Many people new to the socialist movement may wonder: What are the differences between Socialist Alternative and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? Do they work together? Why join one and not the other? Socialist Alternative members get asked these questions all the time, and we hope to provide some of the answers for them here.
There has rarely been a more exciting time to be a socialist in the United States. Poll after poll shows more young people favor socialism than capitalism. Strikes are on the rise as a fighting spirit in the labor movement begins to reemerge. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has been the most popular politician in the country for three years and is now a top contender for president arguing “billionaires shouldn’t exist.”
Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative and an open Marxist, was just elected to a third term on Seattle’s City Council despite record-shattering opposition from Amazon and the billionaire class. This was the most widely watched and covered local election in the country last year. DSA has over 50,000 members and two of them – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib – are members of Congress. Socialist Alternative and DSA are two of the best known socialist organizations in the country.
What do Socialist Alternative and DSA have in common?
Socialist Alternative and DSA both see capitalism, the current system where the economy is in private hands and run on the basis of profit as opposed to human need, as the root cause of society’s problems. We believe that socialism cannot exist without democracy, and we don’t believe that top-down authoritarian Stalinist regimes were, or are, truly socialist.
Both organizations have endorsed Bernie Sanders and are actively campaigning for him to win. We both see elections as a vital tool that, if used skillfully, can win victories for the working class and build the socialist movement. Both organizations want to see millions of workers and young people in the U.S. and across the world get active in fighting for their interests, and we think socialist ideas and strategies are crucial to the success of these fights. Socialist Alternative and the DSA work together on numerous initiatives across the country, whether it be on community campaigns, the labor movement, political education, or the recent wave of socialist election campaigns.
What kind of socialist ideas and strategy does Socialist Alternative advocate?
Socialist Alternative advocates for a workers’ government where the top 500 companies (including finance, energy, transportation, logistics, tech, and manufacturing) are publicly owned and run according to democratic planning by the working class. Production and distribution would be based on human and environmental need, not profit.
We don’t think that capitalism can simply be legislated away by politicians from above because the billionaire class would put up a fierce resistance. Beyond elections and protests, winning genuine democratic control of the economy, our workplaces, schools, and cities will require coordinated mass strikes, direct action, and working class self-organization – all coming together in a mass revolutionary movement. The working class is the only force in society capable of carrying out this change to replace capitalism and begin the transition to a global socialist society.
Socialism, based on the rational development of the economy (including ending the use of fossil fuels) and the removal of the profit-motive, would steadily eliminate the need for a repressive state as well as borders. It would collectively work to root out all vestiges of oppression whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Based on eliminating scarcity and want on a global scale we can finally move to eliminating class division. None of this can ever happen under capitalism, as all these – and other – forms of oppression are embedded in the very fabric of capitalism and perpetuated by the capitalist elite who never hesitate to use “divide and rule” tactics to uphold their system.
While we fight for fundamental system change, we also fight for every reform now, big and small, that improve the lives and conditions of working and young people today. We try to bridge the gap between movements for reforms and the socialist movement to end capitalism. Every victorious struggle raises the confidence of working people to fight for more and the fight for more far reaching changes helps to expose the limits of reform alone, i.e. of what can be achieved within the framework of capitalism.
To fight for our interests on all planes, we believe the working class needs its own mass political party, completely independent from any influence of big business. Such a party should have internal democracy and accountability (which the Democratic Party doesn’t have), and on top of running in elections, should build workplace and community struggles as well. Socialist Alternative would want to join and build a party like this, advocating for it to take up a socialist program as the only way of achieving a society fully in the interests of working people.
We think the outline of a new working-class party already exists in the Bernie Sanders campaign. Even the unapologetically pro-capitalist newspaper Financial Times agrees! If Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, DSA, and more left-leaning unions joined together to launch a new workers party, it would immediately grow to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of members. Socialist Alternative disagrees with Sanders’ strategy of attempting to reform the Democratic Party but despite this disagreement, we still support him and we are going all out to build his campaign and fight for the nomination. When Socialist Alternative runs candidates, like Kshama Sawant in Seattle, we run as independent socialists who stand explicitly for the creation of a new working-class party.
Since capitalism is a global, interconnected system, we think that socialism could not survive unless it is international as well. An island of “socialism in one country,” surrounded by a sea of capitalism, wouldn’t be sustainable. The socialist movement has to be world-wide and internationally coordinated, which is why Socialist Alternative is in political solidarity with a recently renamed worldwide organization called International Socialist Alternative, along with revolutionary socialist parties in over 30 countries across the world.
