Sue Mobley and Ryan Mosgrove report on the results of Collective Power Network at the DSA convention and what the convention means for the future of internal politics in the organization.
This past weekend, more than 1,000 socialists gathered in Atlanta for DSA’s 2019 Convention to chart a path forward in response to the rapid growth of our organization and the exigency of fighting for a just future. It is no secret that most organizers went into this convention with clear ideas about what wasn’t working in our organization, and a number of bylaws amendments and resolutions outlined structural changes to try to scale our organization, which has grown by 10 times in the past five years!
This convention was critical for our organization for so many reasons. The last two years have seen the work our members are doing reach staggering new heights, while simultaneously DSA as an organization has been hobbled by inadequate structure, internal conflict, dysfunction, and factionalism. We organized Collective Power Network in the hope that we could play a role in this convention to set a clear future path for DSA through one of the greatest tests the socialist movement in the United States has ever faced.
We formed Collective Power Network in early 2019, and set to work developing a series of structural resolutions. Our grouping was not ideological, and while we shared a critique and came to share an analysis, we also have significant differences of opinion and experiences with different organizing work, but we were able to agree on a unified vision of a strong national office, a proposal for democratically accountable regional bodies, and clear priorities for growth and development, particularly in the South and rural areas, among people of color, in labor organizing, and through strengthening our international work.
Our work was resoundingly approved by the general membership — with strong mandates of support for our International, Labor, and DSA 100K planks. While we are disappointed that the question of Regional Organizations was referred to the newly-elected National Political Committee, we believe that these structures remain a critical layer of democratic representation and coordination that will be pursued by members and chapters that are prepared to get down to the work of building DSA as we chart a path forward.
NEW POLITICAL LINES
The 2019 DSA convention was extraordinary and exemplified the key role of large democratic gatherings: to clarify the majority politics of the organization. Proposals covered a range of hotly debated topics, and many pointed to core political fault lines. The most central of these being between those who envision a strong mass organization across a variety of models and those who would have maintained local chapters as a loose affiliation of independent franchises. These debates, boiled down to their essential elements, point to the overriding question that the body moved to resolve, “what type of organization is DSA?”
Despite contentious debates, there were places where the convention had perfect unity. Many resolutions supporting immigrants rights and internationalism were passed through the consent agenda and never even needed to reach the floor. Ecosocialism equally received near unanimous support, including a resolution making public ownership of the energy industry a formal objective of our work. As capitalism undergoes its systemic failures, the dual threats of ethno nationalism and climate disaster are critical for socialists to combat. DSA appears decisively united in rising to meet this historic challenge.
A contentious issue CPN was deeply involved in was the debate surrounding our labor work. We put forward a resolution, “Towards a Clear Multifaceted Strategy for Labor”, to restructure the DSLC and focus its work on building labor branches and giving it the sorely needed direction it has lacked these past two years. Our resolution passed overwhelmingly, as did the resolution on “Organizing the Unorganized,” which together have the potential to engage vast swathes of worker-members who have been left out of any meaningful engagement in the past.
Far more muddled were the results on the Bread & Roses resolution on the “Rank and File Strategy,” which passed by only ten votes (475 yea to 465 nay). CPN has been clear in our view that RFS alone is a restrictive approach, historically yielding very mixed results, giving it only the passing features of a strategy in any true sense, and argued from the floor against it. Indeed much of the organization appeared to agree, though something short of a clean majority. While RFS failed to achieve the resounding mandate the CPN’s Clear Multifaceted Strategy and the Organizing the Unorganized resolutions achieved, it ultimately passed.
But the debate between those who desire a focused and clear strategy applicable across the country and those with a preference for a collection of disconnected tactics is far from settled and will likely have to be resolved by the next Democratic Socialist Labor Commission. Even equipped with a staff organizer, the DSLC cannot accomplish every priority they have been charged with. Still, the reality that our organization is united in its belief that labor work is crucial is a tremendous achievement in its own right.
In terms of organizational questions, there was still more pitched debate, and no one side got everything that they set out to achieve. Major reforms, all seeking in different ways to address the universally acknowledged disparities and disconnection between large urban chapters, suburban, small city, and rural chapters and an unresponsive national failed. Pass the Hat and Assembly of Locals both lost by narrow margins, and the National Organizing Council and Democratic Regional Organization proposals – which CPN strongly supported – were left to an uncertain fate after being referred to the new National Political Committee.
The lack of decisiveness on these questions indicate that there is much need for continued debate and discussion across ideological tendencies. To us this means more listening, more discussion, and consensus building; undertaking common work when we find we have principled agreement, but also when necessary ongoing sharp debate. CPN came out hard against proposals such as Pass the Hat and the Assembly of Locals. We have been consistent in our view that a mass party model is critical to the continued success and growth of DSA into a real vehicle for workers. But the lack of a resolution on our own counter proposal, Regional Organizations, shows clearly that no side can claim a clear mandate among the membership regarding the question of our organizing model. Debate and discussion based on our collective analysis of concrete projects will be more necessary than ever and, like labor, will likely continue in a variety of forms and spheres.
