Chicago DSA is in bad shape. After a year without general meetings, our inability to meet quorum at last month’s annual convention demonstrates just how much our membership has lost confidence in chapter leadership.
Class Unity is running a slate in the Chicago DSA branch elections to help set this right. We believe that the chapter must expand its horizons beyond its existing base of dedicated, mostly middle class activists, and commit to a strategy that unifies rather than divides the working class.
In order to restore CDSA to its full potential as a vehicle for class struggle, we are running on four platform planks:
- Prioritize universal campaigns that speak to working people’s actual concerns.
- Make CDSA welcoming to the working class.
- Politicize our rank-and-file membership, strengthen chapter democracy.
- Independence from politicians, no paid staffers in chapter leadership.
Each of these planks will be explained in detail below. If you find yourself agreeing with us, we encourage you to join CU and to vote for our candidates:
Blue line branch: Chris G, Thaddeus A
Red line branch: Hephestion B, Chris K, Rhiannon B
South side branch: Jason B, Dan M, Jackson S
Many caucuses in DSA almost exclusively recruit members already in chapter leadership positions, regardless of substantial political differences. We take a different approach: we are a principled caucus that wants to grow through rank-and-file members. Our only criterion for joining is substantial agreement with our statement of principles.
Class Unity rejects the idea that the “most active” members, i.e. those most established and socially-connected, are the best fit for leadership. 90% of DSA members never show up to DSA meetings, and the working class sure as hell never shows up. We believe that a mass political organization shouldn’t be run according to the interests of those who have the time and energy to “show up” at the expense of members who have family responsibilities or who work long or irregular hours.
We take our commitment to working class politics seriously, and this extends to how we run our caucus. While other caucuses allow their elected leaders to wheel and deal and vote however they like, our expectation is that all CU members in chapter leadership will vote as directed by the democratic deliberations of our caucus. This gives our working class members fair representation in the politics of the chapter.
If you have any questions or if you would like to be invited to a Chicago CU bar night, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will also be hosting a Medicare for All BBQ at Mitchell’s in Bridgeport on July 25th, it will be open to the public and you should feel free to invite family and friends.
Universal campaigns that speak to working people’s actual concerns
Socialism will only ever be successful as a mass movement. In order to build this movement, our first task is to focus on issues that concern working people the most, educate them on the causes of those problems, and agitate them to organize against their class enemies.
Class Unity believes that CDSA’s current priorities are out of step with the concerns of the working class. People don’t want to abolish the police. They want meaningful democratic oversight of police departments, responsive and respectful officers, and safe neighborhoods. In addition to and beyond the current emphasis on policing, working people care about Medicare for All, universal childcare, decommodified housing, better working conditions, and higher wages. Only direct organizing in workplaces and neighborhoods around these broadly popular issues will build the working-class base that CDSA desperately needs to sustain its relevance as a socialist project.
CDSA must re-evaluate its political approach along these lines if it’s to become a mass working-class organization, rather than yet another decentralized activist hub. Right now, CDSA is showing alarming trends in the latter direction. Projects for building durable institutions, such as our Medicare for All campaign, have been all but disbanded, while ad-hoc mobilizations that lack a sustainable vision for recruiting workers and winning political power have become the norm.
Mutual aid became a popular CDSA trend during the COVID pandemic and the Bernie Sanders campaign collapse in 2020. This was an understandable reaction to the situation, given that electoral politics were out of the picture and large sectors of the economy were shut down. We can sympathize with people who desire community, and who want to be involved in service projects that immediately benefit their own communities. However, mutual aid has become an end unto itself. CDSA should strategically coordinate localized activities such as mutual aid within the scope of its larger political projects.
Like mutual aid, protests have become a popular mobilization force in CDSA within the past year. This is no surprise. The protests for George Floyd were an unprecedented expression of the anger people feel towards the criminal justice system and towards socioeconomic disparities. The protests could have had a politicizing effect, and for some people they undoubtedly did. But the protests ultimately failed to mobilize workers and lay the groundwork for substantive material change. Under different conditions they might have ignited a sustained left movement, but here they served as a pressure valve for social upheaval that was largely demobilized and absorbed into liberal society.
Bearing this in mind, we’re critical of how CDSA handled its response to the wave of protests last summer. CDSA lacked perspective on the movement’s lack of grounding in working-class institutions and its rapid trajectory towards co-optation by the Democratic Party. CDSA treated the mass, inchoate expression of civil discontent as if it was a solid foundation for socialist politics, and wasn’t equipped to handle its contradictory nature. CDSA got swept up in the popular tide, uncritically adopting the movement’s predominant liberal-identitarian framework and trying to replicate the initial experience of the protests far beyond their actual existence. Our leadership ought to have had a strategy for imparting a class-based socialist message, formulating realistic demands, and determining how (or if) the protests could be used to build working-class organizations. Events like this are bound to happen again, and if we’re to engage with them strategically rather than reactively, we need to develop a sober understanding of the specific class antagonisms and political coalitions involved.
