The Tempest website has published many fine articles on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and has been a go-to source for news and analysis on the organization. Three Tempest articles from just before and just after the August 2023 DSA convention argue that DSA offered a window of opportunity that has now been largely or fully closed. This article presents an alternative view. The window was never open, if “open” means the possibility of winning DSA to revolutionary politics. The window is still open, if it means the opportunity to work with activists seeking to be socialists, to win some of them to revolutionary politics, and to advance the projects of left and revolutionary regroupment.
Natalia Tylim’s July 6 article The blush is off the rose: DSA and the revolutionary Left assesses DSA on the eve of the 2023 convention. Here are two summary passages:
At its best, DSA provided a space to debate different strategies for the socialist Left, while participants worked together to build short-term initiatives and toward the future goal of an independent working-class party. That possibility has been diminished and what is left is an organization that has, in practice and in outlook, limited its scope to a particular electoralist strategy and failed to build substantive structures through which members can shape the activity of their organization nationally and hold their leadership accountable to democratically-decided political positions.
Tempest’s position in relation to DSA remains: If there is work to be done and people to do it with, that’s great, go for it. But the reality in terms of our activity at the current time is that only a small percentage of Collective members who once found ample reason to be part of DSA are still active in it. This is less indicative of a shift in Tempest, but of a shift in the political moment and the subsequent disorientation and calcification of DSA.
Andy Sernatinger’s August 30 article Did the DSA Convention Move Left? reports what happened at the convention. His September 12 article The DSA moment is over assesses DSA after the convention. Here’s a summary passage:
The main conclusion to draw is that the DSA moment is over. The moment was when DSA became a center of the U.S. left, drew divergent tendencies into a single organization, and had a dynamic life that seemed much more like a social movement in terms of its creativity, bottom-up organizing, and transformative radical vision. This time has clearly passed, and the prospect of DSA making a radical course change has been foreclosed.
The three articles cited above summarize DSA’s recent history. There is no need to repeat that. Instead, for brevity, here are fifteen points that, taken together, make up an alternative balance sheet.
- DSA and its predecessors have attempted to organize the social-democratic labor left of the Democratic Party since the New Deal. Revolutionary socialists who had previously regarded DSA as irrelevant began joining it in 2016, as they saw that it was attracting young activists looking for a way to continue fighting after Bernie Sanders abandoned his Democratic Party presidential campaign and Donald Trump won the presidency.
- Some revolutionary socialists joined DSA thinking that they could win the organization to their politics. This was never a real possibility, since DSA’s most successful politicians are solidly in the Democratic Party fold. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad, like Sanders, vote with the Dems 95 percent of the time on all votes and 100 percent on votes the party regards as critical. The DSA left might win 30 percent of the delegate votes at a convention, but most DSAers, including those who support leftwing resolutions, see “the electeds” as essential, and the electeds see the Democratic Party as essential.
- In 2021, DSA peaked at 95,000 “constitutional members” (who are no more than a year behind on dues). Its membership has since fallen to 78,000 constitutional members, of whom 58,000 are members in good standing, i.e. active dues payers. This isn’t surprising, since DSA still positions itself as “the left wing of the possible,” as DSA founder Michael Harrington put it, and that ceases to inspire many when, in practice, that turns out to mean “the left wing of the Democratic Party.” But nearly 58,000 activists identifying as socialists — even if only 10 percent are really active — is still a large number. Even while it is shrinking, DSA annually recruits and loses more members than are in all U.S. revolutionary groups combined.
- Most of DSA’s life and work is in its chapters. Some of these are bureaucratic, dysfunctional, or moribund, especially those focused on electoral activity. But others, especially those that have developed labor or other mass work, are good places for local activity — with the added benefit of membership in a national organization connecting them with activists elsewhere.
- The August 4-6 DSA convention showed that at the national level DSA is pursuing its historic role as the social-democratic left of the Democratic Party. The convention was politically defined by the labor, electoral, and international resolutions it adopted and by its dissing of Palestine solidarity activists. Paradoxically, the convention elected a more leftwing National Political Committee (NPC) to carry out a more rightwing policy.
- The convention’s labor resolution reiterates DSA’s commitment to “the rank-and-file strategy,” but interprets that strategy narrowly: getting jobs with a view to union organizing; joining picket lines and raising money for strikers; and advocating union democracy and better contracts. It omits the political side of the strategy: consistently fighting the union bureaucracy; defying the capitalists’ laws when militant struggle or solidarity with other workers requires it; using the power of the working class to support the struggles of Black, Latinx, and other workers of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ people, and other oppressed groups, and to fight climate change and environmental collapse; opposing military spending and interventions; international solidarity; and promoting working-class political independence and a workers’ party — all in the perspective of achieving workers’ power and advancing toward socialism.
