Monday, August 6, 2018

What's behind the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America?

On July 26, National Public Radio's website ran a story, "What You Need To Know About The Democratic Socialists Of America." A week earlier, Morning Edition had aired a substantial segment on the group, "Getting To Know The DSA." Two days earlier, CNN had taken its turn with "'We want to democratize everything': Inside DSA's rise with its leader."

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
I think these and similar articles should lead socialists and activists in social movements to think about this: the DSA is closing in on 48,000 members. What's up with that?

Because a group with 4,000 members is double the size of one with 2,000 members, and one with 8,000 four times as large. But a group with 48,000 members is not just 24 times larger: it is a qualitatively different phenomenon.

DSA began to grow with the Bernie Sanders campaign, but membership really took off after November 2016. Responsible news organizations suggest it had started at around 5,000 and reached 32,000 by the end of 2017.

In 2018 it was 35,000 by April, then 39,000 on June 25, the day before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory. A month later, on July 25, the National Office tweeted that the number had reached 47,000, including the  more than 1,000 people had signed up the day after her victory.

That this was due to the extensive and very favorable coverage of a young, articulate and charismatic Latina woman who had just sent the fourth-ranking House Democrat packing is obvious. But it is only part of the story.

The other part is that there were tens of thousands of people who saw that coverage and thought to themselves, "I should join that group," and 8,000 who actually went to the web site or got a hold of someone and joined.

This is a social and political phenomenon, not just individual decisions. A new mass socialist movement is emerging in this country, and that is a clear sign of increasing class consciousness among working people.

For many decades until the economic crash of 2008, there was no working class movement worthy of the name in the United States. By that I mean a grass-roots movement of working people, comparable to the Black movement or women's movement. I specifically do not mean the (mostly ossified) "organized labor movement" inherited from the 1930s.

Think about it: for decades there has been mass consciousness about the need to fight sexism, racism, ableism, etc., but nobody talked about "classism." People got denounced for "playing the race card" but not for "playing the class card." Gays were accused of practicing "identity politics" but who ever heard criticism of workers as such for indulging in "identity politics"?

That absence of the working class as a self-and-other recognized political force changed in 2011. The Occupy movement with its central slogan, "we are the 99%," was the first time in decades that there was a mass expression of at least rudimentary class consciousness. And look at the polls from the fall of 2011 that asked about Occupy and its issues. The movement immediately had the sympathy and support of tens of millions of people, and all it had done was to raise the flag of the working class and copy that old movie Network by shouting, we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

As soon as Occupy happened, mainstream political discourse got flipped on its head. Before, during the summer, there was much hand wringing about the deficit and the regretful suggestions that it would be necessary to reign in "entitlements" (cut Social Security and Medicare benefits).

A month afterwards (mostly empty) rhetoric about growing inequality was the talk of the town on the Potomac.

How could this happen so quickly? Because Occupy was a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution of class grievance and resentment. Once it jelled,  it became a powerful political factor, even though the Occupy encampments themselves were dismantled in a couple of months.

Confirmation that working class consciousness is re-emerging in the United States and especially among younger workers came in the form of the Sanders campaign. He began very modestly on a quest to raise issues important for working people. People said he was a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, thinking they were giants.

And then the giants began to fall.

In a few weeks in the summer of 2015, Bernie went from being a crank to a serious candidate and then to a rock star who could fill  to overflowing the largest venues holding thousands of people.

That came overwhelmingly from below and from millennials. The Sanders campaign had an extremely sharp class edge, not just in "fight for $15" or "Medicare for all," but in the $27 shtick. That said this campaign is the property of the working people -- PAC money and the corporate control that comes with it not allowed.

And Sanders insisted in every speech that he could not change things. Only we could do so. This movement was of the working people, by the working people and for the working people.

The current DSA boom marks a third moment in this re-emergence of class consciousness. It is rooted in the change in the consciousness of masses of people captured in the slogan "we are the 99%." But it also marks a step forward over Occupy and even Sanders.

That because the DSA is an ongoing organization, one that is functioning at both the local and national levels, and one that is clearly a distinct political option, something like the tea party or its organized expression in Congress, the freedom caucus.

It is, in essence, the seedling of a worker's party, a class party, a self-and-other identified political expression or representation of a social force.

I know a lot of people, and especially long-time friends and comrades from the 20th Century left, will disagree violently with what I just said. They will be outraged that I could say a group that electorally operates almost exclusively within the Democratic Party is in any way, shape or form a workers party even in embryo. That the essence of a workers party is a break with bourgeois parties like the Democrats.

That deserves a very detailed discussion but for now, just three points:

First, lot of people misunderstand what Marx and Engels meant by the word "party." It was not necessarily and mostly not an electoral machine or identity, but rather a party in a more general sense, a side in a dispute or argument, like a party to a lawsuit. The Chartist Movement, which Marx said was the world's first working class party, resembled Occupy Wall Street much more than anything we would call a political party.

Second, you have to approach things dialectically. There is an obvious, blatant contradiction in a workers party gestating inside a bourgeois party. The role of socialists is not to denounce the existence of a contradiction but to work in and through it to a resolution.

