Collective Political Development: How To Build A Cohesive Chapter The Chicago DSA delegation to the 2019 National DSA Convention.

Collective Political Development: How To Build A Cohesive Chapter

With the confluence of this year’s events, it can be hard to find the time and energy to think through the big picture of where Chicago DSA is and plan for what we want it to become. It’s useful to take a step back and pinpoint our theory of change: we believe the only way to take on and defeat the power of the capitalist class is through the power of mass, coordinated action of the working class. We have collectively articulated this theory through our work since 2016 (as evidenced by our new bylaws in 2018 and our democratically-adopted chapter campaign criteria), but the global pandemic poses significant challenges for maintaining a cohesive organization that can take concerted action.  There are, however, several steps CDSA — and other chapters seeking better cohesion — can take to address these challenges, even remotely.

Enacting Our Theory of Change

To enact our theory of change, we must build a mass, democratic, socialist membership organization, rooted in the working class, that can move increasingly large numbers of working-class people into direct conflict with the capitalist class. By growing bigger, growing closer, and directly experiencing class conflict, we can develop both class consciousness and class organization. Only by becoming an organized and self-aware class can we act in concert in pursuit of our class interests.

In DSA, we have historically strived to recruit new members with the aim of both increasing the size and reach of our organization, as well as expanding the working class’s understanding of itself as a class. We need to figure out the next step — how does our large and ever-growing organization act as one? This conversation is difficult to have; we are not used to acting together or making decisions collectively. The individualism ingrained in all of us brought up in a capitalist society complicates our analysis, which is further muddied by the big tent nature of the organization and a common misunderstanding of democracy — internal and otherwise — to mean DSA members should organize around whatever issues personally motivate them. As people living under capitalism in a bourgeois democracy, we have limited experience acting as a group toward a common goal, and few of us have experience democratically deciding how to pursue collective goals. 

We must learn how to act as a democratic collective. As workers, our power comes from our numbers and can only be wielded effectively if we act as one. It does not matter how many DSA members we have; if they are all doing their own thing, we might as well not have an organization. 3,000 members working together toward a single goal is far more powerful than 100 30-member teams working in 100 different directions. We must grow larger, and we must grow closer. This means prioritizing our political development, not as individuals but as a cohesive chapter.

Cohesive Chapter, Focused Action

Collective political development is the work of building a shared sense of political terrain and a trust in our collective decision-making. Through this process, we learn to identify as a collective, and we deepen our individual commitment to our shared work. Organization not only provides us the necessary structure to determine strategy and coordinate action, it gives us a community and the dedicated space to develop a set of politics and maintain a perspective on changing political conditions.

For our collective choices and actions to be effective, we must develop our individual politics together. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but we must establish a shared political terrain for the organization. We need a common understanding of where the membership generally agrees, what the subjects of active debate are, and how differences of opinion are distributed across our political community.

Understanding our comrades’ politics is crucial to effectively discussing and debating the particular question before us. Not knowing where a comrade is coming from can lead to misunderstandings, resentment and votes in which individual relationships are the basis of decision making. If I don’t know why someone is arguing for a particular course of action, it becomes harder for me to figure out if I agree with them or not. Chapter cohesion, a sense of chapter identity that deepens each member’s commitment to our organization and our shared project, gives us a deeper understanding of our comrades’s stances that is vital for effective collective decision-making — and ultimately, collective action.

The Pandemic Has Hurt Our Chapter Cohesion

At last year’s DSA convention, people across the country clearly saw Chicago DSA’s strong chapter cohesion on display. There were no chapters of our size more capable of taking on a few shared projects as an entire citywide chapter or more closely bonded together in a shared sense of struggle. Our membership meetings, unlike the fraught, bruising battles that people in other big chapters often dreaded, could be joyous occasions where even when people sharply disagreed and laid out opposing opinions, members were happy to be together as part of a shared project.

While we are still remarkably cohesive for a big chapter, that shared spirit has receded in recent months. Much of this fraying is clearly due to the ongoing global pandemic, but some would argue that the influx of new members has also played a role. I would agree that adding nearly 1,000 people to the organization has weakened our cohesion, but it didn’t have to. I think there are specific aspects of chapter-building that occurred naturally in the past that we have struggled both to identify and to replicate. Specifically, we have lost the interconnected social and political relationship-building that results from casual contact between newer and more experienced members, which was key to chapter cohesion.

