Here you will find links to proposals that have been submitted to the resolutions committee for the 2017 DSA National Convention as part of the Spring Platform, and below is our inaugural piece laying out the overall vision of the Spring Platform crew. For deeper looks at the various proposals, check out our blog.
Petition Process for Debate
Reviving the National Advisory Committee: Coming Soon
Internal Bulletin/Debates: Coming Soon
Strategy Discussion: Coming Soon
Caucuses: Coming Soon
Reviving the Activist Conference: Coming Soon
Changing our Dues Structure
Democracy is Power: the Spring Platform
June 1st, 2017
By Natalie Midiri, Adam Goldman, and Jeremy Gong
Something amazing is happening in the Democratic Socialists of America.
The American Left hasn’t seen this much talent and power assembled together in one socialist organization in a long time. After decades of decline, American socialists are no longer isolated in small reading groups or fringe sects, and DSA is at the center of this reenergized socialist movement.
The recent surge in our membership has changed what is possible for socialist activists. Before 2017, we could never have launched hundreds of socialist canvassers as part of a viable statewide single payer fight like we are right now in California, or run open socialist candidates in winning campaigns for public office in places like Alabama, Georgia and New York.
But this new energy and power within DSA also poses many questions for us as an organization. As the scope of our work grows, the challenges we face grow too. By the end of the year we will have added tens of thousands of new socialists to our ranks, along with over a hundred new chapters. But the structures that these new members have inherited are not scaled to the political or organizational horizons now before us.
We need new structures and a robust democratic culture to carry out our political vision and become a real fighting force on the Left.
Problems of Growth
Many of us in DSA have experienced what we are calling the “problems of growth.” These problems are challenging chapters all across the country in a variety of ways.
For some, challenges are slowly accumulating as chapters struggle to establish leadership, vision, and strategy, all while they struggle with things like onboarding members to committee work, extensive debates over bylaws, or poor communication with other chapters in the region.
For others, challenges pop up quickly, like sudden controversy on social media or allegations of harassment that the chapter membership is forced to deal with before they are able to set up accountable and transparent leadership structures.
These problems are different for different chapters, but they all result from the breakneck speed at which DSA has grown from a small organization into a massive one.
We tripled our membership in 2016. But how many of these new members will feel connected enough to DSA to renew in 2017? It depends on our ability to quickly move past these challenges and into the exciting and historic work of rebuilding a mass socialist movement.
In order for DSA to rise to the occasion, we believe that our long-term political vision must be tied to a structural vision of dramatically expanded democracy within the organization. After all, this is our organization, and if it is to have real strength, that power will come from us, the members.
What follows are the lessons we’ve learned about democracy, organizing, and building power in our own chapters and a series of proposals for both chapter organizing and reforming the national DSA structure that we think can help transform DSA into a vibrant, inclusive, and powerful socialist organization unlike anything seen in this country in generations.
Together, these proposals constitute the basis of what we are calling the Spring Platform, which will include several concrete proposals to be published here (on our website, dsaspringplatform.org) prior to the DSA 2017 National Convention in Chicago.
We think it is essential that we advocate for these reforms by organizing and debating out in the open. Too often in political organizations decisions are made by a select few leaders at the top and the rank-and-file are treated like an inert mass who only learn about decisions once they’re asked to carry them out. Ideally, our project will spark debate and galvanize the members who have never participated in anything like a mass democratic organization before. Debate and internal organizing will not only clarify our goals, but this kind of democracy in practice will make DSA stronger as a whole.
What does democracy look like?
We believe that a vibrant, democratic organization requires a culture of transparency, accountability, and deep organizing that sees our members as our main source of power.
This kind of democracy can only be realized through the hard work of building an inclusive, resilient internal structure, one that fosters both collective action and healthy debates of all kinds, where rank-and-file members have knowledge of and control over the important resources and projects of the organization.
We found our inspiration and guidance for this type of democracy from the last stronghold of institutional democracy, militant, worker-centered unions. Good examples are those where rank-and-file reform caucuses have lead insurgencies against bureaucratic leadership, like CORE in the Chicago Teachers Union or Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
And this kind of democracy means more than just procedures. As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle put it in their fantastic book about internal union democracy, Democracy is Power, democracy means
member power, participation, and a certain relationship between leaders and the ranks. Democracy is about power over the things that matter. Motions and votes and other procedures are valuable if they contribute to this bottom line.
