Building A Party For Power: Strategic recruitment on the road to mass politics

To win a better world, DSA’s most crucial task is to recruit millions of largely unaffiliated workers who are hungry for a political vehicle, as revealed by the Sanders campaign. DSA LA’s Jack SL. outlines a strategy to prioritize recruiting those workers not yet in organizations, while avoiding disengaging with partners or coalitions. We must prioritize our members and internal democracy, recruit in communities of color to widen DSA’s base and legitimacy, and ask workers, and especially immigrant workers, to join us.

The success of the 100k recruitment drive, DSA’s first national internal organizing campaign,  proves that as an organization we can, in fact, establish national campaigns that provide vision for the entire membership. We recruited more than 12,000 members in just over a month, expanded outreach where workers of color live, and began laying the groundwork for transitioning DSA from an issue-based activist model, to a mass membership organization breathing and speaking to our neighbors and coworkers. 

We cannot go back to the days of organizing as an ally organization, nor stay stagnant in forming a militant minority. We are on the path to becoming the largest mass party organization in the United States in over a century and DSA urgently needs to implement a strategy to become a permanent force for socialist politics. For that, we need to learn how to recruit and the strategic implications of different forms of recruitment. 

DSA members largely recognize that we need to recruit to change the demographic composition of DSA. And while DSA should recruit through a variety of approaches, it needs to avoid prioritizing an ally-based recruitment strategy. While DSA may share some strategic goals with left-leaning advocacy organizations, the key to strengthening our mass movement is not peeling away actors from other organizations or splitting their capacity, but appealing to unorganized, disaffected workers and specifically asking them to join us as members in democratically building a better world.

DSA’s most effective strategy remains recruiting the largely unaffiliated constituency, revealed by the Sanders campaign, hungry for a political vehicle. This recruitment strategy to organize those not yet in organizations does not mean disengaging with partners or coalitions, but rather that we prioritize our members and recruit in communities of color to widen our base and legitimacy.  DSA must ask workers, and especially immigrant workers, to join. If we do not ask, we will not know if workers of color want to join.

Membership-Based Models: MAS and CPUSA

The membership-based approach to recruitment emphasizes the basic nuts and bolts for a mass party model to function. The mass party must seamlessly integrate into members’ lives, without feeling like an extra burden on workers who might feel like they don’t have time for activism. Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), though different in form, proved that you can prioritize the membership-based approach to build a diverse organization and in the process engage with partner organizations and coalitions.

Coca growers in Bolivia. Photo by Matthew Straubmuller via Creative Commons

MAS strategically prioritized organizing a core constituency of rural sector workers, consisting of cocaleros. Prior to the success of MAS, cocaleros could not gain registration for political instruments and mostly fought against the contentious cycles of coca eradication. When they formed MAS, most Cocaleros remained unaffiliated with a political party. MAS succeeded in organizing their demands in the electoral realm while expanding workplace and community efforts. This core constituency provided financial resources, policy-making support, guidance, and mobilizing power that allowed MAS to expand, concentrate efforts in specific regions, and take a strategic path to govern. The coca-growing workers have intentionally blurred the distinction between the party and their communities, organizations, and unions. MAS does not have an independent role from other organizations or unions. Simply put, cocaleros see MAS as an extension of their everyday lives to areas they have never been to or lived. For example, the Special Federation of Peasant Workers of the Tropics of Cochabamba (Federación Especial de Trabajadores Campesinos del Trópico de Cochabamba, FETCT) provides meeting space for MAS members to make decisions on a regular face to face basis and hold the party leadership accountable. As a result, indigenous workers see MAS engaged in their own communities, which inevitably leads to more people joining. This core membership created a party structure for both democratic decision making and immediate responses when attacked. The party is the power. Cocaleros think of elected politicians as nothing more than the spokespeople that implement the decisions made in general meetings at union halls.

DSA must ask workers, and especially immigrant workers, to join. If we do not ask, we will not know if workers of color want to join.

MAS also understood the need to recruit a secondary, noncore constituency that consisted of urban-popular organizations like trade unions, neighborhood associations, and other collective organizations. This secondary method of recruitment comes with restrictions and engagement inside the mass party model that those in the core constituency do not have. That is, the decisions made inside the party come from the general membership, and the party leaders implement the will of the membership. Over time, other organizational leaders become actively involved in the party, but do not become the main actors in the decision making or supersede the authority of the general membership. There are also some organizations, based on legal status, that cannot formally affiliate, but rather join as individuals and/or participate as informal alliances to maintain political influence in the party. This secondary constituency remains less ideologically committed to the Party, but participates in MAS to amplify their own capacities and negotiate for demands from within the state. For example, the Federación de las Juntas Vecinales (FEJUVE-El Alto), a coordinator of residents as well as neighborhood councils and associations, has had much of its leadership join MAS. In 2006, MAS appointed Abel Mamani as Water Minister, and this directly translated power and direct presence of FEJUVE into a high level government body and jobs for some affiliates. The youth section of MAS now recommends Abel Mamani as El Alto mayoral candidate for local elections in 2021.

