The Political Contradictions of DSA

by Marcus Otono

Watching the far left in the United States attempt to make sense of the dizzying rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) can’t help but remind one of the old story of a group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant. Their critiques, no matter how virulently or mildly expressed, usually focus on one or two aspects of the overall phenomena of DSA or its history and leave everything else out. Just like in the story, this results in critiques that are not necessarily wrong, but fail to address the essential question: How to transform a group in which tens of thousands of members think of themselves as revolutionary socialists into an actual revolutionary socialist group.

Part of the problem with analysis of DSA by the majority of the US far left is that DSA is not a democratic centralist organization. A democratic centralist model of party organization should result in consistency of political viewpoints across the spectrum of politics and across all branches and chapters, which is something that DSA is mostly lacking in. Thus a clear party line with which to engage is lacking. Or perhaps it’s the fact that DSA is experiencing a growth radically different from other far left groups, including their own former co-thinkers in the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that results in jealousy of this growth that makes it difficult for others to grasp what is happening. And perhaps it’s just that some groups on the far left have become so ossified that they often confuse strategy, tactics and principles with the bureaucratic pronouncements of the past and cannot find the nuance to judge the DSA of 2018 on its own merits rather than only on its history. And it’s probably some combination, more or less, of all of these factors.

Whatever the reasons for this are, the results are all the same. In a time of intensified class struggles, both against corporate power and its representatives in the White House, the question of the right program and strategy for resistance is crucial. And at the heart of such strategy is the conduct of the activists carrying on this resistance. Many, especially newly organized comrades, radicalize quickly, join the DSA, and continue to radicalize. Revolutionaries need to be able to understand that dynamic and offer a strategy towards a revolutionary socialist program and method. If they are unable to do so, not only do they miss out, but will have to witness how a weak resistance walks into another historic defeat in the United States.

In order to hopefully provide a little clarity on this subject, we will attempt to explore a more nuanced view of this still rapidly growing organization of the US left. Because we were one of the few actual organizations that embarked on a specific tactic of open entry into DSA for US comrades of the League for the Fifth International and have been practicing this tactic for a year, we can perhaps provide a unique look at DSA that can take into account principle, strategy, and tactics and, most importantly, the contradictions inherent in DSA in the US in 2018. And if we can’t answer all questions and objections, maybe we can answer some or at least further the discussion in a more holistic way.

DSA: Fundamentally Contradictory

The main takeaway from a year’s worth of work within DSA and also from studying the organization from the outside, as well as the inside, is that it is an organization that is rife with political contradictions. There are two main contributing causes to these contradictions. First, the organizing structure is horizontal in nature. If you’re looking for consistency, you’ll only find it around a “minimum” platform of social democratic demands for the reform of capitalism.

Since this platform is left-reformist, it is not a program for working class power, but only for the alleviation of the worst symptoms of being fundamentally powerless. At the same time, it must be clear that the DSA’s programmatic identity far exceeds the concrete “minimum” program. This programmatic identity, formalized in statements, leaflets, and member articles, is thoroughly conflicted and represents the a dynamic where, since 2016, the majority of new members stand to the left of the political leadership. Measured on their program, DSA is a left-reformist force in the middle of a fight between those who want to continue binding the group to capitalist society and its political structures, and those who want to go beyond that.

At the same time, the horizontal structure of the group, more in keeping with an anarchistic organizational model, allows a wide variety of currents to attempt varying coalitions of struggle within the umbrella organization called DSA. And since most of the impetus for the recent rapid growth has come from new members, most of whom come from the fractured “social justice” movements that are more activist rather than theoretically based, many see no urgency towards putting together any sort of strategic transitional bridge from the reforms sought in the day to day struggles to the necessity for a workers’ government that can guarantee any reforms won from the inevitable capitalist counterattack. To provide this transitional bridge is one of the main tasks we have set for ourselves in regards to our entry.

But it’s not just the individual members that are affected by the organizational structure of DSA. This also leads to a wide variety of political goals, some directly contradictory, between the various chapters or branches in the US, especially when juxtaposed with the national organization. If one only looks at DSA from the national leadership view it’s easy to criticize it for merely being the “left wing” of the Democratic Party. They show fawning, non-critical support for Democratic candidates that are trying to claim the “democratic socialist” mantel now that it’s become popular in some parts of the country. It doesn’t even matter if these candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, almost immediately renounce or diminish the label and proclaim their loyalty as “Democrats” when they’ve won election. As long as they pay lip service to “democratic socialism”, either before or after the election, the national DSA will support and defend them.

