- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
This weekend’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention in Chicago might not have the exultant spirit of the last few.
After heady years moving from obscurity to political relevance, socialism in the United States has hit roadblocks. Debates are growing about the efficacy of self-described national elected officials like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), DSA is reporting declining memberships and, for the first time in nearly a decade, the organization won’t have Bernie Sanders helping it out on presidential debate stages.
In an editorial last year, I called this “a Left in purgatory,” large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country — and a subculture for thousands of activists — but far too powerless to carry out its political program.
However, there are still important victories being won under the socialist banner. DSA chapters across the country are involved in struggles for higher minimum wages, tenant rights, climate justice, abortion rights, and labor solidarity. Dozens of elected officials, including state legislators, articulate a politics that aims to not just tame but overcome capitalism.
A relevant socialist organization in the United States is nothing to take for granted. The Democratic Socialists of America has grown tenfold in eight years, and it remains the most significant hub for left-wing activism in the country.
What happens, then, at this weekend’s convention matters for far more people than the delegates in attendance. That’s why I recently led a roundtable of several candidates for and representatives on DSA’s national political committee (NPC).
We focused on key questions confronting the organization: oversight of endorsed electeds, whether its loose membership model needs reform, and orientation to the labor movement. Candidates and outgoing NPC members from Marxist Unity Group (Rashad X), Reform and Revolution (Philip Locker), Bread and Roses (Sofia Guimarães Cutler), Socialist Majority (Renée Paradis), and North Star (Alexander Hernandez) all took part.
Boston DSA recently moved to expel Massachusetts state representative Mike Connolly. Without getting into the details of the episode, it brought up a lot of questions about the relationship DSA should have with its elected officials.
Do you think there needs to be stricter criteria for endorsements, or do you think we need to more closely discipline or coordinate our electeds?
We need our electeds to be tribunes of the socialist movement rather than insiders playing ball with their “colleagues.” Discipline, like expelling or censuring someone, can sometimes be necessary, but I don’t think that should be our focus.
Instead, we need to work on building and reorienting our electoral work to support and encourage our representatives to be better class warriors. This means candidates who identify as democratic socialists (especially in their literature and speeches, not just on Twitter), sharing several key core policy principles (such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal), coordinating in office with other socialists and with the organization, using their offices to promote a different vision of society and help their constituents learn how to organize themselves.
Homegrown candidates can be the best — they are already loyal socialists, not people who came into politics a different way that we hope to coax along. And it is crucial that we run candidates who are organic leaders of working-class struggles. Their campaigns can be seen as an extension of the non-electoral fights they’re involved in.
Last, it’s important that in our electoral work we present our candidates as distinct from Democratic Party progressives. We want them to be accountable to a working-class movement that coordinates together. Building this organizational identity through our electoral efforts is a necessary part of building DSA into a more party-like organization.
Rashad would like the organization to go further.
DSA needs to coordinate more closely with elected officials in a way that is rooted in accountability. Accountability, as practiced within transformative justice spaces specifically, is rooted in a two-way relationship built on a mutual obligation to each other, with consequences if either party breaks their democratic agreement.
Concretely, this means three things. First, setting proper boundaries from the beginning by outlining commitments DSA expects electeds to make to the organization — which must include not voting for legislation contrary to our democratically decided platform. Second, building the capacity to become the organization that is primarily attributed for getting candidates we back elected, through financial and people resources. And finally, laying out a clear range of consequences for breaking agreed-upon commitments — from political education for a miscalculation to unendorsement for continued failure to advance the platform adequately.
Does DSA today have the power to credibly carry out that threat?
DSA should also prepare to build popular power among the constituencies of uncooperative electeds to unendorse them, with an orientation toward being able to replace them at the ballot box rather than just communicating our displeasure. We can do this by building popular support for our platform first and then mobilizing voters to support it through the election, with the understanding that the candidate acts only as a vehicle. If the candidate fails to advance or, worse, actively undermines the platform in words or deeds, we bring in the community to use the power of worker voters to hold them accountable.
