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DSA Convention 2019: Sanderism and the Tyranny of the Procedural

The DSA convention is taking place this weekend. What will they decide and how is the left positioned?

Tatiana Cozzarelli

August 1, 2019
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This weekend in Atlanta, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) will be holding their second national convention since it became the largest socialist organization in the United States in 2016. 1,056 delegates from all over the country will gather for the biannual convention to discuss 85 resolutions and 33 bylaw changes. 

This DSA convention is taking place in a context of open political hostility and polarization. Donald Trump’s brutal immigration policies and his almost daily attacks on women, immigrants and people of color have starkly revealed the ugly, racist and violent face of U.S. empire that Barack Obama worked so hard to conceal. The images of detention centers filled with undocumented immigrants literally in cages have led millions to the inescapable conclusion that their own government is running concentration camps.

As the 2020 elections draw near,  the Democrats are scrambling to offer an alternative to Trump and to Sanders. Perhaps having learned a few lessons from 2016, the Democrats have taken up many of Bernie Sanders’ proposals, shifting left in order to capitalize on the energy of young people who want something beyond the neoliberal status quo. While two years ago, the convention took place in a moment of Democratic party crisis, now the Democrats are in a moment of ascent, thanks in part to the DSA, which has in many ways helped rejuvenate and re-legitimize the party.  Alexandria Ocosio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, for instance, are both DSA members and important political figures in the Democratic Party. While they are sometimes shunned by the Pelosi wing of the party, it is undeniable that their energy has brought new life to the Democrats. There are also dozens of DSAers in the Democtatic Party who have won local positions across the country.

The tasks the DSA carries on its shoulders as the largest socialist organization in the United States are enormous: fighting climate change and concentration camps, building a strong labor movement and, in large part, defining what socialism is to a new generation. And with 60,000 members, the DSA is poised to play a role in national politics and class struggle. 

Despite the monumental political questions before the DSA, it’s clear already that the upcoming convention will be mostly a debate about internal organization rather than political orientation. The convention does not seem like it will be in the service of radicalizing the struggle and consciousness of those awakening to the monster that is the US state, and unfortunately there is no organized left wing in the DSA putting forward proposals to fight against the dominant Democratic party electoral orientation. But, that doesn’t mean that all members are happy with the direction of the DSA. 

Whither the DSA?

The DSA has grown tenfold since the 2016 election, made up primarily of millenials radicalized by the 2008 economic crisis, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders, and the election of Donald Trump. Polls show that young people increasingly prefer socialism, and the DSA has become a hub for socialist and socialist-curious people, particularly among the white, downwardly-mobile middle class.  

In the past few years, members of the DSA have done some good work. In New York City, for example, members engaged in exemplary strike solidarity with B&H workers, organized protests against the Kavanaugh nomination and were part of a coalition that defeated Amazon’s plans to move its headquarters to NYC. The NYC DSA also organized protests for immigrants’ rights, calling to abolish ICE and open the borders. And that is just in New York City. Indeed, this is the best of the DSA: thousands of young people willing to spend hours making signs, blocking roads, sometimes even getting arrested for the rights of working class people and the oppressed. 

But the DSA isn’t only about activism. It is made up of people who diagnose the problem as capitalism, who identify as socialists and who joined the DSA out of disillusionment with the Democratic Party establishment and the nonprofit industrial complex. As new socialists in a “big tent” organization, there are a lot of questions to answer and debate. Where the DSA should be focusing its attention has always been a point of contention: a national movement for Medicare for All? “Mutual aid projects” like changing brake-lights? There are also deeper strategic questions: How should the DSA relate to the Democratic Party? And what is the role of elections in the fight for socialism? 

While some of these discussions occur in meetings, more often meeting as structured like report-backs of activism or electoral work, rather than discussions of politics. And so, the discussions get pushed onto Twitter, sometimes taking the form of political disagreement, but often getting ugly and devolving into accusations about someone’s character.

Yet, in 2017 many questions of political orientation were discussed at the convention. Not so much in 2019. Over the last year, the political debates have become less frequent, and the activist wing of the NYC DSA is slowly losing strength at the expense of the electoral one. I think this dynamic is going on all over the country. 

 In New York City, the deeply controversial endorsement of Cynthia Nixon, a millionaire actress, for governor marked a huge defeat for the sector of the DSA who believed the organization could be made into a tool for revolution. I’m not sure anyone seriously thinks that anymore. In March, the DSA officially endorsed Bernie Sanders for President with 76% of voters in favor in an online poll. Only 24% of all DSA members voted and there was little in person debate for such an important decision. And so, many chapters of the DSA have taken Sanders’  2020 election as a political priority. 

