2017-2018 Tasks and Perspectives of NYC-DSA
The following document was drafted by the outgoing Steering Committee and debated, amended, and approved by our May 2017 City Convention. It represents our collective analysis and strategy for the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018.
New York City Democratic Socialists of America is dedicated to the project of building a socialist society — a society free of all oppression with a democratically-run, ecologically-sustainable economy. Such a society would secure real equality of opportunity for everyone. It would guarantee basic rights to housing, food, healthcare, education, a job, and an income. And it would eliminate all forms of oppression, including oppression based on race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Our goal is a socialist world. Living as we do in New York City, our organization’s particular focus is on how to advance that cause in the five boroughs.
In order to build a better world, NYC-DSA believes that working-class and oppressed people must take political, social, and economic power to make fundamental changes in their interest. A transformation on this scale will require socialist parties and powerful social movements. The goal of NYC-DSA is to move us closer to achieving this transformation. We do this by educating and agitating to build a base for socialism and then organizing that base into social movements and a socialist organization.
Campaigns for reforms that would improve working-class and oppressed people’s lives are key to our ability to organize this base. We fight for reforms because it’s through these struggles that people first join the fight against capitalism and learn the limits for progress it imposes.
Sometimes, under pressure, politicians and capitalists make concessions to these campaigns. These concessions, though usually temporary and compromised, only strengthen our movements. But ultimately it will take a political revolution and massive social transformations to make the lasting changes we are fighting for. And only organizers and movements formed and tested through the struggle for reforms will be able to lead society through this transition.
Because struggles for reforms play a critical role in building a base for socialism, the key question is how we fight for them. There are different ways to do this.
One assumes that our political system is fundamentally good — it works effectively to represent people and everyone has a chance to have their concerns heard. According to this approach, all it takes is for people to speak up and politicians will respond. This is the liberal strategy.
Socialists have learned through decades of fighting for reforms that the capitalist system serves the interests of the ruling class. It is designed to meet their needs and insulate their power from threats from below.Our strategy therefore is different from the liberal one. We work to organize millions of people into democratically-led movements that take militant action against bosses and politicians. It’s only through mass direct action, strikes, and confrontation that we can force those with power to make concessions — and eventually to take that power from them.
Our Base and Our Enemies
We believe that the fundamental transformations we are seeking are in the broad interests of all working-class and oppressed people, and our work is focused on organizing among this base.
At the core of our base is New York City’s working class. The working class of NYC is mostly people of color and mostly rooted in the service and public sector. It includes a wide swath of people: teachers, nurses, construction workers, bus drivers, retail workers, food service workers, and more. It also includes these workers’ families, the unemployed, the underemployed, and many workers in the informal sector. Broadly, all of these people struggle under the weight of high rent, low wages, speedups, expensive health insurance, and debt.
Despite these similarities, there are important divisions within our base. People of color continue to face the brunt of police violence, mass incarceration, systemic economic marginalization, surveillance, and discrimination. Women continue to bear the burden of the gendered division of labor. Undocumented immigrants live in fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will tear them from their communities and their families. And women, queer, and disabled people are routinely harassed and discriminated against. Our base is also divided by geographic segregation along racial and ethnic lines. Fighting back against the heavy burden of oppression is a crucial part of our work, and a prerequisite for building unity.
While the working class as a whole is the main base for socialism, not all workers have the same amount of social power. Here in New York City, workers in the education, health services, construction, telecommunications, transportation, and logistics industries have the potential power to bring the economy to a halt. Because of this, a special focus on organizing among these workers is an essential goal of the socialist movement.
We also should be aware of the increasing class consciousness of workers who are not always identified as such. Often times we refer to this group as “downwardly mobile Millennials”. They include non-profit workers, academics, and some professional class and white-collar workers who struggle economically. Years ago, these workers were often highly privileged. But today, austerity in the public sector, the attack on their working conditions, increasing tuition rates and student debt, and the rising cost of rent has aligned these workers’ interests with the broader interests of working-class and oppressed people. This group has been an important social base for Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign — and recently has been drawn to DSA in large numbers as well.
Against working-class and oppressed people stands a rival base: the ruling class. Capitalists, bankers, managers, and landlords want to keep wages low, raise rent, push everyone else further into debt, cut taxes, and shred the social safety net. It’s in their interest to maintain a system of police repression to control social unrest and racially divide the working class. It is in their interest to maintain a gendered division of labor to keep the cost of caring for workers low. Allied to this bloc are some of the most well-off professionals and small businesspeople. There are differences within this group — some voted for Donald Trump, some voted for Hillary Clinton — but when it comes to city politics their interests are united. They are a minority of the city and overwhelmingly white. But through their economic power, campaign contributions, and control over the vast majority of the media they almost always get their way in the State Legislature and City Hall.