The perspective of North Star as a caucus is very different.
Far from stricter, I think endorsement criteria can be more flexible. I would also like to see more of what some call “paper endorsements” in crucial races where in the past we remained silent. The case that comes to mind is the closely contested congressional race where an insurgent Texas Latina came under three hundred votes from unseating the last pro-life Democrat in the House. Our criticisms of conservative Democrats rings hollow when we abdicate primary terrains of struggle.
I think chapters are doing excellent work electing folks to office, learning how to run campaigns, and starting Socialists in Office committees. I particularly love what I see in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pinellas [Florida]. I want to see more of what works and give chapters room for experimentation at the local level.
At every level, we need to bring our elected members into the discussion of what a democratic socialist bloc will look like. Particularly at the federal level, their input will be critical in developing a national Socialists in Office system and strategy that can gain our ideas majority support.
Should DSA endorse candidates who aren’t self-described socialists?
Our electoral priority should be developing a cadre of activists who we can run as committed representatives of DSA — candidates who will champion the organization, run as open socialists in opposition to the Democratic establishment, and are committed to being democratically accountable to us.
However, we also need to maintain the tactical flexibility to endorse left-wing candidates who are not part of DSA or not even socialists. It would have been self-defeating to refuse to endorse Bernie Sanders because he was not a member of DSA. The same applies in some cases to candidates who are not running as socialists but are presenting a radical working-class or left-wing agenda.
I think it would be sectarian for DSA to abstain from a battle to elect Ilhan Omar or Nina Turner because they are not socialists. But when endorsing candidates like this it is important that DSA has its own political message and material, making its own socialist case for why to vote for them and linking it to the case for socialism and joining DSA.
Almost never. I’m always careful around absolutes; if there’s a small Southern chapter running a school board election where the candidate for the deciding vote that will guarantee the safety of trans kids in that school district won’t use “the S word,” and they could really use national support, I would have a hard time voting against that national endorsement. But in almost every circumstance, candidates should be comfortable calling themselves democratic socialists.
In NYC-DSA we used to joke, “What, you don’t want to be associated with the most popular elected official in America, Bernie Sanders?” Most of our electoral successes to date have been in heavily Democratic states or cities; there’s no reason that someone running for office in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] or Silver Lake [Los Angeles] or Logan Square [Chicago] who wants to be endorsed by DSA shouldn’t be required to call themselves a democratic socialist to receive our endorsement.
That said, I do think we need to figure out how to, short of endorsement, show solidarity with candidates supported by a working-class base in key moments. For example, the mayor’s race in Los Angeles, pitting former Venceremos Brigade member Karen Bass against Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer and former Republican who switched parties to run as a Democrat. DSA-LA’s voter guide, which it releases each election, unequivocally recommended a vote for Bass: “At the end of the day, there are two viable choices for mayor in the General: a literal billionaire or a status-quo politician who once was able to run with grassroots organizers but has since turned towards the establishment out of fear of job security. Vote for Bass and get involved with DSA-LA’s campaigns and priorities to shift LA’s status quo.” I think messages like these — vote for an imperfect candidate to stave off disaster, but also join us in pushing further — are exactly on point.
Should DSA adopt a stricter membership model? If so, what should that look like in practice?
Absolutely not! The stricter models devolve into sects if they are not sects already. I want DSA to fulfill its potential of becoming a mass organization and not a cult.
DSA founder and lifelong communist Dorothy Healey put it best:
DSA is the only one that I know of that doesn’t try to have that ‘papal infallibility,’ that doesn’t try to say we have the only line — we have the monopoly on wisdom; if you’re not with us, you’re automatically in the wilderness. So that potentially, what DSA represents, if ever realized, can be enormously exciting and important in the country.
We are really only getting started. This struggle we are taking on is a lifelong one. Let’s not mess this up.
In both my rhetoric and practice, I consistently center the role of accountability rather than discipline. This situation is no different. A stricter membership model would mean centering the role of discipline because it can be defined as demanding that rules concerning behavior are obeyed and observed. We should not be demanding things of each other as members because “demands” will not be met if the person on the other end isn’t internally motivated to follow the desired behaviors.