The important question of reform or revolution has taken a back seat to enthusiasm for “winning power” via DSA elected representatives like AOC. However,  the contradictions of that “power” are becoming increasingly evident: the DSA has absolutely no say in the positions that these representatives take. In fact, AOC  hardly ever presents herself as a DSA member, but rather as a member of the Democratic Party, going so far as to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone with Nancy Pelosi. Despite the obvious contradictions involved in attempting to use the Democratic Party to build socialism,  many DSAers nonetheless perceive such electoral work as the best vehicle to grow the organization. And although there are now multiple caucuses and different formations, not one of them has led a meaningful fight against this electoral strategy within the Democratic Party. 

The 2019 Convention

Despite the general direction of the organization, The 2019 convention has some resolutions that are quite left and very much worth supporting. There is one calling for the DSA as a national organization to support open borders, one calling for the DSA to not endorse anyone who votes or plans to vote for the military budget and a resolution for the DSA to play a role in calling for strikes for reproductive justice. In fact, the resolution for open borders got almost 80% support in online pre-convention voting. 

However, these resolutions, if passed, would put the DSA at odds with the candidates they put so much work into canvassing for. After all, Sanders clearly opposes BDS and open borders and voted to criminalize sex work, and AOC voted for the military budget.  Furthermore, regardless of whether any of these resolutions pass, the primary political orientation for the DSA has already been decided. It was voted on in March when the organization voted to endorse Sanders for president in 2020. And now, the DSA will have three full time paid positions dedicated to elections and one to Bernie Sanders. 

So to be honest, it’s difficult to believe that people are really serious about open borders if they will also support their organization spending countless resources on canvassing for someone who calls for “strong borders,” within a party that built the modern deportation machine. It is difficult to believe that the DSA is serious about immigrant’s rights if it will canvass for a guy who voted for the border wall and a party who built it. On these issues it is clear cut and zero-sum: Sanders will vote with us or against us. And Sanders has shown over and over that on these very important issues, he will vote against us. 

Some members of the DSA don’t think these issues are terribly important. Eric Blanc, one of the ideological heavyweights behind The Call and the Bread and Roses caucus, says,Some leftists believe that we should not support Bernie because he is running on the Democratic Party ballot line and/or because of his political limitations (e.g. on foreign policy issues or his definition of socialism). This criticism is hardly a serious reason to withhold endorsement.” Bernie Sanders’ “political limitation” in foreign policy: e.g. voting to support the imperialist war machine is hardly a serious reason? 

When Marx said that class struggle was national in form but international in content, he meant that socialists shouldn’t support progressive proposals nationally that don’t take into account the suffering of the oppressed masses by imperialism. A socialist program must be internationalist. 

Not one caucus has proposed to un-endorse Sanders, or even to put less weight on his campaign as a result of policies on borders, immigrants, Palestine or sex work. Some propose that we ask Sanders nicely to change his position, as if an organization of 60,000 could have more influence on him than the power and money of the Democratic Party machine. 

The Players

Although the majority of the DSA are made up of young people who are new to politics and have a lot of doubts about the best way forward, there are increasingly organized caucuses with clear agendas. Last year, the most left DSA caucus, Refoundation, decided to dissolve, leaving essentially no ideological counterweight to the more social democratic caucuses. The major caucuses can be roughly divided into two groups: those who center an electoral strategy within the Democratic Party and those who want to engage in local class struggle– although the latter willingly co-exists with the Democratic Party orientation. I can’t talk about every caucus in the DSA, but here I’ve tried to characterize the main four vying for leadership positions and who proposed resolutions. 

Bread and Roses is the strongest caucus because it has a clear political vision (if hopelessly reformist) and a way of disseminating that vision. A DSA member recently said to me, “Everyone is just reacting to Bread and Roses. They set the agenda.” This doesn’t mean that they will necessarily win the majority of leadership, but rather that their ideas lead the organization. Many members of Bread and Roses are on the editorial board of Jacobin, with its 2 million people a month. Ideologically they are the strongest caucus, systematically presenting their ideas for the DSA in The Call. 

And what is the agenda they put forward? Just take a look at Jacobin. In all likelihood, there are at least two articles about it on their front page: Sanders 2020. Yet, it is important to note that Bread and Roses are not the only Bernie enthusiasts. Certainly Socialist Majority is just as enthusiastic, although they don’t have the ideological machine that Bread and Roses does. Bread and Roses says that it wants to build a cohesive and unified workers party based primarily on labor organizing and electoralism. They argue vehemently against horizontalism and have been accused of being bureaucratic and attempting to shut down local organizing efforts. 

