DSA Convention 2019

by Marcus Otono

The largest openly self-identified socialist organization in the USA today are the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and they held a convention in August of 2019 in Atlanta, GA. This convention was the second since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that spurred the biggest rise in membership for the socialist left, and especially DSA, in almost a century. In the aftermath of Trump’s election on an openly racist, misogynist, economic and politically nationalist campaign platform, DSA quickly grew to approximately 32,000 members, represented by over 700 delegates for the convention held in 2017. For the convention in 2019 the approximate membership was estimated at nearly 60,000 people, represented by over 1000 delegates. In short, this shows that the organization is still growing at a rapid pace.

In addition to this obvious growth, a comparison of the politics of the organization both from its inception in the early 1980 to the convention in 2019 also show a more leftward tilt with less reliance on the “anti-communist” stance of the original group and a much more internationalist alignment. In 2017 this was primarily represented by the BDS resolution passed in opposition to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and the US support of same, along with an official withdrawal from the Second International over its support of “national” militarism. The convention of 2019 continued this left movement with resolutions passed continuing the support for BDS and adding in support for “open borders”, Cuban solidarity against US imperialism (this a direct repudiation of the anti-communism of the original DSA), and a “decolonization, self-determination, and anti-imperialism” resolution that directly confronts US imperialism in the world.

In regards to the US itself, the convention passed many resolutions in favor of more radical solutions for US problems. A few of these adopted resolutions included ones on:

Support for Ecosocialism to address climate change.
Support for a National Electoral Priority to support socialist candidates in local elections.
Support for Housing Policy directed at endorsed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Support for Investment in Political Education and for Socialist Organizers Training.
Support for the establishment of a National Antifascist and Direct Action Working Group.
Support for Housing for all and for Housing to be considered a Human Right and for Tenant Organizing.
Support for a People’s Foreign Policy directed at Sanders for his sometimes problematic support of US imperialism.

Also in an important development, Resolution 31 (Class Struggle Elections), passed that recognized the need for candidates for office to run as open socialists, pointed out capitalists and capitalism as the enemies, and acknowledged the eventual need for an organization and candidates independent of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, this resolution did stop short of this last goal by also acknowledging that some candidates might “tactically” run as Democrats and still gain DSA support. But most importantly for electoral strategy, DSA passed a “Nobody but Bernie” resolution that called for no national support for any Democrat for president, but Bernie Sanders. Although far from what is needed, this is a step in the direction of DSA breaking from its historical support as a “sheepdog” for the Democratic Party.

Although none of these resolutions could be, of themselves, considered revolutionary or even transitional, they clearly show the basic conditions for revolutionary socialist entry within this organization are still in place and have been in place for a while. DSA is an organization that is still growing rapidly and is still moving left. We supporters of the League for the Fifth International in the US and Workers Power stand by our original decision of two years ago to enter DSA and fight for a more revolutionary orientation for DSA.

The Caucus Battle at the Convention – Bread and Roses Caucus

The convention itself turned into a (mostly polite) battle between various caucuses that roughly divided up into two groups, one that wanted a more national orientation for DSA and was primarily focused on an electoral strategy and one that wanted a more localized focus based on activism and “base building”. But even in these coalitions there was a lot of overlap depending on the resolution that was being discussed. The politics of the two groups wasn’t really that clearly defined as is in keeping with the “horizontal” organizing model of the DSA itself. This organizing model tends to lead to political contradictions that show up in a lot of DSA politics, especially in regards to national vs local issues, and this divide was definitely present at the convention. The broad outlines of politics and policy are present, but clear definition of these policies, plus strategy and tactics are left nebulous and sometimes confused.

The Bread and Roses caucus headed the “nationalizers” for the most part, while a group called Build, which didn’t even want to be called a caucus, led the ones in favor of a more decentralized approach for DSA. The B&R coalition seemed to represent a majority of the delegates with estimates being about 55% to 45%. This divide also played in the elections to the new National Political Committee (NPC), the committee that leads the DSA between conventions, with 10 elected from the B&R and affiliated groups to 6 from the opposing group.

As mentioned previously, both groups are reformist in orientation, focusing on attempting to wrest concessions from the capitalist class, rather than seeking to overthrow the power relations that keep the bourgeoisie in control in the US and the world. Important questions and solutions involving the “how to” for implementing these resolutions into actual public policy were totally absent. Nationalization without compensation wasn’t mentioned anywhere in any of the resolutions and neither was how to handle the opposition of the state in support of the “property rights” of the owners. Bread and Roses approach seemed to be that we could all “vote” in the policies by participation in bourgeois elections, with street and workplace actions taking a secondary role. A typical “Menshevik” and/or social democratic model of seizing power that’s never actually worked long-term. If it did work, we wouldn’t be in the shape we’re in today.

