By Ravi Ahmad
Being in leadership in DSA has been quite a trip. Most folks are probably at least somewhat aware that I’ve been through several cycles of activism and organizing, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to Occupy Wall Street to DSA, with several stops along the way. I also have a few advanced degrees, one in Marxist economics. Being somewhat eclectic in my own training and experience, I’ve become rather fond of the big tent approach we’re developing here in DSA in fits and starts. It has allowed a lot of DSA members, new and old, to think in ways other groups have mostly neglected, whether the Democratic Party, the unions, or all sorts of nonprofits.
I plan to write elsewhere about base-building at greater length, based on the four to six calls I have every week with DSA members around the country. I’ve been particularly struck by the common themes in these conversations; specifically, even our largest chapters are only just beginning to develop an understanding of their political terrain at the level of most successful community organizations, let alone developing anything beyond that.
Most of what passes for progressive and even radical activism has given up on growing deep roots with strategic direction being spread among larger and larger groups of people. Instead, left-of-center organizations tend to operate at the level of narrative and the all-important Discourse instead of cultivating genuinely grassroots politics.
My point is this: we are only at the beginning of a socialist resurgence in America.
I have my own political analysis and judgments, but as a member of the National Political Committee, I am also responsible for nurturing the political capacities of all our members. I seek to do this not through telling DSA’s members what to do but by helping folks navigate the terrain so we can figure things out together. I helped found @BuildDSA this past summer to connect members with one another and start to create a national organization that lives up to the name. But I’ll take off my Build hat, for a minute and speak to my own politics here.
I have been very candid about finding the yes/no framing on the Bernie endorsement question kind of tired. This isn’t because I don’t care about or devalue folks who haven’t made up their minds or folks who are frustrated about the endorsement process that the NPC has adopted; I voted against this process for a variety of reasons ones I’ve shared with many in DSA. Bernie is running and we should be talking out what that means, not falling into this tired framing that’s rooted in the party line question- to Dem or not to Dem- with which the sectarian Left in this country has been obsessed for ages. Its an important question but doesn’t apply here. Bernie is running and on the Democratic ticket. It’s done. Let’s move on.
In the same vein, I won’t bore everyone by repeating the stakes involved: Trump layered over the long-running crisis that is capitalism and ecological disaster is something most DSA members are pretty familiar with, right? Well, here’s something we barely dig into: Trump is the result of a 40+ year strategic plan by the hard Right which has rolled back even the most minimal social democratic wins working people have achieved in this country. The legacies of the New Deal, Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Great Society have been eviscerated and, with privatized education and the resurgence of prison labor, we are actively being returned to the late 19th century. Having a firm footing feels all the more important in this context.
I believe that DSA should aim to be part of a larger movement ecology, with institutions and organizations that reinforce each other. There are struggles in motion all around us, whether to get your kids fed regularly or to end cash bail or to get a decent contract at work. (Or fires, as in the above video. Bernie Sanders joined some of the above firefighters at a campaign rally right in Chico. — Ed. ) The long strategic retreat of recent decades has many lessons to teach us, both good and bad. Thus, we can coordinate and survive if one group or another gets picked off the way ACORN was destroyed. Within this context, we should be measuring our campaigns against whether they build a base for DSA in the world, not in our subcommittees. Socialism is, after all, for society.
What is a base? The concept is popular in The Discourse, because we’re all feeling the lack of solid grounding under our feet. A base is a group of people with a common set of interests & motivations that acts together in its own interest. This is a basic prerequisite for the development of class consciousness, which is itself a prerequisite for a working-class political party. This is the most basic requirement for collective self-awareness and key if DSA is to move beyond being an expression of its current most active members, rather than a larger community of interest.
In my weekly check-ins with members from coast to coast, I’ve gathered that even our largest chapters are just beginning to answer the following questions which are absolutely vital for a powermap to begin planning your chapter electoral strategy:
- Who moves votes in your town? Is it churches, unions, community groups, democratic party clubs? How do these breakdown along lines of neighborhood, race, class and ethnicity?
- How close is your DSA chapter to any of these organizations? Do you know what they need in what are likely long running struggles around electoral and non-electoral work?
- How does that mediocre state rep or city councilor always get re-elected? He’s so useless! How does he get re-elected every time? It’s so annoying!
- Are any of these organizations absolute deal breakers? There are unions without whom electeds can’t get elected and you need to know who they are, whether we work with them or not.
- What are the rules for participating in your local primary? In New York, you have to confirm your party registration way early and a LOT of people weren’t able to vote for Bernie in the primary. Is this something to add to your tabling plans either as a standalone outreach campaign or as part of your regular efforts?
- What is the map of voter suppression in your community? Who does voter security work in your neck of the woods? And if you think this is a red state problem, the Brooklyn Board of Elections purged 200,000 voters ahead of the 2016 primary, almost certainly aimed at decreasing Bernie’s share of the vote.
It is only through reflection, conversation, and analysis that we can have meaningful conversations and find common ground in our fledgling organization. There will be places where close coordination with the Bernie campaign will be the best way to accomplish these ends of understanding our local political landscape and navigating it for Bernie or any other campaign. There will be others- like my old hometown- where DSA running an independent campaign may be the only way to get Bernie through the primary.
We should not be tying down our chapters to a rigid course of action before we have a chance to explore and determine our strategic priorities, locally and nationally.
Ravi Ahmad is a recovering New Yorker and proud member of DSA Long Beach. Her passions are sewing, knitting and organizing. Oh, and she’s on the National Political Committee.