DSA Needs a Plan for Party Building

DSA’s electoral strategy has been a hotly debated topic. Alex Pellitteri and Oren Schweitzer make the case for building a party-like structure through the 1-2-3-4 Plan, a resolution proposed at the recent NYC-DSA convention.

For several years, DSA has been committed to building a working-class political party. But there remains significant disagreement on what this means and how to get there. At this past summer’s YDSA Convention, YDSA committed to the “Dirty Break,” orienting toward the goal of an independent party. However, this view is not shared by the entire organization. 

New York City DSA has the most advanced electoral program in the country, consistently fielding multi-candidate NYC-DSA slates who coordinate regularly with the DSA chapter in a DSA Socialists in Office (SIO) committee. Alongside robust research, comms, field, and fundraising structures, the chapter resembles a political party without a ballot line, or in the common parlance of our organization, a Party Surrogate

But it still has a ways to go toward becoming the Party Surrogate, and ultimately independent Party, that working-class New Yorkers need. This past summer at the NYC-DSA convention, Bread & Roses, along with support from other caucuses, put forward the 1-2-3-4 Plan to Build a Party-like Structure in an effort to build on past successes, strengthening NYC-DSA’s party model through developing a consistent independent electoral profile alongside new rules for collective coordination.

A recent article in The Activist by Stephen Anthony celebrates the failure of this proposal, arguing that it would have done more harm than good. While we appreciate this addition to the conversation about our electoral strategy, there are several flaws and misunderstandings in the piece’s argument. The article effectively argues for no serious electoral strategy or direction, instead promoting a liquidation of independent socialist politics into candidate personalities and the Democratic Party. Fundamentally, this reflects a lack of vision for how to get to socialism, the role of electoral work and a political party in getting there, or how to build such a party. 

However, we still believe that a prerequisite to achieving democratic socialism, or even serious social democratic reform, is an independent party of the working class with a socialist program, rooted in a powerful labor movement. The 1-2-3-4 Plan was an attempt to give our electoral work this much needed direction. 


In Defense of 1-2-3-4 

Anthony takes issue with the first two commitments of the 1-2-3-4 Plan. 

  1. A unified brand across our various campaigns in the same and between election cycles, and 
  2. That our candidates prominently identify as Democratic Socialists on their literature and to voters.

He argues that the first commitment could create conflict between the organization and individual candidates over how prominently to feature the individual candidate versus the collective political project. The second commitment, he claims, is overly restrictive since many DSA candidates may not be democratic socialists, and if the goal is to promote the brand of DSA, he asks, what’s wrong with the status quo of displaying the NYC-DSA endorsement on materials?

While there may be some conflicts, it would be a positive development if candidates subordinated their individual profiles to that of a collective program and identity. The goal here isn’t just to boost the brand of DSA for its own sake, but to put our candidates forward to voters as part of a disciplined independent force, separate from and against the Republican and Democratic Party establishments. We want to tell voters that our candidates are going to act as a team and be organizationally accountable to a working-class movement with an alternative program. 

And most importantly, we want voters to identify their voting preferences with this movement and program, through its brand identity, and understand that they can join the movement too. One small endorsement logo among others doesn’t accomplish this, but a collective identity does. We want to create DSA voters, just like there are Democratic voters or Republican voters. Constituents should be able to look at our literature and immediately associate our candidates with our organization and a worker-led mass movement. 

Anthony also presents a hypothetical where “non-DSA candidates co-opt the title of ‘democratic socialist’ to confuse voters,” but this is already the case. Many non-DSA candidates in NYC have already co-opted our platform and socialist identity. In many races, if you only looked at the literature of our candidates versus our opponents, it would be extremely difficult to distinguish the two. Making clear our candidate’s subordination to a broader movement allows us to draw a sharper contrast.

