DSA Convention 2019: This is Not What Democracy Looks Like

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The Democratic Socialists of America held their biannual convention in Atlanta last weekend. It should have been a tour de force. Some important resolutions were voted, but most of the weekend was spent engaging in procedural bickering.

PHOTO: CHRISTINA MATACOTTA/THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Last weekend’s convention should have been the DSA’s tour de force. 1,056 delegates gathered in Atlanta to discuss resolutions and constitutional amendments to the bylaws of the largest socialist organization the U.S. has seen in almost a century. The DSA has elected officials at various levels of government, and socialism (or at least a vague idea of it) has never been so popular. Bernie Sanders is polling in second place in the Democratic Party primaries and DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the most well-known figures in the Democratic Party. 

A new generation is awakening to political activity, and many of them are joining the DSA. The convention should have a way to organize thousands of socialists to use their strength to make a concrete plan to fight for immigrant rights, against climate change and against the rise of the right. `

But that wasn’t what happened. “This is a shitshow,” a New York DSA member wrote to me during the convention. 

Several different reports from convention participants—Dan La Botz in New Politics, Eric Blanc in The Nation and Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs—offered positive reviews. In fact, the only critical report was revealed as a ridiculous hoax. But even DSA enthusiast Blanc had to admit, “More than a few frustrated delegates on Friday evening wondered aloud whether the convention might implode from procedural disputes.” 

The DSA convention offered hours and hours of internal disagreements obfuscated by procedural and organizational discussions. Hours were taken up by appeals to the nearly incomprehensible Robert’s Rules of Order: points of order, points of information, points of personal privilege, over and over and over. Numerous resolutions were left unaddressed, including one calling for a mass strike for reproductive justice and another preventing police from being part of the DSA.  On Twitter, delegates talked about panic attacks, tears, and anger coming from the convention floor. 

In a previous article, I wrote about the “tyranny of the procedural.” This concept  was very much on display throughout the weekend’s proceedings. Debates on the resolutions were rushed and incomplete. How could they not be? Resolutions were proposed in a vacuum, without a discussion of the broader political context. As Dan LaBotz writes,

The general organization of the convention unfortunately made it difficult to hold extended political discussion and debate such important issues as the American political scene, DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party, U.S. foreign policy, or the question of oppressed groups in the United States. The convention was not organized around major political issues but rather around a series of short summary reports, resolutions, and constitutional amendments.

This way of organizing a convention is a disservice to the socialists who put their heart into organizing for socialialist feminism, against imperialism and against climate change.  There were some important resolutions addressing these issues, but even those were discussed so quickly that the convention left the DSA unarmed for the fierce battles that are to come, and without a vision of how those battles are part of a broader fight for socialism. I don’t think the DSA is any more prepared to collectively fight against concentration camps or combat white nationalism after the convention than it was before. The convention did not serve as an opportunity for socialists to “sharpen our knives” —as the anthem of the Puerto Rican protests puts it––against our capitalist enemies. 

The Internal Politics

Why so much tension and anger? One DSA member told me: “If you didn’t know the internal politics, the convention was illegible.” The convention was defined by fighting between different caucuses, which I described at length in my previous article. This convention demonstrated the strength of Bread and Roses, known for their reformist, pro-Sanders politics as published in Jacobin and The Call. They are the caucus with the most sophisticated (reformist) political vision. 

Bread and Roses and Socialist Majority are the two caucuses who are most enthusiastic about electoral politics inside the Democratic Party, with Bread and Roses committed to a “dirty break” sometime in the distant future and members of Socialist Majority are opposed even to this. Both want a more centralized organization with a stronger focus on national priorities—such as campaigning for Bernie Sanders. Bread and Roses was able to get nearly all of their proposals passed and the people favoring a more centralized DSA won a majority on the National Political Committee.

You may be interested: DSA Convention 2019: Sanderism and the Tyranny of the Procedural

At the convention, the central fissure was between these two caucuses and Build, the “non-caucus caucus” which claims that it doesn’t have an ideological stand. Build, alongside the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), clearly favored a more decentralized organization with a focus on mutual aid and “base-building”—although they do not oppose doing electoral work for Demcratic Party candidates. 

