As the 2019 DSA National Convention heats up, it can be difficult to follow all the debates and proposals being made. Between now and the start of the convention on August 2nd, 1,059 delegates have 33 candidates for National Political Committee, 88 resolutions, and 38 constitution and bylaws changes to sift through.
In preparing for the convention, we in DSA’s Bread & Roses caucus have put together this page to summarize what we see as the major debates and tendencies in the organization. We’ll update it semi-regularly between now and the convention as additional contributions to debates are made. We also recommend DSA members check out other summaries. Andrew Sernatinger (Madison DSA) has useful primers on NPC candidates and resolutions and Ben Fong (Phoenix DSA) has an overview of debates at DSA’s Democratic Left blog.
So far resolutions and debates have focused on DSA’s approach to the labor movement, electoral strategy, and competing visions for how to redesign the national organization. Our summary focuses on those debates for now. Delegates have also put forward, among other proposals, important resolutions to ground DSA’s work in struggles against racism, gender oppression, and imperialism; to fight for the Green New Deal; and to take on voter suppression, mass incarceration, police brutality, and anti-immigrant policies.
All resolutions and constitution and bylaws changes can be found here and here. A break down of how tendencies are recommending delegates vote can be found here. Throughout we refer to proposals by their numbers in these packets. Delegates will also be asked before the convention to prioritize which proposals to put on the convention agenda — so it is very unlikely that all proposals will be debated in the end.
Caucuses, Tendencies, and the NPC Race
Most members in DSA are not members of any caucus or tendency (we use tendency to refer to caucus-like formations that don’t use the label of "caucus"). However, a significant minority of active members and national delegates have found joining one to be useful. In an organization of almost 60,000 members, caucuses are a means to organize within and influence the organization’s direction.
Nationally — and not including issue-based and identity caucuses — key political caucuses and tendencies include Bread & Roses (B&R), Build, Collective Power Network (CPN), Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), North Star, Reform & Revolution (R&R), and Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC). DSA’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus is also an important group in the organization, and is a combination of a caucus and an officially-recognized national working group.
In 2017, members of B&R ran candidates for the NPC on a slate called Momentum and members of Build ran candidates for the NPC on a slate called Praxis. North Star tends to be associated with the leadership of DSA prior to 2016 and many of its members are also members of SMC. R&R is made up of members who left Socialist Alternative in late 2018. SMC appears to be the largest caucus of active members based on its published membership list.
A number of chapter-specific caucuses have also been formed, each of which will likely have a handful of delegates working in tandem at the convention. These include San Francisco’s Red Star caucus, Portland’s Red Caucus, and New York City’s Emerge caucus. As far as we can tell, each of these chapter caucuses have a number of former members of Refoundation — a national caucus that positioned itself on DSA’s far left before it dissolved in late 2018.
In the elections for the 16-member NPC, only SMC, B&R, and CPN are explicitly sponsoring their own slates — SMC’s includes six candidates, B&R’s five, and CPN’s one. Three members of San Francisco DSA are running on the San Francisco Slate. And, though they haven’t stated this formally, Build has a number of candidates running either independently or on groupings like "Shine Under Pressure" (SUP), as does LSC. A number of candidates are running explicitly as independents and without caucus affiliation. North Star issued a full list of recommended candidates, with the SMC slate at the top of their list. For a full overview of the candidates, Andrew Sernatinger’s piece is the most helpful.
In the notes below, we try where possible to associate proposals with the relevant internal grouping. In many cases proposals or arguments have been made by a member of a caucus — we note that to give some sense of where the caucus is coming from, though it’s usually unclear if the caucus is officially supporting the proposal or not.
Finally, we’ve done our best to report what we know to be true about the leadup to the convention. If you see any factual mistakes, please email us at editor [a] socialistcall [dot] com.
The Debate So Far
At the 2017 DSA National Convention, DSA endorsed through the national priorities resolution a focus on rank-and-file organizing as part of its main orientation to labor work. The organization also officially launched the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, which was designed to coordinate DSA’s national labor strategy. Since the election of its first Steering Committee in early 2018, the DSLC has made helping DSA members get union jobs a key part of its work — including publishing a manual on how socialists can get rank-and-file jobs as teachers.
