Caucuses, Consequences, and Construction: Caucuses, Conflict, and Convention Reassessed
We are building something here. We will be building something for a long time. And a basic respect for that fact should be universal among members of the organization.
I want to write to you today about a document. It was a document written by someone who was very influential in my DSA chapter (Philly) until recently. It was initially a private document for the author’s caucus, but was unintentionally released by a separate caucus that viewed it as an essential training manual. The author’s caucus lost power in my chapter a few weeks ago after a years-long, incredibly bitter, and completely futile battle that destroyed many friendships, egos, and campaigns. It managed to produce not one, but two splinter organizations off of Philly DSA. Many of the leading members of that caucus resigned from their positions in the organization in April, and it is unclear how many intend to return.
The document is many things. It is a perceptive analysis of the development of blocs in an unorganized assembly and the dynamics of competitive meetings. It is the articulation of a political strategy that had proved rather successful at the time of its writing and had two years of gas left in the tank afterward. It is (implicitly) a theory of what democracy is and how it should function in a socialist organization.
And I believe it is a quite influential document. No one cites it openly, but you see similar arguments about how caucuses bring “true” democratization and are inevitable among certain groups.
But I believe this document to be a deeply flawed one - dangerously so. And to make clear why, I will walk through it and how it was applied in my chapter.
The document, at its heart, is a neat little summation of parliamentary dynamics: whipping votes in a disciplined fashion is obviously beneficial to parties with shared interest, and if you would like to have influence in your organization you had best do it. The author establishes this with a quick thought experiment in which a relatively even field is disrupted by a bloc vote of 20. So far, so simple. For the record, I find this to be compelling. Organized voting is something one must account for, and if you have a definite opinion on an issue you should organize your vote. It makes sense that people who agree on an issue would band together for some amount of time to make sure that their way prevailed in chapter discussions.
The document next outlines how caucuses choose to maneuver through debates out of self interest; they attempt to pick the terrain of debate, both in form and substance. Our author defines these as determining ‘scope’ (ie: where and how debates are conducted) and conducting ‘displacement,’ (ie: choosing the issues on which one will debate). The author believed that standup fights in a general meeting were preferable for their caucus, that debating about Bernie was advantageous vs debating about their attitudes towards racial justice organizing, etc.
Fair enough. Taken together, an accurate if limited proposal of a strategic posture for a national caucus headed into a convention. But its application to national DSA politics was far less important than the fundamental attitude contained in the approach. The strategy outlined here was perfectly respectable on paper, but what it meant in reality was a bitter pursuit of positive polarization at the expense of political effectiveness, social cohesion, and institutional function. It was not a sustainable strategy for being a member of DSA and should be wholeheartedly rejected on the local and national level.
Implicit in the document was a narrow perspective that rose no higher than the caucus itself. Indeed, the author is quite enthused about this view on DSA. For a satisfactory analogy for the kind of unity a caucus brings to those happy warriors linked in arms, they supply Draper’s analysis for why class formations in broader society hold together, and Marx’s invocation for unity against a common enemy in class struggle in “Critique of the Gotha Program.”1
While one is no doubt happy for our author that they are in a group where, “unity of our group is rarely challenged by internal debates because the force of democratic competition binds us together (happily so),” (5) it is left to the reader to decipher why mere internal political dynamics in a (in the broad scheme of things) relatively ideologically uniform organization have the gravity and inertia of class society itself. Why does the author think that the separation between two caucuses of democratic socialists is as profound and as internally unifying as that between objective class positions? One is left with the distinct vision of DSA as nothing more than a sum of caucuses and dupes - the gulfs between the caucuses wide, the organization itself nothing worth treasuring, and those uninterested in caucusing of worth only insofar as they might join a caucus.2
It is primarily a document oriented towards moving people with the correct ideas into positions of leadership, and the author was relatively unconcerned with how all of this would result in a better organization as a whole. The author does note some positive knock-on effects - simple questions like ‘who leads’ offer low barriers to entry, caucus recruiting encourages caucuses to bring members into the organization because they run out of unaligned members, and so on - but they are never the focus of the essay. The essay is simply about how to win.
The document is perceptive and it is influential. But among the many things it is, it is not a document written by a leader. An admirable parliamentary tactician our author might be, but their protagonists in this piece are never the organization as a whole, their aims only incidentally the shared aims of everyone in DSA. It is fundamentally a document about how to get a disciplined group of people to win votes in a room over, and over, and over again. No more, no less. The caucus is the protagonist of history, debate within DSA is purely a contest of power, and no one wants to end up like the losers who supported the person in the thought experiment who only got 10 votes.
