The rise of the DSA: hopes and limits

Submitted by AWL on 14 August, 2019 - 10:09 Author: Simon Nelson

The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) – a group founded in 1973 as a left social-democratic splinter from the then-decaying “Shachtmanite” Heterodox Trotskyist tradition, and long with little profile - has recently grown to over 50,000 members.

The DSA convention this year (2-4 August) had over 1,000 delegates, an increase from 700 in 2017. Admirably, the conference was livestreamed. It may have seemed overly procedural at points, but it reflects well on the DSA that their conference is accessible to the membership and a wider audience.

The rise of the DSA offers some hope for revival on the US left. But at the same time the ISO (International Socialist Organization, a splinter from the SWP-UK’s international network) has dissolved itself, and now Solidarity (a group combining “Third Camp” socialists, “Mandelites”, and others) has started discussions about converting to an “educational centre”.

Both ISO and Solidarity had been working with and in the DSA, in different ways. Whatever the shortcomings of ISO and Solidarity, their fading means that most of those with some semblance of “Third Camp” and revolutionary socialist politics are scattered in the US without an organisation. That limits the possibilities from the rise of the DSA.

The DSA convention was followed by a minor furore online after a video collated from snippets of procedural debates at the convention, got widely shared by right-wing Fox News reporter Tucker Carlson. The video (put together so as to suggest it was a continuous session) included people making procedural speeches against the use of gendered language and asking delegates not to clap.

Angela Nagle, appearing as a guest on Carlson’s show, cited the video as proof of the DSA sliding away from class politics. But Nagle represents a particular strand of identity politics herself. That of a “working-class” identity being white, male, able-bodied and “strong in arm, thick in ‘ead”.

Whatever criticisms we may have of the running of the conference, not allowing clapping is better than the politics of Nagle and others on the so-called “dirtbag left”.

In the run up to the convention, caucuses which are really political tendencies produced a number of resolutions, mostly but not solely focused on organisational rather than political matters. These caucuses, the largest of which are Bread and Roses, Socialist Majority, Collective Power Network, and Libertarian Socialist Caucus, are also represented roughly in proportion to their support at the convention on the National Political Committee.

At the most basic their differences are about whether the DSA should be as it is, a (loosely) centralised organisation with different chapters (branches), or more like an alliance of local groups, with greater autonomy, money and power given to the local groups.

The headline-grabbing vote was the endorsement of the “Bernie or Bust” position for the 2020 US election. The DSA will not endorse an alternative Democrat candidate.

A substantial minority did not support that position, and would be willing to back a candidate like Elizabeth Warren.

Sanders has some history on the left, and has run as an independent for his Vermont Senate seat, Functionally, though, the positions of Warren and Sanders are not that different.

Another resolution required endorsed candidates to run as open socialists. There is still no obvious method of accountability to the organisation for those elected as DSA members. Or indeed what exactly it means to run as an “open socialist”.

One of the mainstays of the Bread and Roses caucus has been support for the “rank and file” strategy in the labour movement. That means an orientation to encouraging DSA members to get jobs in organised industries and becoming rank and file union militants rather than union staffers or NGO workers.

This view is well known as being advocated by Kim Moody of Solidarity, and has a lot in common with the ideas of Workers’ Liberty and Solidarity.

Confusingly, though, Bread and Roses do not link their position with advocacy of an explicitly independent political organisation. The top of DSA, and those who have led its growth since the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, still have a conception of the DSA as a pressure group to push the Democratic Party to the left.

Though it is not explicitly stated, some version of the old 1960s “strategy of realignment” (pushing to hive off the right wing of the Democrats and thus convert the Democratic Party into a US version of the Labour Party, and then...) is implicit in much of the organisation’s method.

As Dan La Botz notes in his report for the New Politics website: “The convention was devoid of any references to Marxist theory and there were few references to socialist history…”

The internationalism of the DSA is rather weak, and over the decades has lost the “Third Camp” slant it still had at its semi-”Shachtmanite” beginnings. It has some fairly typical kitsch left baggage. On Israel-Palestine the DSA supports BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, essentially a position of declaring Israel an illegitimate entity], and this convention tried to strengthen its campaigning on the issue (Sanders himself opposes BDS).

A resolution on Cuba called for much more uncritical support, and, as Dan La Botz’s report notes, one of the speakers from Venezuela was part of the Maduro government.

There is still a real need for political education in the DSA. The best parts of the revolutionary left should be prioritising that.

The main aim for many members is the election of Sanders, and a government modelled on the better bits of European social democracy.

If Marxists and revolutionary socialists are to be able both to radicalise the DSA in terms of US working-class politics, and to push it to an independent working-class orientation in international politics, then they will have to act in a more concerted and thought-out way than as individuals or even within caucuses (besides, there is the problem that both the ISO and Solidarity have supported BDS).

US leftists are right to throw themselves into the movement which represents the biggest organised support for socialist ideas in a generation. But to dissolve revolutionary organisation at the same time is a serious error.

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