Ideologically, Bread and Roses are trying to revive the tradition of Kautsky, the guy in the middle ground between revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and the murderous right wing of the German Social Democratic Party. “Red Rosa” described Kautsky’s strategy as “nothing but parliamentarism.” And Bread and Roses is, in fact, to the right of Kautsky. Kaustky never proposed supporting capitalist parties, unlike the Bread and Roses strategy of supporting Democrats. 

While Bread and Roses says they want to build an “independent working class party,” the way they propose to get there is through endorsing and campaigning for Democrats, albeit using independent DSA materials. A central aspect of the Bread and Roses’ vision  is “class struggle elections”: elections that only endorse “socialists” and who will “see mobilizing and fighting alongside working people as one of their primary responsibilities”— certainly a contradiction when running in a party of Wall Street and campaigning for Sanders, who defines socialism as nothing more than the New Deal. And it’s unclear how “fighting alongside working people” could possibly be enforced by the DSA when Sanders aren’t even in the organization and when none of the other candidates are in any way accountable to the DSA. 

A last aspect worth highlighting is the “class-wide demands” strategydemands that supposedly unify the working class against the capitalists, such as Medicare for All. While Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are important reforms worth fighting for, Bread and Roses believes that these demands should be prioritized over the struggles of oppressed people against ICE, deportations, police violence etc. This is evident in that none of the Bread and Roses leaders argued that the movement against concentration camps was among their top two political priorities.  

If their ideas about “race blind demands” sound class reductionist, that’s because they are. And in fact, this was a big problem for a prior iteration of Bread and Roses, the Spring Caucus. In March, the Spring Caucus disbanded after only a few months because some members were so hostile to feminist and anti-racist work that the group split. However, Bread and Roses maintains the same aim of prioritizing the Bernie campaign, making excuses for his imperialist foreign policy, arguing that reforms that would impact the entire (American) working class are enough. 

Certainly there are other caucuses in the DSA with political, as well as organizational, differences with Bread and Roses. There is Socialist Majority, another major caucus with several members running for national leadership. However, it’s not very clear what makes them different from Bread and Roses programmatically: they support nearly all of the same political resolutions, although they are less ideological, and don’t support a break with the Democrats. 

Build, which does not see itself as a caucus, and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus make up over a third of the candidates to the National Political Committee. Both focus on procedural questions, hoping to build a decentralized DSA that focuses on local organizing and mutual aid. Build says, “we are not a “caucus”—which, as defined above, we take to mean a faction with a defined policy platform or narrow prescription for political action—we will not run a traditional, single-tendency ideological slate of candidates.” They claim that the biggest problems in the DSA stem from factionalism, actively shunning discussing political positions beyond the procedural. Build and the LSC criticize what they see as top-down bureaucratism from the DSA, with Build even claiming that  “Many chapters are skeptical of National and see little incentive to stay affiliated.” 

But, despite what those in Build or the LSC might say,  there is nothing necessarily less reformist about local organizing or mutual aid. Neither mutual aid nor local organizing challenge the capitalist state, especially if they only co-exist peacefully with the dominant orientation of the DSA, which is Sanders 2020. 

In the end, none of these caucuses have articulated any major political differences on the primary orientation of the DSA: Bernie Sanders. While the socialist movement in the U.S., going back to Eugene V. Debs, has advocated independence from the Republican and Democratic Parties of Capital, at the DSA convention there is no force opposed to supporting Democrats. But the fact that none of the caucuses have mounted an organized opposition does not mean that all sectors are happy: the activists who spent the winter taking the streets in protest often have misgivings about watching the DSA become an electoral machine in the service of the Democrats. 

The Tyranny of the Organizational 

Build and the LSC argue that the organizational is political. I think that is true. But I also think that the organizational should always be dictated by political understanding and goals; our organizations have to be a tool to fight for socialism. So organizational procedures should be at the service of helping us achieve our political goals and advance class struggle. 

However, the vast majority of the resolutions for the convention are not about pressing political issues but about internal organizing, as the 2019 DSA Convention Breakdown in New Politics explains. Andrew Sernatinger writes, “despite the presence of caucuses in the organization, there is broad agreement on DSA’s core politics, and the contention is largely about how the organization functions. After reading through these resolutions, I stick by that claim. Differences in the political resolutions appear to be more of degree rather than kind.” To a large degree, this is correct: the resolutions express agreement, and not one caucus has mounted an organized political opposition to the DSA’s Sanderist orientation. 

