In early July, on the heels of the massive wave of protests against racism and police violence, socialist and progressive activists from around the country met online to discuss and debate the opportunities and challenges facing the new socialist movement as it participates in and relates to this new phase of the movement for Black Lives. Speaking on the roundtable were: Justin Charles, an organizer with DSA Emerge; Michael Esealuka, who serves on the steering committee of DSA's Democratic Socialist Labor Commission and is the former co-chair of New Orleans DSA; Cinzia Arruza, an activist in DSA Emerge and a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint magazine and of the editorial board of Spectre; and Haley Pessin, a Tempest Collective member and a member of the DSA Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color caucus. The roundtable was moderated by Brian Bean, a writer for Tempest and an editor at Rampant magazine.
Brian Bean: Welcome everyone to Socialists and the Uprising Against Racism. My name is Brian Bean; I’m with Tempest and an editor for Rampant magazine, and I’m going to introduce the meeting.
This meeting is about the current uprising that’s sweeping the country. Everybody is talking about it because the uprising has transformed politics as we know it. This meeting is going to focus on the question of socialists and the uprisings, how we’ve related to it, and the strategic and tactical questions that come up with regards to DSA and the organized Left.
Justin Charles: In the midst of the pandemic, we’ve seen many people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves radicals wake up to the ways in which our society leaves us behind. We’ve had healthcare workers without the personal protective equipment (PPE) that they need, hospital systems stretched beyond their capacity; in New York City, I think we’re approaching 20% unemployment. And then you have the question of essential workers who basically have had to put themselves on the line in order to keep the city running.
Essential workers, many of them Black and Brown New Yorkers, coincide with the rate of infection and the rate of deaths in the city being disproportionately Black and Brown. You have the racist enforcement of social distancing against those Black and Brown New Yorkers by the NYPD.
That’s just a bit of the context, leading into what happens when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Having seen cops murder Black people all too often over many, many years, you expect the state to cover for the cops; you expect the political establishment to not really do all that much about it. You expect maybe some kind of gesturing at reforms, but reforms that aren’t going to really do anything to keep police from killing Black people. So that’s what’s to be expected. What I didn’t necessarily expect to see, in the midst of a pandemic, was thousands of people get out into the streets and put their lives on the line.
There haven’t been any spikes of COVID as a result of the protest, but people are putting their lives on the line against violent, brutal policing. We’re seeing cops wearing riot gear, kitted out in shields and helmets and all sorts of armor. Meanwhile, not too long ago, we had nurses wearing trash bag PPE and recycling their masks.
So the protest pops off and in Minneapolis a precinct gets burned to the ground and then we have protests popping off in cities all over the country—Not just cities, but even in predominantly white, rural and suburban neighborhoods. The thing that’s most exciting to me is just everyday people who aren’t really radicals, aren’t socialists, but basically liberals and progressives, saying words like “defund” and “abolish” about the police.
To talk a little bit about policing. It wasn’t all that different in its origin from what it is today in the northern cities. As cities industrialized, you had a largely immigrant working class that had to be kept in line. You had labor that had to be kept in line, westward expansion to the frontier, and the theft of native land, which all led to violent enforcement; keeping that land, defending it against Native Americans and against the Mexicans. In the South, you had enslaved Africans and their descendants who had to be stopped from escaping or from rebelling.
These are all ways policing in its origin maintained a social order. Wrangling labor, acquiring the means by which wealth will be created, and the protection of that wealth, were all done with whatever brutality was necessary. That’s where we get police from—in a nutshell.
Today we have a vast prison-industrial complex—not just police and prisons, but jails, bail, parole, immigration enforcement, detention centers, coercive mental health treatment facilities, with mass media, nonprofits, politicians, and any number of business services assisting all of this.
The movement for abolition of police and prisons seeks to not just rid our society of these institutions, but to fundamentally change the conditions which brought them into being. It’s also a lens through which we understand the world and a daily practice of building and strengthening communities. It’s how we get free.