But while debate dominated much of the limelight for the weekend, in more subtle but significant ways, cross-ideological discussion played an equally pivotal role. After a great deal of face to face discussion between CPN and other key tendencies and unaffiliated comrades, several competing resolutions regarding housing justice work were able to be packaged and approved in a way where all sides felt their goals were being heard and addressed. Certainly this victory was not the only place where this sort of face to face discussion made a serious impact on events in Atlanta and will continue to do so in the days to come.
As critical as principled debate has been and will continue to be, good faith discussion that takes into account the experiences, knowledge, and contexts of our efforts is equally key to any sustainable collective work in DSA. This is a lesson that cannot be overstated.
Much attention was paid as well to the election of our new National Political Committee, and this intersected with another issue DSA has grappled with intensely over the past two years: our capacity and commitment to protecting our members from harassment and assault. In the week leading up to the convention, several NPC members, chapters, and rank and file members came forward with accusations that Zac E and Ravi A had actively worked to impede an investigation by the national into allegations of harassment, bullying, and rape by former NPC member RL Stevens.
It also came to light that a candidate whom CPN had endorsed had been accused of mishandling a harassment grievance filed in their chapter. When we learned of this we met, discussed, and voted to rescind our endorsement. Survivors need to know that DSA is an organization that will work decisively to protect them, to prevent future abuses, and one that will maintain a process with integrity. Many of our members were vocal as well that Zac E and Ravi A should not be elected for a second term for this same reason and as we believe that rescinding our endorsement of our own preferred candidates was the correct decision, hoped to encourage other formations to do the same. Ultimately many delegates felt the same way and did not elect any of them.
The NPC that was elected appears to be far more ideologically diverse than ever before: four Socialist Majority members, three Bread & Roses members, three members of Build, two Libertarian Socialist caucus members, three independents, and one CPN member, Blanca Estevez from Northwest Arkansas. With all the major formations on the same executive body and a strong mandate from the membership around mass work and a strong national, this could produce either significant clarity and buy-in among members or continued dysfunction.
We believe that without the support of the major organizational reforms, the NPC will still lack necessary capacity integral to our collective success, and we hope that with the renewed awareness of these shortfalls and members’ growing interest in regional organizing it may be possible to meet the NPC in the middle as we grow from the bottom up. How these dynamics will play out, whether national will provide a boost or a break to this process, we’ll have to wait and see.
THE FUTURE FOR CPN
When we formed Collective Power Network in February 2019, we had relatively modest goals. We had a shared set of politics that we weren’t seeing represented in DSA in any organized way. We were concerned that there was too little space and too few platforms for substantive political discussion and debate within our organization, and we felt that if we didn’t at least try to put forward an affirmative, alternative vision for what we wanted to see DSA become, it was possible that no one would.
From our locals in Metro DC and New Orleans, we reached out to comrades all over the country; asking them about their organizing experiences, infrastructure needs, and opinions on the way forward. We worked towards the convention as a network, spread out across the country, with organizers from Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Michigan, Florida, and California. We learned from each others’ experiences and refined our own politics in the process of collectively creating a platform, proposals, and position papers.
We recognize that the structure currently in place for Collective Power Network must now shift. We are committed to keeping the things that are part of our values, such as broadly delegated authority, consensus decision-making, and a commitment to a strong political vision for mass organizing. We are also committed to growing further into those values: ensuring that labor is evenly distributed, decision-making is always transparent, and building our internal capacity to support long-term work; in our locals, our states and regions, and as a formation.
Over the next few months, the current membership of CPN will be researching, exchanging experiences, and debating ideas as we set about reorganizing as a permanent caucus. We will be drafting a new program more suited to long term organization building and helping to clarify our political priorities as a group. In the meantime, we will be taking a short break from the intense public work and recruitment we have been doing these last few months in favor of internal discussion and reflective analysis. Moreover, we the authors will be stepping down as co-chairs of Collective Power Network. This is a new period for DSA and our network both, and we believe new leadership will strengthen both our caucus and the organizations at large.
We strongly encourage all DSA formations to consider a similar path forward in this new DSA.
We are tremendously proud of the work we have done over the past six months. Out of nowhere we were able to build a tremendously strong and dynamic group that united not around social groups or ossified ideological formulas, but around program and clear ideas. While DSA has no shortage of failed experiments in caucus-building, we think CPN serves as strong positive example of how internal debate can be done with principal, program, and comradely debate. We hope to continue to serve as a positive example in the period to come.
Sue Mobley and Ryan Mosgrove are the outgoing co-chairs of Collective Power Network.