The DSA’s 2021 Convention Consolidates Its Rightward Turn

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) recently wrapped their biannual convention, a de-politicized affair which represented the consolidation of the right-wing turn of the DSA over the past several years. This consolidation has important consequences for both the rank-and-file of the DSA and the socialist movement as a whole.
  • Tatiana Cozzarelli and Ezra Brain | 
  • August 18, 2021
Original Image: The Nation

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) recently ended its 2021 convention, which brought together over 1,000 delegates from all over the country via Zoom. It is clear from the resolutions and discussions that this convention signifies a consolidation of the rightward shift that the DSA has been undergoing for years.

The DSA grew in leaps and bounds in 2016 after Bernie Sanders’s campaign and Donald Trump’s win. Downwardly mobile millennials, anxious to fight Trump and build a political alternative to Hillary Clinton’s party, joined the DSA in droves. People who centered activism, not elections, joined and hoped to build an activist pole in a group that had always worked within the Democratic Party — though, even then, the majority didn’t support splitting from the Democratic Party. DSA members claimed that this was no longer Michael Harrington’s social democratic organization. It was new, young, and radical.

By some measures, the DSA is doing well. It is the largest socialist organization in the country, with over 80,000 people — and it is backed several high-profile candidates who now sit in local and national governments. Anytime the media talks about the rise of “socialism,” it is referring to the DSA. The DSA has also pulled in smaller socialists groups, including former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and current members of Socialist Alternative, including their highest-profile leader, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant.

But what the 2021 convention clearly highlights is that the DSA has become an organization with far less discussion and debate, signifying a broad consensus around the way forward. And that way forward is tying the DSA more deeply to the capitalist state, not fighting it. On the national level this means making the DSA an electoral machine for the Democratic Party with a passive rank-and-file that campaigns for progressive Democrats. On the international level it means allying with heads of state that dub themselves leftists while implementing austerity and paving the way for an advance of capital. In both cases, there is no perspective of actually fighting the state, only building a “mass party” to take up government posts within it.

The Convention’s Political Terrain

The DSA convention featured high-profile keynote speakers like former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, sitting Democratic Party congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and Buffalo’s mayor-elect, India Walton (Democrat). Rather than dedicating time to drawing up a balance sheet of how the organization has engaged in class struggle over the previous year — a process necessary to evaluate and adjust strategy — the discussions were immediately dominated by purely organizational discussions. There were discussions about finances — which differed little from any nonprofit’s report aimed at firing up its base to fundraise — and countless debates about relatively minor details about how to follow through on different political priorities. From these exhaustive internal discussions, three important facts did emerge: DSA membership growth has slowed to a trickle, staff has increased by 60 percent, and the DSA is struggling to pay for all its initiatives. It seems that as the DSA becomes integrated into the Democratic Party, it also becomes more top-down and less dynamic.

At the convention, discussions of the DSA’s internal workings supplanted political discussion. As a result, important topics were ignored or barely discussed: the Biden administration, the failure of the Sanders campaign, Israel’s latest offensives against Palestine, and the Black Lives Matter movement.. This means the DSA doesn’t have to seriously contend with the fact that, despite its membership numbers, the organization played a very small role in the Black Lives Matter movement. An honest assessment of the DSA’s role in the movement might open questions about whether electoralism with the Democratic Party is the best way forward. But this discussion was never had.

Further, the political terrain has shifted from the heydey of the DSA’s growth during the Trump era. The DSA’s numbers are dwindling in this context. Wouldn’t it be worth it to discuss why that is the case? An organization cannot make a plan for what to do going forward until there is a shared understanding of what has happened and what is currently happening.

The Biden administration’s central task is to rebuild the legitimacy of the institutions that fell into disrepute under the Trump administration. As socialists, we want people to question and rebel against the regime’s institutions from a left perspective. But the DSA-endorsed electeds and coalition partners are playing a role in rebuilding the legitimacy of the state and its political regime. Sanders is a prime example: he is not only rebuilding the legitimacy of Congress, the electoral system, and the Biden administration, but also serving as Senate Budget Committee chair and voting to discipline local governments that defund the police, a slap in the face to last summer’s movement.

As the DSA draws closer to the regime’s institutions and the Democratic Party, there is strong bureaucratic control from the leadership. While the 2019 convention was focused on procedure, with endless Robert’s Rules interruptions, the 2021 convention was characterized by last-minute rule changes set by leadership, attempts to stop political debate and a technological quagmire (see Tempest for coverage of these issues). It was so controlled from the top that delegates were barred from jumping in or publicly stating their positions unless given permission by the DSA leadership.

Tempest writes:

The actual operation of this convention is nightmarish…. These are now six separate windows for convention business. Zoom chat is closed, so there is no comments. The Q&A section is open, but generally told will be ignored. … Staff determines if something is to be considered. If it is rejected, you later get a slack message saying it was rejected for whatever reason.

This is a format meant to tightly control the agenda from the top and stifle debate.