No. One of DSA’s greatest strengths is its semi-mass membership and its big-tent character.
At the same time, we should ramp up political education of DSA members in the basics of socialism and Marxism, as well as the history of the workers’ movement. An essential tool for member education, as well as building more political and organizational cohesion in DSA, is prioritizing far more the development of our own media — mass popular agitation as well as more member-orientated educational pieces. The convention will hopefully pass a resolution along these lines.
I guess more competition for Jacobin will inspire us to new heights. Renée and Sofia, will you join the consensus on the membership model?
In Socialist Majority, we believe the only viable path to socialism in the United States is through a majoritarian movement — it’s right there in the name.
I believe DSA needs to become a mass working-class organization in order to build socialist power; a stricter membership model, to me, is counterproductive to that goal. I think it’s also important to consider the long history of purges and splits on the Left and how destructive they’ve been to mass organizing.
To the extent that there’s a worry that we would face entryism from either our left or right, many chapters have instituted durational membership requirements for votes on chapter endorsement recommendations, for instance, that serve the purpose of defending our member democracy from bad actors. To the extent that people have underdeveloped politics when they enter the organization, we have and are developing more robust political education programs at the local and national level. And to the extent that we have “paper” members who don’t engage in the life of the organization, we can and should get better about organizing our members into our campaigns.
But if someone believes in democratic socialism and wants to pay us dues, we shouldn’t turn them down.
I agree. Our low bar to entry is what has allowed us to grow. And it creates an openness that I found appealing when I was new to politics. That said, we need more opportunities for political education so that members can grow as socialists and activists and understand how DSA and our campaigns fit into a long-term strategy for socialism.
How do you explain DSA’s decline in membership? To the extent any factors are subjective, how can we overcome them?
The end of Bernie’s 2020 campaign left us with less direction. Bernie was our phantom leader and made socialism a topic of conversation across the country. Now with Bernie’s run over and his move toward a less independent stance from the Democratic Party establishment, it’s been hard for the socialist movement to use his coattails to grow. I also think we haven’t been able to produce strong national leadership in his absence.
We need another Bernie-like figure, or ideally figures, but one who is a spokesperson specifically for DSA. Basically what Michael Harrington did, but with different politics. Our leaders could be traveling across the country giving speeches and publicizing who we are and sharing our analysis with the world. This is why I’m very excited to support full-time paid political leadership in DSA.
I have debriefed with former leaders about their departures from DSA, from a former leader of a midsize major city chapter after the fallout from the Iron Dome vote to a cochair of a small chapter in a working-class suburb after the rail vote. Had DSA retained these two leaders, for example, these chapters could have continued their momentum on the membership renewal or recruitment work they were already leading.
In my experience, these two examples are hardly outliers. To stop bleeding leaders and members, we need to put politics in command.
My primary explanation of DSA’s membership decline is structural. DSA’s exponential growth came out of the one-two punch of the Bernie 2016 campaign and [Donald] Trump’s victory. With the defeat of both the Bernie and Trump 2020 campaigns, many on the Left were demobilized, not just DSA members; anecdotally, organizers and activists in other groups in the Bay Area that I’ve spoken with have seen the same decline in activity, while nationally grassroots funding is down across the board. Justice Democrats has had to lay off nearly half of its staff as a result of a budget crunch; “It’s no secret that Democratic and progressive organizations like us are in a difficult fundraising environment right now,” said its executive director.
Bernie’s loss was followed almost immediately by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made organizing in DSA a series of enervating Zoom calls and brought all of us more online. Going to a meeting in person with other socialists and then hanging out afterward is simply a better time than sitting on Zoom for an hour alone in your room.
I also think the pandemic has reordered our lives, in terms of how we live inside and outside our homes, in ways we haven’t really begun to appreciate or reckon with. DSA Twitter has always been a cantankerous and sometimes terrible place, but the quarantine — and our inability to be in community in person with other members for a long time — has exacerbated that tendency.
