Towards Power

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Our Program for the 2020 National YDSA Convention

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The Problem: A Ship with No Crew

Leading up to YDSA’s August 2019 convention, there was a vision that our organization would mature into a multifaceted, well-organized, and powerful youth socialist group. As convention approached, delegates were quickly polarized between two competing political perspectives. The opposing strategies were proposed and discussed, but at the convention’s close, nearly all of the resolutions had passed (many unanimously), including mandates to form half a dozen new campaigns and committees. Convention delegates overwhelmingly supported growing YDSA into an organization capable of waging class struggle on all fronts. Through all the debates and politicking, a consensus vision of an international socialist movement led by a united organization stood strong.

Unfortunately, the course of YDSA’s development over the past 9 months shows that we need to seriously reconsider what it will take to achieve that vision. Our organization committed too few organizers to too much work; some national committees were composed of only 2 or 3 organizers but had mandates involving dozens or even a hundred YDSA locals. The inevitable result was stagnation and burnout. If we want to meaningfully exert power and ameliorate our organizational strains, we need to develop a single political priority campaign, rooted in mass work, and formalize and clarify our national structures to develop new national leaders and support chapters in implementing this priority.

Our national organization is like a ship with captains, but no crew. Though we can set a course towards class struggle, we lack an organization developed enough to actually wage it. The National Coordinating Committee (NCC) does an enormous amount of work, as does the YDSA National Organizing Director, yet despite some promising growth in terms of membership and chapter affiliations, YDSA has not grown enough in terms of national capacity. If we consider the oft-used bullseye diagram of a healthy organization, we can say that our active and core layers are too small for our organization.

The result has been infrastructural stress on core members. The ability to steer the organization has gotten bogged down. Strategic decisions are made but the connecting layer of members that links core (national leadership) to periphery (local chapters) is frayed. The Labor, College for All, Green New Deal, and Internationalism committees all spent immense amounts of time developing materials, but were unable to organize chapters to implement their campaigns. These committees had all become so inactive that the NCC merged them into a “supercommittee,” first focused on Bernie 2020 and now COVID response organizing. We must formally recognize the problem: when many national committees have to pull from a small group of core organizers, we end up with no one group having the means to successfully enact their mandates.

The most dire consequence of operating well above capacity is a failure to reproduce, let alone expand  capacity. YDSA’s national leadership currently relies on rank-and-file members of the organization to fill needed positions on national committees. This August, the NCC will be expanded from 6 to 9 members, but our organization will still need far more volunteer activist members to contribute to national work. Although the NCC has made a proactive effort to develop new leaders in the organization, it largely has not been enough: committees have been staffed primarily with members active in the last convention’s debates.

Would we rather this structure remain informal, dictated by a “tyranny of structurelessness” that keeps chapters on the periphery of the national community isolated? Or should we change course by formalizing and strengthening the intermediate layer of national organizers? If we want an organization that is capable of collective decision making and swift, strong responses to urgent political moments, we cannot just reproduce the organizational structure of the past few years at a slightly larger scale. We have to establish an organization of a different type, one that prioritizes the creation of a new layer of socialist organizers through intentional leadership development everywhere in the organization. 

A New Layer of Socialist Organizers

YDSA’s first attempt at creating such an intermediate body sprang out of the 2018 convention. These Regional Organizing Committees (ROCs) represented distinct geographic regions with the goal of acting as liaison between chapters and the NCC. This structure quickly encountered difficulties. Many ROC chair positions were left unfilled, and there was no power for ROCs to direct or coordinate chapters of their own accord. Chapters themselves had little impetus to stay involved, as many were less than a year old and were just learning to run local campaigns. Although a resolution passed at the 2019 convention to reform the ROCs, they remained operationally vacuous, and the burden of attempting to organize by region fell on the largest chapters, who had the most leadership to spare.

In the end, the ROCs were an interesting experiment that helped highlight the true shortcomings in YDSA’s national-level organizing. Structurally, ROCs lacked a political mandate, national-level support, and chapter buy-in, causing them to fail in all cases. The ROCs were interpreted as being regional deliberative assemblies, but members found in ROC meetings that they simply had nothing to deliberate on. It is clear that a more closely coordinated national body is necessary, in which each regional organizer is supported and given direction.

Engaging in struggle radicalizes and teaches organizers the necessary skills to grow an organization. However, the lessons learned in struggle are not uniform; this is why we must intentionally create a space for experienced organizers to come together, learn from each other, and develop best practices. While great progress has been made in YDSA’s new publication The Activist, members of newer and smaller chapters are still often unable to leverage this institutional knowledge.

The way appointments and elevation works right now makes sense: if you notice someone in your chapter who can lead then they should be elevated and encouraged. However, we don’t want this process to stop at the confines of a few select chapters, we want to be identifying leaders in every chapter. This requires more contact with peripheral and isolated chapters, and it requires a layer of socialist organizers able to provide aid and guidance to make new leaders.

