It will not fall from the sky
Donald Parkinson of the Marxist Unity Slate looks at the 2021 convention of the Democratic Socialists of America and maps out a path beyond the current strategic impasse
Within the modern left, conventions - or to use the more classical term, congresses - tend to be places where organisations consolidate and confirm their internal political processes, rather than where real political development occurs. Of course, some debate takes place and this does have an impact on the decisions made, but the pre-existing balance of forces and political trends tends to be decisive.
This is especially true of the 2021 Democratic Socialists of America convention, held in August via a mixture of Zoom video conferencing and Airtable voting forms. There was very little debate, with typically three comrades speaking for and against each resolution. Most of the actual deliberation occurred online beforehand in the backroom channels of the various caucuses, with the convention simply formalising decisions already made.
If conventions are expressions of the deeper changes taking place in an organisation, what was expressed at this convention? To put it simply, the DSA has taken steps back to the right after a leftward lurch at the last two conventions. A climate of fear and conservatism dominated this year: fear of the socialist movement moving independently and standing on its own legs; and conservation of the status quo. This is not to say there were no positive developments; some excellent organisers were elected to the national political committee (NPC), a political platform was adopted and various structural changes that will improve the organisation were passed, while others that would have organisationally mutilated it were voted down. But on the key question of moving towards class independence, this convention was a defeat for those of us who hope to see the DSA becoming a real party of the working class.
The 2019 convention had been defined by the theme of centralisation vs decentralisation. Factions like Build and Libertarian Socialist Caucus emphasised local chapters placing authority and funds in their own hands, often with a view of the national organisation as inherently compromised by reformism to the point where it would be better to make it utterly powerless. On the other side was Bread and Roses - ‘centralisers’ who wanted to orient the DSA behind a strategy of “class-struggle elections” and a “rank and file strategy” in labour. This centralising vs decentralising dichotomy is a simplification, but it captures the overall dynamic at play and, in the end, the centralisers won out.
The 2021 convention could be defined firstly by a dichotomy of liquidationism vs class independence. On this front, the DSA took a step back to where it was in 2017. Despite voting to ratify a political platform that in many ways was quite revolutionary, the organisation ensured that it would do as little as possible to actually pursue any practical measures to allow it to independently project these politics on a nationwide scale. To those on the far left, like the Trotskyist publication Left Voice, the convention justified publishing a sneering ‘told you so’1 and asserting that the confused relation to the Democrats and lack of class independence is inevitable due to the organisational genealogy of the DSA itself.
Secondly, there was the issue of internationalism. Shortly before the convention, a DSA liaison meeting with Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro occurred. Before the trip the DSA international committee proposed a resolution to form connections with the Latin American left, which was taken to mean more such trips. The result was a proxy battle between a faction emphasising support for anti-imperialist governments and another taking a ‘third campist’ approach that viewed alliances with parties in government as a betrayal of solidarity. These debates have continued long after the convention, now centring around the Chinese government and what DSA’s orientation towards it should be. With the move away from Mark Harrington-style politics, the organisation will have to find a serious vision of internationalism to replace the bankrupt one of the past.
My own group, the Marxist Unity Slate2 (which is currently transitioning towards a proper caucus formation), had three delegates who were official members and a decent number of delegates who sympathised with our positions and resolutions. We did not expect any real kind of major victory. We are a small group only at the beginning of our formation and saw the convention as a place to test how much sympathy existed for our position.
Our attempt to get an amendment to the platform that called for a more explicit break with the liberal constitutional order and its replacement with a democratic republic of the working class - including the dissolution of the US military in favour of a popular army - narrowly failed to receive enough signatures to make it to the convention floor. Only one of our policy proposals was debated - an amendment aiming to move the DSA closer to the principles of programmatic unity by making acceptance of the platform the basis of membership. Sadly, the proposal did not pass, but received sizable minority support (approximately 35%).
The greatest disappointment of the convention was not the failure, as expected, of my own group to have the proposal it authored taken up. Rather it was the fact that resolutions which were to the right of ours, while nonetheless pushing for a more aggressive attitude against the Democratic Party, were also voted down. While the DSA is still contested territory and worth engaging with, the majority of its members are seemingly comfortable with the way things are going and reject any kind of change in political strategy to build an independent electoral apparatus that is actually accountable to the politics of the DSA. The message was more of the same: rejecting any bold political vision that would challenge the status quo of the US political system.
