Sanders “Socialism” for Democrats
The ABCs of the DSA
DSA Called the Cops on Trotskyists
The following article was evidently considered sufficiently dangerous by the Democratic Socialists of America that they repeatedly called the cops against our comrades for distributing it outside their convention, held August 4-6 at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. When Internationalist Group supporters asked DSA door-minders if there was an area where they could set up a literature table, they immediately called campus security, which forbade our comrades from distributing literature anywhere on campus.
The IG sales team was ordered to an area on the public sidewalk and then ordered to move behind a line on the sidewalk “one square further away.” But this was evidently considered too lenient by the DSA, as after each of several interactions at our literature table the notorious Chicago Police Department and Cook County Sheriffs showed up, on two occasions with a van.
For the social democrats, it really is second nature to use the cops and other repressive forces to try to silence communists. After a New York DSAer posted a photo on Facebook showing our literature outside the meeting, DSA Deputy Director David Duhalde boasted “I am a social democratic enforcer extraordinaire.” Another DSAer wrote, “We’ll get our Marshalls all over this.” In a self-conscious stab at irony, another wrote, referring to an IG salesperson in the photo, “I’m pretty sure it’s basically Karl Liebknecht. Please don’t murder him.”
Over the next days, on multiple occasions groups of DSAers marched past our table chanting “We killed Rosa!” (Together with Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 on the orders of the German Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert and his “bloodhound” war minister, Gustav Noske.) This menacing filth is something that only wannabe Noskes would find funny.
Our article clearly struck a nerve: one DSAer spat on it, another tore it out of a comrade’s hand and threw it in the trash. Minders led new members away from our table by the hand to stop them talking with us. This vile display revolted some of the DSA’s new members, who thought that discussing radical ideas might be something you’d do at a “socialist” conference, and wanted to hear what the Trotskyists had to say.
It’s all business as usual for these oh-so “democratic socialists,” but it can scarcely shield them, or the capitalist order they so loyally help “enforce,” from revolutionary criticism. ■
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is proclaiming that it has surpassed 25,000 members on the eve of its national convention in Chicago at the beginning of August. This is almost quadruple the number it claimed only 15 months ago, and would make it the largest self-styled socialist organization in the United States since the late 1940s. DSA leaders are ecstatic. Vice-chair Joseph Schwartz and prominent DSA leftist Bhaskar Sunkara (the founder of Jacobin magazine) declare, “This is the most promising moment for the socialist left in decades” (“What Should Socialists Do?” Jacobin, 1 August).
So why have thousands of new members, many of them young people, suddenly decided to join a group describing itself as “democratic socialist”? Why, in particular, have “millennials” been drawn into this staid social-democratic organization that is so embedded in the two-party capitalist political system of the United States that it has long been known as the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America?
Above all, the sudden expansion of the DSA reflects the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself an “independent” and “democratic socialist” while being a long-time member of the Democratic Party caucus in Congress. Clearly, the DSA has picked up a significant number of disappointed Bernieites, who despaired when he lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton and even more when Donald Trump was elected president. According to DSA national director Maria Svart, membership went from 6,500 in May 2016 to 14,000 on election day in November, and nearly doubled again since then.
More generally, this is a reflection of the continuing worldwide economic crisis that opened with the financial crash of 2007-08. That exposed the bankruptcy of capitalism and led to increased interest in socialism and communism, but also to the growth of bourgeois populist currents of the left (Sanders, SYRIZA in Greece) and right (Trump), as well as violent racist and fascist political currents. But many populist movements arose quickly and then disappeared, including the “Arab Spring,” the “Indignados” in southern Europe and “Occupy Wall Street” in the U.S. The outpouring of Black Lives Matter protests rose and subsided, while racist police murder continues unabated.
Already in 2008, millions of liberal youth were attracted by Barack Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” and voted for the Democrats. So did African American, Latino and white working people and immigrants. Their hopes were dashed as Obama shoveled trillions of dollars to bail out the bankers and became deporter-in-chief. In 2016, Bernie Sanders won the millennial vote. When he lost to Clinton, many abstained, some went to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a minority voted for Hillary while holding their noses at the stench of Wall Street cash, and sectors of white workers who had voted for Obama now voted for Trump to protest the Democrats’ job-killing policies.
Ever since the 1930s New Deal, the Democratic Party has held struggles of labor, immigrants, black and poor people in check, chaining them to a wing of the ruling class. This domination by one of the main capitalist parties has been the single greatest obstacle to militant class struggle in the United States. Yet at this crucial moment when the Democrats’ stranglehold has been greatly weakened, the vast majority of the U.S. left seeks to channel the massive discontent back into bourgeois politics, whether pressuring the Democratic Party from within by supporting Sanders or touting homes for homeless Democrats like the Greens.
