the hundreds of NYC-DSA members that have been leading heroic rent strikes and tenant direct actions over the course of the pandemic, as well as the thousands more across the city who participated in coordinated rent strike actions over the last two years. Socialists are critical to efforts to turn NYC’s public-sector unions into fighting organizations. Their success shouldn’t just be admired; it also needs an active place in our deliberation, strategy, and how we talk to our members about socialist politics. The hundreds of our members who have undertaken new workplace organizing should also have spaces to reflect on how to connect their union work to socialist politics, and new members should be given resources to think through an organizing drive of their own if conditions are amenable. And DSA should leverage its robust network of teachers, its soon to be elected members of City Council, and our many parents in the organization to kickstart relational organizing around issues where student-parent-and teacher interests converge, such as school resources, environmental racism, police in schools, and class sizes, engaging PTAs, unions, and student groups wherever possible.
Working strategically with incoming city councillors and other officials who are friendly to our program and politics, we can build out a coalition sufficiently broad and principled enough to stand up to Adams on criminal justice; commit and implement a real plan to close Rikers and decarcerate the people currently caged there; re-legitimate Defund as a winnable demand; halt the borough-based jail plan; and emphasize at every turn the necessarily racist nature of policing, incarceration, and detention.
Moreover, we must develop our ability to be involved in and advance multiracial working class power in the context of explosive grassroots organizing and social struggle, especially when it exceeds the boundaries of our existing campaigns, as it so often has over the last year and a half.
Volunteers and Organizers: Internal Democracy
We need to reckon with significant challenges of organizational culture within NYC-DSA. As informal structures within the chapter sometimes mean that important decisions are conducted behind closed doors among informal groupings of people who know each other well; the pandemic and its limitations on in-person meetings has significantly exacerbated these dynamics. There have been fewer opportunities for casual encounters between different members of the organization, critical decision-making has sometimes happened behind closed doors, without internal democratic processes or opportunities for review and input by the chapter as a whole. Turnout for delegate elections is remarkably low: out of our over 7,000 members, 1,074 people filled in their ballots for citywide convention delegate elections. Similarly, the SC’s own records indicate that even as volunteer numbers climb for our campaigns, fewer and fewer members are attending branch meetings or the often siloed off political education programming. When it comes to the larger decisions of our organization, members of the organization who weren’t delegates to national convention 2021 had relatively few opportunities to discuss the proceedings and stakes of the convention in forums organized by Steering or Branch OCs. Moreover, there can be limited opportunities to coordinate across our individual campaigns, branches and working groups: organizers are sometimes siloed off with little internal outreach to bring expertise together across different issues and sites of class struggle.
True to our principles of democratic decision-making, we need to find creative and effective ways to involve more members in the internal democratic processes of the organization; clarify our formal decision-making structures; create more opportunities for casual encounters between members of the organization; intentionally hold open discussions about our strategy, situation, and direction; and transform political education from an elective activity for the especially book curious into a part of the broadly shared culture of what it means to do effective socialist politics.
Conclusion: The Structures We Need
Members of Emerge caucus, working with comrades in other caucuses and tendencies across NYC-DSA, have introduced three resolutions for Citywide Convention 2021 to address this problem: Resolution 15 (Branch Sections), Resolution 16 (Branch Commission 2.0), and Resolution 4 (Citywide Mobilizer Program). The Branch Sections and Branch Commission proposal suite seeks to cohere and consolidate the functions of a Branch by centering debate and democratic decision-making at Branch meetings. They further seek to situate smaller, geographic sections as a tool to further attraction, retention, diversity, and growth of members, as well as promote a depth of deliberation and political education throughout the chapter. The formation of smaller sections would allow for the space to create meaningful comradeships, and make good on those political relationships. Most importantly, this is a proposal to extend beyond passive recruitment of membership by leaning heavily on current member’s social networks, and to move towards intentional recruitment of DSA leaders by tying our chapter priorities to the depoliticized spaces in our everyday lives that can be sites of struggle and organization: where we live and where we work. Meanwhile, the Citywide Mobilizer program would establish the infrastructure for the Membership Coordinator and citywide Membership Committee to make sure every new chapter member receives a 1:1 organizing conversation that ends in a concrete and doable ask, enabling members to establish meaningful political relationships in the organization, find their political home in DSA, and develop their skills as organizers. It would also charge the Membership Committee with establishing an ongoing schedule of organizing trainings and chapter-wide political education meetings.
There is no silver bullet to ensuring we become the organization we need to be. It will take a willingness to experiment with new kinds of political work, membership growth, leadership development. Nevertheless, we believe that re-thinking basic organization of the chapter can go a long way towards facilitating the work ahead: making us and our leadership more reflective of working class diversity; of ensuring that all our member organizers are invited into the work of democratic decision making and strategic thinking; and preparing us to do the longer term base building that’s can make our campaign work stronger and more successful.