To Win the Future, DSA Needs Stronger Structures

This piece was originally published in The Organizer, a publication of the now defunct Collective Power Network. It has been republished with the author’s permission.

Since its explosive growth in 2016, DSA has been divided over organizational questions of centralization versus decentralization. In this piece, Olivia M. analyzes and argues for the importance of structure in building transformative democracy—and that such a democracy is the sole way DSA can become an effective mass organization of the working class.

It has been a little over four years since Democratic Socialists of America experienced its first of several membership bumps, growing the organization beyond its original size and presence in the country. In this time, DSA has become an active political force throughout the country, engaging in campaigns wildly varying in scope, target, and strategy. But DSA’s focus has also been on internal organization, as its form already seems strained by its growth and not well suited for mass membership. This strain has shown itself in the minutiae of everyday organizing, with most chapters having to create their own process for how to teach, train, and delegate work to the consistent stream of new members coming into the organization, all while maintaining consistent communication with new and established members alike on chapter projects. This strain has also shown itself in various interpersonal and political crises in our local chapters. While each of these crises have unique conditions and precursors, there’s a clear organizational nature to them, and a solution now familiar due to how frequently it’s offered: DSA needs better structures.

But what are structures, exactly? In DSA, the term is vague. You can look at structures prescriptively (usually understood as defining terms and enforcement, or prescribing what people should do) or descriptively (describing conditions and structures as they exist in people’s lives).  For example, referring to organizational structures such as bylaws can be understood as prescriptive, and most attempts to “reform” DSA have proceeded by this path. However, we can also be descriptive about social structures, or the various interlocking systems of power that maintain oppression/exploitation while also reproducing class society. There have been few, if any opportunities to understand organizational perspectives and political tendencies in the org with reference to how existing social structures inform them.

Structures as Agency, Structures as Relationships

By far the most commonly cited source in DSA regarding structure is The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. A fundamental text to both anarchists and those critical of anarchism in DSA, it captures a common desire for clearly articulated structures among DSA members quite neatly. Indeed, you can capture a significant portion of the DSA framing of this concern in just a single quote from the article:

“For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large.

Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness

The argument in this paragraph is sound. So why, given a fairly universal appreciation for Freeman’s argument in DSA, do we still struggle with the relationship of formal and informal structures in the organization? My argument is that a structural change is not achieved by changing rules, rather, a structural change is achieved by changing organizational behavior.

By emphasizing formal processes without concern for the cultural shift needed for change, DSA consistently finds itself in a familiar pattern: passing legal reforms meant to address a structural problem which in no way addresses how membership behavior will be changed. This is a common thread throughout all of DSA’s decision-making as an organization, not simply its crises. What is written on paper only exists insofar as it is realized in the relationships and agency of the membership. Writing formal structures does not in itself change the behavior of the informal structures that already exist within the organization and which dictate its movements. To borrow from Jane McAlevey:

What sociologists and academics have long labeled structure is actually human agency…When a successful strike shuts down production and leads to a very strong contract for the striking workers, academics call that contract a ‘structure.’ But the real structure involved is the human power, or agency, that won the contract.

Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts, p. 39

Understanding this distinction is key to decision-making. It is not enough to create ideal organizational structures on paper, you must also have or create a membership capable of applying them in reality. Anything less will fall far short of the expectations set.

‘Decentralization’: Who has Power?

The 2019 Convention was a battleground for many ideological stances within DSA, particularly on the question of structure and decision-making. In Andy Sernatinger’s review of the convention, he notes two fairly broad camps of thought in the organization: one in favor of ‘greater coordination,’ and another supportive of ‘decentralization.’ These two categories represent, at base, a conflict regarding autonomy, and who should have it. Many flaws from the ‘greater coordination’ camp of the time can be understood as embracing prescriptive organizational reforms without confronting the cultural reality of our social structures, but we should consider more deeply the ‘decentralist’ position.