This is where socialists need to care about abolition and need to consider it seriously. Abolition is about both chipping away bit by bit at the oppressive, punitive structures that form our carceral state, but also building, envisioning, and seeking out new ways to deal with individual and societal harm.
So people often say, “Well, what are you going to do? You’re just going to take away the police. If you’re going to take them away, you have to replace them with something.” This is not just about taking things away. It’s about building new things. We won’t be rid of this all tomorrow.
Abolition is a horizon. We have to move towards that horizon in the here and now by diminishing the power of the police and prisons over our lives and through building alternatives. How do we diminish that power? We do so through reforms. I’m not talking about the kind of reforms we usually see when a black man gets killed by the police: about body cameras or technical tinkering. I’m talking about reforms that will fundamentally change things. Those reforms have to do four things:
- They have to reduce funding to police and prisons.
- They have to challenge the notion that police and prisons increase safety.
- They have to reduce the tools, tactics, technologies that police have at their disposal.
- They have to reduce the scale of policing and prisons.
Any reform that doesn’t do these things is not transformative and not abolitionist. It doesn’t build the capacity to remove policing from the equation.
The kind of reforms I’m talking about are removing police from hospitals and schools; ending pre-trial detention; decriminalizing homelessness, sex work, street economies, drugs; ending police and ICE coordination and the criminalization of immigration; closing jails and not building new jails; disaffiliating and disbanding police unions; ending the use of surveillance technology; disarming the police; providing housing, healthcare, and education for all; and finally, defunding the police. So in New York, and also throughout the country, this is the current fight.
To talk a little bit about what’s happening in New York: the 2021 fiscal year budget was just voted on by our City Council. There had been, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, both here in New York and around the country, demands to defund the police. Specifically, many of the progressive, left-liberal nonprofits—some of which the DSA in New York City collaborates with frequently—had come up with a demand to cut the police budget by $1 billion.
The police budget is almost $6 billion in New York City. That demand was not met. They came somewhat close to “defunding” by a billion dollars, but what that actually meant was they moved some money around. For instance, money that is used to pay for school safety agents—cops in schools basically—previously came out of the NYPD budget; now it comes out of the DOE [Department of Education] budget. They just moved some money around. They didn’t really defund the police. In some ways that means that we lost the fight.
Over the course of this past month, New York City DSA had a day of action where we put people on the streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, going to the homes of Council members who were key decision makers on the budget. We had people go to Corey Johnson, who is the speaker of the Council; we had people go to Laurie Cumbo, who is the majority leader. We had people go to Dan Dromm, a member of the finance committee. And they were very displeased with us and made a lot of noise about it. But I think in the process, they also managed to piss off a lot of the Black and Brown leaders in the movement to defund the police and to abolish the police by basically erasing them and saying that it was all these white gentrifiers coming and threatening them at their homes by protesting.
What’s interesting is that DSA historically has the reputation of being this white organization, and some of those people who are mad about what Laurie Cumbo and others said about white gentrifiers haven’t been happy with DSA all that much in the past either. But I think what we have an opportunity to do now is to try and bridge some of that divide in the effort of working together to push for the actual defunding of the police in the next budget, and in educating people in the city about the ways in which police don’t keep them safe and basically make it impossible for the city to actually fund the things that allow people to live lives worth living. We need to fund the social services that people need, rather than throwing police at every single problem.
Cinzia Arruzza: I’m going to start, as Brian said, with some of the challenges that socialist organizations, and particularly DSA, have faced, and are facing within this context.
First of all, obviously this Black rebellion was not only a unique moment, but probably one of the largest social revolts in the whole history of the United States. So this is the scope with which we are dealing.
In other words, this was not just a social explosion, a social movement and so on. It was really a deep-rooted social rebellion responding to a series of combined crises: from the pandemic, to the history of institutionalized racism, to the economic crisis accelerated by the pandemic. And what contributed also to the magnitude of this revolt was the fact that it comes after a 10-year process of increasing radicalization within U.S. society; increasing radicalization of new generations of activists, and increasing polarization of the political debate due to Trump’s presidency.
