The Columbia Falls Statement

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The Columbia Falls Statement was issued in late 2018 or early 2019.

PREAMBLE: Despite our historic growth in the past four years, the Left in the United States remains in the wilderness. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown immensely since Bernie Sanders announced his 2016 presidential campaign, and with it, our work has expanded to nearly all areas of leftist organizing – an accomplishment of which we must be proud.

We, the undersigned, write this statement as members and organizers in DSA as it faces great challenges and opportunities in the coming years. With our biennial national convention nearing, critical discussions must take place in order to build a healthy, vibrant organization that is accountable to its membership and the needs of the working class. That vibrance, that dynamism, is what we wish to enshrine in this document, through these guiding principles for our organizing culture and DSA more broadly:

Our “diversity of tactics” is DSA’s greatest strength. This country contains too many capitalist and imperialist policies to generate a single effective strategy-as-panacea. To that end, we must build internal structures that empower pluralistic organizing so all chapters can address the material concerns of their communities. This necessarily rejects the repetition of structures that played a role in ensuring the marginal and powerless nature of the postwar left in the United States. Monolithic and inflexible strategies make us organizationally brittle, sluggish to respond to changing conditions, and in our weakest moments, predictable to the point where our opponents can outmaneuver us.

To remain serious about engaging with the world-historical conditions before us and integrating ourselves to working class struggles, we must be serious in developing an organizing structure that deliberately encourages this diversity of tactics.

Organizational Priorities must be more than our top-three current national priorities (Medicare for All, Labor, and Electoralism). We have other areas of work – housing rights, immigrant justice, racial justice, reproductive justice, sex workers’ rights, disability justice, etc. – that are priorities for thousands of DSA members. A commitment to pluralism does not mean relinquishing the freedom to decide priorities on a case-by-case/chapter-by-chapter basis; it means defaulting to both-and instead of either/or.

Our strength today is rooted in the range of talents and skills our membership can presently bring to national and local struggles against bourgeois interests. We must not allow this energy to be wasted in an internal struggle for control over the organization while allowing our significant gains to be eroded.

Our organizational structure must include both transparent, rigid structures at the top and room for trial and error at the local level. Horizontalism at a national scale, especially for an organization of our size, is infeasible, but allowing for the growth of new, innovative campaigns at the local level may be our best bet for being in the right place at the right time strategically.

As democratically elected leadership, the National Political Committee (NPC), must maintain transparency with membership so that the work that is produced by and administered by the national organization can be responsive to local needs, while providing coherent structure to our diverse struggles and movement partners.

To that end, we must advocate for stronger internal communications and organizing tools – voting software, p2p texting infrastructure, etc. – that benefit from the economies of scale that national DSA can provide. By providing these tools to chapters, no matter how small, we can greatly increase their capacity to engage with new people and try new campaigns. The volunteer labor of the National Tech Committee, for example, needs supportive structures like these to broaden DSA’s ability to engage with our growing membership.

Horizontalism should not be invoked as a specter. It is not ruining our organization, and, in fact, may allow us to be flexible in times of great flux such as these, keeping us at the zenith of the larger left movement. We are not powerful enough to ‘own’ any campaign unless it is very targeted in scope or short in time-frame. Each DSA chapter lives within its own localized civil society ecosystem, and our organizational partnerships must reflect our deficiencies.

Coalition work is consistently the best way to build strategies against the bourgeois class and capitalist bureaucracies. To say we are prepared to take on a fight on our own belies how tenuous and unsophisticated our organization is, especially among the constellation of movement organizations with which we work regularly. We do not see ourselves as the vanguard in every struggle. Rather, we must be humble and defer to coalition partners who have been organizing for decades within their respective liberatory struggles. These partnerships should not be structured as tokenizing acknowledgements, but as mutually beneficial relationships, built around what each organization does best.

We are aware that DSA fails to represent marginalized communities of all kinds to the extent that a socialist organization must. We understand that this is because of the societal and material strain facing poor people of color of all backgrounds (see Piven & Cloward’s “The Weight of the Poor”) and a product of our current recruitment and engagement model.

Our organizing must not serve as a form of condescending adventurism as many non-profits practice. Rather we must build intra- and extra-organizational paths that allow poor people to engage in meaningful DSA-related work when the opportunity arises, with the understanding that many do not have the energy, time, or resources to engage in long-term work.

We cannot attempt to truly build toward ecosocialism without recognizing the outsized impact on impoverished communities by climate change. We must center our responses around policies that are informed by working alongside and within these targeted communities.

We must build an effective recruitment strategy to grow DSA membership and organizing capabilities in marginalized communities. It is incumbent upon us to build space for these struggles within DSA. This includes strategizing for recessionary politics within a volunteer organization.