Point 3 of the 1-2-3-4 Plan would have required our candidates to run on the same central three issues, voted on by NYC-DSA leadership. Anthony argues that neighborhoods in New York City are so different that running on the same platform in all of them would be ineffective. His criticism contradicts a fundamental premise of socialism that a working-class majority can be united around a shared program for social transformation. There is no doubt that areas of NYC differ greatly from each other. However, all the districts where we hope to run candidates are home to workers who are exploited and oppressed by the same capitalist system and who have a shared interest in passing pro-worker reforms and ultimately defeating capitalism. It is this shared interest, and the capacity to transform the world, that makes the working class the social force that will win socialism. And a central role of a socialist political party and socialist electoral work is to bring workers together around this shared fight through our program. 

Anthony further criticizes the 1-2-3-4 Plan’s requirement that our candidates downplay their identity as Democrats—one of the proposal’s “four” rules—since it’s crucial to win over Democratic primary voters. And he argues that combining this with “identifying proudly as a ‘Democratic Socialist’” makes even less sense. He asks, “Why can’t they also emphasize their involvement with the Democratic Party?” and concludes that “this rule can only be taken as saying that you can’t be a Socialist and a Democrat.” This line of reasoning is incredibly confused. Of course we want to win over Democratic primary voters, alongside less frequent primary voters and non-voters, and fully believe that a registered Democrat can be a socialist. 

But we also know that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party that diverts working-class voters away from independent mass action, and instead toward supporting capitalist politicians and traditional politicking. The 1-2-3-4 Plan’s downplaying of Democratic Party identity and emphasis on being a member of DSA and part of a Democratic Socialist slate is not contradictory, but intentional. We want to win Democratic Primary voters over to identifying with and being loyal to our Party Surrogate as their primary political identity rather than to the Democratic Party. 

By acting as proud socialists and proud Democrats, we actively obscure our party-building project and independent identity, instead linking working-class struggle to the brand of our class enemies. We know we can’t leave the Democratic Party immediately and need to meet people where they’re at, but we also don’t hold participating in the Democratic Party as a virtue in itself or sustainable in the long-term. Our electoral work should be geared toward changing working-class voters’ political consciousness and promoting class organization, not simply toward winning over loyal Democratic party voters on the basis of being proud Democrats. 

Anthony claims that DSA elected officials operating as a bloc does not make sense because it “ignores that there are countless political issues that DSA members might reasonably disagree on.” There certainly have been disagreements on questions of strategy and tactics, but DSA elected officials agree on most political questions, undergoing the same rigorous endorsement process. Operating as a bloc is arguably the most significant portion of the 1-2-3-4 Plan. Electing an individual with radical politics does very little for socialism, but electing multiple radicals who operate as a bloc has the potential to win major legislative victories and show workers that there’s a real political alternative. 

When NYC-DSA elected officials act as a bloc, they operate with the power of all eight socialists in office and the entire NYC-DSA chapter—and have the opportunity to bring workers into a larger independent political project. Anthony asks how disagreements on the SIO will be worked out if they are expected to vote as a bloc. It is no secret that there have been disagreements on the SIO, and there will likely be many more in the future. However, we believe these decisions can be worked out democratically, and that through this democratic process, socialists in office will be held accountable to DSA and the socialist movement. 

Finally, Anthony calls for any resolution similar to the 1-2-3-4 Plan to be defeated at the national convention this summer. While we hope there are national proposals brought forward that advance party-building, political independence, and a class struggle orientation, we are unsure if something as prescriptive at the national level would be as fruitful. However, we hope individual chapters adopt a 1-2-3-4 framework for their electoral work with whatever modifications they deem necessary. We are very encouraged to see that delegates to the North New Jersey and Champlain Valley Chapter’s convention just voted overwhelmingly to adopt versions of the 1-2-3-4 Plan. 

While we appreciate Anthony’s critique of the 1-2-3-4 Plan, its failure means NYC-DSA will go another election cycle without a long-term strategy or an orientation toward independent party building. As we continue to elect more people without a clear plan or objective, the divisions that already exist around our electoral work will only worsen. While electoral work has already made significant gains for the working class, we support the 1-2-3-4 Plan because we want it to transform the world.