In breaking down the differences in approach, one logical reason that the proponents of a more nationalized focus won more of the battles than the decentralizers is that they were a bit better organized in strategy and tactics for the convention. The US leftist publication Jacobin heavily influences the B&R caucus and it put its clout on the reformist left to good use, gaining the upper hand for at least the next two years. It’s pretty clear that until the convention of 2021, DSA will focus on electoral strategies for the most part, primarily the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and seeking to gain influence within the existing unions.

However, it’s easy to acknowledge the fact that, in just a historically brief span of time, DSA has gone from “far left” to “moderate left” on the spectrum of American politics and within the working class. The harshest measures of class war will do that to a society. This is a good thing, but it also needs to be recognized for what it is. The window currently occupied by the “moderate left” of DSA and worker based organizations like Labor Notes means that there is a growing sector of the left that is not reformist, but instead is revolutionary. These are voices that must also be heard. If the reformists fail, as they historically always have, then other more militant strategies and tactics will need to be discussed, both within DSA and also throughout the entire working class.

The Decentralizers

The other side of the convention divide were the ones advocating for a more locally and activist based organization, focused on fighting the battles in the various localities without as much of a national strategy. Although doing a lot of good in a lot of different areas in confronting the symptoms of capitalist oppression in real life and in real time, this approach is seriously flawed in the battle to actually make lasting changes in people’s lives. Battling the symptoms of the cancer of capitalism is akin to putting out deliberately set fires without confronting the arsonist who is setting those fires. It results in always tailing after oppression and not getting ahead of it. It fights defensive battles and can never go on the offensive. It also risks focusing on the problems of various and sometimes conflicting “identities” in a very atomizing manner which tends to divide rather than unite. And any “base building” that results will not be based on socialism, but instead on interpersonal relationships as allies. Some socialists might benefit from “base building” of this sort, but socialism itself won’t. Especially if the socialist doesn’t even admit to being socialist. To be against oppression comes with the label, but no localized strategy, no matter how well-meaning, will be able to actually end the oppression inherent in a global system,

It’s very difficult to imagine a scattershot approach like this overcoming a system as dynamic and widespread as global capitalism, even if the enemy is in its dotage. The most likely result is the burnout and disillusion of the activist before any changes are made and solidified even in the short term.

All this said, this group actually does seem to be activist in nature which is a prerequisite for system change. A primarily electoral strategy, as B&R and Jacobin seem to advocate, takes the focus away from the actions that always have and always will be the leading edge and primary impetus behind real change. Even in the reformist arena, it wasn’t elections that won workers’ rights in the 1920s and 30s, it was strikes, occupations, boycotts and mass and militant demonstrations of workers’ power. Civil rights for black people wasn’t won by elections, but by militant actions in the streets and workplaces by the affected minority and its allies. And the Vietnam war wasn’t ended by elections, but by massive and militant demonstrations of dissent. Elections and electoral remedies followed militant street activism, not the other way around.

But the energy of a bottom up movement must be harnessed and directed towards specific goals that can transcend local conditions and point the way to systemic change that benefits all of the rest of us. And for that a political program and a political party need to be debated, determined, and developed. And then followed by the organization. A program for a transition away from capitalism and towards socialism and fought for by a workers’ party is a necessity, not a luxury. In this task, the DSA convention made no progress and indeed, it was barely even brought up for discussion.

So in truth, neither coalition that was represented at the recent DSA convention have put forward any specific ideas about how to take on the power of entrenched capitalism in our current society and change it on a permanent basis. They each brought parts of the answer to the table, but not anywhere near a complete one.

DSA and the Working Class

One thing that the DSA convention did do correctly is to bring the working class back into the class struggle equation. Although the word “Marxist” was not openly mentioned, Marx’s conceptions of class and its centrality in worker struggles against the systemic oppression engendered by capitalism took center stage. Resolutions 3, 37, and 64 all dealt with aspects of working class organization and they all passed. These included actions centered on organizing unorganized workers, a “rank-and-file” strategy for working within the unions to increase the power of the membership, and a renewed focus and support for embedding local DSA persons within local labor organizations (unions and other worker organizations) based on local conditions in each area and supporting militant tactics in confronting capital. To coordinate these various strategies, a full time staffer was approved and budgeted for.

That these resolutions passed and the financial and organizational support approved were the highlight of the convention. This shows a recognition by DSA that the working class is the primary agent for a system change and took steps towards increasing influence and ideas within the class itself.