What kind of socialist ideas and strategy does DSA advocate? How does DSA being a “big tent,” or multi-tendency, organization affect this?
To join DSA one must fill out a form online and pay dues. No specific political views or time commitment is required. This is because DSA is a “big tent,” or multi-tendency, organization which means that within DSA, members have different views on most issues.
For some DSA members, socialism means the Scandinavian model of highly regulated capitalism as it existed in the post World War II period where corporations and the rich paid high taxes to fund social services and programs. There are also DSA members who generally agree with Socialist Alternative’s understanding of capitalism and socialism as described above. Within that group, there are people who think that we can slowly reform our way from capitalism to socialism and are actively against a revolutionary approach, which points to the need for a decisive break.
There are also people who, like Socialist Alternative, think ending capitalism will face massive resistance from the ruling class and that the socialist majority will have to be prepared to defend the gains made by a workers government. Others within DSA think socialism can be achieved by constructing alternative and parallel structures of social services to those of the capitalist state, often called “dual power” or “mutual aid,” slowly expanding them to the point of replacing capitalism.
There are DSA members who think the Democratic Party can be reformed into a truly progressive “people’s party” and think that DSA’s role should be as the left wing of the Democratic Party. There are also people who, like Socialist Alternative, think a new working-class party is needed. Some DSA members reject elections altogether as a tool to build the socialist movement.
Though many DSA members would consider themselves internationalists, DSA is not part of an international socialist organization or network of socialist parties.
Socialist Alternative is not a “big tent” organization, but a democratic centralist party. What does that mean, and what is democratic centralism?
We believe that democratic centralism is the organizational form best suited to an organization which seeks to organize the working class towards a fundamental transformation of society. In short, democratic centralism means there is full freedom of democratic debate and discussion within the organization to determine our approach and priorities, but also unity in action carrying out priorities and decisions once they are made. By agreeing to follow the path decided by the majority of members, Socialist Alternative is able to “punch above our weight,” or have a bigger impact than our numbers might otherwise indicate. Major policy decisions are fully discussed throughout the organization at our delegated national conventions, among our elected national leadership bodies, and in our weekly branch, or chapter, meetings and are always subject to review and analysis.
Without full freedom of discussion and debate it would be impossible to arrive at the correct analysis of a situation, including strategy and a program to take the socialist movement forward. Collectively discussing the experiences of all members is important, especially considering that no one person, or group of people, no matter how experienced they are, is always right. Having leadership bodies that are democratically elected, accountable to those who elected them, including being subject to recall, are also important democratic mechanisms for a revolutionary party.
A revolutionary party must also avoid the trap of debating nonstop without making decisions and acting on them. In order to have an impact on events and grow the socialist movement, members of a revolutionary party must be capable of acting together in a unified manner after decisions are made, sometimes quite rapidly, depending on the situation. If all members participated in making every decision, or if every decision was subject to interminable questioning, nothing would ever get done, so a certain amount of centralism is needed to complement the democracy. Especially in the heat of a particular struggle or election campaign, our local and national leadership bodies are empowered to make rapid decisions to ensure swift initiative and reaction to events. These decisions are then subject to review by the membership after the fact.
The centralism aspect of democratic centralism, for example, played an absolutely critical role in Socialist Alternative’s ability to successfully organize the campaigns that resulted in Kshama Sawant being elected and twice re-elected in Seattle, as well as utilizing the seat to win countless victories for working people and build the socialist movement. This was especially true in our re-election campaign last November, going up against the full weight of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and the political establishment in Seattle. The balance between democracy and centralism at a given moment is flexible and depends on the needs of the situation.
In the framework of democratic centralism, Socialist Alternative candidates and elected officials are accountable to the politics, program, and structures of Socialist Alternative and take only the average worker’s wage within their constituency. These mechanisms for accountability do not exist in DSA. While there is a process for candidates to receive formal DSA endorsements, any member of DSA can run for office openly identifying as a DSA member on any politics or program they choose.
As AOC herself has raised, all elected officials who seek to represent working people will come under ferocious pressure from the capitalist class. Therefore it is imperative that left-wing elected officials be democratically accountable to the workers movement. This is one of the reasons we advocate forming a new broad party representing workers interests, a process which DSA could help catalyze. To withstand the pressures of the capitalist political system, a strong counterweight is necessary – no matter how principled an individual socialist may be.
Democratic centralism should not be confused with the “bureaucratic centralism” of top-down Stalinist and some other socialist organizations where very little real debate occurs, dissent is silenced, and leadership bodies stay stagnant. In fact, friendly but serious debates are a sign of a healthy revolutionary party.
