Reading the Resolutions: Two Perspectives

Editor’s Note: In a couple of weeks, delegates from across the country will gather in Atlanta, Georgia, for the biennial DSA convention. Proposed resolutions and constitutional bylaws as well as the list of candidates for the National Political Committee can be found here. We present here two longread analyses of the resolutions, with the understanding that the authors represent only themselves, not any official opinions.These analyses are based on information available at the time they were written. We know that there will be amendments to resolutions and adjustments to funding projections.

DSA Convention 2017

Delegates to the 2017 DSA Convention packed a conference room in Chicago. A thousand delegates are expected in Atlanta in August. Photo by Maxine Phillips.

Future convention posts on DL Online will deal with the constructive and destructive uses of Robert’s Rules of Order and historical features on past conventions. Many of the issues with which past conventions wrestled are still with us. Others are new, because, in effect, the organization is new, and the political challenges different. If you’re among the 59,000 or so members who don’t belong to a caucus, and you weren’t elected as a delegate, you may ask why you would want to read the convention information and these pieces. DSA is a democratic organization. The delegates represent you. If you have comments or questions for your delegates, be in touch with them.


An Analysis of the 2019 DSA Convention
Compendia of Resolutions and
Constitution/Bylaws Amendments

By Benjamin Fong

The 2019 DSA Convention Compendia of Resolutions and Constitution/Bylaws Amendments offer much insight into the current state of the organization. Many proposals outline campaigns for broad-based reforms that improve the material conditions of the multiracial working class, indicating a greater organizational seriousness in the membership. In other ways they reflect a lingering attachment to symbolic gestures and a persistently toxic internal culture.

My aim here is not to name resolutions “good, bad, and ugly,” but to offer a broad survey of the compendia, drawing out some of the larger trends and problems they point to. I cannot of course claim any impartiality — for the record, I am on the Steering Committee of the national Medicare for All campaign and also the co-author of Resolution #48 – and I’ll have to reveal or imply some of my preferences along the way, but my goal is not to affirm or reject specific resolutions or amendments.

National Priorities

The first thing to notice about the compendium of resolutions is the discontent, evidenced throughout, with the “three national priorities” model used at the 2017 convention. Some wish to double-down on this model but with different priorities (see North Star’s R27, which is a kind of codification of R5, R13, and R34), while others wish to move away from this model toward a more expansive political platform, as does the current NPC itself with R88. My sense is that the NPC is right to wish to abandon the three priorities model, but this move comes at a moment when many are seeking prioritization, and this time with a better understanding of the material commitments involved.

Specifically, most of the resolutions pertaining to national priorities propose the hiring of a half- or full-time staffer to be responsible for that priority. This is a belated but very welcome recognition that prioritization without staff involvement is fairly meaningless. In the convention report being submitted by the Medicare for All Campaign Committee, we also recommend the hiring of a full-time staffer devoted to Medicare for All work, having experienced the internal and external difficulties of running a national priority campaign without a staff person exclusively devoted to that priority.

But if prioritization actually matters this time, how to choose? By my count, there are nine national priority proposals on the table: Medicare for All (via convention report), Green New Deal (R34), electoral (R13, R31, R49, R82), labor (R3, R32, R66, R67, R68), immigrant rights (R5), childcare (R25), decarceration (R28, R54), voting rights (R72), and housing (R40, R57, R64). (R35 and R76 also call for prioritization but make no mention of staff.) Nine dedicated staffers is a good deal to ask, but not impossible if current staff organizers reoriented away from regional responsibilities toward dedicated campaign responsibilities, and also if we steered away from the NGOist, professional-training spending proposals (R24 and R60). (I have written elsewhere about the danger of training.)

If we want to keep the regional staff structure mostly in place (a more likely scenario), then we’ll have to make some hard choices. Unfortunately, there are currently no parameters in place for doing so, and the present lack of structure effectively undermines the decision-making ability of the assembly. If delegates vote moralistically rather than strategically and affirm all nine priorities, we leave it to the NPC (or other executive bodies) to later decide our actual priorities under budget constraints.