From this viewpoint, this revolt has opened many new potentialities. There was an objective potentiality for a sustained, long-term, high level of social conflict and class conflict. What was missing, and what is still missing—and we are of course trying to work on this—was the other component: the subjective one.
What was missing was the presence of revolutionary subjectivities, meaning organizations capable of intervening. Not to take leadership from an external viewpoint, but rather to work within the revolt, to open spaces for the emergence of new revolutionary Black and brown leadership from below. Working inside the revolt to push towards the social expansion of the revolt.
Just to give an example involving the participation within the revolt of organized labor, and not only formally organized labor, but also the new embryonic forms of organization that we have seen during the pandemic crisis. For example, Amazon workers walked out in protest against the unsafe conditions and so on. I would say that what was missing was, on the one hand, an existing robust organizational infrastructure that could put itself at the service of this movement[ and, on the other hand, a political revolutionary subjectivity capable of devising strategies and proposing these strategies within the movement itself.
Now within this context, I think we should make a distinction between working in solidarity with a protest and being able to intervene in a protest from a strategic perspective. The DSA—a number of chapters of DSA and many activists in the DSA—did enormous work in support of the protests. They were out in the streets, they were organizing mutual aid. They were also organizing protests and so on. This was fundamentally important work in solidarity with the protests and work that was necessary not only for the movement, but also for the DSA activists themselves to learn what it means to participate in a massive social rebellion, and to learn something more about the history of specifically Black struggle, and Black rebellion, and Black debates.
At the same time, however, this level of intervention was in my view insufficient, if compared with the level of challenge that was posed to us as socialists by the social rebellion, by a moment of extreme acceleration of political time, in which all the various contradictions not only exploded but really condensed. As Justin was saying earlier, the pandemic made a lot of social contradictions much more visible, much more transparent.
In this moment, the level of intervention that was required from socialists would have meant having a strategic analysis of the situation. Now I haven’t defined the potentiality, the challenges, the problems, and the possible risk. Having the infrastructure means to intervene within that context; I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We really need to start building now from this viewpoint.
Moving forward and looking at what is ahead of us, we need to take into account a few elements. The first one is that this social revolt is actually part of a long process of radicalization and political polarization. So this is not the end.
Even though we didn’t realize all the potential that was in this social revolt, this is not the end of the story. I think we are in a global process—not only in the United States—but a global process of increased political polarization. This also means that we will have the repetition of moments in which events are accelerated, such as the one we just experienced.
As socialists one of the problems organizationally and politically that we need to take into account is that we cannot devise our strategies for our political work only in terms of long-term, slow organizing and the slow accumulation of forces. Why? Because this is not, in my view, the predominant political context that is ahead of us.
I think the context that is ahead of us is a context in which there will be more social explosions. In the United States, and outside of the United States, there will be accelerations. And so, one of the first issues to address is what kind of organizational forms, what kind of organizational mechanisms and decision-making processes, we should devise in order to be up to the task. Yes, we need to be able to do the slow work of organizing in regular times, but also be ready for the acceleration that is to come.
The second element, which is more specific to the U.S. context, is that in my view the class struggle in this country has always been mediated by race for obvious reasons. This is becoming increasingly so. Class structure today is highly gendered, highly racialized, and the way in which the working class fights back, and will fight back in the future, will very often be mediated by gender and racial politics, for obvious and absolutely justified reasons.
The second enormous task we have is really revising our own culture. We really need to learn much more from the history and the tradition of Black radicalism in the United States, of anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles from around the world, and we need to integrate this into our analysis of the way in which capitalism works in the United States and the way in which class relations work in the United States. This means also really fighting back against any form of economic reductionism, which unfortunately is still very much present in our organizing. Economic reduction in this context represents a fundamental obstacle to revolutionary politics. I’m going to say this really bluntly.