But at a second glance, I would argue that the organizational questions are the way that the most left sector in the DSA expresses political disagreement. 

Indeed, this echoes the situation from the most recent NYC DSA convention, where questions of process served as proxies for important political debates. For example, the question of whether endorsements should be decided in person or online was actually about whether liberals should be endorsed; in NYC, online voters and paper members tend to be more supportive of liberal politicians like Cynthia Nixon than in-person voters (There was 78% support for Nixon online and 55% support in person). But rather than directly addressing the question of whether the DSA should endorse liberals, the discussion was about online or in person voting. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think the voting should be in person so that the most left sector of the DSA can stand up and make a strong case against endorsing liberals, and I think online voting even further diminishes the space that the left of the DSA has to make their arguments. After all, Bread and Roses has Jacobin. The left sector needs all the space it can get. But, if/when left sectors of the DSA have that space, it shouldn’t just be used to just discuss procedure. 

The DSA’s hyper-focus on procedure is tremendously unfortunate. For socialists who are left of the average member, it is possible that our proposals will lose. But if we put up a fight focused on political goals, the left would be able to put forward a political vision for the DSA. Every political struggle leaves lessons and doubts behind in the minds of undecided voters. The procedural struggle, by hiding the political struggle, leaves no political vision behind. In NYC, the discussion was about endorsing liberals, but the lessons left behind were about online versus in person voting. In other words, a total loss. 

Similarly, the discussion between LSC/Build and Bread and Roses/Socialist Majority is playing out as one about local versus national organizing. In fact, all 12 of the Build and LSC NPC candidates chose “The relationship of the national to local” as one of their two questions that they answered in their candidate profiles, saying “The NPC’s role should be administrative in nature — not defining politics or priorities for the organization.” This is different from Bread and Roses, which wants a national organization that canvasses for Bernie and organizes for Medicare for All. But the root of this difference isn’t just organizational; rather, it is about the role of electoralism as opposed to activism, community organizing and tenant organizing. In other words, there is an unspoken political difference here around the orientation of the DSA, disguised as the respective weight of local and national organizing. 

A Socialist Organization is Not a Nonprofit

The reason that many people turned to the DSA in the first place is that the Democratic Party wasn’t cutting it, nor was the progressive non-profit industrial complex. Folks wanted more. They wanted to fight for socialism. But looking at the DSA convention today, we can see that the organization is characterized by routine and a focus on process. This is a pattern in the DSA: endless debates about bylaws, about how to organize meetings, about how to vote, etc. 

The first section of the packet of resolutions for the largest socialist organization in the United States in the last 30 years is entitled “Introduction to DSA Budget Office Analysis,and each resolution has a budget attached to it. In fact, it says, “many are realistically actionable (either implicitly or explicitly) only by either shifting how staff spend time from one thing to something new, or spending on new staff or direct costs.” In other words, many resolutions are seen as “actionable” based on if it can be taken up by paid staff who are not voted for or chosen by rank-and-file members based on political considerations. 

In an organization of 60,000, there can and will be full timers—there is no problem there. But a socialist organization needs to be run at all levels by working people and youth, with full-timers serving on an elected, rotational basis, doing administrative and technical jobs. A socialist movement is about helping working people become “professional revolutionaries” themselves.

The focus on internal structure and on funding is, to be honest, more reminiscent of a non-profit organization than a socalist organization. I don’t think this new generation of socialists is getting the fighting machine that they wanted and that we need. 

As socialists, our first and foremost discussion must be about big picture politics: what is the international and national situation that the organization is intervening in? What has the DSA done effectively, and what contradictions should be addressed and resolved? And what are the primary tasks of a socialist organization in the heart of the U.S. empire? 

Nothing-but-Reformist Parliamentarianism 

“We’ll combine electoralism with social movements! Bernie Sanders inspired the teachers’ strikes!” Statements like these are repeated ad nauseum by some DSAers, especially Bread and Roses. 

This is a lie that sectors of the DSA tell themselves. Rosa Luxemburg said it about Kautsky, and it is also true of the DSA: the DSA is going in the direction of nothing but parliamentarianism—in a capitalist and imperialist party no less! 

But the U.S. is full of muted rage with the concentration camps, with Trump’s racism and the threat of climate change. We saw it most recently in Puerto Rico, how that rage overthrew a governor. The DSA can and should play a role in turning frustration into radicalization: into a struggle in the streets and in our workplaces. But instead, the DSA maintains this rage at bay, putting more weight on canvassing for Sanders than on protests. 