With this in mind, it would be helpful for the NPC or the Convention Committee to produce concrete parameters and recommendations regarding prioritization, i.e., what prioritization means, what staff/budget commitments are involved, how many priorities the organization can reasonably accommodate, etc. Convention debate sessions can then be organized in such a manner as to guide the assembly toward choosing priorities in a more informed way and within the parameters of budget constraints, so that administrative bodies are not making the real decisions post festum.

National, Regional, Local

An organization that ballooned in size in a relatively short period understandably has growing pains, and many resolutions express a desire for internal transformation: specifically, more local support, reforms at the national level (the NPC, in particular), and most interestingly, regional representation and coordination.

The most discussed of the local support proposals has been A2, the so-called “Pass the Hat” amendment, which would disburse $100 a month to every chapter regardless of its size. I am largely in agreement with Amy Price’s analysis of “Pass the Hat” here, and the basic argument goes for similar proposals (R37) that would hobble the national organization. Perhaps the dues sharing percentage ought to be reconsidered (R55) or particularized (R58), but more extreme proposals reflect an unfounded devolutionary faith as destructive in spirit as the movement for “states’ rights.”

Support for locals finds its natural corollary in the desire to rein in the perceived overreach of national bodies, and specifically the NPC. About half of the Constitution/Bylaws amendments pertain directly to reforming the NPC in some regard. I must admit to not having kept up with the reported failures of the NPC, but having worked for the past two years on the national Medicare for All campaign, I can testify to the difficulty of knowing when and how to productively respond to criticisms, and to the resulting confusion and internal turmoil that follow from this structural inadequacy. Without clear expectations of national committees and real channels of communication (i.e., not social media) across different levels of the organization, it is impossible to distinguish between legitimate grievances, disagreements in vision, and simple trolling. Perhaps some of these reforms will remedy the persistent lack of trust demonstrated in national leadership.

Part of the problem here, as two important proposals recognize, is the lack of intermediary structures in DSA. To my knowledge, Collective Power Network first articulated the argument that much of DSA’s internal strife is structural in origin, and that caucuses have largely filled the void where regional (or trans-local) bodies should exist. They make good on this critique with A16 and R26, which would create Regional Organizations headed by elected Regional Councils. The members of these Regional Councils would then be included in a new National Organizing Council, along with the NPC and national commission chairs. Regional representation and coordination accomplished, though it’s unclear that the National Organizing Council would have anything more than an advisory role.

More targeted at reforming executive powers, Socialist Majority’s A31 would supplant the NPC with a National Organizing Committee as “the highest policy-making body of the organization between meetings of the Convention.” The NOC would be composed of regional representatives (one for every 1000 members) and the NPC, and the NPC would be turned into a largely administrative body. With even fewer candidates for NPC in 2019 than in 2017, it’s clear that members are reticent to devote a good deal of their time to serving on such a maligned national body, which means the NPC in 2019-2021 is likely to be even less representative of the will of the membership. If NOC meetings were online rather than in-person – more or less a necessity for a 70+ person body – this would even save the organization money.

Both A16/R26 and A31 address a real problem within the organization — a lack of intermediary structures, preyed on by the caucuses — but it’s difficult to say if their solutions address this issue, and if they don’t introduce problems of their own. One obvious fault is that political reality does not exist regionally. In other words, state-based organizations, which would allow coordination around state-specific campaigns, make much more sense than regional organizations. In the case of A16/R26, it’s further unclear what power these regional bodies would really have. Regional representatives are better empowered to make decisions in A31, but the creation of such a large and unwieldy national body might inadvertently disempower leadership (and empower staff) to determine allocation of resources. That being said, it’s unclear that the next NPC – in all likelihood a divided body, like the current one – will have the power of effective decision-making either.