But out in “flyover” country between the two coasts, the dynamic is a little different. Many local branches and members are much more radical and revolutionary than the national leadership. They recognize that capitalism can’t be reformed, but has to be demolished. They even recognize that the Democratic Party of the Bosses is the graveyard of social movements. Their electoral work revolves around individual candidates who are non-partisan for the most part. In short, many of these branches take such a different approach that it would be difficult to consider them part of the same organization as the national. The only thing that ties them to DSA is the name. Certainly not their politics. Of course we’re not talking about a huge number of dissident branches. Most of the DSA branches follow, more or less, on the heels of the national even in flyover country, even if indications are they are still politically to the left of the national leadership. But even in the branches that are majority reformist, there are still many individual members and caucuses that are not.

While not being a reformist in a reformist organization is perfectly possible (as observed), it cannot be a lasting situation. Doing revolutionary work within a reformist party puts activists in conflict with the organization, and a truly revolutionary approach to party building puts one in direct conflict with the source of the reformist leaderships power. While they might tolerate what they cannot immediately and successfully fight, in the long run that conflict must escalate. On the other hand, building a reformist organization by applying reformist policies, just so one can remain in that party transforms the political character of activists – radical words do not make for revolutionary politics. In summary, revolutionary work within a non-revolutionary group must include a strategy to change its character.

The “Big Tent”

These dissident members and branches are allowed into DSA because of the second factor that leads to the contradictory nature of the organization. And that is its “big tent” philosophy for membership.

Historically, DSA has been “anti-communist”, trying to demarcate a clear line between itself and the Stalinist parties that ruled from the top-down in the USSR and around the world until 1992. Open entryists that claimed to be Marxists would have been ferreted out and expelled from the organization when DSA was founded in the early 1980s. That changed with the election of Donald Trump.

Riding the wave of disgust that an open racist, misogynist, and bigot like Trump engendered in large swathes of the population, DSA almost immediately grew to four times its previous size and has continued to grow. The group now claims 50,000 members and is almost 10 times bigger than it was previous to 2016. But it wasn’t just Trump in 2016 that cause this surge in membership and interest in “socialism”. If it had just been Trump and the Republican Party, you would have expected the Democrats to gain the most and not some relatively obscure, “socialist” sounding group. No, it was also the lack of choice that Hillary Clinton’s selection as the Democratic Party presidential candidate represented that also fueled the explosion of new growth that DSA experienced.

The phenomenal campaign of Bernie Sanders, who put a “socialist” name to old time Democratic Party New Deal politics, played as big of a role as Clinton’s selection for the presidential ticket was in this surge of membership. Indeed they were concurrent and intertwined reasons, as Bernie supporters felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s power brokers and monied backers obvious support for Clinton during the primary. They then saw all of their policies placed on the “back burner” for the presidential campaign. And to top it off, Sanders played the game of regular politics by endorsing Clinton and even campaigning for her for the presidency. Millions of his supporters felt they had no place else to go, so many went to the “socialist” group that they had the most familiarity with and name recognition of and that was DSA.

This has provided a relatively unique opportunity for the fractured far left in the US if they have the will to take advantage of it. DSA itself with its new “big tent” membership policy, has encouraged this opportunity by offering to take in all of the left from the mildest social democrats to anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, to Maoists, and yes, even Trotskyists. And they certainly afford the basic requirements for entry politics, being a left organization that’s still moving in that political direction and is rapidly gaining membership. For the first time in a century, the far left is being offered a chance to influence a “mass” organization in a revolutionary direction.

Not that this potential influence will come without challenges. The national leadership will almost certainly monitor any entry forces and try to rein in their influence. And as always, any revolutionary entering into a petite bourgeois organization will need to monitor themselves to make sure that they are still upholding matters of revolutionary principle and not falling prey to the reformist influences that they will be around for the majority of the time. But it should be worth the effort in order to put the ideas of revolutionary Marxism in front of an entirely new audience that is, for the most part, fresh to the struggle, young and energetic, and open to hearing these “new” ideas. It would be a shame to not give them the opportunity to see that there’s another way of looking at struggle rather than just fighting for piecemeal reforms by electing representatives that will betray the reforms almost as soon as they’re elected.

Geographic Disparities Highlighted

The geographic and regional differences between the national leadership and the historic mission of DSA and the different regions deserve a closer look than just east coast/west coast/in-between. Although this is the basis for the disparities seen in the politics of the different branches and chapters in these various areas, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. And since DSA is still growing and, potentially, maturing as a political entity any conclusions drawn at this time are tentative and always subject to revision as objective conditions dictate. These differences, although somewhat subtle now and definitely anecdotal in large part, are significant enough to warrant further scrutiny.

