The evolution of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) since 2016 has been remarkable. When Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant was first elected as an independent socialist to the Seattle City Council in 2013, the median age of DSA’s membership was 68 years old and its membership hovered around 8,500. By 2018, its membership had exploded to 80,000 members, with a median age of 33 years old. With nearly 100,000 members, today’s DSA is one of the largest socialist organizations in U.S. history.
DSA members across the country have won seats in state legislatures, city councils, and even the House of Representatives, primarily running as Democrats. DSA now has 155 elected officials representing six million people, and various important positions inside unions and social justice movements. DSA has played a key role in crystallizing a more developed, organized left wing in American politics than has existed in decades.
Radicalizing young people and left activists of all stripes have streamed into DSA as a broad, “big-tent” vehicle for activism.In this way, DSA has not only been an expression of a broader radicalization, it has also played an important role in advancing it.
However, along with DSA’s successes have come serious political challenges which reflect the pressure to adapt to capitalism and its institutions. This pressure has been reflected in DSA’s overt political positions, but also in what DSA has chosen not to do or not to say. Faced with the changed reality of Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a critical section of DSA leaders have shifted to the right in the past period. This stems from the absence of a strategy to mobilize DSA’s 95,000 members and the lack of a clear program for overturning capitalism.
DSA supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign which showed the potential for a new left party in the U.S. The campaign tragically ended in Sanders capitulating to the establishment. While officially DSA did not endorse Joe Biden in November 2020, many leading figures like Eric Blanc undermined this position, arguing that the 2020 election was “qualitatively different” to previous elections and that socialists who oppose Trump must vote for Biden. Socialist Alternative argued this was a mistake as Biden was a longstanding representative of the interests of the billionaire class. We pointed out that Biden’s vicious attacks on Bernie’s program would only help Trump’s chances. Voters in Florida confirmed this when both Trump and a $15/hr minimum wage referendum won in the same election.
Biden passed substantial stimulus relief while calling for further spending on social programs and infrastructure when he first took office. However, he hasn’t followed through on any of his promises of long-term gains for working people, like a $15/hr minimum wage or the PRO Act. He has whittled down his infrastructure proposals based on negotiations with the Republicans. As the months pass and the immediate pressure caused by the height of the pandemic and economic collapse pass, the Democrats are showing their true colors.
Left progressives in Congress like the Squad, which includes Congresspeople nominally associated with DSA such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have failed to take on Biden, Pelosi, and the rest of the Democratic establishment in a serious way. To the detriment of millions of working people, they have refused to wage a fight on key questions like Medicare for All, the $15/hr minimum wage, taxing corporations and billionaires, and the Green New Deal, particularly in moments when a fight was most needed.
Against this backdrop, this year’s DSA National Convention comes at a very important moment. Many people in DSA are not happy with elected “democratic socialist” officials unaccountable to the movement. Recent campaigns to put pressure on elected officials, such as Force the Vote and July’s Medicare for All Marches, had many proud DSA members involved. However, DSA leadership’s hostility to these initiatives has not been challenged in an organized way by rank-and-file members. The direction DSA takes in the coming months will have significant consequences for the American left as a whole. Does the DSA return to founder Michael Harrington’s policy of pursuing “the left wing of the practical” and accept that there is no point challenging the framework of the Democratic Party, or does it begin to chart a course towards helping launch a new political force independent of corporate politics that can represent the interests of working people?
Bernie and The Squad Under Biden
Had Bernie launched an independent, fighting, and democratic organization in 2016, this could have provided a tool for mobilizing millions of working class people to fight Trump’s right-wing agenda, and we would now be in a far stronger position to confront Joe Manchin and the Republicans under Biden. While this historic opportunity slipped away, there is still mass left-wing sentiment, especially among young people. The question is how to organize it.
The dramatic rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez illustrates the size and scope of this political vacuum on the left. The prospect of a young, Puerto Rican, former bartender and self-described democratic socialist entering a Congress dominated by out of touch white millionaires attracted countless workers and young people who were searching for ways to continue Bernie’s political revolution. AOC’s willingness to challenge the Democratic establishment, shown not only in her primary campaign but also in her willingness to take risks like occupying Speaker Pelosi’s office with young climate activists, are what catapulted her to her status today as arguably the most well-known member of Congress. She has since been joined by other insurgent candidates who share similar characteristics, though this has not culminated in there being a strong left bloc in Congress due to their having no shared strategy, no organizational unity, and no clear line of demarcation between themselves and the party establishment.