As opposed to our organizational predecessors stances on war, we are vehemently, unwaveringly anti-imperialist. Logging small wins to the welfare state while betraying the liberation of other countries and capitulating to the $1.3 trillion defense industry is shameful and has no place in DSA.

In this vein, DSA must outright condemn the United States and its international partners in imperialist violence and repression. Deference to the Israeli occupation, Saudi aggression, or other agents of imperialism is unacceptable. Solidarity with struggles in other countries is critical, but our involvement must be strategic and targeted at key ‘choke points.’ We must be careful when taking on the mantle of these struggles, especially where we are not co-equal stakeholders. We should follow the lead of those directly affected by these struggles through coalition work and outreach.

Orthodox sectarianism only encourages the creation of splinter groups and is counterproductive to our present goals. Though we welcome and support a broad range of tendencies within the big tent, draggings, call-outs, and “cancellations” that center on political disagreements between individuals and tendencies only focus us inward and distance ourselves from our actual work. Arguments about political theories that are divorced from real-world application and action should be reserved for book clubs.

By demonizing whole tendencies, we weaken our ability to grow. Especially with newer leftists who are engaging with primary texts for the first time and are growing in their theoretical grounding, we must be understanding of the variety of ways that individuals come to the Left.

Political education and other internal organizing tools must be developed to facilitate discussions between ideologically distinct groups, and to simultaneously develop our points of unity and an awareness of the tactical role of the big tent.

Political education should provide both a strong understanding of political theory, as well as introduce membership to organizational theories and applications drawn from our diverse membership and the experiences of past organizations. We must support labor, but we must not be afraid to call out regressive, reactionary, and nationalistic tendencies within institutional organized labor.

There is a long history of class reductionism within organized labor, and especially labor leadership. Maintaining solidarity with workers of color will sometimes mean that we are at-odds with our strongest institutional allies. We need to examine unions as established institutions that replicate societal structures and contain internal political interests which do not necessarily align with our own. Where the positions of these unions are in opposition to our goals, we must not be afraid to break with them.

The Democratic Party is rigged against us – it is a capitalist party, and as such will not ever fully represent our interests as socialists –, but for almost all electoral wins we must engage with the Democratic ballot line. We cannot spend organizational energy creating yet another marginal third party as Republicans continue to abuse features of our broken democracy and Democrats continuously kowtow to the interests of the donor class (See Ackerman’s “A Blueprint for a New Party”).

Tiered support for politicians allows us to develop DSA through exposure and engagement with electoral politics. We understand that politicians can develop “mission drift” through engaging with powerful interests during their terms. Engaging with endorsed politicians once elected through advocacy and direct confrontation, rather than abandoning them at the first (inevitable) misstep, allows us to introduce a sorely needed countervailing force to the interests of capital in office. Our electoral victories are not in and of themselves victories unless we continue to engage and organize around policies that we can pressure our elected officials to adopt.

We recognize the historic wins of non-legislative seats and welcome experimentation by chapters in these races. Elected judicial positions, clerkships, school board and auditors’ races should be included in our electoral work as these positions help to “build the bench” for races beyond 2020.

Electoral choices, both for individual chapters and for the national organization, are grounded in material circumstances of the moment and may be subject to change in the future.

As a tactical matter, we should support Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, but we should not take his platform as doctrine. Rather, we must agitate (knowing that we must compromise) for the furthest left platform that Bernie’s camp can successfully adopt. Our position, however, must remain unchanged - we will remain, as an organization, further to the left.

Bernie is not DSA, and vice versa. A healthy skepticism about his positions on a variety of topics – Israel/Palestine, sex workers’ rights (e.g. SESTA/FOSTA), and the machinations of his tax policies (e.g. The BEZOS Act) – is critical as we move forward.

Figureheadism must be universally rejected. Falling in line behind politicians without question only makes us another liberal non-profit rather than a nexus of leftist organizing. Healthy skepticism and distance between our organization and candidates seeking our endorsement allow us to remain independent, avoiding the pitfalls of other organizations that ‘hitch their cart to a horse.’

CONCLUSIONS: The left today is in a historically significant position, one which we have seen only rarely in the history of the United States. The conditions of our times – worsening climate change, the erosion of threadbare social welfare programs, the intensification of white nationalist violence – make all the more exigent a platform that responds to the real matters at hand. We must build a movement that sees beyond the cycles of bourgeois elections and beyond baseless ideological conflicts. We do not get to choose the conditions we work within, but this movement can only be built within the context we exist today. We must understand them and respond to them, with concrete administrative and political proposals, guided by the above principles, and navigate ourselves, our organization, and our political moment towards liberation.

Authors:

Signatories:

References