Finally, stuck in the middle — between our base and our enemies — is a set of groups whose interests are divided. This includes some small businesspeople, some less well-off landlords, and some of the most liberal members of the affluent professional class. These people are caught in the middle because while they benefit from lower taxes, keeping wages down, raising rent, etc, they also share some interests and sympathies with working-class people.
Our Analysis and Our Tasks
To help build fights for reforms and to defend communities in our base who are under attack, we look in this section at four areas of interest. For each we try to analyze what our perspective is and what our tasks as an organization should be. The first three sections take up the situation in national, state, and city politics, and then the fourth addresses international issues.
The Fight Against Donald Trump
At the national level, the surprise election of Donald Trump has overturned expectations about the next four years. It is essential that we organize resistance to his presidency. This resistance needs to be informed by a careful analysis of his base and the threats his administration poses.
Trump himself is an economic nationalist who uses racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic language to motivate his supporters. He is not however a fascist. Democratic institutions in the United States remain intact and our ability to organize publicly has not been compromised. Nevertheless, Trump’s economic nationalism is dangerous because at least for the time being he has successfully used this rhetoric to build a broad, multi-class (and overwhelmingly white) base.
Trump’s base has three camps. One camp is mostly affluent and rooted among white small businesspeople, contractors, and suburban professionals. It mixes traditional Republican politics with even more right-wing social views. The second camp includes the ruling class of corporate executives who largely campaigned against Trump but are now, post election, lining up behind him and trying to control his agenda. The third camp however includes a large number of struggling working-class people who were drawn to Trump’s protectionist and pro-jobs rhetoric. A critical mass in this camp previously voted for Barack Obama, and helped tip the 2016 election. Some are even committed union members. Winning this camp away from right-wing politics is essential. Doing so will require putting forward a concerted anti-racist program for this group, coupled with a positive, redistributive program. This also means that our anti-Trump mobilizations need to be targeted at Trump and the ruling class who support him, and should not make sweeping denunciations of all people who voted for him.
There is no doubt too that Trump has inspired a small segment of the Far Right and given them new energy. They remain very marginal, but they are willing to use acts of violence to intimidate and therefore cannot be ignored. More importantly, Trump’s administration has emboldened police departments and immigration officers across the country to use aggressive tactics. Attacks on people of color and undocumented immigrants carried out by these “law officers” are on the rise and pose the most immediate threat to our base.
At the most basic level, Republican dominance in D.C. forecloses almost all opportunities to push for progressive reforms at the national level. Some campaigns like Bernie Sanders’ push for Medicare-for-All deserve our support for purely educational reasons. But for the most part, our orientation towards national politics will be purely negative for the foreseeable future. We must pressure Democrats to obstruct Trump’s agenda.
Mass demonstrations against Trump’s actions will also be a regular feature of the next few years. NYC-DSA must participate in these and help organize them. Strong protests against Trump’s attacks on immigrants, people of color, women, unions, and the LGBTQ community will build the strength of our movements. More importantly, as the mobilizations against his first Muslim Ban show, they can help defeat some of Trump’s most egregious actions.
But protests alone will leave many people feeling hopeless. We need to also put forward a positive program. That’s where campaign work in social movements and at the state and city level comes in. The only way we’re going to win the vast majority of Americans to our politics — including those working-class people who voted for Trump out of a mistaken belief that he’d make their lives better — is by putting forward a real redistributive program.
Ongoing Social Movement Struggles
While Trump’s election has drawn the most ire and movement mobilization, the struggles for immigration justice and the movement for black lives remain powerful, related but distinct, sites of national organization.
Trump has increased the threat to undocumented immigrants and increased the importance of fighting to defend this community. The basic demands of the movement remain the same. All immigrants in the United States deserve amnesty and citizenship. Winning these demands will also strengthen the whole working class by reducing the power of employers to exploit workers who lack papers. It will also undermine Islamophobia, which is central to Trump’s rhetoric. The immigrant rights movement has shown its power to mobilize people in mass demonstrations. NYC-DSA must be a part of the movement to defend immigrants from deportation and to build broad mobilizations demanding amnesty and citizenship.
