Is Democratic Socialists Of America The Future Of The Left?

More than 116 years after Eugene Debs founded the Socialist Party of America, the future of socialism in the US may be reemerging.
04/24/2017 07:00 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2017

Instead of rehashing debates on Bernie or Clinton or whatever other leader, I’d rather focus on the state of progressive organizing at the grassroots that can ideally produce the political strength to elect whatever leader we want in the future—and the mass organization to build real change.

So I’m going to focus in this post on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which I rejoined last December after many years and I finally made a branch meeting last Wednesday. And I’d say the future looks bright if that meeting is any indication.

DSA’s Explosive Growth

DSA has had explosive growth over the last year, attaining a membership of 20,000 nationally as announced at the branch meeting, something like four times the membership of just a year or so earlier. That number was announced as larger than any explicitly socialist organization has had since the 1960s—which sounds about right given the implosion of the Left into the swamp of tiny sects in the wake of the breakup of the original Socialist Party and the meltdown of Students for a Democratic Society and other large left currents after 1968. DSA itself is the lineal descendant of Debs’ original Socialist Party and had some presence on the left in the 1970s and early 1980s but had become far less vibrant with what seemed mostly a paper membership in recent decades.

What has been most impressive about DSA in the last year is not just people symbolically signing up and paying membership dues, but the active expansion of new chapters in towns and cities across the country. Partly the organization benefitted from allying with the Bernie Sanders movement during 2016 but also continued membership and chapter growth post-election as people looked for a group to do work within during the Trump resistance period (a grouping where I would put myself).

In New York City, this has meant the expansion of new working groups and chapters outside its traditional meetings in Brooklyn, the largest being a new chapter for “Uptown Manhattan and the Bronx,” which has now held four monthly membership meetings.

Multi-Issue, Multi-Racial Organizing as a Goal

The meeting I attended this past Wednesday reflected smart, energetic organizing with roughly 100 people packed into a room in the Bronx. The folks running the meeting had the right mix of taking the enterprise seriously while not taking themselves too seriously, with much of the focus on introducing the organization as well as the campaigns DSA members were working on throughout the city. The list was impressive, including support for striking workers, work to close Rikers Island, supporting the Climate Change March, working to build immigrant rights solidarity in neighborhoods against ICE raids, and other issue work on housing, socialist feminism, electoral work and political education.

While much of that DSA action is by nature working with and through already existing groups focused on those issues, the point of a shared organization that can identify key events and organizations to work with for those committed already to multi-issue work is an obvious service. The political education and discussion groups are also there to deepen the “why act” and provide discussions of strategy that many left activists are obviously thirsty to engage with.

More importantly, DSA argues that working on multiple issues, especially those impacting communities of color, is the first step in building a more effective multi-racial organization. In its most recent 2016 strategy document, DSA is quite honest in admitting it has been made up disproportionately of “white (particularly male) activists” so it makes it a priority to build “deeper ties with organizations representing poor and working-class women and people of color, and by devoting significant organizational resources to educating our members about the importance of anti-racist organizing.”

Building Socialism and Organizing Alliances

DSA seems relatively light on the impulse to project socialist propaganda onto the groups and individuals they work with outside the organization, but obviously sees this engagement in diverse communities as the best way to recruit new members to the organization and promote socialist politics in an ideally increasingly multi-racial organization through that engagement. Still, it’s a healthy position that the organization argues “DSA’s role in building progressive social movements is essential to our work; regardless of what we gain as an organization from this work, it is an end in itself.”

However, the meeting I attended did emphasize membership recruitment, both thinking about how to have new people sign up but also how to mobilize the paper membership to do more, whether through one-on-one meetings with designated “mobilizers” or through hosting political education get-togethers in local homes throughout the City. The aspiration to membership growth goes hand-in-hand with a serious hope of eventually building up the critical mass of socialist-oriented activists where “we can talk seriously about the transition to democratic socialism through reforms that fundamentally undermine the power of the capitalist system.”

DSA argues that working on multiple issues, especially those impacting communities of color, is the first step in building a more effective multi-racial organization.

