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DSA Convention 2021: big accomplishments and the long road ahead

by | Aug 7, 2021 | Politics, Reports

The Democratic Socialists of America has grown to 95,000 members in 2021, up from less than 10,000 in 2016. It is now the most important socialist organization in the United States since the Communist Party during the Great Depression. And on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, DSA has begun to leverage its growth into the fight for changing the balance of forces in U.S. politics. 

David Duhalde, a former member of DSA’s National Political Committee and current Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, points out that:

Since the 2020 presidential primary, DSA’s major accomplishment is its coalition for national labor law reform. About every decade and half, the U.S. union movement gets a chance to push for federal labor law reform. None have been successful to date. But for DSA, it’s achievement is being the center of an alliance of labor unions and civic organizations that have made nearly a million phone calls to US Senators that has resulted in the support from even some of the most conservative Democratic Senators. While the legislation may not pass, Biden may include parts of the reform in another bill. This would be a huge success for DSA and the US workers movement.

Why has DSA emerged from the ashes of the US left in recent years? 

DSA’s growth was prepared by the near total victory of neoliberal economic policy, enforced by a ruthless ruling class and their managers in both Democratic and Republican administrations since the 1970s. In social terms, neoliberalism has slashed trade union representation from over 30% of workers to approximately 10% today, with just 6.3% of private sector workers having a union. In the South and Great Plains of the county, unions are practically endangered species because of strict anti-union laws. Since the Great Recession in 2008-2009, income inequality has exploded, as working-class wages were only beginning to recover when Covid-19 hit. 

Hand in hand with neoliberalism, the U.S. prison population has exploded. Today there are more than 2.3 million people in jail or prison and another 4 million people on parole or probation, and 77 million with a criminal record. Worse, the prison system relentlessly targets African Americans who constitute 13% of the general population by 39% of U.S. prisoners. Combined with the ecological crisis, a culture of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic abuse, and a history of colonial and anti-immigrant violence, tens of million of young people see the “American Dream” as an American Nightmare, as Malcolm X put it in 1964.

These objective realities set the stage for three subjective leaps. First, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns challenged the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party and introduced the language of socialism and class struggle to millions of young people. Second, Trump’s election shocked tens of millions into mass actions which, if they were never strong enough to threaten Trump’s rule, managed to limit the damage his administration inflicted. Third, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor inspired the largest and most militant social movement since the 1960s in last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. These inflection points, combined with an important wave of teachers’ strikes, Indigenous-led protests against oil and gas pipelines, the MeToo campaign, youth-led anti-gun violence protests, and the growing cultural clout of the LGTBQ+ movement, all raised the question of political power in the United States. Tens of thousands of (mostly) young people have replied to that challenge by remaking DSA in their own image: militant, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression, ecological, and pro-party.

How is DSA built?

DSA is not a party (yet). It combines aspects of political party, social movement, and local community forms. It has a national staff of a couple dozen, an organizing budget of more than $2 million, and local chapters in all 50 states. Of it’s 90,000 dues-paying members, roughly 10,000 to 15,000 are very active, another 10,000 or 20,000 will support specific campaigns, and the large majority are politically passive… at least as DSA members. Action generally takes place in local chapters, where most important decisions are made. The organization is extremely democratic and local groups can, in practice, initiate almost any campaign. A large majority of DSA’s membership is white, although comrades of color have established caucasus, led critical initiatives, and hold key leadership positions. 

The average DSA member is in their mid-twenties while the Young Democratic Socialists of America organize on dozens of college campuses and high school. DSA’s implantation in the multi-racial working-class and union movement is weak and its relations to social movements is still in formation. There are four or five internal political currents that vary in size from a couple hundred to a few dozen members. These currents play an outsized role in DSA’s internal politics, but 90% of active DSA members do not belong to any of them.