As a force for progressive change, the US labor movement remains compromised. This is due to declining union membership, self-interested leaders, a "special interest" approach to politics, and fractures within the working class along decades-old fault lines of race, gender, and occupation. It is time to reclaim unions as an instrument of the class struggle. Despite likely legal challenges from a Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board, the current political moment presents opportunities for expanding the labor movement not seen since the 1930s. DSA must encourage our base to build class consciousness in the workplace and, when possible, organize workers into unions. We must recognize and support the rise of new worker organizing models outside the traditional legal framework. We must also engage with the fourteen million workers already unionized across the country (the so-called "sleeping giant"), facilitate an awakening of all workers to the class struggle, and invite more rank-and-file union members into the socialist movement. We should build meaningful coalitions and show solidarity with all workers and worker organizations who struggle for dignity in the workplace and a fair wage. Our project is not possible without a revitalized and inclusive labor movement.
Every year, people of color in the United States are the targets of police brutality, mass incarceration, and state-sponsored murder. 2017 and 2018 will likely be no different. We can expect renewed mobilizations in the coming year against these outrages. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to build resistance to the police and mass incarceration and a new generation of activists is being radicalized in these struggles. NYC-DSA needs to turn its members out in force to join this fight. We must also help to build the campaigns that will in the long-term help to roll back policing and mass incarceration (more on our tasks related to this work in the section on city politics).
At first glance, the situation at the state level is also bleak. Democrats retain control of the Governor’s Mansion and the State Assembly, but Andrew Cuomo is in charge and he fundamentally prioritizes the interests of business. Occasionally he takes progressive positions, mostly in order to spite Bill de Blasio and to burnish his credentials for a possible presidential run. But ultimately he’s a major roadblock for any progressive agenda. NYC-DSA is committed to opposing his reelection campaign in 2018.
The New York State Legislature meanwhile is corrupt to its core. In general, the state Democratic Party is not controlled by people who have working-class and oppressed people’s best interests in mind. The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), who conspire with the Republican Party to control the State Senate, are a symptom of the broader problem of the State Legislature’s disconnect from real people’s needs. Even if the IDC were to be completely replaced the prospects for progress in Albany are limited. Therefore we need to fight the IDC without falling into the trap of talking about the rest of the state Democrats as the “good guys”.
Unlike at the national level, however, there are some opportunities for progress in state politics. The campaign for a single-payer healthcare plan for New York State is heating up and is close to winning majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature. We must support this campaign. We are also proud to support and work with the New York Renews coalition in its fight for climate legislation that would transition New York State to 100% renewable energy. Finally, the struggle for free higher education will likely be taken up again next year at the state level. We support the campaign for tuition-free CUNY and SUNY systems.
The prospects for winning reforms in the interest of working-class and oppressed people at the city-level would seem to be more promising. The Democratic Party controls almost every elected position in the five boroughs. Bill de Blasio was elected on a progressive platform. Most importantly, there is a strong progressive movement in the city, including strong social movement organizations, and the city is still a union town. And on a few key issues like housing, criminal justice, and education, the city retains enough power to pursue progressive policies. Socialists need to find a way to take advantage of these opportunities.
But there are formidable challenges to doing so, which is in part why so many people in NYC have felt justified frustration with Bill de Blasio’s first term.
First, the city Democratic Party is divided into three factions, undermining its ability to pass progressive reforms. There is a center-left led by the Progressive Caucus and the Working Families Party. And then there are two center-right factions led in turn by the county machines and corporate Democrats. Despite this division, almost all progressive councillors lined up behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the primary.
Second, de Blasio himself has been a big disappointment. On housing and policing, especially, he has failed to lead meaningful fights. Indeed, he seems closer to the interests of developers and the NYPD than he is to the interests of working people.
Third, since the financial crisis in the 1970s the State Legislature has held most of the power over city policy. New York City will need to win home rule before it can really pursue a progressive, let alone socialist, agenda.
Fourth, the entrenched power of labor unions, NGOs, and some community organizations also poses some problems. Their leaders are often risk-averse and disconnected from their membership base (if they even have one). More often than not they will not support projects that jeopardize their access to politicians or their own institutional interests.
Fifth, Trump’s planned attack on unions could seriously weaken NYC’s unions. It is highly likely that the Supreme Court will impose a so-called “right-to-work” regime on public sector unions nationwide soon. Unfortunately, many unions in New York are not prepared to deal with a situation in which union membership is strictly voluntary. A right-to-work regime would likely lead to significant membership loss and institutional instability. Depending on how bad this is, the city’s political power structure could shift quickly against progressives who would find themselves without critical institutional support.
Sixth, and finally, the ruling class is incredibly powerful in New York City. The city is the heart of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) in the U.S., and with almost unlimited resources this ruling class gets what it wants in politics. Any struggle for socialist policies in NYC is ultimately a struggle against the American ruling class itself, and we should expect stiff resistance.
