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The "Winners and Losers" of the 2023 DSA National Convention
Who won? Who's next? Socialists decide!
Take a deep breath: the 2023 DSA National Convention is over. Done and dusted. We now get to go home, and complain about it lots on social media.
Joking aside, I think it’s clear that this year’s Convention hosted in Chicago certainly will remain remembered as a true turning point in the organization: in terms of our position of now having to consider how to reverse a decline in membership rather than how to handle a stratospheric rise, and in terms of the makeup of who will govern it into the future.
Many traditional election pundits (only some of whom rhyme with “Blade Sliver”) create postmortem lists after elections and debates detailing who they think will emerge as “victors” and “losers” in the longer term than just the election or debate night itself. Let’s try the same thing for DSA, in the context of the recent national convention, to try to peer into the crystal ball and see how things will shake out the next 2 years for the organization, its priorities, its structures, and its membership base.
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Bread and Roses (B&R)
Almost every caucus and grouping at the Convention could walk away at least somewhat satisfied. No one got everything they wanted, but no one left with absolutely, positively nothing to be thankful for. Nonetheless, almost nobody really disagrees on this: the biggest "winners" of the Convention, by far, were Bread and Roses.
Not only did their preferred resolutions almost unanimously pass through the debate floor, but they also achieved the most coveted prize of the weekend of all: the balance of power on the upcoming NPC term for the next 2 years. This will be, by all accounts, a turning point in the history of DSA's national leadership, and certainly a crucial test for B&R's ability to effectively govern not only the ever-important National Labor Commission, but DSA as a whole. B&R will have to prove to the organization how it can move beyond its strong and successful commitment to the rank-and-file labor strategy and implement its own unique, independent vision and ideology to all of DSA’s working groups and various challenges that arise.
B&R’s ability to move votes on the debate floor - not only among their own cadre but also in terms of convincing uncaucused delegates - was proved once again. No one got closer to a "clean sweep" of resolutions than B&R did. They were least successful, relatively speaking, electorally, in that their “Defend Democracy through Political Independence” resolution only passed after being watered down by removing language around disapproving electeds who “explicitly or tacitly support centrist leaders of the Democratic Party”. They also failed to pass a “class-struggle” amendment to the International Committee consensus resolution, which would have broadened the scope of who DSA can work with internationally. Nonetheless, on all other fronts, they succeeded with flying colors. The Convention passed their amendment to the NEC's consensus resolution to "Act Like an Independent Party" which directs the NEC to start work on a common party branding and campaign identity and create independent voter registries from the Democrats, while voting down R&R's and MUG’s proposed “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy” NEC amendment to go a step further and explicitly hold our electeds to red lines around the especially controversial issues. For labor, they were able to pass the NLC's consensus agenda which better funds leadership and increases staff capacity, while convincing delegates to reject Groundwork’s amendment to somewhat soften the focus the consensus resolution had on continuing and prioritizing the Rank and File Strategy.
As the cherry on top, their extensive work in influencing and expanding their base in YDSA bore fruit, with a healthy majority of delegates approving the YDSA's consensus resolution (which itself was written and influenced, at least in part, by many prominent B&R-affiliated national YDSA leaders) to allow for dues sharing between YDSA and DSA chapters and to fund stipends for the NCC (YDSA's version of the NPC), among other administrative changes which broadly increase YDSA's influence over DSA's direction. This was all despite some cost concerns by prominent supporters of SMC and Groundwork, even more vocal opposition by a more integrationist YDSA-specific caucus, Constellation, and their weakening grip over YDSA politics as can be seen from their failure to elect a co-chair to the NCC. And while Democratize DSA did still (barely) fail, their proposed suggestion of reducing the new NPC's size to a more manageable, but still larger-than-before 35 (as opposed to the originally proposed 51) truly did make a difference in nearly getting it over the finish line; it likely would have passed outright had B&R whipped votes harder.
But, of course, what we'll really remember is that they now, unofficially or officially, hold the balance of power in the upcoming NPC term. Assuming that the various caucuses will vote as unified blocs - either reformist (SMC and Groundwork) or revolutionary (Red Star, MUG, Anti-Zionism, and Luisa Martinez from the national International Committee) - on especially important issues like the annual budget, B&R’s votes will be needed to determine which outcome happens.
