The 2023 convention was comradely and productive. I left feeling immensely moved and motivated – especially by the speeches given by the UAW and baggage handler workers. And just like a good meal, a good convention provokes thought. I’ve been mulling over the debate on some of our top ticket resolutions, True North 2.0 and For A More Robust, Democratic, And Powerful Twin Cities DSA. I want to start some discussion about what this debate tells us about how our chapter operates.
The slack and in-person discussion of these two proposals struck me for a few reasons. First, it seems clear that they were both popular proposals that a number of members supported bringing forward. Both were mentioned positively even when we were discussing other issues on the agenda. Second, what little criticism there was of each proposal, primarily came from the authors of the other resolution on grounds of being too unfocused and scattered. These critiques were made in a comradely and respectful way, but I thought we as a chapter should ponder what it would mean to “focus” our mission and activities.
First, what do we mean by “focus”? In the context of the convention debate, “focus” seems to mean limiting our chapter activities to especially important campaigns. Each resolution lists projects (ten in the case of True North) that we should “focus” on as a chapter. So what about all of our activities that didn’t appear in a resolution? I don’t think either resolutions’ authors mean this, but one could infer that any activity not listed in a particular resolution is a distraction. More generously, I imagine the authors would say something like, “Other chapter activities can be good and positive, but we should ‘focus’ on these more strategically important campaigns.” The purpose of these resolutions are, in part, to shepherd the chapter towards specific activities and away from others.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing like this. The chapter’s resources (time, money, and energy) are finite, and the front with capitalism is nigh-infinite. We must, at the organizational and individual level, be frank about what we can direct our energy towards. If we overreach, the consequence is burnout and flash-in-the-pan campaigns. Building up our capacity is one way of preventing this, but ultimately, we can’t do it all. We have to be strategic in our actions.
I believe that presently our chapter does this “focusing” at the individual level. Each of us decides as individuals to what extent we volunteer our time and what passion projects we work on. Chapter leadership does not hold any power other than moral authority to insist members devote their time to a particular thing. Our chapter democratically determines priorities, yes, but these are largely signals rather than orders.
There are benefits to letting individuals focus as they choose. Newcomers have a wide variety of projects to choose from. TCDSA is present in most major issues of the metro. It is also easy to imagine how orders from above to “stop doing X because Y is more important” could lead to dysfunction and harmful conflict.
However, I believe there are drawbacks to our individualistic model as well. As an organization, it is not always clear what our strategy is even when we set chapter priorities. What is it going to take to overthrow capitalist power, and how do we get there? We don’t answer these questions and can’t answer them as long as we only “focus” at the level of the individual. A meaningful socialist strategy insists upon specific fields of battle with the ruling class; a developed strategy recognizes that some activities are far more productive than others in bringing about socialism. To develop and act on such a strategy, we would need to accept a certain amount of disciplined coordination from elected leaders and the esteem of rank-and-file comrades.
I think one clear example of this issue is our electoral program. Our political candidates and the many DSA members who volunteer for them, staff their offices, and run their campaigns deserve plaudits for their historic accomplishments in the Twin Cities. They have won more than seemed possible even just a few years ago. At the same time, what does it mean that winning city council elections is one of our “focuses” – something affirmed by our chapter a number of times. Does this mean that all members should be canvassing and fundraising for endorsed candidates? Does this mean that our members should play a complimentary grassroots role to the work our elected officials are doing, and if so, what is that complimentary role?
On another level, what is the purpose of winning elections? American political culture is so oriented around winning elections that I don’t think we’ve clarified our endgame enough as a chapter. Are our electeds working towards being seen by the public as a preferred new party that will win a majority in the metro and state? Are our electeds meant to be tribunes of the people that gum-up-the-works of neoliberal statecraft by fighting the liberals on every issue? To what extent do we believe coalition building with progressive liberals is necessary or desirable? How does our electoral work account for the strong anti-democratic features of our government such as the Charter Commission and Police Department?
As these questions reveal, we have a greater challenge than just deciding what to “focus” on. We need to decide what it is we are working towards and how it is we think we will get there. Once we come to some conclusions, we should ensure that our internal structure is working towards those ends. What kind of changes to our administration would help us “focus” on our goals? At the moment, we are excitedly anticipating great works and success, but we can also feel the drag of too much work, too many commitments, one more zoom meeting. The authors of these two resolutions certainly struck on these two chords in our chapter: we are hungry for many different ambitious actions, and we would like to “focus” on what’s most important – whatever that is.
I would love to hear input, suggestions, and reactions from people on #discussion on slack especially as I am long in worries and short in solutions.
By Ethan BF