The Democratic Socialists of America is perhaps the most successful of various opportunist leftist groups seeking to cash in on the crisis of the mainstream bourgeois parties. But the DSA’s explosive growth, while indicating that “socialism” is no longer the drop-dead epithet of the past, does not signify a break from bourgeois liberalism, or even from the Democratic Party. Even less is it support for socialist revolution to overthrow the capitalist system of racism, poverty and war. In fact, with their talk of “democratic socialism,” the leaders of the DSA (including its “left” wing) are building a virulently anti-communist, social-democratic obstacle to revolution.
In contrast, the Internationalist Group, section of the League for the Fourth International, fights for a sharp class break with capitalist politics and to forge a party to lead a revolutionary struggle for workers rule. This call has been raised in the unions by militants of Class Struggle Education Workers in New York and Class Struggle Workers – Portland (Oregon), and taken up by Painters Local 10 in Portland which called in August 2016, at the height of last year’s election campaign, to break with all the bosses’ parties and build a class-struggle workers party.
Social Democrats Bail Out Crisis-Wracked Democrats
Anyone paying attention to politics knows the Democratic Party is in big trouble. Economic devastation, skyrocketing inequality, racist police terror, unabated attacks on workers’ rights and jobs, endless war, mass deportations – this was the balance sheet of the demagogic promises of the Obama administration. Despite his efforts, not even “socialist” Sanders could remedy the tarnished reputation of the Democrats. Assuming Wall Street warmonger Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in to the White House, they were blind-sided when many hard-hit working-class Obama voters out of desperation voted for Donald Trump hoping the maverick would shake things up.
Immediately following the election, reflecting the Republican candidate’s campaign themes, racist attacks escalated across the country. On entering office in January, Trump launched his vile campaign to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. This set off an explosion of outrage among liberal and leftist young people, who rushed to the airports in the thousands to protest. The musty Democrats have tried to capitalize on that anger, casting themselves in the improbable role as “The Resistance” – a band of beret-bedecked underground fighters (as if). They have been aided by the reformist left which hails Democratic rallies and marches that pretend to champion women’s and immigrants’ rights.
To the Democratic politicians, their defeat was inexplicable. Since November they have been desperately seeking a new “message” to sell their brand. Their main pitch is labeling Trump as a puppet of the Russians. Sounding like 1980s-era Reaganite Republicans, they denounce him as a “traitor” for selling out to Moscow. Bernie Sanders, after declaring that “the political revolution continues” in his concession speech last year, is still trying to rev up the disaffected and rope them back into the Democratic fold to ring doorbells and stuff envelopes. His latest vehicle, “Our Revolution,” co-sponsored a “People’s Summit” in Chicago in June.
Channeling activist energy into traditional bourgeois politics is as old as the illusions in reforming and “realigning” this party of imperialism, racism and war, for decades the be-all and end-all for the DSA. In an earlier generation, Democratic “doves” sought to contain the radicalization of antiwar protesters with liberal “peace” candidates like Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy (1968) and South Dakota senator George McGovern (1972). By hyping Sanders’ “socialist” credentials, opportunist leftists with the DSA in the forefront helped him pull off his social-control operation for Clinton and the Democrats.
Social democracy is a prop for capitalism, seeking to save the crisis-wracked system with promises to administer capitalism more “justly” plus anti-communism gift-wrapped in “socialist” rhetoric. Many of those joining Democratic Socialists of America are unfamiliar with what the organization really stands for and its history. Certainly most are attracted by the bourgeois liberal reform politics it packages under the label “democratic socialism.” But some may sincerely want to fight for socialism, though unclear and unsure about what that entails. The DSA’s right-wing leadership makes no bones about their organic ties to the Democrats. It is the DSA “left” that is key to the whole maneuver.
In its position paper, “Who We Are, Where We Stand” (August 2014), the DSA Left Caucus called for a “coalition strategy to prioritize working with radical leftist groups” and to “orient DSA’s electoral strategy towards supporting candidates that openly run as explicit socialists.” But along comes “independent” senator Sanders posing as a socialist while running for the presidential nomination of the arch-capitalist Democratic Party and what does the DSA left do? They “fervently supported” the “socialist” Democrat running for the nomination of this pillar of American capitalism rather than calling for a clean break with the “people’s party” of U.S. imperialism.
The DSA helps the Democrats use youth revolted by the status quo to yet again shore up that status quo by putting their liberal illusions in “democracy” in the service of the political system of imperialist rule. The DSA “left” does its bit with double-talk, fostering confusion and drowning any question of class principle in a soup of “flexible tactics,” with Jacobin adding a dollop of sophistication to the social-democratic broth. And behind them jogs a crowd of pseudo-socialists hoping to catch up with the DSA after losing out in the contest to see who could best tail after “Bernie” and his “political revolution” for Democratic renewal. By pushing the Sanders “revolution,” they all helped the U.S. political system fulfill one of its central functions in a period of turmoil.