We likely don't really know who and how B&R will make kings in the new NPC. DSA's revolutionaries likely will remain optimistic in remembering B&R's degree of loyalty to many of their causes on the "NPC minority" in opposition to the slim, combined majority of SMC, the GND slate, and their affiliated NPC members for the previous NPC term. Reformists can simultaneously point to B&R's continued status as the "center" of DSA politics, their previous - if sporadic - decisions to align with caucuses like SMC on specific causes, like opposing the “Anti-Zionism in Principle and Praxis” proposal to toughen up guidelines on both endorsement and membership around BDS issues, and even their general moderation on some important issues to the reformist caucuses throughout the convention (for example, their "Act Like an Independent Party" electoral resolution being a much watered down version of their previously proposed, but failed, "1-2-3-4 plan" in NYC). In truth, there is a high degree of likelihood that B&R will act as the "Joe Manchins" of this upcoming term (as a side note, I swear I mean the preceding metaphor in the most positive light), siding with one side on some issues and the other side on others. It'd certainly be in their interest to do so - to keep everyone on their toes, and to ensure that there remains a willingness to compromise from both the revolutionary and reformist factions. And judging from their long, illustrious history, - which in many ways truly does parallel the history of DSA as a whole more than any other specific caucus - it's hard to predict from this far out exactly which they'll be, and when.
Nonetheless, B&R will be the certain kingmakers throughout the upcoming NPC term, and the degree to which they are able to build DSA's membership list, its labor solidarity work, and soothe the nerves of all sides involved in its internal debates will reflect indubitably on themselves and on the future of the organization's ideology. In being the kingmakers, it's now time for B&R to prove whether they can truly be kings.
Red Star, Marxist Unity Group (MUG), and Communist Caucus (CC)
It's hard to say indisputably whether the 2023 Convention was a win overall for the reformists or revolutionaries within DSA. Both sides certainly can claim victories (and take their losses) in various ways. But if Bud’s knife was on my neck, and they said I absolutely had to answer, it would be the DSA revolutionaries - most prominently represented by Red Star and MUG, with the Communist Caucus playing a supporting role.
MUG achieved a clean sweep of its NPC candidates, and while both of their flagship proposals (the “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy” proposal and their “Winning the Battle for Democracy” proposal to endorse abolishing the current US constitution) failed or didn’t make the debate floor, they were able to walk away from the Convention satisfied. Red Star, though, deserves special recognition for its absolutely meteoric rise to power. In the span of around 4 years, from their roots as an anti-imperialism-focused offshoot of the previous standard-bearer caucus for revolutionary politics in DSA, Refoundation, they managed to turn from a small but vocal grouping in San Francisco's DSA chapter to now sweeping their NPC candidate slate and electing as many members to the NPC as Bread and Roses. Their chops in engaging in strategic voting, forming broad coalitions, and just working their tails off to “get their name out there” across chapters during the convention paid dividends. They perhaps are the most surprising “winners” of the whole list.
The Communist Caucus took a characteristically low-key approach to convention organizing that ended up (ahem) profiting. Choosing not to run any NPC candidates of their own, their supporters’ votes being lent to the other revolutionary caucuses and B&R was critical in getting them a combined majority on the new NPC, shutting out the reformists from sole majority rule for 2 years. They also successfully passed an amendment to the NLC consensus resolution expanding support for local Emergency Worker Organizing Committees near-unanimously, gaining support from every single major caucus. This is all not to mention their successful “Commie Caucus Party” on Saturday night, which also doubly served as a fundraiser for striking UE workers in Erie, PA.
Importantly, while Bread and Roses’ votes are needed by either faction to claim a majority, SMC and Groundwork will need B&R to unanimously vote with them for this to occur, while only one or two B&R votes (depending on how the YDSA’s NPC representatives from the NCC vote) are needed for the revolutionary caucuses’ proposals to get over the finish line. It’s unclear how willing B&R’s NPC members are to break rank among themselves - let alone with either broad DSA faction - but if it’s anywhere above zero, it already points to the revolutionary faction’s (slight) favor in overall bargaining power and influence.
All this being said, the votes on the electoral resolutions still give credence to the idea that the revolutionaries remain in the minority view in this department. DSA did approve B&R’s proposal to start work on a unified party identity, but rejected all forms of red lines and post-election criticism of our electeds. So in this regard, the NEC’s current strategy of expanding SIO committees while maintaining mostly friendly and collaborative relationships with electeds - even those who take more controversial positions - remains steady.
If the previous NPC term was characterized by the DSA revolutionary faction clawing and fighting for national influence from the shadows of opposition - below a slim but steady majority of reformists - this term will see them re-enter the halls of legitimate power; ready to make themselves heard, to compromise, and to govern.
That is, of course, all being at the leisure of Bread and Roses.