If there is anything missing in DSA’s official strategy document and in the discussions of goals at the meeting I attended (although it was just one meeting), it’s the role DSA could hope to play in what could be called “popular front” facilitation. Progressives build endless coalitions but few that really develop long-term alliances that can execute multi-year strategies, especially strategies that extend beyond single issues. Most organizational alliances today are based on foundation-funder pressures/demands more than organically determined strategy pushed by mass memberships.

But back in the 1980s, Irving Howe, one of the founders of the DSA-aligned Dissent magazine, advocated in his book Socialism and America reviving 1930s-style “Popular Front” alliances, minus the sometimes anti-democratic role of the Communist Party, where leftists and more liberal groups would come together to promote longer-term strategies for social change. Precisely because DSA is building a large membership working in multiple issue areas and with multiple organizations, it can aspire as it grows to help push progressive organizations to work more closely together, not based on controlling the purse strings as foundations do but by having critical masses of members and activists doing so from within multiple groups. And to the extent that progressive organizational leaders come to share membership in DSA or have sympathies with its politics, DSA could help promote those kinds of strategic discussions, both among local organizations where chapters are located and among national leaders where possible.

A Few Quibbles With the Branch Meeting

If I had a criticism of the DSA branch meeting, it was the attempt to insert an educational speaker in the middle of the organizing meeting, in this case a talk on environmental justice and socialism. While I understand the goal of keeping a focus on ideas in the middle of the “business” of the meeting, it’s hard to do a talk at a general meeting that is not either too basic for some experienced folks or too esoteric for others. I generally think left education is better done at separate meetings or possibly as an optional add-on once the business part of the meeting is done. And I do think formal debates, where the focus is on active intellectual or strategic differences is more engaging for such a meeting than a stand-alone single speaker in general.

I’d rather have seen that time used for breakout sessions to plan specific work, since, while there were signup sheets for all the different chapter work announced, I’m a great believer in having anyone showing up at a meeting leave with a specific task to do. There could easily be short work sessions built around some of the issue working groups or around even more local neighborhood focused outreach. Including all of the Bronx and Northern Manhattan in a single branch still means it’s covering over two million people, so eventually, if successful, the branch will need to break up into multiple, even more local chapters. I had to travel 40 minutes on multiple trains to get to this meeting, so I look forward to when there is a Washington Heights chapter only a quick bike ride away from my own home.

Looking Towards the Future

But those small quibbles aside, the meeting was vibrant with lots of different people taking leadership roles and clear energy to get things done. And even better, the meeting ended with everyone migrating to another room with music and a free bar where people could drink and talk.

It is no small thing to have a membership organization of 20,000 avowed democratic socialists growing rapidly across the country. If it can grow another order of magnitude and better expand its internal racial diversity, DSA could easily become one of the key organizational vehicles where activists across the country can debate key issues and promote a shared strategy for radical change.

I had originally hoped that the Sanders campaign would build that vehicle, thinking DSA’s day had passed, but DSA smartly took advantage of the Sanders upsurge to revitalize itself. And with the Sanders-created “Our Revolution” organization lacking internal democratic structures, DSA has ended up the only national structure where individual activists actually can have a voice and a vote for leadership in a large socialist-oriented organization along the line of Sanders-style politics - with a bit more recognition than Sanders himself that anti-racism politics must be a more central part of any socialist-oriented platform.

That individual vote by members controlling the organization is no small thing. There really are very few multi-issue national organizations, socialist or not, working on such a wide variety of issues where the leadership is elected by the membership. Labor unions do this to a certain extent but you can’t walk off the street and join if there isn’t one in your workplace – that lack being a sad reality for most of the population. There are a few venerable organizations like the NAACP and the Sierra Club with real membership and an elected board of directors, but national, membership-controlled organizations are surprisingly scarce on the progressive landscape. So DSA being a place where anyone can pay their dues and have a vote on its leadership and its organizational direction gives it a mostly unique role in the current progressive array of national organizations.

More than 116 years after Eugene Debs founded the Socialist Party of America, the future of socialism in the US may be reemerging from its lineal descendant. It’s early and DSA self-admittedly needs to grow significantly both in numbers and diversity to warrant that hope fully, but it seems to be making the right decisions and engaging activists in the right ways to make that role a real possibility.

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