Dirty Talk: DSA Congress Clings to Democrats
by Andy Yorke (originally published in Fifth International 22)
The growth to nearly 95,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, in the last few years of mass struggles and political mobilisations, was reflected in its biennial national Convention in the first week of August 2021, when over 1,000 people met virtually to debate resolutions affecting the way forward. It also revealed a polarisation within the organisation and a significant shift to the right by its leadership.
Whilst the convention passed a radical reformist platform, the focus on standing or supporting left candidates as part of the Democratic Party, every inch as much a capitalist, big business party as the Republicans, was reaffirmed. This orientation, however, is more and more out of sync with the needs of the radical struggles and movements that have arisen in a crisis-ridden USA.
The DSA left wing, which opposes this so-called ‘dirty break’ tactic, needs to use the united front to overcome its own disunity and launch a coordinated campaign against standing or endorsing Democratic candidates at election time and instead winning the DSA to struggle for a new working class party.
A polarised America
The convention could not have picked a better time to examine the DSA’s past work and its future plans, given the momentous developments since the last one. The American left faces stormy years ahead under a shaky Biden presidency and with a viciously rightwing Republican party launching attacks on the working class, women and people of colour from its strongholds within the us polity; the police the judiciary and the Congress. The USA’s long decline as an imperialist superpower has been thrown into sharp relief by its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. Economically, it has been at the centre of capitalism’s historic depression since 2008. Both developments have sharpened class antagonisms at home and abroad and driven a historic polarisation.
Even under the relatively popular Obama presidency, which concealed this decline to a degree, polls showed a majority of young Americans hostile to bankers, corporate America, and capitalism.  This flowed into the ‘independent socialist’ Senator Bernie Sanders’ bids to be selected as the Democratic Party’s first socialist presidential candidate, in 2015–16, when he garnered thirteen million votes for the nomination in the primaries, and then far less successfully in 2019–20. On both occasions he was blocked by the powerful Democratic National Committee. These class contradictions became white hot with the 2016 victory of Trump, with the rise of an openly fascist movement mingling with the triumphant Republican populist right.
In 2018, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, turned over one of the Democrat’s most powerful incumbents to become the first socialist to enter Congress (as a Democrat), creating national shockwaves. On her coattails, a series of DSA candidates stood for office, almost all of them as Democrats. On top of this, there are many more dsa-endorsed “progressive” Democrats, with even hollower claims (if any) to be socialists, so that 150 DSA members or endorsed politicians now hold office in city council chambers, state legislatures, and other state bodies. Last year’s election of DSA member Cory Bush to Congress means five DSA members now sit in the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s epochal crisis deepened as the fires of climate catastrophe burned from Australia to America and then, before a much predicted 2008-style recession could hit, pandemic gripped the system. Historic mass struggles rocked the last years of Trump’s term, from the 2018 teachers’ wildcat revolt, spreading across several Republican dominated states, through to the 2020 Black Lives rebellion after the police murder of George Floyd.
Since its 2019 convention, the DSA has claimed to stand for building an ‘independent working class party’. These great events themselves posed the question how it will be built: primarily through mass struggles or through electioneering, orienting to the Democrats and pressuring those in office like Sanders and AOC to keep left?
What kind of party?
The DSA grew through Sanders’ two nomination campaigns, Trump’s victory, and AOC’s high profile win, from an ageing group of 6,500 members to today’s vibrant organisation with an average age of 33 years, and from 148 chapters in 2019 to 240 (and 130 Youth DSA chapters) today. With a nationwide presence, in every state and major city, the dsa is the biggest socialist organisation in the us in the last hundred years and hegemonic on the left.  Ten thousand alone joined in the eight weeks from the opening of the covid crisis in March 2020 as it turned to organising mutual aid in the community.  Its associated website and magazine, Jacobin, has revived the socialist tradition in the United States, literally putting it back on the map, and spreading interest in Marx’s ideas.
But, for all the discussion on Marxist figures and various revolutions and mass strikes in Jacobin, elections are king in the DSA. While its trade union members and activists inspired by the Sanders campaign played an important part in the teachers’ strikes, building the left in the unions remains relatively under-resourced. By all accounts, the DSA was caught by surprise by the radicalism of the George Floyd uprising and generally played little part in organising, much less politically shaping, it. The DSA leadership, criticised for its passivity in the face of these radical events, even justified this by arguing it would be wrong to claim leadership, instead advocating chapters be ‘respectful’ and seek to build coalitions with existing protest leaders. This abdicates the fight for class politics and socialist leadership, but neatly ties into its election strategy.
Given the rampant growth of the DSA in all directions for years, it was to everyone’s shock when national director Maria Svart reported at the convention the ‘sobering reality’ that ‘new member growth has slowed to a trickle’.  It is an open question whether this was a tactic to marshal panicky votes into supporting the DSA’s electoral status quo, or the result of Biden’s $7 trillion welfare and infrastructure spending plans turning the dsa’s periphery back towards the Democrats, shutting off the growth tap.
The question of the electoral relationship to Democrats often obscures existential issues of party and programme: will the DSA be an activist controlled party, or one built around elected officials? Are elections one tactic in the class struggle or the central plank in socialist strategy? Historically, there have been two ways to build a mass party based in the working class. The first centres on the struggle against exploitation and oppression, war, imperialism and climate catastrophe, advancing a socialist strategy to develop cadres from the radical activists involved in strikes and mass protests. The second focuses on winning political office with a platform of reforms, building a solid and inevitably bureaucratic electoral machine based on politicians and party officials.
While both parties may call themselves socialist, as Rosa Luxemburg insisted, these are not just different ways of achieving the same goal. For the first, socialism is a society in which the economy is controlled by the workers’ own organisations, built in the course of the class struggle. For the second, socialism is to be introduced by an elected government working through the existing state institutions.