In contrast, as Leon Trotsky proclaimed in the Transitional Program, our duty was to “call things by their right names” and to “speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be” (see our article, “No, Bernie Sanders Is Not a Socialist,” Revolution No. 12, March 2016). For Marxists, polemicizing against phony leftists for their maneuvering and “coalition building” with “progressive” bourgeois forces is crucial to clarifying the vital issues to aid the workers and oppressed to throw off the capitalist chains and fight for their own revolutionary class interests. Rather than hoodwinking people with illusions of advancing the cause of socialism within the Democratic Party, what’s required is to frontally oppose all forms of class collaboration while openly fighting for the communism of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
“Democratic Socialism” = Counterrevolutionary Social Democracy
By riding the wave of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the DSA helped funnel discontented voters safely back into the Democratic Party. For this it was hailed in the bourgeois press. Gushing articles have been published in Reuters, the Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times, and an honorable mention in Vogue (10 February), which prescribed knit DSA hats for those who wanted to “dress for resistance.” This notoriety has enabled Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin and a vice-chair of DSA, to make it to the Op-Ed section of the New York Times (26 June). Yet for all the media attention this supposedly new political trend has attracted, its politics are deeply rooted in the old tradition of social-democratic opportunism.
While the DSA says it “draws on Marxism” (as well as “religious and ethical socialism, feminism and other theories that critique human domination”), its talk of “democratic socialism” is diametrically opposed to Marx. “Democracy,” after all, is a form of state organization, as is monarchy. Yet Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels defined socialism as a classless, stateless society, the first stage of communism. This is no mere semantic question. To achieve socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels emphasized, requires smashing the existing, capitalist state and establishing the rule of the working class – the dictatorship of the proletariat rather than the dictatorship of capital – to expropriate the means of production from the exploiting class.
For the DSA, in contrast, “democratic socialism” means a whole lot of “democracy” while opposing the conquest of state power by the working class leading all the oppressed. It rejects expropriation to the capitalist class and a centrally planned economy. In its “What is Democratic Socialism? Q & A,” the DSA says that “many structures of our [sic] government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy, so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.” What this means is that the decisions of “worker-owned cooperatives” and “publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives” will be determined by the capitalist market.
The founders of modern socialism, Marx and Engels, called themselves communists, as did Lenin and Trotsky from the outset of the Russian Revolution of 1917, in order to distinguish themselves from reformist “socialists” aligned with the capitalist rulers. It is this latter, reformist tradition that the “democratic socialists,” or more accurately social democrats, invoke. Rather than revolutionary workers democracy, it means worship of bourgeois “democracy,” under which, as Marx put it, “the oppressed are allowed every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” In place of working-class internationalism, it preaches patriotism, tying the workers to “their own” national rulers.
In Europe, social democrats have led mass reformist parties of the working class. In the U.S., however, the D in DSA was deliberately chosen to express its founders’ strategy of “realigning” the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, although he has caucused with the Democrats since being elected to the Senate and ran in the primaries on a platform of “revitalizing” the Democratic Party. When Sanders first launched his candidacy, DSA vice-chair Joseph Schwarz called it “a gift from the socialist gods” and national director Maria Svart told the Wall Street Journal (11 December 2015), “We definitely share the same immediate political program that Bernie is pushing.”
So what was that program? It included proposals to tinker with taxes, campaign spending, trade policy and so forth, and supporting U.S. imperialism while advising it to sometimes use more flexible tactics. Sanders, for example, backs the “war on terror” including U.S. military forces and “targeted killings” (assassinations) by drones in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as U.S. saber-rattling against Russia, Iran and North Korea.1 In 2012, these “democratic socialists” endorsed deporter-in-chief Obama, whose administration in its last year in office dropped three bombs every hour on average, 24 hours a day.2 In short, in backing Obama and Sanders, the DSA supports predatory U.S. imperialism, tactical quibbles aside.
Social Chauvinism and Social-Reformist Lemonade
The DSA is the main U.S. affiliate of the Second (Socialist) International. Although the S.I. had long proclaimed its opposition to militarism, the imperialist World War I showed the emptiness of its words. In August 1914, the majority of sections of the Second International pledged their allegiance to the capitalist classes of their respective countries, voted for the war budget and rallied the workers to slaughter their class brothers and sisters in the name of the capitalist fatherland. Many social-democratic leaders used their services enrolling cannon fodder to obtain seats in bourgeois cabinets. WWI unraveled the ambiguities of the reformist program, decisively showing the loyalty of its followers to capitalist oppressors “at home.”
The Socialist International of today is the direct continuation of that historic betrayal of socialism, what Lenin described as “social-imperialism,” “social-patriotism” and “social-chauvinism” – socialism in words, national chauvinism, patriotism and imperialist militarism in deeds. Today its website boasts that “49 member parties of the International are in government.” The Left Caucus has called for the DSA to leave the Socialist International. Yet that would be a cosmetic maneuver that does nothing to alter the class collaborationism that underpins the DSA’s political program and outlook. Throughout its entire history, the DSA has supported the imperialist Democratic Party and the capitalist political system.
