Towards a vanguard party
Left forces made some real advances and the right is now on the back foot. Joseph Perez of the Marxist Unity Group reflects on the 2023 national convention
In August, the Democratic Socialists of America held its national convention in Chicago, hosting delegates from around the country to deliberate on the direction of the organisation. The DSA is by far the largest group on the US left and the convention is its highest authority, charged with determining its political positions and electing its national leadership.
DSA conventions tend to give a good reflection of internal dynamics. The resolutions that get passed and the mandate of the incoming leadership express the balance of political forces within the organisation. They provide a good barometer for determining the DSA’s trajectory and the priorities of its most active layer of members. On this count, the recent convention has been indicative of a leftward shift in the membership.
The previous convention in 2021, which was conducted virtually, via Zoom, was widely considered to be a consolidation of rightwing political attitudes within the organisation. As fellow Marxist Unity Group member Donald Parkinson wrote in his reflection on the 2021 DSA convention,
DSA has taken steps back to the right after a leftward lurch at the last two conventions. A climate of fear and conservatism dominated the 2021 convention: fear of the socialist movement moving independently and standing on its own legs; and conservation of the status quo.1
In contrast to 2021, the 2023 convention showed signs of a break towards the left - but tentatively so, as I hope to make clear through an analysis of the voting.
I attended the 2023 DSA convention as a member of the Marxist Unity Group delegation, handing out papers, selling books and advocating principled Marxist politics, along with the rest of the MUG delegates. As I will show, the 2023 convention was a great success for the Marxist Unity Group; the caucus broke onto the national scene with a splash, electing two of our members to the national leadership and successfully setting the political agenda (at least in terms of what was discussed amongst the wider delegation in the halls outside the convention floor).
The votes on the resolutions up for debate reveal some fundamental disagreements in the DSA.
Beforehand, the convention planning committee had proposed an agenda that was free of any contentious political questions. While the committee argued that this agenda was created in order to prioritise resolutions with the most consensus (and therefore the most chance of being implemented), presumably it also wanted to keep disagreements to a minimum in order to put forward the idea of a ‘big happy tent’, or to avoid putting issues forward that could catalyse a split. While understandable from an administrative standpoint, the committee’s agenda would have put a damper on the discussion of important political questions, which is ultimately the most important goal of a party convention.
To politicise the agenda, MUG delegates collaborated with those across tendencies to put forward an alternative agenda, which included time to debate trans liberation and anti-Zionist political strategy, and a resolution co-sponsored by Marxist Unity Group, which focused on a disciplined, oppositional, party-like electoral strategy. This alternative politicised agenda was passed, setting the tone for the convention’s delegates: one emboldened to exert their democratic will, while tackling difficult political questions.
The first big vote was on a resolution called ‘A fighting campaign for reproductive right and trans liberation’. This called for the DSA to commit to a national political campaign against the Republican Party and its project of using state-level legislature to ban abortion procedures and gender-affirming healthcare for trans people. By way of political strategy, the resolution called on the DSA to distinguish itself as an independent socialist wing of this struggle, arguing that the Democratic Party cannot be trusted to reliably confront rightwing forces.
This resolution was passed with a healthy margin in favour: about 62%. This particular vote is interesting, not so much because of the campaign (after all the idea of some kind of campaign for abortion and trans rights is fairly uncontroversial within the DSA), but because this resolution was in part dealing with how to distinguish the DSA from liberal Democrats.
The next big resolution was called ‘Democratise DSA’, written and mostly supported by the rightwing factions. These factions, including the Socialist Majority Caucus and the Groundwork slate, comprised the majority within the national leadership and are characterised by a social democratic politics and a strategic orientation of tailing progressive Democrats, while blocking with the DSA’s full-timers for undemocratic control of the organisation. The proposal would have expanded the national political committee (the highest elected leadership body within the DSA) from 16 people to 50 or so, as well as creating another 16-person body within the NPC that would function as a “steering committee” with expanded powers. ‘Democratise DSA’ was presented as the DSA right’s flagship proposal - a big structural change that would shake up the leadership, and breathe new life into the organisation by introducing more opportunities for rank-and-file members to participate in a newly expanded leadership.
