I went to a DSA meeting this weekend, bewildered by the inter-party politics

At the meeting, the only “lively” moment was a vote on whether to have an internet forum for the chapter. The discussion illuminated internal DSA politics in a weird way.

Christian Patterson
2020-03-03
Underground Mall

Before I get into this, I want to give some context.

I won’t name the chapter of the DSA meeting I went to. If you’re familiar with DSA drama, you might be able to figure it out with context, because the chapter seems to have a reputation. And if you know where I live, you’d be able to figure it out (easily). But, I don’t want to name the chapter, because I highly doubt what I’m highlighting is unique to the chapter. Also, I don’t even want this to be perceived as a critique (because who am I but a dope with a blog?). I want it to be perceived as my modest observations.

As for my relationship with the DSA: I’ve been a member since May 2019. I became a member because I was looking into parties that were more closely politically aligned with me than DSA. But most of those parties were small and poorly organized. I reached out to one and didn’t hear anything back. So I ended up joining DSA because they actually have some form of infrastructure, and they have momentum.

I haven’t been particularly involved with DSA stuff though. I was put off, because my local chapter has a terrible reputation of prioritizing their parliamentary bureaucracy over *cough* stuff that matters. For example, when the Proud Boys had a rally in town, the local DSA chapter didn’t reschedule their meeting to counter-protest. They actively encouraged membership to skip the counte-protest. Sorry, but you have to be sucking yourself off too much to think voting on things like online forums is more important than counter-protesting fascists.

They also have other negative reputations about stuff that I only know about vaguely. Just chatter that I read online, so I don’t know.

Anyway, so I got to the meeting, and it was kind of… boring. Most of it was talking about canvassing for Bernie Sanders. For example, they spent a lot of time bragging about being the best chapter because they had the most people canvassing for Bernie.

That’s great! I want Bernie to win so bad, and I want people to canvass for him as much as possible. But there’s an entire massive political apparatus that has much more power to elect Sanders to president. The DSA already overlaps heavily with Sanders’ apparatus, has very overlapping goals and supporters. Because of that, I would rather the DSA be a radically socialist organization, complementing the Sanders campaign, rather than becoming a tiny organ, a lymph node, of a mainstream political movement.

I don’t think that position is too much to ask. I joined a socialist organization to advance socialism. A small part of that is electing a social democratic president. But activism to elect him is going on in every corner of the country, the internet etc. So I would have preferred a little less focus on how great this chapter is, exclusively measured by Sanders canvassing.

After all, I imagine they perceive themselves as the best DSA chapter for self-selecting reasons: other branches are devoting some of their energy to other stuff, so they have lower numbers. This DSA chapter highly prioritizes canvassing for Bernie, and consequently, determines their value by how much they canvass for Bernie.

And just to be clear, canvassing for Bernie is absolutely important, and they absolutely should talk about it. It’s just, that was the only substantial thing they talked about… until the end, when they started talking about the web forum.

They started the vote for the forum, with the chapter communication director (or some position like that, Idk) making a short case for it.

He basically said that many chapters have some type of forum, and it’s crucial for quick organizing and communicating, especially for people who live far away. Fair enough.

They then opened it up for debate, for people to line up on either side, to give their case for or against. Surprisingly, a lot of people practically ran to the front for the debate. At this point, I realized there was more ideological things at play.

The most striking element, is a bunch of people who seemingly had leadership positions, or participated in earlier moments in the meeting, strongly had “anti” forum position. In general, way more people went to the “against” side.

There was also a guy with a Tom Selleck mustache who led a part of the meeting, but as far as I could tell, didn’t have an elected position. He stood on the “anti forum” side, and it seemed like people were deferring to him.

Some of their arguments were convincing. One person said X amount of people contribute to the national DSA forum every week, and if you had a proportional amount of people posting on a local message board, there would be less than one post a week.

Another person argued against it with another angle, claiming that it would be toxic as hell, and hard to moderate. I think the first reality (lack of use) would be way more likely than overuse, but okay.

Another person said something that I thought was total bullshit. She was like “the only people who post on it are non-working class people with computer jobs, who have the time to post on the clock.” That’s absolutely bullshit. I have an office job right now, but I still have poverty wages and I still have to deal with a lot of crap that only working class people do.

Not only that but I’ve had jobs scrubbing toilets, unclogging toilets, disposing used syringes, cleaning grease traps, etc etc. At all of those jobs, I had just as much opportunity to post as at my desk job. And in many ways, those jobs were less soul-sucking than office jobs I’ve had.

Reducing class to “blue-collar vs white-collar” is anti-Marxist, culture war bait bullshit. That alone made me be like “fuck it, I’m voting for this forum”.

The debate continued back and forth. The moment that made me really realize the inter-party politics at play, was a lady who spoke in favor of the forum.

