Haley Pessin and Andy Sernatinger analyze the 2021 DSA Convention.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) 2021 Convention has come and gone. The convention process began with submissions of proposals and delegate elections in the early spring. It ended August 8 with deliberation on nearly forty proposals and amendments, a series of recommendations from the leadership, a national platform, and the election of a new National Political Committee (NPC).
Tempest Collective members provided reports and commentary on the proceedings as they unfolded, but with more than a week of activity it is easy to lose the forest for the trees. In what follows, we give our takeaways on the most important things that came out of the convention and some perspectives on what all of it means. Other comrades have produced their own reviews (1) (2) of the convention, which we welcome, though we will clearly differ in our assessments.
Before picking the convention apart, let us review what happened as succinctly as we can.
- The convention received reports from the National Director (Maria Svart) and officers about the state of the organization. The most significant piece of information was that “membership growth has slowed to a trickle.”
- Early in the convention, former members of Collective Power Network (CPN) released a letter asking delegates not to elect candidates also associated with CPN due to behavior in their caucus. As a result, several candidates running for NPC dropped out of the race.
- The convention elected a new NPC. Initially, 25 candidates were listed for election, but by the time votes were cast that number dropped to 20 candidates for 16 only positions.
- DSA adopted its first platform, with some slight amendments from the proposed draft.
- A number of resolutions were passed (commentary below).
- DSA will apply for membership to the São Paulo forum, a conference of Latin American parties associated with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) of Brazil.
- The NPC Steering Committee will now be paid $2000 / month stipends.
- No changes were made to the DSA constitution, save one to strike regional requirements for conventions.
- Chapters can apply for matching funds from the national organization for projects, offices, and to hire staff.
That gives a broad overview of what happened and what to expect as a result. The big questions that remain are what direction is DSA going, and what does the convention tell us about the life of the organization and the larger socialist movement? The perspectives we give below are meant to be short and direct—what we are gaining in readability sacrifices some nuance, but this is meant to be read by a wider audience.
- The convention shifted DSA to the right on key questions.
- Electoral: The convention passed Resolution 8 (Toward a Mass Party), which walked back the Class Struggle Elections position adopted in 2019. The resolution was submitted as a so-called “consensus” position between authors from Socialist Majority, Bread & Roses, and CPN. Toward a Mass Party removes any reference to forming an independent workers’ party as a goal at any point, and specifically says that DSA will continue using Democratic primaries as the central strategy. The resolution makes explicit that elections should be the main thing that DSA does, functioning as an electoral machine tied to the Democratic Party. This shift leaves little meaningful distinction between the official electoral strategy and realignment.
- Immigration: The convention passed Resolution 1, which mentions abolishing ICE and ending deportations, but largely advocates legislative action toward “the completion of promises made by the Biden administration.” The resolution signals a retreat from the combative protests in response to Trump’s draconian immigration policies towards a strategic focus on the lesser promises of the new Democratic administration—some of which Biden has already betrayed. Those promises fall far short of what is needed to end the second-class status and criminalization of undocumented people and immigrant workers.
- Labor: Only one labor resolution was submitted, again as a so-called “consensus” between major caucuses. The resolution commits DSA to a wide-ranging set of “priorities,” but abstains on strategic questions, most notably whether labor militancy is best built from the top down or by organizing rank and file members to fight on their own behalf. The convention also rejected an amendment (submitted by Socialist Alternative) that would have added language stating that unions’ ties to the Democratic Party and internal bureaucracy present significant barriers to more militant politics and action.
- Internationalism: The convention passed Resolution 14, which stipulates that DSA will apply for membership in the São Paulo Forum and narrows the relationships DSA prioritizes in Latin America to “mass parties.” As members of Tempest have argued, this resolution further consolidates the focus of DSA on electoral politics to the exclusion of other crucial sites of struggle. More importantly, it equates internationalism with supporting a conflict between nation-states instead of the working class. This undermines solidarity with workers in countries where ruling parties that call themselves socialists are imposing austerity, even enforcing various forms of oppression while repressing workers and left opposition.
- This shift to the right represents a formalization of what has already been happening in DSA. Political practice in DSA has noticeably shifted since at least last summer, but arguably as far back as the Sanders campaign in late 2019. DSA has overwhelmingly favored Democratic Party electoral campaigns, relationships with “coalition partners,” and pressure campaigns on behalf of allied organizations. Resolutions adopted reflected what was already happening rather than staking out new initiatives or experiments. While the organization retains much of the political diversity that characterized its rapid growth after 2016, there has also been significant strategic convergence among the largest and most influential DSA caucuses. These groups reject a break from the Democratic Party in favor of socialists running as Democrats for the indefinite future.