- The convention’s electoral resolution reiterates DSA’s intention to build a mass working-class party, but it misdiagnoses the problem and the solution. It sees the problem as DSA’s small size and the solution as building DSA’s electoral activity and “brand identity.” The real problems are the still low level of struggle by the unions and the social movements, their subordination to the Democratic Party, and DSA’s tenuous connection with the actual struggles of workers and the oppressed. The resolution’s misconception that elected office is power, its focus on electoral activity, rather than mass action, and its policy of “tactically” running candidates on the Democratic ballot line contribute to the problem, not the solution.
- The international resolution passed at the convention denounces U.S. imperialism, but it is far from internationalist. It mentions China only as the target of U.S. imperialism’s New Cold War, not as an imperialist rival. It doesn’t mention Russian imperialism or the Ukraine war. It’s a step backward from the brief statement DSA managed in February 2022, which at least condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It changes DSA’s public position from opposing U.S. military aid to “reactionary governments” to opposing U.S. military aid to all governments, even in the very few cases where the United States, for its own nefarious reasons, is arming a just fight, as in Rojava or Ukraine. The resolution is also silent on the complicity of DSA-endorsed politicians in the crimes it denounces.
- The convention’s international resolution gives the International Committee a monopoly on DSA’s misnamed “diplomatic work” with foreign governments, political parties, and social movements, and forbids other DSA bodies from relating to their counterparts in other countries. The first victim of this policy was the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and Palestine Solidarity Working Group, which the convention disbanded as an autonomous body, subordinating its successor to the International Committee. DSA and its predecessors have an ugly history of collaboration between Stalinists and social-democrats to suppress rank-and-file activity. In this case, to suppress the BDS Working Group for demanding that DSA sever its ties with Jamaal Bowman for supporting Israel. Bowman repaid the DSA leadership’s loyalty by dropping his membership.
- Surprisingly, the DSA left was as strong at this year’s convention as it was in 2021. Socialist Alternative and Tempest have largely withdrawn from DSA, but others have stepped up their game. The Marxist Unity Group (MUG) and Reform and Revolution (R&R) collaborated on several convention resolutions and submitted others separately. Bread and Roses (B&R) collaborated with MUG on a resolution. Solidarity and Tempest members and others initiated an effort to amend the labor, electoral, and international resolutions, when it became clear that they would otherwise sail through. A separate B&R amendment to the international resolution, supported by the rest of the DSA left, garnered 36 percent of the delegate votes, the high-water mark of the left, about the same as two years ago.
- More surprisingly, the DSA left won seven of the sixteen seats on the National Political Committee. R&R was shut out, but MUG won two seats, Red Star won three, a representative of the anti-Zionist slate won one, and an independent associated with the left won one. B&R is divided between center and left currents, but its three NPC members might join the DSA left on some issues. That said, the DSA left is weaker than its numbers on the NPC suggest. It has no mandate from the convention and no common perspective. More importantly, the real power in DSA lies elsewhere, in the staff and the relationships with union officials, NGO administrators, and Democratic Party politicians it represents. There’s little reason to think that this NPC will chart a new course.
- The most likely long-term prognosis for DSA is an endless orbit around the Democratic Party and a downward spiral toward its pre-2016 stagnation. But DSA still has 58,000 paid-up members and attracts and loses thousands each year. In many cities it is an important vehicle for mass work, particularly labor work. DSA members want to fight against police brutality, for immigrants, for abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and for the environment, although DSA’s activity is not as developed there. With the Israeli assault on Gaza, DSAers have plunged into Palestine solidarity. Many DSAers want to learn about working-class history and socialist politics. Some are open to revolutionary politics.
- In places where DSA is doing useful work and attracting activists, revolutionary socialists should participate. Even if DSA continues to fade, as seems likely, how it fades matters. Will the activists passing through DSA be exposed to more than social-democratic reformism? Will they learn to warn workers against relying on “support” from Democrats to whom re-election is more important than solidarity with striking workers? Will they participate in militant action? Will they build relationships with revolutionaries? Will they think about left and revolutionary regroupment? Will they have a place to go when they become disenchanted with DSA?
- A dozen or so revolutionary socialist groups have participated in DSA in the past few years. They have seldom collaborated, even if they agreed on key points, such as Palestine solidarity and beginning to break with the Democrats now. Disunity has contributed to their marginalization. The 2023 convention showed more collaboration than ever before, but not yet the coherent campaign that might have posed the issues sharply enough to build a solid left pole of attraction.
- The view that a window of opportunity has closed in DSA is based on a misconception. The window was never open, in the sense of winning DSA to revolutionary politics. But the window is still open, if “open” means the opportunity to work with other socialists in the unions and movements, to win a layer of activists to revolutionary politics, and to advance the projects of left and revolutionary regroupment.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Giselle Gerolami is an abortion-rights activist and a member of Tempest, Solidarity, and the DSA.
Ron Lare is a retired UAW Local 600 member, and former member of the union’s Executive Board. He is also a member of Tempest, Solidarity, and the DSA.
Peter Solenberger is a labor, social justice, and antiwar activist, having worked for many years in the Detroit area and now in Northern Michigan. He is a member of Tempest, Solidarity, and DSA.