But I resist the impulse to blame politics: it’s true there are people who quit because of the [Jamaal] Bowman controversy, but there are also people who quit because of the Ukraine statement controversy. I know people who have quit because they found DSA a tough place to organize for mass politics without facing accusations of opportunism or worse; they didn’t tweet about it when they left.
DSA grew as a big-tent democratic socialist organization engaged in electoral politics; turning our backs on the successes of the pre-2020 years is categorically not the magic bullet to regrow our membership. Instead, we need to engage in basic membership retention and growth projects like the recommitment drive and automated dues reminders, and deliberate recruitment of working-class leaders from the labor movement and other partners in our work, particularly women of color. We also need to do work that people feel matters to gain and retain members.
To my knowledge, the day AOC won her primary is still our biggest day of membership gains; when we’re thinking about how to recruit, doing strong external campaign work is an essential part of that process.
What should be the key organizing priorities of DSA domestically? Does DSA have a core program today?
We must see the principal enemy clearly: right-wing patriarchal Christian nationalists — not our DSA comrades in struggle, the various caucuses, or progressive elected officials, whether we agree on every point or not.
Defeating right-wing fascists on the verge of entrenching themselves in power for generations is key and everything else secondary. We do not have a core program, but that’s ok. Programs and platforms are for parties. We are still working on becoming a mass socialist organization. We do have priorities. If I’m elected, it will be my goal to keep our focus on the real enemy, not internal caucus conflict.
The key organizing priorities of DSA should be strengthening our class-struggle, party-building electoral work, building the labor movement through rank-and-file organizing and labor solidarity, running class-struggle legislative and nonlegislative campaigns that build the power of ordinary working people to fight against the ruling class and their parties, and political education efforts to build our members into strong organizers and tribunes for socialist politics.
We would also benefit from a clearer program. Our platform is probably too long, listing a wide range of demands from the most maximal to the most minimal. While they are all mostly values socialists should fight for, it can’t function as a core program to agitate working people around. Instead, we should have something, in addition to our longer platform document, that can function in this way, similar to our DSA for Bernie 2020 platform that was a concise minimum program for democratic socialist demands that presented a coherent alternative vision for society. That platform included: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, Good Jobs for All, Education for All, Housing for All, Equality for All, Ending US Wars, and Ending Anti-Worker Trade Deals.
Delegates to the upcoming DSA Convention should seize the opportunity to elect a new left-wing national leadership that will change DSA’s course. DSA needs to stand out as an independent socialist force opposed to both the right-wing Republicans and the Wall Street Democrats.
We also need to develop national action campaigns that can bring together our different chapters and resources into common struggles to have the biggest impact on the political situation and stand out as a pole of attraction for workers and marginalized communities looking to fight back. Key priorities, in my view, are 1) deepening our work to help rebuild the labor movement, building rank-and-file opposition caucuses within unions to replace the entrenched bureaucracy; 2) resisting the right-wing attacks on trans and reproductive rights; and 3) the 2024 elections.
In the 2024 elections, we need a profile as a working-class force resisting Republicans distinct from liberal and progressive Democrats. That means organizing protests in the streets against the Right and running open socialists (regardless of their ballot line) on a fighting program of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, abolishing ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], closing down the US war machine, and taxing the rich.
Should DSA endorse [Joe] Biden in a potential run against Trump or another Republican candidate in 2024?
We don’t have to endorse Biden to take an unequivocal stance against right-wing patriarchal Christian nationalism. That means a defeat-Trump (or whomever) campaign. We cannot, like in 2020, put our heads in the sand and ignore the political question in front of hundreds of millions. DSA must join with the anti-fascist forces that will be needed to defeat the right-wing threat in the immediate term. How this looks will depend on local conditions, but 2024 is going to be crucial. I am glad this convention is taking up questions around down-ballot elections, particularly school boards.
My home chapter in Hernando County, Florida, has been doing this head-on in a 64/36 Trump district. Supporting efforts of the local teachers’ union to get out the vote for school board races is an example. The stakes are simply too high to abstain and leave it to the Democrats — or for DSA to do it alone!
