One hundred years ago labor organizer A.J. Muste observed that the very structure of a union is inherently unstable and contradictory. I find many parallels in DSA.
A union, or a democratic organization (think DSA), must be like an army, he said, with soldiers in the class war ready to act swiftly, in unison and with discipline, to win concrete victories and defend itself against the owning class. But it must also be like a debate society, replacing an education system and democratic town square largely co-opted by elites in order to promote the exploration of new ideas and strategies by its membership. These functions require very different structures, yet we just have one organization. The tensions are inherent. In his words:
“ The situation is truly serious. The impossible is demanded of the union and its leadership….Yet there is no solution to the dilemma. As in so many other situations with which life confronts human beings, there is no cut-and-dried answer to be found which once and for all settles the case. The solution consists in making, from time to time, adjustments which synthesize two quite incompatible functions. Nothing is further from a solution than the simple device of cutting out or ignoring one or the other of the terms. The union must remain both an army and a town meeting. It must at the same time both fight and discuss.”
He goes on to name a number of other challenges, such as the tension between operating in the world as it is and at the same time raising expectations for a transformed world, or the difficulty in recognizing external conditions driving conflict when internal factors feel so much closer.
All these dynamics come to mind as we organize for our national Strike Ready campaign and simultaneously our national convention. At press time, 118 solidarity captains are ready to mobilize their DSA chapters, and 90 elected officials have pledged to stand in solidarity with possible massive strikes this year. Meanwhile 1,082 delegates will be elected from across the country to chart DSA’s next two years.
To win this labor battle or to collectively develop a strategy to win the long game, we need to build power, and we need to know ourselves and our inherent structural contradictions. We must remember what makes us unique as a memberfunded organization with aspirations to become truly mass led. And we must also thoroughly examine the realities that exist on the ground and the political and economic terrain outside of our organization.
I hope you share my joy at having a political home where we can consider, and organize through, these contradictions together. In the words of yet another famous theorist and activist, we “have a world to win”!