Rashida Tlaib Shows that the Dirty Break is Viable

Representative Rashida Tlaib is building stronger relationships with YDSA chapters in her district through regular meetings and events, like a town hall held with Lawrence Tech YDSA. She’s laying the groundwork for an eventual split from the Democratic Party.  

At the 2022 YDSA Convention in July, delegates adopted Resolution 15: For An Independent Working Class Party, a resolution to commit to working towards the formation of a workers’ party through the strategy of a “dirty break” — where DSA continues to run candidates on the Democratic Party’s ballot line, while building the infrastructure and base of supporters necessary to one day run our candidates independently. This resolution recognized two crucial and contradictory facts: neither the Democrats or Republicans represent the needs of workers, but abandoning the Democratic Party ballot line right now would lose the gains we have made as an organization. If we want an independent workers’ party, we have to build it. In Detroit, we’ve been doing just that. 

In the last year, there has been an ongoing effort to solidify our relationship with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib – a DSA member – and her staff, with the intention of building lasting structures that could one day lay the groundwork for such a party. Tlaib often acts as a tribune of the people, using her role in Congress to agitate around working-class issues rather than pass legislation. Strengthening our relationship with Tlaib has entailed weekly meetings between her staff and local DSA chapter leaders. Topics include both shared work, such as joint canvasses and events, as well as broader political strategy through reading articles and developing a long term view of class struggle. This simple bit of infrastructure has led to better organization and coordination on campaigns, such as Detroit DSA’s fight to keep abortions legal, and events such as the recent town hall that Tlaib held with Lawrence Tech YDSA. 

Our town hall was a direct result of this closer relationship between Tlaib and the organization. While YDSA did our usual work of flyering, tabling, and reserving space, our comrades on Tlaib’s staff were also hard at work texting and calling community members, inviting the residents of Southfield — a new addition to her district — to come meet their soon-to-be Congresswoman. On the day of the town hall, Tlaib’s staff were some of the first to arrive, helping to ensure that everything was set up and would run smoothly. 

Tlaib spent most of the afternoon answering questions. She discussed the importance of social movements: how they provide her the support necessary to work in Congress and how without the pressure from below, she holds no leverage to agitate as a legislator. She talked about her role not as the sole leader of a movement for social and economic justice, but as providing a megaphone to the workers and activists on the frontlines of struggle. Tlaib knows that she has a platform and an ability to get widespread attention for working-class issues. She can use that to center the attention of the media on a particular struggle, like striking workers or climate activists fighting against big polluters within her district. 

This orientation shows YDSA what our focus should be: building the movements that will enable our legislators and which our legislators can help to further from their elected position. We should be engaging in struggles that build power, not only for Y/DSA, but for the working class as a whole. By doing things like organizing labor, agitating around climate change, or fighting for abortion rights, we build the base and create the agitational atmosphere from which our party structures will emerge. 

Tlaib also spoke about how important students’ role in the movements for social and economic justice has been in the past and will continue to be in the future. She told stories about her time as a student organizer and her experiences building walkouts and holding meetings to fight for the rights of immigrant students to get scholarships. It’s clear that her foundations in this work contributed to her role as one of the strongest fighters the working class has. YDSA, with its commitment to produce lifelong socialist organizers, is uniquely positioned to produce more of these fighters. When we engage in struggle, we must be intentional about building these leaders, who may someday be at the forefront of our movement. 

Tlaib discussed base building and her efforts to build organization within her district. Recently, she donated money to a number of organizations within her district, giving $5,000 to a number of local Democratic Clubs, as well as Detroit DSA. For Tlaib, these organizations were all critical in building an organized base and bringing together working class people to create grassroots change.

This clarifies our position on the dirty break. While socialists are seen as key to creating an organized mass movement, the need for an independent structure outside of the Democratic Party is not yet fully accepted. Socialism remains on the rise, but many still do not see the contraction of labor sharing a party with capital. Rather than committing wholeheartedly to building the socialist organization that supports them, our elected officials hedge their bets and seek to build connections within the structures of the Democratic Party. We’ve seen this happen time and time again, whether it be Rashida’s attempts to solidify Democratic Party structures within her district or Jamaal Bowman’s infamous trip to Israel. We must continue to expand our relationships and build trust with our tribunes, showing them why political independence is necessary, but more importantly, why it is realistic and practical. 

The town hall with Tlaib showed that YDSA has an important role to play in carrying out a dirty break. Students have the power to create the social movements that would lay the groundwork for a truly independent workers’ party and YDSA members have the organizing skills to build it. We have the opportunity to train dedicated, practiced cadre with the skills to build and lead these movements, and should be focussed on just that. These will be the lifelong organizers carrying forward our organization and the wider socialist cause.

Building the prerequisite structures for a dirty break is slow, tedious work. It takes committed and consistent organizing to earn the trust of elected officials and keep them close to the socialist movement. Tlaib sees the Democratic Party structures — or lack thereof — and understands this fundamental shortcoming. This does not mean that the dirty break is a failed strategy, or one not worth pursuing, but the opposite. It is one we must tirelessly commit ourselves to and slowly bring about. It’s our job to prove her wrong.