No. I dont think Biden has much to gain from our endorsement and we have far more to lose by muddying our own message. We need to articulate a different path forward from the neoliberal Democratic Party politics of Biden. Leftists and centrists are not on the same team.
I was disappointed to see AOC and Bernie immediately endorse Biden. I much preferred the approach of Rashida Tlaib, who did not endorse Biden in 2020 and focused on down-ballot endorsements, or the [United Auto Workers]’s new reform leadership that recently announced it would withhold an endorsement from Biden until he moved on key questions.
We may choose to recommend a tactical vote for Biden against the Right, but if we do, we need to be clear it is not a positive endorsement, that Biden is still an enemy of working people, and that the way to defeat the Right and the capitalist class is through building independent working-class power in the workplace, state, housing, campuses, and streets. This could look similar to Bernie’s messaging on [Bill] Clinton’s reelection in 1996 or [Barack] Obama in 2012, which recommended voting for those candidates while not mincing words in criticism.
I do not believe we should endorse Joe Biden; DSA endorsements should be reserved for candidates that are part of our socialist electoral project. As I mentioned above, however, I do think it’s worth thinking about ways to stand in solidarity with the significant share of the working class who would justifiably see Trump’s reelection as an existential threat. We need to have an accurate analysis of the current political moment; at this moment, a rising authoritarian right poses a threat to the Left and to the entire working class.
The main antagonists in our electoral work are mainstream Democrats whom we challenge in primaries, but the most significant threat to our project at the moment is from the far right.
I coauthored a proposal for DSA not to endorse Biden, which also asked our elected officials to not endorse him either. DSA has been damaged by its electeds being associated with Biden. The convention clearly announcing we will not be endorsing Biden would be an important step toward correcting this and beginning to present a more independent, combative profile.
We need our political independence to offer a real alternative to far-right Republicans by putting forward a clear working-class agenda. The reality of the majority of working people experiencing a fall in real wages under Biden has created fertile ground for Trump to demagogically present himself as a “change” candidate. Our ability to combat this and fight for a working-class agenda is severely compromised if we are associated with or, even worse, endorse Wall Street Democrats.
The most important way to fight Trump and the Republicans is to build mass movements in the streets and independent working-class power. I also believe it would make sense for DSA and DSA electeds to encourage voters in the minority of swing states to block Trump by tactically voting for Biden (with no political support or illusions).
In general, are you pleased with DSA’s international work and particularly how we’ve related, broadly, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Yes, I have been pleased with the international work within DSA from both the International Committee and the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions]/Palestinian Solidarity working group nationally, as well as from my local chapter steering committee.
The international committee has been the leading body in DSA following our platform commitment to de-escalate the US-led cold war on China by exposing legislation that appears to be pro-worker while increasing militarization near the Chinese border, for example. Additionally, our BDS/Palestine Solidarity working group has been advancing DSA’s tangible commitment to the BDS movement by helping create apartheid-free boycott zones.
On Ukraine, the Marxist Unity Group, the caucus I’m part of, and Reform & Revolution [of which Philip Locker is a member] united to draft a proposal that calls on its members elected to public office:
a) to reject any budget that allows the Pentagon to maintain its global war machine and includes military aid to US client-states; b) to vote against US weapons and military aid to the undemocratic capitalist Ukrainian government; c) organize solidarity for the right of self-determination of both the Ukrainian nation and the Russian speakers, as well as for minority rights in all of the regions; and d) to fight for a US withdrawal from NATO, closing US foreign military bases, and bringing home all US troops abroad.
In my experience, the issue of how DSA relates to crucial work around immigrants and refugees has largely been a secondary concern. The International Commission recently dissolved the Migrants and Refugees subcommittee. And consecutive NPCs have mostly ignored the Immigrants’ Rights Working Group.
On the Russian invasion, there has been one clear aggressor, and that’s the government of Vladimir Putin. The less-discussed statement by the national Immigrants’ Rights Working Group made that point clear.