On Twitter and in person, one caucus blamed the other for purposely “filibustering” the convention, delaying and preventing some resolutions from being brought to a vote. At the convention, organizational questions served as proxies for political questions. The caucuses’ different political visions for the DSA were never clearly discussed.

Supporters of Build and LSC favor decentralization for ideological reasons, but I don’t think that is the only issue for folks in the decentralization camp. Many people in Build and the LSC are uncomfortable with the electoral orientation of the DSA, but rather than exploring this vision more openly, the discussion became one of centralization versus decentralization. In part because Build hasn’t put forward an alternative political and ideological vision, they cannot offer a comprehensive alternative orientation for the whole DSA. Instead, they propose decentralization in order to be able to pursue their politics on a local level. However, most decentralization proposals failed at the convention and an opportunity was missed to discuss real differences in political vision and orientation. 

What Was Voted

The convention voted for several resolutions that were quite left. For instance, delegates voted overwhelmingly to support open borders, with almost 80 percent in favor of the proposal in preliminary voting. They voted in favor of resolutions for the decriminalization of sex work, to create an anti-fascist working group and in support of anti-imperialism and decolonization. The DSA also passed a number of resolutions about orienting towards the unionized and non-unionized working class (although with a glaring lack of discussion of the union bureaucracy). 

Not a single speaker at the convention questioned the strategy of working within the Democratic Party. However, there were various attempts to rectify and contain the contradictions of this orientation. The “Bernie or Bust” resolution committed the DSA to refrain from endorsing any Democratic Party candidate other than Sanders—not even Elizabeth Warren who has taken up much of Bernie’s platform. They voted to endorse candidates who engage in “class struggle elections” and that the national DSA will only endorse “open socialists”—i.e. only people who call themselves socialists. (As New York City’s millionaire “democratic socialist” Cynthia Nixon demonstrates, that can be a pretty low bar.) Numerous resolutions voted on at the convention were to the left of Bernie Sanders, including ones on sex work, foreign policy, and immigration. Some resolutions explicitly called on the DSA to appeal to Sanders to reconsider his positions. 

One of the most contentious resolutions—and the one which most highlighted the differences between the caucuses—was called “Pass the Hat.” This proposal would have committed $100 to each chapter every month, and it was heavily supported by Build and the LSC. Whether or not one agrees with Build’s vision of decentralization, the testimonials from comrades in small chapters were shocking. They spoke of paying dues while seeing none of that money, nor any support from the national organization. One comrade from Mississippi spoke about white nationalists showing up to a reading group with guns, and how even $100 from the National could mean a safer meeting space. But with many arguing that these $100 payments could bankrupt the organization, the measure failed to pass. Indeed, none of the decentralizing measures proposed by Build and the LSC passed. 

On the other hand, the campaign to support Sanders is quite well-organized and funded: in fact the DSA is hiring a full time staff person to oversee the Sanders work and two more to oversee electoral work. No other aspect of the DSA’s outward facing political orientation has a dedicated paid position. 

If comrades attended the convention in hopes of organizing a national mass movement around issues like closing the concentration camps or reproductive justice, the convention failed to serve that purpose. Indeed, given the way the convention was organized I’m not sure there was ever a chance of this, even without all the procedural maneuvering. There wasn’t even a discussion of the proposal to organize a mass strike for reproductive justice, for instance,  because it was too far down on the agenda. 

While some very important and very left resolutions were voted, in order to make those resolutions a reality, the 1,036 delegates who attended would need to feel ownership of the resolution, and clarity about how they could bring those ideas to coworkers, neighbors and friends. In order to make resolutions a reality, we need more than to vote for them. 

We need a plan for how to build a movement that will be an unstoppable force in the national political situation. 

The Democrats and Bernie

The resolutions demonstrate that the DSA is, to some degree, aware of the dangers of working within the Democratic Party. But the resolutions that attempt to counteract these problems are quite tepid considering the imperialist bohmouth that is the Democratic Party. 

While a few resolutions politely ask Sanders to change his positions, their support for his campaign is already guaranteed. At the same time, the DSA knows that this a losing battle: Sanders isn’t going to take up the program of the DSA. One delegate spoke frankly about this on the floor of convention. He said that it was unrealistic to ask Sanders to take up support for Palestine, but the DSA could work to move Sanders away from being actively against BDS. The underlying message is that these issues are not important enough to withdraw support. 

