On Overcoming Individualism: Building A Diverse DSA

Note: This post is in reference to Overcoming Individualism, which appeared in the Democratic Left blog. It is recommended to read the original post before continuing.

I will start off by saying that Matt Hartman is certainly bringing up an important topic and is extremely observant of the challenges facing the Democratic Socialists of America at this hour.

Yes, indeed the explosive growth of the DSA is fraught with challenges, including the fact, as Comrade Hartman points out, the diversity of that growth is leaving something to be desired.

I also agree with Comrade Hartman on many of the pathways forward and sewing the seeds of collectivism and bolstering the Socialist ideology.

However, Comrade Hartman does not touch on a few things that will increasingly challenge our ability to diversify beyond young, affluent white males. All the economic and labor projects in the world will not resolve a these fundamental issues.

The elephant in the room

Overall the elephant in the room can be summed up as elitism. Many of the actions of DSA chapters and members-at-large contribute to this overarching pervasive issue. This issue isn’t one done with forethought, it’s a process from partly the demographics that have driven the recent growth in the DSA, but it’s also partly an overarching issue with the left in general. This elitism takes many forms, they’re all subtly different but in each variation, these actions and attitudes negatively affect our abilities to diversify and reach a broader base of people. For this article, I will refer to “surge demographics”, meaning young, white, student/graduate, middle class, male, single/childless and urban-dwelling.

Intellectual Elitism

Many leftists are extraordinarily well read, having consumed the works of Marx and Engels, Wilde, Luxembourg, Debs, Harrington, Keller, and even some of the most notorious Socialist names: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. The go-to method of educating people on socialism is reading lists, reading groups, or discussion groups of long-form socialist journalism (i.e. Jacobin groups). For many of the poorer working class (of which, people of color and other traditionally disadvantaged groups are likely to be a part of), especially those working significant hours to support a family, they simply do not have the time to commit to either reading the various works, much less engaging in discussion groups. Even lower middle class families may struggle with barely finding the free time to participate. This creates a barrier, especially when discussions among members wander into ‘theory and praxis’. To put it simply: the working class doesn’t have the luxury to give a shit about our reading lists. Focusing on reading lists or reading groups engages a level of privilege that young, white, middle-class, childless urban-dwelling leftists have that simply doesn’t exist for many other groups. This isn’t to say that the education angle isn’t important, but that other avenues to achieve that goal need to be explored. The working class need bite-sized morsels of a very clear and vivid picture of the future we are building and the promises of socialism overall, something that can be taken in with 15 minutes or less. The emphasis here is on a crystal clear and vivid picture of the future we are building. Less theory discussion, less discussion of praxis, and more painting of a vivid picture of the future. Let the promise of socialism envelope their senses and call to them. Have those reading lists available for when someone craves more, starting small and succinct and working towards the meatier tomes. Ensure that there are options for some form of remote reading group or a discussion email thread, or offer new members an established member as a mentor.

The elitism issue also rears its head in terms how much involvement people are able to have. Those with ample time: students, young single individuals or childless couples, those with additional financial resources, are often the first to volunteer. For everything. Leaders within the chapters need to identify those who are ‘eager beavers’ and help prevent them from taking all the opportunity to be involved and ensure the wider membership has access to take on projects and help with tasks. Focusing on mostly face-to-face meetings and not leveraging technologies that allow distance connection, planning far enough out in advance so calls to the membership bodies can be made for people interested on working on something creates a barrier to involvement that those outside of the surge demographics have a hard time overcoming.

There is furthermore an issue with cliques being formed with some of the membership, including within reading and discussion groups. These unofficial, unintentional hierarchies of people who are able to have more discussions outside of the meetings or email chains leaves those who are at a disadvantage because of economics, distance, or time. I have personally noticed the issue in my local chapter and a chilling of my involvement as a result. I won’t go into details as this is not the proper forum, but it’s an issue I’ve become aware of.