The Squad has shown how electing a few left progressives to Congress doesn’t by itself change the dynamic of the capitalist political system, especially if these representatives remain within the framework of the corporate Democratic Party. By the fall of 2020, the hostility from the Democratic establishment led AOC to openly talk about leaving politics altogether. Even the best-intentioned DSA candidates don’t have a roadmap for how to take the democratic socialist project forward under the relentless pressure of elected office under capitalism. This is something the DSA should provide by being an unequivocally unapologetic fighting force for the needs of working class people, and even more crucially, by being willing to organize mass movements to force social change.
Instead, the opposite is happening. In January, Los Angeles Chargers running back Justin Jackson called out AOC for refusing to #ForceTheVote on Medicare for All by withholding support for Nancy Pelosi in the vote for House Speaker. This led to the first instance of AOC facing real frustration from large numbers of people on the left. In response, AOC argued that progressives’ focus should be on “winnable” measures like a nationwide $15/hr minimum wage, which Biden said he would support. Besides the fact that her response played into the insider baseball that working class people find so repulsive, and effectively fed into the narrative pitting healthcare against wages, it didn’t work. Biden didn’t push the $15/hr minimum wage, and when it came time for Bernie and the Squad to hold things up to force that issue, they shied away again.
When people called out DSA for backing away from their strategy, some chapter leaderships responded by essentially blaming their membership for not paying attention. A few days later, DSA wrote an official statement “Should House Progressives #ForceTheVote on Medicare for All?” which defended AOC’s position on the basis of the technicalities of House procedure:
“We call on the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) to be direct, confrontational, hard-lined, and disciplined about Medicare for All in the battles to come over incremental, unsatisfactory healthcare reform efforts… But we also recognize that Speaker Pelosi alone can’t deliver us a floor vote. The Medicare for All bill in the House needs to pass through six Committees’ jurisdiction, and it currently lacks financing language (i.e. how to pay for it), so it’s not a bill that can be voted on yet.”
This is simply an alibi for refusing to mobilize working people to pressure the incoming Democratic majority to take measures in the interests of working people. As Biden’s climb-downs mount, the pressure on the Squad and Bernie to challenge him will grow and DSA should play a leading role in turning up this pressure. This could crystallize as the discussions around Biden’s infrastructure package enter the mainstream in a more serious way, or on the question of the expiring federal eviction moratorium. Biden has already walked back his early proposals to raise the corporate tax rate to 28% and has conceded $1 trillion in the overall package as a means to win bipartisan support.
The pressure on Bernie and the Squad could greatly sharpen as a summer of record-breaking heatwaves, cataclysmic fires, and hurricanes give stark urgency to the call for an immediate Green New Deal to address climate change. AOC now says she and other progressives will “tank” the watered-down bipartisan infrastructure plan unless it is accompanied by a “reconciliation bill” including social programs and measures on climate change. This is good, but there is no sign of a plan to mobilize working people and young people to fight for it and, unfortunately, she has backed down from these sorts of promises before.
The DSA Under Biden
DSA is of course not only an electoral organization. Their chapters around the country prioritize a host of different forms of activism from running issue-based campaigns to mutual aid work. The organization’s focus from area to area has a great deal of variation. However, the centerpiece of much of their work nationally, and the work that has resulted in their greatest membership gains, is their electoral work. In the vast majority of cases, DSA-endorsed candidates run within the Democratic Party and have varying political programs.
Under capitalism, any gains won for the working class will have to be viciously fought for and left-wing elected officials will need to firmly withstand pressures from corporate politicians. As it stands now, DSA is lacking in its ability to forcefully challenge the pressure that the Democratic Party corporate establishment exerts on their most high-profile representatives from day one in office.
There is a serious need for DSA’s elected officials to be held accountable to the organization they represent. One promising sign was the decision of Chicago DSA to censure Alderman and DSA member Andre Vasquez for voting for an austerity budget, the first time DSA has publicly censured one of its elected officials for such a move. However, this outrage was channeled into a prolonged committee process, where the defense of Vasquez focused on the troubling reality that other DSA elected officials like Carlos Ramirez-Rosa took campaign donations from corporate interests as well. The formation of a “Democratic Socialist Caucus” on the Chicago City Council is a good initiative to get more organized, but the basis of the caucus is vague and does not include explicit ways to hold the aldermen accountable to a left program. These formations have yet to be tested in the struggle against the political establishment, and nowhere are genuine structures of accountability in place. DSA also needs firm standards for candidate endorsement and should resist accepting the bare-minimum expectations of a progressive platform. We think Resolution #38 at the upcoming DSA National Convention offers strong conditions for endorsement, and a group of SA/DSA dual members has proposed an amendment to strengthen it even further.