- Most of what happened at the convention was decided in advance by leadership groups. “Priority resolutions” on major policy items were negotiated in advance of the convention by leadership groups, particularly the “big three” caucuses: (Bread & Roses, Socialist Majority, and CPN). All of these “priority” resolutions were automatically included on the agenda, and were crafted to avoid debate and split the pie in advance. Every “priority” resolution was passed, and with labor there was only one singular resolution brought to the convention.
- Anti-racism mattered, but it was muted. Resolutions to develop the work of the National Abolitionist Working Group, for a mass voting rights campaign, and campaigning for reparations to Black people all made it to the consent agenda. However, aside from a more general convention workshop on abolition, there was no time allotted to discuss how to implement this work across the organization or what it will look like in practice.
- The convention process is by design, not mistake. The convention lagged behind schedule due to delegate challenges, rules negotiations, and agenda order, but the same things happened at the prior two conventions. What might have been excused as inexperience or experimentation in the past stops being a rationale after a third convention follows the same pattern. Holding the convention virtually neither created nor solved any of these issues. Being online made voting and debate more difficult and tedious, but the structure of the convention was fundamentally the same. Information was fractured and the preconvention period was not used effectively. Political discussion and debate was generally outside of the convention and left to insiders. Caucuses actually increased their control of the agenda, responsible for 71 percent of proposals this year, up from 40 percent in 2019. Procedural motions stood in for most political debates at the convention; in the absence of space to draw out important strategy discussions during the convention, most substantive debates took place outside of it.
- DSA is having difficulty reproducing itself. Maria Svart opened with a sober assessment of organizational growth, stating that new membership has “slowed to a trickle.” Yet, there was no assessment by national DSA leadership of why this is the case. Fewer convention resolutions were submitted overall. During the convention, several candidates for the National Political Committee dropped out of the race, leaving just 20 candidates for 16 positions, making it barely competitive. The number of candidates has dropped each convention since the boom in 2017, from 41, to 33, to 20. Many chapters reported fewer candidates for convention delegates, as well as low participation in chapter meetings and activities. Debate on internal organization repeatedly heard concerns about factionalism and dysfunction. All of this suggests that the organization is having trouble engaging its existing membership, finding people willing to run for leadership, and ensuring members feel they have confidence and a stake in DSA.
The shift to the right during convention did not happen in a vacuum. It reflects (1) the relatively low level of struggle, (2) the defeat and domestication of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and (3) the changed political context under the Biden administration. The Red State Revolt in 2017 brought the rank and file strategy into DSA’s lexicon. Running openly socialist candidates and aiming to break from the Democrats appeared more feasible in light of the two Sanders campaigns, which encouraged members to run bolder campaigns and embrace demands beyond what Democratic Party leadership typically would allow. Despite warnings that this would only be a momentary phenomena, DSA leaders promoted an “all-in” approach. After Sanders lost, the organization failed to take stock of his defeat and continued to base its national strategy around getting more socialists and progressives running as democrats into office—despite the inability of this strategy to deliver on key demands, like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.
A major drawback of this convention was that it focused more on the internal workings of DSA than on assessing the state of the world and how socialists should operate given this new context. Instead of staking out an alternative to the left of Biden, the organization has shifted with the political winds, lacking clarity or confidence to organize around positions that DSA formally supports. Nor did the organization sufficiently orient toward non-electoral arenas of struggle that began to articulate a left alternative over the last year, including the largest anti-racist uprising in history. Until recently, DSA was able to avoid internal debates around strategy because the organization was growing. That is no longer a guarantee.
Whenever the Democrats have appealed to left opposition, it has been with the goal of steering dissent away from actions and organizing that would actually threaten capitalism. They have succeeded in doing so because they can bank on workers and the oppressed having nowhere else to go. If socialists back Biden, rather than organizing an alternative to both the Right and liberalism, we risk ceding space to a far right that is already waiting to capitalize on Democratic Party betrayals and disappointments. If socialist practice becomes synonymous with the most emphatic support of liberal policy and politicians (however “progressive”), socialism loses whatever credibility it might have as the movement of the working class and oppressed.
The fact that between one-fifth and one-third of delegates tended to vote against this shift suggests the basis for a left opposition within DSA, but it has yet to develop a coherent strategic alternative. This will be no easy task, but it is no less urgent.
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Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus and of the Tempest Collective.
Andy 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 and Jacobin.