Stay, fight, win
What is going on in the Democratic Socialists of America? Charlie Frank explains the conflict over BDS which is dividing left and right
On March 18, the DSA’s national political committee voted to ‘de-charter’ the organisation’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Working Group (BDS WG). Ostensibly, the reason given was that the working group refused to remove a month-old thread criticising Jamaal Bowman, a member of Congress who was endorsed by the DSA, but voted to fund Israel’s Iron Dome.
The NPC has claimed that this thread was ‘misinformation’, yet, as will be shown, the actions of the NPC, and its justification for them, only show the accuracy of the BDS WG’s thread. As a result, the NPC narrowly voted to de-charter the working group and collapse BDS organisation under a leadership appointed by the NPC. They also voted to suspend the BDS WG organisers from leadership posts for the next year.
However, in the midst of widespread criticism from members, plus the resignation of three NPC members and substantial resignations from leading members in various chapters, the NPC unanimously voted on March 25 to reverse its decision, and ‘re-charter’ the working group. But the vote to reinstate the leadership of the BDS WG did not pass. Though it is clearly a victory for the left that the campaign to re-charter the working group had such support, and that the NPC capitulated, the fight clearly cannot stop there. We must briefly sketch the history of this decision in order to chart a path forward.
Following Bowman’s repulsive vote to fund the Iron Dome, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s cowardly abstention on the vote, there has been a large push within the DSA to both unendorse Bowman and expel him from the organisation as a whole. These calls did not occur in the abstract. Though the NPC removed the link to Palestine from its website, since 2017 the organisation has, on paper at least, affirmed its commitment to solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle broadly and the BDS tactic specifically.
For the rank-and-file member, who has no institutional power on the international stage, perhaps this would be enough. But for the organisation as a whole, especially given the multiple DSA members sitting in the US Congress, the question must be asked: are we in favour of Palestinian liberation in words or in action? If we affirm our commitment to the liberation of Palestine, but accept members who vote to fund Israel’s genocidal war machine, how much do our beautifully written words mean? If we verbally stand in solidarity with Palestine, but allow elected officials, both endorsed by and members of the DSA, to vote to fund Palestine’s colonial oppressor, then what good is our solidarity?
At the most recent convention, there was a resolution put forward by the Marxist Unity Group called ‘Tribunes of the People and Democratic Discipline’ that aimed to address this exact question. Under this, any candidate endorsed by the DSA would have been obligated to “make a formal pledge to fulfil the following requirements”:
- The candidate must be a member of DSA.
- They must accept and pledge to promote and fight for the DSA national political platform if one is passed.1
This resolution did not make it to the convention floor. A different amendment, which would have made acceptance of the platform the criteria for membership, was voted down, essentially 2-1 against. The majority of delegates, who also voted to approve an actual political platform for the DSA, voted against giving this platform any concrete meaning beyond more nicely written words. The democratic discipline of elected officials would be too much, apparently.
This begs the question: do these elected officials exist to serve the DSA, or does the DSA exist to serve the elected officials? Should their politics be subordinate to ours, or vice versa? Because, as much as the DSA may on paper be in favour of Palestinian liberation, so long as its elected officials continue to operate within the Democratic Party (an imperialist, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian party), and so long as its elected officials are not actually bound to the DSA’s paper politics, then these politics will remain just that: paper.
Yet, after the convention, at least working groups and chapters were more than welcome to criticise DSA elected officials and the DSA NPC, and many did, considering that both the DSA’s congressional members and its NPC are politically to the right of the rank-and-file membership.2 This has been one of the best features of the DSA. In a political landscape of small microsects, where the most important question is the class character of the Soviet Union, and membership is contingent on agreeing on a whole host of secondary questions (and not expressing disagreement when it exists), it is refreshing to have an organisation that has accepted public criticism of its leadership.
But that has come to a close with the de-chartering of the BDS WG. Matt Miller, who was closest to the Marxist Unity Group at the convention, has proven to be a renegade with his vote in favour of de-chartering. His explanation for his vote, posted on the DSA Forum, is instructive of the twisted logic of the DSA right. He claimed that the BDS WG tweet thread
… continued a pattern of making sweeping, uncomradely accusations of the motives of others who political disagreed with them: “those most impressed with Bowman’s performance are people more interested in Palestine as a political prop to advance a short-sighted domestic legislative agenda or gain access to Capitol Hill at any cost - including Palestinian humanity”. This fits a pattern over the last few months of the working group making unfounded accusations against those who they disagree with politically in a way that inflames conflict and makes it impossible for us to debate these important issues.3
Yet in the previous paragraph in his same explanation, he writes:
… the meeting was off the record to begin with: sharing reports of the meeting, especially inaccurate reports, undermines our ability to work effectively as an organisation. I want us to build strong relationships with our elected officials with real accountability, but we can’t do that if they think we aren’t going to abide by our promises.
