future of DSA
Source Dave Anderson
Date 99/05/01/22:31

/* Written 1:04 PM Nov 25, 1998 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "future of DSA" ---------- */
Date: Wed, 25 Nov 1998 13:56:32 -0700 (MST)

There has been an interesting discussion about the future of the
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on the DSA e-mail discussion list.
This posting comes from Joe Schwartz, who is quite an insightful guy.
The NPC refers to the National Political Committee of DSA.

Dave Anderson

Dear DSAneters,

I thought I might contribue some longer-term perspective to the recent
DSAnet discussion about national/local relations and the state of DSA
finances (thanks to Duane Campbell and Bob Roman for already providing
some needed historical perspective).

1. On finances -- perhaps because we must be eternal optimists if we are to
keep fighting the most powerful capitalist nation in the world, democratic
socialists in the past twenty-five years have had a tendency to be
overly optimistic about revenue projections and overly lax about spending
income that hopefully will come in (from big donors, membership renewals,
DSOC did this from 1973-1981 (partly deficit-financing a very rapid growth
from 300 -- 5,000 members), resulting in a three or four year period of
austere budgets for newly-minted DSA (1982-86 or so).

We somewhat have been through a similar cycle over the past six years or
approximately overspending our income by about 40,000 per year (about 8-10%
of income). This was "cushioned" by our having an "endowment" which began
as about 225,000 of income from a life insurance policy the organization
out on Michael harrington in 1980 and which, tragically, came into our hands
after Mike's untimely death in 1989. The life insurance policy was aimed at
replacing some of the income Mike's absence (if and when) would cost the
organization. The folks who took out the policy projected it might help
us cushion ten years or so of post-Mike organizational activity. And in
many ways it allowed for a direct mail program which got our membership
from 7,000 to 10-11,000 (Bob Roman is right; this means 10-11,000 pay dues
over two years; by the way, we make more money then we spend by sending
out four renewal notices per year, and by phoning lapsed members. We would
have less present income and even less future income -- and fewer members --
if we just sent two reminders and then dropped folks. Socialists are as big
procrastinators as other Americans...that's why magazines and orgs keep
sending you renewals long after you've decided not to renew...)

Anyway, we've now come close to eating that seed corn. I assure you the NPC
is getting the situation under control. We hope to be cutting our rent-in-
by taking on a major tenant. And we are projecting that for several months,
perhaps longer, we will just have a basic staff structure of one national
director, one financial coordinator, one youth organizer, and a half-time
membership services coordinator.

The severity of our current financial crunch is that both the national
and NPC allowed us to over expand our staff to 6.5 full-time positions
(a DC political director, a fundraiser, a publications person, a national
director, youth organizer, financial coordinator, and 1/2 time membership
services person) when we probably should have kept the staff in the 4.5-5
FTE range, max. We hoped that added staff could do more fundraising and more
political work which would leverage funds from unions and foundations. But
that gamble did not work (partly it is harder to get money from unions and
left foundations for an "s" word organization than some thought). Some
urged more fiscal caution over two years ago, but we were not militant
enough in our warnings. But now there is a new found sense of fiscal
responsibility on the NPC and the situation is getting under control.

2. the NPC is more representative of local activists than ever before (hence
Duane's numbers of 5 or so local activists out of 25 is pessimistic).
A. is active in Ithaca DSA; Julia F., Junita W. and Marsha B. are all active
in NYC; Virginia Franco is an active leader in San Diego; Lyz Ryder is
in LA (what remains of a once strong local); Ron Aronoson is active in
Frank Llewellyn in NYC as with Jeff Gold; David Knuttenen is the leading
Boston local activist; Bill McIver is active in Denver/Colorado; Eric Vega
, along with Duane C., is our key Sacramento activist; and Daraka Larimore-
Rabblyn Vargas, Mike Heffron, Bill Dixon, and Katie Romich all have been
grassroots YS activists within the past two years or currently.

As the local development report indicates, the NPC is more oriented to
addressing the needs of locals than ever before.

3. Thus, the NPC leadership knows:

a. we need to get up-to-date mailing lists out to locals; publish a better,
e regular DL and get topical lit out to locals as much as is feasible; and
better liaison between the NO, the NPC, and locals (but communication goes
both ways; even some of our most active locals could not get it together to
fill out the local survey).

b. do good activist training and leadership/organizing schools (the NYC one
last weekend was good, but it was not publicized that well because it was
done mostly by volunteer labor who were also doing a major fundraising
but also local activists don't always turn out for these trainings as much
as we would like).

c. work closely with the YS to develop YS activists who wish to make a long-
m commitment to building DSA (many go very quickly into full-time orgnaizing
jobs in the labor and community orgnaizing movements and don't have much
for DSA)

Thus, we are about to begin a search for a National Director who has the
skills and focus to do three things well:

1. fundraise the basic national budget

2. administer a good staff

3. project our political direction through writing, speaking, and some
traveling to locals; liaison actively with our locals

4. work closely with the YS organizer and the Youth Section to develop
a new generation of socialist activists.

Now, we do have some positive assets. We have pretty good locals in
NYC, Boston, San Diego, Sacramento, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago.
They all could be stronger, but they each do some effective political
work and have visibility and credibility in their progressive
communities. We need to address the fall off of activity in LA and
rebuild a presence in the BAy Area, as California represents about
twenty per cent of our membership. And we need to rebuild a once strong
local in DC. And obviously work closely with anyone trying to start or
rebuild locals in Portland, Or, Seattle (both where we once had strong
locals), Minneapolis, etc., etc.

