DSA National Convention 25,000 and Counting

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“We will not achieve a democratic socialist society in the immediate future. We will not uproot sexism, nor will we achieve a full employment economy. Neither will we experience the creation of a viable black “nation within a nation.” What we all can dare hope for, and work for, are the beginnings of the process of change, Gramsci’s “war of position,” which will advance the material and social interests of the oppressed of all ethnic groups, sexes, races and cultures. We can change the world, only if we find the courage to challenge ourselves. We can change the world, only if we begin to overturn the patterns of our own history.” Manning Marable, 1981

”The challenge that faces the Left in the future – if it is to have a future – is to base itself on the knowledge of what collective action by human beings can mean, rather than on faith in the infallibility of either its dogma or its leaders. If I were allowed just one piece of advice to give a new generation as to how to sustain a life-long commitment, I would suggest the cultivation of those two essential virtues of a revolutionary, patience and irony.” Dorothy Healy, 1990

DSA’s phenomenal growth – from 6,000 to 25,000 in less than a year – was registered at the just concluded National Convention in Chicago. Over 700 Delegates took part in debates and discussions, August 5-7, that led to political resolutions and bylaw changes reflecting the perspectives of those newly joined. And it is not just membership growth – it is growth in political credibility and influence, growth as part of something much bigger. A sign of the seriousness of the change may be noted by the fact that there was no large outreach event with well-known speakers – a staple of past Conventions. The reason is, in part, because there was no need as DSA’s Convention was a public event in and of itself.

But rapid growth is no guarantee of long-term success and stability. SDS is the obvious example of an organization that experienced a massive increase in members at a pace that it could not assimilate and so soon collapsed in division and acrimony leaving a vacuum that was left unfilled. Other organizations suffered a similar fate, notably SNCC, the Black Panther Party, La Raza Unida. Drawing a slightly longer arc of rise and decline, we can note the same phenomena with the pre-World War 1 Socialist Party, with the Communist Party during the New Deal era – both of which faced repression shortly after reaching a peak of influence followed by losses from which neither ever fully recovered. Repression, however, is never the only, or even most significant, reason for decline or collapse. We live in a repressive system; a challenge to its power is bound to result in reaction. Rather more fundamental is finding a way to function politically on a larger stage of society, of maintaining and solidifying roots within working-class communities, acting within society’s institutions while maintaining a radical politics that contests for power. It is the challenge inherent in asserting what Michael Harrington referred to as “the left-wing of the possible,” bearing in mind that defining left-wing and ascertaining what is possible is never something fixed and is always subject to debate.

Certainly, the notion of the left and the sense of what is possible have been radicalized – as seen by Convention resolutions some of which speak to continuity with the past and some of which speak to substantive change. Examining Convention resolutions from the standpoint of what went before, can give a clue whether DSA will continue its growth in membership and influence.

Resolutions

Medicare for all – DSA reaffirmed a position supported by a majority who responded to a pre-Convention national survey by making a commitment to prioritize the demand: Medicare for All – with the specific inclusion of full access to women’s reproductive rights and to meet the needs of transgendered people. This reflected continuity; DSA had played a major role in organizing for single payer during the Clinton Administration health care debates and in the immediate aftermath of that initiative’s defeat. It was a commitment that grew out of traditional socialist values; failure to establish a national health care system in the aftermath of World War II was amongst the early signs that the forward progress of New Deal legislation had stopped – thereafter, support for national health remained a goal for progressives and labor. It also grew out of the role of socialist feminism in DSA for focus on health was not simply as a matter of national legislation, but was also about organizing to create women’s health centers, to defend abortion clinics, to act in solidarity with AIDS activists.

Yet, over time, the potential of the early 90s was lost. A divide grew within the social justice movement (mirrored in DSA) between local activism which dealt with the range of health justice issues in their immediate impact on individuals and advocates focused more on seeking an overall solution to the health care crisis. In consequence, left wing alternatives were politically marginalized despite having popular support, as was demonstrated during debates around Obama’s health reform proposals. The situation has now changed: the Republican attack on health care, in its very extremity, is emblematic of the dangers of the moment, the successful movement to defend Obama Care a sign of the possibilities if we act. At the same time, the demand for Health Care for all and defense of abortion rights draws a clear line of demarcation within the Democratic Party – and so enables DSA to put forward a distinctive independent perspective within the broader campaign, flowing naturally as a continuation of the politics around Sanders campaign.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) endorsement – in the midst of national and state legislative initiatives by both Republicans and Democrats to ban BDS compliance, this resolution came at a politically important time. In the past, defining a position around Israel and the Palestinians was a point of internal division, including during the negotiations between Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement that led to the formation of DSA. The fact that the BDS resolution passed overwhelmingly is a sign of how much the organization has changed, and a sign of how much the political environment has changed. Israel’s repressive policies toward the Palestinians has become ever harsher and less constrained, while Israeli use of its “counter-terrorism” expertise to train and supply US police departments has made the domestic connection all the sharper.