A working class CDSA
CDSA is currently unrepresentative of the city’s working class. The organization’s disproportionately college-educated and professional-class membership doesn’t have the strategic leverage in the regional economy to exert power against capital. And CDSA doesn’t yet have the capacity to build this power because it doesn’t have social standing in working-class neighborhoods.
The problem is both cultural and material. Without the reality check of a working-class base, CDSA is more likely to misjudge the viability and popularity of specific campaigns. Without a demonstrable working-class constituency, capital has little to fear from CDSA, and workers see little of value. As a result, CDSA often leans on coalitional relationships with nonprofit advocacy, service, and community organizations with working-class constituencies. These partnerships can be politically productive, and are not to be discouraged, but they should not be mistaken for the work of growing CDSA’s own base among Chicago’s working class.
CDSA needs to take its middle-class composition seriously. Most workers do not come from a middle-class background. They don’t have the same relationship to education, income, and wealth that middle-class people do. Most working people tend to focus on high impact issues that directly affect their livelihoods. Often, middle-class people are also committed to these issues, but without the same clarity and urgency.
Factors like higher, more stable income and affiliation with elite institutions like universities and NGOs lead activists to approach politics like a hobby or a therapy session: an activity that enriches their own lives without building broad working-class power. Despite its good intentions, middle-class leftism ensnares itself in agendas broadly unpopular with the working class. For example, racial discrimination, incarceration, and policing are important socialist issues. But neither fighting “white supremacy culture” nor advocating the abolition of prisons or police are effective ways of framing these issues. These agendas are popular among HR managers and “radical” academics but broadly unpopular among the working class (of any color). CDSA members who are committed to these agendas, especially those coming from middle-class backgrounds or occupying professional-class positions, need to challenge their received beliefs and commit to unifying rather than dividing the working class.
The American working class comes from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences, so a healthy internal culture in DSA is necessary to accommodate this diversity. To foster an internal culture that welcomes the working class, CDSA should respect working-class members’ time at meetings and invigorate its commitment to open political debate. What CDSA should not do is continue to engage in identitarian workarounds to its lack of a working-class base.
For example, procedural and linguistic hacks like identitarian electoral quotas, progressive stack, gender-neutral “Spanish” grammar, and pronoun-disclosure rituals aim to make participation less unequal and more accessible. This is a laudable end, but the means are mistaken because they alienate the diverse working-class constituency they claim to attract. These practices do less to accommodate particular identity groups than to accommodate the hegemonic culture of liberal middle-class professionals, academics, and activists. When we accuse CDSA of subculturalism, we mean that CDSA’s professional-activist stratum imposes cultural norms on participation that are unintelligible or downright backwards to most working-class people.
These subcultural norms are often justified with jargon like “white privilege,” “toxic masculinity,” and “cis-hetereonormativity.” This jargon reduces complex issues to moralistic slogans, and it dissuades people who might otherwise be open to having nuanced discussions about the relation between race, gender, sexuality, and class. Social practices like racism are not primarily the result of individual moral failings, nor is socialism a critique of personal morality. Racism is a mechanism of class society, and socialism is the fight against this society. Reactionary viewpoints should be challenged and rejected, but they will only lose their power over workers when workers have power over their own conditions. We can only achieve this power by organizing the immense majority of society, and engaging in good faith with the working class as it exists now.
All CDSA members should be welcomed regardless of their race, culture, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, and DSA should foster serious debates about disparities in participation. But proliferating identity protocols within CDSA cannot replace, and will in fact compromise, efforts to actually organize a working-class base. If we can build it, this base will be diverse because the issues we organize around will appeal to the working class across, rather than through, divisions of identity.
Politicize our rank-and-file membership, strengthen chapter democracy
CDSA’s membership is largely depoliticized. This is apparent from the discussions in our chapter meetings and in our Slack. To make CDSA into a serious organization for doing politics, we need a membership that can make informed decisions reached through democratic discussion and debate. This entails having a clear commitment to democratic norms at all levels of the chapter: proportional representation via Single Transferable Vote for leadership elections, opportunities for debate of proposals well in advance of general meetings, provisions for absentee or proxy voting, and events hosted by the chapter that encourage respectful debate between chapter members with different views on theoretical or strategic questions.
At present, chapter meetings tend to be overrun by points of information and questions related to organizational policy, timetables, and resourcing. While we recognize the importance of resolving specific organizational issues, we’ve noticed a trend of near-exclusive focus on these questions, to the detriment of explicit political discussion. This leaves members feeling like they’re attending managerial staff meetings rather than engaging with a real political organization. It discourages participation from members who aren’t familiar with the organizational minutiae of the DSA, or who simply don’t understand the political relevance of technocratic-sounding wonkery that seems best left to experts. Furthermore, the proceduralist framing of these discussions often obscures their real political motivations. This leaves the membership unable to contend with the political stakes of the issues being raised.
