If we want to understand the current challenges we confront inside and outside the organization, we have to contend with the history of the DSA as a political organization and para-party formation. The intensifying socioeconomic, ecological, and political crises have given birth to new movements but we need to develop the necessary structures and organizational forms. LSC has put forward at various points a principled agenda of internal structural reform and dual power to deal with these problems. We have won some victories that point toward successful paths for us to follow.
DSA & the New Left:
The DSA is both a successor to the Socialist Party of America and a creature of New Left organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After confronting the dangers of sectarian conflict within SDS, DSA leaders adopted a model of decentralization long before the rise of autonomous organizing on the left in the last three decades. Despite the presence of new communist organizers from the New American Movement, the DSA also embraced a internal reform project of Democratic Party realignment through policy fights and coalition work. This was an orientation shared by member non-profits that came to prominence at the same time and now dominant social movement organizing. At the same time, nonprofits without members that exclusively relied on wealthy donors or direct fundraising appeals became the most influential part of broad “left” coalitions. DSA’s turn to the right was accompanied by the decline of social democracy, a refusal to embrace Jesse Jackson’s first multi-racial and social democratic campaign for President in 1984, and a loss of African-American members. With the defeat of social democracy in the global north and in the U.S. Democratic Party, the DSA lost a degree of internal influence over forums such as a long-discontinued Democratic Party mid-term policy conference for which reformers had called. It had largely failed to achieve its goals by the first decade and a half of the 21st century.
The Return of the Socialist Left:
From the globalization protests and anti-war rallies to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, the broad socialist and autonomous left paradoxically rebuilt its strength and confidence even as left and social democratic organizations remained atrophied and their ostensible membership disorganized. On a wave of new membership and organizing that followed both the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and the seating of Donald Trump as President in 2016, the DSA began to transform into a mass organization and develop meaningful ideological tendencies as well as train ambitious if inexperienced organizers. It is now the largest socialist organization in the country and its role as a mass, if diffuse, organization requires leftists–and even elements of the liberal center and right–to engage with it on its own terms.
The long-standing trajectory in which both donor-driven and member non-profits co-opt and demobilize social movements and major labor organizations such as the UAW are increasingly prone to internal crisis and fights for internal democracy provide the basis for similar conclusions. There are limits to the efficacy of the electoral and legislative arena but also contested fights for what has passed for social democratic organization in the United States. At times, DSA at the National Level and in some locals has adopted some aspects of the top-down, non-profit model visible in member organizations from Our Revolution and the Sunrise Movement and the left-liberals in the NAACP, Sierra Club. and Indivisible. These moves have caused internal splits and ineffectiveness in organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network. While these institutions often have incredible resources, the trade-offs involve factional autocracy, lack of democracy and accountability at some or all levels of local, regional, and national organization such as appointed committees and working groups or a failure to hold regular meetings and engage in democratic decision-making. As a consequence, these organizations often adopt an inflexible strategic orientation that cannot be corrected from within but only by replacement by competing organizations.
Following the Anti-Globalization Movement to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, even some of these organizations have adopted an autonomous working group model and tactics adopted from anarchist circles that avoid creating a leadership cadre vulnerable to subversion and cooptation. These systems allow for the growth of individual projects and minimize tension around resources and broad ideological and cadre tensions. They also diminish the role of leaders and self-appointed coordinators with their own projects, desire to protect their careers and cadre, and misaligned political tendencies.
These developments have been in tension with the role of independent left and green parties. But they run most visibly counter to the strategies of Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist cadre organizations such as the International Socialist Organization, both of which have played a small but influential role in the theoretical framework for left organizing on campus. The dissolution of that organization in a wave of abuse allegations, with many members joining DSA’s Bread & Roses Caucus, and the apparent incorporation of breakaway factions and then cadre from Socialist Alternative illustrate the conflicted internal dynamics of the post-New Left, post-realignment DSA.
The Libertarian Socialist Caucus formed at the 2017 DSA National Convention to address organizational limitations that included weak internal democracy and a narrow vision of a socialist project among these factions and cadres. This vision has formed the core of our theory and praxis ever since.
The Escalating Crises & Global Organizing & Reaction:
In the last two years, however, the strategic situation has become both more fraught and more hospitable. The contradictions of the neoliberal project are evident in calls for reopening and normalcy at the same time that ostensibly liberal democracies fail to respond to a global pandemic that threatens both market economies and the establishment politics with which they are intimately connected. This is to say that the move to reactivate ostensibly “green” market forces occurs at the same time that industrialized economies, despite new promises from the Biden administration, have largely failed to provide for global vaccine distribution, broad patent waivers on vaccines and diagnostic equipment, and manufacturing support. These intentional decisions threaten waves of new infections, new variants, and now-familiar levels of mass death. On a deeper level, the call for a renewed Keynesian program and global competitiveness sidesteps the need for international solidarity and collaboration to confront climate change. It also fails to address the difficulties in recreating the social and economic basis for American-style 20th century social democracy that involved everything from militant unions to endless military actions.