Conflicting Labor Proposals, Compatible Electoral Proposals

The three major labor proposals (Bread & Roses’ R32, Collective Power Network’s R3, and R66/R67) offer very different and conflicting visions for the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, as evidenced by two recent articles (here and here). One of the authors of R3 has criticized R32, a concretization of the rank-and-file strategy, for taking a one-size-fits-all approach to labor strategy (modeled around teacher organizing); neglecting intentional organization and training for uncritical labor solidarity and strike support; seeing unions as sites of consciousness-raising rather than real political battles; and failing to address the structural flaws in the DSLC. Unsurprisingly, R3 calls for the development of “the overall strategy of the DSLC [to] be informed by strategic assessments of local conditions” and the restructuring of the DSLC “into a network of formalized, chapter-level action cells.”

Bread & Roses’ The Call published a response of sorts defending the rank-and-file strategy of R32, arguing that “organizing the unorganized,” as both R3 and R67 propose to do, is difficult without the assistance of unions – thus the importance of having an active rank-and-file. Curiously absent from this debate is the question of building institutional relationships through existing union leadership, work that is complementary to both the “rank-and-file” and “organizing the unorganized” approaches. In any event, as the competing labor proposals offer markedly different directions for the development of educational materials and local structures, the fight over labor strategy is bound to be heated at the convention.

The opposite is mostly the case for the primary electoral resolutions, which are couched in very different rhetoric but are not irreconcilable at the end of the day. North Star’s R13 is perhaps the most unique, both in being focused on the defeat of Trumpism and also in upholding the “supporting progressives, working in coalition” model of the pre-2016 DSA. Socialist Majority’s R82 offers a more detailed organizational initiative – helping build local electoral infrastructure – but substantively allows a great deal of leeway as to what that infrastructure is helping support, and in this, despite its opening line about running “viable open socialist candidates for office,” does not differ greatly from R13.

More ideologically discerning are Bread & Roses’ R31 and R48/R49, which I and the other authors all think of as companion resolutions. R31 outlines a “class-struggle electoral strategy,” ably laying out a general Marxist strategy for electoral work – including the use of elections to build an independent socialist organization – but light on concrete particulars. R48 offers a list of “candidate litmus test” issues that all nationally endorsed candidates would have to affirm in order to receive material assistance from national, and #49 revives the DSA PAC to make that material assistance more substantial.

The key difference between R13/R82 on the one hand, and R31/R48/R49 on the other, thus concerns the criteria for judging candidates, but this is not an irreconcilable difference, as R31/R48/R49 only specify limitations for national endorsements. If R48 passed, for instance, the National Electoral Committee would still be free to help all chapters develop their local electoral infrastructure, but locally-endorsed candidates who did not answer yes to a minimum program of DSA demands would not be eligible for financial or phone/textbanking support from the national organization. It would thus be possible to vote “Yes” on all five resolutions without any real conflict between them, though I do not doubt that the relevant caucuses involved might bristle at the idea that their visions are actually concretely compatible.

As a delegate in 2017, I found the DSA convention simultaneously exhilarating and depressing, evidence of great organizational promise and bewildering ideological diversity. The 2019 compendia of resolutions and constitution/bylaws amendments show greater organizational seriousness, as many proposals put us on track for real campaigns to win transformative reforms, a greater organizational coherence across different levels, and structural and ideological improvement of our labor and electoral work. If DSA is to take advantage of the recent upsurge of interest in democratic socialism, it must quickly become a strong political organization, both ideologically and structurally, and a few of the resolutions and amendments up for debate offer us paths to get there.

Benjamin Fong is on the Executive Committee of Phoenix DSA and the Steering Committee of the national Medicare for All campaign. He is a 2019 DSA Convention delegate and can be reached at byyfong (a) gmail.com.


Looking at the DSA Convention Proposals

By Andrew Sernatinger

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted and drawn from a much longer piece that appeared in New Politics on July 6, 2019.