We believe democracy makes us more effective organizers, and only good organizing can make an organization truly democratic.
DSA is a volunteer organization. It sinks or swims on the capacity of its members to fully engage in our shared work. True democracy and full engagement are only possible in practice in the context of real organizing – in member-driven campaigns, around internal political and strategic debates, or through caucuses or polemics – within what labor organizer and author Jane McAlevey calls a “highly participatory” organization.
We believe that democracy fights informal power within the organization.
Without an accountable formal structure democratically governing important activities and decisions, an organization risks being influenced by informal power and opaque structures. Informal power in DSA already contributes to and results from problems of accessibility and unaccountability. Because some members have more connections, more experience, more time, and more resources, they are able to have a much greater influence over the direction of our organization. Even worse, patterns of gender, racial, or other inequities will only be reproduced within our groups if we don’t create strong structures that consciously address them.
As Jo Freeman writes in her famous essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, responding to anarchistic organizational forms in the women’s movement in the 70’s,
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless [or “laissez faire”] group…. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.
We will never be able to fully eradicate inequalities among DSA members’ capacities to participate. But we can ensure that there are transparent and accountable structures of leadership and decision-making which allow maximum participation from the largest amount of rank-and-file members, without at the same time burdening them with constant meetings and debates.
We need common solutions to common problems.
As we grow, it is inevitable that there will be disputes and conflicts among members. Sometimes these conflicts are over political differences, personality clashes, and sometimes the issue is something more serious, like harassment or assault. We are already seeing reports of such cases play out in a number of chapters, where conflicts and accusations destabilize a poorly organized chapter. All of this can be alienating, at best, and at worst it puts our members at risk. DSA membership should be an escape from the alienation and harassment of day-to-day life under capitalism – not more of the same with roses pinned to it. That’s why we think the national organization should be charged with handling major grievances.
Below are the first planks in the Spring Platform. We hope that other DSA comrades will stay tuned for more documents that expand upon some proposals, as well as more articles and debates on democratic structure, organizing, politics, and a vision for the future of the rapidly growing socialist movement. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to get involved with the Spring Platform project, please send us a message and sign up here to stay updated.
Our official platform for the 2017 convention has three planks: a three-part priorities resolution, and two proposed constitutional amendments.
- Priorities Resolution: The following three priorities all stem from our commitment to building a powerful, democratic, and highly participatory organization. We will be working with other comrades to produce more detailed proposals soon.
- Single-Payer March on Washington (co-authored with NPC candidate Dustin Guastella): DSA needs a national campaign, and Single Payer healthcare is the most important and strategic place to invest our energy right now. However, there is not currently a legislative pathway to a national Single Payer program with a republican Congress, and state-level work in lucky blue states would leave out the vast majority of DSA chapters. A March on Washington is then a great way to involve DSA chapters around the country in a months-long effort to build local and regional capacities and galvanize new members and supporters, while bringing together DSA organizers from across the country.
- Member Mobilizers: As a large and constantly growing organization, we need systems in place in our locals that enable us to quickly onboard waves of new members to our locals, mobilize them in our campaign work, and facilitate the flow of information from our leadership to the rank-and-file and from the rank-and-file up. A member mobilizers structure, a system being piloted in the NYC DSA and Philly DSA and modeled on union shop stewards, will be a great way to accomplish all of this, and is a ready made leadership development ladder.
- Socialist Political Education: In order to have meaningful participation among the rank-and-file in making important political and strategic decisions, it’s essential that members feel empowered and educated enough to think critically about politics on their own. Too often, the few activists (often men) with developed political education backgrounds hoard their knowledge and use it to maintain their influence. Only if we actively and consciously help our members educate themselves will we have inclusive and democratic debates.
- Grievances Amendment: An amendment empowering the NPC to protect members through a national grievance process to handle local and national disputes, and a staff person to act as a membership representative to support members through the process.
