Thursday, March 7, 2019

For Bernie, but against a DSA 'independent expenditure campaign'

[A Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America will be held in Atlanta at the beginning of August. As part of the lead up to the convention, I will be publishing some articles discussing issues before the convention. And although I was a signer of the initial Socialist Majority Caucus statement, this article represents only my own views.]

What does it mean "for" Bernie but "against" an independent DSA campaign for him?
  • I am for DSA members (and all working and progressive people) supporting Bernie's candidacy and joining his campaign.
  • I am against the DSA having our own "Democratic Socialists for Bernie" effort separate from Bernie's campaign, which is the approach outlined by the DSA's National Political Committee in "Part 2. Initial Bernie 2020 Campaign Plan Proposal" of the endorsement procedure it adopted.
The problem is that DSA insisting on having "an independent political identity" that is "centered around core demands of Sanders’s platform — not merely the candidate himself" contradicts the most important, core message of "the candidate himself" which he communicates by having just three words in the headline of the home page of his website: "Not me. Us."

You might think: that's just a tag line to recruit volunteers: the sign-up form is right there. But I think it has much greater political significance.

Bernie stressed in his campaign launch, as he did in 2015-2016, that his is a class campaign: it defends the interests of working people. That's why he wouldn't accept backing from corporate PACs or lobbyists four years ago, and why he kept emphasizing his average donation was $27. And he adds that should he win, he cannot make the changes, only we can through our own movement of working people to carry out a "political revolution." In other words: "Not me. Us."

The central message, which should be our central message as well, is that working people need to come together into a united class movement. 

Saying, "our message is: come together as a class. And that is why we are running a separate campaign and urging people to join our splinter pro-Bernie campaign" makes absolutely no sense.

DSA members who were part of leadership discussions and the NPC campaign proposal itself present the reason for having our own "independent expenditure campaign" as mostly a legal question, and even the use of that term reflects the approach.

I think the issue should be examined first exclusively as a political question. We should decide what approach makes sense politically, and then figure out implementation, including legal technicalities. That is completely missing from the NPC's document.

For me, the main consideration is what has been happening in  this country over the last decade. I maintain that it is an elemental movement by working people to cohere as a political force, as the "class for itself" that Marxist literature refers to. 

This tendency among working people to come together politically is a qualitative change from the situation that had prevailed since the 1950s McCarthy era until this decade, when the Occupy movement raised the slogan: "We are the 99%!" Occupy was the first time in many decades that there was a clear expression of class political consciousness by millions of working people and moreover coming strictly from below.

Since Trump lost the election and became president, the DSA's growth has been one of the main visible signs of this gathering subterranean force that is transforming American politics. People who were moved to do something would Google "socialism" or "democratic socialism," get directed to our web site, and the most conscious and committed would join.

Almost certainly, that has stopped for the time being. As things stand, people are going to go to Bernie's web site to sign up for and contribute to his campaign instead. I want to be with them, not in our separate more-socialist-than-thou effort.

And look at the practical side. By doing our own independent canvassing, we contact the same people the official campaign has already talked to, which is not just wasted effort but counterproductive. And it creates an impression of disorganization that rubs off on the candidate.

There is also the issue of message discipline. We can say whatever we want as an individual or a DSA member, but not when you're knocking on doors for Bernie. Because you will be perceived as part of Bernie's campaign, and if that's the way you're going to be perceived, then you also have to speak and act on that basis. 

Using a different name like "democratic socialists for Bernie" doesn't solve the problem. Most people will see that as a branch of Bernie's campaign, and therefore, we have no right to step beyond the usual latitude other Bernie canvassers have. 

And that being the case, the "independent political identity" of "our" Bernie campaign is going to come across as simply an opportunist use of Bernie's campaign to promote our group.

Then there's the idea that the DSA is going to "take it to a higher level" because we're going to tie the Bernie campaign to local housing justice efforts or many other issues. But the most important way to do that is to take these  issues to the other Bernie activists as we rub shoulders with them doing campaign work. If we have our own canvassing, tabling, etc., that means we have to stay away from Bernie's people doing the same thing, and then we're not going to be in contact with those other activists.

It is a sectarian blunder to insist on having our own "independent political identity" by having an "independent expenditure" pro-Bernie campaign. It isn't a legal question. It is a political question. Our DSA political message is for working people to come together in a class movement, and Bernie's campaign is the immediate vehicle for doing it.

Again, splitting from the main campaign structures to promote uniting in Bernie's campaign makes no fucking sense.

"Independent" of Bernie's campaign is the wrong political message. Our political message should we that we want all working people to join together in Bernie's campaign.

The "political identity" we want to promote is not the ideological one of "democratic socialism" but the class-based movement to carry out a "political revolution" that Bernie is projecting. That is the next step towards creation of a working class party.

But isn't it a contradiction to have a workers party gestating in the oldest bourgeois party in the world, the Democrats?  Absolutely. It is a total mess. Especially in the most important point: establishing a clear and universally recognized distinct identity as a political force.

But we don't get to choose whether politics should have evolved in this way. The fact is, it has. And it is not the role of Marxists to simply denounce the contradiction, but instead to work in and through it to a resolution.

The DSA's National Political Committee majority should suspend implementation of its national campaign proposal, and instead prepare a discussion for the convention. It needs to prepare a document motivating its idea of an "independent political identity" and an explanation of what this entails.

It should also organize  to bring other views, especially those of other comrades in the leadership who oppose the majority proposal, to the membership.

Whether and how to relate to Bernie 2020 will be the most important practical political question before the convention.

Discussing and deciding this democratically is not something that will just happen. It has to be thought through and organized, beginning with bringing out the different viewpoints and options; finding the ways to bring them to the membership as a whole; and getting as many DSA members as possible engaged in discussing and choosing among these options. That is the National Political Committee's real job right now.

Using a favorable vote for a Bernie endorsement as authorization for what I and other Bernie supporters reject as a sectarian approach, and one that was never discussed beyond the NPC, would be an undemocratic usurpation of decisions that properly belong to the membership and the convention, and a tremendous disservice to the task of figuring out how to organize a mass, democratic, socialist political movement for the 21st Century in the United States.
--José G. Pérez


  1. I ran across your article on "Bernie, AOC and the British Chartists" a few days ago on the marxmail list and that led me to read your other postings here. I agree with much of your analysis of the Bernie movement, but I think there's a problem in the way you see a class-for-itself developing. As your post "People Not Voting..."(9/9/2018) says, the US is not even a bourgeois democracy yet. If Bernie should be elected President in 2020 and the Democrats win control of Congress, the undemocratic Senate will certainly be an obstacle to progressive legislation. In this situation, the primary demand of a party of the working class will be for a democratic constitution, the same demand that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Luxemburg also put forward as the principle demand in programs for working class parties in Europe.

  2. I believe in doing all possible to contribute to an awakened and unified working class movement. And I fear any action that would tend to fracture or Balkanize that movement. I think that working as part of the Bernie team is the best course for DSA.