But this second element also involves the necessity of actively working on promoting Black, Brown, and diverse socialist leadership. We saw this in New York in some instances of our organizational efforts. One of the limitations in relation to the DSA is not only the racial composition of the organization, but the racial composition of the leadership. Now this is a problem that needs to be addressed with some urgency, because again, I do think that this is the shape that class struggle is taking, and is going to take, in the future. Of course, there are also various other reasons why we should promote black leadership, but even from the simple point of our ability to be an actor within the struggles ahead of us, I think that the active promotion of a Black socialist revolutionary leadership is an absolutely necessary and urgent task.
Michael Esealuka: What I’m going to do is share a couple anecdotes of things that I’ve observed and experienced organizing in South Louisiana around the Black Lives Matter uprising, some of my observations from that, and then just general lessons I think socialists should really be taking to heart right now.
To provide a little bit of context: back in 1991, Louisiana had this governor’s election and the two contenders that made it to the runoff were Edwin Edwards, who had been the former governor of Louisiana and who had been brought up on federal racketeering and corruption charges, and David Duke, who many people on this call will recognize as one of the most famous white supremacists and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. David Duke lost by the skin of his teeth. It was just a couple thousand votes. And Edwin Edwards, there was like an unofficial slogan at the time that said, “vote for the crook”.
So that kind of gives you an idea about what we’re up against in Louisiana. It’s not easy. It’s not pretty. David Duke is from Jefferson parish, basically a county right next to New Orleans, and he lives on the North Shore. Really the heart of white supremacy is in Louisiana, but it’s also the second blackest state in the country, after Mississippi. And we always say, “Thank God for Mississippi, because if not, we’d be dead last in everything, but at least now we get to compete.”
So it’s not good, but people have been organizing out here a lot. And it’s really surprising. I mean, Justin talks about how in a lot of rural communities and white communities, people have been holding Black Lives Matter protests. That’s definitely true.
I’ve been trying to document every single protest or rally that’s taken place in Louisiana and pretty much every single parish south of Baton Rouge has had a Black Lives Matter action, including Lafourche Parish, which was the site of the 1887 massacre where the Knights of Labor organized thousands of Black sugar cane workers, took them out on strike and then white supremacist vigilante groups went through and slaughtered 300 Black women, children, and men. It was one of the most violent labor actions in U.S. history. That’s all here in Louisiana.
Here in New Orleans, we did protest almost every single day, the first couple of weeks. And I was like, you know what? I don’t even really need to be in New Orleans. New Orleans is good. I need to be out in these parishes because this is where people really want to take action. And it’s where the police don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. They’re a bunch of suburban white boys who literally are still in that slave-patrol mentality.
Right now, I’m actually in Gretna, and Gretna is the most incarcerated city in the world. Their entire municipal fundraising scheme is based on fines and fees. We’ve been doing a lot of protests out in Gretna and the last one that I went to escalated, as protests do, and people were beaten by the police.
They didn’t deploy tear gas, but they deployed LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Devices] and brought out SWAT trucks. They attacked people. Once the protest ended, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) pulled people over in their cars, busted out their front windshields and pulled protesters out through their front windshields to arrest them. It was one of the most extremely brutal situations I’ve ever been in in my life. I fully thought I was not just going to get arrested, but I thought I was going to die.
That specific protest, which I will always remember for the rest of my life, was organized by families of Black men who have been killed by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. We’ve been able to connect with about six different families, some of them want to take a little bit more of a reform approach and have been demanding body cams and things like that, and accountability, which is undefined, And some of them are just like, fuck the police, “defund.” There’s contradictions within even the most directly impacted people.
When the protest started, we had originally planned it as a rally, but as things go it’s spontaneous. The people decide what they want to do. So we started marching and the demand was for body cams; by the end of the rally, after we witnessed the police brutality, people were just straight up “abolish the police,” like the entire group. It really radicalized people before our eyes.