Elitism also presents itself in how the rank-and-file behave on social media. The surge demographic group has a tendency to engage in promotion of Socialism online that involves inside jokes, crass or sarcastic statements, or an overuse of memes. The rose by our names on Twitter and elsewhere identifies us as Democratic Socialists, and whether or not we accept it… it also allows others to create a stereotype. If we overdo the negative social media engagement I mentioned above, it creates an image. We forget that Socialism is having to reintroduce itself to the American progressives. When we engage in flame-wars with liberals, generally be jerks, post sarcastic statements or inside jokes that only those ‘in the know’ would understand, we further that barrier of people who would otherwise be on board with our organization. It took me months to recruit my wife, for example, because of some of these behaviors. Members should check themselves, myself included.

Another issue of elitism I have found is one echoed by many progressive people-of-color; a bunch of white guys telling them how racial disparities is actually a class struggle issue is not well received. Nor do I blame them, as it invalidates their struggle through an oppressive co-opting. We should refrain from discussions on how to convince people of color or any other traditionally marginalized group on how much their struggle is actually really a bigger issue of class, and instead acknowledge that perspective of it being a racial, gender, orientation, ableism issue and discuss how we plan to resolve those issues. As they become part of the movement, we can introduce them further into this theory, but for the moment we need to work together.

DSA chapters and members overall need to step back and remember what it is we’re fighting for, and set aside sectarian differences, political theory and praxis wonkery, and instead answer a very basic and fundamental question for people out there in the world: How is Democratic Socialism going to make “my” life better. What exactly is the pathway forward.

If we cannot paint a vivid picture of the future that shows exactly how we’re going to reconstruct a society that is respective and celebratory of all human life regardless of our individual identities, we won’t be able to build a diverse coalition of people. We will continue to be white, nerdy, and moderately affluent.

Recommendations for Chapters & National

  • Make removal of barriers to involvement a top priority. Ensure that barriers such as time, family status, distance from the urban core, and social cliques are reduced as much as possible. Steering Committees should set up a standing committee to address issues of barriers to involvement selected from a diverse group of people.
  • Create social interactive groups virtually and invite members to tell their personal story: their backgrounds, their personal histories, what has drawn them to socialism. You may find first impressions very different from a person’s history.
  • Use reading groups and discussion groups to further education within the chapter, but also work on distilling information down to be accessible to a broader group.
  • Be aware of cliques, and be more proactive in inviting in the involvement of people outside of those groups.
  • Enforce the rules of respectful dialogue.
  • Remember to always be democratic first.

Recommendations for all members

  • Like it or not, you’re representing Democratic Socialism when you engage others online and have publicly identified yourself as a member of the DSA/Democratic Socialism. Keep that in perspective.
  • Tone down the sarcasm, the in-jokes, the passing positive praise for authoritarian socialist leaders of the past: you’re putting people off.
  • Always, always take the high road and keep in mind humanity and humility. Even with people who absolutely and completely are opposite of the political spectrum, respect their basic humanity even if you do not respect their opinions. So, jokes that hint at violence or killing others aren’t going to fly well.
  • Do not engage trolls. Just ignore them and move on. Getting in a pissing match with someone is only going to come out bad.
  • Seek out members you don’t get to talk to much, ask their opinions on things, ask them to work with you on a project.
  • Listen deeply.
  • Check your ego. While ego-death is not likely, remember to check it and remember it’s not about you is an important thing to consider.
  • Socialism isn’t going to win if it focuses on remaining counter-culture, and by that I mean our goal is to make the mainstream Socialist.
  • Be open-minded. That’s what we’re here for.

This isn’t by any means an exhaustive article on the subject. And there may very well have been articles, pamphlets, books, etc. that all touch on these subjects. But the opportunity to write on this topic and discuss the elephant in the room was one that could not be passed up.

If I missed something or you think I’m just wrong, tell me in the comments.