Consistent with the DSLC’s focus, all tendencies in DSA either support some continued orientation towards rank-and-file work (usually the canonical reference is to Kim Moody’s 2000 pamphlet: The Rank-and-File Strategy) or have not taken a position. Bread & Roses and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus have taken the most explicit positions in favor of the RFS. But a major question at the 2019 DSA convention will be the degree to which DSA remains focused on that vision as a top labor priority.
Discussions about what kind of labor work DSA should prioritize has been brewing since the start of this year. Barry Eidlin (LA-DSA/B&R) published a thorough defense of the RFS in Jacobin in March. Andrew D. (Suffolk County DSA) published a close and somewhat critical reading of Kim Moody’s original pamphlet for the Build tendency, to which Jane Slaughter (Detroit DSA/B&R) replied with some corrections.
In June, Jacobin hosted further contributions to the discussion, first via a critical piece by Luke Elliot-Negri (Nassau County DSA/SMC) that faulted the RFS for overemphasizing the importance of socialists getting union jobs at the expense of other tactics for rebuilding the labor movement — including taking staff organizing jobs. Kim Moody responded with a restatement of the need to prioritize taking over and transforming unions from below.
In July, Collective Power Network published a criticism by Annabel Vera (Sacramento DSA/CPN) of the Bread & Roses labor resolution. Vera, a member of the DSLC Steering Committee, faulted the B&R resolution and the DSLC more broadly for not paying attention to local organizing conditions. Bread & Roses weighed in again in July with a piece by Eidlin explaining how the rank-and-file strategy is critical to organizing unorganized workers, as well as a piece by a Bread & Roses member who decided to get a union job to pursue the RFS. Ryan Mosgrove (DC DSA/CPN) wrote a followup again criticizing B&R’s labor resolution.
What’s at Stake in Atlanta
One notable feature of the convention is the widespread agreement among all proposals that labor should remain a key feature of DSA's work. Rather than adopting an overwhelming focus on electoral work, DSA takes a broader and more serious approach to class struggle.
Starting from that very important baseline of agreement, the labor debate has been concretized into two main proposals for how the DSLC should conduct its work going forth (further amendments may help clarify lines of debate further) — Bread & Roses's Resolution 32 and Collective Power Network's Resolution 3. Both resolutions were drafted by members of the DSLC, propose hiring an organizer to support the work of the DSLC, and instruct the DSLC to help chapters develop stronger labor groups.
An endorsement of the B&R proposal would provide the "clear strategy" that the CPN resolution calls for but fails to articulate. According to the rank-and-file strategy advocated for by the B&R resolution, the central focus of DSA's labor work should be to help develop and empower a growing layer of rank-and-file workers to fight the bosses and transform our unions into militant and democratic vehicles for class struggle.
CPN's resolution proposes a reorganization of the DSLC and it sets three commendable (if very broad) goals of working within unions, focusing on strategic industries, and organizing the unorganized. But CPN's resolution says nothing about the need to politically transform existing unions from the bottom-up. Nor does it provide any clear answers for how to achieve these three goals or what tactics to prioritize given the current state of DSA and the labor movement.
B&R's resolution is informed by the belief that socialists can be most effective at taking on our class enemies and organizing the unorganized by working, wherever possible, within unions in strategic industries. While we support various tactics for rebuilding workers' power — including salting unorganized industries and organizing new unions at our workplaces — our resolution establishes mechanisms to help DSA prioritize actively embedding ourselves into strategic industries and unions.
B&R's resolution is important because it offers clear instructions to the DSLC to help DSA activists become shopfloor organizers capable of helping revitalize the labor movement from the bottom up. We also recommend delegates vote for both resolutions because CPN's resolution reiterates commendable goals that are complimentary, not contradictory with our resolution.