The crises and dynamics of internal and party-led opposition have led to tremendous growth in levels of organization on the left and reaction on the right, both in the U.S. and globally. New and radicalized organizers created mutual aid funds, tenant unions, and independent organizations and helped bolster existing movements toward abolition during the Black Lives Matter uprising last summer that challenged the legacies of settler colonialism and the historical foundations of the liberal state. These developments parallel the trajectory of a worldwide revolutionary wave that resulted, notably, in a left-dominated Chilean constituent assembly to revamp the Pinochet-era constitution despite language precluding that process. It formed as part of a dialogic process in which social forces were able to organize themselves rather than operate within prescribed systems for plebiscites and representative democracy.
In the U.S., autonomous and mutual aid projects have not primarily been guided by existing organizations–though DSA, the Symbiosis Network, and the Autonomous Tenant Union Network have played key roles–but point toward self-organization and the guidance of municipalists, autonomists, anarchists, and libertarian socialists. The abolition and defund protests of summer 2020, notably, form part of a series of escalating confrontations over the last two decades with a carceral and punitive state that threatens ruptures of an uncertain political valence amid campaigns for liberation and transformation. A right-wing insurrection against a Joe Biden administration that promised during the campaign no more than a return to a decaying liberal democratic order, meanwhile, points toward the need for antifascist action and solidarity that is both unified and global.
DSA & the U.S. Left in 2019-21:
There have been some significant reversals and victories during this period in the broad left in the U.S. and internationally. At the 2019 convention, LSC and the broader organizational left did not achieve broad structural changes and the dual power program we proposed as an alternative to an expanded electoralist model. We did elect, though, a balanced and representative National Political Committee and instituted new committees around housing. These forces moved the organization, with some unfortunate backsliding, toward greater internal democracy and deeper forms of organizing around projects that have included mutual aid, abolition, and antifascism working groups and greater financial support for Chapters.
But many more leftists will remember that in 2019 the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, with the support of a super-majority of voting membership on an advisory vote, committed to running an independent expenditure campaign on behalf of Bernie Sanders’s momentarily dominant democratic socialist campaign for president. It may have felt at the time as if socialists as a whole were scoring unprecedented victories in early Democratic Party primaries and were developing organizers and understanding of a broadly left social-democratic program. The campaign, though, suffered a historic defeat at the hands of the united pro-business, pro-austerity leadership of the Democratic Party and corporate forces such as those in the media. A demobilized and compromising electorate, including broad sections of the multi-racial working class, voted for the candidate that frightened them the least in a country that for many decades had offered only decreasing prospects. Following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been deepening destitution, punitive austerity, and reaction on the part of states and their allies.
At the same time, DSA has grown significantly and won unprecedented numbers of electoral races and a smaller share of legislative fights. The visibility and, at times, the influence of frameworks such as the Green New Deal has become unavoidable. It has not, however, won decisive state power (with the arguable exception of the New York State Senate) even as electoral and legislative mobilization has come to dominate the organization’s work. Meanwhile, much of the internal debate within the organization revolves around arcane or abstract issues about the party form or the Democratic Party. This discourse is important but depends on lobbying and scattered electoral campaigns to rebuild the left’s social power and political horizon after a half-century of war, ecological collapse, and economic suffering. The right and center-left have again been captured, in an echo of the country’s dismal history, by business and even more reactionary interests in a polity that has historically only responded to deeper and more disruptive forms of political power.
But DSA benefits in comparison to similar mass U.S. institutions in that the DSA at least has autonomous chapters and a greater degree of member or delegate power over the local and national organization. It is necessary that we build on this strength by ensuring member authority and avoiding the limitations and failures of earlier DSA strategy predicated on Democratic Party realignment and the legislative and mobilization strategies key to non-profit coalition politics.
We are planning, for instance, a dual power conference for Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 to train organizers and cohere the elements of a shared political project around the development of independent institutions. As part of this effort, we will need to respond to the growing capacity of autonomous tenant unions (some of which have united in the Autonomous Tenant Union Network), institutions that support cooperatives, land trusts, and other systems of dual power (such as those in the Symbiosis Network), mutual aid networks, and antifascist groups. These efforts are informed by efforts that include Cooperation Jackson and Barcelona en Comu.
This ambitious program requires new strategies, organizational structure, and focus. But it is a critical part of a long-term project to rebuild the social basis and institutions for democratic power and train members in the multi-tier strategies that will be necessary to confront the American oligarchy and their neofascist and neo-Confederate allies.