On the one hand, this results from increased consensus around the DSA’s orientation. Compared to 2019, 2021 highlighted that there is much less disagreement.

But on the other hand, this shows that the DSA is becoming less dynamic. There are fewer members joining, fewer resolutions being proposed, and fewer people running for leadership. In fact, multiple people from the DSA national leadership resigned this year, and several National Political Committee (NPC) candidates withdrew their candidacy mid-convention (including one who resigned from the whole organization mid-convention). In 2021, 19 candidates were voted on for 16 NPC positions. By contrast, in 2019, 33 people ran for leadership.

These numbers provide a snapshot of an organization in which a bureaucratic leadership has demobilized the base and crushed discussion. Rather than becoming more dynamic, the DSA is treading water. This is a direct result of its political orientation.

A Democratic Party Electoral Machine

Many of the people who entered the DSA after Trump was elected claimed that radical activism and Democratic Party electoralism could peacefully coexist. This convention highlighted the folly of this perspective. The DSA voted to make Democratic Party electoral work its priority, in hopes of building a “mass party capable of taking state power.”

In this convention, the DSA voted overwhelmingly to make “electoral politics a priority for the next two years,” allocating $755,848 to the endeavor and “two full-time organizers on national staff and substantial resources over the next two years” to the task. It argues that “the unique nature of the U.S. two-party system requires that socialists continue to contest partisan elections chiefly on the Democratic ballot line.” There was essentially no discussion about the fact that the Democratic Party is an imperialist party that has already bombed multiple countries this year alone and is currently keeping children in concentration camps.

Multiple amendments were made to this. One in particular committed the DSA to the notion of the “dirty break,” in which the DSA to will explore alternatives to the Democratic Party, try to shift voters’ identity from “Democrat” to “democratic socialist,” and “reject a strategy of capturing the capitalist-controlled Democratic Party or Democratic Party clubs or committees at the local, state, or national level, and instead commit to the project of building a working-class party independent of capitalist influence.” But even this toothless notion of a dirty break failed by a not insubstantial margin of 442-577. Notably, Eric Blanc, a key author of the dirty break strategy, opposed this proposal, essentially claiming that the DSA should support a dirty break but not prepare for it.

The message behind all this is clear: More resources for elections, more focus on elections, more faith that the Democratic Party can be a vehicle for socialism.

The Problem Is the State

While even the DSA’s left wing focused on the question of the dirty break, or whether the organization should work with the Democrats, this is merely one aspect of the problem. It’s only a first step to say that socialists ought not support one of the largest parties of capital, especially as they are unleashing imperialist terror across the Global South.

But there is another, deeper problem. And that is the problem of the capitalist state, which the DSA has no intention to destroy but to take positions within. To put this another way, the DSA doesn’t want to overthrow the state and its mechanisms, but merely to use them to achieve some positive social reforms, almost always at a domestic level. But the capitalist state is not an empty sack to fill with whatever class content you want — it is a mechanism by and for the capitalist state.

This strategy has failed throughout history: in Chile with Allende and in the Finnish Revolution. And after years of proof, new attempts to do this emerged recently, in which various reformists have tried to brand their strategy as an innovation. Organizations that hoped to change the system from the inside have already capitulated and failed, as in the example of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish State. The Labour Party under Corbyn had this strategy, and what was the result? Corbyn rebuilt belief in the Labour Party only to be defeated and exiled in disgrace as the party was almost completely retaken by its right wing.

The Latin American “Pink Tide” governments themselves, like the one in Brazil under Lula and Dilma, also exemplify this principle: capturing positions of power in the capitalist state for the sake of reforms is a dead end.

Allying with Pink Tide Capitalists

The 2021 convention marked the DSA’s clear alliance with heads of state in Latin America, particularly those aligned with the Pink Tide governments, which are neither anti-capitalist nor anti-imperialist (as one would follow the other). These governments emerged as a response to the crisis of neoliberalism in the Southern Cone, which led to massive mobilizations and uprisings, such as the one in Argentina in 2001 and the delegitimization of traditional parties that instituted a neoliberal and imperialist offensive against the Latin American working class and oppressed. The Pink Tide rose to power with populist rhetoric and tried to negotiate imperialist oppression under better market conditions , claiming to govern the capitalist state “for the people.” With variations between Latin American countries, these governments always attempted to give concessions to the working class while maintaining massive capitalist profits and accommodating imperialism’s interests. When the Latin American economy was on the rise, this was more feasible. When Latin American economies inevitably declined, these governments made sure that the working class would pay for the crisis. Such was the case with austerity measures implemented in Brazil and Argentina, and such is the case now with Maduro’s Venezuela.

In fact, DSA members recently visited Venezuela to meet with Maduro and did not meet with any sectors of Maduro’s left opposition. These Latin American countries also suffer under the boot of U.S. imperialism — led by Democrats or Republicans — which maintains massive foreign debt, demands mass privatizations, and actively supports right-wing coups, such as we recently saw in Bolivia and Venezuela.

