The idea of tactical experimentation is often invoked in DSA as a rhetorical argument, but rarely as a strategic principle. DSA Metro Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky’s Olivia M. outlines how socialists can ground the need to experiment within a materialist framework.
DSA has frequently seen a call for chapters to be “experimental” in their outlook by taking on a diversity and plethora of work, flowing from a belief that chapters can act as “laboratories” to test various tactics and strategies. The use of scientific language invokes the idea of a materialist practice, one that would be in line with Marxist thought, and indeed such arguments have time and again been used to push for this model of chapter work. Rarely, however, is another important concept in such a scientific approach brought up: scientific rigor.
Rigor is a measure of intellectual consistency, a call for us to thoroughly examine our own hypotheses through evidence and to prioritize the evidence reality presents us, rather than our own preferred ideological outcomes. While we should not expect that people will set aside all ideological goals or beliefs and act in a purely objective way, the goal is to set a standard of evidence based measures, rather than working backwards from conclusions. It is about holding ourselves to a standard of material proof when we fight for and against various programs within the organization. Without such a standard, it is far too easy to insert convenient explanations in places where they fit.
This concept matters because concrete objectives are necessary for us to develop a grounded and effective strategy for building power. One can debate what those objective should be, the time scale on which we should measure success, or interfering factors that must be controlled for (and indeed, socialists can observe that many such debates and discussions pervade scientific study to this very day), but it is simply true that there is little value to ‘experimentation’ that leaves no manner or method by which to realize objectives. A laboratory without hypotheses, without consistent methods of evaluation, without any real lines to hash out success and failure, is not much of a laboratory at all.
If the desire is for chapters to serve as laboratories of socialism, there must be some way to rigorously evaluate the results of such experiments based on hypothesized outcomes, and an ability to evaluate those results not just in one location, but across chapters and the country, to gain a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t, what will succeed in Ohio and fail in New York. If DSA wishes to be materialist, it must evaluate reality in a material way, evaluating how relationships and actions do (or don’t) lead to desired outcomes. To make a hypothesis: the places where DSA is strongest are far more likely to have such mechanisms of self-evaluation and rigor, or to have such an attitude amongst the membership making such decisions. DSA cannot consider itself a serious organization until it is collectively capable of rigorous self-criticism.
Olivia M. is the chair of DSA Metro Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky and an editor of Mass.