MAS provides a relatively recent example of how to strategically recruit to win power. When we look at membership based party models, we can also briefly review CPUSA’s example of intentional recruitment in the mid-20th century.

The CPUSA did intentional organizing to recruit Black workers in the South and was largely able to succeed because it asked them to join. The CPUSA then asked Black organizations to join, including a significant number of workers from the African Blood Brotherhood. In turn, Black workers took ownership of the party and engaged in their sharecropper unions, civic organizations, and churches. They came to view the party and other institutions as one and the same, to the point where Black workers read the bible during party meetings. Again, the party was seamlessly integrated into workers’ lives, not an extra activist passion project. 

How DSA can change its demographics and become a mass organization

Today, DSA has recruited a significant amount of queer and trans members. Queer and trans workers in DSA recognize the role DSA can have in fighting for commonalities and differences, while building solidarity across identity lines. As Olivia M. and Saoirse G. argue in “Without Solidarity We Cannot Survive”:

DSA is one of the only organizations in the US that takes as a given the dignity, rights, and identity of queer and trans people. This, combined with the broad way queer and trans politics are integrated into DSA’s priorities, makes it a natural home for the trans and queer working class. 

Queer and trans members are also a bridge to segments of the working class DSA has yet to establish a deeper presence in. The economic hardship and discrimination that queer people face often pushes them into lower strata of the working class, such as in service jobs and other low-income areas of work. As an identity group which DSA does have a significant presence in, our queer and trans comrades are one of the best vantage points by which we can recruit and organize the larger segments of the working class we have not yet been able to organize, particularly Latinx and Black workers.

As we see from the examples of MAS and CPUSA, once marginalized workers joined a mass organization, it changed the political relationships and identity dynamics inside the parties.  Members change their thinking and practices while building genuine relationships with people they organize alongside while canvassing, phonebanking, or standing on the picket line. Parties become the place, in an intensely apartheid society, where workers of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities wrestle with identity questions while engaged in building a mass organization, unified in struggle for a program that benefited all of them.

DSA needs to take this strategic approach to recruitment to break through its racial composition and more fully root itself in the diverse U.S. working class. DSA needs to recruit a core constituency of immigrant and Latine workers that dared challenge the Democratic Party in the 2020 primary, are the main targets of the far right, and are central to the long-term contradictions in the contemporary U.S. political-economy. 

DSA also needs to recruit a secondary constituency assessed by each specific geo-political region. In Detroit and Chicago that means recruiting Black workers. In Minnesota and New York, DSA needs to recruit African and/or Muslim refugees. In North Carolina, DSA needs to recruit Mayan workers. On the west coast, DSA needs to recruit API workers.  DSA can become a diverse, mass organization, but that goal requires a specific, thoughtful, holistic strategy of intentional recruitment.

Parties become the place, in an intensely apartheid society, where workers of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities wrestle with identity questions while engaged in building a mass organization, unified in struggle for a program that benefited all of them.

A membership that takes ownership of the organization, rather than functioning as an allyship model or focusing on the launch of a separate ballot entity, is fundamental to any successful mass party. The democratic rule of our membership is the most powerful part of our organization. If we sacrifice that membership authority, DSA can end up reacting to other organizations and opportunists, rather than listening to the rapidly growing mass membership. For our political project to succeed, members need to abandon the notion of seeing DSA as an external organization to their everyday political work. Members need to commit and believe that DSA is the political instrument that will thrust socialist politics into everyday life.

As DSA develops from an inexperienced organization to a mass party model, coalition groups and partner organizations will recognize the usefulness of being a DSA member. DSA should not be afraid to ask the healthy and nonsectarian groups in the U.S. to join. DSA should build relationships with the mass parties in Latin America and work on a plan for their members living in the U.S. to become members of DSA as well. DSA can become the home for the U.S. social and labor movement. By genuinely engaging with our coalition partners while we demonstrate how a mass membership organization functions, DSA will build long term relationships in the political struggles of the region and find the best strategy to take power.

How DSA can strategically engage in coalition work

In Los Angeles, DSA-LA organized with labor and community partners for both the 2019 teachers’ strike and to respond to the potential situation of a stolen 2020 presidential election. DSA-LA held several leadership conversations amongst partner organizations and was seen as a group with growing influence and respect. When UTLA went on strike in 2019, DSA-LA mapped out solidarity teams across the entire region of Los Angeles to support teachers at dedicated picket lines. DSA LA turned out 600 out of 1,500 members during a long beautiful week of pouring rain and worker power. Similarly, on November 7th 2020, DSA-LA turned out more of our members than nearly any other organization as the city (cautiously) celebrated the victory against Trump. 

When DSA is not respected as an equal partner, or where we have no input or ability to engage our own membership, DSA should not participate in coalition efforts. The best coalitions respect all partner organizations equally. Partner organizations should recognize that DSA has a socialist perspective to contribute and a strength to be reckoned with in the political landscape. In turn, DSA should proudly recognize the commitment of leaders from other organizations, especially when they join DSA. They are risking and making a decision to affiliate with a socialist organization in the heart of the Empire.

