Dear Philly DSA: I am not “aimless ideology”

Like many others, I read this piece by a fellow Philly DSA member accusing the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC) of not being the true path to a better local DSA chapter. The piece has stuck with me since then, though I’m guessing not for the reasons the author intended, and to me highlight the real issues holding the chapter back. The real problem is a local chapter that does not see the personal as political and resists attempts to address this.

A few quick asides before I get to my main point. It’s interesting to me that the Steering Committee and their allies claim not to be an organized caucus and attack LILAC for being one, but then publish a hit piece calling the local’s biggest committee everything that’s wrong with the chapter. It’s interesting that such a piece would come out the day before the local General Meeting, a meeting at which leadership and their allies passed out voting guides recommending how to vote on the day’s agenda of resolutions.

Anyway. I’m not going to address the piece’s characterization of LILAC because it is easily refuted by anyone who actually attends a meeting. What I want to talk about is something casually mentioned in the piece, something I have not seen addressed, something that to me is really the heart of what needs to change in Philly DSA.

Let’s look at this paragraph:

Parallels to the aimless ideology of Occupy are everywhere in LILAC’s platform. Here are some of the favorite pet phrases of its loudest supporters: “building coalitions,” “multi-tendency,” “bottom-up organizing,” “incubating ideas,” “open and inclusive.”

Where to start? Come to a general meeting, or really any Philly DSA activity, and the overwhelming whiteness is impossible to ignore. At least, it’s impossible to ignore as a woman of color. And yet, here, demanding that the socialist chapter I spend a huge amount of my time, labor, and emotional energy organizing with just maybe try and diversify to better represent the majority minority city it works in is dismissed as “aimless ideology.” I am not aimless ideology. I say “I” in this case to challenge the dismissal of identity politics by some on the left, including very vocally by my chapter’s own co-chair. I am a mentally ill woman of color, the daughter of an immigrant and a U.S. soldier, directly spawned by the racist, imperial foreign policy of the United States. My politics are 1000% informed by my identities. My identities ARE my politics. To be alive in a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world as anything else IS political because those forces work to uphold their power and that means destroying anything that isn’t. To quote a dear comrade of mine, “survival is political.”

There’s another passage I want to highlight, bold is my emphasis:

Members of the caucus have accused their comrades of ableism, racism, obstructionism, cronyism, and many other isms. Conveniently, the targets of these accusations always seem to be prominent critics of LILAC’s political aims for the chapter.

Members who were inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign and joined DSA hoping to pursue similar political goals should recall how his opposition on the left, when faced with the ridiculous task of trying to explain to people why free healthcare is actually bad, resorted instead to painting his supporters as a gang of militant mansplainers. This diversion from the political to the personal can be a powerful weapon–against individuals. It will not help us against the forces of capital.

These passages highlight the true problem that exists in Philly DSA: Philly DSA is a chapter dominated and governed by a white supremacist framework that minimizes the role of marginalized identities in oppression from capitalism and as such disempowers the role of such identities in our socialist liberation.

What else are we supposed to take away from the actions of the leadership when attempts to address this white dominance are dismissed as empty, “aimless ideology”? When speakers at meetings and events are an endless parade of predominantly white, male Jacobin writers? When attempts to create a race-conscious reading group are censured by the Steering Committee? When a Night School class on race and socialism deconstructs the term lumpenproletariat without addressing the material conditions of the people in the poorest of the country’s big cities? When something as simple as wanting to organize a socialists of color happy hour turns into a bureaucratic maze of procedure? When racial sensitivity training by the National AfroSocialist and Socialist of Color Caucus isn’t attended by anyone in leadership?

Let me tell a little story. Philly DSA invited Amber Frost from Chapo Trap House to speak at a General Meeting. I was tabling at the event on behalf of a committee I’m on. While tabling, a white woman approached and started talking with me. “Remind me your name again?” she asked, before calling me by the one other prominent East Asian woman who organized in the local at the time. It’s a common microaggression but still I was stunned. I stood there, hurt, behind the table I was working for the chapter, and listened as Amber Frost then spoke about being a minority voice as a white woman in a predominantly white organization to a predominantly white crowd. It was naive of me, but I thought that I was in a relatively safer space in a socialist meeting.

After the meeting I thought about ignoring what happened and brushing it off. I thought maybe that I would let this experience set me drifting away from DSA. But I’m older and more confident as an organizer of color (shoutout to my sisters at RAAWC <3) and wanted to work in good faith. So I emailed the Steering Committee explaining what happened. I suggested we use name tags at events and meetings to avoid this in the future. By the way, do you see how I still had to perform labor and give them a concrete actionable item to soften my criticism? Importantly, I also suggested that the Steering Committee think more critically about who is being invited to speak at meetings and events because who is invited to speak is also a direct commentary on who is not being invited. Whose voices are you uplifting? Sometimes the voices who are absent scream louder than the voices at the podium.

In any case, the reaction from the Steering Committee was to enthusiastically embrace the name tag suggestion but give me some hollow words about how the Political Education Committee carefully chooses guest speakers. They took my easy action item but have not put any apparent work into diversifying the speakers at our meetings.