Judging from the previous section, it might seem odd to include one of the more explicitly reformist DSA factions in the list of “winners” from the convention. But let's not forget: if you’re just counting by individual slates alone, who now has the plurality of seats on the NPC? Groundwork has continued its sharp rise to the national DSA stage with well-executed retail politics, a highly dedicated and motivated organizing team, an extraordinarily detailed and expressive policy platform wrapped in an optimistic vision, and a successfully articulated brand of holding "fresh" ideas to thank. If there was any sense of exhaustion from the previous NPC term’s SMC governance (and hoo boy, there certainly was), Groundwork was able to scoop a substantial proportion of it up without ceding too much ground to the revolutionaries. Within the scope of intra-intra-fights of the DSA reformists, Groundwork has indubitably "won" the post as the leading group.
Groundwork’s rise to power and prominence was swift, initially forming out of a slate on the previous NPC term which itself was created by a collection of dedicated organizers from the national Green New Deal Coordinating Committee. If B&R generally purports that the primary struggle of DSA should be labor, and SMC says it should be electoral campaigning, then Groundwork and its forerunners say it should be in legislative campaigns. In this regard, their theory of change has borne legitimate fruit in the passage of the Building Public Renewals Act (BPRA) in New York State, though it took a huge, concerted effort between basically all organizing committees for those DSA chapters, and lots of electoral and labor involvement to boot. Along with this, Groundwork organizers have had success in running direct ballot initiative campaigns in chapters are distant as Maine and California, expressing a vision of how DSA can achieve its policy priorities without having to go through the greasy levers of electoral power. These wins, touted relentlessly by Groundwork’s NPC candidates in discussions with delegates, were undoubtedly a huge factor in their success in presenting themselves as “serious” winning organizers; previously the unceded terrain of SMC.
Of course, they still have work to do to prove they can continue to grow as legitimate national DSA leaders. They remain squarely in the reformist camp of DSA, and will certainly align with SMC on far more issues than they won't. But during this term, we can also expect them to begin work on forming commonalities and coalitions with B&R, and perhaps some even more revolutionary factions in the NPC and in various local and national working groups. It’s in their interest to do so, since they can’t govern successfully without it, and their brand image rests squarely on their chops as coalition builders, legislative campaign forerunners, and, for lack of a better word, “winners”. Their relative newness and ability to define themselves as bridge-builders worked quite successfully for them at the 2023 Convention, but now the time has come to see how well it can be put into practice until 2025.
If you got to read the results of the pre-Convention survey sent out to delegates to determine the order of items on the debate floor, you might notice that they differ quite a bit from the actual Convention. Democratize DSA was tantalizingly close to receiving 2/3rds support outright, while all the electoral, international, and labor resolutions proposed by the revolutionaries failed to cross 50%. If you assumed the Convention would match the results of the delegate survey precisely, then you would be forgiven for thinking that it would have been a bloodbath for the revolutionary faction, and a clean sweep for the reformists in essentially every single way.
But you would have been wrong. By no means was the convention a bloodbath in the other direction (the NPC is still essentially split "down the middle", after all), but the superior old-fashioned retail politics and (ahem) groundwork skills of the DSA revolutionaries and B&R certainly moved votes in ways unforeseen by the delegate survey. Along with this, some proposed resolutions, like Groundwork’s amendment to the National Labor Commission consensus resolution, were stricken down largely on the grounds of appearing dilatory and unnecessary.
It’s probably a good thing for DSA overall. There’s been a fair amount of social media posturing that DSA’s increasing factionalism and divisions are leading to more “dirty tactics” being excused in the name of achieving personal goals, which truly can lead to dysfunctional internal affairs and a terrible working culture. But these fears were assuaged at the Convention, in that anything approaching a dilatory or uncharitable tactic (like the motion to reconsider Democratize DSA, or noticings of bad behavior by some North Star and BDSWG delegates) was punished accordingly, largely at the behest of uncaucused delegates not bound by any whip and free to vote according to their own desires.
The uncaucused remain a group with a large enough sway to matter, both for resolutions and for the NPC. Slates do count, perhaps now more than ever before, but uncaucused delegates can still make all the difference in the end.
Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC)
In an analogous way to Bread and Roses comfortably claiming the greatest increase in influence over DSA's national politics following the convention, SMC must lay hold of the opposite: the greatest loss of power. Put simply, from their post as the leading reformist group in an NPC dominated by reformists, SMC was "in charge" of the NPC - and by extension DSA's national capabilities as a whole - for the past 2 years, and now they aren't. Following the standard laws of thermometer politics, this perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, given how (ahem) liberally SMC and the DSA reformists have used their mantle in the previous NPC term to move DSA in a more friendly direction toward their priorities. However, this is compounded by the fact that the previous term has been marked in the membership's eye by a continued, unbreaking, ceaseless series of various scandals, controversies, failures, and setbacks for DSA as a whole, which I don't believe I need to repeat at this point. You could perhaps argue that only some of these are directly the result of SMC's decisions or even those of DSA as a whole, but it doesn't matter: association was, is, and always will be related to guilt.
