Hammer, Sickle and Four logo

No. 14, January 2018

DSA Dodges Debate

“Socialism: What It Is (and Isn’t)”

A chair was reserved for the YDSA to have a political debate with us at the 19 October 2017 forum. Unable to defend pro-Democrat line, junior league social democrats refused debate challenge.  (Internationalist photo)

Since the election of Donald Trump, the term “socialism” has been on the minds of many, a popular topic of discussion among those disillusioned with the status quo and increasingly insecure about the future. In the last year, the United States has seen repeated rallies by violent racists, one of which resulted in the murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

We’ve seen unending police violence and attacks by racists against black people, as well as massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) arrests of immigrants. We’ve seen a hurricane ravage the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, which because of the chains of finance capital that bind it to colonial slavery, is still without power on the majority of the island. We’ve seen racist, xenophobic president Trump threaten “fire and fury” against North Korea, whose people were slaughtered by the millions and whose cities were leveled by the U.S. in the Korean War (1950-53). As a result of widespread socio-political instability, many are becoming aware of the nature of capitalism, and the damage done by its exploitation of the working class and oppressed, of whole countries and continents.

Although the word socialism has gained attention, still fixed in the minds of many are the lies about socialism propagated by the bourgeois class. Even before the “first red scare” that was launched after World War One and the Russian Revolution, socialism and communism were vilified, frequently leading to investigation, arrest and blacklisting of those suspected of harboring subversive views. Anti-communist hysteria was used to whip up support for imperialist assaults on countries where capitalist domination was challenged. Yet socialism became the banner of oppressed people throughout the world. Colonial peoples seeking freedom from imperialist slavery were painted as their polar opposites – as dangerous enemies of freedom.

Lies about what socialism is still influence many today, and have been passed from one generation to the next. For decades, ruling-class politicians and media used the term “socialist” to discredit political viewpoints even slightly to the left of the status quo. Yet it has also been used cynically by pseudo-socialist groups that want to reform an unreformable system; and by capitalist politicians like Bernie Sanders to funnel disillusioned youth back into the Democratic Party. Therefore, clarity on the matter of what socialism is, and what it is not, is an important part of winning young people to the revolutionary Marxist program. That is, the genuine communist tradition of Lenin and Trotsky, which upheld Marxist socialism against the social democrats who supported World War One – and was the basis for the Bolshevik Revolution, whose 100th anniversary we celebrated last November.

Going back to the Communist Manifesto (1847), polemics – political arguments aimed at achieving political clarity on an issue – are an important part of the Marxist tradition. Marx and Engels made arguments against the “utopian socialists,” who believed socialism could be achieved by convincing the ruling class it was a more just and rational way to organize society. Rosa Luxemburg wrote her classic Reform or Revolution to demolish the reformist nostrums of early “revisionist” Eduard Bernstein. Lenin exposed social democrats who made their peace with capitalism and became supporters of imperialist war. Trotsky polemicized tirelessly against Stalin’s anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country” and “popular fronts” with capitalist politicians; and against those like Karl Radek who deserted the Left Opposition to become hack writers for the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Cover of The Nation magazine gushing over the DSA’s membership growth in the last year.

On September 7, the Hunter College Internationalist Club issued a debate challenge to the Hunter College Young Democratic Socialists of America on the topic “Socialism: What It Is (and Isn’t).” The YDSA is the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has grown to a claimed membership of over 30,000 members since Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination and the massive revulsion at the election of Donald Trump. Many of those attracted to the DSA are unfamiliar with its real politics and record of supporting U.S. imperialism and the Democratic Party.

The YDSA did not write a response to our debate challenge until almost six weeks later. When it finally did so, it was only to dodge the debate with the pathetic pretext that it had “no intention of continuing to engage” (sic) with the Internationalist Club, citing what it called our “unprovoked hostility” towards the DSA – as exemplified by such “inappropriate actions” as “traveling all the way to Chicago” to distribute Marxist literature to DSA members at their national convention. Grotesquely, the YDSA message characterizes setting up a literature table on the sidewalk outside this “socialist” convention as seeking to “harass” them. This smear is consistent with the fact that the DSA called the cops on our comrades, whose offense consisted of distributing a leaflet criticizing their reformist politics. At its convention, the DSA elected police union organizer Danny Fetonte to its leading body, the National Political Committee. When some members attempted to have him removed from leadership, they were unable to do so, though he later quit. (See “ABCs of the DSA” and “DSA Debacle Over Cop ‘Union’ Organizer” at internationalist.org.)

