Kristen C. and Oren S. argue that YDSA is too decentralized and as a result chapters get left behind. They explain that if YDSA wants to build itself into the youth wing of a future mass party it needs to task leadership with drafting a Tasks and Perspectives document and get serious about collective strategy and interchapter discussion and debate.
YDSA is too decentralized and as a result chapters are not provided with sufficient political direction and support from the national organization. Due to this lack of support, organizers often fall into the trap of what Vladimir Lenin described as the “narrow ‘amateurish’ character of local work” where chapter work does “not serve the purpose of elaborating a common programme and devising common tactics.” YDSA chapters do a lot of great work, utilizing a variety of tactics, but we rarely slow down in self-reflection and ask how our tactics build toward our long-term collective national strategy, or what our strategy even is.
Some of this is a question of structure: currently, there’s no clear way for the national leadership to connect itself to the everyday operations of a chapter, or for a chapter’s work to inform the decisions made by national leadership. But it is also a political question: how do we build a common organizational strategy, direction, and unity in action?
Belgian socialist Ernest Mandel wrote that a centralized organization collects and preserves its members’ experience, knowledge, and their conclusions “drawn out of actual militancy.” Rather than being solely administrative or organizational, a more centralized YDSA would have a national organization that brings together everyone’s local experiences into collective strategy, discussion, and action, cohering the organization on a political basis.
In our current decentralized state, chapters often effectively become another random activist group or campus organization joining a “left-wing” coalition. But YDSA shouldn’t be another campus activist group that takes more radical stances but ascribes to the same liberal theory of change. Rather we must envision YDSA as something qualitatively different — the preliminary formation of the youth wing of a future mass socialist party.
A party has two central tasks (although one could consider them one and the same). The first is class formation, transforming the working class into a self-conscious political actor — a class of itself into a class for itself. The second should be to take state power and carry out an ongoing process of socialist state transformation. In this context, the youth wing should help carry out these tasks with a focus on developing life-long committed socialist organizers, preparing them for a lifetime of class struggle, and engaging in mass campaigns (both electoral and non-electoral) that advance the party program, whatever it may be.
The closest we’ve come recently to carrying out these functions has been the Bernie 2020 campaign. While the campaign itself served these roles in a broad ambiguous sense, the YDSA for Bernie campaign helped cohere YDSA into the socialist organization we know it can be. It provided YDSA a nationally-coordinated class struggle campaign based around a wide-reaching, yet concrete, socialist platform, all under the banner of a single narrative. It helped define the role of YDSA chapters, both to YDSA members as well as new recruits and other students on campus. YDSA members were able to articulate and give a clear path toward our vision for socialism through Bernie’s expansive socialist platform. We saw the power of our organization acting in unison around a central national campaign, and the successes came about in the form of growing our chapters, popularizing transformative demands, and winning votes for Sanders. For all these reasons, YDSA for Bernie transformed our moral commitment to the fight for socialism into a collective political struggle on a national level. Our next step is to figure out how we continue to engage in this type of struggle without the context of the Bernie campaign.
We’re not the first, nor only ones, in YDSA to come to the conclusion that the way forward is through collective national political struggle. Some in YDSA have proposed scrapping the Regional Organizing Committees (ROCs) in favor of a National Organizing Committee that would act as the organizing body behind one central campaign that YDSA takes on nationally, as well as the sinew connecting the national organization with local chapters. While there are easily amendable issues with the resolution regarding how this body will be appointed, it correctly addresses both the capacity issues national has faced as well as the absence of real structural connections within the organization. But while this answers the structural question, the political question remains. In addition to such structural changes, moving toward a more centralized and unified YDSA will require greater interchapter dialogue and political development, as well as a clear set of national Tasks and Perspectives to guide individual chapter work.
We think the best way to approach the first challenge is through building out the National Political Education Committee and its relationship with locals. Part of YDSA’s decentralized character comes from an unevenness in political development. Some chapters are lucky to have support from nearby DSA chapters, while others have no such support. Some are started by experienced socialist organizers, while others are started by those completely new to socialism and organizing. When this unevenness is replicated in political education, it can lead to a YDSA where no one has a real shared understanding of the role of YDSA, nor at the very least a shared language to discuss and debate our collective strategy. For this reason it’s crucial that the National Political Education Committee (NPEC) is embedded in the political education work of chapters. This will require regular trainings on how to facilitate socialist night schools, the creation of a new member syllabus, and regular multi-week cross-chapter political education courses on different subjects.
This last suggestion is partially inspired by the ongoing No Shortcuts summer political education program that was initially organized by YDSA members in the University of California (UC) system and now has nearly 90 regular participants from all 10 UC campuses. Recently, the National Coordinating Committee voted to transform this effort into a national project. This kind of cross-chapter political education work, especially when organized on a national level, will provide for much-needed inter-chapter political and strategic discussion and debate.
In addition to expanding the NPEC, this year’s convention should mandate the creation of a national Tasks and Perspectives document that articulates the role of the YDSA and how chapters fit into the larger organization. This document would provide guidance for what YDSA chapters should do and the analysis from which these tasks are drawn. Further, it should clarify what distinguishes YDSA from other left-wing activist groups. The perspectives would be based on the preambulatory clauses of the associated resolution being proposed at the 2020 Summer Convention, whereas the tasks would be written up after convention, as a synthesis of the resolutions passed. The process for creating such a document would engage YDSA committees and chapters, guaranteeing that all YDSA members feel a sense of collective ownership over our organization’s future.
A document alone will not serve the role of centralization in itself; it needs to be acted upon. The principle of democracy will require some level of adherence to the collectively-developed strategy. Once adopted, chapters should, at the very least, be expected to carry out a chapter-wide strategy discussion on how the Tasks and Perspectives document can best guide their local work. Beyond local-level discussions, YDSA should facilitate a national call about the document on the topic of the role of YDSA in the socialist movement.
By engaging members in the development of a national strategy document and encouraging chapters to discuss and implement the document once created, YDSA will be closer to functioning as a highly-coordinated national organization. Members will have a stake in a common project and strategy, with specific tactics drawn out from our strategy as opposed to standing alone. “YDSA” will mean something more than just a shared name and national organizational structure.
While our suggestions are merely a first step, a robust and interconnected political education apparatus, and a shared guiding Tasks and Perspectives, will begin to move YDSA toward a more unified, programmatic character resembling a mass party through which we can build the class struggle for the rest of our lives. As Lenin says toward the end of What is To Be Done? “That is what we must dream about!”
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