Third, the mechanics of American elections are such that it is very difficult to break out of a two-party ballot line dynamic. But there is today a very clear recognition generally that there are different parties within the two major parties, for example the Tea Party and its associated "freedom caucus" in the House of Representatives. And there is a developing understanding of the two major "parties" as really alliances or blocs of different factions, and coverage of the different groups that are vying for domination of the alliance (and at this stage especially the republicans).

Past all that, there is something much more basic. We have to accept reality, that things have happened in  certain ways and forms and work from there, rather than insisting and demanding that they should have been some other way.

So never in a million years would I have arranged to have the beginnings of a reawakening of working class consciousness take the form of the Occupy movement, but that is what happened.

The same for Bernie. I would not have dreamed that a big step towards establishing the identity of the working class as a distinct political factor would be within the oldest bourgeois party in the world. But there it was.

And, finally, DSA. It does no good to insist it shouldn't have been what was regarded as a very mild and staid multi-tendency group with very loose organizational structures that would begin to grow into a real beginning of a mass socialist organization.

Yet IMHO, reality has already settled the question. This is the main form through which the process that began with Occupy is finding an outlet for right now.

This, in my view, also settles the question of the DSA's electoral tactics, at least at this point. Some 8,000 people joined in the last month, overwhelmingly because they identified with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory in New York and the approach that lay behind it. I feel safe in saying this is what they want to do: create two, three, many "Alexandrias."

And even if you think this is a bad idea, if you are a Marxist, a materialist and not an idealist, a preacher from some sect, you don't have a choice.

You have got to go through the experience with working people who are moving towards class political consciousness in this way, and then draw lessons on the basis of the common, lived experience. Engels once made the point that it is worse than useless to try to cram down people's throats things they can't possibly know for themselves right now, but will accept readily enough down the road. Worse than useless because you will only isolate yourself and not be heard when the time comes too draw the lessons.


  1. All previous attempts to develop independent working class politics in a mainstream capitalist party (nevermind the major party of world imperialism) have failed. The radicals have been co-opted and diverted from their goal every time. Will this effort be the one, shocking exception to the rule? Don't count on it. Experimentation is great, but life is short. Make the most of it.

  2. This looks an awful lot like "Been Down so long it looks like Up to me."

  3. A great radical thinker once said, "Nothing works --- so everything should be tried!" What have we got to lose??? It's not as if we are giving up a vibrant, independent, working class party to surrender to the capitalists by joining the Democratic Party --- we can work with DSA members and we can independently agitate --- The one thing I would say we SHOULD NOT do is trash people who are coming to the movement because of the realities of their lives and hoping to move American politics in the right (I mean left [!!]) direction!

  4. I sympathize with what you are saying; Work with the reality we have not a dead end fantasy world.

  5. I would not say all attempts at independent working class politics have failed. In fact, any thing we have has been won through independent working class politics, such as the 8 hour day, social security, overtime pay, voting rights, etc. These things were not given to us, we fought for them. And we (the working class) need to embrace and extend those victories and reverse what we've given back. If you think they were given to us, then just go home and relax and see what else the capitalists are going to give us, more wars, unemployment, deportations, low wages, etc. I ran for congress in the 14th CD, 42 years ago on the Socialist Workers Party ticket. It was a great campaign, got several thousand votes, and I said then what I'll say now. Working people cannot rely on the promises of the Democratic and Republican parties that are run by big business. Our organizations are the unions, which we need to rebuild, and fight for a political party based on our unions. And now is a good time to do it. People are hurting for relief from the capitalist onslaught. A party based on our unions is the party that would be responsible to us. Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA are trying to channel the fighters into the Democratic party, suppress their might, and make them think they can win through the elections. We can use the elections to get our ideas out but the real fight is in the streets, on the picket lines, the assembly lines. That's where our emphasis should be.

  6. Good article. It's funny to see people respond with "every time we tried that route we failed" and then point to other failed strategies, like the sect route of the US-SWP, et al. It's also not true that working through the DP ALWAYS leads to co-optation - or rather it is a really one-sided way of looking at it. Freedom Summer, people seem to forget, was about registering people as part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. People's experience of racist exclusion from both the local and then national DP led to the radicalization of the movement - to the Black Panthers. The Students for a Democratic Society started out the 60s as soft supporters of the DP, even posing the slogan "half the way with LBJ" during his re-election campaign. By the end of the sixties they were avowedly revolutionary (with very destructive, ultra-left Maoist politics, it is true but that's another story). To understand the decline of the social movements of the 60s you have to look at a lot more elements than just the relationship of sections of the movements to the Dems - the lingering effects of McCarthyism, the earlier co-optation of the union leadership, the economic crisis that developed with the oil shock and end of the post-war boom. In fact, the decline in the US left happened concurrently with the decline of the 60s left throughout the world. The role of the DP was only part of it.
    It's true that the Stalinist CPUSA of the 30s steered the radicalism of that period into uncritical support of the Dems. But that's a different phenomenon than what is happening now. Then, the CPUSA shut down independent movements that they saw as a threat to their (one-sided) alliance - like the sharecroppers union in the south. Now, the DSA is openly and vociferously critical of the Dem leadership. They are building the DSA in no small part by building movements to challenge neo-liberalism, racism, imperialism, etc. - social problems supported by and promoted by the Dem leadership. People need to stop using (flawed) templates from the past to analyze the present as though it were some kind of master key that gives the answer to all moments in time, regardless of their differences.