DSA Shows Up

we're still judging on potential, but potential is all we got

On Saturday I attended a small but lively demonstration in Queens. I was there with my housing rights group, taking photos and getting quotes for our paper. It was a depressingly familiar situation: a tenant was involved in a housing court battle and thus not legally allowed to be evicted unless that battle broke in the landlord’s favor, and so the landlord turned to extralegal means, turning off the tenant’s heat, attacking their dog, and threatening them with a pair of scissors. New York City landlords will sometimes use such tactics regardless of circumstance, but there has been an eviction moratorium in New York state for much of the past year and they have been getting especially nasty. The cops, of course, did nothing. So we protested.

There were representatives from several city-wide organizations, a couple Queens local ones, a legal observer from the NLG, someone running for city council, a rep from the city advocate’s office, and a couple people from the Democratic Socialists of America. The last is not a surprise. I go to dozens of housing actions every year, and there are always DSA people at those events. Just about all of them. Sometimes just a handful, sometimes a big contingent. But at big NYC housing events that really matter, such as the annual Rent Guidelines Board meetings that set rent increases for rent stabilized apartments, they’re always there. And I think that matters.

It is very common for people to assume that I’m an arch DSA critic. (It is, in fact, pretty common for people to refer to past critiques I’ve made of DSA, whether in approval or anger, which is funny because I’m pretty sure I’ve never made any.) I in fact don’t hate DSA at all, nor would I ever dismiss what they’re trying to build. When they flared back up into public consciousness about 5 years ago, my official position was never negative, but more of “well, we’ll see.” Right now I’d say my official position is… well, we’ll see. But with a lot of hope and admiration. (You may contrast this with my opinion on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, whose devolution on Palestinian liberation and other questions has moved me firmly towards “I’m terribly disappointed.”) I am someone who people associate with left on left critiques and with being cynical in general, but there are other parts of my life and in fact I’ve been an activist for far longer than I’ve been a writer. And I feel good things about DSA, in general.

That showing up element is big, for me. Going to things is important. Carrying the signs is important. Chanting the chants is important. It’s important for people from organizations like (to pick more or less at random) Community Action for Safe Apartments, a largely-Hispanic housing organization in the Bronx, to see and hear from DSA people when they show solidarity. The cultural distance between largely-minority, working class local organizations and a group like DSA are large, but solidarity between them is essential. Showing up demonstrates skin in the game; it shows that you aren’t an insular bunch of 20-somethings but part of a community that you recognize is bigger than you. And showing up means you’re showing out - you can demonstrates numbers which makes you appear more powerful and united and attracts new members who bring new energy and insight. I could not do a generalist left organization, these days. (This is, in part, a self-defensive gesture springing from my long and painful experience in the anti-Iraq war movement.) When I came to New York I chose housing as my next activist home because I wanted to focus in on a specific issue on which I could see the tangible results of my work. But I recognize that it’s also important to have big umbrella organizations that can bring people of different interests together and let them develop their passions under that aegis. This allows for coordination of action and intelligent use of resources.

DSA has size for a leftist organization, with something like 80-90,000 dues-paying members, but this is tiny for national political groups in general. By the most conservative estimate I’ve seen the NRA has around 3.5 million. Still, tens of thousands of people uniting under the same red banner is nothing to sneeze at, especially given that twenty years ago socialism was universally derided in mainstream political conversation as a relic or a monstrosity. (Now it’s only almost universally derided.) I like the chapter structure of the organization too. DSA has tried to diversify, given that it has always been very white, and I’m told they are slowly succeeding, though who knows. But I also think its membership in general has a good apprehension of the fact that the “Why Are We White” conversation so common to radical left spaces is more often self-indulgent than productive. I know a lot of DSA members who are good and dedicated people, and I’d like to think that 5 years after the initial Bernie wave the flakes have moved on and the committed activists remain.

