I remember my first days as a politically-conscious young person. In 2015, I was a high school student, tinkering around with Minecraft utopias and science fiction; at the same time, Bernie Sanders was ramping up his first run at the US Presidency. I recall key parts of the platform he spoke on that year, ranging from free public higher education, Medicare for All, and a comprehensive plan to address climate change in favor of working people. That last point in particular opened my mind to the possibilities of politics, as I realized the answer to Jim Inhofe’s infamous snowball-in-Congress denialism was not better science communication, but political power. Now, 6 years later, the most recent in a long history of American socialist upsurges is still fighting to save our planet and our people from our government and our ruling class.
What has come of those 6 years of fighting? A handful of local and regional Green New Deal-type initiatives; an increasing strain on working people and our standards of living, especially in the midst of the COVID pandemic; historically massive but ultimately unsuccessful uprisings against police brutality, along with the popularization of the slogan “defund the police”; a series of historic strike waves and worker uprisings. Despite the mixed record, these moments were still important. However, by far the most important result of each of these struggles has been the spread of basic organization by working people everywhere.
The biggest barrier to changing the world is not the vision, but the skills, confidence, and ability. Slogans to “organize Amazon” will not do so — hard-fought campaigns that build long-lasting relationships and skilled organizers will. When losing isn’t just a setback, when the cost of failure is falling under police surveillance, losing our livelihoods, and uprooting our lives, it is incredibly hard to move people to action. My own coworkers consistently point out the failures of our managers and administrators; they easily articulate the problems in our workplace and our community. But when the question is, “what can we do about it?”, the answer is always individualized, small-scale, and deferential to the same authorities who created the problems.
Collective Struggle and Comradeship
The primary obstacle is not imagination, consciousness, or recognition of the issues of our day, but rather the lack of basic confidence to struggle collectively to solve collective problems. As such, it is incumbent on socialists to make our coworkers, our neighbors, our families, and our friends believe that change is possible — and worth fighting for. An organization capable of protecting us in our pursuit of organizing is crucial. Being able to credibly say, “We have your back,” when coworkers express their pain and their need for something better is the drawbridge that can cross the crocodile-filled moat.
To transform our world requires that we transform ourselves and our relationships to one another. Every day, we are steeped in a neoliberal culture that tells us our personal consumption defines who we are and of what we are capable. Going from individualized consumers to a collective subject, capable of fighting and winning on our own terms, takes time and active effort. Anti-racists know that anti-racism is a practice, not an attitude; similarly, collective struggle is not an ideology, but rather something we must actively teach ourselves how to do. In order to build faith and trust, we have to learn how to struggle together – in other words, we have to learn how to be comrades.
“Comradeliness” is an oft-used but nebulous concept within DSA and left movement spaces in general, but it ultimately boils down to a level of mutual trust, respect, and commitment to a shared social project. These are vital principles, but they still beg the question: can we practice and build comradeship? If so, how?
Historically, comradeship has been defined by a high degree of discipline to shared goals and mutual accountability. Comrades know how to commit to shared goals, even if they don’t fully understand or agree with the tactics, strategy, or goal itself. In DSA, we all agree on the overall principles we fight for: “we envision a society where resources are democratically controlled to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.” Our disagreements on how we realize those principles are not deeper than our need to fight proactively for it, as members of an exploited, oppressed, and divided working class. As such, strong commitment to our democratically-decided projects is a necessity.
However, to democratically decide our projects, methods, and goals, we have to share a high degree of honesty, trustworthiness, respect, and especially communication. This means that all members must cultivate a willingness to openly, warmly, and firmly criticize each others’ ideas and actions – without resorting to questioning each others’ character or identity. These principles also mean understanding the dangers that airing internal grievances to the public eye can cause to our movement as a whole. We have a responsibility to take each other seriously, and that means deciding our own accountability methods, collectively – not calling on a broken society to do it for us.
Ultimately, comradeship is defined by building relationships that give us the confidence and skills to take collective action. It’s defined by teaching each other concrete methods for working together and taking care of ourselves. This could include anything from keeping notes to social outings to regular exercise. Well-being, whether personal, social, physical, or mental, is the foundation to a mass organization that is capable of sustaining itself and its members while we build our capacity to fight for our goals.
In short, our duty as organizers is to give people the skills, the support, and the security to go on the offensive – and we start by practicing it ourselves. As Sara Nelson said at DSA’s 2019 National Convention: “Power is like a muscle. You build power by using it.” Before we can start to set world records, we have to get our basic form right.
The most radical thing a socialist can do is also often the smallest. DSA has enough “big ideas” people. What we need the most right now are the nitty-gritty, reliable, spreadsheet-using, detail-oriented winners that make us feel secure enough to go out on a limb so we can think and act in new ways. The radical doesn’t have to be unimaginable; it just has to be possible.