It is also not a document written by someone with a terribly long time horizon. I don’t know the precise age of our author, but it seems that they were very young when they wrote this. Perhaps it was the heady air of late 2018, when Bernie was set to run again and put us on the inevitable path to social democracy, but you get the strong impression of someone who believes that the major questions are settled and they have all the answers. The correct ideas are present, the stage is set. Now all we need is for the right people to win control and all will be well. And while the author has a cogent analysis of how groups may coalesce in one, two, or even several consequent meetings of an assembly, the record would show that the described dynamics were unstable in the long term.
Totally absent from our author’s imaginings is, for instance, what would happen if a protagonist-caucus became hegemonic within a local arena. For that, we’re forced to look at the actual record.
I will be blunt: you can draw a straight line between the theory of ‘Caucus Warfare’ articulated in this document and the resignation of nearly half of the Philly DSA Steering Committee in April 2021.3 The state of our internal organizing, campaign work, and reputation as a chapter are well behind those in chapters of comparable sizes and in comparable cities. The strategy outlined in the document had already been refined and deployed in Philadelphia for some time by the time our author set down to write it. In many ways it was a response to political dynamics that roiled many DSA chapters at the time. But what the author's caucus did differently than many groups in similar positions across the country was that rather than attempt to manage the conflict, persuade people, make friends, or explode, the author's caucus pursued a strategy of conscious “positive polarization.” As the “controlling caucus,” they sought to define the institutions and practices of the chapter along the lines of a “controlling caucus/opposition caucus” dyad that left oxygen for little else.
Debate itself was tightly constrained. The author did not consider what would happen when the natural ‘scope shaping’ tendencies of caucuses encountered hegemonic rulemaking power. The ‘up or down fights in large arenas with clear rules’ became - I will have to editorialize here and you will simply have to trust me - using sophistry and intellectual dishonesty in the highly limited “two for, two against, call the question” format. This is of course a move preferred by all who like to use and abuse Roberts for fun and profit. I respect the game, but it is not a way for members of a polity to come to an informed decision. Furthermore, the questions that were discussed in these meetings were limited. The author, ofc, believed that simple, ‘who leads’ questions were most illuminating. Thus most of the business was whittled down into pro-forma debate over limited proposals that, following our author’s strategy, was most likely to produce a ‘controlling caucus’ dynamic.
To cap it off, the author’s caucus pursued an aggressive strategy of ‘displacing the site of debate,’ as the author euphemized; in plain English - they shaped the institutions of the chapter so that the most important debates happened within their caucus’s walls. The 2019 bylaws, written by a study committee dominated by the caucus and passed without much review by a narrow majority, enshrined a set of bylaws that, without descending into boring details, managed to magnify the power of 51% of the chapter to control the institution, while fundamentally undermining the ability of that institution to do anything. The ability to appoint members to committees with highly circumscribed membership incentivized the caucus to appoint people uninterested in contributing substantive effort to committees merely to control votes. I have experienced few things more enraging than attending one of only four meetings of a core committee held in a calendar year, only to find that half of the official committee members sat through the entire thing with their camera off and not saying anything.4 While work suffered, silos persisted, and eventually the COVID 19 pandemic knocked everything off-kilter, the SC was able to summon a majority on any given committee at will. Policy thus passed from the interior of the author’s caucus to dead committees, and from there to a general chapter body where uninformed general members were given an up or down veto on actions after a minimum of discussion.
When they felt pressured, they were more than happy not to debate at all. While our author would refer to this as understandable ‘displacement’ it could reach laughable heights that impoverished the chapter as a whole. There were a thousand small instances of this, whether it was shifting items to the back of the agenda that they felt they would lose on in hopes that they could drag out the clock, or an opaque subcommission of the Steering Committee ruling resolutions ‘out of order’ with the bylaws on effective policy grounds. But perhaps the most illustrative example was the most recent. The author's caucus, in its doldrums, was able to only get about 50 hard votes at our convention. But you sure could count them, because even though no one spoke against Left Unity’s chapter priorities, 50 people decided that though it wasn’t worth debating against it was worth voting against. In the end they decided that not even the big public assemblies so beloved by our author were favorable terrain, nor internal organizing, coalition work, or racial justice favorable issues to debate on.
Finally, the author's caucus used its hegemonic position to legislate arcane requirements for participation at all. The author of the essay supposed that caucuses, running out of easily aligned members, would ‘scour the countryside’ for votes and grow the organization. This did not pan out.5 Ironically, the caucus that was supposed to be ‘scrambling’ to recruit new members to the fray imposed voting requirements that left 30% of the chapter members in good standing eligible, and presided over an election over which only 15% of the membership participated in elections. While no doubt there was sincere pervasive fear about ‘NGOization’ and ‘entryism,’ the fact that from that hegemonic position, the caucus turned to suppression of activity rather than encouragement of participation is a repudiation of our author’s theory.