The challenge for DSA is to concretize awareness of that connection into more general opposition to US overseas policy. Solidarity with Palestinians – and others who suffer from US-backed military power – is also a means of defending civil liberties at home, and a critical part any meaningful program to redirect resources away from war and toward meeting domestic needs. If the purpose of the statement was simply to establish a litmus test of radicalism, it will have no political meaning. If, however, it is integrated with DSA’s overall work and serve as a challenge to what was arguably the weakest aspect of Sanders campaign it will prove significant. That is the challenge still to be met.

Withdrawal from the Socialist International – The question to remain a member (observer) or withdraw was debated in locals throughout DSA in the months before the Convention. The level of interest on this was due to DSA’s longstanding SI membership, going back to the Socialist Party’s origins. Membership had been internally challenged in the past due to the SI’s anti-communism, complicity in the Cold War, and unambiguous support for Israel. But at the same time, positive reasons existed to remain. DSA served as a counterpoint to the late unlamented SDUSA (Social Democrats USA) another SI affiliate with Socialist Party roots. With close ties to the George Meany and Lane Kirkland leaderships of the AFL-CIO, SDUSA argued that their support for the war in Vietnam, the subversion of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and CIA inspired coups there and elsewhere had the support of US workers and socialists; a position DSA always contested. Furthermore, Michael Manley in Jamaica, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, were amongst several Third World leaders active in the SI as a vehicle to build support for progressive development policies (concretized in the Brandt-Manley Report). And finally, around the time of DSA’s formation, SI affiliates in Spain, Greece, just emerging from dictatorships, were developing policies that went beyond the limits of traditional Social Democracy. SI Women, in particular played an important role in advancing global women’s rights and DSA was part of that work.

But the moment passed, the parties of the Second International embraced wholeheartedly the politics of neoliberalism identified with Tony Blair in the UK, moving away from traditional support for universal social insurance and full employment. SI parties have given up the pretense of being parts of political movement, concerned instead with office holding and little else. So DSA’s membership had become an anachronism. What is lacking, however, is a clear sense of what a meaningful international policy might look like. Rather than identifying with the specificity of any single stream of left thinking abroad, DSA needs to find a way to develop more formal ties with the European Left Party, the Sao Paulo Forum in Latin America and other regional/global left bodies which in their respective attempts to build unity while embracing ideological heterogeneity are more akin to DSA’s multi-tendency nature.

Afro-Socialist Caucus formed and Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda endorsed – no weakness has proved to be a more critical in inhibiting DSA’s growth than its weakness in black, Latino and Asian communities. In particular, the lack of a base of African American members has undermined any attempt to root DSA amongst working people, given the centrality of racism and slavery to the development of US capitalism and to the formation of the working class. The creation of the Afro-Socialist Caucus is a hopeful sign that with the new spurt of membership, the possibility of overcoming that weakness may be at hand. The endorsement of the Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda, the support for reparations, the call for an end to mass incarceration, for prison abolition speaks to the understanding that change will not happen of itself. DSA’s program around universal demands for social and economic justice must be joined to demands that address the specific needs of dispossessed communities.

More though is required. An Afro-American Commission was established at DSA’s formation, together with the Asian-Pacific American, Latino and Native American Commissions, which jointly put out a journal, Third World Socialists. A small core of African-American activists (including Cornel West), together with the Anti-Racism Commission spurred the internal push within DSA to participate in the Rainbow Coalition and to support Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Yet although some outstanding local and national leaders continued to play a role in DSA’s organizational life, identified themselves with or joined DSA, DSA never came close to being sufficiently multi-racial in its membership or activist core. Part of the reason is that program and coalition building is insufficient – DSA must become more rooted in communities and workplaces if it is to develop an internal life that reflects the working-class in its full diversity. The steps taken in Chicago point in a positive direction; much more needs to be done.

Democratic Socialist Labor Commission created – The creation of the DSLC was the product of the initiative of mainly younger labor activists. As always, the challenge has been to engage in several arenas simultaneously: – to defend unions from attacks by business and government; to democratize unions and strengthen membership participation; to support development of a union agenda that connects workplace bargaining with a wider social justice agenda. Potential tensions exist in every aspect of doing so, because emphasis on one arena may come in conflict with emphasis on another arena. DSA’s success or failure in doing all three will go a long way toward informing how successful DSA is in its work overall.