The best example of this rejection was the debate over a resolution, ‘Towards a mass party in the United States’, which, as it stood, was the typical boilerplate about the need to contest elections on the Democratic ballot line and make electoral politics the priority of the organisation. The summarised argument can best be stated as follows: the United States has an electoral system that does not allow for traditional parties, but is instead based on “coalitions of national, state, and local party committees, affiliated organisations, donors, lawyers, consultants, and other operatives”.
This is a questionable statement. While the Democrats and Republicans are clearly not mass, membership-based parties, they are best described as cartel parties, more in line with the parties of 17th century Britain than the 19th century mass parties. The Democratic Party is still a traditional party of some kind, where the top is able to discipline the organisation to fall in line with the class fractions that it represents. It is not an empty vessel that we can use at will without consequences.
The resolution combines this analysis of political parties with the observation that the Republican Party represents the most reactionary wing of capital, while the Democrats have “the historical support of a multiracial working class base”. The conclusion, then, is that our unique electoral system obligates us to run as Democrats, while also building our own party, with no real strategy of how to actually transition to walking on our own feet. Instead, the proposal merely states that we must oppose “the dominant corporate and neoliberal Democratic establishment”. As it stood, the resolution was a feckless restatement of the failed status quo strategy in the DSA, with no indication of actual antagonism against the Democrats.
Two amendments aimed to solve this problem: one from members of Bread and Roses, and the other from the ex-Socialist Alternative caucus, Reform and Revolution. The situation with Bread and Roses requires some explanation, as there was an internal divide over their amendment. The caucus’s own membership voted on whether to endorse it, with a split of 55% for and 45% against. When prominent leaders decided to pack their bags and leave the caucus or its leadership in response, it was decided to withhold endorsement of the amendment, which called for the DSA to urge its candidates to “reject a strategy of capturing the capitalist-controlled Democratic Party” and to build Democratic Socialist caucuses in legislative bodies. It aimed to give some teeth to the ‘dirty break’ strategy - not nearly sufficient, but at least a step above the existing resolution.
The Reform and Revolution amendment called for candidates to be urged to uphold a socialist message about the Democratic Party (in other words opposition to it) - a bare minimum, but still more of a litmus test for endorsement than what was present in the original resolution.
Both amendments were voted down, with Eric Blanc from Bread and Roses releasing an article shortly before it was voted on, urging DSA members to “Focus on scaling up working class power, not debating the dirty break”.3 Blanc argued that focusing on the dangers of cooptation by the Democratic Party overestimates the danger at hand and underestimates the gains we have won and can win. Blanc even goes as far as to say that “the vanguard of the working class, including its most militant unions, consistently support Democrats”. As a consequence, “dirty-break propagandism” will only serve to alienate this vanguard and hurt our ability to win electoral campaigns. It is hard to imagine what kind of working class vanguard Blanc has in mind that is so loyal to the Democratic Party that it would refuse to vote for a candidate who talks about the need to break from that party and is fully loyal to a socialist organisation.
Blanc’s arguments here are not those of the entirety of Bread and Roses, but they do show the danger of the caucus’s proposed ‘dirty break’ strategy: the break is forever banished to the distant future. According to a comrade of mine, Blanc has said that the break will have to happen when a constitutional crisis happens - a ‘do nothing’ approach that conforms to the false stereotypes of Second International Marxism as passively waiting for revolution to occur. Rather than putting our own political agency at the centre, the party we need will fall from the sky when factors completely outside our control align. Until then we can only wait in a political limbo and build a ‘progressive wing’ of the Democratic Party.
What would actually moving towards a break look like? Simply making minority proclamations about breaking from the Democrats will not do the job. The least we can do is to actually pass policies at all levels of the DSA (and successfully implement them) that will hold candidates accountable to the platform and the organisation’s elected leadership. This was the aim of the Marxist Unity Slate’s own ‘Tribunes of the people’ resolution. We should, of course, go further. As Ben G has eloquently argued,4 we do need to actually run as independents, and this should be pushed for whenever possible.
It is true there are genuine institutional barriers and that in some states the only possible way to get on a ballot as a viable candidate is to run as a Democrat. If campaigns find themselves in this situation, they must not run as ‘entryists’ in the Democratic Party, but ‘anti-entryists’, as Rosa Janis argued in an early Cosmonaut article.5 They would openly state that the only way they could get on the ballot was to run as a Democrat and that a new party is needed; they would fight to pass legislation that would weaken the two-party system and caucus with other socialists rather than other Democrats.
