By Jared Abbott
Over 100 DSA activists and leaders came together during the weekend of May 2-3 to discuss the organization’s strategy, past present and future. To save money and time, rather than have everyone gather at a single location, DSAers assembled at 10 regional meetups around the country, and the meetups were all brought together via videoconference. Around 20 DSA locals and organizing committees sent representatives to the conference, and a number of at-large members also attended. The task of the conference was to engage as wide a cross-section of DSA activists and leaders as possible in a frank discussion about a recently-written strategy document that was meant to serve as a first draft for an organizational strategy document that will ultimately be proposed to the DSA convention in November of 2015 for adoption by the organization.
A bit of background…Over the past year and a half, DSA has been engaged in an organization-wide assessment of our past and current strategy, and creative thinking about what our future strategy should be. The ultimate goal of this process is to develop a new strategy document for DSA that reflects the changed circumstances of our organizational work since the 1990s (when the last DSA strategy document was produced). To reach this goal, a great deal of collective education/discussion/debate is necessary to both ensure the process is as democratic as possible, and also to produce the best document possible by drawing on the collective wisdom of the whole organization.
To this end, in early 2014 we began having a series of monthly conferences call that brought together 40-60 DSA activists and leaders each month to discuss a range of important strategic issues facing DSA. At the end of this process the notes from each of the roughly 50 calls held between March and October were compiled and a committee of around 10 DSA leaders was tasked with drafting a new draft strategy document taking all of these comments into account. The committee worked for several months from January to March of 2015, and produced a document that was shared with all DSA activists and leaders for discussion leading up to the May strategy conference.
In the month leading up to the strategy conference around a dozen DSA locals held their own discussion groups to discuss the draft document, and most of them sent written summaries of these discussions to the drafting committee for review. The drafting committee also received dozens of amendment proposals and comments on the draft document leading up to the conference, and this input served to shape the content of the conference itself.
Despite some technological hiccups, the conference itself was a model of respectful and constructive dialogue, and a great community-building opportunity for DSA locals to get to know each other better. Many conference participants also reported that they learned a great deal about DSA’s strategic thinking and felt more invested in the organization’s strategy rethink after the conference than they did before.
Of course being that DSA a pluralistic, multi-tendency socialist organization, there was a lot of lively debate at the conference. Participants offered contrasting analyses of the history and prospects of social democracy and the US labor movement, contrasting perspectives on what a democratic socialist society would look like and how detailed a vision of socialism we should have as an organization, as well as contrasting views on the strategic priorities we should have as an organization and the best way for us to situate ourselves within the larger progressive movement. While this diversity of opinion makes a clear, succinct statement of DSA’s strategy difficult (though by no means impossible), it also shows the capacity for socialists from a wide range of backgrounds and political orientations to work together in a comradely and effective way. To me, anyway, it was really inspiring to see DSA’s democratic internal culture in action.
The strategy conference produced literally hundreds of pages of feedback and commentary on the draft strategy document that the drafting committee is now carefully reading and finding ways to integrate into a new draft. Once a new draft is ready sometime by the end of the summer, it will be circulated again to the entire organization and a new round of dialogue/editing will begin. Ideally the new draft will incorporate enough of the concerns/critiques DSAers had of the first draft that the next round of debate will produce fewer amendment proposals and critical commentaries, but realistically this draft too will produce many contrasting reactions from the DSA membership.
In order to register the feedback we receive, the drafting committee will encourage locals to do another round of discussions about the document, during which they take straw polls on each section of the document, and after which they send detailed notes of their conversation to the drafting committee for review. Additionally, we will take advantage of our existing online discussion forum and strategy discussion Facebook page to facilitate focused discussion of the new draft, and the drafting committee will work to address as many of the concerns raised as possible leading up to DSA’s November convention.
We are currently living through a time of great opportunity for the US socialist movement, from Bernie Sanders’ run as a Democratic Socialist for President to the increasing openness of many working people to socialist ideas and the increasing prevalence of left-populist and even anti-capitalist rhetoric in our national discourse. But these developments by no means automatically translate into gains for socialist organizations like DSA. We must think very carefully about the opportunities these developments open up for us as an organization, about how we can most productively build upon these opportunities to grow our ranks and increase our influence in progressive politics, and about how we can most effectively use these opportunities to build the institutional capacity necessary to offer capitalism’s countless victims a viable democratic socialist alternative for the 21st century. This is why DSA’s strategy discussion is so important: without a clear vision of our objectives and a clear strategy for achieving them, we have little hope of contributing meaningfully to the development of such an alternative.
If you are a DSA member, are not yet involved in the strategy discussion and would like to be, please email Jared at email@example.com.
Jared Abbott is a member of DSA’s national political committee, and a graduate student in Government at Harvard University.
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