But then a funny thing happened. Deprived of the ability to discuss issues of substance together, the collective began to discuss the nature of the controlling caucus. Debates about horizontalism, what democracy was, and whose turn it was to speak ruled the day. While I’m sure there was some substance in the early years, the most salient difference between the caucuses when I joined the chapter was neither an issue of substance nor of philosophy, but instead an aesthetic split between ‘dirtbags’ and ‘social justice’ oriented persuasions and institutional questions.6 Voting rights in assemblies, the order of business at meetings, the 2019 bylaws, and Steering Committee actions became key issues in the chapter. New members, alienated by the low quality of debate, acrimonious conduct in meetings, dearth of chapter activities, and hostility to additional organizing work uncontrolled by the ‘majority caucus,’ began to seek out the opposition. Handed several high profile errors by leadership and catalyzed by the influx of new members following the DSA 100k campaign, the ‘opposition caucus’ began to coalesce a majority.
The dynamics our author drew on, articulated, and encouraged their caucus to adopt made the triumph of a counter caucus inevitable. The slow strangulation of internal debates to the terrain the author preferred for their caucus resulted in the most fervent debate in the chapter being about “caucus warfare” in and of itself. Presented with a tightly disciplined group shaping institutions over time to their advantage, the majority eventually united behind a caucus presenting a disciplined opposition to that institutional gamesmanship. Narrow aesthetic preferences were funneled into bitter personal and political disagreements for the purpose of creating a 55% vs 45% coalition. If the politics of Left Unity are perhaps a little underdeveloped, it is because their political home is in a place where political issues are rarely under discussion except in the “yes/no” “democratic,” questions our author so prized as being, “clarifying.” And finally, the conception of a DSA chapter as nothing more than a controlling caucus and an opposition caucus stacked on top of each other in a trench coat led to the exhaustion, burnout, and collapse of the “controlling” caucus as it sought to maintain supremacy for its own sake, long after the projects it sought to work on in power were exhausted. In every sense the Left Unity Caucus and its triumph in June are this essay’s best and most successful children. I certainly hope our author is proud of them.
I always hate a pure critique, and believe on the whole the socialist Left needs to make more constructive arguments. So I will leave with this. Understanding CC&C in conjunction with the past four years of Philly DSA requires us to realize that DSA is more than the sum of its parts.
Treating chapter leadership as a mere political prize is fundamentally misguided, and repeats many of the same mistakes the Left has made in the US over the course of the 20th century. To get Biblical - you have heard it said ‘don’t be a splitter,’ a thousand times, but if you look on the leadership of the org as a Thunderdome for fundamentally different political groups, have you not split already in the heart?
Instead, I urge everyone to read “Caucuses, Conflicts, and Convention” not as a manual, but as a warning. Leadership - whether nationally or in a local - should recognize these dynamics. It is absolutely true that a yes/no question produces two passionate camps.7 It is absolutely true that disciplined organizing can seize a confused and divided assembly. Push against these dynamics! Create the context in which everyone can understand not just the up or down, but the nuances of the political debate at hand. Clarity does not come from simplification, it comes from depth and breadth of understanding. Democracy isn’t when everyone feels like they can participate because debate has been brought to their level of current understanding, but when everyone genuinely can participate because they have been given the tools and knowledge to do so.
Likewise - understand that political factions want to choose territory and issues most favorable to them for debate. Disrupt that! Factions, caucuses, and cliques shouting slogans at and past each other is not any way to achieve the degree of consensus necessary for political action in a voluntary organization. The aim of leadership, beyond decisive action, capable administration, and ideological guidance, is to promote mutual understanding and, for lack of a better word, comradeship across these divides.
And for those of us in caucuses, I would urge caution. While drawing together under a shared analysis is, as our author notes, inevitable, scorched earth tactics are not. And in a practical sense, they are extremely harmful to your long term political interests. The long, slow, institutional whittling of Philly DSA led not to the correct analysis prevailing, but to an exhausted group of people in over their heads surrendering control entirely over to the opposition. If you see your behavior as a local or national caucus slowly aligning an ideologically heterogenous majority against you, if you’ve thought about the institutions of your chapter (or the national organization) as caucus building tools, alarm bells should be going off in your head. And if you have taken “Caucuses, Conflicts, and Convention,” to heart in the past as a perceptive political analysis or as a guide - beware! These are its wages.
