Building Lifelong Socialist Organizers

For YDSA to have a lasting impact, our members need to be active in the socialist movement long after they graduate.

The phrase “lifelong socialist organizers” came up frequently at YDSA’s 2020 summer convention. It was used in the text of three resolutions that passed with supermajority support and featured in many comrades’ arguments about the direction of our organization. YDSA, it was said, should activate, educate, and train thinkers and organizers who will be committed throughout their lives to the struggle for socialism.

I want to make the case that training and supporting such organizers is central to our work. But what exactly is a lifelong socialist organizer? What are their tasks? And what does it concretely mean to focus on developing ourselves and each other into lifelong socialist organizers?

To understand the role of lifelong socialist organizers, or cadre, we first have to reaffirm our understanding of capitalism and how to overcome it. Holly Lewis writes that “[b]ecause capitalism is a system of social relations, not a person, static group, or moral agreement, it does not respond to moral outrage.” Instead, “[c]apitalism responds only to what disrupts profit; and since it is the source of value, labor is both capitalism’s greatest asset and its greatest downfall.” This is what Marx meant when he wrote that capitalism produces its own gravediggers — the modern working class, created by capitalism, is the only social force with the interest and capacity to win socialism, or even socialist reforms under capitalism, precisely due to its structural location at the center of capitalist society and production.

In other words, when lots of workers strike, capitalists lose money and have to respond. And when the working class is organized and militant enough (around workplace issues as well as political issues and community struggles), it can do more than just force the capitalists to respond: it can struggle with capitalists over the management and ownership of the economy and our society. To Marxists, unions and labor organizing are important not just because all workers deserve a union, but because labor is where we can build the power to bring about socialism, especially when organizing in strategic parts of the economy and society.

But if developing collective organization and militancy powerful enough to overthrow capitalism was an automatic process, then there would be no need for cadre, or socialist organization for that matter — workers would just spontaneously organize and win socialism as they begin to recognize their common exploitation, and their roadmap out. Sociologist Vivek Chibber has extensively analyzed why this process hasn’t happened organically and makes the basic point that, while capitalism can compel workers to join together to fight their exploiters, more often workers are discouraged by capital’s incredible strength and the many barriers that stand in the way of collective action. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been moments of spontaneous struggle in history. But in order to win socialism, socialists need to consciously intervene in struggle, and crucially, in workplace struggles, organizing workers in strategic industries to fight for socialism.

We are currently living through one of those moments of spontaneous struggle: millions who have never engaged in political organizing before are participating and getting radicalized. The past decade has seen Occupy Wall Street, the first Black Lives Matter mass mobilizations, the two Sanders campaigns, the teachers’ strike wave, and this past summer, the second Black Lives Matter mass mobilizations, which were the largest mass protests in American history. But, as Charlie Post and Kit Adam Wainer write in their pamphlet ‘“Socialist Organization Today,” these heightened moments of struggle are ephemeral; once they subside, the majority of participants will not be activists, and “the majority of activists [will not be] socialists.” 

Lifelong socialist organizers are those who stick around and, “even during a lull in the struggle[, do] not abandon the front lines of the class struggle.” What are those front lines? Workers organizing at their workplace, and organizations like Y/DSA organizing political campaigns for socialist elected officials and popular demands. One central task for these organizers is to support the growth of a larger layer of workplace leaders who organize their co-workers on a day-to-day basis, and win this layer over to socialist politics and organization.

Post and Wainer write that cadre are the people who 

keep alive rank and file organizations within their unions and lead working-class struggles within communities. They are the backbone of anti-intervention and anti-racist committees. They build women’s rights organizations and movements for gay rights. They learn the lessons of their own activity and help younger people understand these lessons when they first come around.

They know how to run meetings, how to plan campaigns, how to train more people, and can have sharp political instincts developed through previous struggles.

The ability of socialists to recruit and incorporate less active socialists and non-socialists, and therefore to effectively intervene in society, is contingent on the strength and size of the cadre layer. One reason YDSA should prioritize cadre development is that young people, especially those on campuses, tend to be among those radicalized by these heightened moments of struggle. Often, they are looking for ways to make real change in society and it should be our job to demonstrate that they can do so through lifelong socialist struggle. Another reason is that YDSA can give young socialists the opportunity to take on important leadership roles that are often unavailable to most in other places in socialist organizing. Due to the cycles of students coming and going, the relatively small size of YDSA chapters compared to city-wide organizations, as well as being situated in the structure of the campus, a far higher percentage of YDSA members will find themselves in some leadership role than the average DSA member. The experience and responsibility that comes with leadership is vital to developing confident experienced organizers.

A final crucial factor, following the important mantra “tell no lies, claim no easy victories,” is that we have to be honest about the limitations of student struggles in the fight to overthrow capitalism. Students have some leverage on campus, and the campus is a vital location of struggle, but students are also transient — they attend school for a few years and then most move on. Students do have a role to play in revolutionary struggles, such as in the 1968 French uprisings that began with mass student protests and campus occupations and resulted in general strikes with 10 million workers participating. But drawing from our analysis of capitalism, students are ultimately not the revolutionary force in society — students as students do not have the collective interest or capacity to bring profits to heel. Instead, much of our revolutionary potential comes from our position as current or future workers and workplace organizers, especially in the strategic industries we should seek to enter upon graduation. Campus organizing must be viewed as a recruitment and training ground for young socialist organizers to cut their teeth and develop the skills and confidence to be lifelong socialist organizers. 

So what does a focus on cadre development mean concretely for our local chapter work? One component is intentional campaign work with the goal of training our members in important organizing skills and to think strategically. In the context of local campus pressure campaigns, chapters should hold different organizing trainings such as a local iteration of the National “Cutting the Issue” Training, and then carry out the steps in that process, such as intensive survey work of students and workers to discover what issues are widely and deeply felt. Other national trainings that chapters could run locally are on how to have organizing conversations or how to power-map, and apply these skills to their local campaigns.

Chapters should also be doing active and intentional recruitment and leadership identification and development. Chapter leaders should have one-on-one organizing conversations with new members, and create opportunities for mentorship and escalating organizing asks, always remembering to do intentional organic leader identification and development. An important guiding principle in socialist organizing is that “a leader is someone who can develop people who can develop other leaders,” and we should follow it religiously. For example, chapter leaders might want to set a goal of building up a strong enough core and active layer of chapter members, so they can be replaced by an entirely new group of people at the end of the year.

Chapters should also try to be more intentional about political education. While it is good and important to discuss different policies and issues and how they relate to capitalism and socialism, perhaps more important is ensuring that our members have a comprehensive understanding of capitalism, socialism, and — most importantly — socialist strategy. The point here is to create a shared language and base understanding for rigorous and comradely strategy debate and discussion and to give our members the necessary education to be confident tribunes for socialist politics. YDSA members should be able to confidently explain the basics of capitalism, socialism, and the working class to anyone they meet.

The thought of being a lifelong socialist organizer is a daunting one, but it’s also invigorating and exciting to commit one’s life to the struggle for socialism and democracy. As lifelong socialist organizers, we’re joining the millions of comrades who came before us who were similarly motivated to action by the exploitation and oppression that plagues our world, and the knowledge that a better world is possible. Eugene Debs spoke about the experience of being a lifelong member of the socialist movement, far more beautifully than I ever could: 

It has enabled me… to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister — and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

Hopefully, YDSA can be a place where we prepare people for a life of what Debs felt.

Oren S. is co-chair of Yale YDSA and an organizer with NYC DSA. He sits on YDSA’s National Labor Committee and serves as a YDSA representative to the Steering Committee of DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

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