It’s useful to compare DSA to the Party for Socialism and Freedom in Brazil (PSOL) to get an idea of its strengths and weaknesses as they are (roughly) the same size in terms of active membership and paper membership. In my judgement, PSOL is five or ten times stronger than DSA in terms of experienced political cadre, social and trade union implantation, its internal apparatus and democratic procedures, public profile, and strategic vision. This is not a criticism of DSA. After all, the “new” DSA is barely five years old and the American working class has not conducted general strikes, defeated a military dictatorship, and elected its own Workers Party to power. DSA lacks workplace and street experience, but it has grown strong enough to begin accumulating that experience. If DSA is to grow strong enough to help create our own working-class party in the United States, it will have to learn hard lessons in the coming decade. 

Politically, at the risk of overgeneralizing, there are five political trends within DSA (these do not equate neatly with the formal caucuses). First, there is a small layer of long-term DSA members from the 1970s and 1980s who advocate social-democratic positions pioneered by Michael Harrington. This layer is not monolithic by any means and, critically, when a new wave of young (and often very radical) members joined, these comrades welcomed it with open arms. Second, there is an important and very active layer of young social democrats who look to Michael Harrington, but are also organic leaders in the “new” DSA. They are often instrumental to DSA’s internal organization and probably have the most accumulated experience within electoral and labor campaigns. Democratic socialists constitute the third, and the largest, trend. This layer is made up of young Marxists who joined DSA one or five or ten years ago and constitutes the bulk of active membership radicalized by the conditions described above along with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. These activists believe that concrete, local reforms are necessary (be they electoral campaigns, trade union organizing, mutual aid, ecological activism, defunding local police departments, etc.) and that it will take a revolution to get rid of capitalism. However, the democratic socialist conception of revolution remains open for discussion. Fourth, there is a much smaller layer of abolitionist or revolutionary socialists who are highly critical of DSA’s focus on elections and the organization’s approach to Black Lives Matter and international questions (among other things). Fifth, there is another small layer of comrades who look to the 1930s Communist Party and Cuban and Venezuelan revolutionary processes as political models. For most DSA members, distinctions between these layers are fluid, and agreements (or disagreements) often center around concrete issues or campaigns as opposed to deep theoretical or historical disputes. Remember, 95% of DSA’s members have been in the organization for less than five years.

Jacobin magazine (although not a “party” publication) bases itself in the Marxist democratic socialist trend while welcoming frequent contributions from comrades across the socialist political spectrum. With its 70,000 subscriptions and 2.6 million web visitors per month, Jacobin is far and away the most important socialist publication in the United States and its insistence open political debate and exchange has been instrumental in both educating a new generation of socialist militants and demonstrating in practice why an multi-tendency organization is the best model for the United States today. 

 

DSA’s 2021 National Convention

Turning to the 2021 DSA Convention itself, DSA local chapter and at-large members elected 1,100 delegates to debate and vote on resolutions and leadership positions for the next two years. Unfortunately, the Convention is being conducted over Zoom because of pandemic restrictions. This will make it very difficult for a thorough debate and delegates from different parts of the country will not be able to mingle, exchange ideas, and discuss differences face to face. The pandemic will restrict DSA delegates’ most important task at the Convention, that is, building relationships among cadre in a new organization. Given that, there is an increased danger that debates may become polarized and Zoom will create an atmosphere or frustration… who isn’t sick of being on Zoom! 

Fortunately, while there are important debates, no particular vote on any particular resolution will, in my view, dramatically change DSA’s course. Here is a complete list of resolutions. There will likely be some sort of consensus (with some significant modifications) on maintaining DSA’s electoral strategy, highlighting ecosocialist campaigns, more deeply engaging in anti-racist organizing, prioritizing labor work, and developing a national housing rights movement, among other initiatives.