SMC certainly did have the chance throughout the Convention to argue that they've learned from their errors in governance, that they'll be able to be more conciliatory towards other DSA factions, and that they’ll be able to generally “lower the temperature” of DSA discourse for their upcoming term. But in this regard, they didn’t succeed, and perhaps it’s because they didn’t try much at all. Their biggest organizing claim to success - building a set of successful electoral SIO committees, most notably in New York - does genuinely demonstrate their ability to create legitimately powerful and impressive electoral tools off the backs of their own electoral wins. Alongside this, SMC also can take much credit as prominent leaders in the National Electoral Committee. But SMC could also call itself a victim of its own success, in that the general idea of forming and nurturing SIO committees in chapters is now exalted and promoted by essentially all prominent DSA groupings, from themselves to the clean-breakist Red Labor Caucus and all the way in between. So, they can’t really use their electoral successes as a differentiating point anymore, leading them to instead rely at least partially during the Convention on an admittedly more elitist proposition that they are the truly “serious” organizers for building power in DSA (subtly accusing their intra-DSA opponents of remaining “unserious”, of course).
Overextending themselves with 6 (six!) NPC candidates also was a move probably viewed by uncaucused delegates as a display of hubris and overconfidence, which clearly backfired. Uncaucused delegates, who largely remain on the fence between - or simply less aware of - DSA’s various caucuses and their idiosyncratic controversies and battles, generally have a low tolerance for hostile rhetoric and bad faith, so perhaps SMC’s retail politicking strategy was almost doomed to fail from the start.
There still remains for SMC a silver lining: their general stances around electoralism, and especially their aversion to hard red lines around electeds' conduct, still hold a majority agreement among DSA's members. R&R’s resolution to create explicit red lines around DSA electeds’ votes on controversial issues didn’t cross the finish line, - just as past attempts to accomplish similar ideas were in previous conventions - and, in fact, was defeated by a healthy majority of over 60%. There also is a case to be made that DSA’s exhaustion probably lies more specifically with SMC as a caucus rather than the DSA reformists as a whole, given Groundwork's expansion and “the BDSWG vote” (which will be discussed later). The fact that this upcoming NPC term is split, and not a reversed majority for DSA revolutionaries, still does show a high degree of unease among the membership for breaking off the current broad course of DSA's theory of change and its strategy of running and working (if only temporarily) with the Democratic Party.
SMC’s tail is currently tucked between its legs, and the next two years’ work for them will largely revolve around how (or perhaps more accurately, whether) they can rebrand their image and prove their ability to work with other caucuses (yes, including the revolutionaries). For SMC to rebuild for the future, and not sleepwalk into truly being the “millennial North Star”, they have to stop resting on their laurels. The fact that they no longer have laurels to rest on, for now, could perhaps truly be for their own good.
Reform and Revolution (R&R)
While SMC had the largest qualitative fall in power since the previous NPC term, the Trotskyist Reform and Revolution caucus might have felt the greatest personal disappointment of any: once again not electing a single NPC member to the upcoming term.
It isn’t for a lack of trying. R&R put some extensive effort into working with other revolutionary and reformist caucuses. The most notable effort in regard to the former was their “National Delegates Council” bylaws amendment proposal written in partnership with MUG, which would have created a new intermediate body between DSA’s rank-and-file membership and the NPC made of semi-proportionally allocated delegates to all of DSA’s chapters and which would have possessed a veto over NPC decisions; it didn’t even make it to the Convention debate floor on account of its lack of broad support in the delegate survey (along with a cohort of R&R’s other priorities). Their work in collaboration with MUG and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus to amend the agenda in a more friendly direction towards those caucuses’ priorities is also reflective of their ability to collaborate effectively with the revolutionary caucuses on internal issues.
As for R&R’s efforts in coalition-building with the reformists, they were notable for being one of the (if not singularly the) only revolutionary caucuses to explicitly endorse SMC’s proposed “Democratize DSA” bylaws amendment which would have expanded the size of the NPC. While it got close, still no cigar: it failed the impressively high 2/3rds supermajority requirement by a mere 60 votes. Their own proposed electoral amendment to create harsher red lines around DSA electeds for particularly controversial issues, on the other hand - itself only making it to the debate floor through an agenda amendment pushed in collaboration with MUG - failed outright.