In pre-pandemic times, some amount of political, social and organizational development occurred naturally, through the informal conversations that happen while people wait for meetings to start, put chairs away or hang out at a bar or restaurant after meetings. Those casual conversations exposed newer members to the recent history of DSA, taught them about the live political debates in the chapter, answered their questions about the organization and generally gave them a sense of their fellow members. This informality allowed new members to build comradely relationships with other members alongside building their understanding of the organization and their political analysis.

Political development is most effective when it comes through reflection on work one is actually doing, so it was beneficial that this collective development was happening within groups engaging in  work together. At the same time, there was often enough of an overlap between the people involved with various projects that if you were regularly attending the same meeting (say, Labor Branch, or a campaign committee meeting), you would meet people involved in work across the chapter and feel like you had a decent sense of what was happening throughout the organization and the people who were involved in each area of work.

All the things that went into this linked political and social development are very important, but the communication of institutional history is particularly sorely lacking right now. All of us were once new organizers and new socialists, and there are plenty of political lessons that are best learned by trying things, making mistakes and learning from them. In the same way individual socialists can learn from experience, though, so can and so has our chapter, as a whole. For instance, our decision to focus on citywide chapter campaigns decision-making resulted in part from widespread frustration with the ineffective siloing of many small projects in working groups and branches. Rather than new members having to learn these lessons all over again, the institutional memory that was informally imparted helped them skip those steps and benefit from the collective wisdom of the organization. This in turn benefits the organization as a whole; rather than repeating the same mistakes over and over again as new people come in, we can move on to try (and, invariably, in some cases, fail at and learn from) bigger and better things.

Of course, there are many problems with relying on interactions like these to develop chapter cohesion: People who don’t drink or who had family obligations precluding them from lingering after meetings were often excluded, and the unplanned nature of the overlap meant that there were always parts of the chapter that were less integrated than others. Still, these bonds went a long way to building a strong sense of identification with, and understanding of, the chapter among most of our engaged membership. Additionally, four times a year, we’d all come together for our general membership meetings, where we get to know each other on a deeper level, talk about our political analysis and build stronger ties.

Now, virtually every meeting occurs over Zoom and most informal interaction happens digitally over, in the best case, Slack, and in the worst case, Twitter, neither of which is good at building a sense of shared identity around our shared project. Those opportunities for informal relationship building and development are gone. New members have some formal opportunities for relationship building (the Rose Buddy program) and political development (Socialist Night School), but those are both limited in scope and, by their formal nature, can feel somewhat artificial. In addition, many of the experienced leaders that newer members once commonly interacted with at meetings don’t attend SNS and aren’t part of the Rose Buddy program. Despite the best efforts of many to replicate and advance a program of developing newer members, all of this isolation has cleaved the connection between political development and relationship building that was once at the heart of the collective sense of who we are as a chapter.

What Should We Do?

This problem is fixable. There are a number of things we can do to not just replace the collective political development that could happen more naturally before the pandemic, but to systematize it and address the gaps that existed in the informal system that was at work before. By intentionally focusing on our chapter’s collective political development, we can maintain and enhance the sense of shared identity and shared commitment that has made Chicago DSA such a powerful and cohesive chapter. While this piece is focused on CDSA’s specific situation, these same ideas would be applicable to any DSA chapter looking to build this sense of chapter cohesion through collective development.

While we don’t know how long this pandemic will continue, we should start to consider what work can remain remote and what really must be done in person for it to be effective. There are certainly some meetings that work perfectly fine over Zoom. At the same time, there are many conversations, particularly political debates, that are severely hampered by the limitations of the technology. Over the summer, I ended up in Horner Park with a number of comrades, where we engaged in a spirited, comradely political debate that would not have worked if we were all sitting alone on a Zoom call. The ability to read body language, the natural flow that a conversation cannot achieve with multiple people over video and the sense of closeness that only exists in person makes an enormous difference. Until in-person events become more feasible, there are certain practices we can engage in that can mimic, as best we can, the kind of informal development that happened naturally before. 

