A Critical Examination of Caucus Organizing within the DSA

By Jen L and Sam W

Caucuses - organized factions that contest for power - are playing an increasingly prominent role in framing and setting the terms of political debate in DSA. Entering the main hall at the National Convention meant weaving through an obstacle course of caucus members handing out pamphlets. Most resolutions and amendments had identifiable caucus backing, and caucuses ran their own slates of candidates (and held their own meetings and parties). Outside of convention, caucuses have their own social media accounts, webpages, and digital and print newsletters. It seems that caucuses are here to stay in DSA.

We are not categorically opposed to caucus formations or organizing and do not want to use this space to argue against caucuses per se. We certainly do not advocate for the dissolution of caucuses in DSA: any actual prohibition of caucuses would be an ominous sign of political repression and something we would fight against. 

Advocates and adherents of caucuses have made strong arguments that caucuses can play a positive role in shaping and sharpening debate, developing members’ politics, and providing social homes for members. We acknowledge a degree of truth in all of these claims. Nonetheless, we urge vigilance regarding some of the potential ways in which caucus organizing could prove counterproductive to some of the DSA’s shared goals, and even the stated goals of caucuses themselves. We raise the following concerns, many of which are based on concrete observations, to strengthen—not undermine—caucuses’ ability to be an overall positive force in DSA at this current juncture

Do caucuses define difference, or create and exaggerate it?

One of the most common (and valid!) claims made in favor of caucuses is that they help cohere and articulate the various political tendencies and possibilities that exist within the organization. But we should interrogate the potential downsides of this approach.

Every institution we create tends to act in a way that perpetuates its own survival—caucuses are no exception. In our experience, this can create some problematic incentives:

Caucuses may encourage the counterposition of ideas that needn’t be counterposed. When the raison d’etre of a group is its difference from others, there is a tendency to overstate those differences. When these groups (caucuses) competitively vie for power, there is a tendency to counterpose those differences. 

For instance, if one caucus centers in their platform rank-and-file labor organizing and another caucus centers working within social justice movements or organizing around identity-based issues, this could needlessly and harmfully counterpose strategies that should be thought of as mutually beneficial, not mutually exclusive. 

At this point in the organization, most people probably also agree with each other more than they disagree with each other, and the political differences that do genuinely exist are probably more inchoate and less immediately relevant than caucuses make them seem. In fact, the most relevant and important questions to explore right now might not even map onto the terms of debate that caucuses have laid out and may even be obscured by caucuses.

Do caucuses promote praxis, or build castles in the sky?

We have observed a tendency for caucuses to render disagreements as abstract. Political disagreements, which are productive and healthy, should be grounded in real and shared work. Any particular organizing project or political campaign, and our organization as a whole, would be stronger and more nuanced if people of multiple (and even dynamic!) political tendencies worked together on such projects. As caucuses become more dominant, the existence of big-tent vehicles for organizing, like working groups, is threatened, insofar as they come under threat of factionalism. But such vehicles are vital because political questions should not be posed in the abstract, extricated from their historical context or material conditions. They should not be prematurely foregrounded in our organization but should be confronted as they organically and dialectically arise through work we do together

We also do not win people over to our positions with abstract political statements but through shared struggle. Political development, and even effective and shrewd political strategy, comes from both theory and practice. Having the "correct" abstract principles means little if you can’t apply them to concrete situations. Conversely, concrete situations are impossible to navigate without some kind of political compass and principled grounding. 

Finally, just as socialists should not silo themselves off from the rest of society, DSA members of a particular political tendency should not silo themselves off from the organization at large. 

Do caucuses clarify debate or do they obscure it?

In some cases, caucuses may make principled debate more difficult, or less likely.  For instance, if there is a chapter-wide debate about X strategy, a caucus member’s analysis and position on X will probably be affected by how other members of their caucus and how members of other caucuses relate to X. If a particular campaign is seen as the project of a particular caucus, other caucuses might oppose that campaign on factional grounds rather than the merits of the campaign itself. Both knee-jerk adherence to abstract political lines that are difficult to trace in the sand materially before us and reflexive opposition to other caucuses dull and muddle debates.

Ideas and people not represented in caucuses might over time become marginalized, insofar as caucuses become the primary vehicle for internal communication, political education, and internal organizing. If a member chooses not to join a caucus (currently this is true for the overwhelming majority of members), it will over time become more difficult for them to win elected leadership positions because of slate voting. If an idea is not represented in and advanced by a particular caucus, it, too, will risk atrophying in the interstices between caucuses.