The present DSA leadership claims it can pursue both strategies with what it calls “class struggle elections”, but the last year, since the second failure of Sanders, has shown ever more clearly that its structures and approach tilt increasingly to by-the-book electioneering, and the 2021 convention cemented this. Moreover, the growing experience of “its” politicians in office, voting for capitalist budgets (even police budgets) and succumbing to pressure from business, developers, or the Democratic establishment, has shown the DSA has no way to hold its candidates to account, even when they are members.
The reason is simple enough. Genuine Marxists have no objection to standing in elections and campaigning energetically to get as many votes as possible for a socialist programme, turning as many voters as possible into activists for the whole range of the party’s politics and campaigns. Their programme and policies, however, are not determined by what will win the maximum number of votes and they do not believe that power (as opposed to office) can be won by elections. Reformists on the other hand tailor their programme to what they believe can win elections.
In Europe, and some other parts of the world, the workers’ movement created independent parties. In the USA, after several failed attempts, reformist socialists settled down to the prospect of pressuring the Democrats or even as standing as Democrats themselves. On this road, even a pale pink democratic socialism failed to achieve even a Swedish style welfare state. Today, the compromise between an independent socialist party and standing socialists as Democrats, or even supporting Democrats willing to present themselves socialists when the weather is fine, seems to have been shelved in the hope of progressive reforms under Biden.
Consensus at the top
Some dubbed this the “consensus” convention because the debates around the Democrats have stabilised. Fewer motions were presented, and a much smaller field of candidates ran for the National Political Committee, NPC, providing no real alternative to the main pro-Democrat caucuses, as factions and tendencies are called in the DSA.  A new, undemocratic procedure of pre-conference voting on which motions to take as “consensus” weeded out many. The online nature of the conference meant it was difficult to manage and chaotic, but it also made the job of oppositionists even harder. Together, these factors meant that major political shifts such as the new platform, electoral strategy and anti-imperialism were passed with almost minimal debate.
The move rightwards extended beyond the platform and elections. Motions to partly democratise the DSA, allowing for recall of those elected to the NPC, the DSA’s leadership body, and elections for the high profile post of National Director, failed. The balance of power on the NPC tilted further towards electoral reformism, with the new Green New Deal slate holding the balance of power.
The left caucuses have lamented the passage of Resolution 8, ‘Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority)’. This demarcated elections as ‘a unique priority’, that is, above all other priorities. It pledged to ‘continue its successful approach of tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line’, a shift to the right from the 2019 convention which stated merely that ‘this does not rule out dsa endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line’, as part of reaching the goal ‘to form an independent working class party’.  Of course, this was the open stable door through which the pro-Democratic horse bolted.
In reality, this open ended formula merely reflects the dsa’s actual practice, focussed on elections and ‘winning power’, that is, running the capitalist state for its real masters, by standing candidates as Democrats or, more usually, endorsing ‘progressive’ Democratic candidates. In a marked shift from the pre-Sanders era, nearly all candidates the dsa stands or endorses in elections are Democrats (rather than independents, Greens or other lines).
This is not surprising, the orientation to the Democrats is deep in the dsa’s DNA from its founding in 1982 to the present. The father of US social-democracy, Michael Harrington, America’s most high profile socialist in the sixties and seventies, famous for his 1962 political bestseller The Other America, which helped spark the “War on Poverty” and influenced the Great Society reforms of the 1960s, was embedded in the Democrats.
He argued that democratic socialists should aim to be the ‘leftwing of the possible’ and seek to participate in the Democrats to realign them, defeating the right and building the unions to produce a European-style social democratic party. Harrington died in 1989 and with him any prospect of realignment. Democrats, in fact, accelerated rightwards; from Jimmy Carter’s monetarism and austerity in the 1970s to Bill Clinton’s New Democrat administration’s openly neoliberal, law-and-order, balanced-budget administrations between 1993 and 2001. This completed the marginalisation of the party’s already subordinate welfarist and affirmative action wing, centred on the union bureaucracy and incorporated leaders of the social movements. Its last gasp was Jesse Jackson’s 1984 “Rainbow Coalition” bid to become the Democratic presidential candidate.
Fast forward three decades, and the DSA’s recent rise has been mirrored by that of the magazine Jacobin, founded in 2010 with a circulation of 75,000 and millions visiting its website every month. It is linked to the dominant self-styled ‘Marxists’ of the Bread and Roses caucus, B&R.  Jacobin writers overhauled the DSA’s orientation to the Democrats, giving it a radical gloss with a new “dirty break” strategy. This rejects Harrington’s old strategy of “realigning” the Democrats into a social-democratic party as unrealistic but also rejects an immediate, “clean” break by standing independent socialist candidates or fighting for a new party now.
Instead, its “class struggle election” strategy, the “dirty break”, sees democratic socialist candidates take over the Democratic ballot line in primaries, Sanders-style, in a “guerrilla insurgency”. The object is to overcome the admittedly huge legal obstacles to third party electoral challenges, and thus get into the race and win electoral breakthroughs. They believe the fight for “revolutionary reforms”, big structural changes such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, will enable them to build the leftwing coalition needed to rebuild the working class movement. Only then should they split from the Democrats and open the path to a democratic socialist government and “rupture” with capitalism. This leftwing schema justifying Democratic business as usual has become the orthodoxy of the new young mass membership of the DSA.
For both wings of the DSA, from the old “realignment” right (today centred on the Socialist Majority caucus) to the dirty-break centre-left around Bread & Roses, this is justified by a series of false arguments. First, they claim the Democrats are not a real party, as restated at the convention:
“… the us party system currently does not allow for traditional political parties, private organizations with control over their membership rolls and ballot lines, but rather is made up of coalitions of national, state, and local party committees, affiliated organizations, donors, lawyers, consultants, and other operatives.” 
Their second key argument is that the us electoral system is rigged, the Republicans and Democrats have locked up the first-past-the-post system with state laws limiting independents and third parties even getting on the ballot. Yet, while these obstacles are real, they are not insurmountable except for small propaganda groups. This excuse has looked ever more hollow as the DSA has grown, a party with large urban concentrations of members can find ways around them. The issue is not what possibilities are open to the dsa but the pro-Democrat politics of the dsa’s leading forces, Socialist Majority, Bread and Roses, and the new player, the Green New Deal caucus.