Our international work has improved a lot, and we have built meaningful connections with left parties and movements around the world, organizing multiple successful delegations to various countries. I was fortunate to go on two delegations to Brazil. But I think in the name of anti-imperialism there can be a hesitancy to critique the US’s rising “great power” rivals, namely the Russian and Chinese states and ruling classes.
While I think people take this stance out of a desire to support anti-militarism in the face of the drums of war, we don’t want to provide ammo to the capitalist media to paint our organization as supporting Russian militarism or authoritarianism in Venezuela. We should not miss out on important opportunities like connecting with antiwar movements in Russia and Belarus that are fighting their governments’ illegal invasion of Ukraine. And we have so much to learn from democratic socialist parties around the world like PSOL [Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party] who are navigating similar dilemmas as DSA, though with a lot more experience under their belt.
DSA’s international work poses a paradox: undoubtedly, the most consequential thing we as socialists could do to reduce total human misery is to seize power of the United States and end its empire. Whether through blocking any effort to relieve the debt load of the Global South, funding and defending the apartheid state of Israel, maintaining punishing and inhumane sanctions regimes like those against Cuba, or waging a new cold war against China rather than figuring out ways to work together to address the increasingly existential climate crisis, US foreign policy is at least partially responsible for the immiseration of billions of people around the world.
At the same time, however, American voters care little about foreign policy except in a few limited circumstances. A significant cause of this lack of attention is the post-WWII project of isolating US foreign policy from public opinion and mass politics, but whatever its causes, it’s a circumstance we can’t ignore. There’s a deep perversity that it’s possible that the most strategic thing we can do for the victims of US imperialism is to win state power through mass domestic politics rather than agitating around foreign policy demands.
I would not advocate for deprioritizing international work, but in considering what international work we should do, we should be clear-eyed about what we’re hoping to accomplish and how what we’re doing or saying relates to that. Like many DSA members, I was heartened to see the organizing around DSA-endorsed New York State assemblymember Zohran Mamdani’s Not on Our Dime bill, which would prevent New York–based organizations from operating as charities if they are funding Israeli settlement activity that is illegal under international law and empower Palestinians who have been harmed by those actions to sue those organizations.
The bill and the organizing around it is a model DSA campaign: an active member of NYC-DSA was elected to office; with members of DSA and partner organizations, a policy change that would both do material good for Palestinians and that would provide the opportunity for education and agitation around the issue was identified; a campaign was developed with both an “inside” strategy in the legislature and an “outside” strategy in the streets.
We should not yield in our unstinting opposition to American empire, but I’d like to see our International Committee focus on campaigns like Not on Our Dime, exchanges to connect to socialists around the world, and political education of our own members and the public. We need to acknowledge the limits of the power of “resolutionary socialism,” which can occasionally backfire on our goals — like we saw with the Ukraine statements — rather than make progress toward change.
How do you think DSA ought to orient toward the labor movement? What main interventions do you see DSA making in the labor movement over the next few years?
I think we need to continue a holistic approach that includes both organizing the unorganized like EWOC [Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee] does, the rank-and-file strategy of the current National Labor Commission, and strike support too.
I do think there has been an overemphasis on the rank-and-file strategy at the expense of a much wider segment of the working class. I look at the over 17 percent immigrants making up the US working class that was ignored in the consensus resolution as a short sight that needs correction.
DSA should prioritize its continued investment in the rank-and-file strategy, where we merge with workers’ movements by embedding ourselves as workers within strategic sites of struggle, from schools to logistics facilities.
DSA should add to this strategy by leveraging the Growth and Development committee as a supplementary body that can build a joint subcommittee that aggressively investigates the state of union member recruitment, from lessons from current successes to ideas that chapters want support experimenting with.
With the right mix of resources internally and increased militancy in the labor movement externally, DSA should strive to reach the aspirational milestone of having 1 percent of union members (~140,000) also be DSA members in a few years.