She said something about how DSA isn’t supposed to be an “authoritarian socialist” organization. I really didn’t understand the connection between a message board and “authoritarianism”, especially because that’s a dopey ass, infantile smear used by anarchists against Marxists.

Once the vote happened, it seemed very rushed. They quickly counted the vote and declared the anti-forum vote the winner. Someone exclaimed out, asking for a vote count, and it was denied because it was visually obvious the vote favored the anti side.

I voted in favor of the forum because: why would anyone care? If you don’t want to use it, don’t use it. I wouldn’t use it, but my life wouldn’t change if it existed. At the same time, I don’t really care that the anti-forum side won either.

But the more interesting thing than the vote itself, is the illumination of inter-party politics.

Why would something as innocuous as an internet forum liven up a meeting that was otherwise as lively as a retirement home?

As illustrated by the anti-forum side deploying an anti-Marxist smear, It seemed like a fight between Marxists and anarchists. But don’t get it twisted, no one in this situation was representing a particularly Marxist (or even non-Marxist) position.

One thing that struck me though, is the person talking about “authoritarians” further went on to indict “centralism”, referring to democratic centralism, the organizational system used in the USSR, and advocated for by Marxist-Leninists.

Democratic centralism is the principle that when a decision is made by a legislative body, it needs to win in a dominant fashion – conventionally by 60% of the vote. Once it is voted on and cemented into policy, it’s determined that the will of the majority of people has been fulfilled, and the issue gets put to rest.

The idea behind this is to unite the public behind one platform of the working class. The reason to do this is to prevent what parliamentarian-style liberal democracy has, where there’s parties that stand for opposing things, and are constantly, frivolously passing “wins” back and forth, causing nothing to substantially change.

The issue is, this idea doesn’t really pertain to an online message board. Indeed, I believe both Bolsheviks, orthodox Marxists, and basically any leftist from the 1800 and 1900s would be in favor of an online message board.

I take the anti-message board people to be Marxist-right Kautskyites, and the pro-message board people to be vaguely left-liberal libertarian socialists. The anti-message board people would (probably) call themselves the Marxist center, because Kautsky criticized Bernstein (the Marxist right at the time) from a left-perspective. But I consider them the Marxist right, because Kautsky lapsed into, and came to symbolize, the social democratic revisionism that he once criticized Bernstein for. Indeed, modern day Kautskyites are sometimes more revisionist than even Bernstein.

What both of these parties get wrong is that the Marxists of yore would absolutely want to form as many social, media, cultural etc institutions possible, including message boards, even if it’s limited to the chapter of a political party.

People hear about democratic centralism and make weird assumptions about it. Misinformed Marxist-sympathizers presume that it means all political organizing must be concentrated in the hands of a “vanguard party”. Liberal anarchist anti-Marxists assume the same.

In reality, Lenin was interested in concentrating as much power as possible within the working class. And he perceived the way to do that is to have highly dedicated people directing the movement. But that doesn’t mean Lenin and the Bolsheviks opposed any type of political organizing outside their projects.

Lenin wanted socialism to penetrate every aspect of society. Indeed, any socialist should want that, for obvious reasons. The Bolsheviks’ centralist vanguard party didn’t have a monopoly on political organizing and activism. Instead, they functioned to lead a movement, giving it a sense of direction, and keeping it united.

You can’t look at post-1917 Bolshevism to understand the socialist movement in the United States. You have to compare the socialist movement, ideally before 1905, in Russia. At that point, the idea socialism would win in Russia was as far-fetched of a political reality as it is in contemporary US.

And at that point in history, the socialists were trying to build up something, anything, that could lead to socialism. Didn’t matter who you were, or what you were trying to do. They wanted socialism to proliferate everywhere.

What I’m getting at, is the pseudo-Marxist Center position of the DSA is seemingly “leave it to us, we’ll give you orders”. The libertarian socialists position is “screw you, we’ll do what you want!”.

As is true with all inter-leftist bickering, the solution is dialectical and holds within it both positions.

What should have really been done regarding the message board, is the communications director should have asked party chapter leadership about making the forum. The political leadership should have given the go-ahead.

They should have said “as long as it’s not too time-intensive, and as long as you don’t have something else to do, go for it.” If the forum gains momentum in a positive wat, then it should be promoted by membership.

It’s really not the place of a political party’s leadership to actively campaign against a political project like that. Like literally, you have to be insecure as shit to oppose that.

And besides all that, the fact that it was something that was voted on – in fact, the only thing voted on at this meeting – trivializes the party’s goals and aims. I can think of five million things that are more important to vote on. I also can infer dozens of things that this chapter’s membership is doing, that would be more valuable to vote on than the message board.

All of this makes it feel like a small-scale, ersatz duplicate of real politics, and discourages me from my DSA membership. Thankfully, I’m planning on moving back to the Pacific Northwest, where I’m from within a year, and hopefully, the DSA is better over there.

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