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DSA Gathers at a Historic Convention

14-Aug-2019Ramy Khalil

Delegates Set Goal of a “Dirty Break” with the Democratic Party

Ramy Khalil was an elected delegate from the Seattle chapter to the DSA National Convention. He also was the Campaign Manager for Kshama Sawant when she was elected as the first independent socialist on the Seattle city council in 100 years.

Rarely a day goes by without Donald Trump denouncing “radical socialism” which he claims will lead to the “destruction of the American dream.” While patently absurd, there is a certain reality behind Trump’s red-baiting—the socialist movement is experiencing its largest resurgence in decades.

The most organized expression of this is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has rapidly become the third largest socialist organization in US history. Its membership has exploded from 5,000 to 55,0000 members since Bernie Sanders launched his first presidential bid in 2015. DSA has helped elect approximately 60 DSA-endorsed candidates, mostly at the local and state levels but also the insurgents in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

Over 1,050 elected delegates gathered in Atlanta from August 2–4 to participate in DSA’s national convention. DSA activist Eric Blanc described this highest decision-making body of DSA as “the largest deliberative gathering of the radical Left” in a generation. Major media outlets reported on the event, including The NY Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, and Fox News.

DSA organizers spoke about their many significant accomplishments, including playing an important role in the wave of teachers strikes that is revitalizing the labor movement, helping pass a historic rent control law in NY state, and electing 6 socialists to Chicago’s city council. A speech by prominent DSA activist Linda Sarsour captured the fighting spirit of the gathering when she quoted Muhammad Ali: “Impossible is not a fact; it is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration; it’s a dare.”

The convention set a goal of growing to 100,000 members in a year and a half. However, given the favorable climate for socialists and DSA’s commitments to campaign for Bernie Sanders, continue the popular Medicare for All campaign, and elect many more candidates, DSA might surpass 100,000 members even sooner.

“Dirty Break” with the Democratic Party

Some of the most significant decisions of the convention were about DSA’s relationship with the Democratic Party. This has been the source of much controversy on the revolutionary left, with some arguing that DSA is “a caucus within the Democratic Party.”

However, the convention demonstrated that the majority of DSA is seeking to build an independent socialist organization. DSA certainly has a pragmatic attitude toward the Democratic Party, but the convention illustrated that DSA is in no way a simple appendage to the Democratic Party.

The convention made an important decision that if Bernie Sanders does not win the Democratic Party nomination, DSA will not endorse any other Democrat for president. This decision was quite significant, though how exactly DSA would relate to a non-Sanders nominee remains to be decided.

Another important decision was the defeat of an amendment from a member of DSA’s Socialist Majority Caucus to remove language setting the goal of forming an independent working-class party. This, combined with the previous resolution, represents a shift to the left. The final language in the new national electoral policy, drafted by members of DSA’s Bread & Roses Caucus, lays out the strategy for a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party:

“DSA is committed to building political organization independent of the Democratic Party and their capitalist donors... In the longer term, our goal is to form an independent working-class party, but for now this does not rule out DSA-endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line.”

Both these resolutions formalized the political direction DSA has been heading in over the past few years, away from its previous strategic commitment to reforming the corporate-dominated Democratic Party. This shift has been fueled by the tens of thousands of radicalizing young people who have flooded into the organization.

This new DSA is the center of gravity on the radical left. DSA will undoubtedly be a key component of any attempts to develop a mass left-wing or working-class party.

The radical mood was also reflected in the adoption of a resolution critical of Bernie, with the convention agreeing to launch an on-line petition to urge Bernie to adopt a more left-wing foreign policy.

In general, having an independent political profile while energetically supporting Sanders’ campaign will be the best way for DSA to connect with radicalizing Sanders supporters and offer them a member-run socialist organization to join and continue organizing with after the 2020 election.

However, in order to achieve a real break and avoid assimilating into the Democratic Party, we need to integrate this independent strategy into our day-to-day work, not just leave it for conference resolutions and journal articles. In practice, this has not been the case in most of DSA’s electoral work so far.