The dirty break on the never-never
The dirty break strategy was developed to justify the orientation to the Democrats after the defeat of Sanders in 2016 but, after the AOC earthquake, it has acted as cover for the hugely expanded use of the Democrats, against the DSA’s ultimate stated aim of breaking from the Democrats to launch a mass workers’ party, passed at its 2019 convention. Even here, the DSA left maintains a studied ambiguity, with the contradiction covered over by evasive formulas. The inventor of the ‘dirty break’ phrase, Eric Blanc, looked at the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party in the early 1920s to argue for a two stage approach, with socialists standing as Democrats until the party is forced to defend itself and state legislatures further restrict ballot laws, kicking the insurgents out and forcing them into an independent existence. But the most influential (and first) formulation of this strategy (Seth Ackerman’s 2016 article ‘A Blueprint for a New Party’) insists that a new workers’ party would still see the ballot line as a ‘secondary question’, and could still stand its candidates as Democrats as an option—hardly a ringing declaration of independence! 
Beneath the to-and-fro of debates within Jacobin and left caucuses on how, when and where to take steps towards a dirty break, the right wing has just quietly gotten on swimming with the post-AOC tide, pushing electoral work and defending support for Democrats, progressive or otherwise, at local and national level. As the rightwing German Social Democratic politician Ignaz Auer famously stated, ‘one does not say such things; one simply does them’. The number of candidates stood or endorsed as Democrats has expanded to be the norm, with very few independents, as has the number, 150, elected into office, so why rock the boat? Only at key junctures has the right felt forced to oppose policies they consider harmful to their orientation to the Democrats, for example, when the lack of accountability of the newly elected dsa or progressive Democrats has seen backlashes against their votes against DSA policy.
This first occurred after the 2019 DSA convention voted to back no Democratic candidate except Sanders in the 2020 presidential election. After Joe Biden was nominated and Trump launched his re-election bid, hundreds of prominent DSA leaders and local organisers launched an open letter saying they would campaign to defeat him, in other words campaign for Biden, and advocated others do the same. 
In early 2020, a campaign to #ForceTheVote on Medicare for All, one of the DSA’s totemic structural reform demands, pressured AOC and other DSA-supported congress representatives to withhold support for Nancy Pelosi as house speaker until there were guarantees of a vote. AOC and the DSA leadership rejected this pressure in an official statement, citing technical difficulties. 
Now, a wave of disgust at DSA member and congressman Jamaal Bowman’s vote of support for military aid to Israel and participation in an official tour of Israel organised by its government, against clear DSA policy that supports the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, has created a new crisis. Predictably, the right wing has released a statement against calls for his expulsion, arguing ‘for unity, not unanimity’. This return in practice to Harrington’s view of the DSA as the “left wing of the possible”, boring away within the Democrats, shows that for all the radical thought-pieces, debates and class struggle history in Jacobin, valuable as they are, have amounted to little more than a cover for business as usual.
So, the 2021 convention was largely a formalisation of the DSA’s practice rather than a dramatic shift to the right. If anything, the 2019 motion hid the growing use of the Democrats, and arguably the more important shift is in organisation not just language. The National Electoral Committee already ensures that electoral work is the only one with authoritative, well resourced national direction, putting in the shade an already weak Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (labor work is also a DSA priority, though not declared a “unique” one).  R8 adds a further tier of organisation with statewide bodies to support election work. In a fragmented DSA with only chapter and branch level organisation, this will see the DSA further centred (and centralised) around this opportunist electoralism.
The left was defeated across the board at the convention, losing resolutions or amendments focussed on strengthening or accelerating moves to the “dirty break”. The pro-Democrat orientation no doubt reflects the views of the majority of dsa members, which includes tens of thousands of relatively new, inexperienced, and often inactive, members recruited under the tactic. The DSA has nearly doubled in size since the onset of corona, but only 10–15 per cent regularly attend activities.
In a new turn, Resolution 14 affiliates the DSA to the São Paolo Forum and gives uncritical solidarity to its social-democratic and left-populist parties and governments, including the authoritarian regime of Maduro in Venezuela, though this saw 35 percent against. The increasing anti-imperialist politics developing within the DSA is to be welcomed but this is a step backwards and, to a degree, rows back on the 2017 convention decision to leave the reformist, largely neoliberalised Second International, while saying a lot about what kind of party the DSA wants to build. Socialists need to combine an unconditional defence of these parties from the right, nationally and internationally, with practical solidarity and support for the left wing, working class or oppressed groups opposing their cuts and compromises in power. They are only force that can really defend these governments from below, force further reforms from them and ultimately go beyond their limits to open the road to socialism, through mass struggle and revolution.
Despite the apparent consensus, a polarisation is developing within the dsa as can be seen from the votes on important resolutions. The platform itself was only adopted by a narrow majority, with 43 per cent against, and 23 per cent voted against the R8 elections resolution. New caucuses and tendencies have proliferated on the DSA’s left wing, most dramatically with the entry of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the largest remaining organisation calling itself Trotskyist in the US, which has sent in a section of its membership, including high profile member and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, elected in 2014 against the Democrats. The dominant Bread and Roses caucus, which straddles the dirty-break centre of the DSA, split in its support for amendments to keep the 2019 commitment to an independent party, with 45 per cent against, showing the possibility of a political recomposition that would free the B&R left.
The large oppositional votes show the potential for organising to break from the Democrats. Taking part in strikes and struggles in the coming two years, alongside political debate, is crucial to develop the many new members as activists and their understanding of socialist strategy. The question is whether a significant section of the DSA left can clear up its own confusion over the dirty break, reject it as a “tactic”, and unite to campaign for a clean break with the Democrats and a new workers’ party.