Eric Blanc of Bread and Roses stated this message explicitly:

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. (our emphasis)

I do think it’s a serious reason. 

Canvassing for a candidate running for a capitalist party is not engaging in “class struggle elections.” To call it that does a disservice to the thousands of young people who want to advance the class struggle. Fostering the illusion that a party representing the most powerful capitalist class in the world can be a vehicle for change is not a form of “class struggle election.” It is class collaboration. 

Where was Sanders when the US was attempting to overthrow Maduro in Venezuela? Tweeting support for the “humanitarian aid” planned by Trump and John Bolton. Where was Sanders when hundreds of people, many of them Jewish, got arrested protesting against the concentration camps? Certainly not at their side. Instead, he called for “strong borders” at the Democratic primary debate in Detroit.

I know what “class struggle elections” look like: they are when socialist candidates are in the front lines of workers’ protests getting shot with rubber bullets. It looks like socialist candidates who never vote for the national budget and never vote for the military (“not one man and not one penny”) because those are tools to oppress the global working class. I’ve seen class struggle socialist candidates take the same salary as a teacher and donate the rest to workers’ struggles. Most importantly, a socialist candidate in a pitched battle against the capitalist class should run on a socialist ticket, denouncing the parties of capital with slogans like, “worker, vote for a worker.” A “class struggle election” means using an electoral campaign to organize the working class, to call for mass mobilization, and to link those efforts to actually existing struggles. These are the politics of the congress members of the Workers Left Front in Argentina. It isn’t anywhere close to Sanders’ politics.

The DSA didn’t discuss their previous experience of endorsing Democrats. Is the DSA really advancing socialism if its members vote for the military budget as Ocasio-Cortez did? Is it advancing socialism if Bernie Sanders supports border security and voted for the border wall

Not a single person among the over one thousand delegates stood up to even express discomfort with this situation. A DSA member who edited this piece told me that perhaps this was because the convention moved so quickly and there wasn’t much space for discussion. 

The Big Tent is Teetering

The problems demonstrated at the convention are deeply ingrained in the political project of the DSA. As a big-tent organization, it welcomes anyone — anyone, that is, except for members of democratic centralist organizations. To join, you just sign up and pay online. The DSA does not require its members to buy into any foundational political agreement, to demonstrate any shared, baseline understanding of “socialism”, or to agree upon any unified strategy for achieving it.  And there are no collective spaces within the national organization for democratic discussion on this topic. 

How can a group fight together for socialism if they don’t have clarity about what “socialism” even means? This lack of clarity is particularly pernicious given that there is an ongoing national conversation about the definition of socialism, in which the public figures of the DSA are participating. Ocasio-Cortez claims that one can be both a socialist and a capitalist. Bernie Sanders defines socialism as New Deal liberalism. Should the DSA push back against these visions of socialism, or embrace them? In some ways, thanks to their endorsement of Sanders for president, that decision has already been made. 

Yet, under the big tent, the question of which “socialism” to work towards is far from settled.  While the DSA stubbornly avoided addressing this crucial ideological question directly at its own convention, it is the underlying tension beneath all of the bitter disputes over procedure and structure.  Disagreement about fundamental goals and visions will not disappear just because DSA leaders avoid open political debate at their conventions. 

Organizational questions around centralization or decentralization should derive from political strategy and priorities. No socialist organization should see membership numbers as an end in themselves. Both our membership and our organizational structures must serve the critical task of pushing for socialism. Therefore, socialist organizations need time and space to openly discuss what socialism is and how we best think we can get there. 

Under the guise of “democracy”, bureaucratic mechanisms consolidate organizational power in the hands of people who are “in the know”:  those who know political theory and have previous experience within the socialist left; those who know Robert’s Rules and who know how to write and pass resolutions. Paper membership, the influx of new socialists, and confusing internal mechanisms leads to power being centralized in the hands of a  bloc who have a clear political strategy which they pursue with discipline: in this case, Bread and Roses / Jacobin. 

On the other hand, there are thousands of new socialists who do the (often thankless) work of booking rooms, running meetings, organizing and attending countless rallies and indeed, carry the entire DSA on their backs. Some are uneasy with Bread and Roses’ strategy for socialism, but they lack open discussion spaces to explore alternatives. And instead of fighting Bread and Roses’ reformist vision, opposition sectors in the DSA fight Bread and Roses about procedure. 