Even the “east coast/west coast” is something of an oversimplification, as shown by the Bay area in California, and specifically Oakland, being the home to at least two DSA caucuses, the DSA Communist Caucus and the DSA Eugene Debs Caucus, both of which are to the left politically than the national DSA organizing committee. And on the east coast, the Boston area Refoundation Caucus also seems to fit this pattern of being more to the left of the national. In truth, it appears that the epicenter of the most conservative DSA branches are found in New York City and Los Angeles.

It seems counter-intuitive to think that the most liberal/left areas of the country, the two biggest cities in NYC and LA, are home to the most conservative DSA branches, but there is a simple explanation. It’s a matter of the choices available. If your politics are to the left of the Democratic Party, in New York and Los Angeles, you have more options for groups to join and, consequently, you have a better chance to find a left group that will better fit your politics. Which leaves DSA in those areas almost exclusively to social democratic reformers. Add in the established leadership that’s been based in NYC for its entire history and is, at best, social democratic in nature and you have a situation where the National Political Committee (NPC) of DSA, with control of finances and messaging, will present only one side of these disparities and leave out any other views.

And the reverse holds true also. Because of the “big tent” policy adopted by today’s DSA, if you don’t have another option to the left of the Democrats in your area, you would at least have one in DSA.

Some Examples- Specific and Anecdotal

Outside of the caucuses mentioned above, any evidence of a geographical split between the national organization and local chapters and branches are, to this point, tenuous, but encouraging. The chapters and branches in Tennessee of which we have direct knowledge leads us to this conclusion about this one state. The politics of the Mid TN DSA are significantly to the left of the national DSA in almost all areas. In Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis we have less direct knowledge, but judging from some proclamations and issues supported and in the way the support is rendered, it’s safe to say that they are at least somewhat to the left of the NPC. As an example, in middle Tennessee the DSA has not officially endorsed any candidates for office. We have endorsed several actions and initiatives on specific issues like a Community Oversight Board against police terror and taken a stand on community issues that affect the poor and working class in Nashville, but not candidates. The majority of the organizing committee are subjectively Marxist in political outlook and openly so. Most of the active membership is either libertarian socialist (anarchist) or Marxist in orientation. None of the dues and financial gifts collected go to the national, it all stays local. On the surface, it appears that the only thing that ties us to the national DSA is the name. But that situation cannot last. Either the radical chapters and caucuses are successful in moving the DSA and the consciousness of its membership to the left, or they will be politically subjugated into reformist politics.

Outside of direct observation though the proposition gets somewhat dicey because no one has actually polled the membership and branches on where they stand on the most important issue of the current cycle, which is support for the Democratic Party. At least not since the 2016 convention where approximately 40% were against this support.

All we could do was ask, so we did. We didn’t ever consider this to be any sort of “scientific” poll and no details were offered as to the nature of any differences between local DSA and the NPC, but in answering a simple question, “Do you feel your personal politics or the politics of your branch or chapter is to the left of the NPC?” every single person who answered this question, said they or their branch was to the left of the NPC. Every one. There were about 12 people approached with this question who answered. They included members and leaders. Their geographical span ranged from the Pacific Northwest in eastern Washington to northern Idaho, to the upper midwest in Minnesota and Michigan to the Plains states of Nebraska and Kansas to southern chapters involved in the Southern Caucus. You would think that if the national DSA had widespread support for it’s politics, at least one of a random 12 would have said “We are aligned!” to the question, but none did. If nothing else, I think that we can infer that the politics of “flyover” DSA members and chapters are to the left of the NPC just from this single incidence of someone asking a question about it. It certainly doesn’t prove the point, but it is suggestive that something contradictory is going on between the national and the chapters/branches when it comes to politics.

In short, DSA’s “big tent” and the lack of political options to the left of the Democratic Party has given the DSA in these areas the opportunity to organize “baby leftists”, social democrats, anarchists, and independent Marxist thinkers into one coherent, if contradictory group. It’s an opportunity that everyone should take advantage of given the uptick in class struggle and the opportunity to present revolutionary ideas to an entirely new audience. And if not, then the battle can be fought over why the comrade isn’t welcome. In other words, is the DSA a “big tent” or not?

