Reflections on the DSA

Fifty years ago I fully expected that by 2017 we would be living under socialism in the USA, thanks to a combination of deepening contradictions that would make capitalism untenable and our steely resolve in building a vanguard Trotskyist party up to the task of leading the glorious revolution of the future. It turned out that it was our vanguardist pretensions that were untenable. That plus capitalism’s ability to both co-opt and repress the left leaves us where we are today: in a total mess.

In the early 80s I hooked up with Peter Camejo’s North Star Network in the hope of building a new left that dispensed with vanguardist pretensions. Carrying out a one-man probe of the extant non-Leninist left, I decided to attend DSA’s “Radical Alternatives for the 1980s: A Conference on Education and Strategy for Progressive” in 1983. After spending 11 years in the Trotskyist movement with its cocksure belief that it was predestined to lead the American revolution, I found the conference a breath of fresh air, especially Stanley Aronowitz’s presentation on what Peter and I used to call “tasks and perspectives” reports. The DSA was only a year old at the time, having been formed through a merger of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). NAM was probably closer to the North Star politically but not likely to be interested in a regroupment effort with ex-Trotskyists. Michael Harrington’s DSOC was not only much larger but had an orientation to the Democratic Party that was a match to the ideological background of leading NAM members like Richard Healy, the son of former CP leader Dorothy Healy.

After writing an article for the North Star newsletter describing the conference as a positive development, I was stunned to discover that it rankled a number of our members who saw DSA as “reformist”. As I recall, someone wrote a critique of my article in the very next issue just a few months before the network dissolved.

For the next 24 years, I didn’t give much thought to the DSA. In a free association test, the words “DSA” would make me reply “Socialist Scholars Conference”. Indeed, if you look at the speakers featured at the 1983 conference I attended, you’d see that these were mostly CUNY professors who were featured in heavy rotation at Socialist Scholars Conference plenaries: Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Harrington, Manning Marable, Frances Fox Piven, Stanley Aronowitz, Irving Howe, Bogdan Denitch and Janet Shenk.

After “Socialist Scholars Conference”, the next free association test for DSA would result in “In these Times”, the newspaper launched by James Weinstein in 1976 that had the same informal relationship to the DSA that the sorely missed radical newsweekly The Guardian had to SDS in the 60s. I read “In these Times” fairly regularly although I always bristled at NAM member John Judis’s “left” condemnations of the Sandinistas that tended to raise the same talking points as Paul Berman’s in the Village Voice.

I was very active on the left throughout the 1980s but never ran into a single DSA’er in my Central American solidarity work except for NYU physics professor Alan Sokal who would become a celebrity after punking “Social Text”. Alan went to Nicaragua on a Tecnica delegation and used to come to our events. A couple of years after his hoax was published, I began to have misgivings since it was inspired by Norman Levitt, a Rutgers professor who had staged a “Science Wars” conference at NYU funded by the ultraright Olin Foundation. I doubt any of this had anything to do with the DSA as such. In fact, I had the distinct impression that Alan had only a nominal membership in the DSA just as I have in the Green Party.

To use the cliché I have grown annoyed with and will retire with this article (as I hope other leftist writers will), let’s fast-forward to 2017 when the DSA is enjoying explosive growth, largely it seems from Sanderistas joining up. Rolling Stone, a reliable barometer of trends among the youth from rock-and-roll to politics, cited 26-year old DSA organizer Brandon Rey Ramirez: “Bernie Sanders did a great service to us by saying, ‘I’m a democratic socialist.’ You then had a ton more interest coming in because of that, and I think interest in socialism [in general]. I think people want something different, and they want to be part of something where they feel like it’s not super bureaucratic.” I would be tempted to ask Ramirez if the Democratic Party was not super bureaucratic itself but I doubt our paths will ever cross.

DSA’s growth goes hand in hand with two other highly publicized success stories. Jacobin Magazine now has a circulation of 36,000, thanks in part to the kind of publicity it received in the bourgeois media. The NY Times, which had a fawning profile on Ralph Lauren’s collection of 80 vintage automobiles, loves success stories. In that vein, it profiled Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara in a story “A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream” that saluted marketing skills equal to Ralph Lauren’s, it would seem. The article quoted MSNBC host Chris Hayes: “He’s got the combination of boastful assurance and competence of a very good young rapper.” About a decade ago, Sunkara broached the possibility of interviewing me but I never heard back from him. That was a wise choice of the enterprising young man since being associated with me on any basis might have undermined a promising career.

The third member of this socialism on the march tripartite is a podcast called Chapo Trap House that rakes in $70,000 per month from Patreon. This is a radical comedy troupe that is to our time as The Firesign Theater was to the 1960s, not that I was their fan at the time. My tastes were decidedly old-fashioned and might even be considered reactionary by some. I laugh out loud at P.J. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, while Matt Taibbi—a typical Chapo guest—leaves me cold.

Despite what might strike some as a jaundiced view of this new left, I view the growth of DSA as a positive development just as I did in 1983. In fact, when a millennial wrote me not too long ago about what is to be done, I encouraged him to join the DSA. I might have done so myself like my crusty older comrades except that I am afraid of being pilloried if recognized at one of their meetings.

Let me conclude with a couple of cavils even if DSA leaders have heard them many times, including from some caucuses that are try to push the organization to left with modest results.

