Sunday Hot Take, May 2nd, 2021

Maybe a mass party?

The Death of the Macro-sect — Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia

In “The Myth of the Big Tent,” I implied that DSA’s “big tent” designation is somewhat of an evasion. In fact, this self-understanding is politically unhelpful, even though the democratic practices it includes (differences of opinion, regular votes without expulsions) are absolutely vital.

It’s just a fact that the big tent only extends so far. We could poll every DSA member and find the range of opinions that people hold. It would not span the entire political spectrum, nor even the entire “left” spectrum, because 1) DSA is a socialist organization and 2) DSA is a particular kind of socialist organization, and there are other organizations for anarchists and Marxist-Leninists, for example.

But besides a range of political beliefs, there also exists a narrower political consensus within DSA, some things that most members agree on. We could use that hypothetical poll to uncover it. Whether there is any difference between the consensuses of the active layer of members and inactive paper members is an interesting question. 

To figure out this consensus we could use any number of existing methods: resolutions passed at the 2017, 2019, and upcoming 2021 conventions; platforms of the candidates DSA has endorsed; or strategy documents previous leaders have written, one of which includes the beautiful line

Instead of war, there would be peace; instead of competition, cooperation; instead of exploitation, equality; instead of pollution, sustainability and instead of domination, freedom.

Even within this consensus, members who agree might think of themselves as coming from different traditions, identify with separate schools of thought, or have nominally opposed worldviews. Nonetheless, we work together and have built an organization of nearly 100,000. This personal attachment to labels could undermine the emerging agreements within DSA, but the responsibility is also collective: we have to fight against the labels by proudly proclaiming our own principles. Without this, DSA is in danger of stagnating as a “macro-sect,” never reaching mass party.

Hal Draper’s 1973 essay “Anatomy of the Micro-sect” takes aim at the sorry state of U.S. socialists, arguing that they’re more concerned with turf — members and specific political points in their programs — than the cause. Instead, Draper advocates defining our politics by what struggles we are engaged in (e.g., trade unions, anti-war movement, etc.). DSA has no such “line” to jealously guard — or to guide us.

We don’t want DSA to be an organization that people just join for the vibe, since vibes are fleeting. Instead, being a DSA member should mean: I believe in socialism, which means X, and I fight for it by doing A, B, and C. We should feel free to change our official positions frequently, but that requires first figuring out what we think now. 

Codifying this consensus risks offending comrades. The alternative is that we don’t meet changes in conditions with the group resolve (or solidarity) to persevere. Hopefully the draft platform that will be debated this summer is a step toward clear goals and the basic outlines of a strategy.

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