Democratic Socialists of America burgeons

The Clarion spoke to Dan La Botz about the burgeoning of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) movement in the United States.

Dan is an activist with both the US revolutionary socialist organisation Solidarity (for more than 20 years) and the New York City chapter of DSA (for a year and a half). He was an elected delegate to the DSA National Convention in August as well an unsuccessful candidate for the National Political Committee. He is a longtime political activist, teacher, and writer. His most recently published book is What Went Wrong? the Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis, released by Haymarket Press as a paperback in September. He is currently writing a book on Donald Trump and the Resistance that will be published by Syllepse (Paris) in French early next year. He speaks here as an individual and not as an official spokesperson for DSA.

DSA has burgeoned in the last few years. What’s going on there? Why DSA specifically?

DSA owes its spectacular growth – from 7,000 to more than 25,000 in two years – to several factors. First DSA’s long involvement in the Democratic Party meant that it had no trouble first in encouraging the independent Vermont Senator to run for president and then found his joining the Democratic Party to be no obstacle to supporting him. The Sanders campaign, with the first progressive Democratic Party platform in thirty years and with the candidate’s open proclamation that he was a “democratic socialist,” spoke to millions of young people no longer susceptible to Cold War anti-Communism. Second, because Sanders had called himself a democratic socialist, those who went to Google or Wikipedia to find out what that meant, came across DSA. Third, DSA’s young activists, adept at using the social media proved to be extraordinary recruiters. Finally, DSA put up no obstacles to new members. One could join online, pay the minimum dues, look for a local meeting, and plunge in.

In many ways the political situation in America seems grim, but there is also visibly new life on the left. What’s your assessment?

The American political situation is quite serious and dangerous. Donald Trump as president, the Republicans dominating both houses of Congress, and Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court mean that ultra-conservatives control all three branches of government. The Republicans also control most of the state governorships and legislatures. Trump’s cabinet does not reflect his populist campaign rhetoric, but is in fact a collection of billionaire corporate CEOs, enough generals to call it a junta, and Republican politicians who see their job as dismantling the regulatory and social service agencies that they head. Trump’s closest advisors are his children, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, giving his presidency a monarchical cast. His closest advisors, several now driven from the White House under pressure from the establishment, were white nationalist, alt-right figures such as Steven Bannon. Trump is personally corrupt, failing to put his personal wealth into a blind trust and enriching himself through foreign and domestic guests at his hotels. His continuous use of Twitter to make bizarre or provocative statements bamboozle, incite, and deceive his followers, combined with his attacks on “fake news” creates a frenetic media and an atmosphere of political anxiety. Meanwhile his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, works to roll back the civil rights laws of the past half century, and neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan encouraged by him thrust themselves into conflict and into the media to recruit more followers. In the next year the Republican in Congress and the conservative Supreme Court can be expected to launch an attack of labor union by passing so-called “right-to-work” laws that will tremendously weaken the already debilitated labor movement. We have not seen such a situation in the United States since the 1920s.

At the same time, the Bernie Sanders campaign energized and the Trump campaign horrified those of the left. We have seen some quite large protest demonstrations, especially the January 2, 2017 women’s marches and rallies of millions, but so far we do not have a sustained mass movement of resistance. Resistance to one degree or another can be seen in various sectors of society: some Republicans have criticized Trump, the Democratic Party has put up both legislative and legal obstacles where it could, most labor unions and many social movements oppose Trump. The Democratic Party leadership, however, while it naturally opposes Trump and the Republicans, remains loyal to the banks and corporations who control it and has not repudiated its populist policies. Bernie Sanders continue to attempt to build a leftwing within the Democratic Party, but it is not at all clear that he will be able to do so. The progressive Democrats in organizations like Indivisible and MoveOn.org, will support progressives in the primary elections, but then in all likelihood back the corporate neoliberal, austerity Democrats in the end. At the same time, the Green Party, remains insignificant. The political dilemma of the left – reform the Democrats or pursue independent political action – naturally leads left activists to choose building the social movements, even while recognizing that we need some sort of working class political party.


DSA members’ delegates voting at their recent national congress

What were the most important debates and decisions at the DSA congress? Can you explain about the different groups in the organisation too?

One has to appreciate that the 690 delegates representing more than 25,000 members – 20 percent people of colour and 40 percent women – were largely neophytes. Many had been in the organization less than a year, some less than six months. Most were between the ages of 25 and 35; many had never been in a socialist organization before. While there were some older and more experienced comrades, some coming from DSA and some who had previously been in other left organizations, the political consciousness, knowledge, and experience of the convention as a whole was quite uneven. This Convention was for most a learning experience. The fact that it there during the convention was so much good will, such seriousness, and such a commitment to attempt to build a mass socialist organization was remarkable.

DSA does not have a tradition of having internal caucuses, at least not until the previous convention in 2015 when a Left Caucus appeared, led by young Marxists. At this convention, the Left Caucus became Momentum, with a platform emphasizing a national campaign for Medicare for all and a call for building rank-and-file groups in the labor unions. Another caucus called Praxis also appeared. While Praxis, which did not put forward any clear political direction, it advocated NGO-style training, combined with an emphasis on localism. Finally, there was Unity and Diversity, a statement put out by some of DSA’s longtime leaders and signed by many others. At the convention, each of those groups won about a third of the leadership, meaning that no group will be able to provide decisive leadership and set a new direction for DSA. In my view, the most important political decisions of the group were the decision to support Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement and to oppose efforts to criminalize it; the establishment of a People of Colour Caucus; the creation of a Labor Commission; and the establishment of a forum for political debate within the organization. The most surprising decision was the overwhelming vote to endorse BDS, something that would have been unthinkable before.