Against the wave of social-patriotism of the Second International, revolutionary Marxists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg fought to “turn the guns the other way” while V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky agitated for the working class to turn the imperialist war into civil war (class war) leading to a socialist revolution. It was on this basis that the Bolsheviks led the Russian Revolution, establishing the first workers state in history. Luxemburg and Liebknecht founded the Communist Party of Germany, opposing the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had taken over the job of running the government for the bourgeoisie. In 1919, Lenin and Trotsky founded the Communist (“Third”) International.
That same year, the SPD leaders had Liebknecht and Luxemburg murdered by the Freikorps, the nationalist paramilitary bands that served as breeding ground for the Nazis. The differences between genuine Marxists (communists) and reformist socialists (whether they call themselves democratic socialists or social democrats) were indelibly marked in blood. There is further irony in the DSA left trying to claim the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg as spiritual godmother to today’s social democrats. “Red Rosa” made her name in the revolutionary movement as a fierce enemy of reformism and class collaboration of every kind. In her classic polemic (1899) Reform or Revolution, she observed that capitalism set the stage for the production relations of socialist society:
“But on the other hand, its political and juridical relations established between capitalist society and socialist society a steadily rising wall. This wall is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened and consolidated by the development of social reforms and the course of democracy. Only the hammer blow of revolution, that is to say, the conquest of political power by the proletariat, can break down this wall.”
The position of Luxemburg, that is, of Marxism, is diametrically opposed to the utterly false notion that the DSA presents in its June 2016 document on “Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution”: that some kind of socialism can be brought about “through reforms that fundamentally undermine the power of the capitalist system.”3 And in their recent article “What Should Socialists Do?” DSA leaders Schwartz and Sunkara advocate a strategy of “non-reformist reforms,” citing French left social democrat André Gorz. As opposed to the call of the Third (Communist) International and Trotsky’s Fourth International for workers control, Gorz called for “self-management,” amounting to worker participation in administering capitalist enterprises.
Schwartz and Sunkara call “single-payer healthcare” an example of a “non-reformist reform” – i.e., national health insurance such as exists in Canada and most West European countries. Nothing “anti-capitalist” in that. In the same article the DSA leaders call to “be the glue that brings together disparate social movement[s] that share an interest in democratizing corporate power,” and to build “a potential, progressive anti-corporate majority” by “taking on neoliberal Democrats.” Just to make sure it’s all clear, they add: “Of course, progressive and socialist candidates who openly reject the neoliberal mainstream Democratic agenda may choose for pragmatic reasons to use the Democratic Party ballot line in partisan races.”
It’s all there: the social-democratic chimera, which Luxemburg described as “turning the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness, by progressively pouring into it bottles of social reformist lemonade.” The DSA leaders even criticize the Socialist Party of the 1930s for rejecting Democrat Roosevelt’s New Deal as “a restoration of capitalism.” They prefer the Stalinized Communist Party’s “popular front” policy of being the “left wing” of the “New Deal coalition” (noting the CP’s growth from 20,000 to 100,000 members). In fact, they can agree on “people’s fronts” with capitalist “coalition partners” because both Stalinists and social democrats are reformists who promote class collaboration rather than waging revolutionary class struggle.
The bloody history of social-democratic betrayal doesn’t stop Jacobin editor Sunkara from calling for a “return to social democracy…that of the early days of the Second International.”4 But his attempts to revive what Luxemburg called the “stinking corpse” of social democracy can only recycle the class collaboration of his political predecessors. The hip social democracy of the petty-bourgeois Jacobin milieu is animated by deep-going anti-communism. Condemning the fight for independent working-class politics as “sectarian,” they are hostile to the political purpose of Marxism: socialist revolution. Thus, Sunkara opines:
“The Communists’ noble gambit to stop the war and blaze a humane path to modernity in backward Russia ended up seemingly affirming the Burkean notion that any attempt to upturn an unjust order would end up only creating another.
“Most socialists have been chastened by the lessons of 20th-century Communism. Today, many who would have cheered on the October Revolution have less confidence about the prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation. They put an emphasis instead on political pluralism, dissent and diversity.”
This is the age-old canard that Stalinism – which was the nationalist antithesis of Bolshevik internationalism – was the price paid for making the October Revolution in the first place. A basic principle of working-class politics, “revolutionary defeatism” against “one’s own” imperialist rulers, is presented as a noble but quaintly outmoded sentiment for today’s democratic socialists. This is convenient if your “socialism” consists of supporting Bernie Sanders, who has voted the funds for one U.S. imperialist war after another, as the social democrats voted for war credits in 1914. For all its pretensions of 21st-century “democratic socialism,” Jacobin is dishing out warmed-over 18th-century liberalism.
It is ironic that the editor of Jacobin would invoke Edmund Burke, the English conservative par excellence who was a staunch opponent of the great French Revolution of 1791, and especially of its most radical wing, the Jacobins. (In an interview one editor remarked that the magazine’s name was chosen because it “conveyed militancy without tying us down.”) It seems the “left” social democrats of Jacobin, admirers of bourgeois democracy, have far more in common with the “moderate” Gironde of the French revolution than with the Jacobin radicals. Indeed, they sound like the Thermidorian “party of order” that, seeking bourgeois stability, reviled the “unruly rabble” of Paris and put an end to the French Revolution’s heroic phase.