On the national and local level, the issue of autonomy has centered on a key relationship: that between elected leadership, and various committees and working groups (WGs). The ‘decentralist’ camp has often fought for the ability of issue committees/WGs to make decisions without restriction or control by elected leadership, with the argument that this produces a better-decentralized, more democratic structure. It is an argument that attracts many of our members, who are uncomfortable with restricting or codifying work or projects in a volunteer organization. This is accompanied by a general attitude that people should be permitted to work on their preferred priorities, without the need for decisions or authorization from the larger collective. In practice, this produces several organizational problems.

Who populates an issue committee or working group? In many chapters, the goal is to get as many members as possible to directly participate within an issue committee. This is where campaign decisions happen; where political direction for a given issue is shaped and sent out into the world. Practically, most chapters struggle with this step from ‘DSA member’ to ‘committee member,’ where dedicated committee members often view themselves as members of that effort first, and members of DSA second. That is, said member may be a DSA member to fight for Medicare for All, but absent their Medicare for All committee, they may not have any other commitment to DSA

The role of a socialist organization is to transform us into a collective subject capable of exercising democratic power, to make us capable of what we presently are incapable of.

The process of developing a functional body while also maintaining autonomous committees and working groups can pose several difficulties. Here are several tendencies you might see develop within autonomous issue committees:

  • Democracy tends to be diminished or constrained within these bodies. Due to their smaller size and the increased relevance of ‘expertise’ on an issue, certain voices tend to be diminished while others are lifted, informal structures (cliques of members that have an issue in common) tend to form, and procedures like voting either fall by the wayside or become simple formalities (the conclusion already being decided by the opinion of the committee chair).
  • Where – or even if – democracy does still manifest in a committee, it tends to be within the self-selected membership of the committee itself, rather than the membership of the whole chapter.
  • Even if the whole membership endorses a priority, the issue committee is the place to go if one actually takes the principle seriously. This results in other spaces of the organization not acting as if this priority exists in practice.
  • As political work and discussion predominantly take place within issue committees, elected leadership and (most importantly) general chapter membership take on an increasingly administrative role, where chapter members are largely seen just as free volunteers for the carrying out of committee projects, and elected leaders are in charge of running the apparatus of the chapter on behalf of those campaigns. Membership increasingly comes to understand itself, by practice and activity, as subservient (and secondary) to the leaders of a given issue committee.
  • Over time, this structuring has a clear ideological impact on a chapter’s membership and leadership. Chapter membership increasingly considers it ‘not their place’ to counter the position or thoughts of an established issue leader, but for this very reason fail to develop buy-in to a chapter’s political work, leading to political efforts being taken on by increasingly smaller pools of people.  This leads to an increasing tendency to ‘rubber stamp’ the priorities of smaller formations, leaving just the elected leadership to oppose or critique the efforts of committees. Meanwhile, issue committee leaders, who are taking on disproportionately large amounts of work, come to identify the chapter’s political efforts on this issue with themselves, in contrast to the rest of the organization. Their buy-in, comparatively, takes on such a level that their position matters to them more than whatever the democratic position of the membership might be. This similarly leads them to seek relationships and allies outside the organization that may align with them on their own priorities, while significantly conflicting with the organization’s other positions.
  • The disproportionate investment of a given issue committee/WG to its principle, combined with the lack of concern for said principle outside the body, inevitably leads to friction and a struggle for resources among the various issue-based bodies, due to the finite resources of existing DSA chapters (and the national org). The polarization between hyper-invested committee leadership and less-invested chapter general membership makes it increasingly difficult to democratically compromise on this distribution of resources without crisis. Such committees will often choose to establish their own resource pools outside the larger chapter, further separating them in stakes and decision-making from the larger formation.
  • In the absence of democratic back and forth and with an inability to compromise on distribution of resources as a whole membership, issue committees increasingly transform into informal bases of power for various political tendencies within the chapter. This inevitably turns different priorities and efforts into proxies for political fights between informal structures within the organization.
  • The shrinking size of the committee, continually re-emphasized by an increasingly cliquish environment due to the informal network developing amongst its leaders, traps it (and the chapter as a whole) into doing smaller advocacy projects that are not capable of mobilizing the larger membership of the chapter, nor building working class power through the efforts of the organization—a necessary step of our project if we aim to establish socialism. If a committee does maintain its size, it is likely it will eventually pursue organizational independence, returning us to the single-issue project world of the pre-2016 left. This would be a massive regression for socialists.