Similar issues played out over the question of how to pass the PRO Act, which would be a major victory for the labor movement. In its original form, the PRO Act would have essentially overturned “Right to Work” laws by allowing unions to collect dues from workers who opted out of the union, made some union-busting tactics like mandatory anti-union meetings illegal, and strengthened protections for immigrants and independent contractors. The PRO Act could play an important role in creating more favorable terrain for labor struggles like the recent #BAmazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama which went down in defeat in the face of Amazon’s vicious anti-union tactics.
DSA’s PRO Act campaign has made over one million calls to households in key senators’ districts. The goal of this phone banking is to get those households to pressure their senators to support the PRO Act. The sheer number of calls made is an impressive show of organizing capacity, and highlights the growing support for unions, especially among young workers, immigrants, and Black workers.
This campaign would have far more impact if only it were connected to a strategy of mobilization, rather than operating simply on the liberal idea that individual constituents can persuade their senators to “listen to voters.” The campaign also prematurely pointed to victory by claiming to have “flipped” West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Instead, the DSA’s PRO Act campaign should’ve been centered around its more than 10,000 union members pushing their unions to take up a strategy of mass mobilizations to demand Biden and the Senate Democrats pass the PRO Act, which they could have done if Biden eliminated the filibuster. Establishment Democrats will only act in the interests of ordinary people if they feel there is a genuine threat in the form of a mass movement. This is what is needed to pass not only the PRO Act but a whole host of progressive bills currently in limbo in Congress.
The PRO Act campaign contrasts with the Red for Ed educators’ strikes which many DSA members took part in that challenged intransigent and indifferent politicians in 2018 and 2019. Rather than rely on escalating mobilizations along the lines of Red for Ed, DSA essentially launched a massive lobbying effort for the PRO Act. This is a terrain that has routinely failed working class people.
A key element that made Red for Ed victorious was a willingness to challenge the union leaderships who sought to stand in the way of a fighting strategy. To actually win the PRO Act in its entirety would require unions in the U.S. mobilizing their 16 million members for mass rallies, occupying legislators’ offices, and drawing non-union workers into the labor movement. If DSA were to use its presence in the unions to pursue this strategy, they would come into conflict with conservative leaders of many existing unions and would need to respond with a bold campaign to win over and galvanize their ranks. This would play a hugely important role in providing a lead for a wider layer of progressive-minded union members, by demonstrating that their leaderships can and must be challenged in order to rebuild a fighting labor movement.
There are many movements where individual DSA members have played important, and sometimes, as with several of the Red for Ed teachers strikes, absolutely crucial roles. But this is rarely done “as DSA” which makes the gains that DSA can make out of these comrades’ heroic work limited. When DSA does act as a unified national organization, it has often been around politically weaker initiatives such as the PRO Act campaign. This is one of the products of a rightward-moving leadership and will need to be corrected for DSA to play the best role possible in building a strong socialist movement.
DSA also had a lackluster intervention into the mass Black Lives Matter uprising in the summer of 2020. In some cities, DSA was missing altogether from the struggle while in others they tailed the liberal and NGO misleadership, failing to put forward a socialist program for Black liberation. DSA’s national statement following George Floyd’s murder made generally correct points about the links between capitalism and racism, but concluded with an appeal to support a handful of NGO’s “on the ground” in Minneapolis rather than a program to strengthen the central force behind the uprising – multiracial youth, especially young Black workers.
Overall there is confusion among the various DSA caucuses about what the road to Black freedom looks like. Some caucuses like Seattle’s AfroSocialist Caucus have adopted a brand of identity politics that claims the best thing socialist organizations can demand right now is for their own non-Black members to repent for their privilege. This has taken shape around a campaign for non-Black DSA members to pay reparations to Black members of the AfroSocialist Caucus. This same caucus helped to organize a Pride event in Seattle where non-Black people had to pay a reparations fee to attend.