Since the resolution was proposing changes to the constitution and bylaws of the DSA, it needed a two-thirds majority in order to pass, but it was unsuccessful, with only 62% support. Delegates were understandably very suspicious. In previous years, the DSA right has been in a position of decisive influence within leading bodies. In that time they have done very little to correct what many in the organisation see as a lack of meaningful ways for rank-and-file members to influence the formal leadership.
In fact, the NPC has repeatedly alienated rank-and-file members by covering up for DSA elected officials against the criticisms of its members and resisting their attempts to introduce democratic discipline. For example, during the ‘Bowman affair’, which began when DSA-backed congressman Jamaal Bowman voted for a bill that provided $1 billion of funding for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile system, the NPC shut down the BDS working group for posting tweets critical of Bowman’s vote and the DSA’s continued support of him.
MUG members interpreted ‘Democratise DSA’ as a resolution that would establish an unaccountable, shadowy ‘politburo’. This group would sit above the expanded leadership body, the latter of which would serve as a rubber stamp for the actual decisions made by the former smaller, less transparent body. This concern for organisational democracy was shared by many delegates and factions, including the Red Star caucus, who we collaborated with to whip up votes against this resolution.
The vote against ‘Democratise DSA’ can be regarded as a vote against the DSA right wing’s attempt to ensconce themselves within the leadership. It was one sign that there has been a political shift since the last pair of conventions, which were widely considered to have been rightwing consolidations.
The next vote of consequence was the resolution from the national electoral committee. The NEC is responsible for formulating DSA’s electoral strategy, as well conducting its national endorsements process for those people running for office and looking for the DSA’s formal support.
The content of the resolution itself was not particularly controversial. Electoral campaign work is an area that may have the most support from members across the organisation, despite a lot of criticisms about DSA electeds and the frustration of the left generally with the tailist nature of its electoral work.
The amendments to this resolution provide insights to some fault lines within the DSA. One amendment was introduced jointly by the Marxist Unity Group and Reform and Revolution caucuses, entitled ‘Towards a party-like electoral strategy’, and a similar amendment was introduced by comrades in the Bread and Roses caucus titled ‘Act like an independent party’. Both amendments attempted to inject language into the main text that would commit the DSA to taking concrete steps towards political independence from the Democratic Party, and forming a party or party-like organisation as a vehicle for that.
Both amendments emphasised the importance of distinguishing the DSA’s socialist candidates running on the Democratic Party ballot line from centrist liberal Democrats. The main difference between the amendments was the weaker language of B&R’s ‘Act like an independent party’ amendment that made no concrete proposals for political independence beyond a vague commitment to “develop our own party identity and common messaging”.
The MUG/R&R amendment was much more forceful in its attempt to change the direction of the DSA’s electoral work. Our proposal would have:
- made the DSA platform binding on any member in an elected office;
- compelled those elected officials to vote against any proposal to expand the police and state repressive apparatus;
- committed them to oppose and vote against any and all military budgets;
- prevented any DSA representative from voting for any measure to restrict independent working class organisation, including the right to strike;
- introduced some fundamental elements of democratic discipline for DSA representatives.
This is a case where the vote revealed a positive shift in the attitudes of the organisation with regards to the question of electoral work. The B&R’s relatively weak ‘Act like an independent party’ amendment passed by a very healthy margin (), which confirms that the organisation, in marked contrast to comrade Parkinson’s observation from the 2021 convention, at least rhetorically looks to a future where socialists will be able to stand on their own two feet politically without leaning on liberal partners.