Fresh from appealing to the cops to seal members off from the “threat” of Trotskyism in Chicago, the DSA was aware that having to “engage” in open debate at Hunter, where the Internationalist Club has long been the leading left group, would reveal its inability to defend its real, anti-socialist history and politics. This is the real reason they refused to debate us. Instead, YDSA members devoted themselves to anti-political and anti-communist baiting and sneering. The Internationalist Club went ahead with the event anyway, holding it as a forum/“open chair debate” on October 19. A chair on the platform was left open for the YDSA in case they changed their minds, and we took the opportunity to explain our perspective on socialism and how it differ from the YDSA. We called the forum “Socialism: What It Is (and Isn’t).”

Presenting basic points about the real meaning of socialism and communism, presenters Will and Jacob linked this to such burning topics as how to uproot women’s oppression, the Marxist program for black liberation, why supporting capitalist politicians like Bernie Sanders is the opposite of socialist politics, the importance of defending North Korea against U.S. war threats, and other topics. The presentations were followed by a discussion period where audience members posed further questions and made pertinent comments. Comrades from the Internationalist Group’s recently founded youth section, the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth, expanded on what it means when we call for a revolutionary workers party, why Marxists fight for the independence of Puerto Rico and all colonies, and other points.

While refusing to debate, or even to listen to the presentations, members of the YDSA evidently decided to make a bit of a spectacle of themselves. After two lurked in the back for a couple of minutes at the beginning, they took off – but one then darted into the room, snapped a photo, then darted out. Another came back and stood sneering before leaving again. Finally another came in after the presentations and worked up the courage to make a comment from the floor, stating, to the incredulity of the crowd:

“I don’t see you building anything. I don’t see you going into the street and doing actual organizing work that’s going to fight against the social system that is actually hurting us. What do you think is the point of being so incredibly hostile toward the DSA and all the other groups?”

Comrades politely reminded the YDSAer that, as every politically aware student at Hunter knows, the Internationalist Club is the only left group on campus to consistently organize rallies, speak-outs and contingents in mass protests against racist repression, in defense of immigrants and against U.S. imperialism; and those who know the history of activism at CUNY know the club’s inception successfully mobilizing to defeat CUNY’s “anti-immigrant war purge” back in 2001, all the way down to its role in innumerable recent struggles bringing students and adjuncts out to workers’ picket lines from the Hot and Crusty bakery to the Verizon and Spectrum strikes, and immigrant workers’ union drive at B&H Photo – to mention but a few. Most crucially, we carry out this organizing work on the basis of a program for socialist revolution, a far cry from those who can only give socialism a bad name by identifying it with pro-Democratic Party class collaboration.

We publish below edited excerpts from the presentations at the forum.


The main question we are here to answer is, What is socialism? It’s important to understand that this term can have two types of meanings. One is to refer to a future society, that was mostly formulated by Marx and Engels. They didn’t create the term – that was done by their predecessors, the utopian socialists. The essence of what socialism is, according to Marx, is a society where there are no classes.

Capitalism has developed to such an extent that advances in technology, in agriculture, mass production of products, the global economy, actually provides the capability of producing enough for everyone. But Marx also says that you can’t just immediately jump to socialism – you can’t just decide ‘OK, let’s have a classless, socialist society’ – and that was one of his biggest critiques of the utopian socialists, who believed that socialism was such a great idea that if we can just teach everybody what it is, then everyone in the world will agree it’s a better way of structuring society and we’ll just have socialism all of a sudden.

What the utopian socialists failed to understand is that the ruling class – the capitalists who control the wealth of the world – they’re not going to simply give up their wealth because socialism is a good idea. There has to be a socialist revolution that overthrows the capitalists that are ruling over society, that are ruling over the working class and the oppressed of almost the entire world. The capitalists are not going to simply hand over the keys to the kingdom to the people who work for them. The workers have to take those resources and create a socialist society through a revolution, and that’s a key difference that Marx had with the utopian socialists.

So socialism means the emancipation of all of the working class and the oppressed. One of the key aspects of that is the emancipation of women from capitalist oppression. The root of women’s oppression is in the nuclear family. Socialism would abolish the basis for that nuclear family that enslaves women to domestic servitude. It would do so by providing social institutions enabling people to voluntarily socialize the household chores and child-rearing that women are required to do today. By making childcare a free service available to all – freeing women to have leisure time to enjoy culture, which allows society to develop. Under capitalism half of the world’s population is stuck in this oppression of domestic servitude. Socialism releases women to be liberated and pursue their own desires and development.