On the other hand, some in DSA take up a “class reductionist” approach to fighting racism, namely that the struggle against oppression, and anti-Black racism in particular, should be subsumed into the broad demands of the workers’ movement. They advocate for an exclusive focus on universal demands like Medicare for All and $15, to the exclusion of demands that specifically address oppression, and suggest that it’s only through those broad demands that benefit the whole of the working class that Black freedom can be won.
We disagree with both of these approaches. In the U.S., the divide-and-rule racism of the ruling class has been a key barrier to the working class achieving major reforms won in other countries like universal healthcare or free college education. In order to unite the entire multiracial working class in a struggle against capitalism, we need to take up the demands of the Black liberation movement, including demands against racist law enforcement terror, for ending segregationist policies in housing and education, and for the abolition of the brutal mass incarceration system. Both the extreme identity politics of Seattle AfroSocialists and class reductionism, from different points of view, serve to ultimately create more divisions than bonds among working class people.
This Year’s DSA Convention and the Role of Socialist Leadership
DSA’s upcoming convention will be an important indication of where the organization stands on key questions like what are the best ways to fight for socialism, how best to organize the socialist movement, and how elected officials and institutions like the Democratic Party fit into this strategy. Many have branded this year as a “Consensus Convention,” with existing political differences between individuals and caucuses presenting themselves much less sharply than in 2019. While the desire for a shared political platform to unite around is positive, the problem is that this “consensus” is based on a turn towards a more openly reformist approach.
For example, one of the key resolutions for the convention, Resolution #5, authored by leaders of dominant caucuses including Bread and Roses, Socialist Majority, and Collective Power Network, outlines how rebuilding a fighting labor movement should be a major priority, which is correct. The resolution recognizes that the presence of socialists in the unions is a key factor in the fight for change, urging members to get union jobs, get active in their unions, and run for leadership positions. However, it offers no roadmap for how to overcome the main obstacle rank-and-file union activists face in rebuilding a fighting labor movement: the entrenched and conservative union leaderships.
A key litmus test, as we have repeatedly insisted, is DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party. The debate in DSA on the Democratic Party over the last few years has focused on whether to support a “clean break” of leaving the Democrats to start a new party or a “dirty break” of continuing to run in Democratic races with a loose plan to found an independent party at an undetermined point in the future. Whereas the dirty break idea was widely accepted in recent years, Tempest Collective’s “Strange Alchemy” points out the marked shift more recently away from even the dirty break and toward a “party surrogate” model of advancing socialist reform via a “party-within-a-party” inside the Democrats. Individuals and formations within DSA who continue to advocate for the dirty break are facing an uphill battle not only against a weaponized and increasingly reformist “consensus,” but from the fundamental shortcomings in the dirty break concept itself.
At this year’s convention, this rightward electoralist trend among DSA’s leadership is contained in Resolution #8, “Towards a Mass Party in the United States,” authored by DSA’s National Electoral Committee, which is dominated by Bread and Roses and Socialist Majority Caucus. The proposal tries to root the tactical use of the Democratic Party ballot line into a deeper theoretical analysis of U.S, capitalism, arguing that in a “formally democratic state” in the US where “traditional” membership-led political parties are allegedly impossible to build and ballot lines are “controlled by state laws”, the only viable way for socialists to “take state power” is through the Democratic Party. While the proposal formally calls on all chapters of DSA to “commit to the project of building a working-class party,” the proposal’s substance actually points in the complete opposite direction.
Central to the theory behind this resolution and to the “dirty break” concept as well is the notion that ordinary people aren’t ready for a new party. There is mounting evidence, however, that this is untrue, including polls showing that an increasing majority of people in the U.S. want a new political party. Bernie’s call to transform the Democratic Party into a “workers party” was enormously popular, and while the idea of transforming the Democrats in this way is clearly utopian, it points to the widespread desire for a force representing working people independent of corporate control. Everywhere we look, from the BLM movement, to the climate movement, to Medicare for All and a the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage, there is not only a basis for a fightback but legions of youth and workers ready and waiting to fight. What’s missing is any major force on the left willing to provide a lead.