We had tried to take the overpass on the highway and got beaten back by the cops and then we went back onto the overpass where we completed our rally before the police descended and started attacking and beating protesters. I got some Gatorades and on my way back I saw these two men standing back and watching the protest. This was a moment when JPSO had brought their tanks out and they were just yelling over their loudspeakers, over and over again, “We are here to keep you safe. Do not allow yourself to get arrested. We are here to keep you safe. Do not allow yourself there to get arrested.”
And so I talk with these two guys, a Black man and a white man. And I was like, “You know, what do you think about all this?” Because I typically don’t really lead with the need for global revolution by any means necessary to overcome the evil capitalist system. So I was like, “You know, I don’t think we always need to meet violence with violence.” And the white guy was like, “Yeah, I mean, those protesters shouldn’t have gone up on that bridge if they didn’t want that to happen.” And the Black guy was like, “What are you talking about? Listen to yourself, meet violence with violence. This entire nation was founded on violence. And you’re going to see that as soon as the working people and the Black people start getting a little bit of something, the guns come out and then you’ll see how good your non-violence is gonna be.”
I agree with him, but what was important wasn’t having someone remind me of that. It was the fact that a random bystander was telling us that, somebody who did not come out to participate in that protest, who simply happened to be at a gas station witnessing what was happening and who had that analysis. And that’s how I know that people are ready and what we’re seeing right now is completely unprecedented.
We’re seeing the rapid transformation of the ways that people understand race and capitalism. That doesn’t mean that we’re solving things necessarily. It means that we’re confronting things, and that’s something that we as socialists need to really be thinking about. One thing is that this moment is unique. It’s unprecedented. I’m 27. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life and who knows if it’s going to come again?
The times are fucking changing and the whole idea of gradual change, I think we can see that that is not the case. That said, I think it’s so important that we as socialists don’t just study the Marxist tradition, the Marxist political and theoretical tradition, but also our history, the history of colonization, the history of the encapsulation of the commons, the history of exploitation, and the history of the profit-over-people mindset, because our communities have been struggling against this shit for 400 years. Often as young organizers and as socialists, we have a unique analysis of history and the economy, we tend to walk into situations with arrogance thinking that we have the right answers.
So, for instance, when I started organizing with families in Jefferson parish who have lost sons to the police, I was like, “Fuck yeah, I believe in abolishing the police. I don’t think that is an institution to be reformed.” And they were like, “Well, you know, we want body cams.” And I was like, “Look, as a labor organizer, sometimes you have to let people realize and make their own decisions by themselves.” You can’t really come into a community and tell them what you think is best for their community until you’ve been in the trenches and struggled alongside them. And so there is a reason that DSA is not leading in this moment, and there’s a reason that DSA shouldn’t lead in this moment. And that’s because we haven’t been doing the work.
This is a great opportunity for us to reckon with that and to ask ourselves, “What is it going to take to build a real movement of the working class? To really dig into the class itself and meet people where they’re at and be struggling in every single place, including New York City, including New Orleans, but also like out in the fucking Cut [the Cut Off in Bayou Lafourche, south of New Orleans], in the bayou, way down deep in south Louisiana, where people get lynched.”
I’m going to close out with a little quote from one of my friends that I’ve been using a lot, because I think it’s really sharp. She’s actually in the central Brooklyn chapter [of DSA]. And she said, “These revolts are not unique. They have similarities to a number of others in both U.S. history and world history generally. I know it can feel overwhelming, but they will end. And then we have to decide whether they will be remembered as just another revolt over police killings or as a kind of February Revolution against the racist police system and the system of racial capitalism. How we build on them will be just as—if not more—important.”
Our role as socialists right now is not necessarily to be at the mic, with me walking into the situation formulating what the demands need to be. I think that our role is to go to people who are experiencing an intense moment of radicalization and whose eyes are being opened, and to support them, to build the partnership and to really start being in the trenches and struggling with the working class.
