Building Power Means Wielding Power

Socialist success campaigning for government and union elected office has built remarkable similarity between DSA’s electoral and labor strategies. Responding to current debates within Detroit DSA, Landis Spencer identifies these continuities and illustrates why propaganda campaigns cannot be a substitute for passing class struggle reforms.

Detroit DSA is grappling with many questions in relation to our electoral campaigns, and sits at an interesting place in our electoral journey. We have lost 2 waves of home-grown candidate elections but we retain one solid member of congress, two members in the Michigan state house, and active members on both the Pontiac and Westland city councils. There is a portion of  Westland that is represented by socialists at the municipal, state, and congressional levels, even though we didn’t do much intentional organizing to make that happen. Despite our losses, we are in a solid place to work with our DSA elected allies in these bodies to help advance the material conditions of the working class. Still, questions have arisen over issues of accountability, building working class power, and facilitating the working class organizing itself. 

The issue of accountability was most evident at our general body meeting back in January, which featured a lengthy debate and panel discussion addressing Metro Detroit DSA’s electoral work. Jane Slaughter’s comments get at the heart of this debate, stating “ the criterion for our work should be, does this work empower the working class to organize and stand up and fight on their own behalf? Work that does not do this, is doing good in the world, but it isn’t building power, and it isn’t socialist.” Slaughter points out that our past work on Abe Aiyash, Ferndale for All, and Detroit for All didn’t engage anyone outside of the chapter, and argues that our work should be solely aimed at directly empowering the working class to organize itself. This frame, however, misses the point of DSA’s electoral campaigns. 

Slaughter, however, does correctly identify the point of our electoral work later in her statement. She uses the election of UAW President Shawn Fain as an example of model DSA work. She says “There are a lot of DSA members, not only in Detroit, but elsewhere working their butts off in an electoral campaign within their union to get Shawn Fain elected president of the union. Now are they doing that because they think Shawn Fain will go in there on his own and make legislative change across the bargaining table with the big 3 and get us COLA back and get us pensions back? No, the DSA members that are doing that are doing it because they think that Shawn is one of the people that can make changes in the union to organize members on their own behalf.” Slaughter correctly believes that the union’s membership should be able to organize themselves, and that Fain is going to change UAW policy to facilitate that. She would not likely contend that Fain’s campaign itself is engaging 10s of thousands of UAW workers or that the campaign itself is spurring UAW’s reform movement, but that electing Fain, can empower members to organize and create a more favorable environment than that under the leadership of Ray Curry. The goal of electing socialists to public office is no different. By taking state power, socialists can facilitate the creation of conditions more favorable for the working class to organize itself. It’s nice when the campaign alone can do this, like Bernie, but that isn’t the goal of electoral work. The goal is always to take state power and win reforms like a better NLRB, Medicare for All, and better working conditions to help empower the working class to organize itself. The recent repeal of Michigan’s right to work law is a perfect example of this. By helping expand union resources and membership, they are better able to fight for their bargaining priorities.

One of the members of the Labor Working Group hinted at this in previous comments, stating that “the only reason why Starbucks organizing was allowed to take off, was because of a tiny change within the NLRB that allowed for a bit more approval of the election fillings that had already happened. That change was because of the Biden Administration. According to that Labor Working Group member “that working class energy would’ve just stifled had that little change not happened”. While Joe Biden is no ally of the working class, changes like these show that state power is very important for the socialist project. With the deck stacked so thoroughly against workers, we need to change the terrain on which workers battle. Making it easier for workers to unionize, negotiate, and strike facilitates the working class empowerment and self-organization for which Slaughter argues.

Is There Any Value in the Campaign Itself?

It’s dismissive to state that simply because a campaign itself doesn’t become a mass movement, that it isn’t advancing socialism. First and foremost, campaigns need to win. While obtaining state power is the primary goal, campaigns can also be massive grassroots efforts within a district. Our candidates don’t take corporate money, and therefore need a lot of individual donors and volunteers to succeed. Even if these donors and volunteers are within DSA, the vast majority of these people are working class. The sheer act of knocking on a door, donating to a campaign, or voting for a socialist politician is a small act of working-class solidarity to take back control from capital. A campaign also serves as one of the best megaphones for advancing class struggle politics, providing fairly unique opportunities to get a well framed message to large numbers of people within a short time frame.