But the thing I feel most is a wounded loyalty to and defensiveness of DSA itself. We are, at present moment, .03% of the US population. If you got us all together, from paper members to the NPC, Socialist Majority to LSC, we would be slightly smaller than Davenport, IA. Our notions of how to conduct ourselves democratically are shrunken, warped, and misdirected by both the socioeconomic system under which we exist and the scale of the nation-state in which we live. DSA is, quite famously, not the state - a site of contestation between classes and interests for the distribution of resources. Nor is it an empty shell for your preferred minute variation on the socialist canon. It is a shared political project seeking to gain and wield political power. And productive citizenship within that project requires a different political mindset than the one we are trained to have by both the history of our country and the shattered cladistics of socialist groups over the back half of the 20th century.
We are in this struggle for a long time. While we all told ourselves it wasn’t true, I think the reason so many people in so many different tendencies and intellectual traditions volunteered for Bernie 2020 was because it felt like it might be some sort of turning point, or catalyst, or (as McAlevey would admonish us) a short cut. It was no such thing, and we are left instead with the long grinding of vast social institutions, the fraying of the liberal order, and our warming climate to drive socialist organizing. Our approach to DSA cannot be one of merely establishing the right leadership, but instead must be to build the right institutions.
The project we need to embark on within our own walls is not to win internal contests via one weird trick of Borda, or assemblies, or STV. It may not even be to write catty essays, though you will have to work very hard to persuade me of this as I assure you it’s very fun. Our project, rather, (and you’ll have to excuse me for this, I can’t think of it any other way) is the cultivation of a democratic soul, and the conjuration of DSA as a living polity. It is the inculcation of a collective sense of responsibility for the collective itself; it is creating habits of political forbearance, good faith debate and discussion beyond the arenas in which we’re most comfortable, and feelings of unity and comradeship that extend at least a little outside of the bounds of our caucuses and personal friends.
Caucuses and conflicts are in many cases legitimate. I don’t want to come across as apolitical, conflict averse, or naive. DSA is indeed a multi-tendency organization, and people with strong views on a particular issue or set of issues are more than welcome to build their lists and whip their votes. And indeed differences on many fronts - personal, political, and aesthetic - are expected and welcomed. It would be deeply hypocritical of me to suggest otherwise, not least because I am very happy to see the author’s caucus depart from power. But that activity, and more broadly the articulation of difference, must be fundamentally contained within the context of a shared project of building up DSA for everyone.
We are building something here. We will be building something for a long time. And a basic respect for that fact should be universal among members of the organization. I hope we can make it so.
After all, the future of our organization depends on it.
The footnote in full:
“This feature of caucus competition mirrors a larger phenomenon in party politics more broadly, as Draper explained nicely: “the cement which holds such a formation together is its role in the class struggle itself, the fact that it is the class-in-movement; what holds the antagonistic political tendencies in place is the pressure of the class enemies outside [...], the party does not necessarily have to suppress the internal play of political conflict, since the centrifugal force of political disagreements is counterbalanced by the centripetal pressure of the class struggle” (Draper, 1973). It is also nicely illustrated by Marx in his critique of the Gotha program. Addressing the Eisenachers he argues: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs [...] if, therefore, it is not possible to go beyond the Eisenach program, one should simply have concluded to an agreement for action against a common enemy” (Marx, 1875).”
As I ask above - why precisely should exterior political struggle (class struggle in politics no less) be a model for interior struggle within an organization?
Indeed, “New members are quick to join a caucus, to do otherwise seems naïve.” (3)
And that’s only the chickens coming home to roost for the author’s caucus. You can tie it much more directly to many steering committee members being harassed out of leadership by their colleagues throughout the 2017-2020 period.
While unrelated to institutions, political behavior also reached incredibly petty levels. A treyf committee was refused a reimbursement for meeting space, SC members of the wrong caucus had no recourse or rescheduling opportunities for childcare, etc. Real sorority leadership struggle tier stuff. Very far from the hypothesized,”pushing caucuses away from alienating non-partisans (that is pushes them away from toxic polemics and personalized tactics).” (2) that the author blithely predicted.
Though with fairness to our author, Left Unity used the dastardly tactic of, “engaging in effective housing organizing” to attract unaligned members and new entrants to DSA to their politics in much the way the author described. The system works!
A key part of the author's caucus’s analysis has been that Left Unity, ‘had no politics.’ The truth was that by the end of 2020, both sides contained large majorities with no politics. Instead, the vague aesthetic sensibilities each had developed lead to the illusion of political difference. This is unsurprising given the strangulation of discussion within the chapter - many have expressed to me a desire to learn more but no one has the time or space!
Though I would note, if not managed well they just as often create confused and undecided voters who, dependent on the tenor of the debate, will either merely persist in their confusion or become upset that people they like and respect are so vituperative.