Once we’ve done that, we will build the credibility. We’ll learn ourselves, because organizing is a two-way street, and you can think you know a lot of stuff, but until you actually go out and speak with communities that are dealing with police violence and dealing with the shit every single day, you really don’t know. That’s something that I’ve been realizing myself a lot, in sometimes extraordinary and sometimes deeply painful ways, but that’s organizing.
Haley Pessin: Thanks so much comrades. I really appreciate all the discussion we’ve had so far. And I’ll just take a moment to say, since I am part of Tempest [magazine], typically these discussions happen in different organizations or in separate caucuses or working groups. There are very few spaces where we get to have these strategic discussions out in the open. I’m hoping that’s something that we can continue, because I think that moments like this actually call for more strategic discussion and debate if we’re actually going to figure out how to respond to a historic uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality in a way that really takes that struggle forward.
On the one hand this uprising has done more in a month of continuous protest to shift the political terrain in the United States than decades of really any other political force. And I agree with Cinzia that this is a continuation of a process of radicalization that’s really been catalyzed by the economic crisis of 2008 and continued, and that we can expect different iterations of that. But for all the ways these protests mirror the demonstrations that followed after the revolt against police terror in Ferguson, Missouri six years ago, it’s already clear that these protests have gone much further in terms of being more militant, more widespread, more multi-racial, and receiving greater solidarity.
I think if any of us have been on the protests, it’s very clear to see just how much support there is, but then there’s also the empirical evidence of things like the New York Times article showing that 15 to 26 million people have been part of these protests, which would make them the largest in U.S. history.
On the other hand, these protests have been mostly led by Black youth. With some exceptions, like in Chicago and other pockets of the country, I would say that most of them have not been led by existing organizations, Black-led or otherwise. This is ultimately a challenge because it doesn’t provide spaces for new people coming into activity and making these radical conclusions to plug in and to figure out how we actually wage a struggle that really is going to be a long-term struggle, because the nature of racism in this society is so deeply rooted. The forces that want the police to maintain their power, so that the capitalist class can maintain its power, are not going to just roll over and let this happen. So that’s not just a problem for this particular struggle; it’s a challenge for the entire Left, which has only really begun to overcome 40 years of the decimation or co-optation of institutions of working-class struggle.
This brings me to the central question of what is the role of socialists in these movements and specifically in the struggle against anti-Black racism.
First, just to put a fine point on it, because racism is so central to the functioning of capitalism, it means that resistance to racism, particularly anti-Black racism in the U.S. never stops with a struggle around equal rights. It has always raised bigger questions about the structure of society. We’re seeing that even more deeply for all the reasons that Justin mentioned, because if you look at who is facing the consequences of both this pandemic, it’s Black people who are most likely to be in jobs where they cannot work from home, and they are there therefore more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. It’s Black communities that are dying disproportionately from the pandemic and also from the effects of the previous disinvestment in Black communities in terms of healthcare, in terms of education, in terms of any number of factors. So it’s no surprise that this is the leading element of this struggle, both against the impact of the pandemic and specifically against anti-Black racism and police repression.
But the other factor about social movements is that they represent the height of mass activity. They are the points at which people are open to the most radical ideas and there is the greatest potential for winning transformative, if not revolutionary, change. So I really appreciate the anecdote that Michael had about ordinary people basically saying today things that the Left has been saying for decades. But it’s not enough for us to just say it. There has to be a context in which people can actually see those ideas in action and see why they resonate and come to those conclusions on their own. To me, what’s important about social movements, and that specific self-activity component of movements, is that people come to realize the limits of the institutions as they are.
We typically hear that we just need to vote this person or that person out of office in order to get change. Instead we’re actually seeing the kind of incredible changes in terms of police departments being removed from schools or even, in Minneapolis, the discussion of dismantling the police department.
That’s clearly something that wouldn’t have happened without the scale of rebellion by ordinary people that we’re seeing today.
I think our job as socialists is to help develop struggles as far as they can go. But to do that, we actually have to be in the struggle to begin with. That includes all its messiness, all its debates on tactics and strategy where it’s possible to actually decide and figure out the way forward.