This problem spills over into our chapter elections. Without sufficient political discussion, it’s difficult for members to discern what political tendencies actually exist within CDSA. When chapter elections are held, it’s unclear whether members are voting for a distinct political vision or for a personality clique. Most members opt not to vote at all, as was apparent at our recent officer elections, where turnout failed to reach even 10%. This is concerning to anyone invested in functioning chapter democracy.
CDSA can only have a functioning democracy if its members have political clarity. Political clarity will only come through a strong internal culture of healthy political discussion. CDSA must make greater efforts to facilitate this. Chapter political education should be restructured to allocate time for political discussion and debate around current events, analysis, and theory. CDSA should establish official channels for disseminating member perspectives and editorials. Our weekly newsletter should serve as a discussion medium for our member base, not just an events digest. Political differences and controversial topics should be an opportunity for public debate, not an excuse for quelling internal disagreement. Leadership should take initiative in facilitating relevant political conversations amongst the member base, including by inviting some of the prominent socialist intellectuals in the Chicago area to deliver talks or political education sessions.
Independence from the Democratic Party, accountability for our politicians
As socialists, our power consists in nothing more and nothing less than the people that make up our movement. The more we galvanize people and recruit them to our cause, the more we win. The more we concentrate our forces in the hands of a few representatives, the easier it is for the ruling class to target and neutralize those representatives. They have shown throughout history that they are capable of doing this. They corrupt the corruptible, they swindle the naïve, they coerce others and they kill the rare courageous few that refuse to bend to their will.
Our response is not to give up electoral politics altogether. Rather, we need to configure a way of participating in electoral politics in which our elected officials merely execute the will of their organizations and constituents. This will require full transparency on the part of our electeds and strong accountability measures. The result: a team effort in which movements elect officials who in turn work with and grow the movement in furtherance of their own electoral success. Such a configuration would benefit both movements and their electeds. It would protect the movements from being blunted or co-opted. It would also relieve elected officials of the burden of fighting the fight on their own.
The first step towards these accountability measures is to implement strong conflict of interest rules. CDSA has a record of successfully electing representatives to local office. This is an important vehicle for building working-class power, but it comes with long-recognized dangers. The power of electeds and their access to jobs can subordinate socialist organizations to the priorities of the electeds – the exact opposite of their proper relationship.
To retain its long-term political independence, CDSA should not allow elected representatives, or their direct employees or staff, to serve in positions of elected leadership within CDSA, such as the Executive Committee, branch leadership committees, etc. Membership status of electeds or their employees or staff would not be affected.
In addition, any members running for chapter leadership who work as general political operatives, such as employees of NGOs, lobbyists, and political fundraisers, should be required to disclose this to membership. This should also apply to members who work in roles that entail anti-union activity, such as in human resources departments or as labor negotiators opposite unions. Failure to disclose such conflicts of interest should be punishable by disciplinary action within DSA. Electeds and their employees should not be barred from the organization, only its internal leadership, and general political operatives should not be barred from internal leadership but merely required to disclose their potential conflicts of interest.
Rules prohibiting conflicts of interest are only the first step towards our long-term independence from the Democratic Party. We should follow in the footsteps of left-wing parties around the world and throughout history that have developed strategies to ensure working-class control over socialist elected officials. A socialist organization should commit to a democratically selected political program, nominate electeds from within its own ranks to run for office, and force them to adhere to the explicit political program. Electeds should surrender their salary in excess of the median professional wage in their district to the organization, and then should be supported financially once they “retire”, so that they are harder to recruit into lobbying and other post-political-office influence-peddling roles. Only through such rigorous candidate discipline and vigorous political independence can a socialist organization hope to overcome the entrenched power of the capitalist class.
The Urgency of the CU Perspective
Class Unity’s core principles are of particular urgency for the American and Chicagoan left in our current moment. In 2019, Chicago leftists justifiably celebrated the election of several openly socialist alderpersons in the municipal election, and CDSA members were decisive accomplices to these victories. But a glance at the social dynamics behind these political formations should concern us: socialist candidates built their achievements in precisely those areas where younger college graduates had recently replaced working-class residents. These victories reflect many of the same class-compositional issues we see within DSA and that afflict the American left more broadly.
In Chicago neighborhoods not touched by the social dynamics of urban redevelopment, the left has no social base. Residents who haven’t opted out of voting altogether remain open to a range of political messaging, from the authoritarian nostalgia of the Daleys, to the bootstrap conservatism of Willie Wilson, or the celebrity chauvinism of Donald Trump, whose share of Chicagoland’s working-class vote increased substantially in the last presidential election.
Our movement must take these right-wing competitors seriously in order to defeat them. We must recognize why they have succeeded where liberals and progressives have failed. CDSA’s credibility as a viable alternative to liberal condescension and conservative demagoguery will depend on our ability to build a working-class base against the demographic forces of urban development and displacement. Class Unity has a vision for how to do this. A vote for our slate is a step toward a powerful, working-class CDSA.