While there are no chairs to put away after a Zoom call and no bar we can all meet at, setting aside time after meetings where people can stay on the call to hang out, chat informally and answer questions can provide some of the same benefits. I have seen leaders of our Electoral Working Group do this after meetings. We should be having this kind of informal time more often. In general, we should look for opportunities to foster social spaces through our chapter work, preferably in person where feasible and safe, that can bring newer and more experienced members together.

Most importantly, political development of the chapter cannot be delegated to a small committee but must be something that the entire chapter engages in together. Active members and chapter leaders must all take it upon themselves to engage in the work, not only for newer members but also for themselves. Part of what it means to be a leader in a democratic organization is to be explicit with the political decisions that we wrestle with and how and why we come to the conclusions and decisions we do. This transparency is critical to remaining the kind of open organization that enables fellow members of the working class, many of whom have busy schedules, to plug into clear-cut, discrete work. At the same time, we should be sure people understand why the work looks the way it does, both to strengthen their commitment to this work and to help people new to democratic political decision-making start learning how to do political analysis. For example, as a Rose Buddy mentor, some of my most fulfilling conversations with mentees start with the new member asking me why CDSA is doing or not doing something. Every active chapter member should see furthering this development as their responsibility.

There are 3 concrete things that chapter leaders can do to embrace collective political development as a priority of the chapter. 

  1. Go to Socialist Night School. Our SNS program is one of the best in the nation, with fantastic facilitators and carefully curated syllabi that foster lively, substantive discussion around timely topics. In my experience, however, most SNS attendees are either new members or one of a handful of regulars, most of whom are also members of the Political Education and Policy Committee. This silos off political education, and with it opportunities to develop political analysis with our comrades, with most active members either not engaging in political education or doing it on their own, undermining the goal of doing that work together with comrades in a way that strengthens the chapter. We should instead be making SNS central to our chapter culture, a place where everyone is learning and talking together. We should set a goal of all active members attending SNS at least once a semester, and EC members and other chapter leaders should take the lead in modeling that behavior.
  2. Be more intentional about engaging in political conversations with members, both in group settings and one on one. This is not to say chapter leaders should be trying to instill in members a specific political line; for one, we don’t have one, and for another, that’s not how a big-tent, democratic organization like DSA should work. Rather, we should be helping our members learn how to think politically by having political conversations with them. When leaders do have one-on-one conversations, they are far more logistical than political, focused on how particular tasks or discrete projects are going, and talking through how to overcome specific obstacles. At the same time, it can be difficult to have a conversation focused on politics that does not become didactic, especially when there is a significant experience gap between people. This shouldn’t be a surprise; we have so little experience with democracy in society that most people have few opportunities to think through political decisions of much consequence. To the extent people have made political decisions, they are usually more about position than action; people decide that things need to be different, often from a place of morality, but they have not yet figured out how we’re going to get there — a decision that must be made from a place of material analysis. Chapter leaders have to be intentional about having conversations with newer members to give them the chance to practice this sort of thinking, so that they can engage more fully in chapter decision-making.
  3. Put our political disagreements in the foreground. One of the wonderful things about Chicago DSA is that we remain a remarkably friendly and comradely chapter. CDSA members truly love and support each other. At the same time, that tendency can sometimes lead members to try to paper over genuine political disagreement and seek a compromise that everyone is fine with before fully airing out why we disagree. Forcing political disagreement under the surface can have the perverse effect of blurring the line between political conflict and personal friction, transforming one into the other. When political disagreement over some decision the chapter faces emerges, we should have the debate out in the open, not only to prevent interpersonal issues from forming, but so that the full membership can be exposed to these discussions and develop their own thinking.

Embracing collective political development as a chapter-wide project will not be quick or simple. It will take work from a lot of people. But the results will be hugely beneficial. Not only will collective political development maintain CDSA as one of the strongest, most cohesive chapters in the country —  a mass working-class organization that can act as one and scare the city’s ruling class — but it will improve the capacity of each of our increasing number of members to be a capable socialist strategist and organizer in their own right. At the rate we hope to grow, we will need as many members as we have right now to be leaders in the organization in just a few years’ time. It is through this process of collective political development that we can build a legion of leaders who can both think for themselves and function together with their comrades to levy the immense power of an organized working class to win a better world.