The Revival of the Democratic Socialists
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) grouping has witnessed astonishing growth over the past year, going from around 5,500 members to 26,000. It now claims 2,000 members in New York City alone. The DSA’s growth began with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2015, thanks in part to Sanders’ self-designation as a “democratic socialist” and his call for a “political revolution.”
Though Sanders promoted an organization called “Our Revolution” after his Presidential bid, it is careful not to appear as a party within a party; the “party” of course being the us Democrats. The DSA too declares that it is not a “party” but a distinct political organization, albeit one that still votes for whoever it regards as the most “progressive” Democrat standing.
The DSA came into existence in 1982 as a fusion of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) led by Michael Harrington (1928-89) and the New American Movement (NAM), a 1970s “New Left” grouping.
Harrington’s aim was to reform the Democratic Party into a Scandinavian-style social democratic party, with the aid of the “left” wing of the Democrats, plus progressive trade union and civil rights leaders. The DSA was affiliated to the Socialist International, and advocated a us welfare state with public healthcare, education and housing. But the 1980s and 1990s were unfruitful decades for social democracy. The DSA’s transformation strategy failed miserably.
The present surge of recruitment is the biggest success the DSA has experienced since its foundation, making it the biggest left-wing organization in the USA since Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party of America before the First World War, and the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Its biennial National Convention met in Chicago on 3-6 August, with more than 1,000 in attendance, representing over 100 local chapters. Most attendees were under 35; two fifths were women; and one fifth were people of color. This Convention clearly moved the organization to the left.
It adopted a national priorities document that made the fight for a single-payer healthcare program a national objective, and voted to leave the Socialist International, arguing that it had become an agent of neoliberalism and austerity. In addition, it voted to support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli apartheid state.
The Convention also created a Labor Commission for trade unionists and a People of Color Caucus. However, a move to stand candidates independently of the Democrats was defeated by 60 per cent to 40.
The DSA has a solidly “democratic socialist” program, in the style of classical European reformist social democracy. Its 2016 program, Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution, identifies its ultimate goal as the “radical democratization of all areas of life, not least of which is the economy.” It concludes that “Under democratic socialism, this authoritarian system would be replaced with economic democracy.”
However, how to reach this goal is hardly mentioned beyond elections and social campaigning by democratic movements; nor does this program name the working class as the principal agent of social transformation. It remains to be seen whether its campaign for a public health service amounts to anything more than supporting the Bill that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren plan to introduce in Congress.
Last but not least, it does not advocate the creation of an independent party of the working class. However, the DSA does seem to have an open and reasonably democratic structure and a large number of radical youth, organized through its youth wing, the Young Democratic Socialists. Former members of various revolutionary socialist groups have joined it. It also has a plurality of platforms, represented at the Convention. One, named Momentum, is linked to the website and quarterly magazine Jacobin.
This trend does argue for “seeing workers as the central agents of winning change,” and for waging “struggles to win the short-term victories that empower people and lead them to demand more.” However, its politics are an eclectic mishmash that equivocate over electoral independence, arguing for pragmatic support for the Democrats. For good measure, Jacobin also praises the Communist Party of the late 1930s for its support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
If these variegated forces can combine active involvement in the ongoing struggles of the working class and the oppressed, and if at the same time there is a serious debate over the tactics and program that they need to adopt to effect this, then the DSA could play a progressive role in reawakening socialist and working class politics in the DSA from a long slumber.
But this potential will be realized only if it leads rapidly to a break from the Democrats by the US labor movement. The same also holds for the new movements of people of color, undocumented migrants, women and youth. Otherwise, the important tribune of elections will be left in the hands of representatives of the enemies of the working class and the oppressed like the Clintons (and the various “little Clintons” at state and local level).
The local chapters of the DSA, plus militant trade union locals, the far left groups, and the fighting single issue campaigns need to use a unity built in the fight against Donald Trump to make a giant leap forward: the creation of a mass party of labor that can overthrow the capitalist rulers of the DSA. And this, to borrow a phrase, would also be a giant leap for mankind.