However, political ambiguity normally means strengthening the people already in power and in possession of the political and activist resources of the group. At the moment, the ability to carry out a broad (and sometimes contradictory) variety of work under the DSA name, is advantageous for revolutionaries and must be made use of. However, reducing the uniting factor of DSA to the above-mentioned minimum platform means that politics are decided on a day-to-day basis by the political structures, and often not voted upon. This is why revolutionaries argue for a democratic centralist organization in which activists can argue for any position (within certain red lines), but have to carry out the decisions of the majority in a disciplined manner.

Democrats- Still the “Lesser of Two Evils”

Even with the geographical differences in politics, there is still one other factor that must be addressed in regards to DSA support for Democratic Party candidates and that is the “lesser of two evils” electoral strategy that has been in place and used since, at least, the campaigns against Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton called it “triangulating” and it involves taking positions just slightly to the left of the Republicans, mostly on issues of identity struggles and much less on economic matters. For the most part Democratic candidates distinguished themselves from their Republican opponents by their support for non-economic liberation struggles, ergo attempting to portray the Republicans as the “greater evil” and against these liberation struggles and, thus, leaving the Democrat, no matter how problematic their platform, as the “lesser evil”. And honestly most of the time, even these positions on identity liberation were only slightly to the left. After all it was under Democratic president Bill Clinton that welfare was “reformed” to place the burden on the neediest rather than just on the need. Bill Clinton also threw the militant black liberation struggle under the bus with his “Sistah Soljah” moment during his first campaign. It was under Democratic local administrations, and the benevolent auspices of Obama, that Occupy Wall Street was shut down, often violently. Obama also was deporter-in-chief deporting approximately 2.5 million people. And this doesn’t even take into account American imperialism which both the parties of the bosses have voted for in every administration, Democratic and Republican. In regards to the “lesser of two evils” even electing the “lesser” every election, over 40 years of election cycles, leads to positions that are pretty “evil”.

But it played and in some cases worked in electing Democrats rather than Republicans. The problem is, since the political window is pushed to the right over the long term, that this strategy has begun to push many on the left of the Democrats and beyond, into an untenable position. How right-wing do the Democrats have to move before their values no longer reflect mine at all? Is it enough that, because Trump is the worst overt bigot ever elected, to push me to vote for a candidate that in no way reflects my views other than in a few, mostly inconsequential, areas? Or do I continue to be roped into this strategy, even knowing the consequences over the long term? Because as long as it works, the Democratic Party of the Bosses will use this strategy. They do not even want to go back to the mild social democratic reforms of the New Deal, that most of DSA backs as their “minimum” program because their corporate masters with the deep campaign moneybags would pull their support if they did.

But in the last few months before the November elections, the pressure will ramp up using this strategy. We know what the national organization will do. Which is what they’ve always done, support and sheepdog for the Democrats. So how will these more radical and revolutionary chapters, branches, and members handle this pressure? That is the real question for DSA nationwide and how it is answered will tell a lot about the future of the “left” of the DSA and their influence.

Conclusions- For Now

So what are the conclusions we can draw from this dissection of DSA, both nationally on the ground and nationally in the leadership, at this time? Keeping in mind that DSA is still growing and testing its influence in American politics and keeping in mind that this means that all conclusions are temporary and fluid, it seems to show an organization that is clearly developing fault lines, along with a lot of inherent contradictions. And an early indicator of these fractures revolves around support for the Democratic Party candidates in 2018 and, presumably, the future.

Contradictions do not make for a stable organization, at least not in the long run. It seems apparent that the battle lines are being drawn for the fight for the soul of the DSA between the entrenched leadership of the DSA based in New York City and many of its members, branches, and chapters, most of whom are new to the organization. This fight will build until the next convention in 2019 where it will explode onto the floor and provide a stark contrast in viewpoints, probably as stark as the split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in 1903. Whether it would be as historic is for the future to decide, but it is along the same lines.

At first, the electoral strategy of being the “left wing” of the Democratic Party and/or the Democratic version of the “Tea Party” will probably prove to be attractive to many. After all, this strategy has made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other electoral candidates into the “poster children” for DSA and brought a lot of publicity to the organization. Of course it’s also sowed even more confusion as to just what being a “socialist” means in politics.

As class struggle intensifies in various areas of struggle, DSA will be pushed more and more into “Whose side are you on?” moments that will widen the fractures that we currently only see in potential. And this is especially true when the Democratic candidates that the national leadership has supported betray these struggles. What will Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, do or say if a second, more militant version of Occupy Wall Street rises? We saw how the Democratic mayors treated the first version, does anyone really think that they will be any “kinder” to Occupy 2.0? Or, after a few weeks of occupation, will they be leading the call for the breakup of the camps? Giving a “left” cover for the suppression of left dissent.