Recently, Socialist Alternative and our worldwide organization, International Socialist Alternative, have gone through major debates. While the debates varied in political content, they both involved a section of our leadership, nationally and then internationally, viewing themselves as effectively “exempt” from democratic checks and accountability. Our ability to emerge from these debates stronger than before and with renewed leaderships is a testament to the effectiveness of democratic centralism done right.
What’s the difference between being a DSA member and a Socialist Alternative member?
DSA has around 55,000 members and Socialist Alternative has just under 1,000. This difference in size is partially due to DSA being a “big tent” of many people with many different political ideas, as well as there being a significant difference in what constitutes a member between the two organizations.
DSA as an organization plays an important role in bringing together many people from different political backgrounds. A member of DSA is somebody who contributes financially to DSA, also known as paying dues. Unlike Socialist Alternative however, there is no requirement to be active beyond making a financial contribution so only a small minority of DSA’s members are regularly active, participating in DSA meetings, activity, and decision-making. This is not the case in Socialist Alternative where well over half of our membership is active on a regular basis.
DSA does not have a common definition of socialism or common strategy for how to achieve, which can be both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it provides a space where people with many different ideas can come together to discuss and debate. On the other hand, it can be difficult to unite the whole organization behind common goals and priorities as in Socialist Alternative. Most DSA chapters are made up of many various issue-based “working groups” that do single issue-based work independent from each other.
A member of Socialist Alternative is somebody who has general agreement with our program, including our definition of socialism and strategy to get there and agrees to be active in the work of the organization, including attending branch meetings, and to take their political education as a socialist and Marxist seriously. Because we are wholly independent from corporate or government funding, Socialist Alternative members also make a monthly financial contribution, or dues, which are not a flat rate, but on the basis of “from each according to their ability.”
We have a New Member Reading Packet that people can read and discuss with a current Socialist Alternative member to see if the organization is right for them. Without members sharing a common understanding of basic goals, strategy, and level of involvement, democratic centralism wouldn’t be able to work. Socialist Alternative places a premium on people who have a fighting spirit, a drive to learn, and are team players. Having a rounded out understanding of Marxism before being interested in joining is not at all necessary!
In our view, it is the political cohesion of Socialist Alternative members around the basic ideas of Marxism and revolutionary socialism, combined with the ability to discuss, debate, and act within the framework of democratic centralism, that allows Socialist Alternative to be so effective despite our still relatively small size at this time.
Are DSA and Socialist Alternative in competition with each other? Which one should I join?
Socialist Alternative and DSA as organizations are not in competition with each other. We believe the two organizations play different roles, both very important. For instance, it was DSA members in West Virginia who helped kick off the historic teachers strike. DSA’s “Democratic Socialists for Bernie” initiative has been a huge boost to the Bernie Sanders campaign in many areas, and DSA members running for elected office has been a major catalyst for the recent popularization of socialist ideas. We want to continue to deepen our working relationship with DSA. In the course of struggle, working people and socialists must strive for maximum unity, and this means cooperation, not competition.
That said, as the socialist movement continues to grow, within it there are competing ideas and theories about how to advance social movements and the class struggle. While the two organizations are not in competition, it would be dishonest to deny that many ideas within DSA are in competition with those of Socialist Alternative for how to build the socialist movement most effectively. Respectful but honest debate, as well as the testing out of various ideas and approaches in real time in the class struggle, will be crucial in determining the correct ideas and a winning strategy.
We think DSA can be helpful for thousands of people to test out different ideas in practice, and refine their own beliefs. If DSA, as a “big tent,” or multi-tendency organization, allowed Socialist Alternative to affiliate to it, we would excitedly discuss that possibility, but as it stands now, DSA as a national organization does not allow this. In some areas, local DSA chapters have asked Socialist Alternative members to join, which we have enthusiastically done and in those areas have been able to develop a closer relationship.
Socialist Alternative works alongside everybody with whom we have common agreement on an issue, whether that be fighting for higher wages and better conditions at a workplace, Bernie Sanders winning the presidency, protesting against U.S. imperialism and war, fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, walking picket lines on a strike, or any other working class struggle. All the while, we also point toward the need to build the socialist movement to end capitalism, the system that perpetuates and thrives off of exploitation and oppression, once and for all.
We think it’s important for revolutionary socialists to be organized in a democratic centralist organization. We want to convince as many people as possible of our vision for socialism and how it can be achieved, and why if you agree, you should join Socialist Alternative. There are major opportunities for the socialist movement right now in the U.S, and across the world and we encourage all working and young people to join us in building it. There’s no time to lose!