Additional proposals call for specific new organizing campaigns. Resolution 46 would have DSA support new organizing efforts in logistics, including supporting salting efforts. Resolution 68, proposed by some members connected to Build — including one candidate for NPC from the SUP slate — would have DSA call on unions to launch a new "Operation Dixie" to organize the South. Finally Resolution 67, coauthored by members of Build and San Francisco's Red Star Caucus, calls on the DSLC to do more to support organizing the unorganized.
The Debate So Far
The 2017 DSA National convention made a renewed attention to socialist electoral work a major national priority. In the months following the convention a new National Electoral Committee was formed, which set forward an ambitious national strategy aimed at building DSA’s independent electoral capacity while focusing on Democratic Party primaries as the target for electoral challenges.
Historically, DSA as an organization embraced the realignment strategy — a dream that socialists and other progressives could realign the Democratic Party and make it a political institution rooted in and truly fighting for working-class people’s interests. By the early 2010s this commitment had waned, and in the 2017 priorities resolution DSA dropped all mention of the possibility of transforming the Democratic Party.
While realignment is out as a strategy that anyone in DSA will at least publicly defend, the organization remains committed to using the Democratic Party ballot line for most electoral campaigns. The rationale was convincingly articulated by Seth Ackerman in Jacobin back in 2016, and the tactic has basically been the unchallenged approach of almost all DSA chapters engaged in electoral work since. In sum, Ackerman made the case for building an electoral apparatus completely independent of the Democratic Party (DSA activists have viewed DSA as this apparatus) that runs candidates in party primaries as left-wing challengers. The approach also takes an agnostic and at times dismissive approach to the need for creating a ballot line independent of the Democratic Party in the future.
DSA’s electoral strategy has been tested and honed in the two years following the 2017 convention in a number of impressive electoral wins and close losses. And in March, after a national referendum was conducted and 76% of members responding voted yes, DSA endorsed Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign bid.
There seems to be a generally shared commitment to continuing to use the Democratic ballot line, and a common understanding of the importance of electoral work. And most caucuses and tendencies seem to either support or passively accept DSA’s recent endorsement of Bernie. In fact a notable (and frankly regrettable) fact about the convention is that there are very few resolutions touching on DSA’s Bernie campaign. Key questions will not be addressed by the convention, including whether DSA activists should run to be Bernie delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Nevertheless, some differences remain on the question of long-term electoral strategy and how high a bar should be set for endorsements.
On the question of long-term strategy, Socialist Majority Caucus tends to hew closest to the strategy outlined by Ackerman — including its aversion to talk of a new party down the line — while Bread & Roses is more vocal about the need to break from the Democratic Party and commit to forming an independent party at some point in the future. Luke Elliot-Negri (Nassau County DSA/SMC) published on SMC’s website a criticism of Bread & Roses’s commitment to forming an independent party. David Duhalde (NYC-DSA/SMC) in Socialist Forum recently wrote a call to arms for DSA members to work more actively within official Democratic Parties in every state to reform them and open up new opportunities. Megan Svoboda, writing for Bread & Roses, has published a call for a class-struggle electoral strategy aimed at recruiting strong working-class candidates who identify as socialists and build working-class organization and power through their campaigns.
What’s at Stake in Atlanta
By our count, more than 15 resolutions touch on DSA’s electoral strategy. Resolution 82 ("DSA National Electoral Priority Resolution") proposed by, among others, three candidates from SMC’s slate for NPC would recommit DSA to making electoral work a national priority. It essentially continues DSA’s electoral work as it is set out in DSA’s 2017 priorities resolution and the NEC strategy document. The proposal also leaves to the NEC and the NPC the question of what criteria should be used when making national endorsements and what endorsements should entail.
Resolution 31 ("Class Struggle Elections") proposed by the Bread & Roses caucus also makes electoral work a priority for DSA, while calling on DSA to develop a candidate pipeline to recruit working-class candidates to run for office. It requires that candidates endorsed nationally by DSA identify openly as socialists, prioritize using their elected office as a platform for building working-class power, and commits DSA in the long-term to the strategic goal of launching an independent working-class party.