We propose reconstituting the ROCs into a National Organizing Committee (NOC), a body of the most experienced organizers in YDSA. The NOC would serve to build relationships with chapters, train chapter leaders and members in organizing skills, and direct chapters to the resources and networks they need to wage successful nationally- and regionally-coordinated campaigns. The NOC would thus be a new, intermediate layer of socialist organizers, bridging the gulf between YDSA’s local membership and national leadership. In short, while the NCC would still act as the delegated political will of the membership, the NOC would be the organizing muscle of the national organization.

Rather than committees doing independent outreach–often uncoordinated with other groups–the NOC would serve as the only group doing direct calls with chapters. The previous model of organization lended itself to something like 6 committees and 25 total organizers, all competing with each other. The NOC would lend itself to coordination, and unified action.

Successful committees like the National Political Education Committee were able to acquire enough core organizers, and set out a clear timeline on its mandate which included The Activist and the School of Socialism syllabus and manual. The committee succeeded in large part because it understood its mandate, and acted upon the confines of it. Committees often failed when there weren’t enough organizers, and they competed with other committees for the attention of chapters. We want to resolve this competition, while allowing for specific mandates of campaigns, committees, and projects to be met. In this respect, the NOC will be crucial.

The priority campaign that YDSA decides on should be facilitated through the NOC, not a separate committee. This way, knowledge of chapters, relationships to chapters, training, and organizing asks would all be coming from one place. This would simplify the relationship between local chapters and the national organization. Of course, sometimes material outside of a national campaign is needed, in this case the NCC should feel empowered to delegate materials development to NOC members or other YDSA members as part of leadership development. The new resources would be disseminated to chapters through the NOC. For example,  resources like a new School of Socialism lesson would be alerted to chapters during regular calls, likewise, requests for articles could be given by the organizer on the NOC who has a deep relationship with a chapter, rather than through emails, spoke texts, and phone calls from the committee.

Too often, chapters join YDSA with no formal organizing experience, and no help choosing a direction. To the millions of working-class students in the US, no brand-name socialist organization will move them to combat the transgressions of their university. Their peers, community members, and trusted friends are those capable of mobilizing the working-class into action. The NOC will serve as the necessary link between chapters and the national organization. By helping chapters assess conditions, providing resources, and relaying input from the local conditions to the national organization, we will build a movement that doesn’t just espouse slogans of the working-class, but is a weapon of the working-class.

We have two aims. First, to support chapter growth, allowing members to wage more intense campaigns on their campuses and win material changes. Second, to identify and train members to become involved across the country, thus developing future leaders and reducing barriers to national-level involvement. 

We see this committee having enough people to make regular contact with many chapters and OCs. The goal would be for an organizing call with the leadership, or members of a chapter every 2-3 weeks to assess the status of the chapter, offer training, relay crucial national news and info, and assist with campaigns. Organizing on campuses is a challenge no matter the conditions, but a strong national organization could be significantly helpful to chapters just getting started. A well staffed NOC could help develop  our chapters and our organization into a central force of political change around the country.

One Organization, One Campaign

We have to assess the success and failures of YDSA’s many campaigns and committees. Like a marketplace, competition between committees diluted all of their productivity. Even the ones with the most capacity, like the Bernie campaign committee, still suffered from a capacity vacuum. At the other end of the spectrum were committees like the Labor committee which were functionally dead. A strong national organization would be able to have its members and chapters commit to nationwide days of action and events, yet our organization as it exists right now simply cannot do this.

Desires for a full program ring hollow without capacity to meaningfully wage struggles for such a program. Resolutionary socialism is the antithesis of a powerful organization, and we must push back against the urge to take stances on political issues where we have no power to effect change. Having too many priorities is the same as having none. Additionally, the national organization’s connection to chapters is too frayed to make meaningful asks of chapters or get a meaningful response. We have the appearance and branding of a unified national organization, but in practice a loose confederation of chapters.

With a fledgling organization like YDSA, we need to focus on an attainable external campaign instead of trying to do everything. Priorities are a challenge to settle on, but there’s no more important task for an organization than to decide them. We don’t yet have the capacity or resources to wage struggles in every single aspect of capitalist society. We need to strategically assess which fight is most important for us to participate in, and mobilize our resources to respond to it.

Priorities change too: in February 2020 a reasonable case could have been made that the single priority of YDSA should have been campaigning for Bernie Sanders, while in April 2020, COVID-19 is the most pressing political conflict of our time. Though the NCC has stepped up to this task, this dramatic shift in conditions exposed the rigidness of YDSA as an organization. While we should allow our NCC to endorse and push for legislation like College for All, Covid-19 relief, and Medicare for All, the priority of YDSA should be for intense working-class demands at all layers of society.

