For a term thrown around so frequently in DSA, there has been relatively little analysis of the term “wrecker.” In this piece A. Robert Miller discusses wrecking and wreckers, why they can be such a danger to DSA, and why we cannot make the mistakes of the micro-sects of the past.
You go into your call center job one Monday morning and find an email sitting in your inbox. You open it to read that your supervising manager has written you a lengthy reprimand for failing to fill out your timesheet for the previous week. Panicked, you open your job’s timekeeping calendar, log in, and find that your timesheet is filled out and you remember filling it out the previous Friday. You weigh your options. How can you correct your manager without making him angry? The last time something like this happened, you were given the cold shoulder for weeks because you dared to tell your supervisor that he was mistaken, and you fear that your manager will give you a bad performance review. When you ask your coworkers about this, they shrug their shoulders. None of them believe it is worth fighting over, and suggest you ignore the email and hope the manager forgets about it. However, you know this won’t work. You have seen this manager publicly berate other workers for ignoring emails. There’s no reason to believe that ignoring this message will be any more productive than correcting your supervisor. You have no good options, but you decide to correct your supervisor. You would rather get the cold shoulder than be publicly humiliated.
The supervisor described above is what many in the corporate world call “an asshole.” Their subordinates have a myriad of colorful adjectives that they attach to this phrase. Entire books have been written about how to deal with “assholes” in the workplace. One of the most prominent ones, The No Asshole Rule, by Robert Sutton, argues that “assholes” in workplaces damage organizational productivity, create incredible amounts of stress for victims, harm morale of bystanders, and turn their social circles against themselves. Sutton argues that refusing to enable “assholes” is necessary for businesses to maximize productivity and avoid developing a reputation that prevents them from recruiting talented workers.1
Capitalists have one big advantage over volunteer organizations like Democratic Socialists of America when it comes to dealing with “assholes.” The power imbalance inherent to capitalism requires workers to sell their labor to feed themselves, pay for housing, and take care of their various needs or wants. Apart from the few national staff members employed by DSA and the few elected leaders entitled to a stipend, members of DSA do not pay their bills with participation.
For this reason, cruelty, bullying, manipulation, and abusive behavior by members of DSA denotes something much more institutionally dangerous than simply being an “asshole.” Participation in DSA is voluntary and theoretically democratic, but does not provide obvious mediating principles to participation like “I do this to feed myself and my family.” This allows somebody behaving like an “asshole” to achieve far more power and cause much more damage than any individual could within most capitalist workplaces. For this reason, in political organizations like DSA, we refer to cruel and abusive bullies as “wreckers.”
Wrecking a Good Thing
The term “wrecking” has its roots in the economic development of the early Stalinist period of the Soviet Union. Unlike during the Russian Civil War or the period of small-scale capitalist development under the New Economic Policy, there was no easy means to deal with individuals who shirked work or sabotaged production out of spite or rank incompetence during collectivization under Stalin. Stalin eliminated private industry and (at the time) did not have official internal enemies that could offer convenient ways to sideline incompetent or hostile workers. The term “wrecking” was used to provide a legal mechanism to enforce punishments against those the Soviet government believed were sabotaging collective economic activity. The term was often abused by Communist Party officials and economic planners to find excuses as to why reality refused to conform to their exact measurements during the various five-year plans undertaken during the Stalinist period.
Capitalism has existed for a few hundred years in the United States, and most people living here make daily decisions prioritizing their jobs over other aspects of their lives. However, DSA is not a money-making enterprise. It is a dues-paying organization run democratically by its members. So, what do you call it when individuals engage in deliberate sabotage of the functions of a democratic organization? For lack of better options, the terms “wrecking” and “wrecker” must suffice here. To define what it means to be a wrecker, you must define what it means to engage in wrecking. Also, it is important to clarify that not everybody who engages in wrecking is a wrecker.
DSA is an organization with a lack of organizational structure. The organization in its current form was clearly never meant to have around a hundred thousand members. DSA is structured as a loose confederation of local chapters not governed nor beholden to any national body. At the local level, doing things that most organizations would mandate by fiat requires intensive and extensive politicking and negotiation. Not only will you deal with people who disagree with how to do something, you will also deal with those who think that thing doesn’t need to be done. This goes for everything from elective campaigns done for political reasons to maintaining an up-to-date contact list of local active DSA members.
