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With Ellison Defeated, What Next for the Democratic Socialists of America?

Guest contributors Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk critically assess the position paper of the Left Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the organizational dynamics and future of the DSA in the aftermath of Keith Ellison’s failed run for DNC chair.

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Image: The Shipwreck by Claude J Vernet

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In the wake of Trump’s presidential victory, which exposed the political bankruptcy of the Democratic Party, many have forsaken the Democrats and moved further to the political left. This migration has swelled the ranks of every organization on the left, but none so much as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose membership has reportedly tripled since the election to 17,000.* No doubt the DSA’s growth is the result of a flood of politicization catalyzed by the Bernie Sanders campaign, as the DSA seems to be the U.S. political organization most closely in tune with Sanders’ aspirational program.

But pinning down what the DSA believes in, precisely, or where the group is going has proven to be a difficult task. Since DSA is an ideologically big-tent organization and operates in a decentralized manner, outlook and strategy can vary dramatically from chapter to chapter. The organizational turmoil resulting from the mass influx of members and the paucity of public statements from DSA’s leadership only adds to the confusion. In trying to analyze DSA one is reminded of the parable of the blind and the elephant, in that different members in DSA often report starkly different experiences of the organization.

Amidst this sturm und drang, a statement from the DSA Left Caucus (LC) entitled “DSA Left Caucus: Who We Are, Where We Stand” has recently surfaced. This “position paper,” apparently adopted in 2014, demarcates one relatively left-wing tendency within DSA. Since this is one of the only programmatic statements that has been released by DSA or a caucus within it as of late, we view it as a valuable window into what political views are emerging within DSA. Why this and other documents on the political ideas current in the U.S.’s largest leftist organization are so little known remains inscrutable.

On first glance, though, the statement raises more questions than answers. Who, exactly, constitutes the Left Caucus? How much support does the LC have within the DSA? What is its relationship to Jacobin magazine? Has this document been officially adopted by any faction or, contrariwise, abandoned since 2014? Are the members who wrote this document still members of DSA? If so, have their views shifted at all since they drafted it? For good reason, leftists have long expected transparency on such matters as part of the organizational norms of their groups. However, we will put aside these practical questions for the moment, and attempt to conjure some insight from the text.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

There are a number of laudable positions in the LC statement, even ones that are ostentatiously radical for a democratic socialist organization. “[W]elfare-state capitalism is not enough,” the LC boldly proclaims, “we seek a revolutionary transformation of society aimed at the ultimate goal of total human emancipation” through a “long-term goal of building a working-class socialist political party” and a “mass socialist movement in the US.” The LC sees their “primary allies” as “other socialist organizations,” with whom the LC desires to work. The LC takes some welcome steps towards an anti-imperialist position, declaring the desire to “dismantle our government’s imperialist military machine, and actively engage with the Palestinian solidarity movement – including organizations that advocate BDS.”

At the same time, the LC statement attempts to address the manifest flaws with the DSA. The LC wants to discard the fetid corpse of the Socialist International, an organization that harbors the likes of Tony Blair, Jacob Zuma, Mahmoud Abbas, François Hollande and (until 2011) Hosni Mubarak. Additionally, the LC desires to jumpstart presently-neglected internal political education within DSA “(especially around Marxist theory, socialist history, and visions of socialism and the transition to socialism)” to develop a more activist cadre. The LC seeks to address the above-mentioned amorphous positions of DSA, calling to “clarify DSA’s mission” through “more explicit debates between different tendencies in DSA.” The LC affirms its “commitment to intersectional struggles,” an important development for an organization which has struggled to recruit outside of the young, college-educated, white, male demographic. It is safe to say that, if adopted, these positions would be a political improvement.

However, there are some notable problems in the LC statement, from a socialist perspective. Most glaringly, the language leaves the door wide open to supporting Democrats and other bourgeois parties; the urge to “orient DSA’s electoral strategy towards supporting candidates that openly run as explicit socialists” would not preclude DSA members from working for a Democratic candidate such as Bernie Sanders. Clearly, if there is no total break from the Democrats, the DSA will never be able to free itself from the Democrats’ iron grip to cohere an “independent socialist electoral base.” Unfortunately, the LC equivocates on this crucial question of electoral strategy.

But the LC statement has other shortcomings. The LC views its post-capitalist regime as one of “democratic socialism,” a phrase that promises what can never be delivered, a peaceful transition out of capitalism stopping short at restricting the political privileges of the existing ruling classes. “Revolution” is invoked, but no attempt is made to distinguish it from the reformism for which the Socialist International is notorious. A similarly undefined concept is “socialism”; does the LC have in mind the seizure of the means of production and state power, leading to the expropriation of capitalist wealth? The LC evades these issues, nurturing the suspicions of the reader that it is, in the democratic socialist idiom, diluting the words “revolution” and “socialist” down to thin gruel indeed.

Although one can not expect a unity statement to be overly ambitious, the LC’s position paper leaves other looming issues unaddressed. What is the LC’s stance regarding the trade union bureaucracy? How does the LC see itself as relating to other social movements, aside from the pro forma gesture to intersectionality? There are, of course, numerous international issues that the LC could discuss (to say nothing of internationalism) but even the one specific case that is mentioned — the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — is passed over fairly quickly. Whatever kind of revolution the LC means, does it foresee leading a revolutionary party? Or the DSA, or the Democrats? Or is it content to see the DSA continue as a relatively uncoordinated constellation of locally-focused clusters?

