Movements Need Organization: Proposal 6’s Flawed Theory of Change

Matt S.

Mass movements, without independent working-class political organizations, are destined to fall short of their goals. In his preface to The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes the relationship of working-class organization to mass movements as that of a piston to steam — movements as the motive force of social change, but organization as the instrument that allows it to have direction and power: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

Every DSA member should recognize the mass movement of the working class in its own self-interest as a basic precondition of the social change for which we are collectively fighting. But if the experiences of this summer’s anti-racist uprisings have proven anything, it’s that the fundamental challenge for the American left today isn’t just putting workers into motion. We’ve seen a major uptick in working-class resistance since 2015, from Bernie’s campaigns, to the teachers strikes, and now a wave of anti-racist protests. Rather, the problem is the absence of working-class organizations (independent of the Democratic Party and foundation-funded NGOs) that can translate this political energy into meaningful reforms and durable working-class political formations. Across the country, millions have mobilized to call for defunding the police — yet few major cities actually have, while the Democrats brazenly offer us a Biden-Harris “law and order” ticket instead. 

There are two basic flaws in the theory of change put forward by Proposal 6: “Center Mass Movements.” First, it represents a movementist perspective that undersells the necessity of organization. Second, it rejects the necessity of taking our struggles into the state to win reforms and contest for power.

Proposal 6 subscribes to a movementist theory of change: that is, it substitutes vague social movements for a militant, organized class-for-itself as the primary agent of socialist transformation. Of course, the movements in the streets today are working-class led and are a major positive development for the socialist cause. But the question is how DSA should orient toward them. Given the necessity of an organized working-class to truly wield the power necessary to win reforms like defunding the police (much less to challenge capital), socialists ought to be encouraging and helping translate these movements into lasting political organization — building campaigns that place demands on the state, recruiting new activists to DSA, and encouraging the newly politicized to build organizations of their own. Instead, Proposal 6 takes a horizontalist approach to the organizational question by idealizing the “refusal of delegation and representation” as the key to power. This perspective substitutes the movement itself for the political vehicles it must build to achieve its goals.

Moreover, “Center Mass Movements” proposes an untenable theory of how socialists should engage with the state as a field of struggle — namely, that we shouldn’t. It posits that mass movements are always in “direct contest with the State” and prescribes that DSA cultivate movements by “building local solidarity networks and mutual aid teams––outside of the State.” Of course, DSA should understand that we won’t legislate or elect our way to socialism, and that on the whole the state serves the interests of capital, not workers. But historically, mass movements that achieved lasting social change have always done so by taking their struggles into the state and winning reforms, not by treating it as a monolith to confront from without. Far more than mutual aid networks, what our movements today need are concrete demands to place on the state, and a power analysis and strategy to pull the right levers of power within it. If we are serious about winning the reforms we want — be it defunding OPD, cancelling rent, a Green New Deal, or Medicare for All — we won’t get there by standing permanently outside state institutions.

In short, the theory of change represented in Proposal 6 is insufficient to our current moment. Now is not the time for the American left to repeat the mistakes of its decades in the wilderness, relying on the horizontalist theories of organization and viewing state power as inherently suspect. This proposal is right to identify the movements unfolding around us as a crucial historic development — but it mistakenly focuses on movements alone, when what we need is stronger organization. This has been a summer with plenty of steam; what we need now are pistons.