Learning to link all this activity to building local chapters is easier said than done. Jack Gross from the newly-formed Green New Deal for Schools initiative argues that:

To build a mass working class organization capable of claiming power in this country, we need strategic campaigns that link local power with national demands that can truly shift the balance of forces. Our organization is growing quickly and as the climate crisis accelerates across every community around the globe, it’s imperative that we develop the discipline and organizational capacity to run strong campaigns in every chapter to grow our local bases, develop new leadership, and multiply our national strength. The GND for Schools campaign is organizing youth, education workers, building trades workers, and working class parents across the country to win huge green investment into working class communities.

In terms of elections, on balance, DSA will continue to run its own candidates inside Democratic Party primaries (when necessary) as a means of building up strength prior to campaigning for a new party (exactly how to do this is subject to debate). This will be especially important in the 2022 midterm elections when the Republicans will attempt to mount a comeback against Biden and the Democrats. Thus far, the strategy has worked very well, as DSA has elected dozens of local officials and a half-dozen members of Congress in the last four years. It is worth noting that all of DSA’s members in Congress are people of color and a majority are women. All in all, there are about 150 DSA members in elected office across the U.S. out of approximately 500,000… so we have a long ways to go! 

At the same time, many comrades feel DSA, without abandoning its electoral strategy, should put relatively more energy into social movements and this will likely be demonstrated in Convention resolutions as well as concrete work in locals. For instance, DSA comrades who work in the restaurant industry recently launched a national publication and are pushing for the national DSA apparatus to provide more concrete support for this critical focus. 

Natalia Tylim with DSA’s Restaurant Organizing Project explains:

The world felt wide-open for layers of newly radicalizing Socialists during the Sanders campaign for President. But the ground beneath us changed, perhaps not unexpectedly, when he left the race and Biden became the status quo. DSA did not do a good job preparing for or taking stock of that eventuality… and  there has been a noticeable drop off in participation almost across the board in the lead up to the 2021 convention.

According to Tylim, one way to address this dip is to focus on organizing people where they work. 

More contentious debates center around the nature of international solidarity, internal democratic procedures, and spending priorities. For instance, two years ago, DSA voted to prioritize solidarity work with Latin America. There widespread support for this orientation and, of interest to readers of Jacobin América Latina, DSA will soon begin translating some of its publications and statements in Spanish. However, there is a debate about how to conduct international solidarity work. Some comrades insist that DSA should prioritize relations with Latin American “mass parties,” but a recent DSA delegation to Venezuela, the crisis in Cuba, and the Ecuadorian and Bolivian elections have all provoked a discussion about how DSA’s efforts to “establish relations” with, for instance, MAS or PSUV, fit with building broader relationships with social movements, trade unions, and other socialist political currents in Latin America as well as how to understand the nature of the Pink Tide governments. 

Challenges in the coming years

Aside from the specifics of these debates and modifications, DSA faces large strategic challenges. As current National Political Committee member Marianela D’Aprile puts it:

When DSA exploded in 2016, it was massively exciting. I remember at the 2017 Convention, a comrade from Portugal told a group of us that our comrades elsewhere in the world had been waiting for us, for the American socialists. But there was no guarantee that the momentum and growth would last. I think building on that growth and turning it into stable structures that can make it even through a heavily disorganizing pandemic as DSA’s biggest accomplishment in the last two years. Our challenge in the coming years will be to develop a coherent democratic socialist program that we can fight for independently and pushing for it in a coordinated way both on a local and national level.

And, as Marx once said, DSA does not have the luxury of developing that socialist program in the conditions of our own choosing. Rather, we will have to contend with enormous economic and ecological shifts, address the question of whether or not the Biden administration will mark a capitalist reorientation away from the neoliberal order (or not), confront a potential new Cold War with China, the ever-present danger of Trumpism, and the US state’s tried and true methods of cooptation and coercion.

This article originally appeared in Jacobin América Latina and has been edited for Pine and Roses. 

Todd Chretien is a high school Spanish teacher, translator, and author. He is a member of the Pine and Roses editorial collective and Maine DSA.

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