DSA Draft Platform Brings up Key Questions for Socialist Movement

Emilia Morgan (Boston DSA), Morgan Quirk (East Bay DSA), Freeman Ryan (Twin Cities DSA), Maddy Olson (Seattle DSA), all SA/DSA dual members running to be National Convention delegates in their chapters.

The organized left is in a decisive period, and the 2021 DSA Convention will be an important moment for discussion and debate. Much has changed since the DSA’s founding in 1982. Decades of neoliberalism have eroded workers organizations, seen devastating wars for oil and imperialist prestige, facilitated a decline in living standards and explosion of wealth inequality, and escalated environmental destruction. Much has changed within DSA as well. What started out as a social-democratic grouping to push the Democrats left has become the political home to a broad layer of left-wing activists organizing in a variety of areas. 

DSA has grown to be the second largest socialist organization in U.S. history. This shows the massive shift in the political landscape that has taken place, and signals new opportunities for organizing the working class. 

The first draft of the new DSA platform compiled by the Platform Subcommittee clearly reflects hours of work and much consideration of a broad range of issues. In the spirit of comradely discussion and debate around this important platform, Socialist Alternative/DSA dual members are eager to offer our views on the draft, and the role of a socialist program in general, both in written material like this and at the Pre-Convention Conferences. 

The Role of a Program

The draft’s authors say the platform “could never be long enough to adequately describe the exploitation, oppression, and indignity capitalists inflict on working class people around the world. Nor could it be long enough to enumerate the many ways we fight to change it.” Indeed, no platform could ever do this. However, from our standpoint, this shows a mistaken view of the goal of a platform.

Most members want to see DSA become a mass organization of the working class. How can this be done? The best way to concretely base our organization in the working class, and win a mass base of support and involvement, is to root our demands in the day-to-day needs of working people and put forward a clear strategy to win.

We should strive to speak to the broadest possible layer of working people, “meeting them where they’re at,” while at the same time showing how winning what we need is not possible on the basis of capitalism and will require fighting for socialism. As the platform stands now, at 16 pages with its miscellaneous — and in some places bordering on obscure — demands, it overly focuses on the existing positions of active DSA members, as opposed to meeting consciousness where it is and then taking it forward. 

One example of this approach historically is Marx and Engels’ 10 demands in the Communist Manifesto. These demands, including a progressive income tax, abolishing rights of inheritance, free education for all, were not in themselves socialism. They were a set of understandable, clearly desirable, and winnable reforms that, crucially, would require class struggle and ultimately wholesale working-class power, to be implemented. This general approach is what Socialist Alternative calls the “transitional method.” In the context of a platform, this means using demands as a “bridge” from existing consciousness to the need for socialism.

Just as importantly, a socialist platform must serve as a guide to action for the working class. Most, if not all, of the platform’s demands will require mass movements and working class action to win, and this should be made clear and included in the platform document.

One example of how this could be done is in the labor section, which currently consists of a list of demands directed at the capitalist state. Winning even the smallest of them would require a real labor offensive. A key barrier standing in the way of this, however, is the existing bureaucratic leadership of most unions who are unwilling to lead real class struggle and are tied at the hip to the Democratic Party. But the draft platform offers no lead on how to take the labor bureaucracy on and transform our unions. For starters, this would mean including in the platform the need to democratize our unions, for regular election of all union officials with the right to recall, and all leaders taking the average wage of the workers they represent. This would require making the platform not simply a list of demands directed at the capitalist state, but a real guide to action for the working class in all arenas.

A Predetermined Schedule for Class Struggle?

The division of the platform sections into short-, medium-, and long-term demands represents, in our view, a serious misunderstanding of the purpose of a socialist program and the nature of the class struggle. We think this formatting should be abandoned.