Until the next convention, there is little we can do to improve the DSA’s endorsement policy at the national level. What we can do, however, is begin fighting at a local level to implement similar policies. Boston DSA is already leading the way by adopting a resolution similar to the ‘Tribunes of the people’ proposal. By showing that these policies are viable and capable of being put into practice, we can challenge conservative assumptions about what is electorally possible, directly showing what an actual socialist electoral strategy would look like in practice.
Through such initiatives, an actual bloc that can fight for real changes at the national level can emerge, having built local institutions that give legitimacy to the claim that our ideas are possible. While the DSA at the national level may not want to act like a party, we can at least fight for it to do so at the local (as well as state) level and convince our organisation through force of example.
My own group’s attempt to make the DSA act a bit more like a proper party was also voted down by 340 to 640 votes. By making acceptance of the platform the condition of membership, rather than the vague “acceptance of the principles of democratic socialism”, our amendment was an attempt to make the DSA organise itself around the principle of programmatic unity.
We aimed to make membership hinge on the acceptance of a series of overall goals for the movement - some long-term, such as the establishment of a socialist society, and others more short-term. While the content of the platform itself is not an ideal minimum-maximum programme, it does contain much to admire. The most rightwing factions claimed the platform was “class reductionist”, but it was not simply these who voted against it. Some saw in it a plot to purge those who disagreed with the party line. Others thought there was not enough discussion of the platform and that it was simply too soon to make it binding in any way - perhaps in a few years this would change.
An example of the typical opposition to this amendment was articulated by David Duhalde, who claimed that, “despite good-faith arguments to the contrary”, there were concerns that “platform items would be unfairly weaponised against DSA members and elected officials”.6 In an organisation that embraces an ‘anything goes’ approach to left politics and supports the progressive-talking Democrats in any election, this kind of response is predictable. But it is ultimately self-defeating. It leaves the platform utterly toothless, making it a document that is simply ratified and then forgotten.
With the defeat of Bernie Sanders, the DSA is now without direction, because it made no real contingency plan for his likely defeat. Ratifying a platform at the convention could have been a meaningful step for the organisation post-Bernie, giving it a new sense of direction and purpose beyond day-to-day activism. It would have given members something to point recruits towards, when they ask what our organisation stands for. Yet, as of now, it is simply a document without a clear purpose.
It is perhaps true that, if the DSA platform was given teeth, it would be “weaponised against DSA members and elected officials”, as Duhalde suggests. Imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being grilled by the press about why her organisation wants to exit Nato or establish social ownership of all major industries - would she stand by the DSA or throw us under the bus? Given that her membership would be contingent on acceptance of the platform, a situation like this would force a serious discussion about electoral discipline: what it means for candidates to be a part of our movement, and what it actually means to be a socialist in this country. The DSA right is terrified of this, because it would force the organisation to reckon with its contradictions.
Since no amendments were made that would give the platform any real meaning, it is up to members to do this through their own activities. DSA chapters should hold meetings to discuss the platform, both its positives and negatives, as well as to find ways to connect the work of their chapters to it. DSA elected representatives should be given the platform at meetings to strategise how to relate their work to its content. When they make public statements or vote contrary to the platform, this should be stated, if only to make clear to the organisation that its representatives are acting contrary to its goals, as ratified by the convention.
Another key dividing line was the issue of internationalism. These controversies have continued to be divisive in the months following the convention, especially around the correct orientation towards China. But the central item was an agreed pledge to apply to join the Foro de São Paulo (FSP) - a conference of different left parties from many nations in Latin America. Prominent member-parties include the Cuban Communist Party, Venezuela’s PSUV and Brazil’s Workers Party. Based on the discourse at the convention, you would think it was a Comintern-type body that required one to monolithically agree with all the affiliated parties.
This is not the case at all. For example, the Venezuelan Communist Party, currently in opposition to the PSUV, is also represented. Clearly, one can be a member of the FSP and have disagreements with member-parties. But this did not prevent a variety of third campists in the DSA from presenting the issue as essentially one of whether you were personally loyal to the government of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. This was compounded by the fact that some of the people pushing it the hardest had met with Maduro himself and said positive things about his government - something tantamount to a betrayal of true socialist internationalism.
Jared Abbot’s article in The Call made a point of the fact that the FSP has refused to condemn “the Maduro government’s abuses of political and civil rights”.7 He also noted that certain member-parties have formed their own alternative to the FSP, the Grupo de Puebla, without the likes of Maduro, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel. Yet the most prominent political leaders involved in this effort are hardly politically perfect either; one example is former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who oversaw austerity measures while in office.