The Role of Our Electeds

There has been much debate within our DSA chapter, and nationally about what is the role of our elected officials. One school of thought argues that our elected officials should create a mass socialist movement, be tribunes of the people, and funnel their working class constituents into DSA. The reality of governing makes these demands very difficult for our electeds to accomplish. Our elected officials have to run their offices, maneuver to get legislation passed, serve their constituents, be present in their districts, and plan for re-election. It’s very difficult to ask our electeds to see past legislative fights and execute a strategy to build a surrogate party on the side. Instead we should expect our electeds to go above and beyond in providing constituent services, advance legislation that will improve the material conditions of the working class,and advance legislation that will help rebuild the labor movement and shift the terrain of class struggle back to the workers. We should expect them to be a megaphone for our policy ideas, be a good steward for the organization, and to aid us in electing more socialists to public office. Socialist elected representatives show the relative strength of the movement at any given time but are not primarily responsible for building the movement itself. That is a task that isn’t well suited for politicians in America, and is not how workers parties have historically formed themselves. Labor parties have traditionally been birthed from a strong labor movement, getting involved with electoral politics. The current left movement might have been sparked with Bernie’s two presidential runs but he alone could not build a movement, party, or organization that could effectively contest for power against capital. Out of all elected offices, a presidential run is really the only office capable of sparking such a movement, and we’ve seen the limits of these occasional injections of energy into the U.S left. Only through rebuilding a radical labor movement, and eventually tying in those labor efforts with our electoral efforts, can we build a mass working class movement to effectively contest for power against capital. We as organizers are the ones that are principally responsible for building the movement, and our electeds are responsible for helping create better conditions for that movement to survive and thrive in.

Through certain political struggle our electeds can also help the working class organize itself. Issue based campaigns outside of elections that are electeds can be involved with are a perfect example of this. Zohran in NYC DSA assisted a movement of taxi workers to push the NYC city council to forgive the taxi drivers debt. It was all of their collective action that led to the city council abolishing the debt, and that struggle brought to focus class solidarity amongst those taxi drivers. It is up to us as a DSA chapter to find out what are those strategic sites of working class struggle and mobilize our electeds, rather than expecting our electeds to bring these actions to us.

Accountability and Engaging With Our Electeds

Much has been made about accountability in recent years when it comes to DSA electeds. High profile national votes have put a spotlight within the organization on our national electoral program. It is important to note that even though a significant portion of the discourse has been focused on our members of congress, currently DSA only has 3 endorsed congress members. The vast majority of DSA electoral work happens at the state and local levels, and the discourse surrounding accountability has not reflected that. With that being said, the question of electoral accountability is an important one for DSA to answer. Every bad vote that one of our endorsed electeds takes reflects poorly on our organization, and can serve to undermine the overall credibility of the organization. Some have tried to answer this accountability question purely with punitive measures such as expulsion of Jamaal Bowman, or by enforcing overly strict message discipline. Both of these accountability measures try to legislate away what is fundamentally an organizing problem: we aren’t in regular conversations with our nationally elected congress members, and we often engage in these national battles just before or even after these votes occur. This leaves our electeds with very little knowledge about what the organizations opinion is regarding any given vote. It is also an organizing problem that we have not put in the work to foster stronger relationships with our electeds and their teams. In the case of Jamaal Bowman, his constituents flooded his office with calls and emails begging him to vote in favor of the Iron dome. It also seems apparent that Democratic leadership applied significant pressure to get the squad to fall in line. Meanwhile DSA was not engaging in any significant lobbying effort to persuade the DSA squad members to vote no on the Iron Dome funding, leaving them all to figure out their own positions on how to vote, voting as individuals rather than a coordinated block. 

Accountability Through Relationship Building

Accountability won’t come from strict convention resolutions through petition letters. Accountability will come from fostering a better relationship with our electeds and being proactive instead of reactive in these legislative fights. New York City DSA’s Socialists In Office Committee (SIO) is a perfect example of this. Following NYC DSA’s massive slate victories in 2020, the chapter set up the SIO committee to help coordinate campaigns and legislative policy with its newly electeds. The committee consists of NYC DSA city wide leadership, geographical branch representatives, and specific issue based working groups and the electeds and their staff. The committee meets weekly and is democratically run, with any member able to suggest that the committee adopts a collective position. Whatever the committee votes to adopt, the members will be expected to vote as a block on that specific issue. On issues where the committee doesn’t take a position, members can vote how they choose. This structure has helped NYC DSA work in a coordinated effort with their electeds in Albany on issues of taxing the rich, just cause eviction, the New York Health Act, and building public renewables. This structure allows DSA to be proactive in these fights. It helps pull back the mystic of Albany, and allows DSA members and their electeds to navigate these waters together as a team, instead of lone wolves like in congress. Now is this structure perfect? No, no structure will be perfect. Electeds will always have to balance the needs of their constituents and the needs of the movement, but this is the best answer we have to an actual accountability structure, that solves an organizing issue, by putting in the organizing work necessary to foster these relationships, and to become true partners in the struggle against capital with our electeds. Socialists In Office is a model of accountability that should be replicated nationally, and in every chapter, including Metro Detroit DSA. 

Despite our losses Detroit DSA sits in a position of strength. We have allies that we can work with to move legislation, and we have the chapter knowledge to someday run winning campaigns. We need to work with our existing allies in a Socialist In Office type structure to advance legislation today, and prepare ourselves to run slates for the Michigan State House and Detroit City Council. We need to build strong working relationships with our electeds and be proactive in legislative fights in Lansing and Detroit. Doing this will help us build a party surrogate within Southeast Michigan that can challenge capital, rebuild the labor movement, and create a Michigan that benefits the many of its working class residents, not the powerful few.

Landis Spencer is a member of the Detroit DSA Electoral Working Group and an editor of Mass.