Do caucuses aid membership development, or do they impede it?

Most members—the authors included—probably joined or will join DSA with underdeveloped  and/or incoherent politics. One of the best things about DSA, as opposed to other leftist organizations, is the ability to directly and immediately get involved in work without having to take firm stances on abstract and frequently  arcane questions. 

When so many DSA members, and potential future members, have such little organizing experience and political education, is it premature to further divide ourselves along political lines?? Getting involved early on in a caucus and having that be the foundation for one’s political development, and one’s involvement in the organization, could paradoxically stymie one’s political development insofar as, for instance, caucuses encourage groupthink without interrogating in depth the questions at hand. Indeed, this type of “internal organizing” strategy adopted by caucuses can feel more like inculcating members into clubs rather than giving members the tools to develop their own politics and strategic skills which is vital to our internal democracy. We should be wary of the possibility of caucuses leading not just to the crystallization of one’s politics (arguably a good thing) but also the ossification of their politics (less of a good thing, as we want our politics to always be living, responsive to changing conditions).  

Do caucuses increase or decrease our capacity to work together on shared goals?

Each new organizational body takes dedicated work to sustain, and our capacity for this work is far from unlimited. We don’t want to counterpose internal and external work—leadership development, strengthening internal democracy, building capacity, and political education are all forms of internal organizing and are absolutely *crucial* for building DSA and building power—in fact, we don't do these things enough. But that is precisely why it can be frustrating to see energy put towards doing those activities for caucuses, which are by definition exclusionary, when our branches and working groups are starved for the same.

The right solution to what ails us?

Many of the arguments for caucuses do correctly identify and attempt to address organizational problems; the question is whether caucuses are the correct/best/most productive solution to these problems, or whether they might in fact entrench or worsen those problems, or create new ones. 

For example, in general, DSA has struggled to create opportunities for members to explore political questions and debate collaboratively. The formation of caucuses may in some sense be an attempt to create these spaces, which is easier among like-minded people. While this may solve the problem for those involved, it may have a negative effect on the whole. 

If the most motivated people do an increasing amount of their collaborative work in enclosed caucus spaces, and shared spaces then become battlefields on which caucuses wage war with each other, the shared spaces become less attractive places for anyone to engage, leading to a sort of hollowing out of the organization. 

Similarly, for many people, caucuses seem to serve an important social role, providing community, camaraderie, care, commiseration, and catharsis. Given the considerable strain that organizing can place on members, and the level of burnout among our most active and dedicated organizers, such social functions are far from trivial. But why must they be fulfilled by caucuses? This not only can create a culture of exclusion and alienation for new and “unaffiliated” members but can also further obscure political difference and debate. What’s more, the seeds of distrust and paranoia that caucuses tend to (unintentionally!) cultivate, as well as the tendency to cast comrades as organizing targets and political enemies, can significantly add to the emotional and interpersonal burden of organizing. We should instead strive to make our shared spaces socially rewarding, cooperative, compassionate, and accessible. 


Building the collective, or vying for control?

There is a tendency to view DSA as an instrument/vehicle for advancing one’s political project—if you can capture centralized organizational resources, whether in terms of staffers, political leadership bodies, or the volunteer labor of its members—you can better advance your political project. There is of course some truth to this, but we should be thinking about how to use these resources in order to not just advance one’s political project but to construct—together and from the bottom-up—a collective political project. 

Caucuses encourage the worst strain of this kind of magical (and top-down!) thinking: if you win a majority on this political leadership body, then you can accomplish your political project; if you win an argument, you can win socialism; etc. If only it were so easy! If only passing a resolution to prioritize some X (rank-and-file, mass strike, or tenant) organizing directly and effortlessly translated to more X organizing. But, no, the struggle is harder and deeper than that, and requires organizing members into your position. And this type of internal organizing can actually be made harder by the existence of caucuses, as members become more siloed, out of sync, and even distrustful and paranoid of each other.  

Conclusion

We would like to close with an observation from the national convention: The amount of time,  energy, creativity, donated labor, and even money that went into producing caucus materials and doing caucus organizing for/at the national convention was impressive but did make us wonder what our organization could look like if we instead used those resources on external projects, on creating shared strategy and collective resources. In fact, the most inspiring and generative experience we had at the convention was talking to comrades engaged in housing work across the country (and across tendencies). Going forward, we worry about such spaces becoming politicized in some of the aforementioned unhelpful ways, paradoxically hindering the depth and breadth of political work we can do together.