Marxism and the DSA
Besides questions of elections and the Democrats, there is a deeper question of the DSA’s socialist strategy, connected to its claim to uphold the ideas of Marx. There remains the question of how this goal is to be achieved, through mass working class struggles creating an alternative, democratic power to the capitalist state through revolution, or through electing a socialist majority to government and, over years or decades, transforming the state and capitalism into socialism, peacefully they hope. At the crux of this is whether the DSA stands for working class self-emancipation and its political independence, the heart of Marx’s politics, or a version of socialism “from above” that in reality blocks the socialist transition and allows capitalism to continue or, worse, take its revenge on the movement.
The DSA left wing, around the Jacobin journal, would indignantly protest at the label “socialism from above”. Yet the full spectrum of opinion is united around these basic points. Social democratic-leaning Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara puts forward his version of the democratic socialist schema or strategy in his 2019 book The Socialist Manifesto, widely seen as the main primer on democratic socialist thought:
“Democratic socialists must secure decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions. Then our organizations must be willing to flex our social power in the form of mass mobilizations and political strikes to counter the structural power of capital and ensure that our leaders choose confrontation over accommodation with elites. This is the sole way we’ll not only make our reforms durable but break with capitalism entirely and bring about a world that values people over profit.” 
In the more radical, popular Jacobin book on DSA strategy, Bigger than Bernie, the writers foresee an elected democratic socialist government ‘wielding state power to clear the path for those movements as they confront their class enemies’, though they admit that it won’t be a ‘cakewalk to eliminate capitalism, even with our people in power’!  Eric Blanc, quoted in Bigger than Bernie and the most radical of the B&R/Jacobin leaders, recognises that:
“socialists must expect that serious anti-capitalist change will necessarily require extra-parliamentary mass action like a general strike and revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.” 
However, like all democratic socialists, he firmly rejects any strategy involving dual power and insurrection in favour of an elected democratic socialist government overseeing the socialist transition. Any strategy rejecting dual power and insurrection, that is, the seizure of power, whatever form this takes, from the state forces, is a break from Marx and working class self-emancipation.
The term ‘dual power’ was first used by Lenin to describe the situation in Russia after its first democratic revolution in February 1917, when workers’ councils (or, in Russian, workers’ soviets) backed by the arms of revolutionary soldiers and factory and party militias, coexisted with a bourgeois government. The Bolsheviks led the bitter struggle against its repression of these councils, which ultimately overthrew it in the October revolution, installing a soviet government to deepen the revolution, defend it and spread it abroad. They understood their revolution as the first of many across Europe which would, together, ensure the advance towards the goal of socialism that their goal of socialism. However, other revolutionary movements, above all that in Germany, were defeated, leaving Soviet Russia isolated. Despite surviving a terrible civil war, this isolation saw a powerful bureaucracy grow within the party-state, taking power under Stalin years later in 1928. 
Dual power is a feature of every major challenge to capitalism, from Russia in 1917 to Spain in the Thirties and Chile in the Seventies. Soviet-type bodies emerged in periods of crisis out of heightened class struggles, contesting control over production and ultimately challenging the power of the capitalist state. This means defending the movement from the police and fascist gangs in the first place, and ultimately splitting the army to bring a section over to its side. Only a powerful, mass working class movement has the social power and, crucially, the political authority to make such an appeal, win the soldiery, and negate the capitalists’ use of their army, as more recent examples from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela from the early 2000s show. Only if such movements produce workers’ councils can they take power as a ‘commune’ state, based on workers’ democracy and armed power. Marx called this the dictatorship of the proletariat because the working class through its democratic councils would be the ruling class keeping down the old exploiting classes and their counter-revolution, until they had decisively withered away in the socialist transition.
The revolutionary Third International agreed that it was possible, if very unlikely, that a genuine workers’ government committed to abolishing capitalism could come to power by elections, but it could only maintain itself and break with capitalism by basing itself on workers’ councils and militias, that is, by developing a different, dual power that ultimately replaced that of the police and military. 
The first question for the ‘Jacobins’ is, how would they stop dual power developing in the radical mass struggles they say are needed? By demobilising the working class via the union bureaucracy? Or by the more violent methods of the police, as the German Social Democrats did in the 1918 revolution? What other force could stop it? More fundamentally, if working class councils are ruled out, that leaves only one power, the government of Democratic Socialists, and this is the agency for building socialism. So, to reject dual power does not mean rejecting one, revolutionary, path to socialism in favour of a democratic socialist path. It means that the agent of emancipation is not the working class through its own organisations but the democratic socialist government. This is clearly a version of ‘socialism from above’, and all talk about parallel movements and popular institutions only serves to hide the fact that, in this schema, they do not hold any power.
Indeed, such a government would itself be confronted by the rest of the state apparatus, still loyal to the Constitution and no doubt encouraging anti-government mobilisations. Regardless of how left wing the leaders of the government might be, isn’t this a fatal flaw in the model? Certainly, the experience of Sanders, AOC and others, such as Bowman, make any transition to socialism with them at the wheel look unlikely. The left DSA schema for an elected government is a recipe for failure and in reality a break from the Marxism that Sunkara, Blanc, Jacobin and the DSA itself all profess.
Marx and Engels ‘from the very beginning’ held that the most fundamental principle was that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’.  Secondly, they held that the political independence of the working class was fundamental in order to make it a class ‘fit to rule’, with the organisation, experience and consciousness needed to win power through revolution, defend its workers’ state and government, and build socialism. This was the main lesson they immediately drew from the defeat of the 1848 revolution. 
Rather than the Democratic Socialist strategy of ‘transforming’ the state into a socialist one, Marx wrote that the capitalist state had to be ‘smashed’. Exactly how this could be done was shown in 1871 by the Paris Commune, whose rule by recallable delegates Marx described as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. So important was this conception that Marx and Engels said it would be the only major amendment they would have made to the 1848 Communist Manifesto if it were not already a historical document that they had no right to change. 
In particular, they emphasised approvingly that the Commune was ‘not a parliamentary but a working body’ combining legislature and executive functions, one based on recallable delegates on the average worker’s wage, elected from the workers’ districts and base organisations, prefiguring the soviet experience in Russia. And, of course, the Paris Commune came to power through a successful revolt of the plebeian National Guard against the official army, something DSA members forget when they attempt to counterpose it to the Bolshevik experience.