There were several motions that would have moved DSA to the left on the question of independent political action. Two (I was involved with both) would have had DSA take a more critical attitude toward the progressive Democratic Party organizations such as Indivisible, MoveOn.org, and Our Revolution. A third would have had DSA become a political party and run its own candidates. And a fourth would have had DSA endorse the Draft Berne on a People’s Platform movement. The first two and the last one failed, the third one was table, so none was adopted. Speakers from DSA longtime leadership as well as newer leaders all opposed Trump, the Republicans, and the neoliberal Democrats, and most members seem to be prepared to back progressive Democrats, socialists running as Democrats, and independent socialist candidates. There is not much enthusiasm in DSA for the Green Party. I think that – in my view unfortunately – DSA will continue as it has in previous decades (whether officiall or unofficially) to end up backing not only socialist Democrats and progressive Democrats, but almost any Democrat standing against a Republican. I hope that future debates over candidate endorsements will lead more DSA members to become more critical of the Democratic Party and more interested in building an independent alternative.

How do DSA activists see the Corbyn phenomenon in Britain? Is Momentum seen as a model? We were struck by how much what sounded like the lively democracy of the convention contrasted to how tightly controlled and undemocratic Momentum is nationally. On the other hand we understand why what is happening here would inspire you!

I suspect that only a very small percentage of DSA members follow politics in Britain. Those that do and some who had not been paying attention, but now do, have been very enthused about Jeremy Corbyn. They were, no doubt the ones who led the chanting and singing during the DSA Convention banquet. Even those who know of Corbyn may know nothing about Momentum. Only a few DSA members have had any direct contact with Momentum members via a few Skype calls. I think the Corbyn phenomenon has been inspiring, but it has little or no impact on American developments.

As we understand it, DSA voted to break from the Socialist International but not from an orientation to the Democratic Party. Is that right? That seems strange, but can you explain?

DSA had been associated with the Socialist International from its founding and many of the older DSA members had a strong sense of identification with the Scandinavian Social Democratic Parties. Two years ago, before the enormous growth and rejuvenation of DSA, the Left Caucus put forward a resolution to leave the SI, which, though it failed, suggested that many DSA members were changing their minds. The rightward movement of the Socialist and Social Democratic parties in Europe, their adoption of neoliberal policies and of austerity, combined with the authoritarian character of many SI parties in the developing world (Murbarak in Egypt, the PRI in Mexico), and the disintegration of the SI itself, provide the evidence that it was time to get out. The convention voted overwhelmingly to do so.

And, at the Saturday night banquet, speakers from Party of Socialism and Liberation, PSOL, of Brazil, from France Insoumise, from Podemos of Spain, the Left Bloc of Portugal, and the British Labour Party were cheered. The Labour Party member who spoke could at one point hardly speak over the riotous singing of “O Jeremy Corbyn.” Yet, neither the vote to leave the SI or the enthusiasm for the young, broad left parties, or for Corbyn should be misinterpreted; DSA has not made a decision to break with social democracy. Most DSA members, given their youth and the fact that they’re new to the left probably do not have a very clear idea of the distinctions between social democracy, democratic socialism, and revolutionary socialism. Just what kind of socialism DSA will come to espouse will be up for debate over the next four years, and debate among thousands, even tens of thousands of young socialists over these questions makes DSA an exciting place to be.

Are there any significant moves towards independent labour movement political action in the US?

I see no hopeful signs for the labor movement at the moment. American labor union membership is at its lowest point since the 1920s and a number of bills before Congress and state legislatures as well as cases in the courts suggest that in the next few years labor unions will face the possibility of virtual extinction. In 2016 the United States had 14.6 million union members, representing only 10.7 percent of all workers. Not only are there fewer organized workers than at any time in almost a hundred years but unions conduct many fewer strikes. In 2016, there were only 15 major work stoppages involving 99,000 workers. The period from 2007 to 2016 was the decade with fewest strikes, averaging approximately 14 major work stoppages per year. While a few major strikes inspired the labor movement, such as the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 and the Communications Workers strike of 2016, there has been no major strike wave in the United States since 1970. There are at present no worker struggles taking place that are significant in terms of numbers, economic impact, or political significance.

American labor unions have historically been completely aligned with the Democratic Party though over the last few decades, many union members – especially white men – began to vote Republican. In New York State and a few others, the Communication Workers of America support the Working Families Party, but it is a kind of adjunct of the Democratic Party, which it seeks to influence. I see no signs of labor political action outside of the Democratic Party.

What relationship does the DSA phenomenon have to rank-and-file workplace and union organising?

DSA has 1,440 union rank-and-file union members, about 6 percent of the total membership, and some union staffers. Few of these union members are industrial workers. The newly established Labor Commission is just beginning a discussion of labor union strategy. Some DSA members have worked with Labor Notes, a magazine and a union reform educational center that promotes the idea of rank-and-file activism, and other DSA members have experience in one or another rank-and-file labor caucus. While in Los Angeles recently, I attended a meeting in the Hollywood area of DSA members who are workers in the video and film entertainment industry, some unionized and some not. DSA does not yet have a labor strategy, but it has some bright prospects in some areas for both new organizing and rank-and-file union organizing. DSA will also have to figure out how to raise socialist politics within the labor movement, as well as in the social movements. For the new DSA and most of its young members these will be new challenges.

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