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Not An Empty Round: A Response to Objections by the Sacramento DSA CPN Caucus on Resolution 9

Sep 16, 2020

September 16, 2020 15:52

By: Benjamin Arriaga

To check out the original text of Resolution 9 visit

Many may be surprised at how much is left up to their personal judgment after joining the Sacramento DSA. We each unexpectedly receive the freedom to make our own conclusions about what qualities to search for in more experienced members we can choose to follow, to lead, to learn from, or to engage with in debate. Each new member may just encounter a mixture of interactions, pleasant and less than pleasant. We are people after all. Not all relatively seasoned or “old guard” members may share the same opinions or experiences with the DSA, or with struggles and leftwing activism in Sacramento. At some point, a new member may have the following statements expressed to them about what the DSA is: “We are the left wing of the possible,” “We focus on making non-reformist reforms,” “We are a pre-party formation” or “We are a party surrogate,” and “We turn thinkers into fighters and fighters into thinkers.”

Since 2018, more than a year after I joined, I wanted to share a blog post about how I have been approaching things. In that same amount of time, I have revised my initial presentation and its content too often to count. There was an adjustment period during which I tested my thinking whilst on the ground for how to approach radical politics. This involved learning how to be comfortable with being agitated in good faith by others more familiar with life as leftwing political actors. Changing events, priorities, magazine and podcast subscriptions, new influxes of members, new responsibilities, and decisions all shook up but improved what I could call my analysis.

The resolution I have put forward stems from this analysis. I will introduce it by sharing explicitly what I think of Resolution 9, its potential relationship both to the development of a unity in practice for the Sacramento DSA and to the functional development of radical politics locally. However, I will start by directly addressing the objections made to Resolution 9 by the Collective Power Network (CPN) Caucus members in our chapter.

To The First Objection: Our Commitment and the Movement

First, let me clarify what appears to suggest a factual misunderstanding with the term “chapter resources.” The only resources that would go to individuals potentially outside of the DSA are funds raised by DSA members to cover the costs of living incurred by said individuals. Those selected individuals have to be working closely with members on a Standing Committee to be possibly considered to apply. The Standing Committee they know our chapter through would adopt the task of designing a curriculum for/with them. The final decision for a final plan, after vetting of the curriculum by the Socialist Education Committee and vetting of the logistics by the Executive Board, goes to the general membership in this process. This can be found in the text of Resolution 9.

On a more serious note, I personally think it would be arrogant of us to assert that the DSA has a monopoly on the movement to which we belong. The CPN in Sac DSA states:

We object firstly to sanctioning the practice of dedicating significant chapter resources to individuals who do not share commitment enough to our organization to join it and contribute to DSA as a crucial part of our movement.

It is more important during this pandemic than ever for the DSA to consider itself a part of a wider progressive left, the labor movement, an anti-imperialist left, the movement against climate change, the movement against white supremacist violence and carceralism, and the movement for the unhoused in Sacramento. I would be pressed to find a clearer example of insular thinking than this framing for an objection to Standing Committees devoting themselves to raising funds to support the socialist or radical education of one or more workers, regardless of their membership in the DSA.We as a chapter can only begin to barely qualify as democratic socialists if we have only called ourselves socialist without grasping the fact that there needs to be a layer of democratic institutions we help to reconstruct or assist in some way if there is to be a democratic socialist movement at all. These alternative institutions outside our political control would be necessary to develop independent workers’ and social movements, culture, and general training resource institutions for struggles they directly experience. More than a hundred years of Marxist thinking supports the idea that a socialist movement and a workers movement both work best when they run parallel or in tandem (see Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Hal Draper’s 1970 lecture on Dual Unionism, or this interview of Bob Master in 2019).

I cannot promise with Resolution 9 that Standing Committees will test themselves for their commitment on different issues or fronts that fit their stated goals. If they engage with promising and committed people who are not socialist but who would like to participate in some education from the DSA, especially if they are from constituencies we would like to increase our membership with, I would be disappointed if their ability to learn about socialism from socialists was handicapped by the demands made by their living costs. I would be even more disappointed if there was no standard process for working around such an obstacle, which can be daunting for people, new members, and anyone who just learned about the DSA from one of our members out at a protest or knocking at their door.

To the Second Objection, Part 1: On Pedagogy and Formal Minimum Criteria

The CPN’s second objection reads:

Significantly, we also object to the individualistic, professional-managerial class character of sabbatical; DSA and the working class as a whole are strengthened when we commit to collective educational projects which link us together in a practice of critical pedagogy. The development of solidarity and collective liberation will not be served by acting as an ally organization which provides a scholarship fund for special individuals.