There is a political logic at work here. Reformists seek to conserve, and serve, the existing, bourgeois state, as Rosa Luxemburg explained in Reform or Revolution. They buy the myth that it is not fundamentally an apparatus of class repression, but the expression of “democracy” and the vehicle for incremental progress. Marxists support genuine democratic reforms (like the right of gay marriage). But those who peddle the illusion that piecemeal reforms can pave the way to a socialist society are reinforcing the political chains that bind the working class to capitalism. Breaking from all capitalist parties – Democrats, Republicans, Greens, etc. – and building a revolutionary workers party is key to defending the interests of the workers and oppressed.
The state is not some impartial entity looking out for the interests of all its subjects. The function of these “special bodies of armed men” (Engels) – the police, army, courts, etc. – remains the same whichever political parties take office: they are a machine to defend the rule and property of the exploiting class against the masses of people it exploits. When capitalism crashes the economy, the state bails the bankers out. When capitalists need resources or markets, to “defend” their domination against rivals, or to crush revolutions or rebellions that threaten their power, the imperialist state sends its armed forces to slaughter for them. What social democrats want is a share in administering that power. When they get it, they use it to suppress the genuine socialists and communists.
Sunkara, in his op-ed in the New York Times, accuses the Bolsheviks of naively basing the October Revolution on “prospects for radically transforming the world in a single generation.”5 This is a complete mischaracterization of revolutionary politics. Lenin and Trotsky did not have illusions of bringing about socialism instantaneously. Under the Bolshevik slogan “All Power to the Soviets” (workers councils), the workers of Russia overturned the Provisional Government, a coalition of capitalist and “democratic socialist” ministers that kept Russia in the imperialist war. They then set about forging a new state dedicated to the interests of the toiling people and the socialist reconstruction of society, which required the revolution’s spread internationally.
Key to that internationalist revolutionary perspective was highly industrialized Germany with its powerful workers movement. It was to prevent this above all that the SPD government of Friedrich Ebert and his war minister Gustav Noske (who famously declared, “I hate revolution like sin”) put down the workers uprising of January 1919 and had Luxemburg and Liebknecht killed. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers state under Joseph “Socialism in One Country” Stalin – which Sunkara et al. blame on the revolution itself – resulted most fundamentally from its encirclement and isolation, which the social democrats did all in their power to enforce.
“Practical” Politics: The Lessons of the Democratic Party Socialists
In Europe, social democrats can aspire to government office. In the U.S., they look back to when DSA founder Michael Harrington had power lunches with top aides to Lyndon Johnson, helping design the “war on poverty” while LBJ’s bombs rained down on Vietnam. The fantasy the DSA sells – that some day in the future reforms will “radically transform” the capitalist system and bring about socialism – translates in the here and now into supporting the Democratic Party in order to be, in Harrington’s phrase, the “left wing of the possible.” Long before its support for Obama and Sanders, the DSA backed one Democratic Party candidate after another, from Jesse Jackson and his “Rainbow Coalition” to pro-war millionaire John Kerry.6
In an article on “Socialism at the People’s Summit” – the 2016 Sanders love-fest of the DSA, Progressive Democrats, Socialist Alternative and others – DSA deputy director David Duhalde described decades-long efforts by the DSA and its predecessors devoted to “remaking the Democrats into a social democratic/labor party like those in Europe and Canada.”7 Going back to the Realignment Caucus of Harrington and Max Shachtman in Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, this strategy of “realignment” has shaped the outlook and trajectory of the DSA. Today, some elements in the DSA, including its Left Caucus, criticize this strategy without opposing it on the basis of independent class politics.
While claiming to be a resistance to capitalism, the DSA’s political activity bolsters it. Its justification can be found in the “Where We Stand” statement on its website, which states: “Much of progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries in support of candidates who represent a broad progressive coalition.”8 Independent? This isn’t even organizational independence from the Democrats, let alone working-class political independence from all bourgeois parties and politicians. Boasting of tactical diversity, DSAers are free to pursue local variations of the social-democratic recipe, but anyone moving toward revolutionary politics is likely to get the Harrington treatment – locked out in a jiffy, as was the fate of the early Students for a Democratic Society when they committed the cardinal sin, in then-Socialist Party leader Harrington’s view, of allowing a Communist youth group member into a meeting.
Pushing Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” to “revitalize” the Democratic Party is the same thing as the Harrington/Shachtman “realignment” strategy.9 DSA National Director Maria Svart says: “It’s just that the Democratic Party is where many progressive people do politics.”10 DSA leftist and New York City co-chair Rahel Biru, on the other hand, told the Wall Street Journal that, “The Democratic Party is where social movements go to die.” True enough, but does that mean the DSA left is expressing a fundamental difference? Hardly. The DSA right and “left” can “flexibly” agree that it’s not a principle to be in the Democratic Party everywhere or always, or vote for each and every one of its candidates – and they also agree on opposing the Marxist principle against support to capitalist parties and politicians, which they call “sectarian.”