Delegates to DSA’s 2019 Convention will debate and vote on eighty-five (85) resolutions and thirty-three (33) constitution/bylaw changes as well as elect 16 members to the national governing body, the National Political Committee. In what follows, I’ll analyze what’s been proposed, the players involved, and what it tells us about the state of DSA.

Full disclosure: I’m not a member of any caucus within DSA. I was briefly associated with Socialist Majority, and I wrote an early draft of its fundraising plank. I independently wrote a resolution that commits DSA to a “Bernie or Bust” perspective on the 2020 election. Below, I’ll try to be objective, though I’m not impartial.

Background: Nuts and Bolts of the National Organization

With 60,000 members, DSA National runs on a budget of roughly $4.4 million, 75% of which comes from dues. Most of the money the National spends is on staffing costs, and for 2019 DSA is going into its reserve fund for a deficit of about $350,000 to subsidize the convention. The organization is on track to have 23 full-time and one part-time staff. At the time of the last convention, it had seven full-time and one part-time staff.

Most of the staff are assigned to running the organization’s office, membership information, finances, website and the like. Four staff are dedicated “Field Organizers.” supporting 175 locals as well as each being attached to a national priority. DSA staff have a union, represented through the Newsguild-Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The Players: Caucuses and “Not-Caucus” Caucuses

The presence of organized factions isn’t new to this convention, but they play an important role in the politics of DSA. Caucuses count members in the dozens or low hundreds, so the vast majority of DSA members are not affiliated to any grouping, however a plurality of proposals and candidates are affiliated to an organized group. To avoid being flooded with resolutions, the Convention Committee instituted a rule that proposed resolutions would need at least fifty (50) members in good standing to sign onto them for it to be considered at convention. Fifty isn’t overly burdensome, but it does encourage members to self-organize to ensure 1) their proposals make it to convention and 2) they can count on support when the vote is taken.

For the NPC, name recognition makes a large difference with so many members. No one knows everyone, so running as a caucus slate rounds out the chances that you and your people get elected. If history is any guide, it’s likely that formations will change or disband following convention when they’ve met their immediate purpose.

Existing caucuses going into convention are (in no particular order):

  • Bread & Roses (B&R): Formerly “Spring,, an explicitly Marxist caucus descended from last convention’s “Momentum” slate. They tend to see the National organization’s purpose as creating a united and coherent organization. “We oppose horizontalist practices that distort democracy into a series of endless meetings, replace accountable leadership with the tyranny of structurelessness, and drain decisions of consequences. We must make decisions about priorities and then commit to carrying them out.”
  • Build: The original “not-caucus” caucus. Descended from Praxis, the other big slate in 2017. It publishes a zine about what chapters are doing on the ground and has a vision of “base-building” that is much more local. “We believe that most of the national organization’s troubles are the direct result of escalating factionalism, personal attacks, and a zero-sum approach to internal political differences.”
  • Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC): Made up largely of chapter leaders, national working group leaders and former DSA staff, it wants to stay the course but improve upon old structures that haven’t worked particularly well with the growth of the organization. Some members of the smaller “North Star” caucus, which contains many pre-2016 members, have joined SMC “We believe DSA should be a national organization governed democratically and openly from the bottom up.”
  • Collective Power Network (CPN): Another not-caucus, made up of some former DSA staffers, with supporters based largely in DC and New Orleans. CPN argues that DSA is limited in its appeal until it addresses organizational challenges. It has a federated vision for DSA that relies on a greater interplay of  local, regional and national bodies. “The broad goal of building a mass organization of workers fighting for a democratic socialist society is seriously undermined by our current membership composition and lack of diversity.”
  • Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC): Made up of anarchists, council communists, and autonomist Marxists, it argues for abolishing the National Political Committee and shifting dues from National to locals. “…we wish to promote the ability of individuals and communities to set their own priorities, both inside and outside the DSA. Governing authority is illegitimate in itself and can only be justified if it is delegated by and subordinated to a democratic assembly.”