These are clear examples of how the capitalist state is not an “empty sack” but a mechanism of class rule, even in semicolonies. To make it to the highest positions of power, Pink Tide governments had to make space for and coexist with the Far Right, big business, the religious right, and imperialist interests. And in moments of deep economic crisis, the Right easily did away with them, with the help of U.S. imperialism, creating dire conditions for the working class.

This is no model for socialists to follow.

At this convention, a proposal by the DSA’s International Committee calls for the DSA to send election observers to Latin America, develop exchange programs with “mass parties,” and apply for membership in the São Paulo forum — a grouping of mostly Pink Tide parties, many which have governed capitalist states, like the Workers Party in Brazil or the MAS in Bolivia. This resolution passed 694-369. There was real resistance to actually debating the international resolution. There were countless maneuvers to keep it on the “consent agenda,” which would ensure there was no actual debate about it.

While the resolution does show a good instinct toward internationalism, it is not the socialist internationalism that its supporters think it is. To begin with, for socialists in the U.S., real internationalism begins at home. It means fighting U.S. imperialism and building a political force outside the two imperialist parties. In this sense, it is impossible to truly be internationalist while backing the Democratic Party. You can’t stand in solidarity with the workers of the world while campaigning for the people who bomb them. You can’t back politicians who make excuses for concentration camps and work in the same party as the war criminals who orchestrated coups in Latin America. Above all, you can’t attempt to join the ranks of the imperialist state.

Instead, internationalism requires siding with working-class and oppressed people around the world and fighting U.S. imperialism at every turn. So, DSA members are correct that we must oppose all right-wing and U.S.-backed coups, but we also can’t politically support the leaders of capitalist governments, even when they oppose the U.S. So that means internationalists should build a mass movement in the U.S. against the sanctions against Venezuela rather than going to meet with Maduro, who maintains capitalism and represses dissent.

The DSA wants to build a “mass party” like those of its Pink Tide ilk — a party whose goal is to organize the working class and the masses for elections. One that seeks to divert class struggle toward elections. But for socialists, class struggle is an opportunity to build class power: for the working class to build an independent antagonist to the capitalist state. The DSA, like the Pink Tide, seeks to manage the capitalist state, not destroy it.

In Service of the State or in Opposition to It?

The 2021 DSA convention signified the consolidation of the DSA as an electoral appendage to the Democratic Party and its aspirations to integrate itself into the capitalist state. It was made clear in the DSA’s finances, as well as in the language of the proposals, that elections are the DSA’s priority.

This political priority cannot be disconnected from the complete lack of democracy and debate at the convention, which Tempest has tracked well. For the kind of organization that the DSA has become, you don’t need an active base, you don’t need new initiatives or combativeness from your group’s rank and file. All you need are voters, canvassers, and people to do the procedural organizing. This is precisely the kind of group the DSA is building.

Their lineup also shows what the DSA aspires to be. The main speakers weren’t activists or leaders of the struggle. They were Democratic Party politicians, a failed leader of a social democratic party (whose strategy of reforming the Labour Party from the inside failed so spectacularly that the party threw him and much of the party left), and a former capitalist president.

Whether it’s the “mass parties” in Latin America or for the “mass party” the DSA hopes to build, the task is to be at the head of the capitalist state. In the United States, this aspiration is especially egregious, since it means defending the world’s most powerful imperialist power. That is why Democrats have no place in our movement.

The task for the DSA and the parties they model themselves after is not independent working class power for the destruction of the capitalist state — the only real way to win socialism. Rather, the DSA seeks to win positions within that state, including the executive position. Socialists can and should use elections to strengthen class consciousness and the class divide, using electoral posts to denounce the capitalist system. For example, in Argentina’s Left and Workers Front, socialist candidates run on their own ballot line, remain accountable to a socialist program, and make the same salary as a teacher. But for the DSA, winning elections are an end in and of themselves — they refuse to make the most basic demands on their electeds: make the same salary as a teacher and refuse to vote military budgets.These are two different approaches to elections with very, very different ramifications.

Our task is to build the strength of the working class as an independent force, in class struggle and in politics. It’s to strengthen the class line nationally and internationally — not to blur it by working with Democrats. Our goal is to merge with the most advanced sectors of class struggle and to overthrow the capitalist state. It’s to build our own combat party, which seeks to organize workers for class struggle against the capitalist state, not lead them away from it. This is doubly so in an imperialist country like the U.S., where it is vital to oppose the state and its campaign of violence against the Global South at every turn, but to do so with a revolutionary perspective that allies itself with the working class, not bourgeois governments.

The 2021 DSA convention shows, once again, that the DSA is not fighting to do that. It seems more than happy to just knock on doors for Democrats, no matter the political situation — because, after all, they didn’t discuss it! They don’t want to overthrow the state, they want to join it.

The question that remains is whether the DSA’s rank and file, the ones who joined full of hope and rage, are willing to do this.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

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

Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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