I was very pleased to read Heather Hillenbrand, Elliot Lewis, and Honda Wang’s thoughtful response to my piece; they’ll find no argument from me that the labor movement is indispensable to building working-class power and a future for American socialism. And I am glad that Dissent readers will receive, from their contribution, a more detailed account of DSA’s labor work—the full extent of which was no doubt undersold by the hasty summary in my article.
That said, I think they may have misunderstood my position—or perhaps confused some of the “is” in my piece, for “ought.” (That ambiguity may well be the fault of my style; that which begins as an insider account turns into a more disinterested report from the outside, in keeping with the trajectory of my changing relationship with the organization.) To be clear: I do not think DSA ought to be solely an electoral apparatus; rather my reporting suggested that for NYC-DSA in particular, electoral work tends to take precedence over other forms of struggle, as an empirical matter. What I hoped to stress, however, was that this tendency to neglect non-electoral forms of organizing is creating internal contradictions and limits to the electoral project itself.
Thus, I write: “As even DSA’s most buoyant social democrats will insist, a better organized working class is the prerequisite for socialist electoral success. So it stands to reason that a socialist organization ‘for people who want to win things’ should be expending a great deal of time, resources, and energy supporting and facilitating worker self-organization wherever it arises.” Similarly, Hillenbrand, Lewis, and Wang call for more resources and staff for DSA’s labor work—for “far more” organizing “in the labor movement.” Hearty agreement all around. Ironically, where we may disagree is in their contention that DSA’s electoral “momentum . . . shows no signs of slowing.” The electoral model in NYC—what I term “the Albany strategy”—has shown signs of exhaustion. And I am sympathetic to the argument (put forward by certain DSA members) that those limits may be permanent if labor and tenant organizing continue to play second fiddle to electioneering.
These strategic and theoretical disputes, I have no doubt, will be resolved by DSA activists and leaders themselves, not by paper-member peanut-gallery pencil pushers like me. I only hope my piece was somewhat helpful in clarifying these disagreements and making legible, to a wider audience, certain important debates in the organization’s largest chapter.
Sam Adler-Bell is a Brooklyn-based writer and the co-host of the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.