Resolution 48 ("Candidate Litmus Test") would commit DSA nationally to a much more rigorous set of criteria for making endorsements, including requiring that candidates identify openly as socialists, support a number of key economic and social reforms, and endorse Bernie Sanders. Resolution 49 ("PAC Spending for Nationally Endorsed DSA Candidates") would make national endorsements more meaningful, by among other things committing DSA to donating money from its national PAC to endorsed candidates.
If the convention endorses Resolution 82, it would be a vote of support for DSA’s existing electoral approach. Support for Resolutions 31, 48, and/or 49 would make DSA’s electoral strategy more specific than it currently is, and set a higher bar for national endorsements than currently exists. None of these resolutions are at odds, but delegates will have to decide what kind of instructions they want to give to the NEC for its work in the next two years.
In addition, DSA’s North Star Caucus has proposed Resolution 13 which makes defeating Donald Trump a national priority in 2020. Though the resolution leaves the question of what defeating Trump would require open, in the past members of the North Star Caucus have been vocal defenders of lesser-evil voting in presidential elections — so the resolution may be intended to pave the way for a critical endorsement of the Democratic nominee should Bernie Sanders lose. That position is challenged by Resolution 15 ("In the Event of a Sanders Loss") which would declare ahead of time that DSA will not endorse any other Democratic Party candidate should Bernie Sanders lose the primary.
Looking to down ballot races, members of SMC, B&R, and other independents have proposed Resolution 36 to support socialist challenges in District Attorney races. Resolution 87 sets new guidelines for the process of making endorsements.
A host of resolutions seek to influence Bernie Sanders’s policy positions. Resolution 39 would petition Bernie Sanders to take a strong stance in support of a "People’s Foreign Policy Platform". Resolution 59 would demand that all candidates running for president develop a policy for reparations for black people in the United States. And Resolution 74 calls on Bernie Sanders to adopt a stronger housing platform.
As of the start of the 2019 convention, DSA has a fairly simple national structure. A sixteen member National Political Committee (with two representatives from the Young Democratic Socialists of America sharing a single seventeenth vote) is elected at biennial national conventions. The NPC acts as the national leadership between conventions, oversees the national office (including appointing the National Director), and makes national political decisions. The NPC and the national office are also supposed to support the organization’s 150+ chapters, which are then broken up into smaller working groups, committees, and (in bigger cities) neighborhood-based branches.
This structure worked fairly well when DSA was a small organization with only a few hundred active members. The organization’s rapid growth however has strained it. As a result, many changes have been proposed.
As these proposals become more fleshed out, and stronger cases are made on their behalf, we will update this section further. For now, five main constitution and bylaws changes deserve special notice as they would make the most sweeping changes to the national organization.
First, two members of Socialist Majority Caucus have proposed the creation of a National Organizing Council via Constitution/Bylaws Change 31. The NOC would be a body of about 60 members plus the NPC, and would be the highest power between conventions. It would have the authority to oversee and reverse decisions of the NPC. The proposal also mentions the creation of regional organizations with the power to charter chapters, but does not detail what those regional organizations would look like. In this proposal, DSA chapters would be grouped into regions solely for the purpose of electing members of the NOC to represent their region. Although Bread & Roses has not taken a position on the proposal, it has proposed an amendment to remove the NOC’s ability to amend the constitution and bylaws on the grounds that only the national convention should be able to do that.
Three alternative constitution and bylaws changes have similar goals but approach the problem in different ways.
Constitution/Bylaws Change 15, proposed by members of the North Star caucus, would increase the size of the National Political Committee to 28 members. While the simplest solution to expanding the national leadership, it lacks the regional representation that members may desire.
Constitution/Bylaws Change 33, proposed by members of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, creates an "Assembly of Locals" (the "AOL"). The proposal is difficult to parse, though it appears to call for a leadership body of up to 400 members and removes most powers from the NPC, which would be renamed "the Board". It is hard to imagine how such a proposal could work effectively in practice, and if enacted the work of national DSA could be fatally hamstrung.
Finally, Constitution/Bylaws Change 34, proposed by members of Build, reactivates the National Advisory Committee to act as a new intermediary leadership body. The controversial aspect of the NAC proposal is that by giving every chapter, regardless of its size, a single representative on the NAC, it would also create a "DSA senate".