Wrecking is done for political reasons. Because there are few formal requirements for local chapters and no method by which informal requirements can be enforced, there are many opportunities for affronted individuals to gum up the works. For example, votes on non-controversial organizational housekeeping will require members to reach out and have one-on-one conversations with many other members if one or two well-positioned members in a chapter object to something. Members can waste organizational time by demanding votes on frivolous items they may not expect to win. Most chapters have few requirements to bring issues to a vote. These votes use up chapter and leadership time and effort to ensure they are done properly.
Wrecking is engaging in deliberate behavior to damage the ability of an organization to function. It is the organizational equivalent of a scorched earth campaign. What differentiates wrecking from other forms of behavior in an organization is that it results in diminished capacity for the organization. Wrecking leads to an organization that can organize fewer people in fewer campaigns with fewer resources. In a sense, it is the socio-political equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Wrecking is not a feature unique to socialist organizing. While rarely spoken of as such, factions of liberal political parties often engage in wrecking-like behavior for political reasons. A recent example is the ban on hiring progressive Democratic Party-affiliated firms that were willing to challenge incumbents in the party’s primaries. While the ban was eventually lifted, it was a clear example of wrecking. The firms that worked with progressive primary challengers were loyal to the Democratic party and, at least on average, were competent. Cutting them off from party politics was done solely to spite insurgent progressive and/or DSA affiliated candidates to try to protect incumbents in safe Democratic districts. The leadership of the Democratic Party does want to win elections, however. This mediating principle prevents even the worst wreckers from going so far as to deliberately enable those who believe the party should be split or destroyed.
Wreckers of Days Past
It is in the nature of politics that sometimes legitimate political strategy goes beyond its mandate and can be described as wrecking. Wreckers go beyond this and pursue more extreme strategies. These strategies may take the form of deliberately encouraging an organizational split or by transforming the organization into a vehicle for their personal narcissism. The key differential is that wreckers want the organization they are a part of to be politically inert.
Wreckers want the maximum amount of power they can get with the minimum amount of responsibility. Responsibility is a limitation upon power in any structure where power is concentrated. Authoritarian power structures with small leadership cliques still require substantial responsibility if they engage in mass politics, so wreckers must seek alternatives.
Historically on the Anglophone left, the alternatives were the formation of “micro-sects.” Micro-sects are/were small political organizations that usually claim some sort of Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist heritage made up by a few hundred people at most. Their politics are/were usually insular and fixated on ensuring internal adherence to the political line of a leader or clique of leaders. This was usually only window dressing for various activities that are used to fundraise for the micro-sect’s leadership. This included selling newspapers, paying high fixed monthly dues payments, and soliciting sales of books written by the sect’s leadership or friends.
Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party from the UK is one of the more extreme examples of the previous generation of wrecker politics. Healy’s organization was formed out of a series of splits within the mainstream of Trotskyist politics in the UK, and eventually became his own personalist political cult. Healy built an incredibly active and time-consuming publishing apparatus where he could tire out and assume control over party members. The party members staffed the WRP’s newspaper and produced work at a rapid pace. The newspaper could exist as a “Potemkin village” that could draw in new members, who assumed that the work was the product of a well-oiled and professional organization.2
Healy always made pretenses toward mass politics, but the WRP could never expand for long. Splits, crackdowns, and expulsions were the norm whenever he felt the expansion of the WRP had brought in too many members for him to control.3 In addition, Healy would regularly engage in physical intimidation, sexual abuse, and various other uncalled for acts to assert control. Ultimately, the WRP did not accomplish anything for socialism and produced hundreds, if not thousands, of burnt out young people who no longer had a taste for politics.4
DSA’s lack of structure and limited ability to enforce national policies does not preclude similar problems from arising within its structure. Delinquent chapters, run by individuals actively hostile to any nationally-coordinated strategy by the organization, have created breeding grounds for an army of wreckers who aspire to be political cult leaders.
Modern Politics Requires Modern Problems
The different paradigm of post-2016 American left politics means that the wrecker must put in more effort than the political cult leaders of the previous generations of the New Left. In keeping with much of DSA’s hostility to formal power structures, wreckers readily exploit informal power structures to gain power and influence.
Not every left wing activist or organizer in DSA who is hostile to formal politics is a wrecker. Many anarchists, libertarian socialists, and “localists” also have convictions and principles that drive them to their conclusions. However, the structurelessness they support falls flat in the face of a wrecker. Wreckers have no principles except to advance their position in whatever hierarchy exists. Because they only care about personal advancement, they are not restrained by principle, morality, political expediency, or any desire to advance the cause of socialism.
