What the Socialists Just Did—and Why

David J. Phillip/AP Photo

At its biennial convention last weekend, DSA passed a headline-grabbing resolution declaring that it would not endorse any Democrat save Bernie Sanders in next year’s November presidential runoff.

It’s a good thing that organizations don’t have children or grandchildren. If they did, you could envision little tykes (well, little infant prodigies) 50 years from now asking their grandparent—the Democratic Socialists of America—“What did you do in the war against the neofascist Donald Trump?” only to be met by an awkward pause.

At its biennial convention last weekend in Atlanta, DSA (which, with 56,000 members, is now the largest American socialist organization in the memory of anyone under 80) passed a headline-grabbing resolution declaring that it would not endorse any Democrat save Bernie Sanders in next year’s November presidential runoff.

The vote on the resolution was actually fairly close, though support for Sanders in the primaries is overwhelming within the organization. And its proponents provided a number of qualifications and caveats, making clear that DSA members are free to campaign for the eventual Democratic nominee if they so choose, and that in 2016, DSA locals did campaign against Trump (and members for Hillary) in swing states.

Still, inasmuch as DSA locals work closely with immigrant-protection groups, and the national organization has called for the abolition of ICE, it could be difficult to explain to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, facing deportation and family separation, why the group won’t join its allies in a forthright fight to dump Trump.

However, I find myself of two minds in assessing DSA’s position. As a member of the organization and one of its predecessors (the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee) for the past 44 years, I’m embarrassed and regretful that my organization hasn’t grasped the primacy and urgency of joining, in a public and full-blown way, the battle to rid the world of Trump. In 1944, the U.S. Communist Party effectively, if temporarily, self-abolished so its members could support Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election bid, as part of the fight against fascism. To be sure, that move came at the behest of Joseph Stalin, whose nation was allied with ours in the existential battle against Hitler. But for all its myriad and ultimately fatal flaws, and granting that its self-abolition was a typical CP overreaction, the U.S. Communist Party understood the gravity of the fascist threat. Why not DSA?

That’s the reaction of my DSA mind. But partly through my long-ago work with DSOC, which led to my political work for some left-wing unions, which led to my own work for left-wing candidates and causes, I also seem to have a political-consultant mind. And that mind tells me that the eventual Democratic presidential nominee needs the formal endorsement of DSA like a hole in the head. Where DSA is strong and where socialist and progressive candidates can win—generally, in cities with substantial populations of millennials, immigrants, and minorities—a DSA endorsement can make all the difference, producing scads of the most tireless precinct walkers and dedicated phone-bankers. It has made that difference in New York, Chicago, and any number of smaller cities. In nearly every state, and certainly in the nation at large, however, a DSA endorsement would be one more item on the bill of particulars the Republicans would hurl at the Democratic nominee in hopes of revving up more of their right-wing base. In every encounter with reporters, the nominee would be pressed about DSA’s endorsement. Just as well, says my consultant mind, that DSA takes a pass—particularly since I have no doubt most of my fellow members will end up helping that Democratic nominee in states where that help matters.

I wouldn’t be of two minds about DSA’s electoral stance if the convention had passed one other resolution put before it last weekend, which laid out a list of conditions that candidates seeking DSA locals’ endorsement for elected offices had to meet. Most of those conditions were unexceptionable; some could be met by nonsocialist progressives (Medicare for All) and some even by most mainstream Democrats (card check for union recognition, more-progressive taxation). The sticking point, though, was the condition that a candidate must publicly declare that he or she was a democratic socialist. Fortunately, DSA now has locals in 49 states, and delegates from some of those states noted that they came from terrains that didn’t politically resemble Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional district in Queens and the Bronx. If a candidate’s self-identification as a socialist was a requirement for their local’s endorsement, they pointed out, they’d likely make no endorsements at all for the foreseeable future. Happily, the measure was defeated.

Realism always welcome.

How to explain that such measures nonetheless were backed by a core of more sectarian delegates, a number of whom make no bones about the fact that they’d prefer DSA to devote resources to building an explicitly socialist third party rather than back Democrats? That requires a look at the ideological makeup of DSA’s activists, many of whom are affiliated with fairly well-defined caucuses.

For most of its long history, DSA (and DSOC before it) didn’t have ideological caucuses. It was at once both a small membership and big-tent organization. If you believed in democratic socialism, and thought that founder Michael Harrington made sense when he argued that socialists should be publicly active within the Democratic Party (thereby gaining more visibility for socialist candidates and causes, avoiding the third-party spoiler role, and easing outreach to progressive groups compelled to work in real-world politics), that sufficed as a minimal ideological and strategic orientation. Within those parameters, members had all kinds of different beliefs, orientations, and priorities, but not to the point of forming hard and enduring caucuses. (I do recall some particularly hefty guys in DSOC forming a “Mass Caucus,” with the slogan “One pound, one vote!” but its appeal was weightily limited.)

Beginning with Bernie Sanders’s declaration of his candidacy in 2015, DSA membership began to surge, and that was followed by two subsequent surges when Donald Trump was elected president and then when AOC ousted a prominent congressman in a 2018 Democratic primary. By early 2017, it was clear that DSA was fast becoming the largest socialist organization—by far—that America had seen in many decades. Which prompted a number of longtime socialists with perspectives substantially different from DSA’s historic Harringtonism to join as well. DSA had become the arena where the future of American socialism was to be shaped; it provided an opportunity not to be missed.

