United States: Growing Democratic Socialists debates way forward

August 12, 2017
DSA convention in Chicago on August 4. Photo by Photo: Lyndon French/The Intercept.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held their national conference in Chicago on August 5 and 6, at a gathering that confirmed its emergence as stronger, younger and more radical group than it has ever been.

Before last year’s US presidential election, the DSA boasted between 7000-8000 members. Since then, it has ballooned to 25,000 members — mostly young and hungry for a fight.

This makes the DSA the largest socialist group in the US. However, the US Greens boast ten times that number and last year voted to declare themselves an anti-capitalist and ecosocialist party.

The growth is tied to the general anger at the worsening living standards for the majority of US people that is felt most strongly among youth.

A poll from April last year found a majority of young people between 18-29 do not support capitalism. The study, conducted by Harvard University, found that 51% of those polled rejected capitalism. Last October, a separate study found 53% of Americans under 35 were willing to consider socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

One reason for the DSA’s growth is the momentum generated by the better than expected performance of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, whose campaign the DSA supported.

Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist and used the primaries to push for universal health care and free college education. This, and the Republican Party’s tendency to call any vaguely progressive policy “socialism”, has helped remove the stigma from the word.

But consciously organising its members around issues has been a big part of the DSA’s growth too. For example in February, the DSA organised a door-knocking campaign in California to get the state to provide health care in the case that Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act was repealed.

The bill the DSA activists supported, the Healthy California Act, was shelved by the Democratic speaker of the House, but the campaign helped build the DSA’s profile.

“We decided that we should actually just start building a base and start developing our members into good organizers,” Mary Virginia Watson, a member of the East Bay chapter, told The Daily Beast. “We also looked at it as a leadership development program as well.”

The convention adopted the push for single-payer healthcare as a key priority. Jeremy Gong, who was elected the DSA’s national political committee, said: “Single payer is the first step to building a militant working class movement and a social democratic politics that builds power from below.”

The large number of people who have joined the DSA has begun to transform the organisation politically. Formed in 1980, the DSA was a more conservative group than many of its members today, strongly committed to working within the ruling class Democratic Party.

The group had a strong anti-communist thread. One key founder, Michael Harrington, was uncritically pro-Israel.

But this year’s convention voted to endorse the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) against Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians. The vote was passed by 90% of the conference, leading to chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

This motion was passed at a time when the US government, with the support of many Democratic party office politicians, are moving to criminalise the BDS campaign.

Famously, Harrington called for the “left wing of the possible”, where the DSA would support the best Democratic Party candidate and push for reform within the party.

Today, DSA member Sam Hinkie (aka @LarryWebsite) has adopted the slogan “building and fighting for the left wing of the impossible” as a counter to DSA’s old conservatism.

The conference also voted to leave the Socialist International, which groups many traditional social democratic parties around the world — noting that its member parties worldwide had endorsed neoliberalism.

Instead, the DSA has sought to build relationships with parties that have broken with neoliberalism. Long-term member and delegate Dan La Botz reported in The Bullet: “At the banquet held on Saturday night DSA delegates cheered wildly the spokespersons from the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSOL) of Brazil, of France Insoumise, of Podemos of Spain, the Left Bloc (BE) of Portugal, and the British Labour Party.

“The Labour Party spokesperson could hardly speak over the riotous singing of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn.’”

The conference debated the group’s relationship to the Democrats —a key question that remains unresolved DSA chapters have endorsed Democratic candidates, as well as Greens candidates, and run their own members for city councils in the past.

The group’s willingness to build an independent political alternative will be a test of how far the new radicalism can go.

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