Despite these challenges, city politics present us with some opportunities.
Because the mayoral and other citywide elections this year appear to be uncompetitive and none of the candidates present a strong progressive vision for the city, we should not take a position on these races. This frees us up to focus our electoral work on a few key City Council races. In general, after full discussion, we will support the most viable progressive candidate who will use their office as a ‘bully pulpit’ to help build social movements in NYC. We will especially look to find candidates willing to run as democratic socialists. Developing experience in City Council elections will prepare us for a much bigger opportunity for socialists and social movements in 2021, when the majority of councillors will likely be term limited.
How we engage in electoral politics is important. It is critical that all of this work is done with an eye towards building an electoral apparatus — which includes fundraising, canvassing, research, and volunteers — independent of the Democratic Party and corporate money. In the near-term we also need to develop a clearer set of policy demands so that we have a precise set of guidelines for what kind of candidates we will support.
Beyond the elections, we anticipate that 2018 will bring new opportunities to control the NYPD by passing the Right to Know Act. Although the city has resolved to close Rikers Island, we must fight to make sure this happens as fast as possible, by reducing the jail population and fighting against construction of new jails. The 2017 District Attorney races also offer an opportunity to hold the NYPD accountable by calling attention to the prosecutorial discretion of elected DAs (without endorsing candidates for those positions). There will also likely be contract campaigns for unionized public sector workers in the next year that we should support.
Finally, we need to continue to build alliances in the city at the neighborhood level. This means meeting New Yorkers in all communities where they are at: in their public gardens, places of worship, tenant associations, community boards, and parks. This also means engaging in meaningful local political battles, such as the fight for truly affordable housing, opposition to zoning changes that invite gentrification and displacement, and a resurgence of rent control and public housing. The campaign to make the Bedford-Union Armory 100% affordable housing is a critical part of this project and a potential template for future battles.
The socialist movement is fundamentally an internationalist movement, and as an organization we need to be building solidarity with like-minded movements and parties around the world. Most of this work will be done through national DSA, but we have some opportunities here in New York City to help advance this mission.
We need to continue to engage with and learn from the rising left-wing parties around the world. As NYC-DSA we also call on the National Convention of DSA to vote to disaffiliate from the Socialist International (SI). The SI is not helping to build an international socialist movement — its member parties work around the world to roll back welfare states and impose austerity.
Despite Trump’s appeals to “America First” economic nationalism, he has shown his willingness to engage in traditional U.S. imperialism through his military strikes on Syria. NYC is likely to be a focal point for anti war mobilizations, and NYC-DSA will be a part of these mobilizations. We will bring to these demonstrations a set of politics that includes anti imperialism and solidarity with working and oppressed people everywhere fighting for freedom.
Finally, New York politicians often intervene in international affairs, especially around the Palestinian national liberation struggle. We oppose attempts by local politicians to silence activists, especially at CUNY, who are fighting for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and we declare our support for the struggle of the Palestinian people for national liberation.
In addition to our broader tasks in building movements and socialist politics, we also need to continue to build the organization of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America itself.
First, we need to improve internal democracy and transparency in NYC-DSA. The rapid expansion of our chapter’s membership from 400 to 2,000 members in the course of a year has been inspiring but also challenging. We need to continue to build out our system of mobilizers who can organize less-involved members. We must engage in a robust political education campaign. We must build on our successes and work to ensure competitive elections for all future delegate and leadership positions, in a way that delivers strong representation of historically marginalized groups. We also need better internal communications, and this likely will involve launching a regular newsletter to explain what we are up to. Finally we need to hire a staff person to help coordinate our work better.
Second, we need to get all of our working groups to the point where they are able to carry out and lead campaigns. This involves developing an analysis of the base they want to organize, and, through power mapping, identifying the campaign’s target, potential points of leverage, and a comprehensive escalation strategy.
Finally, we need to expand our membership beyond the core of mostly downwardly-mobile Millenials who have joined DSA so far. To do this we have to first consolidate our new membership and then train a diverse cadre from it who can organize. But sooner rather than later we need to make a turn in our orientation toward organizing in broader working-class communities. By Fall 2017, we need to be leading canvassing operations across the city to root our projects in communities. These canvasses should aim to popularize our demands and move people to join protests and help organize.
Ultimately, orienting our work toward broader working-class communities will be a process that takes years to complete. There is no shortcut to doing this work. It will require systematic organizing around issues facing communities and building new branches in neighborhoods where there are now few or no DSA members. Only by committing ourselves to making this transformation in our organizing focus however will we able to build the kind of organization that can truly fight for socialism.