Organization, for the left, is just so tough. It’s one of our most brutal disadvantages, our Scylla and Charybdis. Too little organization and you’re left with the Tyranny of Structurelessness, a paralysis induced by fear of leadership and distrust not of authority but of appearing to be an authority. Too little organization and you’ve got Occupy Wall Street, with its twinkle fingers and confusion and ineffectual pointlessness. I’ve told the story before and I don’t want to belabor it, but in one of my college antiwar groups I objected to the adoption of consensus-based decision making - among other problems, consensus cannot function in spaces where there is genuine diversity - and would not relent when they wanted to adopt consensus via consensus, leading them to kick me out of the organization in order to achieve the unanimity they wanted. (Consensus!) A rigidly-structured group could demand a consensus system too, but it’s less likely, and anyway the point is that there were no structures in place to ensure the individual rights consensus is ostensibly designed to protect. Redbaiting and factionalism are endemic to left organizing but in spaces with minimal structure they just wreak constant havoc. When there’s no (explicit) leadership there’s no accountability and no rights.

To create change you need coordinated action. To get coordinated you need organization. It’s just indispensable. Groups that feign a rejection of organizational structures still have them, they’re just tacit and shifting and arbitrary, and thus less easy to understand, reform, and live by. Far healthier to explicitly say, “we have this leadership structure and you pay dues and you vote on things and etc etc.”

But too much organization is also bad. I used to have a line, “never trust an activist with a business card,” which I dropped because it’s clever but not constructive. My fears were grounded in real problems, though, problems which I think pose an immense danger to BlackLivesMatter, among others: when activists get professionalized, things change. They just do. A professional activist has, before and above all other things, a vested interest in the permanence of problems they are ostensibly trying to solve. They inevitably end up serving some board or bureaucrat rather than the movement. They are subject to a kind of regulatory capture as they interact more and more often with their targets. And organization also results in big, impossible-to-maneuver ships that can’t commit to even completely toothless statements and resolutions without a dozen invocations of Roberts rules of order. Remember that the Iron Law of Institutions rules in all things, and as an organization becomes more meaningful the tendency for people to privilege their place within the organization over the good of the organization itself will only rise. If you’d like to see too much organization, take a look at a big institutional labor union that is indifferent to the interests of the rank and file and becomes more interested in its self-perpetuation than anything else, its structures amounting to a bulwark against reform.

How well will DSA navigate these waters? I don’t know. It won’t be easy. But they give a shit and have a lot of pragmatic people.

I do fear for DSA in the way that I fear for all lefty organizations, which are inherently vulnerable and usually internally contradictory. As potentially unfair as videos like this are, they do represent a certain paralyzing condition that has spread like wildfire within essentially all left organizations. (Some are more resilient to it than others.) DSA was once advertised as the organization that was resistant to the kind of posturing seen in that video, but every indication is that this is no longer the case. Again, I’m Mr. Cynical About the Left Guy, so I’ve heard from several DSA members privately about some sort of language-rules nonsense or another in their chapters. A group cannot endure never-ending recriminations about who committed what microtransgression; it’s toxic and energy-sapping and fatal to solidarity. These groups are so fragile, and so subject to one of the basic destructive dynamics on the left, the twin poles between the drive to be so righteous and passionate you burn down everything around you, and the drive to quietly give up to live a comfortable bobo life - and very very often the former becomes the latter. (Remember always that the leftist screaming at you online will be a dentist in 10 years.)

The great danger with DSA though is not internal conflict but the same danger faced by most leftish organizations, falling into the gravity of the Democratic party until you become just another part of their apparatus. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known from activism in the past 20 years who have started out as Dem critics, gotten some sort of pro activist gig or started some sort of respectable organization, sworn to me that they would never become part of the toothless left wing of the party, and then gone on to do that in short order. There are quite a few people who make this criticism of DSA right now, and not all of them Marxist-Leninists who never leave their keyboards. The Bernie campaign and DSA were not coterminous but it’s very difficult to find someone in the latter who wasn’t an enthusiastic proponent of the former. I have had a piece in my head I’ve half wanted to write down for ages about the Bernie campaign’s influence on the American left. I’m far more ambivalent about it than most, who generally see it as a high tide. (And if I don’t write it, not catching that grief is a big reason why.) But Berniecrat or other, it’s very easy to imagine DSA becoming a feel-good “socialist” advertising arm for the DNC, helping sheepdog radical young people into supporting business as usual forever.