We have about six strong YS chapters (James Madison, U of Chicago,
NYU, SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Binghamton) and smaller presences at scores of
places which need to be developed (a burgeoning chapter at Brandeis).
But we need to continue to rebuild a Youth Section that up until 1991
or so was much more vibrant and stronger than the rest of the organization.

But we also have to realize that the strength or weaknesses of locals
correlates extremely strongly to whether or not there exists a core of
3-8 skilled activists who are good organizers, have basic social skills,
and can build an attractive public educational presence, sane internal life,
d construct one or two interesting activists projects (that is, health
are visible, sane, and do good ideological and activist work. They answer
often asked question: "what does DSA do?"

Yes, good national projects and good national lit and good national
help. But healthy locals usually figure out how to use campus speakers
to get paid gigs for a Cornel West or Barbara Ehrenreich (the national
can get Cornel or Barbara to do two or three gigs a year for DSA; but we
don't control 95 per cent of their schedules; they're booking agents do).
Healthy local activists know that if they don't publicize local events folks
don't show up (and the NO can't poster for you or put ads in your local
progressive weekly). And healthy locals know that DSAers must be active
as open DSAers in local progressive coalitions if local folks are to believe
that DSA is more than a talk-shop.

So the national leadership should do well: defining basic national campaigns
(we have two: 1. defending Social Security -- new lit soon to come -- and
other public goods and 2. fighting against corporate globalization; we had
excellent materials out of the NO on the MAI and played a pretty significant
role in some localities and in DC fighting (successfully) the MAI.
The YS is beginning to take up the anti-sweatshop campaigns and we have
gotten info out to locals on this and I know that East Bay, CA DSA is
now trying to do some picketing of local GAP stores, etc.

But locals will often do what is most relevant to their state and
s: hence Detroit Metro DSA is active in living wage ordinance fights;
DSA is doing health care activism; NY DSA played a major role in (possibly
successfully; still counting absentee ballots) getting a new left-wing
labor-based fusion party on the NY State ballot -- the Working Families
Party; San Diego is doing anti-maquielerdoro and pro-Hyundai-independent-
Mexican union solidarity work.

Now better national lit, better DL, better local liaision, better updating
of membership lists, etc., would all help strengthen and start locals.
And the NPC is working on creating an NO and NPC that aids local activism
through coherent national projects and good national servicing of locals.

But many of our problems have to do with the difficulty of sustaining a
socialist organization and tradition in a difficult post-socialist
environment. We can deal with this climate; but socialism is less of
an intuitive identification for anti-establishment activists than it has q
ever been in the US (young radicals are often explicitly or implicitly
anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-corporate, anti-global
corporations, etc. But they don't intuitively identify with a socialist,
certainly not a Marxist tradition, the way many young leftists of all
nationalities did in the late 60s-late 70s or so.

Of course, the growth in global inequality and injustice and the rapid
accentuation of class, race, and gender inequalities in the Reagan and
post-Reagan neo-liberal era make our politics more relevant in some
sense. But while many folks now global corporate greed is screwing them
over, it's not as if this intuitive understanding naturally leads them
to say so "yes I'm a socialist." Nor are as many campus anti-establishment
kids as easily converted to socialism when many of them think it died
with communism or is just some Eurocentric idea of some dead guy named
Marx. Marxism ain't hip, even among all those supposed academic leftists
(yet me tell you from inside Temple U., a left-wing faculty; left-wing
faculty are nowhere as abundant as the right-wing prof scam/Alan Bloom/death
of white civilization myth would have you...and most of them are not
very political, are fairly post-moderned out or are so pessimistic they
won't even try to turn a young person onto leftist politics...)

Now can we do better in difficult times and build a more vibrant
socialist organization, yes...but we have to realize it will involve
lots of small, concrete steps at both the national and local level...and
as folks who supposedly think in structuralist ways we have to realize that
we are weak primarily not because of mistakes this or that person or this
or that bad NO or bad NPC or bad locals made, but because there are systemic
reasons why socialism is a weak movement in the US. Can we get stronger?
Hell, yes. Can we do better? Hell, yes. Should we limit the mistakes that
we make out of ingnorance, weak will, or overly optimistic projections? `
Hell, yes. But can we build a stronger national and local DSA working
together by assuming that the reason why we are weak is also significantly
caused by structural and global trends...but rather mostly by some
bad national staff, NPCers, or local incompetents...doubtful...

To paraphrase a person who fought for socialism in much worse conditions
than we face (sorry but no DSAer is currently in prison in a real-existing
facist government) once wrote, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of
the will." Most leftists in the US today -- DSAers not excluded --
usually embrace one, but not both sides of this equation for saneness.
We should always remember that constructive criticism is good and healthy.
Destructive criticism does not build anything positive.

To put it in a nutshell, I assure you that most NPC members are well
aware of all the shortcomings of DSA which recent discussions on DSAnet
have illustrated. And it was an NPC analysis of local development and
of what the NO and NPC can do to help locals which precipitated this
discussion. We're all in the same organization together and we can
all do something locally and nationally to improve matters. But the
NO and NPC can't solve all the problems a Jim Hurd intelligently analyzes
which face him trying to put together a small local in Bloomington, IN.
Nor would the problems of the NO and NPC be solved simply by putting
the most brilliant critics of its functioning onto the NPC or into the
ND's job. Our problems are a bit more systemic and complex than just
bad people making stupid decisions.

Suggestions for how the national and NPC can better work with locals
can be sent to this list. I am sure Theresa Alt and I will make sure
the local development committee (whose majority of members are local
activists not on the NPC) will get these. Yours for pulling together,

Joe Schwartz, DSA NPC

| Joseph Schwartz
| Department of Political Science |
| Gladfeleter Hall, 4th Fl. 215-204-5024
| Temple U., Phia., Pa. 19122 |

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