In a similar way, socialism would destroy the material basis for racial oppression and racism. In the United States, capitalism was built upon slavery. The Constitution was written by slaveholders and the bedrock of the wealth that the 13 colonies and the U.S. as a young nation gained came through the labor of enslaved Africans and African Americans. And that is one of the things that allowed the U.S. to become the capitalist world power, the imperialist world power that it is today. In what we call the Second American Revolution, the Civil War, where slaves fought for their own freedom, they joined the Union army, took up arms and fought for their emancipation. Yet even after the end of chattel slavery, and later the end of legal segregation, the oppression of black people did not end. Everyone in this room knows about the system of mass incarceration where a huge percentage of the people being locked up are black (13% of U.S. population, 40% of incarcerated population) and Latino (16% of U.S. population, 19% of incarcerated population). That is happening because racial oppression is central to U.S. capitalism.

The police are a tool of the capitalist class to maintain the oppression of black, Latino and all working-class people. In a socialist society, however, there would not be a ruling class and an oppressed class, so there’s no longer a need to oppress a whole section of the population based on their skin color or their origin. A large reason for racism is to divide the oppressed classes, to divide black workers and white workers and Latino workers. The only way to smash capitalism is through the working class coming together to overthrow the ruling class.

Which side are you on? (Left) Black Lives Matter protesters at a march on the Texas state capitol in Austin, September 2015. (Right) Danny Fetonte, together with Bernie Sanders. Fetonte, a long-time leader of the Austin, Texas branch of the DSA, was for years an organizer for a cop “unon,” the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT). During Fetonte’s tenure at CLEAT, an officer raped a handcuffed woman in the back of a police car, and the “union” spent $1 million to prevent changes to the police contract that would have made it easier to charge the rapist. .  (Photos: (left) Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT; (right) Austin DSA)

Bernie Sanders, who said he was a “democratic socialist,” cannot be a socialist because he is working with a ruling-class party. He ran as a candidate for the Democrats. This is the party that dropped two nuclear bombs on civilian cities in Japan. This is the party that has the record under Obama for more deportations than any other president in history. So Bernie Sanders is by no means a socialist but rather a representative of the ruling class.

We were hoping to have a polemic, a debate with the DSA, but they decided that polemics aren’t productive. But I wanted to mention some of the political differences that we have with the DSA. First of all, they endorsed Bernie Sanders. We have said from the very beginning that Bernie Sanders is not a socialist – he is a mechanism to bring young people back into the Democratic Party. But it’s more than this.

At the recent convention of the DSA they elected a police union organizer – Danny Fetonte – as a part of their National Political Committee. If you are an organization willing to allow an organizer of cops – one of the tools of racist oppression under capitalism – to remain in your organizing committee you are certainly not socialist.


It is clear that we are living in a time of crisis. There is a real fear the Third World War is looming, with the escalation of imperialist war threats against North Korea, and that millions will be the victims of nuclear annihilation; that our immigrant fellow students will be snatched away by I.C.E., detained in concentration camps and deported; that our black brothers and sisters will be the next victims of racist and fascist violence. What we are seeing is a reflection of the social system in which we live – the capitalist system – in decay. Amid the rise of nationalism, racism, and attacks by fascist groups, many are coming to see that the ills of this society cannot simply be reformed away, but rather that they are intrinsic to the capitalist system; that to fight against oppression is to struggle for socialism.

Revolutionary Marxists fight for the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. Why the working class, and why do we spend so much of our time talking about it? First of all, it is the working class whose exploitation is the basis of the capitalist system. And second, it’s the only force capable of shutting the capitalist system down. So while reformist organizations like the DSA draw illusions that socialism can come from the Democratic Party – preaching class collaboration – we say that the first step in the struggle against the ruling class is to break from its political parties. The working class must rely on its own independent political power.

Karl Liebknecht, opponent of imperialist war and agitator for socialist revolution, speaking at mass meeting in Berlin’s Tiergarten, December 1918. A month later, he was murdered on orders of the Social Democratic government. The DSA stands in the counterrevolutionary political tradition of social democracy.  
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

When the working class becomes the ruling class, it will immediately begin to transform the structures of society to eliminate oppression, racism and sexism. The productive capacity of society will be used to meet human needs instead of private profit. Under capitalism, millions of people take part in the process to make the things that we require to survive, yet a small social stratum possesses the products of that work, despite not even participating in the productive process. Nevertheless, the capitalists sell these commodities as their own. They obtain luxuriantly higher standards of living than the working class and they make the decisions that decide the fate of millions of people.

In the capitalist pursuit of profit the markets are flooded with commodities, prices drop below the cost of production, and profit can’t even be realized. Therefore our society doesn’t suffer from crises of scarcity – like famines, crop failures, or even overpopulation. There is a “crisis of abundance,” called “overproduction,” where commodities just sit around because they cannot be sold at a profit. The latest example of this is the financial crash that began in 2008. During the housing crisis, overproduction of homes led to mass evictions and a rise in homelessness. How can you make sense of that? Why is this the case? Because if the possessing class doesn’t at least break even, you can sleep on the street or starve for all they care.

