At the Chicago DSA general chapter meeting on April 3, members will be able to vote on a proposal to open up a period of discussion about our chapter’s vision, priorities, and strategies for the next two years. The goal of this discussion period is to produce a “Towards a Socialist Chicago” (TaSC) document, to be voted on at the chapter convention at the end of June, that summarizes the discussion and sets out strategic priorities for CDSA for the next two years.
The proposal to be taken up April 3 sets out in detail a process for involving members across the chapter in political discussion and in drafting and debating the TaSC document. We’re writing this article to motivate why we think discussions like these—which have gone by different names in the history of the left: programs, perspectives, strategizing, visioning—are important for a socialist organization.
DSA has grown in a very short period into the largest socialist organization in generations. Its national success is shaped by two factors above any others: Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and Trump’s presidency. Bernie’s two runs put DSA on the map and articulated its near-term vision, setting the stage for local, statewide, and national election successes that brought even more attention. Meanwhile, the atrocities of the Trump era, starting with the 2016 election itself, were the cause of the big surges of new members over the past four years and gave DSA a national reputation for activism beyond elections.
Unfortunately in the case of Bernie and fortunately in the case of Trump, neither of these factors will play a dominant role in defining DSA’s immediate priorities and practices. Bernie won’t run for president again, and though the far right raised to its feet by Trump remains a dangerous threat, Trump is no longer causing the kind of daily, nationwide damage that sparks resistance on a mass basis. Instead, on the national level, DSA will face something it never has since its massive growth: neoliberal Democrats in control of the White House and (barely) Congress, managing the system in the interests of capital, amid a highly polarized society with potentially explosive political and social conditions everywhere.
This makes the time ripe for taking stock of what DSA has accomplished and discussing what can come next. How should DSA shift to confront a new political moment? Does it need to? What can we take from the DSA’s successes and apply in the next few years? What opportunities exist for new organizing? What pitfalls do we need to avoid?
In Chicago DSA, there is a greater sense of continuity with the period before the election because members are rooted in a routine of campaigns, local initiatives, political education, and other projects that have developed into a healthy chapter rhythm. Nevertheless, our chapter faces questions, too. To take just a couple examples: With the primaries for the 2022 statewide elections a year away and municipal elections nearly two years away, what can CDSA do in this preparatory period to build on its previous successes and look forward to new ones? How can CDSA respond to the flowering of mutual aid projects and generalize experiments in different parts of the city? How can we strengthen the organization in every part of Chicago, especially BIPOC communities on the South and West Sides?
There are rarely simple and straightforward answers to questions like these. They require a thorough, democratic discussion of our analysis of the political moment, including the strengths and weaknesses of our enemies, of the wider working-class movement, and of our own organization. The conclusions flowing from that discussion can help set out strategic priorities for the chapter, including how those priorities can be coordinated and connected to a wider vision of democratic socialism.
Many organizations on the left have carried out similar periods of discussion and setting priorities, but not with the same mass membership involvement that we are proposing for “Towards a Socialist Chicago.” NGOs are famous for producing vision or mission statements assembled by staff or their boards or even outside consultants, without input from their base or members. Organizations in our socialist tradition have a mixed record of membership involvement in critical decisions like these.
The goal of the proposal presented on April 3 is to initiate a process that can engage members throughout the chapter in a variety of ways, with discussions at branch meetings, political education events, and chapter events and through publications like this one, along with a process for drafting and debating the final document that encourages contributions from any member who wants to participate. The most effective “Towards a Socialist Chicago” document will be one that reflects every part of the Chicago chapter, in all its diversity and collective commitment to achieving change in this city and this society.