I concede that Resolution 9 may essentially sound like a scholarship or grant application process for people to learn more about the DSA. I will admit this can be the case for what this process can result in at minimum, but I picture this process outlined by Resolution 9 to offer more than this, especially as a means for our organization and political analysis to collectively mature.I think the CPN should be praised for engaging with some references to Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy for the framing of their second main objection to Resolution 9. Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed was in fact a resource I consulted in thinking about the content and structure of a meaningful political-educational project in general. I had difficulty determining how that could be articulated in the hard text of this resolution. Whereas I accepted a friendly amendment framed out of a similar concern, to include a required final presentation by any person who is provided paid educational leave, I chose to leave open the possibility of incorporating lessons from Freire for structuring political education at the discretion of the Standing Committee acting as sponsor and the Socialist Education Committee reviewing any submitted curriculum from the former. I thought flexibility with training design in a presumably socialist organization would encourage creativity within unique circumstances. I felt that attempts to literally outline a standard that would fulfill the promise of critical pedagogy would crucify both my intentions and what I think were Freire’s intentions with his ideas of pedagogy.

With that said, I think the process in Resolution 9 is flexible enough that it could theoretically be used to structure the planning for a collective educational project linked by practices of Freire’s critical pedagogy. The use of this language about critical pedagogy for an objection from the CPN sounds like a misplaced effort to criticize an imagined method for teaching and learning that has not even been included in the resolution text. With a stretch, perhaps this objection could be pointing to the parts of the resolution text that outlines the division of official bottom-line responsibilities for submitting a curriculum for approval. Some formal asymmetry of ownership of the curriculum is assumed in the text for the purpose of assigning formal responsibility within our organization.Informally, what benefits we gain from learning are always at the individual learner’s discretion and initiative. Likewise, the impact of a lesson sinks deeper the better a teacher tries to understand the way their student understands. From those two premises, I do not see how Resolution 9 could prevent someone or a Standing Committee from applying Freire’s lessons in designing an informal investigation of themes in the unique living code within a community and a curriculum that makes sense to the community within those specific conditions.

To the Second Objection, Part 2: On Professional Shadow Boxing

Here I will examine the claim by CPN about “the individualistic, professional-managerial class character of sabbatical.” My inspiration primarily for Resolution 9 was drawn from an episode of The Dig, a Jacobin -affiliated podcast hosted by immigration journalist Daniel Denvir. At an hour and 28 minutes into the interview, “ Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics,” Denvir asks his guest, Los Angeles historian Mike Davis, for what could explain the lack of internationalism on the left today in contrast with the left of the 1960s-1980s. In his response, Davis claims that the lack of internationalism today is related to two factors. The first he names is the class composition of the socialist left. Whereas support for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in his 2020 presidential primary run included huge numbers of working class-origin college graduates and working poor high school graduates, the major socialist organizations in the country have not proportionally matched the demographics of the support for his primary campaign. Davis shortly asks the major question for socialist organizations that supported Sanders: Do they make conditions for demographic representation, for more working class leadership? Davis followed this question by repeating a point made by Russian socialist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, made more than a hundred years ago in a pamphlet titled, “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin had said, and Davis agreed, that it would be a crime for advanced militant workers to just be left in the factories. Immediately thereafter, Davis says themovement should get them sabbaticals to acquire intellectual skills and homogenize intellectual skill. In order for socialist organizations today to gain working class membership and leadership, especially from the most intensely exploited branches of industry, socialist organizations must get involved dealing directly with problems of people who do not have a college degree or family source of income.

On one end, the description of “professional-managerial class character” in CPN’s second objection sounds like the often-repeated self-criticism of our organization to address our own membership composition. Interestingly, a leftist scholar recommends using paid educational leave to begin to address this. On another end, it might insinuate the use of a coded language for saying that intellectual skill has a class character, should not be homogenized in an egalitarian organization, or that means to acquire intellectual skill are harmful in some way for our chapter to provide to anyone outside of our chapter, regardless of commitment to movements larger or more significant than the DSA is now. I could understand a misreading of the term “sabbatical,” which has different definitions within religion and academia, but this confusion does not appear to be at work if the CPN read Resolution 9.

I have thought about our chapter’s class composition, its relationship to our internal debates, and the historical-geographical context of racial segregation in Sacramentofor a long time. I have observed that the professional-managerial class (PMC) is a regular punching bag for the problems facing the DSA about its own composition from other members of the same sociological category—the PMC. If any of us who volunteer to run this organization fit or do not fit within this sociological category called the PMC, a term coined by Barbara Ehrenreich, then I think it behooves us to make sure we think and speak in ways that advance constructive internal debate, an analysis based on more than buzzwords. The circular slinging of “PMC” as an insult sounds like a disempowering dialogue for everyone who gets involved.

