Are DSA’s Factions Missing the Point? A Response to Philly Socialists/Marxist Center

By José G. Pérez.

I think this article on the Democratic Socialist America’s (DSA) “fierce internal debate,” like the New Republic piece on the DSA’s “Race Problem” that preceded and seems to have provoked it, have a very serious problem, namely, how do you explain an organization that has grown from somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 members three years ago to one with almost 60,000 now?

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The answer is that today’s DSA is the product and an outgrowth of a much broader new socialist movement that is emerging in the United States. It is not the only expression. The first sign of this new explicitly socialist generation (beyond Occupy Wall Street’s rough but class-conscious “we are the 99%”) were precisely the Philly Socialists, in the summer of 2012, to which the comrade who wrote article belongs.

So I think it is more accurate to say that the DSA has been grown by outside forces than the more neutral “it grew” and to say that it recruited tens of thousands of members by its own activity and efforts is false. I’ve written about this on my blog several times, most recently in the post, “The question facing the Democratic Socialists of America: What Are We?”

In Atlanta, we have around 800 members, 90% new, a lot of the pre-2016 members in their 70s and glad to hand over the reins to a new generation, among whom at most a handful have organizing experience. And we are far from building relationships with and actively engaging even a fifth of our members … and remember these are overwhelmingly people who reached out and joined through their own initiative.

Talking about a “fierce debate” in the DSA with left wings and right wings, entryists and horizontalists, can be misleading because there aren’t even any forums for this debate, just postings and proclamations in various online spaces, some of which are never even mentioned on the group’s national discussion boards, which involve probably less than 1% of the membership and a few percent of the activists.

The national leadership, which is dominated by people from a caucus that used to be called “Momentum” simply does not lead. As far as I can tell it makes no attempt to involve much of anyone beyond itself and a tiny circle in its decisions nor to convince much of anyone once they have been made. This provoked a tremendous cluster-fuck around the Bernie endorsement because it was married to an approach to the presidential campaign that many in the DSA consider sectarian and was never discussed at all beyond 10 or 15 folks in the upper reaches of the organization.

That strategy is here. A pretty savage critique from the San Francisco chapter is here, combining both a critique of a national endorsement before our convention as well as of the campaign plan. My own critique, strictly of the politics of the National Political Committee’s (NPC) approach, is here. As is typical of the NPC and its members, there’s been no political argument for its approach mostly an insistence that it is necessary under campaign laws and further explanations of legalities.

How could such a grouping wind up dominating the only national leadership body? The pre-2016 DSA had never had disputes or caucuses, being a staid social-democratic organization. The 2017 DSA was transformed by an influx of new people and at its convention small organized factions played an outsized role.

Momentum re-organized as the Spring Caucus in January and blew up in March, splitting into its main components, one based in the East Bay DSA, the other in Philly. Its official documents presented it as relentlessly workerist, economist, and class reductionist, so much so that by contrast groups like Progressive Labor and International Socialists from the 1960s and 1970s almost seem like staunch defenders of Malcolm X.

But there is also the North Star caucus (no relation to the late Peter Camejo), which is the continuation of the Harrington outlook that dominated the DSA until recently. There is a libertarian quasi-anarchist caucus, and there had been a more r-r-r-evolutionary than thou Communist Caucus, but I’m not sure it still exists. There is a thing called “Build” which is not a caucus, it says, but promotes a political approach and will certainly have some of its leading people as candidates for the incoming leadership.

One of the most prominent caucuses, called Refoundation, dissolved last year, and recently a new caucus emerged called Socialist Majority (full disclosure: I am a member and one of the signers of its initial statement). It defends intersectional politics (but not what the regenerationmag article describes as oppression-reductionism), but most of all Socialist Majority argues for the DSA to remain a (very) big tent and I think a pretty general sentiment in it is that the DSA needs to have a major focus on simply consolidating its growth.

On the issue of whether DSA and its various wings don’t understand that we need to build the left and the working class together, I hear in that criticism an echo of my voluntarist (fake) Leninist past. We need to abandon the idea that we have or can discern from Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or any combination of these and other luminaries the right formula by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement and fight to impose it regardless of time, place or circumstance.

Accept the movement as it is. That is the starting point. That is why I stress the question of what does it mean to go from 6,000 to 60,000 members from 2016 to 2019. If it is not an expression of actual movement among working people, what is it? An alignment of the stars? A startlingly convincing illustration of the aleatory and mathematically chaotic nature of developments in human society?

For those who say that even if it is an expression of an actual movement, the DSA is a fucking mess and a mass of contradictions, I can only respond that I envy your capacity for understatement.

What I can add is simply that in my understanding, those of us who are Marxists should accept the movement as it is, and work in and through it to a resolution of what will undoubtedly be successive layers of contradictions, not simply denounce their existence and demand that they disappear.

“If we did not want to do that, if we did not want to take up the movement, adhere to its already existing, most advanced, actually proletarian side and to advance it further, then there was nothing left for us to do but to preach communism in a little provincial sheet and to found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action. But we had already been spoilt for the role of preachers in the wilderness; we had studied the utopians too well for that, nor was it for that we had drafted our programme.” [Engels, Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848–49)]

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Groupthink is a contradiction in terms.

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