For your organizing bookshelf

DSA is now the largest socialist organization in the United States, but size doesn’t necessarily translate into power. Much of our growth in recent years has been self-selecting. The result is a membership that does not represent the multiracial working-class base we need in order to build a successful socialist movement. It’s clear that we need to go beyond mobilizing self-described socialists; we need to organize. But what does good organizing look like in a mass, multi-tendency organization that transcends the boundaries of a neighborhood or workplace? To work out our answer, we can draw insights from the labor, community, and social movement organizing traditions, all of which are represented in the best recent writing on organizing.

Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts is, by now, essential reading for DSA organizers. This is because it offers a systematic, strategic approach to growing our organization, modeled on the practices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, before it merged with the American Federation of Labor [see interview on p. 6]. This method is “structure-based”; it focuses on building capacity within clearly demarcated communities, such as workplaces and churches. In a recent series of calls with DSA members, McAlevey argued that we can adapt the CIO method to DSA by finding and creating structures where we might not immediately see them.

One of DSA’s distinctive features is that we are a social-movement organization made up of local chapters. In Stir It Up, Rinku Sen argues that community organizing needs to move away from an exclusive focus on local issues and decision-makers toward building local organizations that can support social movements when the time is right. This approach to community organizing can orient our chapter-level work toward building a mass socialist movement. Sen, who comes out of the Center for Third World Organizing, also helpfully distills critiques of the community organizing approach developed by Saul Alinsky and offers concrete suggestions for developing antiracist, anticapitalist, feminist organizing methods.

To build power over the long term, there’s no question that we need robust, enduring local organizations. But winning Medicare for All or a Green New Deal may require generating disruptive action on a mass scale. Brothers Mark and Paul Engler’s This is an Uprising offers an illuminating take on the longstanding polemic over structure vs. spontaneity within leftist social movements. The Englers argue compellingly that this binary is false. Successful social movements, from the U.S. civil rights movement to the Serbian Otpor, have blended long-term organization with mass mobilizations that respond to specific historical moments. Although the book’s argument is rather diffuse, the method, which the recent Sunrise Movement used to call national attention to the Green New Deal, is worth taking seriously.

Finally, as we continue to grow, we need to attend to the internal dynamics of our organization without allowing them to displace our focus on external campaigns. Two recent books — Jonathan Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals and Charlene A. Carruthers’s Unapologetic: a black, queer, and feminist mandate for radical movements — open up an important conversation about movement culture. Drawing on his experiences in Occupy Wall Street, Smucker urges organizers to avoid becoming overly focused on “values” and to instead prioritize “politics”; that is, winning concrete changes to society. By contrast, Carruthers, co-founder of the Black Youth Project 100, argues that internal culture and social transformation are inextricable. She shows how organizing through a black, queer, feminist lens can effect both personal and social transformation. Read together, these books raise important and difficult questions about the relationship between our internal practices and our political efficacy.

Obviously, none of these books offers a complete blueprint for DSA organizing. Rather, these authors, all of whom blend multiple strands of the organizing tradition, suggest that good organizing is both systematic and flexible, focused and eclectic. Their insights give us a set of questions for developing and evaluating our own approaches to organizing — the most urgent and necessary task before us.