Any Laborer, A Leader

The Democratic Socialists of America has grown at a rate unseen in Postwar America. This places our organization in a crucial moment. We have the power to install systems that will be shape the future of our movement. Now is the time to fortify an organization that outlives this growth, and prepares a welcoming home for the next 25,000 members.

We must strive for radical democracy. In his essay on Athenian Democracy Every Cook Shall Govern, CLR James calls upon socialists to pursue the values of Radical Athenian Democracy. The crux of its structure — and the lynchpin for its success — was that leaders were interchangeable. Leadership skills were passed along to all male citizens, and therefore every (male) citizen could lead. Those skills were needed as roles in government were chosen by chosen by lot. Every Athenian citizen needed those skills as their City could call on them at any election to govern. This spirit of rotation created a culture of service that according to James, gave rise to “the greatest civilization the world has ever known.”

We too need to trust that any laborer can lead. We are big enough to make a real impact, but what good are numbers if we do not develop a culture that will allow us to harness this mass power? In the past, our small membership made it impractical — nay, impossible — for people to step down from positions of authority within a local. This is no longer the case. We have more than enough members to fill these positions. Power is for our movement — not for individuals. We must implement term limits, encouraging the spirit of rotation. Our leaders must be humble enough to step down from positions that they love and excel at, in order for others to learn the skills of group leadership.

We must work towards that in DSA. If we want this movement to be grown from grassroots, we must give the rank and file the tools to lead. This now seems like a daunting task; yet the people are ready to lead. The ability to facilitate a meeting, or balance a checkbook are skills that many members already offer. It’s true that leadership positions are difficult and time consuming, but we must be humble enough to recognize that the holders of these positions do not have a monopoly on the skills they require. Our leaders serve. They never govern. The chair of a group does not run the branch for personal glory, but as a service to our ultimate goal of toppling capitalism.

As we have seen with the recent controversy over Danny Fetonte’s refusal to resign from the NPC despite overwhelming pressure, concentrations of power and a lack of accountability to rank and file members can have disastrous consequences.

I propose two-year term limits on all positions at the group level.* Many of the problems DSA faces at this moment come from static leaders who believe power is owed to them, rather than to the movement. We must trust in the next crop of organizers to replace those who built the movement, and in the following years, the many who joined during the boom of 2016–2017 must believe that socialism can outlast their work.

The practical aspects of rotation and leadership building come from installing smaller tasks for members to gain confidence, as well as changes in branch/local business meetings. Creating important positions like “set-up” and “clean-up” allow newer members to join the inner cadre of the local. And this primes in the newer member an organizer-like commitment to follow through, without the paperwork of the steering committee. More abstractly, it instills that all contributions are essential to the local — that all labor has value.

Follow through is the key asset to organizing. Group leadership is no different. Chairs follow through on finding meeting spaces, secretaries follow through on sending emails, etc. These skills, if practiced in an open way for the whole membership to see, are easily passed on. If we cloak the leadership in mystery and make it seem like a burden, it stands to reason that no one will want to take on these roles.

But if we invite people into the process and refrain from self-serious posturing, we can ensure collective ownership of our group. The responsibilities of a chair, treasurer, or secretary can be easily demystified by holding open debriefs. Instead of having business meetings at someone’s home, schedule them in a public place — like the branch meeting location — and advertise that they are open to the whole group, allowing newcomers to sit in as observers. Small changes to the existing systems can go a long way in creating a culture of service within the DSA.

Each new dues paying member of DSA receives a membership card that reads “official socialist organizer.” Term limits at the local level, along with the development of a culture of rotation and service, allows new activists to make good on the promise of that title.

* Positions such as Electoral Compliance do require a specialized knowledge set, but I’m suggesting we first focus on group and area level leadership positions.