For Long-Term Growth, DSA Needs Sustainable Organizing

Growing DSA and building socialism will require our lifelong commitment to organizing. We must develop sustainable relationships to the movement that prevent burnout and increase member engagement.

Growing DSA’s membership is very important to our organization’s success. We can organize more, pay for more, and accomplish more with more people. But often, not all members are seen to contribute equally. On one end, we can identify cadre members who stay in tune with, lead, and run the organization. On the other, we have the so-called “paper member”, whose membership consists of paying dues, attending the occasional meeting, protest or event, and not much else. These terms are somewhat reductive, as there is a spectrum of involvement, but terms can be useful at identifying two ends of the spectrum.

With the reality that becoming a DSA member simply requires filling out a form on a website – it makes sense that paper membership is a common occurrence. But besides the low barrier to entry, there are plenty of other reasons why people may not be incredibly active in the organization, either temporarily or long-term.

For many people, even a minimal amount of engagement with a socialist organization is intimidating. Even with the growth of DSA since 2015 and more people identifying as (democratic) socialists, there is still social stigma surrounding the identification. Acknowledging that, we can recognize that taking the first steps towards becoming a socialist organizer may be difficult for many and take time. Additionally, many people simply do not have the capacity to organize extensively. Due to a variety of factors, many working people living under capitalism have little time to become very involved with political organizing. 

For members that do become involved, there are numerous things that may drive you away. Like all political organizations, within DSA there are conflicts, grievances, and poor conduct that may understandably alienate people. Along with these internal conflicts, there are also many external obstacles we might face organizing against capitalism, which can dishearten any socialist.

Along with growing our membership more broadly, it is essential we have an organized system of leadership development to ensure DSA has sufficient cadre organizers to lead the organization. I encourage those around me to not only become a DSA member but commit time they can to the organization. 

However, we must recognize that socialist organizing is hard work. While every organization will have its most involved, dedicated cadres, it will also find people at every other level of involvement of the organization. This includes paper members, and people who may not formally join but are supportive of our aims.

This can be frustrating for leaders in an organization. It is difficult to see so many members who are not as engaged with organizing when there is plenty to be done. I have felt that way myself. But, to involve more people, we should not be condescending or act frustrated with those who are less involved. Instead, be understanding of the various reasons why someone might not engage.

Of course, there are distinctions between the reasons people become less involved in DSA, and we should treat them appropriately. For example, there may be members who disengage because of a political difference with their chapter or DSA National, compared to members who disengage due to overwork at their job and a lack of capacity. Nonetheless, we should engage with all our members under the assumption of good faith, unless we have significant evidence to believe otherwise.

Along with practicing acceptance and respecting limits to organizing-involvement, we also need to think about membership in the long term. The fight for socialism is going to take time, and if we are invested in it, we will be involved for the rest of our lives. This may include fluctuations in our involvement. Someone who was once a cadre may temporarily be less active. Likewise, someone who was once a paper member may step up and take a leadership role.

One factor often identified as a reason for these changes—specifically members decreasing their activity—is burnout. There are various ways to think of burnout, but most simply put it is exhaustion with your work and lacking capacity to continue. Given the difficulties we face when organizing against capitalism and imperialism, there will inevitably be people impacted who need to take time off. In the long term, this is better than continuing to overwork oneself.

A balance can still be struck between maintaining your commitment to organizing and our commitment to the rest of our lives. As put by a comrade on Twitter, if we want to be able to organize for the rest of our lives, we must “not prioritiz[e] organizing above our relationships, our livelihoods, our health, and our passions.”

DSA as an organization should have resources and guidance to help members maintain a sustainable involvement, and celebrate paper members as well as cadre organizers.This is not just something we can do as individuals to help become sustainable organizers.  Plenty of these practices are already present in the organization, to various extents, even if they could use more time and resources. 

One example which I hope this article can help with is increasing the awareness and discussion of issues like burnout, mental health, and organizational conflict. Through more conversation, we can collectively improve our organizing philosophy and become better, as organizers and with regards to taking care of ourselves. This type of discussion should be supported or facilitated more often through organizational channels.

Additionally, having social and recreational events—from simple meet-ups to sports leagues—can bring additional benefits to being a DSA member and keep more people invested. We can also keep people invested through mutual aid. As a YDSA organizer, I have helped my chapter set up several “Really Really Free Markets”, where we exchange clothes, books, household items and everything else we might need to give or take at the end of the semester. These social practices not only help us promote the organization and help people outside of it, but bring benefits to our own members who can have fun, get rid of some old things, and find something new.

We also need organizational structures dedicated to the political development of our members. Training, 1-on-1s, and other practices which can increase someone’s ability to contribute to the organization are essential for sustainability and the development of more cadre organizers. That way, if someone needs to take a break from a leadership role, new cadre are ready to replace them.

And, as I have argued previously, we must prioritize our grievance process and conflict resolution. Interpersonal issues and conflict are an inevitable part of life, and we are all better off if we have fair and well-structured ways to handle them. Failing to do so has led to the collapse of many organizations, both historical and contemporary.

Ultimately, all  these practices are only possible with a sufficient organizational capacity (you could call it a “bureaucracy”) of members who are putting in time and effort to maintain them. This creates somewhat of a dilemma, as more capacity is needed to prevent burnout, and burnout is caused by a lack of capacity. Despite its challenges, I strongly believe that we can overcome this collective action problem, as we seek to do throughout our socialist organizing, and work to build an organization that is sustainable and healthy for everyone.