The meeting being referenced was a closed-door, backroom meeting between the NPC and Bowman, following his vote to fund the Iron Dome. Additionally, on March 9, Bowman wrote on his website that he voted against an incarceration bill, but
There were elements of the defence spending section that, if voted on separately, I would have supported, including additional military aid to Ukraine and funding for the Iron Dome - which I have already voted once before to fund and support.4
A closed-door meeting with elected officials who vote to militarily fund an apartheid state, followed by criticism and attempted silencing of those who comment on this meeting, seems to be evidence enough that those who sided with Bowman do, in fact, care more about short-sighted domestic legislation than Palestinian humanity. Additionally, it would appear to be Matt Miller who is engaged in misinformation by neglecting to clarify that Bowman only voted against funding for the Iron Dome because it was packaged with something else he did not want to fund, rather than implying Bowman has had some change of heart. In the wake of the reaction to the de-chartering, Miller has also resigned his NPC post, bringing the count to three vacant seats.
There is perhaps a secondary issue here, besides the primary issue, which is freedom of lower bodies to criticise the actions of higher bodies: horizontalism versus centralism. Should the BDS working group, after a democratic decision by the NPC to not expel Bowman, continue to litigate a campaign for expulsion, “at the expense of their actual organising campaigns” (according to the right)? The reality is that the working group did no such thing. There was no suspension of the fight for Palestinian liberation in light of the NPC’s decision to disregard Bowman’s vote to fund Israel’s war machine. There was, however, criticism of this.
But were there calls to suspend DSA organising? Did the working group attempt to stop any tangible organising that other members, caucuses or working groups were doing in the DSA? Unless you consider any criticism of elected officials to be an unconstructive impediment to electoral campaigns, the clear answer is no. Without the freedom to criticise actions of our leadership, we quickly devolve into another sect with a self-perpetuating leadership, where criticism is not spread within the organisation and oppositional arguments have no chance of winning without a split.5
Following this vote, many prominent members of the DSA left have begun to resign from the organisation. Austin G, an NPC member who voted against de-chartering the working group, and who has been a leader in the international committee, resigned from the DSA altogether.6 Aaron Warner, an NPC member who voted against de-chartering the working group and for expelling Bowman, has also resigned from the NPC - though this is related to his very-poor-taste joke about the Aids crisis on Twitter. It is worth questioning if Warner’s joke is worse than support for one of the parties that caused the Aids crisis7 and today continues to mismanage our current pandemic, as the body count continues to rise. In their stead, the current rightwing NPC will be able to elect two more people, giving them an increased majority. The question remains: what is to be done?
This decision, according to the NPC and DSA liberals in socialist clothing, is justified because working groups must be subordinated to the collective whole. Yet this sort of subordination was voted against at convention, and subordination to the actual platform that outlines DSA’s democratically voted on political agenda was voted down. Further, Bowman’s support for Zionism, which the DSA right justified by saying that his constituents in his congressional district were largely Zionist,8 was not enough to even unendorse, let alone expel, him. Yet criticism of Bowman has been enough to de-charter the working group. In practice, this means the subordination of the DSA to elected officials and their opportunism, rather than elected officials being subordinated to the DSA. And, in practice, this is a clear power grab by the DSA right, which has recently been clamouring about the ‘ultra-left’ - or, to be more precise, DSA members who think DSA elected officials should have to align with the DSA’s politics in practice, or, heaven forbid, that the DSA as a whole should break from the Democratic Party and make good on its verbal commitment to anti-imperialism by no longer supporting one of the two parties of imperialism.
It is clear that this decision is not just about the BDS WG. It is a proxy for the larger fight within the DSA over a break with the Democratic Party, or a continued tailing of left liberals and the ‘left wing of the possible’, By the DSA’s own admission, new membership growth has “slowed to a trickle”.9 The reason for this is the continued capitulation to the Democratic Party by Bernie Sanders and ‘the Squad’, and the abandonment of the fight for working class goals in favour of championing Biden’s platform, which, it must be noted, has amounted to absolutely nothing. The de-chartering of the BDS WG amounts to an assault on the left wing of the DSA, and a power grab by the right, class-collaborationist leadership.