This is a central weakness of DSA today, including of many on the left of DSA: the failure to understand the role of socialist leadership in expediting the development of consciousness and the class struggle. The reason we don’t have a workers’ party in the US today is not due to a low level of consciousness around this question, but a crisis of leadership. This is precisely what has made the capitulations by Bernie and AOC so tragic, and what makes DSA’s role in the face of their buckling so crucial. Whether in relation to the building of a new party, Black Lives Matter, or the labor movement, DSA must begin to offer an alternative way forward to that of the working class’s current misleaders in those arenas, and provide a lead.
If DSA fails to boldly move towards running independent left electoral campaigns linked to mobilizing working people to win concrete gains as Kshama Sawant has done in Seattle, it will only reinforce the trend towards political accommodation with the establishment. An important feature of the DSA leadership’s shift to the right is the doubling down on the use of the Democratic Party ballot line. The debate at the convention over a resolution proposing DSA prepare an alternative to VAN, the Democratic Party’s canvassing software, shows troubling indications of DSA’s dependence on the party, which in reality is incompatible with a fighting socialist electoral project.
There is little doubt DSA will continue to see successes at the electoral level, and will also likely see continuing bumps in membership. What remains to be seen is what this can deliver for the millions of working class people who are now represented in government by DSA members and who have raised expectations. Going into the 2022 midterms, the Democratic leadership will move full force to protect Democratic congressional majorities, and the threat of a Republicans retaking congress will put extreme pressure on the Squad and DSA to prioritize maintaining Democratic Party control over the concrete needs of working class people.
All over the world, internationalist consciousness is reemerging, especially among young people: in the U.S. it was the Israeli regime’s bombardment of Gaza and the anti-occupation struggle that sparked the first major protests since Biden took office. There has been a huge increase in debate and discussion within DSA on how to pursue an anti-imperialist, internationalist program. Members of DSA’s International Committee recently paid visits to Latin American countries in an effort to establish relationships with reformist parties and forces. This has unearthed sharp disagreements on what DSA’s approach to internationalism should be and having a real debate on this important question is crucial. Meanwhile, AOC has opposed sending rockets to Israel during the recent assault on Gaza and correctly called for ending the blockade of Cuba. However, she and the Squad do not point to or challenge the Democrats’ overall role in upholding U.S. imperialism. This points to a key factor missing from the international debates in DSA, that a central, historic task of socialist internationalists in the U.S. is to build an alternative to the pro-imperialist corporate parties “at home.”
Socialist Alternative’s Role In DSA
Socialist Alternative wants to work with anyone interested in winning concrete victories for working class people, and rebuilding a vibrant mass socialist movement both in the United States and around the world. For such a project to be successful, it will need to involve much wider sections of the working class. But an important aspect of it can happen through the DSA and its hundred thousand newly radicalized and eager-to-fight membership. For this reason, some of our members, including Kshama Sawant, have joined the DSA. We want to bring our experience of fighting in the labor movement and intervening in social struggles, our experience holding elected office and winning important victories in Seattle, as well as our experience working with socialists in other countries in International Socialist Alternative, into the important discussions facing the DSA, and the socialist movement as a whole.
Many in DSA have welcomed SA’s participation. This is attested to by the fact that ten of our members were elected by the members in their local DSA chapters to serve as delegates to the National Convention this year. This includes Kshama Sawant, who got the highest number of votes of any delegate from Seattle DSA. Our members have offered concrete amendments to strengthen resolutions that specifically relate to rebuilding a fighting labor movement and DSA’s electoral strategy.
Some prominent reformist figures in DSA have clearly been rankled by SA members joining. At root, this arises from opposition to our revolutionary socialist politics. We believe it is a positive thing that DSA is a broad, multi-tendency organization with a vibrant democratic life. We would advocate that this should go further by allowing working class organizations, including unions, to officially affiliate to DSA while maintaining their own independent existence. If DSA could realize its potential role, as a much-needed site for the broad left to debate and unite around key fights to have an even stronger impact, this would only attract more people to DSA who will see it as a powerful vehicle of unified struggle.
We hope this year’s convention prepares DSA for the fights that are coming. This means soberly assessing what has worked and what hasn’t through comradely debate. This also means developing an orientation to boldly intervene in major class upheavals that extend far beyond the existing socialist left, like the anti-racist rebellions that rocked the country following the murder of George Floyd last summer, and linking these upheavals to the long-term fight against the billionaire class, which includes fighting within their political institutions. As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, revolutionary socialists “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.” Fighting for this principle means fighting for a DSA that is prepared to face up to the challenges of the coming period.