The crisis at the southern border has accelerated with overflowing detention centers, deadly COVID-19 outbreaks, abuse by border patrol, and Biden’s weak attempts at addressing it. If Biden continues to fail to reverse Trump’s barbaric immigration policies, immigrant rights could become a key focal point of the movement in the coming period, maybe very soon, and socialists should provide a strong lead on making this happen. But in the platform draft, demilitarization of the border and an end to immigrant detention are medium-term demands. Ending all deportations is a long-term demand, supposedly to be achieved after the medium-term tasks of a united Ireland, a secular state in the Levant, and reunification of the Korean peninsula. We think that if the ACLU can call on the Biden administration to immediately close the camps, DSA certainly can, and this is something we should fight for here and now. 

The “new Cold War” between the competing imperialist superpowers is a central feature of global politics in this era. Inter-imperialist conflict, and the national aggression that comes with it, is inherent to capitalism. In the platform, ending the U.S.-China rivalry is incorrectly listed as a short-term demand. This severely miseducates DSA members and radicalizing workers and young people who look to our platform on the relationship between imperialism and capitalism, and gives the wrong impression that inter-imperialist rivalry can be ended wholesale on the basis of capitalism. We should be calling for an end to anti-worker tariffs, ‘free trade’ agreements, vaccine hoarding, and military buildup in the Pacific, while also calling on the labor movement and other forces to oppose nationalist propaganda, Sinophobia, and anti-Asian hate. 

It would be extremely unfortunate if radicalizing workers and youth who read the platform were to interpret its organization as a reflection of importance. What message does the Socialist Feminism section, the shortest at just 126 words, send to those reading our platform, in particular radicalizing young women? Why are universal childcare and free abortion medium-term demands, when the childcare crisis has been dramatically exacerbated under the pandemic, and abortion rights are facing vicious attacks? Women have been on the forefront of every major struggle in the past several years (fight for $15, both of Bernie’s campaigns, the teachers strike wave, Black Lives Matter, and more), and there is clear potential for struggle around these key demands. Domestic violence and abuse have been on the rise under COVID, but no demands are presented around this crisis. 

One possibility is that the division is meant by the platform’s authors to reflect a proposed or predicted sequence of events, based on an analysis of what would be easiest to win, medium-difficult to win, and most challenging to win. But this too would represent a misunderstanding of the nature of class struggle.

In the heat of struggle, there are many demands that may have previously been thought of as “long-term” which can overnight become a short-term, order-of-the-day demand. If it is to be a real guide to action for the working class, a socialist platform must allow for the flexibility required by the class struggle, which means not strictly siloing demands into pre-conceived timeline categories.

In the Economic Regulation section, ending patent protections and transferring technology to the Global South is a medium-term demand. This placement, however, has already become outdated, as the COVID explosion in India and its effects internationally have brought forward the life-and-death urgency of this demand. Kshama Sawant’s resolution for removing intellectual property restrictions on vaccine distribution to the Seattle City Council, which then spread to Chicago, Cambridge, MA and Burbank, CA is an example of steps socialists have taken to advance this fight into the next level of struggle. This helped force the Biden administration to stop blocking the WTO’s TRIPS waiver.

Now the key fight is for wealthy countries to massively invest in building manufacturing capacity across the Global South, sending surplus doses where they are most needed, and demanding Big Pharma reinvest its billions in profits back into research and vaccine production. This can only be accomplished by taking pharmaceutical companies into public ownership, which while suddenly an immediate demand due to the vaccine crisis, is listed as a medium-term demand in the draft platform.

Reform or Revolution: How Much Can Be Won Under Capitalism?

The platform outlines fully decarbonizing the economy by 2030 as a short-term demand, with “democratic control and social ownership of major energy systems and resources” as a medium-term demand. This implies to anyone who reads our platform that fully decarbonizing the economy is possible on the basis of private ownership of energy corporations. On the contrary, winning 100% renewable energy will require taking the fossil fuel, manufacturing, and logistics industries into public ownership and democratic workers’ control, thereby challenging capitalism itself. For a socialist program to indicate otherwise is a serious mistake of reformism, the idea that what the working class and the planet need can be achieved without revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism.