Politics is collective action, and wreckers know this. A wrecker’s goal of maximum power and minimum responsibility requires support. To this end, their first primary goal is to either form a clique of followers or to ingratiate themselves in a clique they believe they can transform into followers. They will advocate for whatever policies or strategies they believe necessary to create this clique. As their goal is functionally apolitical, they do not need to advocate for a coherent political line. It can shift with the winds of change within whichever DSA chapter they are active in. Often, this manifests in political alignments and ideological positions that do not make sense to those outside the immediate influence of a wrecker. This can partially be attributed to ultraliberalism or the tendency of unserious political actors toward confusing and contradictory political classification. However, the political identification of a wrecker is not borne of unseriousness. Wreckers are very serious, just not serious about advancing a political line. Their political identification serves as a signal to draw in members of the clique that they can use for their own purposes.
If It’s So Obvious, Why Does it Keep Happening?
Given the obvious toxic influence and transparent striving of the wrecker, how do they manage to gain power within organizations like DSA? The key components of their clique all fit one of several molds. The first, and most obvious, is to seek those incapable of clearly communicating their experiences to others.
In the present day American socialist movement, we have a ready supply of individuals who have made their presence in left-wing politics as part of a subcultural milieu. These individuals primarily identify with left politics as a moral framework and personal aesthetic. They are well-represented on social media, and they are often found working with anarchist collectives, radical Marxist sects-in-name-only on college campuses, or in small personalist NGOs run by local activists. One thing they almost all have in common is severe insularity. Members of these groups tend to be close-knit, interacting primarily only with each other. They use the same activist jargon in casual communication, and many of their hobbies are also tinged with this aesthetic tendency. Wreckers can easily identify these people and know exactly what jargon and signals to gain acceptance within this subcultural milieu. Individuals on the subcultural left have substituted wider society’s socialization for an alternative, and often do not know how to gauge trustworthiness and are prone to substitute in-group/out-group dynamics for common sense. Wreckers then seek to subvert and transform the in-group into something that serves their purposes.
The second group prone to wreckers are those isolated from their family and peers for reasons beyond their control. Young queer people are often particularly vulnerable to wreckers. They are often resentful, vengeful, and extremely hurt from the discrimination they have experienced. Their undeserved isolation from family figures and those who could provide guidance during a crucial part of their lives makes them ideal for the warm embrace of a wrecker’s clique. Wreckers use these individuals to insulate themselves from criticism that they mistreat their enemies should those enemies also share an identity category with the newly inducted member. Members of this category often make the most unsuitable members of these cliques. As they grow older, they tend to become harder for the wrecker to control and are forced out either quietly or in spectacular clique meltdowns.
The third group wreckers aim to exploit is a group I will refer to as the “perpetually suggestable.” For various reasons, these individuals cannot fully comprehend the negative behavior of wreckers. Similar to a person questioning how their favorite celebrity could have killed somebody because they seem so nice on television, the perpetually suggestable comrade substitutes familiarity for critical thinking. They’ve seen the wrecker say nice things, or the wrecker has treated them well before. This prevents them from perceiving the complexity of the actions before them, even when presented with clear evidence.
The final, and perhaps most culpable, of the types of individuals wreckers seek to exploit are enablers. Enablers want social peace at any cost. To them, members calling out or fighting against destructive behavior are just as culpable as those engaging in the behavior. They often are embarrassed by the inherent ugliness required to deal with wreckers once they’re far along in their project of building a toxic clique. Their preference for social peace will cause them to side with the wrecker in any major dispute. All wreckers must do is increase tensions, and they reap the benefits of enablers chastising their opponents for not finding a compromise or a means to placate them. Unlike the other types of people readily exploited by wreckers, the enabler is not isolated or incapable of knowing the gravity of the situation they are dealing with. In fact, the enabler is most often the least knowledgeable about the internal politics of organizations like DSA. For this reason, if you feel like you are being described here, you need to strongly consider whether you are providing cover for toxic behavior when you interact with internal organizational disputes.
The Wrecking Crew and How to Deal With Them
When a wrecker targets an organization, their primary objective is to find a social rift or point of conflict they can exploit. This can be a difference in tactics, a specific line of criticism of a local org policy, or, more often than not, social conflict between members of the organization. Wreckers find a social rift and pick the side of whoever they can control. At the early stages, they will stoke the conflict behind the scenes. Social isolation and casual cruelty become the tool if there is social conflict, and uncompromising and strident denunciations are encouraged if there is a major political disagreement. This is an essential part of wreckers’ clique development process. By encouraging and exacerbating these conflicts, wreckers isolate people and turn them into useful tools for their attempts to create a power base for themselves.