Here too, a good deal can be learned from the experience of DSA’s Labor Commission in the 1980- 90s. The organization played a significant part in Central America/South Africa solidarity fights, in union reform movements including those of the Steelworkers and Teamsters, developed wide ranging strike support networks and took part in efforts within labor to develop progressive industrial policy with a focus on conversion from military to infrastructure production. DSA labor activism was part of the discontent that came to a head with John Sweeney’s successful reform candidacy for AFL-CIO President in 1995. The results were mixed: the AFL-CIO did change and change for the better – but the changes did not go far enough. The “organizing model of unionism” became dominant and while it opened up some pathways to activism, it closed others – especially as it evolved to be ever more staff-driven. Lack of attention to the inner-life of union locals undermined the independent base of the labor left. The half-victory, half defeat outcome made DSA’s future role unclear. The DSLC represents a positive step toward a new beginning. Future success will depend on remembering that networks of left union activists cannot replace those networks being fully a part of union life; without membership roots in workplaces, gains made will be fleeting.

What next?

Discussion took place at the Convention around other areas of engagement – immigrant rights, environmental justice, gentrification, and student debt amongst them. The socialist feminist commission with a national framework and local committees has been building a network to both change DSA’s internal dynamics and public program. Education and training programs to develop skills and understanding took place at the Convention – and are slated to continue. For all that DSA has changed with growth that is consistent – members work on national priorities, but locals develop their own focus based on assessment of local conditions. Doing so is a strength and, at the moment, crucial to build a sense of stability and trust.

But the big question that has yet to be defined has to do with electoral strategy. Over the past several months DSA has formed an electoral committee that has been engaged in supporting candidates – either DSA members or progressives open about DSA’s endorsement. Most of these have been running in Democratic primaries, challenging incumbent Democrats, and in that sense have been acting in a manner consistent with Our Revolution and other formations connected with of Sanders’ presidential campaigns – working to build an anti-corporate majority within the Democratic Party. This is in line with DSA’s orientation since its origins; nonetheless divisions exist as they always have between those who seek political realignment and a mass progressive movement through the Democratic Party, those who see progress as possible only through electoral action independent of the Democratic Party, and those who want to emphasis social movement activism over and above electoral work.

Though by no means co-extensive, these reflect underlying strategic differences. One approach is toward building coalitions – this was the traditional approach laid out by Michael Harrington in “Toward a Democratic Left”, and has the strength of seeking points of common ground across a wide spectrum of viewpoints. It has, however, the weakness of creating stop points which allows one perspective or another to be dropped for the “good” of the whole. Another perspective privileges independence: setting out a demand or group of demands and defining support or opposition to that as the basis of alliance. It is a perspective that allows for a clear enunciation of principles – “Medicare for All,” “No Concessions” – but suffers by drawing too sharp a line against potential allies. And both outlooks also tend to inhibit local action for fear in the one instance of disrupting a coalition, or in the other, of weakening the clear position being articulated. A third approach tends to favor local activism in which a variety of perspectives and approaches reinforce each other in a program that doesn’t require full agreement on any one point. The collective becomes the glue that might work with a union in one spot, a housing group in another, and local elected officials in a third. This allows maximum flexibility and integration in local movements, but it is typically unable to develop a sustained program able to overcome limitations or unpalatable compromises of local political power.

There is no iron wall between these and, at best, they are mutually reinforcing. When made absolute, however, they undermine each other. With growth comes greater visibility and influence – which makes maintaining this multiplicity of approaches all the more important and all the more difficult. It is a difficulty that will intensify over the coming years particularly as elections approach where the need to declare and engage will only grow. The divides over these perspectives are by no means generational – rather they reflect the imbalance of power between popular movements and the ruling circles of society and so constantly re-emerge and have to be constantly re-evaluated.

But a generational divide does exist in DSA and that has to do with a change of internal culture and language – smaller organizations with long histories develop informal procedures and a level of trust even within disagreement that comes out of people knowing each other. Newer members don’t participate in that, but have their own networks, their own modes of communication, their own frames of reference – and so between the two a lack of mutual understanding can emerge. The ability of DSA to build upon its successful conclusion, to resolve controversial questions, depends on being able to overcome that gap.

And that, in turn, depends upon using a broader measure to gauge internal divides. Such a measure would look at ideas and movements from outside DSA’s ranks that can help center internal discussion. From all accounts, this was somewhat lacking at the Convention. The focus on ideas generated from within is, of course, the whole purpose of a national convention and that purpose gains added meaning when rapid growth means finding new ways to cohere. Nonetheless, a more expansive view can sometimes help find a path forward when disagreement seems to block all roads. And here, it might be useful to look at the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina led by Rev. William Barber II for the concept of a “moral, fusion coalition,” which, in essence, provides a framework that can bring together the various lines of divide expressed within DSA, strengthening unity in difference in the direction of social justice.

