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2023 DSA Pre-Convention Discussion Guide
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2023 DSA Pre-Convention Discussion Guide

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has emerged as the largest, US-based socialist organization in the last 70 years. We are democratic and member-driven. Our organization’s highest authority is its convention, where DSA delegates meet every two years to adopt strategic positions, organizational directions, priorities, and campaigns (as well as elect the organization’s top political leadership body, which leads DSA in-between conventions). This happens through debate and voting on proposed resolutions.

Through the democratic process of proposing, debating, amending, and voting on resolutions, DSA members are able to sharpen their collective analysis of the conditions we are organizing under and, responsively, hone our hypotheses as to how we can most strategically intervene to advance the socialist cause.

Please use this discussion guide to prepare for Convention and the adoption of DSA’s national strategic direction for the following two years – one that is rooted in firm analysis of how to best organize the working class toward the advancement of socialism in the current moment. Our motivating analysis must originate from the point at which class struggle materializes in DSA: chapters. Chapters are the foundational unit of DSA. In order for DSA to adopt a truly democratic, bottom-up, strategic, and powerful direction for DSA to embark on over the next two years, that direction must be contextualized within and carried out by chapters. To prepare our members and organization for Convention, chapters will host pre-convention discussions: this guide will help!

Table of Contents

How to Use this Guide

Use this guide to get yourself and your comrades in the mindset we need for principled debate: not a competition to be won, but a process through which we all improve our politics and strategy.  Throughout this guide you will find practical resources to help you prepare for debates in your chapter and throughout the organization.

Determining “What is to Be Done”

DSA’s mission is to achieve democratic socialism and, correspondingly, has a broad ‘theory of change’ for how win that goal:

To take on the capitalist class, we need to be strategically and democratically organized. This means:

  1. Understanding where class conflict is currently sharpest, i.e., most ripe for organizing;
  2. Understanding what our capacity is to organize in those places, i.e., not only what resources do we have, but what connections do we as members and an organization have to those locations of conflict?;
  3. Understanding what we don’t know–and therefore what we need to learn–about the conditions, demands, internal social dynamics, etc., existing in areas of class conflict;
  4. Understanding what approaches to organizing and intervening in these areas of conflict have worked in the past, what approaches have failed, and what experiments are currently underway and their success of lack of success;
  5.  Taking the above understandings, and planning for the long term, with mechanisms to adapt and change our plans as we gain more experience and as conditions change.

The Role of Debate

No one person, group, faction, tendency or chapter will have these answers. They will come from all over. Only if this information is honestly shared and honestly received, and an analysis developed out of them, will we determine our strategy for advancing class struggle. That is where political debate comes in, and why we deem it so critical to our political project.

Socialists use debate as a tool to get to the best possible analysis and political conclusions. Debate sharpens our understanding of the world and helps us come to conclusions about how to act. This guide is intended to help us all start with the same understanding of what debate is and why we engage in it–and value it so highly. Political debate is critical to socialist strategy not as a box we check to be formally democratic, but because it is a tool through which we understand the world we are trying to change, and helps us determine the best way to change it given the conditions in front of us. That means we have to be ready to make our own case clearly, based on real experience and careful analysis, and it also means we have to be ready to change our mind, to incorporate new information, to defer to collectively-decided decisions.

When organizing yourselves for debate, consider the following questions:

  1. What information are we acting from? How was it gathered?  
  2. What are the premises we’re assuming?
  3. What have we tried so far? What progress have we made that we can continue, where have we stalled?
  4. When are we compromising strategically, and when do we risk abandoning a principle?
  5. How does this connect our members and our organization to locations of conflict and struggle?
  6. For a given campaign or project, what are reasonable intermediary steps between where we are today and the ultimate objective of the project?

With the above questions in mind, when proposing a resolution, an amendment, or otherwise preparing for debate, be prepared to provide context and real-world information, not only about your chapter or your campaign, but about the forces of capital as you’ve observed them behave and react. Connect your proposal to those facts. Analogize to what has worked well in the past, and contrast with what has not. Set concrete expectations for how your proposal moves us organizationally and the working class generally from one step to the next and beyond. And always, emphasize our bedrock principles and how your proposal proselytizes for them.

Organizational Democracy

Hand in hand with the organizational utility of debate is the organizational utility of democracy. We do not defend our organization’s democratic nature because democracy is good in and of itself. We do so because democracy, through debate, hones our analysis and practice; and through participation, moves people into action behind collectively decided priorities. Our organization needs active members to be strong, and people won’t stay involved for long if they don’t have control over our strategy. Democracy is not simply a moral question but the key to meeting the challenges from the capitalist class. So how do we define democracy? Those rules and norms which ensure and encourage principled debate, collective decision-making, and participation to enact those decisions.

Chapter Discussion Agenda

For the convention to be productive, it is important that delegates go into it understanding the political context, the political stakes, and the nature of the major political disagreements among not only DSA members, but socialists and the broader left. In turn, to best represent the comrades who elect them, delegates should emerge out of productive and educational discussions around these issues. We are suggesting a particular format for chapter’s to use when preparing for the convention. Rather than a “pure” political debate,  where particular resolutions are debated pro and con, and a vote taken, we are suggesting chapters have a structured and facilitated discussion where members are able to offer differing analyses and viewpoints–and, most importantly, challenge themselves and one another to understand why they hold the beliefs they do, and what experiences and analyses got them there.

You can find a sample agenda and how to prepare for chapter discussions here.

Additional Resources