What is outlined here is an ideological evolution from democratic decision-making to technocratic bureaucracy, what amounts to, ultimately, far more of a centralization of power than anything intended by those arguing for autonomous committees! This path is not inevitable in every given context in which issue substructures exist. Rather, it emerges from a failure to understand the agency of individuals inside structures, and the habits, choices and decision-making that are needed for our ‘formal structures’ to be actualized.

The analytical flaw in choosing the autonomous committee/WG model is revealed in a simple question: who has the power and legitimate authority to act? In the structure outlined above, the formal general membership and formal elected leadership are increasingly distanced from political decision-making by small bodies in which formal and informal structure ultimately converge. The question of ‘democracy’ ceases to be about the power of a regular member of DSA, but the power of a committee. The agency of our membership as a whole is supplanted with the agency of an internal issue structure within it. This makes organizational strategy impossible, and bleeds us of our only strength as a socialist organization—our ability to collectively and democratically mobilize our numbers to win.

Democracy is Transformative

Why do we, as socialists, value democracy in our organizations? We could take our goal—that all people of the world have collective power over the society they live in—as a universal moral principle, applying it to all spaces, including socialist organizations. But socialist organizations are fundamentally instrumental: They have a purpose (to transform the existing social order from capitalism to socialism) and without this would have no reason to exist. If the purpose of a socialist organization is to transform society, how does democracy actually help us achieve this?

In order for the working class to take power over the whole of society, it must learn, collectively, how to wield power. Democracy is the only organizational form that meaningfully allows for a majority of people to exercise collective power in their lives. Organizational democracy is not desirable because democratic spaces are simply good (society will not improve if billionaires hold meetings together using Robert’s Rules!), but because a working class that can wield power collectively is the necessary foundation a democratic society rests on. The problem in our society reflects the problem in DSA: formal rule is not enough. We must have an ideology, a habit, of collective power, wielded as casually by the vast majority of the working class as billionaires today spend their money.  This is perhaps what is most inspiring about the example of the 1199NE nursing-home workers described in No Shortcuts, who in the first decade of the new millennium had already engaged in 100 strikes, consistently demonstrating their strength and willingness to fight the ruling class.

For this to be possible, and for DSA to play a role in realizing working class power, we must move away from a model of organization focused on separate, functionally independent issue teams (often composed of experts or experienced activists on that issue), and toward one of collective, democratic decision-making and exercise of power. This is not about abandoning these principles, but reconnecting them, removing them from their silos. Rather than forming numerous, smaller campaign efforts trapped in advocacy campaigns for single issues, we should focus on a collective attainment of power that will allow us to achieve all of our principles as a single platform, unified by the grander principle of a free society that socialism provides us. We can see this principle demonstrated in the labor movement today, where some of the most powerful demands have focused on issues that are not considered strictly ‘labor’ oriented. The LA Teachers’ strike demand to restrict ICE access to campus, and demanding green neighborhood spaces, is a compelling example of this. We must focus not on issues, but people: how we go about transforming the working class from objects to subjects in our society, seeing the bigger picture and fighting to change it to address all of their needs.

The problem in our society reflects the problem in DSA: formal rule is not enough. We must have an ideology, a habit, of collective power, wielded as casually by the vast majority of the working class as billionaires today spend their money.

An organization capable of mass member involvement and agency (in other words, an organization with a democratic structure) has to understand not just the power of their enemies, but the power of their membership. Pivoting our efforts toward organizing in the power structures our members are already in, such as workplaces, apartments, neighborhoods, and other clearly defined bounds of social life; engaging in what is referred to as structural organizing. Structural organizing sits in contrast to self-selecting organizing, where individual activists commit to passion projects. Structural organizing also offers organizers an easy way to quantify its wins and losses: If you map a neighborhood and try to organize everyone in it, you can actually track your progress on that map, rather than hoping your “influence” is “moving people” without any way to know how effective you are. It is important to remember here, again, that all structures are, in reality, human power exercised, and that the power exercised in these spaces (that of the ruling class) is precisely what we seek to contest as socialists.