Elitism has always been a problem for revolutionary movements of the oppressed that included members of more privileged classes joining their struggles. This elitism of more privileged allies is poorly substituted by play-acting as stereotypes of their fellow oppressed comrades. Many anti-PMC voices ironically only offer their own contrarian self-awareness as a source for alternative cultural norms of behavior to substitute what they find wrong about the not-so-unique elitism of the fellow PMC they caricaturize. This anti-PMC/pro-PMC dialogue very much resembles the performance of anti-whiteness from the white liberal antiracist that the anti-PMC crowd likes to castigate as PMC and neoliberal. Projecting an imagined ideal of possessing an authentic, usually anti-intellectual, working class sensibility is also a road to failure that has been tried by the New Communist Movement of the 1960s-1980s period (Max Elbaum, p. 170-171, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che). Veterans of those years regret the alcoholism, homophobia, and views against marijuana that they took upon themselves for the sake of appealing to their imagined average working person. Today progressives and socialists must grasp that verbal opposition to neoliberalism does not extricate a person from elitist habits nor does it accelerate the development of a Marxist analysis.At some point all circular firing squads need to stop loading empty rounds and go pick new targets.

I am glad our situation in the DSA is not so terrible that we would be afraid to admit in casual conversation that culture is not always easy to understand, especially as culture changes in the country or at our workplaces. When it comes to talking about some overconfidence from people we might designate as PMC, it would be important to let those people know that not everyone carries around the same cultural toolkit or had the same cultural opportunities. We must plainly ask them to move back when they suck up too much air in conversations. Ehrenreich illustrates this in an interview with Jacobin assistant editor Alex Press about the purpose she had in coining the term PMC. She emphasizes that anyone who is committed to the movement ought to exercise the humility to listen to people and to avoid using people as unthinking props. These are human tests of character and passing them can build trust across divisions of class, race, gender, or any other social division. The elitist wielding of liberal sensitivity to multicultural knowledge over other people’s heads is what has given “liberal” a bad connotation for many people.Some may invoke Ehrenreich anyway to say that class background neatly determines ideology or amount of dislike for people in general. But I think Ehrenreich sufficiently addresses her intentions in her interview with Alex Press, so I will say no more on questions about personal behavior.

I would be disappointed if any DSA member demonstrated sour behavior (like what Ehrenreich speaks about) to someone receiving a Resolution 9 stipend. Elitism is a serious error that does not go away with or without Resolution 9. With Resolution 9, the possibility at least remains open that Standing Committees stay vigilant of how elitism can ruin their chances of enlisting a new member or engaging in a new mutual political-educational project with other DSA/non-DSA activists. With that said, elitism would worst of all harm the reputation of our organization.

Final Justifications: My Approach to Radical Political Community in Greater Sacramento

The research that informed the justification for Resolution 9 within its text was inspired from a mental connection I was able to draw between points Mike Davis raised in his Dig interview and research about Sacramento that I have previously encountered. In his second point in response to Denvir’s question about leftwing internationalism in the States, Mike Davis identified that immigrant youth and youth of color from within the United States demonstrate the most internationalism –the most interest in the prospects of the oppressed all over the world. The potential for an internationalist current to take root in a way that elevates the potential of these latent constituencies will not be realized if we on the left, as Davis says, “remain content to stay within the same left-populist shell.” By left-populist, I think what Davis means is the bubble of progressive voices framing everything as a fight between the American people and an oligarchy, but who steer away from agitating the staid, ahistorical imagination of suburban middle class culture. To the extent that this appears to be another proxy argument for again castigating the often-slurred “downwardly mobile professional-managerial class” in the DSA, Davis in the same half-hour brings up that it is the upper-echelon of this class that volunteers.However, it may be left to this upper-echelon to figure out how to step outside of its comfort zone (or ideological reading corner).

Some may quote Davis from the interview I cited to say that class composition has a neat direct causal impact on the decisions over strategy in a socialist organization.The assignment of a correspondence between political outlook and class composition in revolutionary organizations has precedent in two other historical situations. With Trotsky, some may see his labeling (or mislabeling) of a “Right Opposition” made up of peasant landowners as a political error of his that closed off the opportunity to challenge Stalin before it was too late. But it was Mao Tse-tung who is often credited as the first to articulate a related concept of this phenomenon of class fractional interests in revolutionary parties for general application. Applied during the Cultural Revolution, this idea was extended into a bigger claim that all differences of opinion were a reflection of class outlook or which class people would identify with: bourgeois or proletarian. This was called the thesis of two-line struggle. It is the idea that any revolutionary organization inevitably develops a camp within itself that seeks to become a new bourgeoisie or that slowly becomes an objectively counterrevolutionary headquarters (Max Elbaum, p. 158, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che). Unfortunately, we do not need to look far to find examples of socialist sectarian infighting either inspired by these ideas or unknowingly repeating similar behavior. I will return to this two-line struggle thesis further below but with modifications.