This brings me to the question of DSA, which Cinzia spoke about, and which a lot of us are members of. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that we were not at all prepared for this struggle. Perhaps no one could have been prepared, but we also did not jump into the struggle until very late in the game, and we were very much delayed in responding to it. Even to this day, we’ve failed to create any kind of national infrastructure on the scale of, say, what existed around the Sanders campaign, to actually coordinate and try to really see this struggle as a central area of activity.
What the uprising reveals are really three key weaknesses in the strategy that’s dominated the DSA until now. The first is electoralism. Despite some attention to the uprisings or even the role of the police, there is certainly a wing of the DSA, and I would argue the dominant wing, that has not fundamentally broken with its previous strategy, which says that if we support and win candidates to office who can give us a wider platform for ideas that are already popular but opposed by centrist Democrats, we can raise people’s expectations and have a readymade base for socialism.
The problem with this formula is that there’s a big difference between raising expectations, or even good demands, and actually strengthening our side in the arenas where we have the social power to win those demands. I think that’s iterated in ways that people have continued to fixate on Sanders. However important his role may have been, he opposes the main demand of the movement. Getting him to say the right thing right now is not the main factor in what happens next; it’s whether we’re able to actually build movements that are strong enough to win demands, even against politicians far more conservative than Sanders.
Even though I believe elections have an important role in advancing the Left, those successes on their own can’t actually change the balance of class forces, only movements and labor struggle can do that, and developing long-term organization that can help preserve some of the lessons and build on the foundation of previous struggles, whether they end in victory or defeat.
The second weakness within DSA is economic reductionism. This is a wing within the organization that dismisses the specific struggle against racism almost entirely and tends to counterpose struggles around race and class. This is utterly to the detriment of the socialist movement and making clear that these struggles are fundamentally connected, or really that we have anything to offer the biggest uprising that we’ve seen in decades.
We certainly can’t afford to be on the sidelines. but we also can’t win any kind of unity if we’re not willing to fight tooth and nail against what has been the most effective barrier in the United States to unity within the working class. If we are trying to win a unity that is based on universal demands without dismantling racism, which exists at every level of society to prevent just that kind of real unity, we are not going to win even those demands, much less a socialist society.
The final weakness I would say is moralism, which I would describe as a sense that DSA can’t play any kind of active role in these struggles, primarily because the DSA is so overwhelmingly white. And that is not an irrelevant barrier. I think that the question is how do we overcome that and make this organization actually reflective of the working class as it is, in all its diversity and all of its racial composition, and in particular, in terms of the people who are actually leading and are in the vanguard of this struggle right now. I think that the problem with simply fixating on how white DSA is, is that while it comes from a good intention, in practice it doesn’t allow us to effectively challenge the electoralist arguments or the reductionists in a meaningful way.
The organized forces of the Left need to find ways to participate in, contribute to, and actually build these protests, as an active participant. We should know that DSA actually cares enough about these protests to want to help find avenues of struggle that will help these movements succeed in the long run.
The final thing I’ll say is there’s also this argument that we need to follow Black leadership. That’s important, but it also matters which Black leadership that we’re talking about, because we’re already seeing the beginnings of the demand to defund the police being watered down in New York, with the Black, Latino, and Asian caucuses of the City Council lining up completely behind a defund bill that has nothing to do with community demands.
We have to be conscious of the class differences that exist, and of the different ideas and debates that exist amongst people who are struggling against racism and within the broader social movement, versus who’s considered the leadership. Instead, we need to create as many democratic spaces as possible.
With 70,000 members, it’s very possible that DSA could be helping to do that in every single part of the country. We absolutely should do that. We need to have an organization that’s far more flexible in responding to these uprisings when they occur, and more importantly, has a long-term vision that says when these uprisings disappear we still want the leadership and the people who’ve learned these lessons, and have been won to the struggle for socialism, to be integrated into our organizations and to be helping us to lead the next steps.
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