I don’t want to keep quoting that critical LILAC piece but the author dismisses calls for inclusion and coalition-building as hollow calls with no explicit demands. This is simply bullshit. Here’s a quick list of easily actionable things:

  • Diversity quotas for the Steering Committee that explicitly make space for comrades of color and queer comrades.
  • Stop inviting white men to speak.
  • Engage in meaningful coalition work with groups in Philly.

And yet attempts at such coalition-work are dismissed as “transactional” and distracting from the true work of socialism. My mind reels whenever I hear this assertion. Coalition work is solidarity. Coalition work is how we build community and power. How do we expect other groups in our community to work with us when we have given them no show of good faith? It’s really an example of white privilege to think other groups in the city will join us because Socialism or Medicare 4 All are the One True Paths. Coalitions have been behind some of the most important work happening in the city, from the end of the School Reform Commission, an organizing win for the Our City Our Schools coalition, to the broad leftist coalition that spent the summer calling for the abolition of ICE and won their first demand when Mayor Kenney announced he would not renew the city’s data-sharing agreement with ICE. Coalitions are solidarity. We show up for others because their fight is our fight, our oppressions are linked and so is our liberation. We are all fighting for a better world and none of us are free until all of us are free. To be so dismissive of coalition work shows a lack of humility indicative of white supremacist organizational culture.

Why do I bring all this up? Why am I writing this piece? I’m writing this for others like myself both in Philly DSA and the broader national DSA. It’s lonely and alienating to try and organize in this kind of organizational culture and I want anyone reading this to know they are not alone. But I also want the chapter to take some time to reflect and grow from my words because I firmly believe that as socialists, our organizations should model the world we want to see. We need to work to break down the oppressive structures that we inadvertently prop up in our spaces just by living in this capitalist, white supremacist, imperial hellscape. It takes work to build something revolutionary that hasn’t existed before but the fight is worth it and I want to see Philly DSA do this work.

What I fear though is that members of Philly DSA and maybe even nationally will attack this piece for being more squishy identity politics. I think it really says something that the passages I’ve quoted are not major points but the structural bones propping up the argument. In other words, the problem with Philly DSA is right there in plain words but no one in leadership seems to see it as a problem. Here’s another illustrative anecdote: once while posting on the national DSA forum, I challenged our chapter’s belief that general meetings are productive, democratic spaces where everyone feels welcome not only to attend but to participate in debating resolutions. I argued that for many people of color it is intimidating if not triggering to participate in the hierarchical, top-down structure of Philly DSA due to experiences in other predominantly white institutions. The white guy from the chapter I was arguing with dismissed my comments and gave me a long response about his white knight behavior of training and being extra nice to “female” organizers. Bravo.

Ultimately, I’m writing this to add my voice and pushback against the class reductionist belief that pervades Philly DSA. If we’re supposedly a multi-tendency org, then I don’t see the problem in saying that no, I reject that. To quote Tim Faust, “It’s technically not a crime in the U.S. to be poor, it’s technically not a crime in the U.S. to be sick, and it’s technically not a crime to be black or brown but once you begin to fall into the intersections, the rules begin to change.” These intersections are important and ignoring them does nothing to improve the material conditions of the most oppressed in our society. Philadelphia is a majority minority city, the poorest big city in the country with the highest rates of childhood poverty, food insecurity, and childhood asthma in the country. We’re also a city run by the Democratic Party, which is more interested in letting institutions like the University of Pennsylvania not pay taxes or luring Amazon with huge giveaways instead of funding our schools, our public transit, or a carbon-free energy future that we desperately need.

What does doing the work look like? To return to my bullet list above, diversity quotas for the Steering Committee for comrades of color and queer comrades. I have no problem saying that one reason I am currently on the steering committee of the National Ecosocialist Working Group is because of strict diversity requirements. Helping lead the Ecosocialist Working Group has not only been a lot of fun and connected me to wonderful comrades across the country, but also a real leadership learning experience that has made me a better organizer in my local. This is an opportunity I would not otherwise have had without structures in place to counteract inherent structural biases. Next point: stop inviting white men to speak. That’s it. If your first idea for a speaker is a white man I guarantee that you can easily find someone queer and/or a person of color who is also doing the work and can speak from their experiences. Third point: meaningful coalition work. To quote an ecosocialist comrade,

We will not find the path forward if we are only listening to the voices of white male academic Marxists, even those who have the happy gift of writing in a popular style.

Listening to other voices will sometimes require us to accept leadership from others outside our existing circles. The explicit embrace of socialism should not be a litmus test in determining whom we embrace.” We have so much much to learn and gain through working in coalition with others. How could we possibly have the hubris to think we know the one true path to freedom? Or to think we can drag others along without having stood with them in their struggles?

When I read a piece about Philly DSA like the one I quoted and see the passages I highlighted sprinkled throughout that dismiss a person like myself I wonder who the chapter is working for. Whose freedom are we fighting for? Because when I read words like the ones I’ve quoted, I don’t see my freedom as part of the fight. Philly is my hometown and I love it so much. It pains me to see Philly DSA falling short of its full potential. A socialist org that mirrors the oppressive structures we are fighting against is not a truly revolutionary one. We can and need to do so much better. Our liberation is at stake.

By Sus V.

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