Andy Sernatinger responds to a recent initiative by DSA members, laying out how it circumvents the organization’s democracy.
If you missed it, earlier this week prominent members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) began circulating a “pledge” to campaign in the presidential election:
In the interest of doing all that we can to secure a Trump loss, and in joining with other organizations of the left, of people of color, of those who organize for racial and economic justice, we, the undersigned Democratic Socialists of America members, are committing to volunteer our time to phonebanking, textbanking, doorknocking, and otherwise organizing to defeat Trump over the next four weeks.
The document is a public call to DSA members from leaders in the organization to stump for Joe Biden (without ever saying his name), with a list of signers and their titles in DSA. And it’s horseshit.
What’s happening in this document is that a section of the leadership has decided that they will not abide by convention decisions (R15: In the Event of a Sanders Loss, AKA “Bernie or Bust”, and R31: Class Struggle Elections), and they’ve decided to try and use their organizational leverage to go against a position they now find inconvenient given their anxiety about the election.
In brief, the two electoral resolutions at the 2019 DSA Convention established that: 1) DSA would not endorse another Democratic Party candidate and 2) that the candidates we support will have to follow a general criteria that builds “militancy independent of candidates’ campaigns and of the Democratic Party.” Opening a dictionary, endorse is defined as “to express support or approval of publicly and definitely.” It isn’t rocket science: DSA won’t register its approval of or recommend support for the Democratic Party candidate.
The authors of this document have worked carefully not to say the words “Joe Biden” outright, knowing that this would make what they’re doing too obvious. So they try to step around that by listing all of the electoral actions they’ll take to campaign “to defeat Trump.” It doesn’t take a genius to get at what they’re doing.
You’d be a fool to think that some individual DSA members weren’t going to go campaign for whoever the Democratic nominee would be; we anticipated that in debating the resolution in 2019. We made clear that the actions you take as an individual are your own, but we will not use the resources or stature of DSA to do this. And that’s exactly what’s happening here: every signer is listed with their DSA credentials with the intention of invoking their position to lend credibility to this effort. Y’know, the thing that the Convention said we will not do.
This includes members of the National Political Committee (NPC), Hannah Allison, Maikiko James, Kevin Richardson, Abdullah Younus, and Megan Svoboda; as well as national leaders on the Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, National Electoral Committee, AFROSOC Executive Committee, and others. Reading this list, there’s no way to miss the sense of weight these people are trying to throw around to get their way. “Fuck the Convention. We’ve decided that we know better, and we’re gonna act in defiance.”
Most of these people are from the Socialist Majority caucus and state so openly. This isn’t a one-off either. Back in April, members of Socialist Majority on the NPC tried to circumvent the Convention decision when they introduced a motion to ask chapters in swing states to bring up voting for Biden. None of them took responsibility for introducing the motion, and the NPC never disclosed who introduced it, but every Socialist Majority member voted for it. When they got pushback for this, they tried to claim that that’s not what they were doing but never offered any explanation, even when asked directly for comment.
Even further back, many of these people opposed R15 and R31 at the Convention. David Duhalde, another prominent Socialist Majority signer, spoke against the “Bernie or Bust” resolution on the floor and then went to the national media after his side lost the vote overwhelmingly to speak against the organization’s decision. Sam Lewis and Renee Paradis, also of Socialist Majority, tried to amend R31 to remove any language about independence and the aim of building a new party. They lost that too. Socialist Majority has been trying to reverse these decisions since they were made, and now they’re using the anxiety of the election to say that they innocently just want to take initiative individually…as a group. They’re using their titles as national or chapter leaders to try to throw influence around, and yes, using your title is using DSA to take a political action – in this case, one that was expressly prohibited. This isn’t a group of members – it’s a minority section of leadership that refuses to submit to the organization’s resolutions.
While they may throw up their hands and say, “You’re just being a proceduralist!” they are themselves trying to skirt around a position that was clear enough for anyone to understand. If they thought it wasn’t an issue, they would have named Biden and said what they’re doing more plainly, but they knew that this wouldn’t be acceptable so they’re playing games. They themselves are looking for technicalities to justify an action they know is a problem and trying to deflect by charging others with proceduralism.
