The Debate DSA Needs: Building A Left that Can Disrupt and Win

“Emphasis needs to be turned away from getting self-identified volunteers together. … That’s only relevant in service to another project – that is connecting people who do not share an ideology but do have a shared material interest.”
– The Regrettable Century Podcast

This August, DSA National Convention delegates will debate the “what” and the “who” of democratic socialism in 2021. What program and positions will DSA adopt?  Who will sit on the National Political Committee?

But there is another kind of question that urgently needs our attention. I am referring to questions of “How.”  How can DSA help build the capacity for deliberate, strategic disruption? How can DSA help the broader US left grow the organizers necessary to deploy that capacity?

While DSA’s recent membership growth has been remarkable, we operate in the context of a left that is larger than we are. That broader left (with its various movements, community organizations, trade unions and thinkers) may use different names for the systems that oppress us: capitalism, neoliberalism, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, hetero-normativity, extraction, colonialism, settler colonialism and more. Fortunately, several of DSA’s priority campaigns (including DSA 4 Bernie, Medicare 4 All, Green New Deal) are popular across many on the left- whatever name they give to oppressive systems. Within DSA, such campaigns have been touted as non-reformist reforms – reforms that shift the operation of capitalism in ways that (a) provide immediate relief to the working class and (b) set the conditions for a more ambitious transformation of society.

This is all to the good, but we should also reflect critically on how newer activists engage with these campaigns.

To one degree or another, newer activists carry over from our overall society the assumption that our political institutions can eventually fulfill the promise of democracy, even if some leaders or parties are corrupt. They assume that if we all adopt the right positions, mobilize enough voters for DSA candidates, knock on enough doors and attend enough actions, we can win these non-reformist reforms and elect better politicians.

This assumption is wrong.

Can we imagine the rich letting us vote their wealth away? Can we imagine the channels of political participation built to sustain oppressive economic and social systems will permit their own dismantling?


The diverse socialist, radical and left traditions from which today’s left have emerged tend to agree on one thing: oppressive systems must be disrupted or credibly threatened with disruption before serious concessions become possible.

How can this be accomplished? The power to disrupt can be deployed in several arenas. Just to name a few:

  • disrupting production and logistics, through strategic strikes and other disruption at specific points of production;
  • disrupting rents, through rent strikes;
  • disrupting normal life through system-wide disruption of social reproduction (for example: teacher’s strikes, the 2006 Day Without an Immigrant or Hong Kong’s recent protests);
  • and, when necessary, disrupting political machines at the local, state and national level which enable all these economic operations by building our own alternative political organizations.

As this summer’s protests reminded us, spontaneity and circumstances can sometimes produce disruption for a time. Yet exercising the power to disrupt deliberately and strategically depends on what I call “organizers of a particular kind.”

I am talking about organizers who have been trained to identify leaders with followers, help those leaders face the tough choices before them, and then challenge them to step into conflict – in the face of very real fears of retaliation.

The practices of militant labor or tenant organizing naturally grow this kind of organizer. Legislative pressure tactics, electoral canvassing, and most protest actions usually don’t, however necessary they may be for other purposes.

With the acceleration of climate change and the ongoing sacrifice of people to capital accumulation, the US left doesn’t just need to grow the numbers of “organizers of a particular kind.” We need rapid, exponential growth in those numbers.

So, this summer, DSA certainly will debate the “what” and “who.” But I think the coming months also must produce the answer to a more central, strategic “how” question. How can DSA use the next two years to build a broader left that exponentially grows the number of these organizers?

Let’s get the debate started.

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