For all these efforts, rather than establishing themselves as bridge-builders, R&R was essentially put into a double-bind at the Convention. In trying to work with the more hardcore revolutionaries and simultaneously extending an olive branch to the reformists in endorsing their favored pet project, they ended up pleasing neither enough to whip the necessary top-choice votes when it came time for the NPC election. This is all on top of some of their members' controversial move to encourage a motion to reconsider (along with SMC) after the close failure of Democratize DSA, which likely hurt their standing both among the revolutionaries and among uncaucused delegates who are largely skeptical of measures seen as dilatory and commensurate with being a “sore loser”. It even caused debate within the caucus itself, as many of their younger members did not vote uniformly for the measure.
Their silver lining is that, unlike SMC, R&R’s broader revolutionary faction in DSA is in a stronger position than it was two years ago, so R&R's ideas will absolutely still remain heard. Not to mention that their flagship proposal, a national campaign surrounding trans and reproductive rights, passed by a healthy majority of 60%. But their ideas won’t be heard quite the way that they'd want them to be, with not quite the same priorities, and with not quite the same ideological strategies. Just like SMC, they will have to start soul-searching, recouping their losses, diagnosing their mistakes, prescribing fixes, and relearning to live as junior partners again for the next 2 years.
That is, of course, if they don't end up simply dissolving, taking with them the very last remnants of plain, old-fashioned Trotskyist influence in DSA. It would be a symbolic, and certainly historic turning point in DSA's history - perhaps even the broader history of the American left - but it remains to be seen. It’s not a particularly likely outcome, especially given R&R’s strong showing at the YDSA convention, but only time can tell where DSA’s own Trots go in the future.
BDS Working Group (BDSWG)
On Sunday morning, a table of delegates near the front left of the hall slowly began to empty as their members - one of whom draped ungracefully by a huge Palestinian flag - left the room. This was, of course, the table for DSA's national BDS working group, and they had good reason to walk out: their working group was effectively abolished by the delegation.
The BDSWG has been in some hot water lately, from their previous controversies surrounding Bowman’s votes on funding the Iron Dome missile system to their more recent clunkily-worded Tweet expressing questionable views on whether Israeli citizens count as “civilians”. To their credit, they cannot be blamed solely for Jamaal Bowman’s faults, and they acted quickly to remove the previously mentioned Tweets (along with correcting other PR mishaps), but to the Convention, it was too little, too late. It all culminated in a proposal sent by the previous NPC to the convention to have the BDSWG merge with the International Committee, effectively removing their independence in external communications and subjecting them to a much higher degree of scrutiny and accountability to national leadership. Though draped in ostensibly Pro-Palestine language written by SMC, its narrow passage represents a new chapter for DSA’s international organizing and a conclusive bookend to the arduous BDS Bowman saga. One side in that long, protracted struggle emerged the losers, and it was the BDSWG.
The former BDSWG’s silver lining is their new NPC representative, Ahmed Husain, who will undoubtedly hold a fire in his belly in advocating for the interests of Anti-Zionism and the new International Committee BDS subcommittee, while voting primarily with the revolutionaries on other DSA issues. His election was perhaps itself a reaction to the merger, ensuring that a specific voice representing the old Working Group can continue to exist, even if the group itself doesn't.
One of the first speeches given on Friday morning, right after Maria Svart's and Kristian Hernandez’s introductions, was by Ashik Siddique, the DSA Secretary-Treasurer. It was, in a word, harrowing. It laid bare not only the now commonly known factoid of DSA's membership decline since Biden's inauguration, but the related fact that DSA's budget shortfall has grown larger and larger each passing fiscal quarter.
But it fell upon unlistening ears. The Convention passed all of DSA’s national committee’s proposed consensus resolutions, including those that would add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bottom half of our income statements. This is all on top of the fact that DSA’s cash stockpile is running out quickly, to the point that DSA will need to start running a fully balanced budget by FY2024.
Admittedly, you could certainly reword this section as a “win” for the DSA’s national committees and working groups, who are now all emboldened to demand more from national leadership and can take on more responsibility each to match. But unless the Growth and Development Committee’s new encouragement of income-based dues truly pays dividends to an unforeseen degree, funding them all is not a real possibility. Thus, the real power still lies in the hands of the NPC, who are now freely able to decide which national committees will see their priorities actually fulfilled in practice over the next few years, and to what degree.
This is the area where we can likely expect the most internal discourse and controversy to arise, as various groups, committees, factions, and caucuses jockey to have their priorities represented and fully funded - and inevitably argue why theirs are more important than others. Given Bread and Roses’ influence, we can certainly expect lots of support for the National Labor Commission, but even they might find themselves stuck in a rut for this one, falling prey to the almighty hands of the dollar.
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