The DSA and Jacobin raise none of these measures of control and accountability. They cling to the schema of a normally elected government based on a parliamentary majority installing socialism over the course of many terms and even decades, without even a level of workingclass mobilisation that would amount to dual power.
Marx and class independence
Marx, in arguing against the betrayal of the ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ in the 1848 revolutions in Europe, even explicitly rejected the ‘lesser evil’ argument put out in one form or another to justify voting Democratic Party today in the US, demolishing every one of its arguments:
“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election, the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” 
For all the terrible consequences of the Trump victory in 2016, this estimate of advantage and disadvantage proved correct, underlined by the Biden victory, whose meagre welfare measures, welcome as they were before they were eviscerated by the Democratic congress, would have simply fallen into a chasm of social need that has developed over the last decades in the neoliberal USA. Marx and Engels were unremittingly hostile to British trade union leaders standing as Liberals, against the ridiculous claim by Blanc that this built up the forces to launch the Labour Party. It did so only negatively, as a rejection and reaction to this gross opportunism which blocked the development of a workers’ party for decades. The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs that Sanders and the DSA claim to look back to, as well as Karl Kautsky, the Second International Marxist theoretician increasingly popular in dsa circles, unflinchingly insisted on political independence from the parties of the bourgeoisie and had no truck with support for the Democrats, much less standing as one! 
All these quotations and positions are well known by the DSA left, as is the formula defining opportunism as putting short term advantage before principle, and at its expense. This is equally true of the non-Jacobin left in SAlt, the Reform and Revolution caucus, Tempest website or Marx21 who accommodate to it: none have been able to resist the gravitational pull begun by Sanders into the Democrats. However reluctantly, all these ‘revolutionary’ alternatives to the B&R caucus accept the ‘tactic’ of the Democrats’ ballot line, at least for now. Yes, it is a tactic, an opportunist tactic. Tactics should flow from strategy, and the priority of the US socialist left should be to fight for an independent working class party through all means of the class struggle, including elections. That does not stop socialists standing in elections where this is useful, but it does mean breaking from the Democrats and linking labor candidacies in major cities and industrial towns to agitation for a new party aimed at the left in the unions, the radical wings of the social movements and youth organisations such as Youth DSA chapters.
On that note, the anti-police black-led revolt of 2020 drove more reform and did more to undermine the legitimacy and freedom of manoeuvre of the police than any number of DSA-endorsed progressives or structural reform commissions devoted to Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. Lenin underlined the centrality of class struggle for the development of class consciousness in words that could have been written specifically for this historic event, the consequences of which have not yet been fully seen:
“The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.” 
The proof that standing on the Democratic ballot line is not simply a tactic, but a strategy is proven by the very evolution of the DSA’s intervention into the Democrats. Rather than the old Social-Democratic slogan ‘not a man, not a penny’ for this rotten system, DSA politicians follow party discipline when they vote for, or abstain on, budgets. DSA members in office have even (directly against DSA policy) voted for police budgets as part of the Democrats, while three DSA Congress representatives (AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and Rashida Tlaib) abstained rather than vote against increasing funding for the Capitol police in the wake of the Trump coup. Those forces will be used mainly against leftwing, working class and oppressed protests.  AOC, like the other dsa politicians, does not reject a vote for rightwing Democrats, in 2018 for instance calling for people to ‘rally behind all the Democratic nominees’, including Andrew Cuomo the rightwing ex-governor of New York.  These are not socialists in congress, they are left Democrats, part of its ‘progressive’ wing. They have no intention of breaking from the Democrats unless perhaps they are expelled. In March, the Democratic orientation reached another level, when five DSA-backed candidates, four of them members, actually won the leadership of the Nevada Democratic Party, moving from ‘using’ the party to managing it! The conclusion is clear: the Democrats are not a tactic of the DSA, the DSA is the left wing of the Democrats.
The near complete lack of mechanisms or debate on accountability even on the DSA left are the most concrete proof of the superficial commitment to far-off socialist transformation, in favour of short term success and growth. The DSA’s official electoral strategy, over fourteen detailed pages, does not even mention the issue of accountability for its candidates, and neither does convention Resolution 8, while the amendments that at least tried to impose some criteria on candidates were defeated.  For its part, Jacobin has few articles if any that seek to address the issue of accountability. Bigger than Bernie, which, as a major book-length account of democratic socialist strategy, focussed on justifying (and exaggerating the success of) the DSA’s electoralism and support for the Democrats, is forced at several points to address the issue. Yet in the end it can only lamely conclude that the DSA, ‘doesn’t have a completely thought out method for disciplining its electoral candidates’. Their inadequate solution is to ‘mint’ more cadres and stand them as candidates ‘who have organically emerged from the DSA itself … true DSA candidates who are steeped in the organization’s political programme and have proven themselves dedicated socialist organizers’. 
Yet history is full of leftwingers who became bureaucrats under the unions’ undemocratic structures, or reformist politicians who, in office, succumbed to the pressure of byzantine restrictions and rules, corporate lobbyists and other powerful interests. AOC herself admitted these tremendous pressures, and they explain many of her concessions. Only socialists, for whom elections are a tactic, not the royal road to socialist change, and are subordinate to party discipline, could withstand such pressures, or at least be kept in line.
The DSA’s ‘big tent’ party model, when combined with electoralism, is just a recipe for office holders to remain an unaccountable but ever more powerful core above the democracy of the party. The pluralism celebrated against the supposedly ‘monolithic’ revolutionary left, is ultimately only for them.  The right’s hypocritical, oxymoronic call ‘for unity, not unanimity’ in the Bowman controversy underlines this, his right to decide his own political line, in reality breaks the unity with the members and their democratic decisions. This body of politicians, and the DSA’s electoral apparatus, will grow at the expense of the DSA’s democracy, radicalism and ultimately its stability. The left would do well to look at the Greek left party Syriza, similarly focussed on elections, and how it evolved in the direction of bureaucracy in tandem with its electoral successes, with the new structures increasingly marginalising the left. 