We cannot form a national movement of the working class, for immigrant rights and against the rise of the right, much less crush the brutal capitalist system like this. It doesn’t matter how many passengers the DSA can fit into its boat; if they can’t get them all rowing in the same direction, they are going to get swept away by the political currents- especially the Democratic Party. 

This is Not What Democracy Looks Like

Some say that this kind of convention is inevitable when there are so many people together in one room. Eric Blanc writes: “Democracy is always messy, and this convention was no exception.” 

Is this just what democracy looks like? 

No.

These endless procedural battles, filibusters, and abuse of the rules to control and limit the scope of debate … these are not democracy. 

Democracy means more than voting. It means time, space, and access to discussion and decision-making. Democracy in the DSA would mean real opportunities to discuss the political visions advanced by rank-and-file members, regional sectors, and internal caucuses. It would mean discussing these competing visions in branch meetings and working groups focusing on politics, not personalities. The most glaring example of the lack of democracy in the DSA is the fact that the Sanders endorsement was the product of an online vote with almost no organized political discussion. There was no way for the whole organization to hear members’ opinions for and against the endorsement.

And for socialists, democracy must be a central concern. The orientation of a socialist organization cannot and should not be dictated by a small group of people who are in the know. The whole organization should be in the know about a common political goal and strategy: an organization of thousands of socialist leaders who can bring left ideas and activism to their places of work and study. 

This internal democracy should be at the service of advancing class struggle and the fight for socialism. Socialists have an enemy: the capitalist class and the capitalist state. AOC is wrong, you can’t be a socialist and capitalist at the same time.  A socialist group should be a weapon against the capitalist class: to organize like-minded people to fight together, with all the strength we have, against the bourgeoisie. In moments of high class struggle, there is reason for centralization, as Luigi Morris argues. At the same time, to be effective in struggle and forming strong socialist fighters, we need strong democracy.

Space for democratic discussion is important in order to help  the entire group come to a collective political understanding of reality: to listen to, discuss, and understand the diverse political realities and organizing challenges facing the South and the Midwest as much as the West Coast and the Northeast, the big chapters as well as the small chapters. And in that context, an organization must discuss political priorities. In that way, members become the agents of a collective struggle against the capitalist class.  

That kind of democracy is the opposite of what we witnessed at the DSA convention. 

The Urgent Tasks

While the DSA convention played out in Atlanta, a white nationalist went on a shooting rampage in El Paso. Only a few days later, without warning, ICE carried out one of the largest immigrant raids in U.S. history in Mississippi. Climate catastrophe is an existential threat for us all, and in the short term, it will be most felt by those least responsible for it: poor folks of color. I don’t think anyone can seriously claim that capitalism can reform its way out of this mess. The only realistic way forward is revolution. And we need an organization to help us organize in that direction. 

There are reasons to be hopeful. Around the world, there have been moments of radicalized class struggle in the past few months: mass protests in Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, as well as the Yellow Vest movement in France. Some of these struggles even pointed to the possibility of a pre-revolutionary situation. These events show how in moments of struggle, class consciousness grows in leaps and bounds; it’s not built by opportunistically adapting leftist ideas to what is most popular. 

We need a space to conspire against the capitalist state and a tool to organize thousands to strike hard against our enemies; this tool would be a revolutionary socialist party. We need a party who can make a difference in the class struggle: in supporting strikes, in abolishing concentration camps, and in demanding drastic action on climate change. A party who understands every struggle as a school of war, building experiences that will serve us in moments of higher class struggle. We need a revolutionary party who is non-sectarian and who fights alongside working-class people for every reform that we can get, but who also connects these smaller battles to the greater struggle for a workers’ government. We do not need a party more concerned with whether a motion was properly seconded than it is with whether that motion represents an authentically democratic decision about how to promote the interests of the working class and oppressed.

All the procedural problems of the DSA convention was an expression of its reformist orientation. Many members of the DSA were unhappy with the process and some of the outcome. But an alternative organization will require an alternative—revolutionary—orientation. I think there are certainly a number of DSA members in favor of organizing for revolution, but we need to start the process immediately of building for it immediately rather than wait for DSA leadership’s blessing.  The state of the world demands it.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

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