Beyond membership in the FSP, the main aspect of the resolution that the third-campists took issue with was the language of “mass parties” in sentences like “International committee will also continue efforts to establish relationships with mass parties of the Latin American left”. This talk of “mass parties”, in conjunction with the personal politics of those backing the resolution, as well as the controversy around the FSP, turned the debate into a political proxy battle over the proper approach to internationalism. The actual strategic issue at stake - whether the DSA should apply to join the FSP and build relationships with various mass parties in Latin America - was lost.
My own take on this issue is that joining the FSP would be a positive move for the DSA, as our movement is far less advanced in its organisational skills and capacity than many of the member-parties and has much to learn by forming relationships with these organisations and even doing exchange programmes with them. Various mass parties in Latin America have much to teach us, even if their politics are imperfect, and learning from them does not have to be a total endorsement of all of their politics.
The language around “mass parties” in the resolution is perhaps its biggest flaw, but it was not enough to prevent me from supporting it. Its problem is that it assumes we should prioritise who we form relationships with purely based on size, instead of first investigating the political situation in various countries and making decisions based on that. Many, if not most, countries represented in the FSP have multiple parties involved and making preordained judgments on which we can learn the most from based on numbers alone seems mistaken. On the other hand, the third-campist faction takes up a moralistic standard of ‘guilt by association’, where mere membership in FSP would mean sharing a platform with various “authoritarian” parties and governments, thereby tainting the DSA.
Recent events have given the third-campist critics a moment of validation. In September, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) disbanded under pressure from the Beijing-backed leadership of Hong Kong. The DSA international committee had an internal debate over whether to sign a joint statement condemning the role of the Chinese government in the dissolution of the union, and decided against on a majority vote. One side argued that this was implicit support for union-busting, while the other said that the international committee has no business commenting on the affairs of other countries’ labour disputes! Others correctly pointed out that the HKCTU has received funding from the CIA-backed National Endowment of Democracy and all nuance was lost in a fraught online debate, where one was either an uncritical shill for the Chinese Communist Party or a dupe for US imperialism’s efforts of subversion.
Perhaps a compromise could have been reached, with a statement clarifying opposition to US imperialism subverting civil society in other countries, while condemning the crackdown on labour organisations in Hong Kong. Yet the politics of both vulgar anti-imperialism and third campism make little room for such nuance. Third campists tend to tail every semi-popular democracy movement as a spontaneous outburst of activity that might just lead to a flowering of socialism from below, regardless of their actual politics and leadership. On the other hand, vulgar anti-imperialism is a different type of tailism, where it is not social movements, but the governments of any country that has an antagonistic relationship to the US that must be tailed.
Moving forward, a genuinely communist approach to internationalism must reject both of these in favour of a genuinely class-independent and revolutionary-defeatist perspective. Such a perspective would comprehend that the main enemy is at home, that our priority is the defeat of our own country’s imperialist machinations and that the USA and imperialised countries like Venezuela are not equivalent threats to the people of the world. Yet it would also refuse to fall into vulgar geopolitics that makes the class struggle internal to various countries invisible. This is a difficult needle to thread, and cannot be solved with simple slogans and mechanical schemas. What is needed is a concrete analysis of any given situation that looks at the whole balance of geopolitical and class forces at play and the application of Marxist political principles. The current terrain of the debate makes such an approach difficult.
Lack of strategy
While debates around electoral politics and internationalism were prominent issues, discussion around labour strategy was in short supply. This seems like a huge oversight at the moment of writing, as strike activity in the United States has been on the rise. One resolution was focused on the issue of labour strategy, but managed to say as little as possible on the issue.
This question was defined by a debate at the 2019 convention between the Collective Power Network’s ‘organise the unorganised’ strategy and Bread and Roses’ signature ‘rank and file strategy’. While both resolutions were passed, leading to a similar kind of non-commitment, there was at least some serious debate over the issue of labour strategy. At this convention, however, the agreed resolution was seemingly designed to satisfy everyone as much as possible, while satisfying no faction fully. Support for working in existing unions and reform efforts within them was affirmed, as was the need to engage workers outside the existing union movement.
The only real debate that occurred over the resolution was related to a proposed amendment authored by members of Socialist Alternative (SAlt). The aim of the amendment was to add in language that would increase hostility to the existing labour bureaucracy, stating:
The main barrier to this is the majority of the existing labour leadership, who run their unions in a top-down fashion with little involvement of the rank and file, accept far too many compromises and concessions, are unwilling to lead militant struggle, and give cover and support to the Democratic establishment. Given this approach, they will also act as a major barrier to organising new unions in previously unorganised workplaces and industries.