Among those who joined was a cadre of what Charles Lenchner has referred to as Post-Trotskyists, though I think a better, if even more obscure, characterization would be Neo-Draperites. No American left tendency has been more fissiparous than the Trotskyists, who repeatedly have split over differences in doctrine, strategy, and sometimes personality, into various subgroups and sects, most demanding their members tithe a portion of their income to the group, some becoming hermetically sealed off from larger political arenas. Hal Draper was a democratic socialist who became a Trotskyist in the 1930s, followed Trotskyist heretic Max Shachtman into the Workers Party in the 1940s, and left to found the Independent Socialist Club in the 1960s, which became the International Socialists in 1968 (a heady year for the left), which he then left three years later, saying the group had become a sect. The International Socialist Tendency and groups like the International Socialist Organization soldiered on, never claiming much more than 1,000 members, if that, and sharing Hal Draper’s perspective that the Democratic Party was an arena to be shunned while third-party insurgencies provided opportunities for consciousness-raising and growth. These groups also believed that members should focus their labor involvement on rank-and-file activism and generally viewed union leaders and staff as bureaucrats retarding whatever embryonic revolutionary impulses could be found or nurtured among the workers.

Under the banner of DSA’s Left Caucus, renamed Momentum, then re-renamed Bread and Roses, a number of Neo-Draperites joined and came together in the newly vibrant DSA. In an organization of tens of thousands of new members, the vast majority in their twenties with little or no history of involvement in socialist groups, the Neo-Draperites were often the most experienced, and clearly the most organized, of DSA’s new members. The problem was, their experience had been life in or around a small, disciplined sect. At the 2017 convention, for instance, they proposed a dues structure that amounted to tithing a portion of a member’s income. That was how sects sustained themselves, but DSA was not an organization of professional revolutionaries (or even of professional evolutionaries), and the motion lost badly. At last weekend’s convention, the motion to require all candidates that the organization endorsed to pronounce themselves socialists was also an expression of this sectarian impulse, and it lost badly, too.

The irony here, of course, is that the Neo-Draperites would not have joined DSA in the first place if the group’s Harringtonian strategy—calling for socialist activism within the Democratic Party rather than in ideologically purer third parties—had not been so clearly vindicated by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose campaigns were what persuaded tens of thousands of young people to join DSA. The anti-establishment politics of the Neo-Draperites clearly had appealed to many younger members, and doubtless had some effect on the group’s decision to withhold backing from any Democratic presidential nominee save Bernie. But it’s hard to argue against any involvement in the Democratic Party when it was Bernie’s and AOC’s successes in Democratic primaries, and such successes in contests like those for the Chicago Board of Aldermen (five of whose members are now DSA members, too), that prompted thousands of young people to join DSA.

The Neo-Draperite resistance not just to the Democratic Party but to the labor “establishment” as well had limited purchase on the delegates’ sentiment. One such resolution, commending only rank-and-file involvement, passed narrowly, while a somewhat contradictory second resolution commending a more flexible involvement with the labor movement on multiple levels passed overwhelmingly.

As one veteran DSA activist of decidedly Harringtonian perspectives told me, the Neo-Draperites “are a good group of people to have in the organization, given how deeply they commit themselves to the group’s success. But they’re constitutionally incapable of running a broad-based organization; their entire frame of reference is to life in a cadrefied movement.” In various locals, where Bread and Roses caucus members have been in leadership positions, members have revolted against top-down policies. At the national level, one anti-Momentum (then anti–Bread and Roses) Caucus, initially called Praxis, now called Build, has appeared to reject any form of central organization, calling variously for cutting back dues payments to the national organization, or even eliminating dues altogether. Fortunately, just as convention delegates rejected tithing two years ago, so last weekend they rejected shutting off the dues spigot to national DSA.

Though Build favors maximal decentralization for DSA, it appears to be a disciplined and centralized caucus itself—as does Bread and Roses, but at least Bread and Roses is consistent in its commitment to organizational discipline. In the face of these two disciplined caucuses, other caucuses have formed to keep DSA from morphing into anything other than a broad-based, big-tent, democratic organization. Making plenty of errors along the way, like many of the youth organizations that DSA demographically resembles, I think the majority of DSA members will succeed in keeping the group from descending into the Scylla and Charybdis of sectarianism and anarchy. The electoral successes of DSA members running as Democrats—and there are now roughly 100 DSA members in elected office—will not just build the organization but help anchor it in the real world.

And the presidential runoff of 2020? I think DSA’s national political committee might take a leaf from the group’s Atlanta local during Stacey Abrams’s 2018 campaign for governor. At the time, the local wasn’t endorsing nonsocialists, and some of its members likely believed—rightly, I’d say—that a DSA endorsement would be one more cross Abrams would have to bear in her bid to carry Georgia. Nonetheless, every other progressive group inside and outside the state was enthusiastically backing her, and many DSA members were eagerly working on her campaign. Here’s what the local said:

For many reasons, we cannot endorse Abrams ourselves, but neither can we stand aside while our friends and allies fight for something they know will make their lives better. We voted to encourage our members, if they feel so moved, to stand up and fight in this election cycle.

In 2020, DSA’s friends and allies—in immigrant communities and communities of color, in groups seeking to combat the climate crisis and save the planet, in organizations of working people seeking a radically more equitable economy and society—will be fighting for their lives to replace Trump with a Democrat. It won’t be a battle between socialism and barbarism, but it will be a battle against barbarism, and the Atlanta statement offers a way that DSA can join it.

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