That wing of the party wants a DSA very different from the members who have shown an appetite in many cities to go beyond electioneering and to get stuck into the class struggle. If successful, it would resurrect all the problems of the old Socialist Party of Debs, where the 1,000 elected office holders were to the right of the members, reformist in practice and often displayed other bourgeois prejudices such as racism and were above any genuine control, and ultimately defeated and expelled the left. Yet this lesson in accountability is ignored by the left of the DSA, not just the right.  Instead, an exaggeration of the radicalism of the left Democrats, DSA members or not, is inevitably part and parcel of the DSA orientation to them and necessary in order to justify it. It is also a serious flaw generally in Jacobin’s output.
The controversy that has broken out over Jamaal Bowman is not the first, only the most blatant, shredding of DSA policy in office. DSA members and activists need to push for his expulsion, as the first step in reorienting the party away from the Democrats and building accountability for leaders and elected officials, without which there is no meaningful democracy.
The left debates the dirty break
Widespread enthusiasm for the dirty break idea has seen it achieve the level of a new orthodoxy among the DSA’s young radical activists, which the electoral successes have only cemented. The DSA left has not been immune to these pressures, with a section moving rightwards with a more agnostic approach to the question of ‘realignment’, while the revolutionary left caucuses have accepted the dirty break tactic in principle or avoided attacking it directly in the case of SAlt, simply debating how to move away from it.
The main left caucus, B&R, rejects realigning the Democrats and stands for ultimately building a mass workers’ party. However, it split in a discussion on whether to support an amendment to R8 reasserting the need for a dirty break, with 55 per cent in favour, and 45 against. The caucus leadership undemocratically decided not to endorse the amendment because of the close vote. Eric Blanc, the prominent dsa and B&R member who coined the radical dirty break line, now argued against pushing for it as damaging ‘propagandism’. He exaggerated the record of Sanders and AOC, arguing they were doing something new because they were trying to build an ‘independent socialist organization and profile’. In reality, they are doing very little to build the DSA, but he argued that to prioritise organising for the dirty break, by standing as independents, or even just standing candidates openly as anti-Democrats on the Democrat ballot line, meant handing ‘the Democratic establishment a major propaganda weapon against us’, as if they weren’t already slating every DSA endorsed insurgent candidate and manoeuvring to defeat them.
It gets worse. His original 2017 article launching the dirty break idea rejected attempts to realign the Democrats as an ‘illusion’, but now he has reversed this and questioned any assumption that the ‘Democratic Party will not be a workers’ party’:
“we sound like dogmatists if we absolutely discount the possibility for leftists to capture the national Democratic Party summit through a hostile takeover via class struggle primary challenges that win both the presidency and the leadership of Congress. Nobody has yet made a strong case for why this approach is absolutely guaranteed to fail.”
This was bolstered by skewed arguments that previous attempts in the 1930s and 1960s had failed because they ‘relied on working within official Democratic structures’. But disastrous as it was, the Communist Party’s endorsement of Roosevelt in the 1930s was hardly working within the Democrats. The disaster was that it blocked, rather than fought for, the local labor and workers’ parties coming together into a new, national party, which would have taken the left and working class to another level, rather than putting a ceiling on this movement and building in its political decay. 
Further fractures in B&R have started to show. The Reform and Revolution caucus, an earlier break from SAlt posing as the DSA’s revolutionary Marxist wing, organised a discussion on the dirty break in March 2021 with speakers from the main left caucuses. This included speakers from across the left: Jeremy Gong co-chair of B&R and on its pro-workers’ party left, the revolutionary Marxists at Tempest website (ex ISO) and R&R itself, and activists from the biggest local left caucuses Emerge (NYC) and Red Star (San Francisco).  While all agreed there was no alternative to using the Democratic ballot line for now, the discussion was how to push the dirty break forward for a new workers’ party.
With refreshing candour, Gong gutted the usual motivations for using the Democrats. He dismissed the argument (repeated in R8) that the Democrats are not really a party but a diffuse coalition of forces with an empty, neutral ballot line to fill in, the fig leaf for the tactic:
“it looks like a party, it talks like a party, people think it’s a party, it must be a party in the us context … in our time the Democratic Party is a party, and I think a ballot line is an essential aspect to what a party has to be … [and that is the reason why] it’s important that we formally break and form a new party.” 
Skewering another myth, he argued that state legal ballot line restrictions were not so key. In California, ‘bigger than Spain’, there were none, except for presidential elections, and in New York City, ‘the chapter is strong enough, with 10,000 DSA members and the most advanced organisation and experience to overcome these barriers and stand independent candidates’. Others noted that one candidate on the Chicago DSA-backed slate of councillors elected to Chicago City council was an independent, what if all seven had been? Labor Notes leader Kim Moody pointed out in his 2018 book On New Terrain (written before AOC’s victory) that union-backed candidates were beginning to take off in ‘midsize industrial or formerly industrial urban centers with large working class populations’, where the Democrats are so hegemonic that their usual electoral blackmail about letting in the Republicans doesn’t work. 
Gong pointed out that standing independent candidates was ‘a political problem’ at heart:
“I would say that I think there’s a lot of hand wringing about it’s so hard to have an independent ballot line, the laws are difficult, but I think it’s a red herring, its actually not that hard, you just have to have the will to do it, and right now that will exists in a very small number of people, that’s the real issue… I would make an analogous point, how do we relate to dsa, there is a low level of struggle and experience for dsa members on a lot of these questions.”
He argued that the conditions don’t exist for an independent party now, with a low level of class struggle, unlike the 1930s and 1940s but even so ‘they couldn’t win a workers’ party then’. He doesn’t note the crisis of leadership in the workers’ movement, with the CP’s betrayal of that movement, but the same question is posed today, if at a different starting point, how is the left blocking the development of such a movement? And is the class struggle really so low? Surely the explosive struggles of 2018 and 2020 show that a dsa bent on organising and agitating for working class independence in every strike, protest movement and upsurge could advance, in terms of consciousness, organisation and, yes, candidates?