So how should Marxists respond? Do we leave the DSA, as many real-life, as opposed to paper, members have begun to do? Do we leave politics? Do we join one of the sects? Do we do ‘good work’ locally without joining a political organisation? Do we leave to form our own organisation? Or do we stay and fight? Max Ajl succinctly argued on Twitter that “people leaving DSA without eventually re-consolidating into a genuine anti-systemic force uncorrupted by the Dems is a victory for the right wing of DSA”. If our horizon is a socialist republic, then any decision we make in the current crisis must be aimed toward this horizon. Thus, we can eliminate leaving politics altogether from our options.
So should we join the sects? Having been in a sect, albeit (in my opinion) amongst the better ones, I would argue resolutely against joining any of the variety of political sects in the US. The majority back the Democrats to the same degree as the DSA does - just less successfully - and none of them have a healthy internal culture of criticism and dissent. If the de-chartering of the BDS WG was bureaucratic overkill and a politically motivated move to silence criticism, the solution to this cannot be joining a bureaucratic sect with its little fiefdom of leadership that has never allowed an open faction to exist.
Do we do ‘good work’ locally? Should we leave the DSA to do ‘mutual aid’, or organise around single-issue campaigns? As Lenin sarcastically remarked, “Well, if anyone wants to save the country by working in the Illiteracy Committee ... let him go ahead.”10 This is not because individual issues are not important, or because mutual aid/charity is bad. It is because, in the absence of a struggle to build a coherent political organisation charting the path toward the final goal of a socialist republic, this form of organising has no chance of overcoming capitalism. As Rosa Luxemburg argued in Reform or revolution, “Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution its aim.”11 To paraphrase Lenin, we must fight in a revolutionary way for reforms, not in a reformist way for revolution.12 Any organising we do must be part of a broader fight for socialism, and the history of the 20th century has shown very clearly that the fight for socialism cannot be won without a party fighting for this goal.
Yet many champions of this ‘good work’ have been happy to see good leftwing organisers leave the DSA in the wake of the decision to de-charter the WG. The question must be asked: is it better to do ‘good work’ locally, with no perspective of attaching this work to the fight for socialism, than to fight for revolutionary politics in a reformist organisation? Is it better to devolve into localism, and avoid the larger question of the conquest of political power by the working class, than to have to fight with reformists and social-liberals about the path forward? I think the answer to both is a resounding ‘no’. It amounts to nothing more than ceding all political power and legitimacy to the right wing of the socialist movement, abandoning any possibility of an insurgent left winning mass support or power. It is better to fail than to abandon hope beforehand. The sects, for all their faults, at least have the horizon of socialism that they aspire to. If we abandon this horizon because it takes a fight to get there, we will never overthrow capitalism.
The retort here is that the DSA may be compromised, that it is too reformist to operate in, that we must keep the banner of Marxism ‘pure’. So we are left with two choices, if we actually aspire to a socialist future. Do we stay and fight, or do we form something different? We must analyse what a formal split, resulting in the creation of another organisation, would mean.
As Mike Macnair argues in Revolutionary strategy, “splitting does not purge the movement of opportunism. It is a defensive necessity, not a means of offense”.13 The evidence given is the opportunism of the Bolsheviks in the early days of the February Revolution of 1917, and Zinoviev and Kamenev publishing their opposition to the impending October Revolution in the bourgeois press. Yet the examples could just as easily be the numerous splits in the socialist movement in the USA, which, despite the apparent differences between the groups, have nearly universally resulted in the sects’ eventual capitulation to capitalist parties, whether that be Communist Party USA’s non-stop lesser-evilism, the Revolutionary Communist Party’s support for Biden to stop the ‘fascism’ of Donald Trump, the Socialist Workers Party’s essential backing of Trumpism, the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s refusal to run La Riva in a state where Bernie had a shot at winning (had he been the nominee), etc, etc, etc.
It is clear that these splits, rather than purifying the workers’ movement, have served mostly to shrink its scope, and cause the rank-and-file members of the various sects to have unwarranted animosity toward each other, as this animosity and ‘irreconcilable’ differences are the continued justification for the splits. In practice, this has contributed to the dismantling of the US left, and the ceding of hegemony to liberals and union bureaucrats.