The vote on the MUG/R&R amendment did not pass, with 60% voting against, although this is still an improvement on the MUG’s previous attempt to introduce a similar resolution at the 2021 convention, when 70% opposed it.
These votes show that, while an increasing number of members are beginning to seriously consider the idea of taking steps towards an independent socialist party in the US, they still remain rather skittish on the prospects and what concrete measures are needed.
The relatively weak ‘Act like an independent party’ amendment carried the day because its non-committal approach appealed to the concerns most delegates had about shifting to an oppositional style too soon. In any case, despite the defeat, the results of the vote were encouraging for what it seems to suggest about the growing support for independent working class electoral politics.
The national labor commission, which is tasked with directing the DSA’s intervention in the organised labour movement, also put forward a consensus resolution. Like the one proposed by the national electoral resolution, it was not very controversial on its own - mainly being a reaffirmation of the activities that the DSA is already undertaking in the organised labour movement: a commitment to the so-called rank-and-file strategy; to continue organising those layers of workers who are not yet a part of the official labour movement; to continue the previous DSA work in organising logistics workers at firms like UPS and Amazon; and to push for democratic reforms within the existing unions on the model of the rank-and-file strategy.
The debates here were mostly indicative of the lack of a real developed view on the relationship between growing the socialist movement and the role of socialists within the organised labour movement.
The rank-and-file strategy remains the dominant perspective in the organisation. While substantially better than a strategic orientation favouring the labour bureaucracy (which was resoundingly defeated at the convention), the rank-and-file strategy is severely underdeveloped as a theory, and in practice displays a serious tendency towards economism. In some sense this is a reflection of the fact that within the labour circles in the DSA, rather than a communist party, the call is more for something along the lines of the UK Labour Party with a substantial trade union presence in its leadership.
The International Committee (IC), which is tasked with establishing and maintaining relationships with foreign socialist groups and parties, also put forward an uncontroversial resolution reaffirming existing work.
The interesting story here is an amendment that was proposed by the Bread and Roses caucus called ‘For a class-struggle internationalism’, which was essentially a third-campist amendment to the main text. The amendment is written seemingly to introduce the idea that some countries receiving political support from US imperialism should still be able to receive DSA political support too.
The amendment says:
Be it further resolved, the DSA seeks to learn from and stand in solidarity with movements around the world fighting for democracy and socialism against all governments that engage in the repression of democratic rights and side with capital over workers. This includes governments that ally with US empire, claim to oppose US imperialism, or even self-identify as socialist or leftwing.2
While the amendment makes no specific references, it is not hard to see that the concern here is the Nato proxy war in Ukraine. The IC had previously received intense criticism from third-campist elements in the DSA for allegedly acting as a front group for Stalinists. These third-campists pointed to the vote for the DSA to join the Sao Paulo Forum and the IC delegation’s trip to Cuba and Venezuela as evidence of this fact. While it is true that the IC contains many elements of the anti-war left who do have some ties to tendencies that can nominally be termed ‘Stalinist’, there are also many newer, younger members of the left who align with these older anti-war activists on questions of anti-imperialism. Even MUG members (who are definitively not Stalinists) align with the IC on matters like joining the Sao Paolo forum, opposing US arms to Ukraine and sending delegations to Cuba and Venezuela. Instead of raising the spectre of Stalinist entryism to win people to their positions, third-campists in the DSA should consider their failure to win newer members of the IC to their position as a sign of the weakness of their position.
‘For a class-struggle internationalism’ failed to pass - 36% for and 64% against - convincing very few delegates that exceptions to socialist principles of anti-imperialism need to be made in the case of the Ukraine proxy war. MUG and R&R comrades put forward a resolution outlining a revolutionary defeatist perspective on the war in Ukraine, but this resolution did not even make it to the convention floor. I suspect many on the IC and beyond supported the political positions expressed within that resolution (opposition to US arms to Ukraine, for example), but did not want to bring it to the convention floor because of fears that it would fail.