The concentration of members and experience in big urban centres, New York, Chicago and a few others, would at least allow the attempt of standing independent labor or socialist candidates, even if this would be difficult in smaller areas. Gong pointed to these, stating ‘some have to lead’. In his article, Eric Blanc posed just this challenge to the left: try it out somewhere. This itself would take strong left organisation in the dsa, but even then the left should not simply experiment while ignoring the rest of the dsa as it gets on with supporting Democratic candidates, but reject this.
Ironically, as Blanc wants to park or even abandon the dirty break, and as the dsa evolves away from it in practice, the centrist socialists who have entered the DSA in Tempest and B&R are upholding it, even though it is clear from their arguments they do not really support standing on the Democratic ballot line. Instead of accommodating to the B&R left who still uphold it, and going round in circles about how and when to break or prepare for it, the Marxist left should draw the conclusions of the DSA’s evolution and the record of its members in office, and agitate for the ‘clean break’ now, by campaigning for a new working class party.
In the major cities and industrial towns, caucuses of all the pro-break socialists could agitate and push for independent labor candidates and refuse collectively to support any who are stood or endorsed on the Democratic ballot line. If the rightwing can revolt against the ‘nobody but Bernie’ line in 2020, why can’t the left openly reject support for Democratic candidates? They should put pressure on B&R leftists like Gong (45 per cent of the voting membership pre-convention) to push the B&R caucus to back it, or break from it. This does not require any of the tendencies or caucuses, be they revolutionary or democratic socialist, to abandon their own organisation or programmes, but to use the united front to advance the demand for a new party inside and outside the DSA. Meanwhile, they could also push for branches to support strikes and build action committees for social struggles in order to democratise them, sustain their growth and win victories, while debating policies that dsa would like to input into them, with militant class struggle tactics.
In England, after the stormy period of working class Chartism (1838–48) and the trade unions’ participation alongside Marx in the First International (1864–72) a long period of working class political subordination to Gladstone’s Liberal Party ensued. Its material basis was British capitalism’s domination of the world economy and the spread of its colonial empire. This Liberal-Labour period, saw many trade union leaders sitting in the House of Commons as Liberal MPs.
By the 1880s, Engels noted that the loss of imperial Britain’s dominance in world trade would lead to attacks on its workers whose declining position would mean ‘there will be Socialism again in England’. The USA’s long decline as an imperialist superpower has been thrown into sharp relief by its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, while economically it has been at the centre of capitalism’s historic economic depression since 2008. Both developments have sharpened class antagonisms at home and abroad and driven an historic polarisation. 
The spectacular rise of the DSA not only reflects the depth of the crisis of American capitalism, crucially it also shows that mass socialist sentiments can be translated into material gains in organisation, that socialism and class politics can advance. But with growth in membership comes the growth of the DSA’s contradictions. Perhaps the evisceration of Biden’s welfare reforms will revive anti-Democrat sentiment and the DSA’s growth in the short term, but its increasing absorption into the Democrats is a dead end and shows that, despite its formal position of building a mass working class party, it has never taken this seriously and in fact is moving in the other direction, deeper into the Democrats. The majority of relatively new, often inactive, DSA members recruited under the tactic could end up being a base for the rightwing and leadership, unless this is overcome by turning chapters outwards to struggle.
Sizeable minorities against the convention’s rightward motions show the potential to build an opposition focussed on reorienting the dsa away from the Democrats and towards the class struggle and the fight for a new working class party. Part of the obstacle to realising this potential is the DSA left itself, growing but fragmented and, most damaging, accepting the dirty break ‘tactic’ and standing Democrats ‘for now’. This is an opportunist tactic through and through. The way to unblock this path is to return to Marx’s position of class political independence and take up the method Trotsky advocated for building a new working class party in 1930s America.
If the left does this, it will ultimately face a struggle with the right-centre bloc in the leadership which has not yet faced a serious challenge to its unspoken strategy to realign the Democrats, for which the dirty break strategy has provided cover. The Stalinist-style, anti-Trotsky memes that accompanied SAlt’s entry are a small taster of this tension. In the final analysis, a reformist leadership will never tolerate a genuinely class struggle, revolutionary wing but aim to suppress it. If the left allows itself to be a tame opposition, tied down in a platonic debate about how and when to take steps towards the dirty break, it will simply be prolonging its own impotence.
SAlt, the Bread and Roses left, and the other caucuses all repeat that there is no objective basis for a new mass party. Yet many admit that the politics of the DSA itself is the main immediate obstacle to taking steps towards class independence and a dirty break. The answer then is to campaign tirelessly and consistently to resolve this crisis of leadership by providing some. The left can unite around an open campaign for a new workers’ party that clearly rejects any support for candidates on the Democratic (or Green) ballot line. It should put pressure on B&R to recommit to this line despite its backsliding, or split. This is key to organising the dissident members beyond the caucuses and developing the mass of new members in order to close the gap between them and the left. Turning chapters outwards to the class struggle would not only develop new members as activists and cadres but recruit militants from the strikes and struggles of the next two years, who will be more wary of the Democrats.
A united front approach to fighting for a clean break would also facilitate debates over other aspects of programme, in response to new struggles such as the teacher wildcats and blm revolts. The aim should be to construct an alternative, revolutionary programme to the new platform, taking its best policies and fusing them with transitional demands linking today’s mass struggles to the fight for socialism through working class self-organisation and activity. Besides allowing more discussion between the groups, it would involve a new audience of thousands that could play a role in examining policy in the light of history and their own experience of the class struggle, through participating in it, and discarding obsolete or opportunist ideas.
Only through a radical change in direction can socialists ensure the next convention sees a real challenge to the pro-Democrat consensus, opening the way for further political advance towards a class struggle, internationalist and revolutionary dsa. All those who see the need for this reorientation should contact us and work together to take advantage of the immense possibilities for working class advance and a socialist future expressed in part by the DSA’s growth.