Failing this argument, on social media they’ve turned to charging the rest of the organization as being undemocratic, with arguments like: “This isn’t a democratic centralist organization! We’re taking initiative! We’re allowed to dissent!” Again, they’re trying to deflect what they surely know is action against the will of the Convention. They can’t win there, so they decide to redefine democracy. In this case, they’re saying that democracy means letting anyone do what they want. I hate to break it to you, but that ain’t it.
In a democratic organization, there is a basic expectation that you abide by the decisions of the assembly. You can go to a retiree’s bridge club and learn that. Minorities have rights, like the right to dissent. But dissent is about disagreeing with a decision and making the case for a different course of action by the assembly. The Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker, explaining democratic practice while giving her critique of bureaucratic centralism, writes:
The minority should submit itself to the actions proposed by the majority at concrete political junctures, but need not renounce its political, theoretical and ideological convictions. (Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left p106)
Dissent is not bucking the decisions and doing whatever you want. If you’re committed to democracy, you argue your point and hope to win the majority to your perspective but agree to submit to the will of the body. If you refuse to engage other members and instead try to use your organizational position to subvert the organization without consent, that is undemocratic. Doing this kind of shit weakens the basic collectivity of an organization and undermines confidence in DSA. Any democracy entails a minimum discipline to respect the decisions of the group (that’s even in Robert’s Rules). Leaders, in particular, are expected to uphold the decisions of the membership as representatives of the organization. If they find themselves in such disagreement that they cannot carry them out, they have no business being in leadership and have the right to resign in protest. If you’re going to dispute that DSA should not have any responsibility to uphold Convention decisions, the Convention is meaningless and member democracy is a sham.
If these people were genuinely interested in having a democratic deliberation to revisit convention positions, they could have made any attempt to do so – they have numerous members of the NPC signing on, so they even could have called an emergency (online) convention with the express purpose of considering this election. If they had made a real effort to consult the membership about this question, it would have allowed for democratic deliberation and the chance for people to weigh in and confirm or rescind the position. They did not do this, though they’ve clearly had the election on their minds since at least April, so it’s not as though “there wasn’t time”. What they show is that they have more fidelity to the undemocratic practices of the Democratic National Committee than to their own socialist organization. They favor the “tyranny of structurelessness” and the elitism it enables.
We haven’t even touched the politics. The framing of this document places electoral efforts ahead of any popular mobilization – they don’t even name a single action they’ll take to resist Trump that isn’t tied to campaigning for Biden. They admit that DSA alone will not have an effect on the votes in this election, and rather than just work through organizations that routinely campaign in elections, like unions or community organizations, they try to give the appearance that this is work being coordinated through DSA. So which is it? Is it DSA or isn’t it? If you’re doing it on the basis of your DSA status, you’ve violated the Convention. If you’re not, why are you leveraging your titles? The answer is clear.
It’s all the more cynical that rather than using their combined might to help coordinate any kind of useful defense of democracy, like mobilizing against the threat of right-wing violence post-election or even something as vanilla as monitoring polls, they focus solely on getting people to vote Democrat. Of course, we’ll note that most of these names are in the “solid blue” states, like New York and California, where this is of absolutely no consequence . It’s purely signaling.
It should be clear that Socialist Majority has attempted to overturn the Convention now on at least two occasions, and, sadly, they’ve won some friends from Bread and Roses like Eric Blanc (who’s followed the “Good Kautsky” into being the “Bad Kautsky”), Megan Svoboda on the NPC, Jonah Furman who works for AOC, and Fainan Lakha, campaign manager for Jabari Brisport.
DSA National has to reassert the position of the membership, that the organization does not endorse Biden, and take steps to protect democratic decisions against leaders who clearly don’t give a shit about the members beyond their little cliques.
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Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint , Jacobin, and In These Times .