Where I can I’ve tried to associate proposals with a caucus that developed them. I’ve researched as best I could, but readers should know that I could have made mistakes.

Resolutions at a Glance

Of the 85 resolutions under consideration, just under half (40) are associated with an organized caucus within DSA. If we passed every single resolution, the cost would be $7,053,287.64 and require 28 additional full-time staff. These figures are drawn from information provided on the national DSA website and may be revised as amendments are proposed and budgets adjusted…

A third of the resolutions are concerned with the internal organization of DSA; if you fold in anything having to do with how money is raised or distributed, the number is nearly half.(The “Political” category regards two resolutions about making a platform and one on changing our name, which are also about how we operate but are somewhat distinct.)

Thirteen resolutions call for committing to an issue as national priority, which touch on six common subjects: labor, immigration, climate/ecosocialism, elections, prisons, and housing. The 2019 Convention does not set a limit on the number of priorities DSA will have, which is different from 2017, when only three were chosen (Elections, Labor and Medicare for All). That could become a problem in 2019 if the Convention over-commits; if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

Overall, there seems to be more agreement on perspectives and less agreement on organization. I’ll focus on the two continuing priorities (labor and elections) and then the organizational prescriptions.

Labor

Approximately seven resolutions were submitted with perspectives on labor, which boils down to proposals by B&R (#32 “Labor Strategy and the DSLC”), CPN (#3 “Towards a Clear, Multifaceted Strategy for Labor”), and Build (#66 “Prioritizing Labor”, #67 “Organizing the Unorganized”, #68 “New Operation Dixie”).

The most significant difference among labor proposals is on the guiding philosophy behind them.. Bread and Roses explicitly favors “The Rank and File Strategy” (RFS), a perspective articulated by socialist labor activist Kim Moody and most closely associated with the work of Labor Notes; CPN, Build, and Socialist Majority (as expressed on their website) do not.

RFS places emphasis on organizing as worker-activists (whether in unions or not), building reform movements inside unions that call for more militancy and democracy, and views “shop floor” activism as paramount. RFS is not against working as union staff, but rather believes that union staff are part of a complex labor bureaucracy that does not have the same opportunities for engaging workers as agents of change.

The emphasis on the RFS coming from B&R will be a sticking point at the convention, as the organization has historically favored working with “progressive union officials.” The ensuing conversation will have implications for DSA’s vision for socialism and our sense of how to get there.

Elections

Resolutions involving electoral politics can be subdivided as follows: prioritizing elections, 2020 election-related, and endorsement criteria. Given the role elections have played in bringing people into DSA, it’s no surprise that there are multiple resolutions reaffirming DSA’s commitment to running socialist candidates, again with perspectives by B&R (#31 “Class Struggle Elections”), SMC (#82 “DSA National Election Priority”) and North Star’s resolution (#13 “Defeating Trumpism and Electing Democratic Socialists and Progressives”).

#13 “Defeating Trumpism” effectively argues for an ‘Anyone But Trump’ perspective, hoping to push the Democrats to the Left, but supporting them against the Right regardless. SMC’s #82 “National Election Priority” articulates the center position of being involved in electoral activity, prioritizing coalition work, having left aspirations but leaving it up to chapters to decide what minimum program is acceptable. #31 “Class Struggle Elections” (B&R) stakes out a left pole for electoral politics, putting forward a perspective of running as open socialists, using the office to build movements, and trying to build a “party within a party” to prepare along the lines of a “dirty break” – a strategy for building a new political party in the United States by operating in the Democratic Party and eventually breaking  off to form the new party.

Apart from electoral strategy, #48 “Candidate Litmus Test” sets up a questionnaire that candidates must affirm completely for them to get a DSA endorsement, and  “Not One Penny” sets a pledge that candidates for U.S. Congress must vote against militarism and all foreign military operations;

Two resolutions are aimed at DSA’s orientation to Sanders. My own #15 is essentially a “Bernie or Bust” resolution, which accepts the decision DSA has already made in endorsing Sanders but rejects any other candidate should he lose.[In other words, individual could work for any candidate they choose, but the organization would not endorse anyone else.] #39 “Petition Bernie Sanders for a People’s Foreign Policy Platform” might be called the “No Tankies” resolution, aiming for DSA to try to push Sanders to have more left-wing international policies –this contains language for solidarity with Palestine and Venezuela.

