Opinion: What Is DSA’s Role in a Broader Progressive Movement? A Response to Matt Miller’s “Lydia Edwards Doesn’t Deserve Socialists’ Energy”

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By Beth Huang

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not represent the official position of Boston DSA, its working groups, National DSA, or the National Political Committee.

I am responding to Boston DSA member and nationally elected leader Matt Miller’s provocative statement that socialists should not spend their time volunteering for Lydia Edwards’ campaign. Matt makes a strong case why Boston DSA is not supporting Edwards, and I agree that Boston DSA should not offer organizational support to Edwards in her 2021 campaign for State Senate. Edwards made clear that she does not identify as a socialist in her Boston DSA questionnaire in 2017. It makes sense that our endorsement criteria are more stringent than in 2017 – given that Boston DSA has grown five times since 2017 and has cadre running for office. I agree with our chapter’s strategy to elect active chapter leaders to office, because the deep relationship with cadre fosters collaboration and accountability needed for co-governance. But what individuals can and should do does not face the same burden as what our collective chapters likewise may and will do.

As an individual, I am volunteering for Edwards, a credible progressive who has consistently stood with organized labor and fought in the trenches with workers’ centers. In 2014, Edwards led the charge to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which has transformed workplace protections for low-income BIPOC and/or immigrant women who perform reproductive labor in wealthy, disproportionately white households. Numerous labor unions, including UNITE HERE Local 26, UFCW Local 1445, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, all of whom Boston DSA have supported during recent strikes, have endorsed Edwards. As a city councilor, Edwards organized the hearing on graduate student workers’ right to form unions in order to put pressure on universities in the city, a common workplace where Boston DSA members exercise their labor power as workers.

Importantly, when racial and social justice activists called out Edwards for her problematic vote on the 2020 budget, she responded by collaborating with them to change the structural conditions behind the vote and democratize the process of city budgeting itself. Edwards navigated the labyrinth of state and city bureaucracy to place charter reform on the ballot, a reform that allows the city council to amend the budget itself. While we can disagree with Edwards’ use of the words of Audre Lorde to justify the vote for the mayor’s budget, she was referring to the need to reform the city charter.

Not only did Edwards lead the charge on charter reform on the city council, she also collaborated with BIPOC-led community organizations in a way few elected officials do. Edwards centered the working-class BIPOC membership organizations, not as spokespeople for a white-led agenda as most campaigns do, but as partners and co-decision-makers. In 2019, she organized study groups with the Center for Economic Democracy and Neighbor to Neighbor for community leaders to understand the city charter and develop the case for democratic change. In 2021, Edwards made the decision with Right to the City Boston, whose platform Boston DSA endorsed in 2018, to put charter reform on the ballot. Boston DSA was not at the table for either of these stages, which warrants internal discussion about how we approach relationships with endorsed elected officials. But Edwards’ approach to co-governance with working-class BIPOC communities is my greatest hope for her candidacy for state senate.

Telling DSA members to refrain from volunteering for a credible progressive candidate like Edwards raises questions about how DSA relates to a broader progressive movement. DSA cannot pass intermediate campaigns, such as rent control, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All alone, nor can we accomplish long-term priorities to organize the multiracial working-class by ourselves. Certainly, Boston DSA brings much to the table at any coalition, with an active membership (yes, compared with many organizations) that has political analysis, tech savvy, and enthusiasm to volunteer. Many organizations (sometimes labor unions, sometimes nonprofits) have a stronger position (tools and know-how, multilingual capacity, name recognition and credibility) to organize BIPOC working-class people than Boston DSA does. 

This organizing done by individual members can have a net positive for DSA. Visibility of DSA members to activists and community members – and the benefits if allies like Edwards win – can help DSA in future work even if the chapter does not formally get involved. That’s a great use of energy without committing DSA resources.

We are movement builders, not empire builders. We cannot build a movement on our own – but neither can anyone else. DSA needs relationships with organizations with a membership base and credible progressive elected officials to change material conditions for working-class people in the short-term and intermediate time horizon as well as shift the narrative of what’s possible and organize workers in the long-term. On its own, adding one more progressive senator will not tip the balance of what is possible in Beacon Hill for working-class people. One month of individual DSA members volunteering for a candidate alongside organizations with membership bases rooted in the working-class also will not result in a multiracial coalition. Of course, we can build relationships in many other ways, such as at demonstrations, through issue campaigns, and on picket lines. 

At the end of the day, volunteering for Lydia Edwards is a step toward building relationships with members of other mass organizations and progressive candidates. These relationships provide the basis for collaboration and accountability in a broader progressive movement that DSA needs, in our current form, to win in the short term and build power of the working-class in the long term.

Beth Huang is a member of Boston DSA and currently serves as one of the two Membership Coordinators. She is a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus, which embraces multiracial coalition building as a core strategy for advancing democratic socialism.

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