- New Chapter Bylaws Amendment: A constitutional amendment requiring new chapters to provisionally adopt national sample bylaws for their first 6 months so they can establish a baseline of internal organization and leadership before going through the tedious process of drafting new bylaws. (Currently, the national provides sample bylaws but cannot require that chapters adopt them instead of writing new ones.) (Note: on July 25th, we submitted an amendment to this proposal. Under the amended version, new chapters would still automatically adopt the standard bylaws, but would be able to amend them at any point, rather than having to wait 6 months. You can see the amendment here).
The following proposals have been added to the Spring Platform as of July 6th, 2017. They were developed by a collaboration between the Spring Platform Crew, Jared Abbott of Boston DSA, and Sean Monahan of Rhode Island DSA.
- Petition Process for Debate: This amendment to the National DSA constitution creates a mechanism wherein 20% of locals or 8% of members can petition the NPC to take up an important issue and debate it out in the open, with reports back to the membership. This will give the membership of the organization a much greater say in the running of the national organization between biannual conventions, while increasing transparency and helping to keep the NPC accountable to members and locals. Importantly, the process of petitioning and publicly debating issues across locals and among national leaders will foster a culture of internal organizing and transparency, while also encouraging members to be more engaged and national leaders to be more inclusive with important decision-making processes. Finally, such a culture of open and inclusive debate and deliberation will contribute to the education of members in DSA politics and strategy, so they know why we are taking this or that course of action, and are equipped to critique and protest if needed.
- Reviving the National Advisory Committee: Article IX of the DSA Constitution reads:
Section 1. Members of the National Advisory Committee shall be available to consult with the NPC and the officers of the organization. It shall, however, have no decision- making authority.
Section 2. Members of the National Advisory Committee shall be chosen by the NPC and must be members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In electing members to the NAC, the NPC shall act so as to ensure fair representation of women and minorities.The National Advisory Committee (NAC) has not been active for many years and we think it’s important to bring it back. The body, which could consist of representatives from each chapter or from different regions and constituencies, will allow for much better communication between the NPC and locals. Currently, the only regular and direct communication between national and locals takes the form of email blasts and surveys, occasional check-in calls with DSA mentors and sporadic ad hoc or informal interactions.In the long-term, we would like to use the NAC to build the foundation for a congressional system in DSA, where all established locals elect a member to serve as a designated point-person translating information from the local to the national and national to the local. With the NAC, the NPC could be much more transparent and accountable to locals, having to engage with the NAC, hold joint discussions with them, and much more regularly share information, answer questions, and respond to concerns.
- Internal Bulletin/Debates: While many DSAers across the country are actively engaged in critical debates around socialist theory and strategy online, in print and in conversation with each other, DSA currently lacks any forum for sustained and structured organization-wide debate around key strategic and theoretical questions. Our various publications (Democratic Left, DL blog, Talkin’ Union, etc.) do offer important updates on DSA’s organizing work and provide useful analyses of various political questions from DSAers and fellow travelers, but none allows DSAers with different strategic and tactical perspectives to engage each other directly and publicly around key organizational questions. This both inhibits the degree of internal democracy within DSA as well as limits our capacity for effective organizational decision-making. To begin the process of remedying this situation, we propose a monthly or bimonthly internal discussion bulletin that curates key debates within DSA and offers a center of gravity around which important organizational questions may be debated. We also propose quarterly debates around DSA’s highest-priority strategic questions that will consist of quarterly recorded debates between 3-4 DSA leaders representing the range of perspectives on a given issue within DSA and which will include extended Q & A based on questions taken from DSA members.