In sum: Elections? Yes. How should DSA do them? Within the Democratic Party. The minimums are going to have to be negotiated.

Financial

Whatever decisions are made regarding DSA’s finances are going to affect every other resolution. DSA dues are cheap: an annual membership is only $65 (a little less than $6 a month). Compare that to other socialist organizations where the dues are between $20-$50 a month The 2017 Convention voted in favor of a dues sharing policy, where 20% of dues collected would be given to locals. The particulars of this policy were left up to the NPC, which decided that the 20% should apply only to monthly dues for chapters with organizational accounts. This created an incentive for locals to build local infrastructure and sign up their members on recurring monthly dues.

Of the eight resolutions concerning finances, half of them want to increase the share of dues going to the locals. On the lower end, Build’s proposal (#83) earmarks 8% of all income for resources directed at locals to the tune of $380,000; the controversial“Pass the Hat” $100/month flat stipend to every chapter is being presented as a constitutional amendment and is estimated to siphon $215,000 from the National. LSC has four proposals  that a) increase the dues share to locals to 50% of ALL dues (#37), thereby cutting the national budget by roughly $2 million; b) allow the locals to handle memberships and dues rather than the national (#22); c) discourage large donations, dropping national income by about $500,000 (#16); and d) increase the convention subsidy to delegates (#29). Less money in, more money out.

SMC’s fundraising proposal “Grassroots Fundraising and Small Chapter Growth” (#55) calls for a national dues drive to encourage members to switch from annual to monthly dues, which provides for a regular cash flow, while also increasing the volume of dues shared with locals. This aims to grow the pie rather than cut it differently.

Organizational

So far, I’ve only looked at resolutions, but as we approach organizational proposals the difference between a resolution and a bylaw change is a legalistic distinction, so I’ll consider both as they pertain to DSA’s Organizational Structure.

There are twenty-eight (28) resolutions aimed at DSA’s internal functioning, and an additional thirty-three (33) constitution/bylaw changes, for a total of sixty-one (61) proposals. LSC leads these, having submitted approximately one quarter of all proposed organizational changes, followed by a handful each for Build and CPN; neither B&R nor SMC submitted any bylaw revisions. LSC is ideologically motivated against representative leadership, so most of their proposals have to do with either shrinking DSA National (and abolishing the NPC outright) or putting the national bodies under intense scrutiny.  

Most of what’s being put forward concerns the NPC, Conduct/Grievances, YDSA, Member Trainings, and Organizational Structure. They’re not so much an a la carte menu of nice ideas as they are responses to some prominent issues DSA has had in the last three years, all of which have competing narratives.

Conclusions: What Kind of DSA?

I made the argument earlier this year that despite the presence of caucuses in the organization there is broad agreement on DSA’s core politics, and the contention is largely about how the organization functions. After reading through these resolutions, I stick by that claim. Differences in the political resolutions appear to be more of degree rather than kind. Elections and labor have multiple proponents. There’s a growing sense of support for anti-racism, ecosocialism, gender justice and the immigration crisis as central to the work of DSA. The problem is going to be deciding on an effective political strategy.

The bigger issue for the convention is what will happen to the national organization? Ultimately, what’s being put forward amounts to a “to be or not to be?” question. Either gut the National and act as a network of locals under the DSA brand or figure out how significant the issues with the structure are and adjust accordingly. DSA has benefited from the wideness of the “big tent,” but this convention may have to decide who and what will be left looking for other shelter.  

Andrew Sernatinger is a member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He has written articles for Jacobin, New Politics, International Viewpoint and the edited collection Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back.