Members of DSA LA supporting the 2019 UTLA teacher strike. Photo courtesy of Arielle S.

How and why DSA must strategically, intentionally recruit more members of color

The reality is that most people living in the U.S., apart from the immigrants who experienced the painful struggles of forming their own parties abroad, have never dealt with the messiness of party-building. Most people in the U.S. see advocacy technocrats, activist engagement, or cadre formation as the only alternatives, because those have been the Left’s response over the last 50 years. Most likely, only members of unions or religious institutions have practiced being in a mass organization.

Because our current members have most likely never joined institutions, members need to learn how to participate and how to recruit. These skills were historically taught in mass parties through struggle and in relationship with other members. DSA is in the process of rebuilding this model. All DSA members have the responsibility to change the current composition of our organization, which is not only disproportionately white, but also disproportionately degreed, young, and child-free.

Unfortunately, there has been a growing response repeated by both white members and leaders of color that frame DSA as an ally network instead of a mass organization. This response typically includes: a) white people cannot lead on intentional recruitment because it is demeaning to people of color, b) that DSA should not burden our members of color to lead on recruitment, and c) DSA needs to fix its cultural problems and have safe spaces before asking people of color to join. These arguments are not said with intent to stop the recruitment efforts, but that is their effect. This paradox assumes that DSA members can stay organizing within their own identity groups in order to build socialism. But rather than framing this discussion around allyship and white guilt, DSA members can frame recruitment questions on our members’ agency, taking the lead from the examples of MAS and the CPUSA.

There is one truth: that while white members should be asking folks they know to join DSA, those of us who are people of color are by and large the gatekeepers to recruit workers of color en masse. Leaders of Color are the folks who most closely maintain some form of connection to these communities. This is a result of the long historical onslaught to segregate and harden racial hierarchies. Because it is not what DSA can do for workers of color, but what workers of color will do to DSA as we embrace it as the political home to express our demands. To begin changing this composition, you need to make the ask.

  • Begin by asking family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors that you already know to have a conversation with you about DSA.1 Ask your mom! These conversations are on the surface easier because you already have relationships built, but they may be difficult because of past conversations. Let them know of the great work DSA has already done and focus on the specific interests that they have and connect it to the socialist vision. If you do not ask, no one will. And the movement will have lost an opportunity to add a person to its ranks and strengthen a membership mass organization. 
  • Never assume how people will answer. The person you think will respond negatively might just be the person who has been waiting for you to raise the topic. Maybe she has questions about DSA. Maybe she just sees the online drama, but doesn’t see the real political work. You have to go into recruitment conversations open minded about where it will go. 
  • Listen to what they are actually saying. During a recruitment conversation, do not get involved in a political disagreement, but rather take the time to get to know the person more. Pay attention to why they are interested or why they may not be interested. Take the time to ask why not as well to understand if they simply have no interest or if they are just not ready yet. In my experience, I had the hardest recruitment conversations with the white folks I knew from college than I did with immigrant workers, who had a wide range of political ideas on family, religion, and the government. Immigrants were more hungry for an organization that defended their interests than my white friends.
  • Follow Through after someone responds that they are interested in joining DSA and guide them into joining, guide them into the organization and ask if they want to get involved in a specific campaign of your chapter.
  • Stay in Touch. Regardless if someone decides to join or not, this is an opportunity to build genuine relationships with those around you. For the movement to grow, we need to build these relationships regardless of whether someone is in DSA or not. Those relationships are crucial. At many points in your life, people will see you as a person to go to for information and support because you are a member of a mass organization. Someone will ask you about a crisis situation happening in their workplace. Someone will ask you how to fight an eviction. Someone will ask you about resources available on just about anything. Folks will feel comfortable asking you because they know you and believe you. They begin to recognize the contributions of DSA and see us as a legitimate source of information and resources.
  • Never lie to a person about the organization. All members form the organization through a human-led process, not some abstract external force. Only the membership and the collective decisions of the members make the organization function. 
  • Do not third-party the organization. The organization is us: member-driven and democratic. 

These tips will help you as you begin recruiting. But as an organization, DSA needs to build on the success of the 100k drive, moving beyond it with these intentional strategies to create a truly diverse coalition of the working class that can move in lockstep in a mass membership organization. DSA chapters need to map out the demographics of their local surroundings and launch specific recruitment campaigns to these ends. In the process, we will be laying the bricks for a strategy toward a 21st-century socialism.


 1 We know that organic recruitment through existing social networks won’t get us to a more diverse organization. The U.S. has a long history of de facto and de jure segregation that cannot be ignored, and we know one way for our organization to diversify is to engage in structural organizing, where we identify the bounds of a specific structure (like a workplace, apartment complex, or neighborhood) and work to recruit every single person within that structure. But we also know that you have to meet people where they are at, and a person who has successfully recruited their mom or next-door neighbor to DSA will have more confidence to try tougher targets.