We need to continue the labor solidarity work that DSA is good at. East Bay DSA’s Bread for Ed campaign served more than thirty thousand meals to children over the course of the Oakland Education Association’s seven-day strike, raised $172,000 from donors across the country, and engaged more than two hundred volunteers.
In the more recent Nabisco strike, the Portland DSA chapter helped set up and promote a GoFundMe campaign to help strikers. Over the next month, supporters contributed over $90,000, enabling the union to double the weekly strike benefit. Portland DSA contributed greatly to the militancy of the Nabisco picket line and recruited new members from the strikers. But we need to not just support labor from the sidelines but also join the labor movement by organizing our current workplaces and getting jobs in strategic industries like nursing, teaching, and logistics.
We need to root ourselves in workplaces for the long, sometimes slow work of helping our coworkers organize on their own behalf and part of a bigger movement. We should build and support reform caucuses to win greater democracy and participation in our unions, and build them into member-run class-struggle movements. We are proud that so many DSA members work for UPS [United Parcel Service] and were leaders of strike prep there. We need more of that.
Merging the socialist movement with the working class is our strategic task. DSA has played a valuable role in helping revitalize and rebuild the labor movement. Key activists in the Red State revolt were socialists. Members of DSA have been a key part of the drive to organize Starbucks and many chapters have done exemplary solidarity campaigns. The Strike Ready campaign we organized alongside Teamsters at UPS has also been an excellent nationwide effort.
While DSA should collaborate with existing union leaders on shared goals, we need to prioritize building rank-and-file caucuses around a class-struggle model of unionism. That means we need to build caucuses and movements in our workplaces to replace class-collaborationist leaders.
To revitalize and energize the union movement, we must directly confront the concepts of business unionism and labor liberalism. Currently, too many labor leaders simply follow the Democratic Party’s lead and adopt a collaborative approach with employers. As socialists, we have a crucial political responsibility within our unions to present an alternative vision, advocating for class-struggle unionism as eloquently described by Joe Burns in his new book.
Many of the debates over labor strategy within DSA have pitted various tactics like the rank-and-file strategy or organizing the unorganized or working alongside unions with militant left-wing leadership against one another; given the state of the labor movement and the importance of labor to a socialist theory of change, I don’t think we can afford to cut off any particular avenue of engagement with the labor union on the basis of a doctrinal line.
DSA members in unorganized workplaces should consider whether it’s possible to organize those workplaces, and we should continue to invest in the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, our joint project with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America to support new union drives. DSA members who are already in unions should be active in those unions and organize with other like-minded members to ensure their union is dynamic and militant and politicized, including through joining or forming reform caucuses where needed, and DSA should support them with training and resources.
DSA members who are in militant, fighting unions should be active in their union and find ways to collaborate with DSA, including on electoral and other campaigns. DSA members who are ready and able to take a rank-and-file job in a strategic industry or a workplace they’re hoping to salt should be supported and encouraged in those choices. And DSA should show up for labor through strike support and other shows of solidarity. We should be wary of pushing a particular doctrinal line when we are not members of a particular union or workplace, but instead strive to support all workers in the ways they need in their labor struggles.
Why do you think people should join DSA today?
A common saying you’ll hear on the Left is that “an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms.” Because of the scale of the problems we face, we can only change them collectively. That’s why becoming part of an organization is crucial. DSA is the largest and most important socialist organization in this country in generations. In a wasteland of NGOs and declining union membership, DSA is one of the few left democratic organizations in this country. It is also a great way to get political education, organizing skills, and institutional support you need to be an effective socialist organizer.
People should join DSA because the vast majority of the problems you encounter as a thinking, feeling person in America today can be traced back to capitalism. Ending capitalism won’t make the world perfect, but it’ll go a long way toward making it better. Even if you’re not yet a committed socialist, it’s the only thing close to a mass membership organization that recognizes the world is on fire and the ruling class is not going to put it out. And people should join DSA because once you do become a committed socialist, you should recognize that the only way to get to socialism is through mass organizing. And people should join DSA because it’s the largest and most dynamic socialist organization in the country.