But the problem isn’t running in elections. It’s the party DSAers run in and what they do in office. While I wholeheartedly reject Trump’s attacks on “the Squad,” and recognize that they vocally denounce the concentration camps at the southern border, AOC and Tlaib have not used the unprecedented spotlight on them to build a mass and combative movement. Imagine if at their press conference, which millions of Americans watched, they called on everyone who is enraged at the concentration camps to take the streets in a day of national mobilization. Maybe they could even propose that millions storm the camps. Imagine if The Squad were on the front lines, willing to get arrested to radicalize the fight for immigrants’ rights. 

That is what a socialist candidate should do in office. But instead, people like AOC are more interested in strengthening their positions as major players in the Democratic Party–as AOC’s vote for the federal budget and smiling pictures with Nancy Pelosi demonstrate.

Socialists can use elections to build the power of the working class separate from the capitalists and their parties. For socialists, elections really should be in the service of class struggle, not in the service of registering people as Democrats as the DSA is currently doing. What does it matter if the DSA has 60,000 members, or even 200,000 members, if those members are all going to use their strength to canvass for a capitalist politician? Subordinating the struggle to canvassing for Bernie Sanders is, indeed, nothing but parliamentarianism. 

Build a Movement, Really. 

The time to organize a movement is now. Now, when millions of people understand that there are concentration camps at the border. Now, when we are afraid of losing our reproductive rights, and the language of strike is back in the national consciousness. Now, when Trump is publicly attacking the Squad. Members of the DSA have never had such a powerful spotlight shone on them and never had such a possibility for momentum. 

A movement is not being built by the leadership of the DSA. In fact, the leadership is working against the movement by telling members to just accept the contradiction between supporting open borders and canvassing for someone who is staunchly against it. 

I reject the claim that the leadership of the DSA isn’t building a combative movement in the streets for immigrants’ rights because it doesn’t know how. After all, Bread and Roses is very adept at building the Sanders campaign. It aren’t building a movement for immigrants’ rights because it doesn’t want to. 

When I was writing this, there wasn’t a single article on the front page of The Call about immigrants’ rights. On the cover of Jacobin, there were not one, not two, but three articles on space colonies and not a single one about immigrants’ rights. Socialist Majority doesn’t even have “open borders” in its top 20 resolutions.

To build a movement, the  DSA convention should be a space to first and foremost discuss politics: as Trump continues to polarize the right, what are the effects in the U.S. and around the world? The convention shouldn’t be about personalities or interpersonal beef. It needs to be about our political positions and the way forward for the left. 

And in this context, we need a concrete plan for building a national mobilization with no magical hopes in Democratic Party candidates, and with the determination to defeat our enemies. One that demands that the space the DSA has won in the media–in Jacobin, in the Guardian be put at the service of building a struggle on the ground. We need a concrete plan that organizes unionized workers to mobilize their unions for immigrants’ rights, and those in universities to get other students and professors on board. This is the least that a socialist organization of 60,000 people can do. 

Breaking the Misery of the Possible

But, organizing a national movement isn’t the end of the struggle. With the impending climate catastrophe, which will exacerbate the immigration crisis, there is no room for magical thinking. 

It is magical thinking to believe that candidates who are not even associated with or accountable to the DSA will be the mouthpiece for the DSA’s positions. 

It is magical thinking to believe that anything short of a revolution- the complete overthrow of the existing economic and social relations- can fix the problems that affect the global working class. 

The working class, when organized, is strong enough to bring this whole system to its knees; the working class, when it takes up the problems of the most oppressed sectors of society, shows that we, not the capitalists, can solve society’s problems. And so the task of socialists is clearer than ever before: organize the working class and oppressed, using all the tools at our disposal–unions, elections, neighborhood and student assemblies, protests and pickets. And in all these places, make clear that the capitalists and their parties are our enemies, which is why we can’t run on their ballot lines or trust their politicians.

Socialists must organize a group that takes inspiration from the Puerto Rican masses who ousted Rossello, from the Spanish feminist movement that went on strike for women’s rights and from the recent wave of teachers’ strikes at home; a group that knows that we must fight. A socialist group must know that we can win and that winning means Medicare for All, but much much more. It means socialism. The task in front of us is to organize a group that fights with all we have on the side of the working class and oppressed every single time. Isn’t that why folks joined a socialist organization after all? 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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