Establishing Roots

“The original idea of feminism as I first encountered it, in about 1969, was twofold: that nothing short of equality will do and that in a society marred by injustice and cruelty, equality will never be good enough.” Barbara Ehrenreich, 1986

“Worker rights mean civil rights, minority rights, women’s rights outside in our work-a-day world and inside in our workplace world. Worker rights mean economic rights on the job and in the community. Worker rights mean jobs with justice.” William Winpisinger, 1983

And this returns us to our beginning. One reason for the rapid rise and fall of US left organizations has been lack of roots. When a movement or organization has such, it is able to survive repression, defeat and political mistakes, because its members are known for who they are by neighbors and co-workers. Moreover, political decisions and actions taken with reference to a community give context to organizational initiatives otherwise absent. Any group can make decisions based on sitting around and discussing it – it takes on a whole different dimension when that discussion goes back to thinking what people in a given neighborhood, school or place of employment think. DSA’s new membership clearly is part of the broader stratum of the population emboldened by Sanders, angered by Trump, political positions and decisions which reflect a relationship to that community – a genuine strength. But, by the same token, the new membership does not, for the most part, come to socialism after participation in a strike, or because of a defeated organizing drive, or after going through an eviction. That too was evident in how issues were discussed and how decisions were made – this is a weakness that must be overcome to reinforce the source of strength.

To underscore that point, it is critical to keep in mind the reasons for DSA’s growth. The obvious answer, Sanders/Trump doesn’t say much – for the next question is why they had such impact in 2015-2016. Behind the upheavals during the elections lies something deeper – the general crisis in a system no longer able to paper over the lack of solutions for capital as Reagan did in one form in the 1980s and Bill Clinton did in another form in the 1990s. The ongoing war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, the revelation of government incapacity, environmental crisis and the human face of racist induced poverty revealed by Katrina and then the 2008 financial collapse are the outward signs of a system incapable of solving its own problems, let alone addressing (even inadequately) public need. This crisis is the cause of political instability in the US and abroad, it is an instability that will only be addressed by transformational politics, by a socialism that challenges existing power. If DSA is able to remain focused on that crisis and its manifestation in racist violence, mass insecurity, inequality, and a society wide sense of loss of hope, it ought to be able to consolidate its strength, build strong locals engaged in numerous arenas, maintain an open, self-critical spirit. In other words, be part of the needed response to a country drifting toward barbarism. The Convention was a step toward that end – the future will tell where further steps will lie.

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In conversation Stansbury Forum co-editor Peter Olney asked the following questions:

1. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? In other words is there unity of action for the 25,000 that can impact society?

2. You mention the lack of experience in “running a strike” etc. Should the DSA privilege or encourage such experience as we did in the 70’s?

Kurt:
Hi Peter – and thanks for wanting to run the article. Your first question is the cardinal one and I really don’t have an answer yet. But my tentative answer at the moment is no the whole is not yet greater than the sum of its part. The potential is there, but whether it is realized or not is another matter. Part of the problem is an old one – people think that they have an answer because growth seems constant, yet they are riding a wave without realizing it. And with that comes a narrow focus that sees victory in the size of an action rather than in whether it moved the process forward. DSA was very much part of the action at Charlottseville, if I was 40 years younger I would have wanted to join them – but still nobody is asking the question of whether the counter protests could have been better organized, with a more massive turnout. I don’t have an answer, what is bothersome is not asking the question. That said, the jury is still out; people are streaming into DSA who are serious, dedicated, looking for a way forward – I just hope our leadership is up to the task. Part of the challenge is for those of us who have been around to not be impatient – remembering how out of touch older radicals once seemed to us. I always recall the Phil Ochs line, “I know you were younger once, because you sure are older now,” and am determined not to fall into that trap (Dorothy, by the way, was incredible in that respect for she had one other necessary quality in a revolutionary: she knew how to listen.

As to your second question – it is amazing to me how little people coming into DSA know about unions – which is really a reflection of how much unions have declined in size and influence. In DC, and I don’t say this critically, we have a number of people in federal jobs, in a union for the first time, who have no context in which to put their union activity. But the other side of the problem is that so many people in union leadership these days have never worked in industry or for an employer other than on campus or for the movement. Unlike our generation that felt a necessity to “join the working-class,” this just isn’t part of the consciousness. One of my favorite Winpisinger anecdotes was his explaining that in a proposed labor-management industrial planning board he inserted the provision that the union reps should have “hand on production experience.” That way, he explained, Kirkland (then President of the AFL-CIO) couldn’t serve. His fundamental point – union leaders should come from the rank-and-file. It will take a long struggle for the labor movement to regain that understanding.

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About the author

Kurt Stand

Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project.

View all posts by Kurt Stand →

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