LILAC’s response to the Steering Committee of Philly DSA

In December 2017, Philly DSA voted to create a Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC) to pursue campaigns that address issues specific to Philadelphia. The primary purpose of LILAC is to support the creation of “local campaigns,” serving as an incubator for work that can later be put for a vote before Philly DSA’s general membership.

LILAC grew from a need that had developed in the Local. During our June 2017 convention, Philly DSA voted to commit to a campaign that would become the chapter’s priority. A “single payer” campaign was the only option put before the membership. After the convention, it became apparent that the newly elected Steering Committee meant to funnel nearly all of the chapter’s efforts on this campaign and to discourage other work.

Outside of LILAC, there are no spaces for rank-and-file initiated work. All resolutions for campaigns must be approved by the Resolution Subcommittee, which is comprised of three Steering Committee members. Finding no support for their proposals, rank-and-file members developed LILAC so as to offer a structure that provided much-needed support.

LILAC is home to several interest groups that brainstorm ideas, develop and pilot campaigns, and build members’ organizing skills. All members can be active contributors to the campaigns that are eventually advanced to the Local. LILAC’s “leadership,” is selected anew every six months and act primarily as coordinators for the committee, carrying out administrative duties.

In the 8 months since its creation, LILAC has grown to become the Local’s largest committee. About 90 unique DSA members — or 10% of our entire membership — have attended a LILAC meeting. Retention for the committee is high, with 20–30 repeat members at monthly meetings and 10+ new members each meeting. LILAC has achieved a number of important victories, and created bridges to issue-specific and leftist organizations throughout Philadelphia:

  • The Education Justice Interest Group won Philly DSA a place on the Our City Our Schools coalition, the only socialist constituent organizing alongside labor unions, education activists, and community organizations.
  • The Immigration Justice Interest Group organized to build connections with immigrant justice and leftist groups, protecting undocumented people in the city by playing a pivotal role in a coalition that forced Mayor Jim Kenney to cancel the city’s data sharing PARS contract with ICE.
  • The Racial Justice Interest Group mobilized 24 members to attend a workweek day of action in Harrisburg with the Poor People’s Campaign; many of these members had not previously participated in actions by the Local. The RJIG also improved members’ skills at organizing around racial justice issues by hosting a training by the Afro-Socialist and Socialists of Color Caucus and a conducting a reading group of Assad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump.

These activities of the Racial Justice Interest group recently drew censure from the Philly DSA Steering Committee. Citing violations of the chapters’ bylaws and Robert’s Rules, the Steering Committee demanded that LILAC’s coordinators address its concerns and produce a report on its progress. LILAC elected committee members to author that report, which can be read here.

The report concludes that LILAC’s actions did not contravene the bylaws of the Local. Instead, we find multiple instances in which the Steering Committee acted unilaterally to obstruct the work being done by Philly DSA organizers.

There can be no doubt that the Steering Committee’s actions are the result of ideological differences with LILAC. Whereas LILAC members generally believe that building a mass socialist movement will require bottom-up organizing and the consistent application of a socialist analysis to intersecting issues, members of the steering committee appear to believe that we can only build solidarity if we focus on a single, supposedly “class-based” demand, Medicare for All.

This ideological difference was thrown into relief when Philly DSA co-chair Melissa Naschek published a review of Haider’s book in Jacobin, weeks after chastising members of her Local for organizing a group to read Mistaken Identity. In her review, Naschek rejected Haider’s argument that organizers must account for the specific needs of different marginalized groups to build a mass movement. She criticized this approach as “particularistic,” and inferior to “universal” organizing that focuses exclusively on economic circumstances. Critics of Naschek’s piece argue that, whatever the author’s intentions, her framing inherently privileges white identity, “[giving] white people a weighted vote in determining the definition of which policies are universal, and therefore good, and which are particular, and bad.”

The political differences between LILAC and the Steering Committee translate into discrepant visions for socialist organizing. In contrast to the inclusive and collegial model used by LILAC, the Steering Committee runs the Local in a top-down manner. Projects are ideated by leadership. Steering Committee members currently chair two committees, and the Committee often appoints members to special commissions for the purpose of pursuing a specific project. In contrast, campaigns initiated by rank-and-file members have had difficulty obtaining lists to phone bank the membership, and popular member-initiated resolutions are not “recommended” by the Steering Committee for approval at General Meetings.

Philly DSA only stands to gain if the Steering Committee works more collaboratively with LILAC and its many members. In one example, we show how leveraging the analysis of our EcoSocialist Interest Group would directly benefit one of our current campaigns, Kristin Seale’s run for State Representative, using the organizing that already exists in that district around a dangerous pipeline project.

We hope that the Steering Committee takes our suggestions to heart so that we can increase our Local’s effectiveness at fighting capitalism on all fronts. In the meantime, LILAC will continue doing what it does best: developing organizers and designing winning campaigns.

This article was written by the members of LILAC’s Steering Committee Report Task Force, which was voted by LILAC members to author the report discussed above.