Unfortunately an amendment along these lines proposed by members of the newly formed Reform & Revolution caucus was voted down by the majority of the convention. The amendment advocated that DSA make the 2020 Bernie campaign its top priority but also challenged DSA’s tendency to support Bernie uncritically. The amendment argued for DSA to build the left wing of the Bernie movement, campaign with a distinct socialist message, and work toward the construction of an independent socialist party. Although the amendment was defeated, it did gain the support of around one third of the delegates.

Building the Labor Movement

The convention adopted a number of resolutions urging DSA members to engage in efforts to unionize unorganized workplaces and/or to form rank-and-file caucuses to revitalize existing unions. Eric Blanc explained the significance: “After decades of treating organized labor as, at best, one good movement among many, leftists are finally putting labor back at the center of anti-capitalist strategy.” Another DSA activist and writer, Dan La Botz, added that the convention showed that “while far from it now, DSA clearly wants to be a working class organization.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, brought the house down when she said: "When two million workers were locked out or being forced to work without pay during the government shutdown, and the rest of us were going to work when our workspace was becoming increasingly unsafe, I asked, ‘What is the labor movement waiting for?’ It was time for us to act with urgency and end the shutdown with a general strike... [Republican politicians] knew it sounded like workers might get a taste of our power, and they couldn’t have that. We ended the shutdown."

DSA Calls for Taking Fossil Fuel Companies into Public Ownership

The convention adopted a call for democratic public ownership of fossil fuel companies as part of the Green New Deal to be able to rapidly reallocate their massive resources to renewable energy, with a just transition for all impacted workers. In the context of Bernie Sanders’ conflating FDR’s New Deal with socialism, this is a key way for DSA to help popularize a central element of what socialism actually entails—an end to private ownership of the major companies that dominate society.

This resolution, proposed by members of the Reform & Revolution caucus, urged all DSA “members elected to federal, state, and local political office to promote these demands.” It also committed DSA to “promoting these demands as part of its independent Democratic Socialists for Bernie campaign.”

The resolution highlights the need for DSA to have democratic input into the work of members elected to public office. This will become increasingly important as more DSA members are elected and pressures grow on public representatives to move away from the socialist politics they were elected to fight for.

The resolution was popular enough to be included in the package of resolutions approved at the beginning of the convention. The newly elected National Political Committee (NPC) and local chapters now need to implement this decision by consistently incorporating this political stance in our messaging. We should ask DSA members in office to raise the demand for democratic public ownership of the fossil fuel companies as part of the Green New Deal, especially AOC and Rashida Tlaib.

Two Main Wings

Throughout the weekend it became clear that the convention was divided between two main wings. A large minority, grouped behind the Build magazine and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, argued for deepening DSA’s decentralized character. The politics of this wing, broadly speaking, is a mix of horizontalism, anarchism, prefigurative politics, and identity politics (or what Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara has called “anarcho-liberalism”).

A majority of the convention, led by Bread & Roses, Socialist Majority, and the Collective Power Network, voted to maintain and strengthen the national character of DSA. These caucuses argued for a national leadership capable of supporting and coordinating the work of chapters and providing a national direction to DSA. This was linked to an outward-looking focus on mass politics and campaigning for structural change in society.

Of course, these are broad generalizations; within each camp there were many different viewpoints.

The most consistent debate was about the structure of DSA. The rapid growth of DSA’s membership in the past three years has strained outdated organizational structures and an overstretched staff. As a result, DSA has largely functioned as a decentralized confederation of autonomous local chapters.

A series of resolutions were debated that would have formalized and deepened this. One resolution would have directed 50% of members’ dues to local chapters. Amendments were also moved to the resolution proposed by Bread & Roses members to invest in political education, arguing against the national leadership providing a suggested plan for political education, preferring local autonomy instead. These resolutions to further decentralize DSA were all defeated, but around 40-45% of delegates supported many of them, signifying that this debate will continue.

Point of Privilege

The convention was also hamstrung by a series of procedural motions, counter-motions, points of privilege, and points of order. The majority of delegates grew frustrated as it became increasingly clear this was limiting the convention’s time for substantive political debate. However, this was not simply due to these procedural motions or Robert’s Rules of Order but also the depoliticized way the agenda was organized.