1 ‘Top GOP Pollster: Young Americans Are Terrifyingly Liberal’ [https://theintercept.com/2016/02/24/top-gop-pollster-young-americans-are-terrifyingly-liberal/].
2 Only Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of the USA was larger at 113,000 at its 1912 peak, though in a population of 95 million, less than a third of today’s 333 million.
3 Taking membership to 66,000—nearly 30,000 have joined since.
4 ‘2020 DSA Convention Reports and Summaries’, [https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/08/2021-dsa-convention/].
5 Falling from 42 candidates for sixteen positions in 2017 to 33 in 2019 and 20 in 2021: Nation, R&R.
6 2021 ‘Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority)’; 2019 ‘Class Struggle Elections’.
7 https://jacobinmag.com/about; https://breadandrosesdsa.org/; left B&R Co-Chair Jeremy Gong says B&R was founded in 2019 to “fight for a Marxist DSA”. See Reform and Revolution debate, below.
8 See Resolution 8. Bigger than Bernie by Micah Uetricht and Megan Day asserts the same, chapter 2: ‘the two major US political parties are not really parties in any traditional sense (no membership criteria, no binding democratic decision making, no political education, no discipline of candidates, no accountability to a platform)’.
9 Or the party could stand candidates “theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.” ‘A Blueprint for a New Party’ Seth Ackerman Nov 2016 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party… ‘The Ballot and the Break’ Eric Blanc, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/democratic-party-minnesota-farmer-lab….
10 Resolution 15.
11 ‘Should House Progressives #ForceTheVote on Medicare for All?’, https://www.dsausa.org/statements/should-house-progressives-forcethevote….
12 Far from directing and coordinating the union work of DSA branches and members, the two major, national DSA labor initiatives the 2020 covid response Emergency Worker Organising Committee and the 2021 campaign to lobby the Biden government to pass the PRO Act (Protect the Right to Organize) were both initiated by the NPC, in alliance with trade unions.
13 Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto, (London: Verso, 2019), p22; see https://fifthinternational.org/content/democratic-socialism-united-states
14 Meagan Day and Micah Uetrecht, Bigger Than Bernie, (London: Verso, 2020), pp102–3.
15 Eric Blanc has established himself as the DSA’s anti-Bolshevik theoretician and historian, influential but also like Sunkara idiosyncratic – the Jacobin left has no agreed, coherent vision of the democratic socialist transition except for a few broad points – the Democrats, elections, a government, no insurrection, no dual power. Bigger than Bernie however quotes Eric Blanc and takes up his position.
His alternative “revolutionary” strategy that looks back to Karl Kautsky, the Second International’s most high profile theoretician and opponent of Lenin and the 1917 revolution in Russia. Blanc like democratic socialists generally argues “the dual-power/insurrection model of Russia 1917” is not relevant to “capitalist democracies” on the usual liberal argument that “among working people, support to replace universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy with workers’ councils, or other organs of dual power, has always remained marginal.” This is true only in the sense that no other revolutions of the 20th century met with a party like the Bolsheviks determined to lead them beyond capitalism in Russia, and so went down to defeat.
Blanc’s alternative, based on his flawed analysis of the Finnish revolution 1917-18 with its bloody defeat, has never met with any success either. This does not stop him insisting that the only road to socialism for socialists is to “fight to win a socialist universal suffrage electoral majority in government/parliament and (b) socialists must expect that serious anti-capitalist change will necessarily require extra-parliamentary mass action like a general strike and revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.” This defensive revolution, sometimes necessary in reality (Spain 1936) would as a strategy prove disastrous, as it did in Finland.
But the point is that Blanc asserts this must succeed without producing dual power. But this is an oxymoron—the essence of any revolution is that one power defeats and replaces another, overthrows it. In reality like the dirty break—another idea of Blanc’s—this is more rhetorical than real, meant to defend the DSA focus on elections and reforms from socialist critique, but at a greater theoretical remove. BTB 108, 103; original Blanc quotes in ‘Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)’ Jacobin, and ‘The Democratic Road to Socialism: Reply to Mike Taber’, Cosmonaut.
16 This process, and its material roots in national isolation, is documented in detail in The Degenerated Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Stalinist States, (London: Workers Power, 1983, 2012), see https://fifthinternational.org/content/key-documents/-degenerated-revolu….
17 “The overriding tasks of the workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, to disarm bourgeois, counter-revolutionary organisations, to introduce the control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich, and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Such a workers’ government is only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies which are capable of fighting, bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.” in ‘Theses on Comintern Tactics’, Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Marxists Internet Archive (MIA), [https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/4th-congress/tactics.htm].
18 Marx, ‘IWMA rules’, 1864; Engels, ‘1888 preface to the Communist Manifesto’, both MIA.
19 1850 Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League, MIA.
20 Marx, 1872 Preface, MIA.
21 Marx, 1850 Address to the Central Committee, MIA.
22 The same is true of Ralph Miliband, Bread and Roses’ preferred anti-Leninist Marxist, [https://breadandrosesdsa.org/where-we-stand/#democratic-road].
23 Vladimir Lenin, Lecture on the 1905 Revolution, MIA.
24 ‘Democrats Pass $1.9 Billion Capitol Security Bill By One Vote After Chaotic Delay’, [https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewsolender/2021/05/20/democrats-pass-19-billion-capitol-security-bill-by-one-vote-after-chaotic-delay/].
25 ‘AOC warns Democrats to ‘rally behind’ nominee, ‘no matter who it is’’, [https://uk.news.yahoo.com/aoc-warns-democrats-rally-behind-221155192.html].
26 ‘2021-2022 DSA National Electoral Strategy’, [https://electoral.dsausa.org/national-electoral-strategy/].
27 Day and Uetrecht, Bigger Than Bernie, pp125–7.
28 Bigger Than Bernie, pp60–61, p99.
32 ‘Putting the Break in the Dirty Break’ Panel Discussion organized by Reform & Revolution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS8eW83NGEk&t=22s.
33 As above, 97 minutes in.
34 Kim Moody, On New Terrain (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017) p162.
35 Engels, ‘England in 1845 and 1885’, MIA.