The strength of structural organizing comes from an inability to rely on experts or shortcuts. Democratic buy-in and engagement, along with a deliberate expansion of membership and involvement among the unorganized, is what is needed for victory in these spaces. Being ‘smart’ is not more important than having masses of people with you who are capable of expressing collective agency. Similarly, the power we develop in these efforts is more easily wielded against the ruling class. Single issue demands that previously might have taken an extended, grueling advocacy campaign can be pressed for as part of a larger platform of demands, articulated through a material power to threaten ruling class dominance in various social structures.

While mobilizing campaigns are still worthy of engagement, and teams of people are needed to plan them, there are specific ways they can be structured to focus on mass engagement:

  • There should be a limited number of mobilizing campaigns at any one time. The organization should set clear priorities through the democratic decision of general membership.
  • Membership not only needs to support the priority, they must commit to enacting it themselves. Virtually all of us consider the various issue stances we’ve taken in DSA as positive. But it is materially impossible for us to focus on all of them and still expect to use our greatest advantage: our membership. Before every priority is enacted, a majority of membership should be committed to actually carrying out our priorities. This requires a culture of democracy, in which individual members feel an obligation to the decisions of the collective, as well as a leadership prepared to organize for buy-in and involvement among membership. This is also a practice common in the most effective organizing campaigns—Philly DSA used this to great effect with the pledge for their Bernie 2020 campaign, and unions consistently build this commitment through petition signing, sticker wearing, and other union activities in anticipation of major actions like strikes.
  • Political and strategic decisions belong within the general membership and elected leadership, not self-selected issue committees. If the organization’s political viewpoints and strategies are articulated within small, self-selected bodies, it not only limits the scope of the organization’s strategy and politics, but allows political disagreements to avoid democratic engagement, leading to an uncritical, technocratic structure ripe for crisis when a major disagreement emerges.
  • The organizing committee should be planners, moving general members to engage in actions. Rather than members of the campaign team doing all the work of the campaign, effectively keeping their own separate membership list from the chapter, their primary role should be moving general members into engagement (and non-members into the chapter), to build activity, develop the intentional agency of everyone involved, and establish a collective ownership over the project throughout the chapter. The committee should only do the actual work as a last resort, if they should do it at all.
  • Priorities must answer to chapter members—and chapter members must actually expect this of them. The power relationship must clearly communicate that the committee is subservient to the general democratic body, and it must be demonstrated in practice, not simply on paper. There are mechanisms that are necessary for this to be possible-regular report backs to the larger membership and leadership, reauthorization of existing priorities by membership on a regular basis, the maintenance of resources by the whole organization, rather than the individual committee, and training and preparing members to have the political education and strategic vision needed to carry out our campaigns.

Together, priority campaigns and structural organizing can act as an engine of agency—mobilizing our membership to demonstrate our power to non-members, allowing us to organize them into being subjects within their own lives, further developing an active, engaged base to mobilize from.

Human beings are not static. We are constantly changed by the world, even as we ourselves change the world. Our behavior is not a simple set of natural traits, but a product of this mutual engagement. For this reason, a successful ‘structure’ cannot treat the humans within the organization as unchanging, a problem to be managed and corralled by the right set of rules. It must be transformative. To borrow a Marshall Ganz quote, strategy is “how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” As working class people who’ve lived their entire lives under capitalism, most of us are unprepared for democracy. We’ve learned to see ourselves as powerless, accepting the world as unjust and unchanging. The role of a socialist organization is to transform us into a collective subject capable of exercising democratic power, to make us capable of what we presently are incapable of. Form must follow function: if our organization is intended as an instrument to create a proletarian subject, it must in its practice constantly create a collective, democratic subject capable of exercising power as the working class, replacing bourgeois structures with democratic, proletarian ones.

Olivia M is a member of DSA Metro Cincinnati & North Kentucky.