So with the socialist transformation of society, the accumulated scientific knowledge and technological advances of humanity will be applied not for the maximization of profit of the possessing class, but for the true fulfillment of society’s wants and needs – uninhibited by parasitic social relations of private property. You can radically reduce the amount of human labor necessary to maintain society. For instance, no longer will automation mean mass layoffs. Instead it will allow for a more rational allocation of human labor.

The racist institution of the police, which originated with slave patrols here in the United States, will be abolished. All of the vile discriminatory restrictions on immigration will be done away with. The burden of domestic labor, which falls almost entirely on women, will be transferred to society, which will take on the responsibility of childcare, education, cooking and cleaning. Thus collectivized property forms will uproot the material conditions of oppression and the ideologies that stem from it.

We say that the Soviet Union, though initially a healthy workers state, underwent a process of bureaucratic degeneration. In calling the former Soviet Union a bureaucratically degenerated workers state, and China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba bureaucratically deformed workers states, and defending them against imperialism, we are not saying that these countries are workers’ paradises or some heaven on Earth. It is an objective understanding of how the property forms and social relations in these countries differ from capitalism, embodying historic gains, and the specific course that must be taken there in the fight for genuine socialism in each of these countries.

With the case of China, many say that China is in fact a capitalist country, citing the expansive capitalist inroads that have been made there. But private Chinese firms have been able to make so much growth in the first place because the state is feeding them so much cheap credit, and because it’s placed impediments on foreign companies gaining access to the Chinese market. However, the potentials of planned economies have been limited because of the bureaucratic administrations of these states and the lack of workers democracy, the result, fundamentally, of Stalinism – with its notion that socialism can be created in one country, which is a complete impossibility.

We defend these countries against U.S. imperialism. We call for the military defense of them against American war threats. We call for a proletarian political revolution to kick out the bureaucracy, save the nationalized property forms and establish genuine workers democracy. In the case of North Korea we remember that the United States killed off 20% of the population in the Korean War, that it dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula than in the entire Pacific theater of World War Two. And Korea is only a third of the size of Japan. We remember that the U.S. installed a regime in South Korea of former collaborators with the Japanese colonial occupation.

In the October Revolution in 1917, amid the devastation of the First World War, the workers of Russia, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew the capitalist state. This was the first successful workers revolution in history and with it came full citizenship rights for all immigrants, substantial gains for women like communal crèches and free abortion on demand, and the abolition of laws against homosexuality. The October Revolution was waged on behalf of the working classes of all nations and the Bolsheviks’ goal was to extend the gains of October throughout the world.

However, even after being forced into a “robbers’ peace” with German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk, the infant workers state was further ravished by civil war and an invasion by 14 imperialist powers, an economic blockade and political isolation. This coincided with the rise of the conservative nationalist bureaucracy that feared the spread of the revolution, which consolidated power in 1923-24 with Stalin at its head.

Today, we say that anyone calling themselves socialists can’t take a reformist approach, and that those engaging in class collaboration in reality cease to be socialist. Because in seeking to “work with” the ruling class, in calling it “practical” to reconcile their demands with the ruling class, one foregoes the tasks necessary for socialism.

The DSA, since its inception in the early 1980s, has been dedicated to being the ‘left wing of the possible,’ and to ‘realigning’ the Democratic Party. In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign, they have said explicitly that the medium-to-long term goals of the DSA are to establish coalitions both within and with the Democratic Party.

The documents of the DSA from its establishment say that its tasks will consist in good part of campaigning on behalf of Democratic Party politicians. So they are most definitely not interested in – they oppose – making the break with the ruling class that is necessary for the fight for a socialist society. As Will said, the ruling class won’t give up the wealth it has, nor its power. This requires a struggle against the ruling class. It doesn’t come through holding hands together and singing kumbaya – it comes from organization.

After the discussion round, Jacob gave a summary, stating:

The difference, fundamentally, between so-called “democratic socialists” and revolutionary Marxists is a matter of principle. These social democrats are fighting for a completely different cause, and definitely not for a classless society. Instead, their program means trying to make minuscule improvements to our current society by making huge concessions to the capitalist class.

In contrast, based on the struggle of the working class, genuine socialism – communism – requires the most thorough break from the capitalist class as a whole, with all its parties and politicians, and a fight for revolutionary working-class politics aimed at overthrowing capitalist exploitation and establishing socialism on a world scale. ■