The amendment also mentioned that reform leaders in unions can act as a conservative force and ended by pointing to the need for the union movement to have independence from the Democratic Party. While I am sceptical that the existing labour bureaucrats are the main barrier to the rise of the union movement, they are certainly at the very least an existing barrier that the socialist movement must be willing to fight against. It is also undeniable that the unions need actual socialist political leadership, not a patron-client relationship with the Democratic Party, if they are going to truly organise the mass of workers in a struggle against capitalism. The amendment was, of course, voted down, with much talk about the fact it was written by a Trotskyist organisation, SAlt, as if this was reason enough to vote against it.
Most disturbing, however, were arguments that amounted to defence of the union bureaucracy - refusing to see it as a potential enemy that could damage the socialist movement. Funnily enough, in my view, SAlt, despite my massive disagreements with its politics and methods of organisation, has been practically vindicated by its recent work in the Western Washington Carpenters strike, where union leaders tried to close down picketing against the wishes of rank-and-file members supported by SAlt members.
If the DSA is going to seriously build a socialist movement in the United States, it needs to take the challenges of the labour bureaucracy seriously and commit to a strategy that can give political leadership and purpose to the labour movement. The recent strike wave shows workers clashing with union bureaucrats who aim to hold their struggles back. Will socialists be able to step up and provide an alternative to the current misleadership? As of now, despite the encouraging militancy we are witnessing, the socialist movement is in no real position to do so. We are politically confused and dependent on our enemies - not even aware of who they are in many cases.
So what is the way forward? For one, despite how frustrating the DSA’s current political trajectory may be, it is still the place where committed Marxists need to be working. The DSA has its bureaucratic deformations and cultural problems, but it is still a much more democratic organisation than the sects and many reformist parties in other countries.
The national political committee is elected by delegates, who in turn are directly elected by their chapters according to proportional representation. While it is a shame that measures that would have further democratised the DSA were rejected - like holding all elections by single transferable vote8 - we can still openly organise caucuses and factions, meaning that we can openly make the case for our minority positions to the membership at large and convince a majority. Unless hysteria about ‘Trot entryists’ takes over the organisation and there is a clampdown on anyone suspected of being such, we have an open forum for our ideas.
What we need to do, however, is prove that those ideas work in practice. Producing articles, proposals and petitions is important, but not enough. We have to show in our chapters’ day-to-day work what actual Marxist politics looks like and demonstrate what a principled electoral strategy can accomplish. This can mean building the structures and political cultures that can hold candidates accountable, as well as running more militant and independent agitational campaigns to test the waters, find areas of support, and then build on them. The organisation of tenants and housing campaigns are other areas of struggle, strengthening the DSA’s ties to working class neighbourhoods and creating the foundations for district-level organisations.
Labour work must be elevated, so that we provide more than passive assistance to existing union struggles: we must actively fight for the hegemony of socialism in the labour movement. The structure of the DSA provides the potential for us to put our ideas into practice at a local level, although in a very limited way. But it is a necessary step for convincing our fellow comrades that our ideas are feasible on the national level. This work must, of course, be coupled with a bold vision for the national organisation. Marxists arguing for class independence in the DSA need to collaborate across caucus lines in a united front to fight for the kinds of changes we need.
And the DSA needs more open discussion on strategy and politics. One thing that was so frustrating about the convention was the incapacity to have real political debate. Instead, procedural and personal drama served as proxies. We can fight against this toxic culture by setting an example and hosting open and frank dialogues among different factions. Through such dialogue, we can achieve a greater clarity on real political differences, as well as the more important commonalities that are often lost in the heat of online polemics. After all, we are all comrades, despite whatever factional disputes we have with each other, united by the common bond of the socialist movement.
The times call for bold experimentation, not conservative caution. Applying Marxism creatively in these times will need a heroic vision of revolution in the USA and beyond. The DSA is currently lost - set adrift at sea with no direction, now that the Sanders campaign has failed. We need to rely on ourselves for a vision, and it is my hope that my comrades from the Marxist Unity Slate and all of our supporters can help develop such a vision.
We cannot cede any ground to those who say that we must wait for some far-off day in the future to begin forming a party. We become a party by acting like one. It is time for us to create something bold and new in US politics instead of bowing to the status quo under the Biden presidency and pleading for minor concessions. Despite our weaknesses, our organisation has attracted tens of thousands to join us in the name of socialism. Now it is our job to create a movement worthy of that name.