- Strategy Discussion: While internal bulletins and debates will certainly help to raise the level and quality of structure of democratic debate within DSA, they allow for only minimal participation of DSA’s membership. This is a problem both because radical democracy depends both on the full participation by our membership in key organizational decision-making, and also because political analysis and debate is a skill that must be learned through practice. Consequently, we view the cultivation of an internal culture of active political debate to be an essential educational tool for our membership. To this end, we propose that DSA develop a yearly process of organization-wide strategy discussions around key organizational questions leading up DSA’s annual national meetings (currently DSA holds conventions every other year and does not have a national gathering in off years, we propose to change this below). This process would consist of monthly conference calls or videoconferences around a different strategic or theoretical question each month for the 4-6 months leading up to a given DSA national meeting. All DSA leaders and activists will be encouraged to participate on the calls, and would be provided with key background readings and questions for discussion leading up to each set of calls. These calls would culminate in state or regional-level meetups where DSAers from a given area can come together to discuss and debate the key issues coming out of the previous 4-6 months of strategic debate and discussion, and each state/regional-level meetup will be joined together through a virtual conference where the state/regional meetups can engage in debate and discussion with each other. This process will serve both to increase the critical strategic and theoretical skills needed by all DSA members as well as ensure broad conversation occurs across DSA around key strategic and organizational questions.
- Caucuses: DSA prides itself on being a multi-tendency political organization, but for most of its history it has also actively discouraged the development of distinct political tendencies within DSA out of concern over the potential divisiveness they might produce and a feeling that theoretical debates around key strategic and theoretical questions were unwelcome distractions from the business of organizing. Yet in the absence of organized tendencies key political questions are resolved largely based on staff and elected leaders interpreting what the “mainstream” political views of DSA are, and key strategic differences within the organization are never discussed explicitly. This results not only in undemocratic decision-making (similar to the way the absence of political parties undermines the effective aggregation of political preferences among a given electorate), but also produces limited clarity among DSA’s membership about the key issues facing the organization and strategic incoherence around DSA’s political decision-making. We will work to facilitate the development of a range of political caucuses in the organization that will both provide critical educational spaces for DSAers to develop their political perspectives as well as serve the invaluable function of aggregating the political preferences of DSAers into coherent programs that will give substantive voice to the full range of political perspectives within DSA.
- Reviving the Activist Conference: Article 7 of the DSA Constitution establishes a “National Activist Conference” to be held in off years between DSA’s biannual convention. The text reads as follows:Section 1. A National Activist Conference shall be held at least once between Conventions in the year in which a Convention is not held.Section 2. The National Activist Conference shall include the officers of the National organization, the members of the National Political Committee, Chairs of Commissions, the Honorary Chairs and Vice-Chairs, two delegates selected by each Local, and any additional DSA members who want to attend.Section 3. The Conference Planning Committee for the National Activist Conference shall include members of the NPC, chairs of Commissions and a Youth Section representative.The national activist conference has not been held in decades, with the result being that DSAers only have a chance to gather once every two years. This places an undue burden on the DSA convention to serve both as a space for activist training, theory development and political debate. We propose to bring back the off year activist conferences, which will focus primarily on organizing training, in order to free up the National Convention to focus primarily on guiding DSA’s political perspective over the subsequent 2 years.
- Changing our Dues Structure: To make the most of our recent growth and keep the momentum going, and in order to carry out ambitious plans like a national Medicare-For-All campaign, DSA needs to expand its operations in a big way. More conferences, regional offices, organizers, and materials all cost money. Unfortunately there’s a real danger that a lot of the new members who started joining after Trump’s election last year won’t renew, and our membership dues money will plummet, forcing us to cut back at a time when we should be boldly expanding. That’s why we support the proposal for a constitutional amendment authorizing a switch to a system of monthly instead of yearly dues. Dues would be based on members’ own ability to pay. The rate would be set by the NPC, as per the current rules outlined by the Constitution, but we could for example set it at 1% of members’ monthly income, allowing them room to choose within a certain range above or below to account for their individual situations. Exceptions would be made for those with very low-income and brand new members. It would be a system in which dues are a small, reasonable portion of someone’s income, but which add up to much more than our current dues over the course of a year. We could develop a system in which local chapters could receive 20% of their members’ national dues back, providing them with a comfortable stream of funds for their own use. The extra money that the national takes in could be very substantial. It would go not only to national and regional activist conferences, and to expand all of our operations, but importantly to implement an extensive system of regional organizers to help develop Organizing Committees and teach chapter activists important organizing skills while helping build other political and educational capacities. This kind of expanded capacity is essential to building a vibrant, inclusive, high participation and democratic organization.