Finally, the last consequential vote of the agenda was a resolution headed ‘Defend democracy through political independence’, introduced by a B&R member. This resolution was another attempt to present an oppositional stance to the Democratic Party by arguing that the DSA needs to be seen as not just fighting the Republican Party, but also as a viable mass alternative to the liberal Democrats.
During the debate for this resolution, a motion was made from the floor to remove a particularly contentious sentence. The sentence in question stated:
The NPC shall publicly communicate disapproval to endorsed candidates and elected DSA members who reject this strategy in order to explicitly or tacitly support centrist leaders of the Democratic Party (for example, by attending rallies on behalf of centrists, political communications, or explicit endorsement of centrist Democrats).
The vote to remove this was successful, and so the resolution went on to pass without the sentence censuring DSA representatives who chose not to follow this strategy. The vote for that sentence was very close, with only 51% voting for its removal - more evidence that there is growing support in the DSA for oppositional electoral politics, but a lot of hesitation about applying it as the organisation’s concrete policy.
Elections to the national political committee, the DSA’s highest elected leadership body, further indicated a leftward shift. Marxist forces managed to pick up a combined five seats (the Marxist Unity Group with two, Red Star with three). One seat went to an independent affiliated to the DSA’s international committee, one to a member of an anti-Zionist slate, and one was split between two representatives from the DSA’s youth wing. The right wing won a combined six seats, and Bread and Roses picked up three.
A lot of comrades are calling this a left-majority NPC, which I am not quite sure is right. While the results represent a real blow to the right’s influence in the national leadership, they still form a big faction on the NPC. It seems to me that the real pivot of this arrangement is Bread and Roses sitting in the centre, who are well positioned to act as the deciding factor in contentious debates.
B&R itself is a particularly incoherent formation, having suffered a partial split a couple of years ago (that was never truly resolved) around the question of the ‘dirty break’ from the Democratic Party. It now persists with two divergent political wings: one that pushes political independence; and the other that urges caution and steady growth on the back of the existing coalitionist approach. This means that the success of most initiatives at the national leadership level will depend in large part on how successful factions are in convincing B&R as a whole to support them, or how willing B&R is to lend its support.
The leadership election results are more an expression of the losses of the right than they are an expression of a leftwing triumph - for the simple fact that there is not really a coherent ‘DSA left’, but rather a collection of factions on the left that share a general Marxist orientation. Risks for the DSA still abound: chief among them is the potential for an obstructionist bloc comprised of the right and the paid leadership (the ‘full-timers’) to limit the effectiveness of the DSA ‘left wing’. And the votes on political independence still express a fundamental contradiction between word and deed (lots of words on political independence, but very little action) and a lot of hesitation from members, when the question of a break is concretely posed.
Nonetheless, the results from the convention are on the whole encouraging. They should encourage us to push harder towards constructing a unified Marxist wing of the DSA that can present a positive vision of class politics independent of the liberal bourgeoisie. The Marxist forces and the MUG itself have the momentum to do this, but we will need to solidify ourselves as a united front for those politics within the organisation in order to successfully win control from the right.
Personally, I believe the 2023 DSA convention was a resounding success for the Marxist Unity Group. The two NPC candidates we put forward were elected, and we managed to effectively propagate our political message far and wide through the distribution of a daily bulletin (with articles written in real time, responding to events from the previous day) and by selling all the copies that we brought to convention of the MUG’s new book of selected writings, Fight the constitution: for a democratic socialist republic, which is available now on the Cosmonaut magazine web shop.3 Thanks to the Weekly Worker comrades for their guidance on the production of a daily bulletin.
The next two years for both the DSA and Marxist Unity Group will be full of much opportunity and risk; all we can do is continue our work of constructing a unified Marxist wing and hope that the 2025 convention will show that the DSA is continuing down the path towards a mass vanguard party, unified around a minimum-maximum programme for socialism.