At this stage, the wrecker may simply run into a wall. DSA chapters with healthy internal cultures of honest debate and political disagreement are not easy to exploit beyond this initial stage. The wrecker finds they have created a permanently minoritarian faction incapable of building influence or power because their toxic behavior violates established norms. Whatever lashing out they do beyond this is dealt with by enforcing official rules of conduct. If they escalate further, they can be dealt with through the existing grievance process all chapters must maintain.
If toxic behavior isn’t readily isolated and dismissed, wreckers move forward with their plans. To wreckers, the most important thing is that whatever pressure they are increasing does not find a release valve. If the people they are manipulating meet with their erstwhile opponents and negotiate disagreements or try to put personal disputes behind them, their usefulness to the wrecker disappears. To this end they will encourage the denunciation of elected leaders they’re opposed to as “fascists” or “tyrants” or some other equivalent insult. The enemy must be named as an enemy and attempts to lower the temperature of debate are opposed by the wrecker and their clique. Negotiation must not become an option and political triumphalism in internal conflicts becomes the desired outcome for the wreckers’ clique and the faction they are attached to.
During this stage the problem will usually become apparent to some portion of chapter membership. Many well-intentioned members of DSA chapters or factions will think they can find the right political line to placate the faction that has been stirred up by the wreckers. The problem is that attempting to extend an olive branch will be seen as a weakness by a wrecker. They will sell the compromise to their clique and their clique’s allies as a sign that their campaign of tension-building and internal conflict is working.
Dealing with wreckers in this stage varies. Sometimes all an organization needs to do is strictly and uncompromisingly enforce rules of conduct within the organization. Wreckers thrive on social conflict and suspending them for stoking conflict through harassment or intimidation can nip the problem in the bud. Many wreckers are not able to take the ego hit of being subject to disciplinary restrictions and will quit immediately before or after they are disciplined. If wreckers cannot be dealt with by grievance procedures, they must be organized against politically.
If wreckers obtain power, they will usually find the responsibilities attached to that power make its use unsatisfying. They will almost always allow the organization to atrophy, with their clique unofficially replacing the formal decision-making structure of their chapter. It is still possible to unseat wreckers at this stage, but it requires extensive organization. Wreckers who have not had their ambition satiated may go further than letting their chapter atrophy. They will attempt to remove responsibilities attached to their power by driving out anybody unsympathetic to their clique. They will engage in open bullying and abuse of the grievance system to drive out real or perceived enemies, and may turn on the factions that brought them power. The chapter will turn into a circus of denunciations, open harassment of members, and cult-like reverence of the chapter’s leadership. Dues money will be mismanaged and funneled into external organizations or simply paid out to the leadership’s friends. Eventually, even the clique will be subject to social purges designed to find new enemies to distract the few members who remain. Even if the wreckers in charge are ousted, the damage done to the chapter is so great that it can barely limp along. A chapter this damaged cannot be saved in its current form and must be placed under trusteeship.
Trusteeship is a common process in the labor movement when union locals where democracy has been subverted are placed under stewardship of the union’s international organization. There is no reason for DSA to reinvent the wheel when dealing with chapters wrecked and transformed into vehicles for their leaders’ narcissism.
Wreckers can not build successful organizations. DSA is in a state of crisis, and much of its crisis is borne of the behavior of individuals like those described here. We cannot abandon DSA to suffer the fate of organizations like the micro-sects of the past. There is no other organization in the country that can do what DSA has done or potentially could do. We have a once in a generation opportunity to build an institution that can exist as an independent representative of the wants and needs of the US working class. Much of DSA’s growth in the late 2010s can be attributed to our chapters existing as some of the few political spaces that weren’t rendered immobile by the election of Donald Trump. It is also one of the few spaces in which unionization, the rights of transgender people, and the fight against racism can be brought together as a part of a common struggle. However, we need to take a sober and clear-eyed view of what we have built and not allow the cause of socialism to rot on the vine. The fight for a just future is just too important.
A. Robert Miller is a DSA member.
1Sutton, Robert I. “The Damage Done: Why Every Workplace Needs the Rule.” Essay. In The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, 27. New York City, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.
2Tourish, Dennis, and Tim Wohlforth. “Gerry Healy: Guru to a Star.” Essay. In On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 336. Armonk (N.Y.): M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
3Tourish, Dennis, and Tim Wohlforth. “Gerry Healy: Guru to a Star.” Essay. In On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 334. Armonk (N.Y.): M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
4Tourish, Dennis, and Tim Wohlforth. “Gerry Healy: Guru to a Star.” Essay. In On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 362. Armonk (N.Y.): M.E. Sharpe, 2000.