LILAC isn't a caucus. But the model would make Philly DSA better.

Recently, some Philly DSA comrades in the Momentum Caucus have said that the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee (LILAC) is a caucus, and went further to critique the LILAC model as a way to do DSA work.

The Local Initiative/Local Action Committee is just that: a committee tasked by the general membership of Philly DSA to plan local campaigns.

The committee isn’t a caucus. While many Members for a Better Philly DSA work with LILAC as part of their DSA organizing, our caucus is a distinct group committed to pluralism, intersectional socialist organizing, multiple approaches, strength in coalitions, and process for people.

Further, LILAC supports, encourages, and provides resources to members who want to develop their own local campaigns within the chapter’s current structure. That’s it.

Critiquing LILAC with the harshness I’ve seen from Momentum comrades has felt confusing and disappointing to me. What’s so bad about supporting active members as they pursue their political interests in Philadelphia?

Why disagree so vehemently with a model that was built to balance our chapter’s structure with engaging and supporting members’ interests?

Why work so hard to organize against your own comrades?

I can only guess at answers to these questions. In any case, I’d like to set the record straight about LILAC itself: while LILAC isn’t a caucus, the LILAC model for supporting member initiatives and campaigns would be an effective model for running a chapter like Philly DSA.

The Model

As the authors of a recent report on the committee wrote, the LILAC model has a six step process:

1) Form an interest group: Members get together into interest groups based on a theme. The first five interest groups were created through a collective brainstorm of roughly 80 local issues, and then a categorization of those issues into 10 themes.

2) Study a particular issue, train on that issue, draft a strategy: Members conduct research, read existing secondary documents, complete any relevant trainings to facilitate thinking about organizing around the issue, and map out a strategy. LILAC encourages members to use the Midwest Academy campaign model.

3) Pilot tactics of that campaign: In order to test the feasibility of a campaign, and its tactics, the interest group pilots the campaign in an experimentation phase. This phase ensures that interest group members know as much as possible about the tactics and activities to be proposed before the general membership.

4) Write a resolution for a general meeting: Having studied, trained, planned, and piloted, the interest group can now write a resolution to bring to the membership.

5) Incubate the resolution in committee: At committee meetings, interest group members bring their draft resolution to an “incubator” where other members provide feedback on the details and language of the resolution. Typically the committee votes to approve the resolution after 1-2 incubations.

6) Bring a resolution to General Meeting. See whether the membership supports the campaign.

Seven interest groups have formed from this process (housing, education, immigration, racial justice, criminal justice, ecosocialism, debt), each of which have developed or are developing campaigns to work on.

Some of these interest groups, like education and housing, have grown into committees in the Local.

Others have brought campaigns to the general membership for a vote like Good Cause support, Support for the People’s School Board, and engaging with the Poor People’s Campaign in Pennsylvania.

Yet others, like immigration justice, have been part of coalitions that have won citywide victories for the Philadelphia working class. The committee has a large active membership (roughly 100 members, with 50 active).

A Synthesis

One of the critiques of LILAC is that it’s too decentralized, recalling Occupy Wall Street. But this model of study, piloting, and proposing synthesizes aspects of decentralized structure with the good aspects of a more centralized one.

Consider two other models for organizing a DSA chapter: the Central Committee model and the Working Group model.

1) A chapter might be run by a kind of Central Committee or a group elected to craft, interpret, and implement both the political line and administrative process of the chapter.

In Philly DSA, we’ve seen this model. There’s an impressive, laser-like focus on certain kinds of work, certain kinds of organization process, and certain kinds of organizational culture. And certainly it works for the sub-group who agrees with the line.

But when ideas about politics or process come up that are outside the Central Committee’s line, they’re not encouraged. It threatens the multi-tendency status of the group, disengages members (we see this in turnover), and keeps the organization relatively small, limited to the ideas and activities of a core group. East Bay DSA also uses something like a Central Committee model.

2) On the other hand, a chapter could use a Working Group model, which is more autonomous and flexible. In this model, members form working groups to pursue projects. The chapter structure is just the set of committees and their projects, where the leadership facilitates resources for those projects.

This strategy is highly engaging because members can act immediately to follow their own interests. But that engagement is can be lighter fluid in a fire: burns hot and quick and goes out. This is due to a couple factors which might combine.

(a) There isn’t accountability, so members come in and out, don’t follow up, and/or ghost. There isn’t planning or a strategy phase to deliberate on how to do what/when. And there isn’t any solid way for assessments of success/failure to be measured and communicated internally or externally.

(b) There isn’t capacity to follow through: there aren’t enough people, skills, time, money or networks to complete the campaign.
I think both models—working group and central committee—are flawed.

And I think LILAC’s process for campaign development takes strengths of each. The great thing about the LILAC model is that it strikes a balance between, or synthesizes, centralization and decentralization.

The LILAC model is to form interest groups that study, plan, pilot, and then propose campaigns to the wider chapter. If a critical mass wants to engage in them, it can, and resources from the chapter are provided after the piloting stage after a vote by the general membership.

I think the LILAC model would be a great way to run a large chapter like ours. The LILAC model has mechanisms to encourage accountability and capacity while preserving the bottom-up engagement.

The interest group stage lets like-minded members to get together around that issue, and then develop that interest into action. The piloting stage lets those members get to work. The resolution vote stage makes those members accountable to the larger general membership, and ensures that the chapter is flexible and welcoming, but also discerning.

This model also has the benefit of a successful recent history in the organization and in the city: it’s the largest committee in Philly DSA. Through LILAC, Philly DSA became a trusted partner in several coalitions, one of which (Anti-ICE) secured a concrete victory for Philadelphia’s working class.  

Finally, I think the model is historically interesting. Whereas the Central Committee is an Old Left model and the working group is a New Left/anarchist model, LILAC is a synthesis. I worked with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. I saw that model at its strongest. I was a national delegate to the DSA convention in 2017. I also saw that model at its strongest. I think LILAC is a synthesis of these models, and a better Philly DSA would take that  synthesis seriously.

by David Backer

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