And this is just one particular pitfall for a DSA member who is elected as a Democrat. The pressures on them to “compromise” on basic principles will be intense in the pressure cooker of D.C. Are they going to go against the leadership on matters of American imperialism and the bloated and totally unnecessary levels of spending for the Department of Defense? Will black lives still matter if it’s a city run by a Democrat and they still murder black people without penalty? There are a whole host of issues that the DSA says they support that the Democrats will oppose. To a “tribune of the people” principles will matter more than practicality. We shall see what these Democratic Party DSA members who are elected will do with their offices.

And of course there is one thing we feel the need to reiterate. As a matter of principle there can be no support, whether inside or outside of DSA, by revolutionaries for candidates of the Democratic Party. No matter their wooly appearance, the likelihood that they have wolves’ teeth is almost a certainty. And if they don’t have them to begin with, they will most assuredly grow them. All the better to eat the left. It’s what they do. And this is where the organizational structure of DSA works to the advantage of a revolutionary. If you don’t believe in supporting Democrats and your local chapter does, you can say so and you do not have to work for Democrats in any way, shape, or form.

Join the Fight or Be Left On the Sidelines

Entering DSA under the current conditions of membership is not the same as entering DSA 50 or even 5 years ago. And it’s not the same as “entering” the Democratic Party. Entering DSA today is an opportunity to influence a leftist organization that is rapidly growing, on the cusp of a change in its historical politics, and teeming with newly radicalized people who are still uncertain about just what it means to support “socialism”. Or even exactly what socialism, in fact, actually is. And the opportunity is offered without having to change an iota of your current revolutionary politics. The welcoming nature of the “big tent” should allow anyone to join and argue their politics within the organization without censure as long as the arguments can be kept non-disruptive. Let any takeover that happens be a takeover by the ideas and not by force of personality or bureaucratic gamesmanship.

Many groups have hesitated or flatly refused this opportunity to influence with the power of ideas. They still prefer the tactics of standing on the sidelines and criticizing what’s wrong rather than offering a way forward. They “preach to” rather than “talk with”. Unfortunately, it’s not like this “preaching” tactic has met with rousing success. Just the opposite in fact. In a time of unprecedented and vicious class struggle against the rest of us, there is no formation on the far-left of US politics that has reached as many new people as DSA has. There is not another group on the US left that has had a ten-fold increase in membership to 50,000 and claims tens of thousands of active members all across the country. If there were such an organization, we would suggest the same tactics for them and, perhaps, suggest it even more enthusiastically. But in spite of its current flaws and historical shortcomings, DSA is, for all practical purposes the only game in town.

So the most logical conclusion that we can draw is to call on all revolutionary socialists to join this fight at this time. In preparation for the 2019 convention, all the various caucuses that want DSA pulled to the left and formed into a workers party, need to join together and come up with a plan to make it happen. Instead of the NPC being a separately constituted entity based on the wishes and goals of the current national leadership, it needs to be an organically elected body with recallability of delegates being a primary principle. As it should be with all leadership positions from the smallest branch to the largest chapter. The caucuses should also debate and put together a “transitional program” to show how to get from DSA’s current minimum program to a workers’ government that could guarantee any reforms wrested from the hands of the capitalists and show a way beyond the capitalist system to full workers’ democracy. This should be put forward as a joint proposal to the next national convention to start a political struggle around the question “Why we need a workers party in the US and how DSA can make steps towards that goal?” This would clarify to a great extent exactly what the entire membership of DSA sees as a vision for the organization. The focus should be placed on doing everything possible to bring the wider working class into a leadership position within the organization. As it stands now, DSA is much more of a cross-class “popular front” that, in reality, means that reformist elements will always be in control. Other class elements are always welcome to support, but only the working class has the means and the numbers to actually bring about change throughout society. This needs to be acknowledged by the wider membership. In short, the 2019 convention needs to be the defining moment for DSA and what it stands for. And there’s no better way of showing the primacy of working class interests than advocating and working towards a workers’ party for the United States.

It’s difficult to see how DSA can avoid an eventual split with the contradictions being so glaring, but at this point that eventuality should not be the primary focus. Whether it’s revolutionaries leaving the organization or taking it over and the reformists eventually leaving is not the primary concern, it’s the fight itself at this time and through the convention of 2019.

We have a chance to influence a mass formation in a revolutionary direction. It’s an opportunity we need to take.