It is perhaps useful to remind people of a reality that even many DSA members don’t understand: DSA was explicitly founded to be the anticommunist socialist organization, and it was always anticommunist first and socialist like ninth or tenth. The old DSA was a decades-long Sister Souljah moment, one long exercise in knee-jerk denunciations of Moscow that did not in fact sway anyone into the socialist orbit but did make its members feel like The Responsible Left. Old guard DSA had many of the tics we associate with liberal Cold War squeamishness, unable to admit to objective realities like the efficacy of Cuban medicine or the vast human costs of anticommunism. An old school DSA guy might acknowledge the millions of innocents killed by the United States in southeast Asia, but they would always rush to tell you that Holodomor was worse. Nothing came before the need to look “reasonable” in a post-communist world, nothing. Their banner was socialism but their effect was reactionary. (In my nightmare future DSA goes the Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC thing, keeping only the initials to hide the socialist connotations.)

The new DSA, thankfully, has left a lot of that behind, and when I bring up the group’s roots I usually am greeted with either ignorance or annoyance. I do recognize that most of the members probably have little conception of what DSA once was, although I also would not really define this as a mark of pride. I happen to think that the shadow of Michael Harrington is longer than a lot of DSA people want to admit, and that while the current membership and leadership likely have little anti-communist sentiment - communism no longer being a relevant force in the world - there is a deep suspicion of anyone who treads too far away from the very exacting place DSA people want to occupy, where you’re left of Democrat but see the Democrats as the only reasonable vehicle for change, where you recognize that the structures of partisan politics are specifically engineered to prevent your interests from winning but where you dismiss people, like me, who quite sensibly expect that condition to continue. I don’t think the Democratic party can be reformed, not by Bernie Sanders or by anyone else. This is a perspective that can be disputed, of course. The problem with most DSA people is that, like Jacobin in the past few years, they don’t bother to dispute it but wave it away as inherently unserious. Yet the party remains the party.

But then it’s not my place to say where DSA should go, or even to lament where it probably will go. For now my place is to wish them well. I could never be a DSA member because I come from communist stock and have a family lineage of direct persecution under anticommunism. Even if the membership and leadership of the group is completely different from what it once was, there are lines you have to draw in the sand about how you define yourself politically. DSA’s prior reality is not something I can look past. Besides, while the average DSA member has certainly not heard of me, those in the group who have would not want me as part of it anyway. Most of them probably wouldn’t want my praise either.

Well, they’re getting it anyway. I think modern DSA is on balance a good thing for the left and for the country. DSA hasn’t done anything yet, but then again neither has BlackLivesMatter, or MeToo, or any group (or individual) which has participated in this confused and substance-free “social revolution” we are supposedly living in. I think DSA has a chance to make waves in a way no other currently-functioning leftist organization can, thanks to a decently-sized and growing membership, a sensible organizational structure, a commitment to vague but explicit post-capitalist principles, and some good people. I say all of this even as I harbor vast ideological, policy, and strategic disagreements with DSA. (I don’t think the average DSA member could give you a coherent definition of what “democratic socialism” even is.) There are so many landmines along the road ahead for the group, and history suggests to me they will not avoid them. But hope springs eternal and you’ve got to start somewhere.

There is a certain kind of leftist who believes that the only way to achieve seriousness or purity is to completely evacuate your analysis of hope for the future. It is both the self-defense mechanism of people who have only ever lost and the rhetorical tactic of those privileged enough to live outside of the consequences of politics. I’m sure many would say I’m of this type. But I’m not, not really. I believe progress is possible. DSA is not my ideal vehicle, or even the most likely path to socialist resurgence. But it must always be remembered that some online radicals attack DSA not because DSA is bound to lose but because there’s a chance, however faint, that they might win.

Despite all of the questions of ideology and strategy that face them, the immediate plan for DSA should be as simple as it can be: keep showing up for things. Keep showing up. Grow, do, connect. We’re in a time of increasing skepticism about the importance of day-to-day brick and mortar organizing. There’s always been a left contingent that’s been dismissive of such work, and now everybody’s been Dave Shor-pilled into it especially, saying only demographics and TV ad buys matter, that only taking the presidency can achieve change. (In which case you might as well become a neo-monarchist because we aren’t taking the fucking presidency.) My own experience of, for example, the long fight for the Housing Safety and Tenant Protection Act tells me activism matters, and anyway I think people misunderstand what it means to say that activism “works.” It’s a long fight and the outcome is always in flux. If we are bound to lose, we should lose in solidarity with others by supporting them when support is asked. Showing up matters, and it’s all any of us can ever really do.