Leadership can have flexibility to determine priorities in moments of crisis, but the convention is when we should establish our shared goal for the coming year. The debate on whether a field of struggle is good or not is often separate from whether it is the correct choice for the organization to make. When we debate the Green New Deal as a priority, we aren’t debating whether we think the proposal is good or not, we are debating how the organization should orient itself towards this demand. In some cases this means consistent and large mobilization; in others, it merely means statements of support. If we want to build power, we must move beyond claiming support for everything while mobilizing for nothing.

A Students and Workers Recovery

50 years ago in response to the invasions of Cambodia a general strike of students occured that led to 883 campuses suspending classes. Though our conditions have changed, we face a similar universal crisis with COVID-19 and impending austerity that threatens the very foundation of higher-education for working-class people in the United States. As YDSA stands today, we cannot wage a protracted struggle that touches the mass of the working class. Rather, we need our chapters and national organization oriented around a shared vision of struggle at the local level. Making claims, demanding legislation, and operating communications for a national goal is only as strong as the organization that any given working-class student interacts with on their campus.

Our position is that the single campaign should be an anti-austerity, pro-democracy campaign around a Students and Workers Recovery. The task of socialists at this moment is to organize a mass working-class base for political action through a program of class struggle in all layers of society. In Young Democratic Socialists of America, we are faced with a chance to lead a group already favorable to socialism. College is no longer a bourgeois playground; it is increasingly occupied by working-class and poor students aiming to better their lives and the lives of their families through education. As universities increasingly run like corporations, we see the interests of students, workers, and community members disregarded for the sake of profit. YDSA must fight for democratic control of campuses around the country by campus students, faculty, and staff, in order to build a society that works for the many, not the few. This is how we should fight for a Students and Workers Recovery.

We want a YDSA that leads struggles for the working class on their campuses, and engages with working-class bases currently untouched by the socialist struggle and primarily composed of students but including faculty, staff, and campus-adjacent workers. Our path towards becoming a mass socialist organization is not through slogans or prefigurative overperscriptions, it is through assessing the conditions of our communities and engaging in a struggle wherever the masses may be moved.

Our goal is to have the NOC work with chapters to assess their conditions, cut issues, and build coalitions. The NOC should help chapters run campaigns that win material changes for their working-class base and win that base’s confidence in YDSA as their liberatory instrument and class weapon. These campaigns could be oriented around both universal and particular demands such as financial aid, tuition abolition, debt cancellation, guaranteed housing, ethnic studies program preservation, or healthcare decommodification, just to name a few options. Coalitions with other student groups, labor unions, and community organizations may provide the essential allies necessary to win. There exists on each campus and within each school a working-class base with no political mobilization and home. Though ideologically Democratic Socialism already has a stronghold on campuses, YDSA must prioritize the consolidation of this base as an active, fighting group capable of winning democratic and material changes on their campuses. YDSA must do this not just for our campus base’s own sake, but more importantly to build credibility and demonstrate viability of the broader socialist movement to the broader working class.

Which way forward

Many of us have spent the last year making texts, calls, and emails to push campaigns such as DSA for Bernie, College for All, COVID-19 response, and Political Education. We’ve found that contact with members is too infrequent and too shallow. When we ask chapters to run a campaign, host an event, or even post on social media, we rely on the idea that they are already bought into the national organization as one they are responsible for. However, this is often not the case. We are proposing the creation of a National Organizing Committee precisely to build a deep connection between the national organization and local chapters.

We believe our path towards power lies in embedding YDSA in the deep struggles of our communities. It requires powerful chapters organized in a unified struggle against capital wherever it rears its ugly head. A campaign for A Students and Workers Recovery would put our chapters at the front line of the fight against austerity measures meant to shift the burden of this crisis on to the working class.

Our proposals speak to the problems we perceive in YDSA. We’ve outlined solutions because it is more important than ever to build an organization that can be wielded as a weapon for the working class. We fundamentally believe that an organization should have infrastructure that goes beyond individuals, and which is durable enough to withstand any one person or collection of people moving out of YDSA. 

The student socialist movement can provide the impetus for a broader mass socialist movement. Peter Camejo points out the essential nature of students to social change in his essay Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass-action: “put the students into the actual network of society — the interrelationship with their parents, the interrelationship with society as a whole, the interrelationship between each university and other universities and schools and the community around it — and the ruling class can see an immediate threat.” We can only threaten the ruling class by building a strong organization, one that has eschewed informal power networks and resolutionary posturing in favor of robust internal democracy and a commitment to action. We believe in YDSA’s potential to be this vehicle, but we must move towards becoming a powerful organization.

Signatories: 

Autumn P, YDSA Purdue 
Remi M, YDSA Purdue 
Nate K, YDSA Georgia Tech
Nikhil P, YDSA Georgia Tech
Sumter A, YDSA Georgia Tech
Jacob W, YDSA University of Virginia