In an article “Should Democratic Socialists Be Democrats?” in the social-democratic In These Times, DSAer Jessie Mannisto writes: “Should we work within the Democratic Party? I’d say yes. Is it enough to work within the Democratic Party? Definitely not.” She adds: “I hope we don’t exit the Democratic Party; I hope we infiltrate it.” Left Caucus member Chris Maisano counters that “Reformism doesn’t reform, and it has not succeeded in fighting the Right, either. At the same time, an oppositional approach to electoral politics seems like a recipe for marginalization.” So the left can build “progressive social movements” formally outside the Democratic Party, while at election time their votes are funneled to Democratic candidates.
The DSA’s official position, though couched in nebulous-sounding verbiage, is simply the most recent “realignment” remix:
“In the medium-to-long-term we will work to build the organizational capacity necessary to run candidates of our own ... to forge larger socialist electoral coalitions both within and outside of the Democratic Party and ultimately to create a majoritarian electoral coalition in support of socialist political and economic reforms.”11
The DSA has been so deeply embedded in the Democratic Party for decades that it doesn’t even describe itself as a distinct political party. Consequently it was hardly a factor at all in left politics. The DSA program amounts to nothing more than putting pressure on the Democrats, seeking to nudge them to the left, its calls never overstepping the boundaries of the capitalist order. And that is true of both the right and “left” of this reformist, pro-capitalist organization.
Reformist Appeals Undercut Struggles for Black and Immigrant Rights
After the cop murder of Philando Castile, the DSA released a statement on “The Need for a Democratic Transformation of the Criminal Justice and Police System” – the title encapsulates social-democratic reformism – entreating the armed fist of the bourgeois state to “promote peace and justice,” with “the use of firearms as an absolute last resort.” Along with “greater community control of policing” and “stronger gun control policies,” this would supposedly amount to a “restructuring of the role of police in our society.”12 So the DSA supports the apparatus of state repression that protects and serves the racist capitalist system against black people and the entire working class, but prettifies its role with appeals for it to more effectively embody “justice.”
This is supposed to be accomplished through the party founded to uphold chattel slavery, the Democratic Party of mass incarceration and police terror. Today’s “democratic socialists” follow in the footsteps of Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington & Co., who worked to subjugate black protest to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Marxists instead call for workers mobilization against racist police terror, and underline that racial oppression is in the marrow of American capitalism. As Internationalist contingents chant in the protests against racist police terror: Only revolution can bring justice!
As for the record number of mass deportations under Obama, which Trump seeks to escalate even further, the DSA responds with rose-tinted social-patriotism: “We can stem the ‘push’ for mass immigration from the developing world only if these economies are allowed to develop in equitable and internally integrated ways.”13 Its fellow “democratic socialist” Sanders called for a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants14 coupled with “secure borders without building a fence.”15 Much like Ralph Nader, Sanders’ populist message has included complaints about undocumented immigration “pushing down U.S. wages” (echoed in the DSA statement’s warnings about immigration “endanger[ing] union wages and union contracts in many areas”).
In opposition to revolutionary Marxism, which it derides as “unrealistic,” the DSA presents its politics as practical and cool-headed. The reality is that the DSA’s politics are indeed pragmatic – for the bourgeoisie. But they are completely illusory, impractical, unrealistic – and reactionary – when it comes to any real struggle to put an end to capitalist oppression.
Left Caucus: Realigning the Realigners
Meanwhile, the DSA’s amorphous left wing seeks its own kind of “realignment” – of the DSA itself. Within the DSA, the Left Caucus has called for an adjustment of the organization’s terms of its relationship to the Democratic Party. The hope is to nudge the DSA further to the left. “‘Progressive activism’ is not enough,” they say, the “DSA must be an organization of socialists organizing for socialism.” And so, it wants to “orient the DSA’s electoral strategy towards supporting candidates that openly run as socialists.”16 A revolutionary party can sometimes present its own candidates in capitalist elections as a platform for the revolutionary program, explaining that only socialist revolution can transform society in the interests of the oppressed. It can occasionally give critical support to workers parties and candidates running independent of and against the bourgeoisie in order to expose their contradictions.
What the DSA left proposes is nothing of the sort. Does it call for a clear, principled break with the Democrats and other capitalist parties? Far from it. In a statement issued on the eve of the 2016 election it opposed campaigning for Clinton and claimed, “We reject the realignment strategy that has guided much of the left’s electoral orientation for decades,” only to declare:
“We do not, however, call for an immediate and total break from voting for or supporting any Democratic candidate. We all fervently supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, and recognize that he probably would have been a footnote to the campaign if he tried to run as an independent. Voting for Democratic candidates in specific state and local races can be justified in many circumstances.”