Although there are severe limitations within the LC’s statement, it is undoubtedly a welcome move to the left from DSA’s current positions, such as they are.

The Dreary Ellison Drama

The LC statement mouths a rhetorical commitment to socialism, as did the Bernie Sanders campaign. And as the largest U.S. organization with ‘socialist’ in its name, one would expect people disappointed that Bernie’s political revolution did not succeed would seek socialism in the DSA.

But is that a good way to keep alive optimism about socialism? There can be no doubt that, for many, a move into the DSA is a large step toward socialist politics, and that this reflects a significant further development of consciousness already seen during the presidential primaries. Where there is a sincere desire to overcome capitalism, it can be expected that people will also be open to a far more authentic and effective approach to socialism than what the DSA provides.

The position taken by DSA to support Keith Ellison, we would submit, is indicative of the type of unfortunate politics in which the DSA remains ensnared. (The DSA-affiliated publication Jacobin, incidentally, ran an article containing similar themes shortly before.) This intervention is yet another foray into Democratic Party internal politics, in support of a candidate often hostile to socialist politics and social movements. For those DSA members who would write off this statement as a mere symptom of being part of a vibrant multi-tendency organization, we have to ask, why does the right wing of the organization control the statements of the organization as a whole? Isn’t it because the DSA cements its unity to the Democratic Party by refusing to alienate its more conservative wing? If the LC must resort to publishing its positions outside official DSA channels, that is an indication of its viewpoint’s lack of influence within DSA.

Some leftists, including the DSA, have interpreted the contest between Tom Perez and Keith Ellison over the chairmanship of the DNC as a crucial struggle in building the resistance to Trump. It’s not. Actually, the problems that come from working within the Democratic Party will be much the same no matter who is its figurehead. The repudiation of Ellison by the DNC shows the Democrats ignore their left wing — the DSA and other progressive fellow travellers — as easily as the DSA ignores theirs.

The right wing of the DSA sticks with the Democratic Party, even when its criticisms are ignored — and even while having “serious doubts as to whether the Democratic Party can be transformed into a true party of the Left” — because the whole approach depends on maintaining membership. Then the left wing of the DSA also attaches great importance to internal Democratic Party struggles, because again membership in the party and the overall DSA is indispensable. When will this political dependency end?

Exit Stage Left

Broadly speaking, as the above gestures indicate, DSA remains controlled by an anti-Marxist old guard of aging organization stalwarts who look upon the recent mass recruitment with a mixture of excitement and uneasiness. On the one hand, they are pleasantly surprised by the influx of fresh recruits breathing life into their Harringtonian formation. On the other hand, the sheer amount of new members easily outnumbers the old guard, and their politics, now mostly inchoate, may prove difficult to fasten inside the straightjacket of Democratic Party politics.

It seems that anyone seeking to build a mass revolutionary party inside the DSA will be persistently thwarted by the inertia of the organization’s reformism and the recalcitrance of its more conservative wing. But we don’t imagine that everyone will be convinced of this right away, so there are some things that can be done within the organization to test its limits and move the members, if not the group, in a positive direction. The LC’s statement is a good first step towards this end, but a crucial test will be a desire to sever all ties with the Democratic Party.

In this shaky coalition within the DSA, many outcomes are possible. In the most conservative scenario, the DSA leadership succeeds in corralling new members inside the ideological limits of the Democratic Party, using the tried-and-true tactic of warning of the threat of incipient fascism to channel energies into lesser-of-two-evil electoral politics. Another future might be the one that the LC seems to desire, riding the wave of youthful dynamism to seize control of the DSA and steer it in a more leftist direction — but what then? Even if the LC succeeds in taking the helm over the objections and resistance of DSA veterans, does the LC have a strategy that is qualitatively different from DSA business as usual, beyond simply symbolic changes?

Another guide to events might be the experience of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s. SDS was the archetypal New Left organization, seeking a Third Way politics that steered clear of either an explicitly capitalist or communist position. However, once Marxists confronted members of the organization about defining where it actually stood on various issues, SDS rapidly disintegrated, as its theoretically bereft politics proved insufficient to answer the Marxists. Some remnants, persuaded of the need for revolutionary politics, took up residence in Marxist organizations, some more healthy and productive than others. If the DSA membership seriously engages with the questions that Marxists are likely to ask, and the issues that the LC is only now gingerly dancing around, will the DSA suffer a similar fate as SDS?

Hopefully DSA members will render this question academic by splitting away from the Democrats and joining an independent socialist party. Until then, the Left Caucus plays with the notion of revolutionary socialism, so it is up to them to let their members in on the secret of how they believe it will happen.


* This number reflects the amount of people on DSA’s membership roll, not the number of active cadre, which is certainly much smaller. The DSA operates differently from most socialist organizations, in that anyone can sign up, whereas in more traditional socialist organizations one has to show some political alignment with the organization before being invited to join, and participate in political activity and internal education after joining the organization to maintain membership. As such, comparisons between the membership numbers of DSA and Marxist organizations can often be misleading. All the more so because the DSA has a rule excluding members of groups that practice democratic centralism (in the Bylaws of the DSA Constitution, Article I, Section 3), which means the only leftists who can’t simply sign up are the convinced Marxists — surely a further indication of the limited political possibilities of the DSA route.

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