I think the answer is to stay and fight, at least for now. Judging by the responses in the DSA forums, this decision by the NPC is extremely unpopular, and I think it is a very clear example of what the right wing of the socialist movement will resort to when they are challenged in any way. As Lenin and Zinoviev argued in Socialism and war,
On all important occasions … the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of the majority on the executives of the trade unions, etc. Unity with the opportunists actually means today subordinating the working class to ‘its’ national bourgeoisie, alliance with it for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for great-power privileges; it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat in all countries.14
Mike Macnair furthers this argument in Revolutionary strategy, when he argues:
The right is linked to the state and willing to use ultimatums, censorship and splits to prevent the party standing in open opposition to the state. It insists that the only possible unity is if it has a veto on what is said and done. The unity of the workers’ movement on the rights terms is necessarily subordination of the interests of the working class to those of the state.15
We have seen this practically, with the ultimatum that the BDS WG cede control of its social media accounts, and delete its thread criticising Bowman and the NPC’s unwillingness to expel him, and with the NPC’s eventual de-chartering of the BDS WG and removal of the link to ‘Palestine’ on the DSA website. Clearly we cannot have full unity with the right, and certainly not on their terms. To do so would be to become yet another leftwing organisation committed to tailing liberals. But to split entirely risks becoming another sect completely detached from unions and public consciousness, and to fall back into the pattern of different tendencies isolating from each other.
So how do we fight? How do we manage to neither split into irrelevance nor stay in subordination to the right wing of the DSA and the socialist movement? Mike Macnair’s solution is as follows:
Marxists, who wish to oppose the present state rather than to manage it loyally, can then only be in partial unity with the loyalist wing of the workers’ movement. We can bloc with them on particular issues. We can and will take membership in parties and organisations they control - and violate their constitutional rules and discipline - in order to fight their politics. But we have to organise ourselves independently of them. That means we need our own press, finances, leadership committees, conferences, branches and other organisations.
It does not matter whether these are formally within parties which the right controls, formally outside them, or part inside and part outside. This is tactics. The problem is not to purify the movement, which is illusory, but to fight the politics of class-collaborationism.16
The letter17 circulating from comrades Jean A and Annie W is a good start, at least as a way of counting our forces. This letter received around three times as many signatures as the ‘pro-NPC’ letter, and was a large factor in demonstrating the unpopularity of the NPC’s decision. The calls for a special convention are encouraging as well, and all caucuses and chapters opposed to this bureaucratic manoeuvring need to work together to force a special convention.
This is important, both to get an NPC that actually represents the will of the DSA as it stands now, and to cohere the left of the organisation toward a unifying project. Unity at all costs will not be enough, and we cannot sit idly by, while this rightwing power-grab happens. Importantly, two leftwing members of the NPC, and Matt Miller, who at least at convention appeared leftwing, have resigned. A special convention is needed to re-commit the DSA to anti-imperialist organising. This can only happen by forcing the NPC to reinstate the BDS working group leadership, and holding a special convention and voting out the rightwing members of the NPC, who have shown in practice that their commitment to backroom deals with unaccountable elected officials is more important than their commitment to anti-imperialism and the fight for socialism.
But we cannot end the fight there. Clearly, new leadership is needed, but, as mentioned earlier, this is part of a larger fight over the orientation of the DSA. The fight for a special convention and a new NPC must be part and parcel with the fight for elected officials that are subordinate to the DSA’s politics, and for the DSA to break from the Democratic Party and begin the fight for a mass, class-independent, socialist party in the United States.
Without this first step of class independence, the horizon of socialism in our lifetime will never be reached.
Resolution 6: convention2021.dsausa.org/2021-dsa-convention-resolutions.↩︎
Evidence can be seen from a survey of the membership, where ‘communist’ and ‘Marxist’ (not surveyed in 2017 or 2019) polled at 27% and 38% respectively, while the percentage identified as ‘anarchist’ increased to 15%. Meanwhile the percentage for ‘Berniecrat’, Liberal, Democrat, Progressive, Social Democrat and ‘Socialist’ all saw significant decreases in popularity. This was shown in a slideshow presented at the most recent DSA convention.↩︎
Only available to registered DSA members.↩︎
This begs the question of whether the constituency of DSA elected officials consists of people in their congressional district or members of the DSA at large. In my view, it should be the latter, and elected officials should champion the DSA and its politics, rather than allowing it to act as nothing more than a campaign vehicle for aspiring left liberals.↩︎
N Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin Chicago 2018, p13.↩︎
The original quote is from a letter to Anatoly Lunacharky, the future People’s Commissar for Education: “We must fight in a revolutionary way for a parliament, but not in a parliamentary way for a revolution; we must fight in a revolutionary way for a strong parliament, and not in an impotent ‘parliament’ for a revolution”: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/oct/11avl.htm.↩︎
M Macnair Revolutionary strategy London 2008, p99.↩︎
VI Lenin CW vol 21, Moscow 1964, p311.↩︎
M Macnair Revolutionary strategy London 2008, p91.↩︎
‘For an Internationalist DSA’: docs.google.com/document/d/12qZ0RHglL2zsDfAZtEA6D-0b_6tWQUkrwSnGYJYyzN8/edit.↩︎