by Walter K.
A member from another DSA chapter once complained to me, “It’s hard to debate organizing tactics without everyone agreeing on the same principles first.” If only everyone shared his perspective, we would all agree about what DSA should do. It was like he thought DSA was a printer, while others saw it as a sewing machine. From his perspective, DSA was something to use, not to be part of.
Being member-led means DSA can be a radically democratic group, a place where, unlike jobs, non-profits, or existing political parties, the average member actually has power. The problem is that anything DSA does depends on you. You can’t use DSA because you are DSA. This is an insight from labor organizer Jane McAlevey, who tells union organizers to never “third-party” the union.
For her, it’s not “the union” that goes on strike. If you’re a member of “the union,” you go on strike in solidarity with the other members. This is more than semantics. When members see “the union” as a third party, they stop participating. Their personal connections and the sense of shared purpose fade away. Then, when collective action problems like layoffs arise, members call for “the union” to act. Unfortunately, they can’t simply hit the “strike” button. It becomes clear that the “union” is just a collection of individuals and their social bonds. Union members then have to build trust, shared purpose, and solidarity from scratch.
Similarly, I think NNJ DSA’s potential hinges on building more trust, purpose, and solidarity. In our context, we “third party” ourselves when we argue with the words “DSA should…” Instead of an organization you’re a part of. When you think this way you do a disservice to yourself and to your comrades. It’s like pretending DSA is a football team and yelling your play calls at the TV. You become just a spectator. Meanwhile, you leave all the work to others.
Imagine a contentious argument like “DSA should merge with the Demo- cratic party.” This is not an organiz- ing proposal, it’s a political strategy. The member wishes that the current organization was a simple tool for this particular strategy. The implication is that you should desire the same thing. What starts out as a debate over pol- itics morphs into one over your heart. It’s no wonder that political discussions frequently leads to hurtful conflict. Beyond weakening the bonds between members, “DSA should…” creates a trap of endless debate in which “disagreements over what is to be done never cease, taking time and energy away from doing anything.”
By design, DSA is a big tent full of competing tendencies. How can we ever agree when we have differences in principle? I think we have to ground our competing ideologies into concrete organizing proposals instead. For example: “NNJ DSA delegates will introduce a proposal for DSA to merge with Democratic party at DSA’s 2023 National Convention.” Of course, one’s ideology still shapes this idea, but it’s a proposal for action instead of just a theoretical proposal. Members can debate a concrete plan rather than a hypothetical scenario. We all have the power to agree to enact this, modify or to reject it entirely.
So, here’s my concrete proposal for helping us create a fulfilling and democratic chapter: try to notice if you’re about to argue what “DSA should” do. Use that as a starting place to help you determine what you want to achieve with your comrades. Then, determine how you could do it. Float your idea with comrades, ask for suggestions, and try to build support. See if you can convince skeptical members to agree. Finally, find the time for making these decisions and propose your idea. Rather than lamenting what DSA should but doesn’t do, it is much more empowering and productive to use your power to propose what we could do together.