Why Socialist Alternative is Launching a Caucus in DSA

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By Erin Brightwell, Member UPTE-CWA 9119, East Bay DSA, Socialist Alternative Executive Committee 

Socialists face immense challenges and opportunities in 2022. The Republicans and even far right elements are gaining support due to the anti-working class nature of the Biden administration and rising capitalist crisis with historic levels of inflation. Historic attacks on women’s rights have already begun, with more likely coming in the next few months. At the same time, the “Great Resignation” and “Striketober” of 2021 have the potential to become  widespread workplace action in 2022 with organizing drives, strikes, and attempts to transform existing unions into the fighting organizations that working people need. And now, with a devastating war in Ukraine, it is more important than ever that socialists take a fighting lead in building a working-class movement against imperialism and capitalist warmongering. This year will provide immense tests for the socialist left, and Socialist Alternative wants to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with DSA comrades in these looming battles as we debate the way forward to victory.

Socialist Alternative has had members in DSA for several years. We increased our involvement in DSA a year ago, and have worked on shared campaigns and brought our ideas into DSA debates. Preserving the seat of Seattle socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of SA and DSA, who has always run independent of the two parties of capitalism, was a crucial victory for the socialist movement last December, and DSA members worked side-by-side with Socialist Alternative to help achieve this victory. Despite being forced into a defensive position by the right-wing recall effort, we waged an offensive campaign for rent control and against the ruling class attack on the Black Lives Matter movement. While taking the fight directly to the right wing, we relentlessly exposed the Seattle Democratic establishment which would have been quite relieved to see Kshama Sawant kicked off the council. The successful battle against the recall, as well as Kshama Sawant’s and Socialist Alternative’s eight years on the council, highlight the power of a class struggle, movement building approach to electoral politics.

Now we are launching a Socialist Alternative caucus in DSA. The goal of our caucus is to fight for the ideas that can best help build and strengthen the working class and socialist movement on all terrains of struggle, and for a more visible profile within DSA that clarifies our dual members’ affiliation with our politics. The Socialist Alternative caucus will consist of SA members who are also members of DSA, and who fight for our program of a revolutionary transformation of society along democratic socialist lines. We are committed to an international approach to socialism, and are part of International Socialist Alternative. We are taking the step of launching a caucus because revolutionary socialist ideas are becoming more and more essential to the working class, as political polarization, the deep political crisis of the Democratic Party, and the absence of a strong independent left political force threatens to open the door to further growth of the far right.

Biden and the Squad

That the Democrats are in deep trouble heading into the midterm elections is not debatable. Biden’s poll numbers are in freefall, most particularly among young people. In a stark reversal from the beginning of 2021, more Americans now identify as Republicans than Democrats, and the gap hasn’t been this large in favor of the Republicans since 1995. The Democrats are paying the price for the utter failure of the Biden administration to improve the lives of working class Americans since the pandemic stimulus bill was signed back in March. The massive opening for the Republicans this November, whose ranks are dominated by right wingers loyal to the bigoted billionaire Trump, should be of grave concern to the socialist movement. 

We have commented before on the rightward drift of the leadership of Democratic Socialists of America. To be blunt, since Biden’s election, many DSA leaders have provided left cover to Bernie Sanders and the Squad, as Sanders and the Squad have abandoned the program on which they were elected. From Force-the-Vote to the Bowman Affair, DSA leadership failed to confront their endorsed representatives as those representatives entered into a doomed compact with the longtime loyal servant of capitalism, Joe Biden

The Squad, operating with the thin Democratic margin in the House, could have used that leverage to force through progressive reforms. As we have argued, there was a huge opportunity for them to fight for pro-working class demands like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal in the halls of Congress while also helping to mobilize a movement for their program in the streets that DSA could have played a major role in building. Instead of using their power to win concrete victories and build the socialist movement, they limited their activity to being the loyal opposition of the Democratic party in power, and they abandoned their own program.

The limited program the Squad did support, Biden’s original agenda, now lies in ruins and the Republicans are poised to reap the windfall of disappointment generated by those failures. The Democratic Party is increasingly discredited among large sections of the population. Socialists have every motivation to make a decisive break from the Democrats, firstly because, at its essence, the Democratic Party is a party of and for capitalism that will sell out the working class at any opportunity, but also because it is a deeply damaged brand. Biden is now the president of a failed pandemic response, expiring federal relief, and inflation. Furthermore, the “dirty break” inside-outside strategy toward the Democrats has not proven itself as a viable strategy to win concrete victories for our movement, or to strengthen the forces of movements from below. We believe that as an immediate step toward a new left party, DSA candidates should run as independent socialist candidates, not Democrats, as Kshama Sawant has done successfully now to win three elections in Seattle.

Massive Opportunities in the Labor Movement 

The opportunities in labor are tremendous. The unionization of Starbucks represents a threat to the regime of precarious, low wage jobs on which corporate profits rest, if the drive succeeds through the use of class struggle strategies. There are many hard battles to be won before Starbucks workers have a union contract that wins gains in wages, benefits, and working conditions, but such a victory would put big employers into panic mode. Unionizing efforts at logistics behemoth Amazon would be an even more serious threat to the capitalist class. Workers and union leaders will need to have a discussion of the failed Amazon union drive in Alabama, as well as review the results and lessons from the upcoming re-vote, in order to win against one of the world’s most powerful corporations.    