– “Give The People What They Want: DSA Members on 2016 and Beyond,” 29 October 2016
In the same document, the DSA leftists observe that the DSA’s official line is to “build social movements while voting for Democrats.”17 So how, exactly, do they “reject” the official strategy? Answer: they don’t. It’s all part of a political maneuver. The DSA rightists say: Vote Democrat! The leftists say: Vote Democrat Sometimes!
One of the signers of the “Give The People What They Want” statement then came out with an appeal: “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries.”18 Socialist labels on Democratic candidates is about the clearest expression of class collaboration you could ask for. Others in the DSA left prefer a slightly less blatant approach, with more appeals to tactical “flexibility,” working with, in and around minor-league bourgeois parties like the Greens that act as pressure groups on the Democrats. Under the Big Tent in the circus of left opportunism, each can peddle their wares in comfort.
In its relation to the DSA as a whole, the “DSA left” plays a role analogous to that of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party. Sanders ropes in disaffected young voters with malarkey about revitalizing the Democratic Party, hoping no one recalls the history of past candidates who vowed to do the same. The “DSA left” talks of reforming the reformist social democracy, despite the latter’s decades of loyal service to the party of JFK, LBJ, the Clintons and Obama. Reviving the same old illusions, the political function of these ploys is to absorb opposition and generate mechanisms for subordinating new generations to the structures of American imperialist politics.
Sliding Scale of Opportunism
The DSA is the biggest fish in the social-democratic pond, as it wants everyone to know, but it is not the only one. Oohing and aahing over its growth, smaller outfits of the opportunist left are scrambling to outdo each other in their efforts to make nice with the DSA. Like the latter, Bernie’s “revolution” warmed their hearts as they “felt the Bern.” Yet from the other side of their mouths, each proclaims itself to be the torchbearer of some revitalized socialist movement. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt) have held joint events with the DSA, like the “Pre-May Day Socialist Picnic and Sign Making Party” in San Francisco, amiably framing the differences between “democratic socialists” and Marxists as mere tactical questions.
The ISO’s criticism of the DSA is akin to its criticism of Bernie Sanders – which boiled down in practice to suggesting, recommending and beseeching that he run as an independent while continuously describing him as a socialist and running red-white-and-blue paeans to how his “political revolution” was putting “socialism in the air.” They claim that the DSA is forgoing “independent” politics. But tailing any “movement” in sight, the ISO has built one “independent” bourgeois campaign after another, from immigrant-basher Ralph Nader to Sanders cheerleader Jill Stein of the Green Party, and have themselves run as candidates of this minor-league capitalist party from NYC to the SF Bay Area.
On the sliding scale of opportunism, a smidgeon to the right of the ISO is Socialist Alternative, U.S. affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) which holds that cops are workers in uniform. They also administered the city of Liverpool for capitalism as the Militant tendency of the British Labour Party. After spending paragraphs congratulating the DSA on its influx of new members in “DSA Grows to 21,000 – Toward a New Socialist Party” (5 July 2017), SAlt slips in one brief sentence about the DSA’s origins: “Historically, DSA was an anti-communist, social-democratic trend that was committed to a long-term strategy of transforming the Democratic Party.” So what’s changed? According to SAlt:
“DSA is an evolving organization. Within it are a wide range of views on a variety of issues. There remains an important section of DSA that still maintains its traditional politics. But it appears that this wing is now a minority and that the new people joining are largely supportive of the more left-wing current around Jacobin.”
Yet the Left Caucus and Jacobin milieu within the DSA do not, as we have seen, represent any significant political break from the DSA’s origins. They simply want to loosen a bit their commitments to the Democratic Party. Hailing the “enormous support for Bernie Sanders,” “the enormous movement of resistance” to Trump, and the “exciting” growth of the DSA, SAlt sums up: “Socialist Alternative urges DSA to take advantage of its rapid growth and dynamism to use this potential to launch a new, broad, democratic Socialist Party....” Enormous indeed is the appetite for opportunist maneuvering.
In a similar vein, a smaller group made up of SAlt’s former comrades in the International Marxist Tendency’s U.S. section hails the “exciting growth” of the DSA, and “agrees with DSA’s support for campaigns to the left of the Democrats,” like a Green Party candidate for New York city council, while proposing that the DSA disaffiliate from the Socialist International to “clear the way for DSA to help build a genuine socialist international,” and so on (Socialist Revolution, July-August 2017). And just to make sure no one thinks they’ve gone “sectarian,” they call, in bold italics for “Bernie Sanders, [the Sanders support group] Our Revolution, and labor leaders” to break with the Democrats and “build a mass socialist party” (led by a bourgeois politician)!
Trailing along, Left Voice (25 April) enthused: “The DSA’s upsurge is leading new activists into the workers’ movement – a promising sign for the US left.” The web site masquerades as a neutral media outlet for a variety of leftist politics, but is the outlet of the Trotskyist Faction, led by the Partido de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (Workers Party for Socialism) whose specialty is engineering reformist left election coalitions. While hailing the DSA’s growth, it also voices some “left” suggestions, like following the “example” of the election of SAlt’s Kshama Sawant to the Seattle city council, which Left Voice (19 June) says “points to the potential for the left to boldly advance socialist candidacies and politics.” Yet SAlt’s municipal reformism led Sawant to praise the selection of a woman police chief, whose cops have kept on killing black people.