I agree that class composition can have an influence on our thinking. What almost gets overlooked in this acknowledgment however is that practices, or mechanisms, for organizational acknowledgment of internal class composition allows an organization the chance, or process, to think of how to account for the current composition as a variable in that organization’s interpretation of events and its planning of interventions and campaigns. I certainly think that campaigns outside of the organization must be tied to interventions within the organization. Stretching out too far runs the risk of being industrious in activism without adequate reflection. Spending too much energy refining differences of opinion within runs the risk of being insular in thinking without genuine connections to people. I think Resolution 9 would foster the opportunity to acknowledge our class composition in a process that could bridge between internal educational interventions and external strategic campaigns.

Passing Resolution 9 would give us a process that indirectly would require us to unify thinking between internal interventions and external campaigns and keep both sides (inside/outside DSA) relevant for the Sacramento Area. It would benefit us by forcing us to grasp the latent composition of what a majoritarian cross-class alliance in this region would look like. Davis himself says that he thinks that the principal problem for Marxist analyses of politics in general is “the failure to map comprehensively the entire field of property relations and their derivative conflicts.” (p. 178, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory) This means we need more economic interpretation of how people make a living here in order to make sense of how different demands may be understood by different class fractions or labor markets. Steps in that direction of both study and struggle could help us develop the concrete analysis needed for organizing both our chapter and those constituencies with accessible tools to collectively think through what links our oppressions together.

Here are working definitions I use when thinking about politics in the Sacramento DSA, in the Sacramento radical left community at large, and the labor movement in Greater Sacramento:

  • Socialism is the direct rule of the proletariat (derived from Latin for “offspring”) or total working class, paid and unpaid labor.
  • Internationalism is the principle that democratic socialists must view the liberation of workers and oppressed peoples around the world as fundamental to overcoming capitalism.
  • Critique is the field of function that exposes hierarchy to its alternatives or at minimum the possibility of an alternative.
  • Functions as such are the effects of processes within a social system that may either contribute to or detract from its maintenance or development.
  • Angela Davis has said, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” Politics has the function of demonstrating the answer to the question “What grips the majority of decision-makers in this setting?” Therefore, the function of radical politics demonstrates the answer to “What grasps the majority at their roots?”

For investigating what cross-class alliances may need to be fostered both through and by our organization, I thought it was important to invert the function of a two-line struggle theorem. Frantz Fanon,the Algerian theorist of psychological decolonization, had written in The Wretched of the Earth about two zones in Algeria when it was a French colony:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both [38] follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. [39]

Upon hearing this passage at an event hosted by our chapter’s International Committee –a screening of the documentary Concerning Violence – I had developed a modified two-line struggle theoremto guide my thinking about the prerogatives of the modernized proletariat in the United States. My aim here is to share a conceptual compass forfacing the direction of a mutual decolonization of our needs and desires from market-driven devotion to the production of commodities. Here is what I came up with:

  • A bourgeois political theory in form is what kind of politics that seeks to attract a new market of labor-power to change other markets of labor-power to produce more profit/commodities.
  • A proletarian political theory in form is what kind of politics that seeks to decolonize its labor of commodity relations to negate commoditization in specific spheres of social production.

Part of a program or project to map Sacramento’s oppressed constituencies I think must march through the research of economic sociologist Dr. Jesus Hernandez. I believe his research makes him the closest person to a Mike Davis for Sacramento in a way similar to how Mike Davis made his name analyzing the LA region. The justification text in Resolution 9 already summarizes in broad-scope what I had drawn from my days as a previous student of Hernandez. We must be keen to identify the people whose class interest lies with the power structure in our metropolitan system of governance. Thusly, we could take a more concentrated approach to exposing the contradictions in our regional political economy. We have already seen the unwillingness of the power structure to protect and serve its people. I would say that the work of the Nathaniel Colley Coalition is doing much of the analytical work of defending the historical-material legacy of civil rights liberalism in our region. The civil rights legal community in Sacramento actually reformed the institutional-material conditions for people in Sacramento and across the United States. (See our Housing Committee to learn more about a recent setback in that coalition’s fight in a decision by Sacramento City Council to move forward with demolitions at Seavey Circle to make way for the West Broadway Specific Plan.) The fact of a larger landscape of historical-material conditions that have a history of being challenged locally must bring us to the recognition that our active membership would have to be more than teachers but also, or more so, students of the people we are aligning ourselves with. Voting no on Resolution 9 would merely but indefinitely postpone this fundamental and necessary task.

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