After decades when most labor leaders adhered to a policy of concessionary bargaining and avoiding conflict with the bosses, there is a new mood brewing in union halls. In recent months, workers at Kellogg, Nabisco, John Deere, and the Western Washington Carpenters Union voted down tentative agreements pushed by their leadership and went on strike or extended strikes to fight for more. 

Workers defying the concessionary policies of their union leadership was an important feature of the “Red for Ed” teachers’ strike wave beginning in West Virginia in 2018. DSA members played a vital role in building and leading several of these teachers’ struggles – a contrast from DSA’s general approach of organizing strike support without taking a position on the questions facing striking workers. Going on strike means entering into an open battle with the employer, and questions of strategy and tactics are paramount, and are essentially political questions. Socialists should not concede strike strategy and tactics to the existing union leadership, but should fight for those steps that will further the confidence, organization, and political consciousness of workers who move into struggle, that are necessary to win.

The socialist movement needs to have a working knowledge of labor history, and an analysis of the political character of the labor movement so that it can take a position on what tactics will lead to victory for workers in struggle. In an amendment to the main resolution on labor that dual DSA/SA members raised at last year’s DSA convention we argued that, “The main barrier to [rebuilding a strong and fighting labor movement] is the majority of the existing labor leadership who run their unions in a top-down fashion with little involvement of the rank-and-file, accept far too many compromises and concessions, are unwilling to lead militant struggle, and give cover and support to the Democratic establishment.” From the ousting of the old guard in the Teamsters national elections, to the multiple rejected tentative agreements of “Striketober,” our analysis from last July proved highly accurate. We look forward to continuing to contribute our ideas on strengthening DSA’s labor involvement. 

The current “labor shortage,” which is one of the factors creating a favorable moment for labor organizing, will not last forever. The socialist movement, including DSA, should be enthusiastically and critically involving itself in labor struggles, providing not just material support and “bodies on the line,” but also arguing for a strategy necessary to win, for labor leaders to take the fight directly to the employers, and for rank-and-file workers to organize to replace their leaders if necessary.

Fighting War and Oppression

In this age of inter-imperialist rivalry creating an increasingly volatile global political landscape, socialists have a historic role to play in leading the fightback. This will be no easy task. We will often be swimming against the stream, tasked with finding a program of demands that can cut through the sea of nationalist propaganda from all sides and mobilize a mass movement against imperialism and war. Millions of people in the U.S. and globally are watching the destruction and bloodshed in Ukraine, economic devastation facing working people in Russia, and alarming threats of escalation from Putin and NATO – are looking for ways to take a stand against war. By insisting that only a fighting cross-border working class movement –  not capitalist diplomacy or the ruling class’ “peace-keeping” attempts that have time and again resulted in disaster – can end the war and guarantee the right to self-determination, the left can expand the reach of socialist ideas, expose the rotten capitalist system at the root of the crisis, and build our forces into a real mass movement. DSA should call demonstrations and organize workplace actions with political messaging that emphasize an alternative to the dead-end strategy of “taking a side” between one or another national ruling class, and instead building a movement based in international working class solidarity.

In 2020, the biggest mass movement in history exploded onto the streets of America, with millions protesting racist police violence in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country. Thousands of DSA members were undoubtedly out in the streets, but DSA as an organization offered no substantial socialist leadership in the BLM movement, which ultimately won very little in the way of tangible gains.

This year, it is likely that the right-wing Supreme Court will strike a serious blow at the right to an abortion with the Dobbs case, and it is possible that the Court will entirely dismantle Roe v. Wade. With the liberal women’s organizations doing little to nothing to organize a movement in the streets to defend abortion rights, DSA has an opening, and the responsibility, to play a leading role in building a movement and linking demands for abortion rights to the fight for Medicare For All and the broader struggle against capitalism. A robust intervention by an organized force like DSA could be the difference between a historically demoralizing defeat to women’s rights and an inspiring new fight against the right wing and the Demcoratic establishment with its long record of broken promises to defend abortion rights. Part of why we are launching our caucus is to promote the need for DSA to take up this historic fight at a crucial moment, and we want to help in this struggle, arguing for a movement-building class struggle approach.

Young people and workers are no less angry today at income inequality, climate destruction, racist and sexist oppression, and hyper exploitation of workers than they were during Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. Demands like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal are now widely recognized and popular, the political establishment is even more severely discredited, and unions are more popular than ever. What’s missing is working class leadership that bases itself on a class struggle approach. Leadership from a sizable left force, like DSA, clearly putting forward the need for a multi-racial, multi-gender working class movement to take on the billionaire class, including Biden and the corporate Democrats, could have a dramatic impact on politics in the U.S., and by extension, globally. 

The Socialist Alternative Caucus aims to put forward the case for a DSA in 2022 that runs its candidates independently of the Democratic Party, that takes the initiative to build a coordinated movement to defend abortion rights, and that intervenes in the labor movement with a class struggle approach that aims our fire squarely at the bosses and exposes union leaders who have a sellout approach. What is needed is a DSA that actively engages with movements as they develop in society, with a left, pro-working class program that connects workers’ and youth’s day-to-day demands to the need to transform society along democratic socialist lines. We look forward to continuing to discuss our perspective of the tasks and opportunities facing the socialist movement with our fellow DSA members. We encourage DSA members who agree with our ideas to join the Socialist Alternative Caucus.

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