To start with, even though I don’t believe that a new left group has to define itself as socialist, I would only hope that if they do so, they would do it with clarity. Although it has not really demonstrated the kind of success as other groups on the broad left in Europe, the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) was correct in putting aside defining socialism when it was founded in 2009. As Trotskyists, they had seen their movement and the Maoists going through innumerable splits over arcane questions about when the USSR stopped meeting some criterion that a sect used as a litmus test. It was best to avoid such doctrinal disputes and focus on the living class struggle, such as, for example, how to combat Macron’s assault on the trade unions.

In an article that is part of a series running in the NY Times on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Sunkara defined socialism as “Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.”

What exactly is a regulated market? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Markets by their definition are prone to inequality. The most successful worker-owned firm in the world is Mondragon in Spain but in striving for efficiency, it carries out lay-offs and pay-cuts. In 2013, workers at Fagor, a pressure-cooker manufacturer that is part of Mondragon’s vast holdings, organized a lock-in to protest management’s attacks.

There are wide-spread illusions right now in worker-owned firms that fail to recognize that in an economy dominated by market relations they will be subject to the dictates of capital: compete or die. Commenting on the Fagor labor protests, Richard Wolff told Fortune Magazine: “Co-operatives are subject to changing tastes, technologies, mismanagement — all the usual reasons why an enterprise can have trouble. It would make no more sense to question co-ops because one goes out of business than to look at Detroit and say, ‘Isn’t capitalism a failure.’” With all due respect to Richard Wolff, who is a Marxist economist of some renown, I would claim that Detroit does illustrate that capitalism is a failure.

All of this is academic since the prospect of a socialism based on worker-owned firms in the USA today is about as remote as Soviets. However, the widespread belief in them suggests that the left has an implicit belief that socialism will be achieved by the slow and steady growth of such firms in combination with electoral victories by liberal or radical politicians who will back them against the “bad guys” like the Koch brothers. Long-time DSA member David Anderson called them “little islands of the future” in an article on the DSA website that hailed Bernie Sanders support for co-ops in Vermont.

In a way, the ideological support for worker-owned firms reminds me a lot of the utopian socialism of the 19th century. Robert Owen created New Lamark that supplied the “basics necessary to live a good life” to use Sunkara’s words but it was only made possible by the profits generated by a cotton mill owned by Owen. To his credit, he never would allow the kind of layoffs or cut-backs that have plagued Mondragon. As Engels pointed out, “When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time.”

Let me be clear about this. I consider support for what amounts to market socialism to be eminently forgivable as long as DSA participates in mass struggles against capitalism itself. History will dictate the exact form that socialism takes in that distant future just as the relationship of class forces in the Soviet Union forced the government to adopt War Communism and then its polar opposite, the NEP. Ironically, despite being based on Marxism, countries like USSR and Cuba have employed a mixture of Marxism and pragmatism to survive.

Much more important is the question of strategy that is the key to gathering the forces capable of abolishing capitalism and allowing the American people to decide how to organize an economic system that works for their benefit. For the DSA, the question of the Democratic Party has yet to be resolved in a satisfactory question.

The essential contradiction facing the group is how it stands in relationship to the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. It is understandable why it would adapt to Sanders since many of the thousands of young people who have joined the party were active in his campaign. For a number of members of the DSA involved in electoral politics, the lines between the DSA and the Democratic Party are porous. On the DSA website, you can find an article dated May 24 urging DSA Chapters to “Propose National Candidate Endorsements by June 1”. It mentions past and current efforts on behalf of Democrats, including John Conyers who was a member of DSA and still is for all I know.

In many ways, this is carrying on in the tradition of the Communist Party, commonly referred to as an “inside-outside” strategy. It is based on the premise that something like the leftist version of the Tea Party can be incubated in the Democratic Party to help push it far to the left in order to counteract an increasingly reactionary Republican Party.

I would caution the comrades from putting too much hope in such a strategy since the top Democrats would likely nip such a development in the bud in the same way they would combine with the Koch brothers against worker-owned firms that became so large as to encroach on big capital’s prerogatives.

Last week the Democratic Party candidate for governor of Illinois dumped his Lieutenant Governor running mate Carlos Ramirez-Rosa because he was a member of the DSA who supported BDS. The Huffington Post observed that “The incident served as a reminder that, while the surge in progressive activism ushered in by the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has moved Democrats to the left on many economic issues, the spectrum of acceptable debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains relatively narrow.”

I have a different idea about how the DSA should approach electoral politics. Instead of prioritizing winning office over “message” as they put it in the May 24 article, I would reverse priorities and encourage their members to not only run as DSA members on a Democratic Socialist ballot line but to yell the messages from the rooftops even if that jeopardized their chance of winning. Getting on the ballot entitles you to equal time, even if it is constrained by the two-party lock on such provisions. People are desperate now not only for a radical message but an organization they can join to turn their anger into effective political action.

Very little would have be changed by Carlos Ramirez-Rosa becoming Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, just as little was changed by John Conyers 14 terms in Congress. However, if the kind of campaigns that Eugene V. Debs ran was repeated by a hundred different DSA’ers, it could turn that 25,000 membership into a 100,000, thus becoming a potent force in what might be called street politics.

If an organization of 100,000 revolutionary socialists existed today, it could conceivably organize a protest in Washington against Trump’s war threats against North Korea or for immigrant rights that would turn out a half-million. Even I might be persuaded to get up early and take a seat on a bus to Washington.

It was street politics that ended the war in Vietnam, that made abortion legal and blocked some of Trump’s first attacks on immigrant rights and it will be street politics that will ultimately make it possible to move to a more rational way of organizing society, one based on human needs rather than private profit. The DSA can be a powerful element in making that happen if it decides to become a revolutionary organization rather than one working within the system.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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