The sliding scale of opportunism in left groups’ orientation to the Democratic Party and DSA reflects what they have in common. For all their talk about “independent politics,” they present themselves as basically being on the same team as the DSA – which is true enough. Their differences are tactical, a series of gradations on a scale of how best to build “coalitions” to pressure the Democrats. They put forward similar menus of reforms while trying to pull liberals to the left with “fight the right” rhetoric. Genuine Marxists, on the other hand, fight on a revolutionary class program, calling to break with all the capitalist parties, and in particular with the liberals, “progressives” and those who falsely claim to be “friends” of labor, black people, immigrants, women and other oppressed groups.
As they tail after populist politicians from Nader to Sanders, the assorted social-democratic reformists dismiss the program of breaking with bourgeois politics and building a workers party to fight for socialist revolution as a pipedream. In reality, they regard it as anathema, loathing revolutionary politics “like sin.”
A real example for the workers movement, however, was shown
by Portland Painters Union (IUPAT) Local 10, which in August
2016 passed a motion calling for no support to any bosses’
party and instead to build a class-struggle workers party.
Within a week of Trump’s election, the union passed a motion
to mobilize labor action to stop racist and fascist
provocations, leading to similar motions by other area unions.
And this past June 4, they mobilized several hundred unionists
from 14 unions against a racist/fascist rally. But instead of
a united action that could have shut down the fascists, a
reformist/liberal coalition led by the ISO and including the
DSA and SAlt deliberately split the protest and called a
separate rally coordinating with the mayor and the police
explicitly in order to avoid any confrontation
with the fascists.19
Painters Union Local 10 (Portland, Oregon) at June 4 labor mobilization to stop fascists calls to break with all the bosses’ parties and for a workers party.
Of the thousands of youth attracted to the DSA, those who actually seek to fight for socialism must choose a different path. What’s needed is not an amorphous social-democratic organization in the framework of bourgeois parliamentary politics, but forging a democratic-centralist Leninist party that can actually lead the class struggle against the entire bourgeoisie (and its reformist hangers-on). Such a party must intransigently combat all forms of class collaboration, which leads to defeat for the workers and oppressed. And that begins with clearly and unambiguously drawing the crucial lines of demarcation between Democratic Party “socialism” and the communist program of international socialist revolution. ■
The above article is part of a forthcoming pamphlet on the Democratic Socialists of America. For a copy of the pamphlet, write to Mundial Publications, Box 3321, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008. Or send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 1. See “Democrat Sanders Aboard the ‘War on Terror’ Bandwagon” (The Internationalist No. 42, January-February 2016); “Bernie, War & The Empire’s Pie,” Counterpunch, 13 November 2015, and “Greatest threat to US? Sanders says ‘paranoid’ N. Korea, Clinton picks ‘belligerent’ Russia,” rt.com, 5 February 2016.
- 2. “America dropped 26,171 bombs in 2016. What a bloody end to Obama’s reign,” Guardian. 9 January 2017.
- 3. “Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution” (June 2016) at dsausa.org.
- 4. Bhaskar Sunkara. “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past,” New York Times. 26 June 2017.
- 5. Bhaskar Sunkara. “Socialism’s Future May Be its Past,” New York Times. 26 June 2017.
- 6. Schwartz and Sunkara call on socialists to “to broaden out the post-Sanders, anti-corporate trend in US politics into a working-class ‘rainbow coalition’.”
- 7. “Socialism at the People’s Summit,” 12 May 2016, dsausa.org.
- 8. “Where We Stand: Building the Next Left,” dsausa.org.
- 9. Harrington and Shachtman wanted the Democrats to lop off their Southern segregationist Dixiecrat wing. Ironically, the Dixiecrats eventually went over to the Republicans, but in the aftermath the Democratic Party has moved steadily to the right as the Clintons “triangulated” with Republican policies and Obama sought “consensus.”
- 10. Jesse A. Myerson, “An Anti-Trump Electoral Strategy That Isn’t Pro-Clinton,” 9 September 2016.
- 11. “Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution,” 25 June 2016.
- 12. Statement on dsausa.org, 12 July 2016.
- 13. “Justice for Immigrant Workers,” dsausa.org, 31 January 2013.
- 14. PBS News Hour “2016 Candidate Stands” series, 30 April 2015.
- 15. 2016 grassroots campaign website FeelTheBern.org, “Issues.”
- 16. “DSA Left Caucus Position Paper: Who We Are, Where We Stand,” August 2014.
- 17. “Give The People What They Want.”
- 18. Daniel Moraff, “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries,” 21 April 2017, dsausa.org.
- 19.See “Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation,” and “How Do You Spell Class Collaboration? ISO,” in The Internationalist No. 49, May-June 2017