The Washington Socialist <> April 2017
By Eric Sommers
So, I’m sitting in a pew, listening to DSA member Margaret McLaughlin talk about inner transformation and about the “bread” that we need to enrich our inner lives before doing activist work. All the while an offering can is passed around collecting money. It was hard not to laugh. I was not at church but at DSA’s general meeting. For me the bizarre juxtaposition of socialism with church based structures has been on my mind for a while.
Sunday’s meeting took that thought to a new level. What separates DSA from other left socialist organizations, is its structure. DSA is not technically a party in the traditional American sense. We do not run our own candidates. For a while that was a measured decision to stay within the boundaries of our 501c3. Yet the consequences of that decision have created a socialist movement in my opinion different than what we have seen before. DSA reminds me more of how mainline protestant churches are organized than socialist parties of the past.
Perhaps instead of using the organizational model of Lenin we should use the model of Paul of Tarsus. The early church, like the socialist movement, waged a struggle against an oppressive system and empire. Much like DSA, the church set up branches within the heart of the empire, preaching its alternative to Roman imperialism, exceptionalism, and patriarchy. The result was an organization that for at least three centuries the Romans could never completely counter. The decentralized nature of the early church meant that no effective campaign against it could ever succeed.
DSA finds itself in a similar position now. With our exponential growth, we are able to launch a 50-state strategy; at the time of this writing DSA has close to 100 chapters in 43 states. Our decentralized nature allows members to engage in local issues and politics more easily than a more centralized organization. DSA has yet to encounter the challenges which brought down the early church, the tendency to hierarchy and centralized control, as well as the creeping of “Roman values” within its clergy, leading to Constantine’s movement to tolerate and then control belief within the Christian church.
So far as DSA members can avoid the temptation and allure of “values of capitalism”, as well as value our decentralized structure, then DSA can retain the revolutionary nature of early Christianity without succumbing to what led to the Imperial Church of the fourth and fifth centuries. I can’t help but wonder if somewhere in the back of the minds of Michael Harrington and John Cort (original leader of religious socialism in DSOC/DSA) the structure of the early Church led to how DSA was organized.
While we may no longer always agree with the strategy and ideology of our founders, I believe our organizational structure is an asset, which distinguishes us from other groups. It also allows us to avoid what has always plagued American third parties, the stigma of electoral defeat. It also allows us to do more than just fight for political and economic change, although important. Revolutions succeed or fail by the measure of how transformative they can be. The political and economic changes that we desire can only be upheld if society itself is transformed, socially, spiritually and ethically. DSA can and must act as a counter-hegemon to the value system of capitalism.
This begins with ourselves. There are two ways one can view revolution. One is that revolution is an event, which suddenly transforms society, the other is that revolution is a way of life. Both can be dialectically true, and both can be believed. The battle against capitalism must be waged politically, but since the “political is personal” it is also an internal struggle within all of us to avoid the subconscious temptations which capitalism may goad us into. We must be “of the world but not part of it”, that is to say we must admit we currently live and must work within a capitalist system, but we must constantly avoid identifying with and continue to fight against that system in all areas of our lives, political and otherwise.
We must persuade others that socialism is more than just the bogeyman of the right, the fear of the “government” owning and dictating everything. It is the belief that people working together and sharing together is a more powerful force on this earth than the power of a few rich individuals, and more righteous. We can create an alternative community that can battle the hegemon which capital has created, rather than just a party which deals with issues merely from the viewpoint of electoral politics. While politics and capturing political power remains a vital part to replacing capitalism, we must also understand it is not the only place of confrontation of change either. DSA by its nature at the moment is well suited for that challenge.
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