Similarly, full employment is featured in the platform, as a medium-term demand in Ecosocialism and a long-term demand in Labor. Capitalism will never employ all workers because of its crucial need to maintain a “reserve army” of the unemployed. This is another mistake stemming from a reformist approach.

As mentioned above, it can be useful to raise demands that are not yet achievable under the current system. Demands that would necessarily require a qualitative strengthening of the movement to be achieved can open up new avenues of struggle. However, presenting these in the form of chronological steps has major pitfalls, and risks miseducating our own members and people who read our platform. 

While the emphasis of democratic worker ownership in most sections of the platform is positive, equally necessary is a focus on economic planning, which is missing from the platform. A democratically planned economy is a key selling point for socialists to propose solutions to the climate crisis, and to correct capitalism’s dysfunctional, irrational, and wasteful market-based method of production and distribution. 

Some members of DSA, including ourselves, see revolutionary change as necessary to overthrow capitalism. Others see potential for legislative progress to, over time, accumulate into a socialist society. The only demand that could be perceived as an indication of DSA’s official position is the long-term demand for a new Constitutional Convention. We think the platform itself, in how it exposes the overwhelmingly oppressive, exploitative, and fundamentally dysfunctional nature of capitalism, proves that a revolutionary movement is absolutely necessary. Workers and oppressed people will need to decisively challenge the bosses, the billionaires, and the capitalist state which serves their interests in order to dramatically, and forcefully, shift the dominant global mode of production toward democratic socialism and a planned economy in the interest of people and the planet.

Unanswered Questions

DSA is a “big-tent,” multi-tendency organization. However, this doesn’t mean there are no points of programmatic unity shared by the majority of members. In fact, for DSA to grow and succeed, this unity will need to be continuously developed. Part of why the renewal of the platform is such a positive development is because of the deep need for a common set of demands to draw together the various tendencies within DSA. The platform process has real potential to aid the organization as a whole in reaching political clarity on key questions. Unfortunately, several key questions are not clearly elaborated in the platform. 

As DSA-endorsed candidates, and many DSA members, have seen electoral successes across the country, socialists’ relationship to the Democratic Party has reemerged as a central strategic question for the movement. Whether the Democratic Party can be reformed, versus whether a new working class party needs to be built, and if so how, has been debated extensively with thousands of words published arguing the varying positions in the organization. This platform doesn’t provide an answer or even a framework to solve this crucial question. Doing so could provide a useful mechanism to have this debate in a structured fashion.

Vaccine inequality, trade wars, a deadly lack of coordination in responding to the pandemic as well as the climate crisis, and growing instability of the institutions of global capitalism make the need for international working class solidarity as important as ever. Earlier this year, the DSA’s International Committee officially opposed DSA members in Puerto Rico forming a chapter. This has led to debate around DSA’s role internationally: should we actively support democratic socialist chapters in areas abroad, or ‘step back’ and promote involvement in existing left formations instead, and if so which ones?

We, along with many other DSA members, believe socialists and progressive workers should urgently take steps to form a new left party. We also strongly support the national organization helping to build chapters in areas outside the U.S, arming them with resources and a socialist program. But at the very least, DSA members need a frame of reference in order to engage with these questions, and to advance the goal of putting internationalism into practice.  

Central topics like these should not be excluded on the basis of existing disagreements. In fact, giving them due focus in the platform discussion would be the best way to make headway on tackling these questions. What is adopted in the platform doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — the final say on the issue. It can lay a foundation for strategies to be tested out, revisited, discussed and debated in the future. 

We urge our fellow DSA members to engage with the platform as a historic and defining process for DSA following a new stage of growth, and Socialist Alternative members in DSA are excited to participate in this important debate. It should be discussed and debated in every chapter, including as part of delegate elections, alongside the important Pre-Convention Conferences. A strong program for DSA would have enormous potential to lay the groundwork for big steps forward for the socialist movement. 

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