Chicago DSA activist Joe Allen hit the nail on the head: “The major political problem with the DSA convention is that it is primarily organized around constitutional/bylaws amendments and resolutions rather than political perspectives which makes for a mosh pit around procedural challenges, instead of the convention being around political perspectives of various areas of work. So the substance of discussion is largely apolitical. Despite this, as the convention moved forward, the level of political discussion rose, and many good resolutions passed.”

The numerous procedural motions prevented the convention delegates from discussing a number of important political resolutions which had to be referred to the incoming NPC. This included a resolution calling for a mass strike in the event that a challenge to Roe v. Wade goes to the Supreme Court. It also included another resolution from members of the Reform & Revolution caucus calling for DSA to work with other organizations to organize mass marches and strikes on the anniversary of the historic women’s marches.

Prominent Palestinian feminist activist Linda Sarsour voiced the sentiment of many delegates when she said: “If you are in DSA to take one collective liberation movement to divide it up into things that make you feel comfortable, this is not the organization for you. There are people who are counting us, literally. There are people whose lives depend on us to build a political movement… I’ve been a little frustrated watching this whole thing, procedural stuff. There's five hours of against this and against that and for this and for that... We don’t have time for this. Get it together DSA.”

DSA should do everything it can to prevent oppressive ideas and behaviors from appearing in DSA. It is important we make DSA as accessible as possible to working-class people of all backgrounds so we can organize mass struggles for structural change of society. At the same time, DSA will never be able to be a prefigurative model of a socialist society as long as we are still living under this capitalist system which constantly fosters racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.

At future conventions, the NPC would do well to propose an agenda that sets aside the majority of time for delegate discussions around key political developments and how DSA should respond politically. In general, all DSA chapters need to prioritize discussing substantive political developments and working out our political approach, rather than focusing on organizational issues, which should be adjusted as needed to suit our political aims. Chairs need to be elected and empowered to focus the meeting on key political questions, too.

Growing Pains of a New Movement

The convention provided a clear snapshot of the ideas and debates roiling DSA. This rapidly growing socialist movement is starting from a historic low point of organization and class consciousness among the working class. So it is inevitably shaped by inexperience and a lack of political clarity.

While these limitations can be difficult to work through, it is a strength of DSA that the real questions and debates that exist in the emerging left are clearly expressed and organized within DSA. This flows from DSA’s democratic and member-run character and stands in sharp contrast to most of the US left, which is dominated by top-down NGOs and the Democratic Party.

Despite weaknesses, the convention was a democratic affair with a high level of participation, space for vigorous debate, and clear decisions on a series of issues. The NY Times pointed out, “the contrast with Occupy Wall Street’s general assemblies, which sought to establish consensus rather than decisive victors and losers, was unmistakable.”

The social makeup of the convention was reflective of DSA: mainly college educated millennials and disproportionately white. However, there was an important layer of workers and union activists, and a decent mix of people of color. These weaknesses can be overcome through DSA participating in, and leading campaigns, where possible, rooted in the multiracial working class.

The convention elected DSA’s new leadership body, composed of individuals from various caucuses and/or independents who largely reflected those political trends’ support among the convention. A minority of the incoming NPC members are from Build and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, whereas a solid majority are from Bread & Roses, Socialist Majority, and other independents committed to outward-facing, mass campaigns and building a national organization.

Revolutionary socialists should be active members of DSA, rather than isolating themselves from this real living movement. However, rather than adapting to the reformist ideas that dominate the new socialist movement, revolutionaries need to be organized within DSA to put forward clear Marxist politics and to educate the new activists in DSA about the huge pressures of opportunism and reformism that will develop as DSA grows. This includes making a Marxist case for fundamental socialist change, not just an expanded welfare state, which Bernie Sanders and AOC are advocating. Our Reform & Revolution caucus held an open meeting during the convention, and we found no shortage of people throughout the weekend interested in reading our magazine and receiving our emails.

When the convention ended, the whole room erupted spontaneously into singing “Solidarity Forever.” The tremendous enthusiasm in the room reflected the potential inherent in this new radicalizing force. A new chapter has opened up for the US socialist movement. The next few years promise to be favorable for strengthening DSA and building a revolutionary Marxist current within it.

[Article updated slightly 8/15/2019]