Since the B&R caucus wound up ascendant at the convention, the “rank-and-file” strategy will probably take on the role of the main focus for DSA’s labor work. And will most probably result in an alliance, either officially or unofficially, with the activists from Labor Notes who are also advocates of the “rank-and-file” strategy and within the Jacobin sphere of influence. Many members of DSA are also active in Labor Notes and vice-versa, most prominently Jane Slaughter one of the founders of Labor Notes in 1979 and also a member of the Detroit chapter of DSA.

This portended alliance between DSA and Labor Notes seems to be a natural, although there are some differences to be worked out. Labor Notes, which was founded by socialists of the old International Socialist (IS) group, has never been explicitly socialist, while DSA has the term in its name. This is a problem with many groups that were in existence before the recent surge in interest in socialism.

But because of the lack of political discussion, this turn to the working class also fell short of what was needed. No mention was made of the union bureaucracy and how to approach their restraining influence on class struggle and political issues affecting the class as a whole. Economic issues are important, but there are many issues on the US labor scene that aren’t just economic, but instead are political and oppressive in nature. These are issues that affect the entire class and include how to approach supporters of Trump’s economic nationalism among workers, police terror against minorities, the problems of immigration and of immigrants, the continuing devaluation of women, both in their workplace issues and their unpaid domestic labor, and the outrageous nationalism of trade wars leading to increasing tensions in the world. And a jingoistic foreign policy that results from this nationalism that shoots first and asks questions later, if questions are asked at all. And of course the biggest existential question of all, an ecosystem that’s dying more rapidly than ever because of capitalism and its attendant militarism. US labor must be forced to confront all of these issues because they are the only ones who can really do much about them. But a union “leadership” that’s focused purely on economic issues and being “partners” with the class enemy will not lead and that failure will need to be confronted.

Equally, there was no discussion on the US labor bureaucracy’s slavish devotion to the Democratic Party, another political formation that represents the bosses and not the workers. DSA has at least recognized the eventual need to break with the Democratic Party of the Bosses, even if it puts this “dirty break” off into some nebulous future time after Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. The union bureaucracy, for the most part, hasn’t come to this necessary conclusion at all, even if many of their members do recognize the need for it. How can a political party like the Democrats that doesn’t even recognize the incompatibility of the interests between the owners and the workers, actually speak for the workers? The Biblical injunction about serving two masters looms large in this contradiction. It’s quite probable that this is not discussed because, at the current time, the DSA leadership agrees with the need to work within the Democratic Party, at least for the immediate future.

The Atlanta convention of 2019 continued the progress towards DSA turning into a factor in confronting capitalism and embedding itself in the working class, but it left many practical questions unanswered. Perhaps the idea was to rely on its own bureaucracy in the NPC and various committees to answer these contradictions of practicality, but, if so, this is an uncertain path at best. Judging from the last iteration of the NPC, it could devolve into uselessness just as easily as it could take a leadership role. Or at worst, it could result in an ossified bureaucracy that doesn’t take the membership’s wishes and goals into account because those wishes and goals were not spelled out explicitly at the convention.

The Path Forward for DSA?

The primary subject of this article is the short answer the question of which way forward for DSA. In focusing on labor and the conflicting caucus coalitions, we have attempted to give a sense of where DSA stands today and where it seems to be heading for the next two years. As stated above, most of the resolutions could be considered “radical” if not fully revolutionary and they, yet again, show an organization that is moving further and further away from its petite bourgeois roots.

Still troubling signs remain that DSA is not going far enough to confront capitalism as a system that’s on pace to kill us all, either directly through oppression and repression or indirectly through destroying our ecosystem and making the planet unfit for human life. The climate crisis puts a hard limit on gradualism in left and socialist politics. Electoral politics and reformism won’t get enough done anywhere near quickly enough to prevent our eventual extinction as a species in the relatively near term.

While we welcome the focus that the Atlanta DSA convention in 2019 placed on the working class and working class concerns, we are disappointed that there was no outright call for a workers’ party for the US. This should be priority number one for any socialist organization in the US at this time. Of course, what’s needed is a revolutionary party of labor, but even if it begins life as bourgeois, an internationally oriented workers’ party would be a place to gather anti-capitalist forces for the existential fights in front of us. DSA with its nearly 60k membership and its status as the largest organization in the US bearing the “socialist” label, needs to be in the front lines of the fight for a US party of labor. And this was the biggest failure of DSA in 2019. It’s a failure that is shared with other socialist and labor groups of course, but those other groups don’t have 60k members and the resources that DSA has either.

Socialism or extinction won’t wait on DSA to decide whether it needs to be revolutionary or not. It needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way. And it needs to decide quickly.