What Some in DSA Get Wrong About Socialist Alternative

Disagreement is inevitable in any political movement, but a recent In These Times essay examining “entryism’s” threat to the Left demands a response.

Grace Fors

Demonstrators protest the election of Donald Trump in New York City's Union Square. Pacific Press / Getty Images

Editor’s note: On March 30, In These Times published an essay by Bill Barclay, Leo Casey, Jack Clark, Richard Healey, Deborah Meier, Maxine Phillips, Chris Riddiough and Joseph M. Schwartz titled The Dangers of Factionalism in DSA.” The piece acknowledged the recent addition of Socialist Alternative members to the ranks of Democratic Socialists of America and explored how entryism” or parties within a party” have historically harmed the Left. In the spirit of debate, ITT has given Socialist Alternative the opportunity to issue the following response.

When we talk about the crisis of capitalism, we are not speaking euphemistically. The past year exposed millions of working people to the deep rot that sits at the core of the capitalist system. We’re coming out of a pandemic that has killed half a million in the U.S., triggered historic levels of unemployment, and exposed capitalism’s inability to protect public health. Working people face a housing crisis, a debt crisis, a global financial crisis, and a public health crisis, to say nothing of our ongoing climate emergency.

There are also huge opportunities for the left and the working class to organize. Efforts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, may have fallen tragically short, but they have demonstrated the urgent need to organize the company’s workers everywhere. While the trial of Derek Chauvin offers a chance to bring George Floyd’s killer to justice, the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright has shown the fight for Black Lives is far from over. (Wright is one of just over 200 people who have been killed by police this year). The ongoing uprising in Myanmar, as well as the countless explosive protest movements globally over the past two years, hint at mammoth struggles on the horizon.

The left is at a turning point. After decades of defeat, we’re faced with the challenge of adapting to a new period. The seriousness of our situation means we will have to build mass organizations that can lead a victorious struggle against capitalism. But we cannot move forward without debate. Socialist Alternative (SA) thanks the group of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) comrades for putting forward their views publicly, and In These Times for giving us a platform to reply.

Clearing things up

In December, SA announced that some of our members would be joining DSA. The motivation for this is the aforementioned crisis of capitalism, and the tremendous challenges ahead for socialists. The authors allege that some of our members have joined DSA in an attempt to infiltrate” the organization and force a split.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As we wrote at the time:

In working together to build the socialist left, we want to avoid any unnecessary polarizations on organizational issues, and instead we’d like to focus patient debates on political questions facing our movement. Towards this end, we are not conducting any secret entryism.’ Socialist Alternative members will be joining DSA openly and honestly, stating clearly their dual membership and their political positions in a comradely way.”

This has only been confirmed over the past several months as our members have been busy attending DSA meetings, phone banking for the PRO Act, helping lead DSA study groups, and collaborating on local initiatives. The response from DSA members to our involvement has been overwhelmingly friendly.

The thrust of the comrades’ article is a warning against factionalism,” which we agree with in spirit. In our view, factions and caucuses, whether in Socialist Alternative or in DSA, are normal features of a democratic organization. DSA itself has a multitude of caucuses within it. Openly stating political positions, and organizing with other members on a principled basis, is healthy and often necessary to carry out debate in a coherent and honest way.

The danger of factionalism is not in the act of organizing as a faction or caucus but doing so in a dishonest fashion. Over-polarization of debates, assumptions of bad faith, and nasty accusations are detrimental to internal democracy because they do not provide a basis for the broader membership to weigh political arguments. In fact, they often serve to obscure central political questions in favor of secondary organizational ones. Debate and struggle between ideas is a fundamental aspect of democracy. Regardless of which viewpoint wins out, it should be an educational and clarifying process that empowers organizations to move forward in unity. 

The comrades take issue with our descriptor of a ban” on members of democratic centralist organizations joining DSA. They point to the DSA constitution to clarify that, rather than being a ban on membership, the clause allows the organization to expel any member found to be under the discipline of any self-defined democratic centralist organization.” By this logic, SA members can join DSA so long as they’re not discovered to be members of SA, at which point they’re eligible for expulsion. On this basis, we maintain our opposition to this component of the DSA constitution. We would far prefer that our members who join DSA be open and honest about their dual membership.

There is sharp disagreement across DSA on how this rule should be interpreted, or if it should exist at all. Some chapter leaderships have cited this rule to exclude people as members, while other chapters have passed resolutions opposing the rule. We’re happy that our dual members have largely been welcomed to participate in DSA, and we look forward to a clarification of this clause in the future.

The history of Trotskyism, Socialist Alternative, and the ISA

We are proud of our affiliation with Leon Trotsky. Along with those of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, Trotsky’s ideas are foundational to our theory of change. It is important to remember that organized Trotskyism” emerged from the campaign to defend the Russian Revolution against not just the Stalinist bureaucracy but the reemergence of capitalism; we see Trotskyism as the historical continuation of Marxism.

The legacy of Trotsky includes titanic gains for the working class in the form of the Russian Revolution, but also crucial theoretical contributions like the use of the transitional method, the united front, and the theory of permanent revolution. These frameworks are even more relevant today than when Trotsky wrote about them.

Between the Moscow Trials in the Soviet Union and the ruling class’ anti-communist hysteria in the U.S., Trotskyists in the early 20th century had to organize under incredibly difficult conditions. Even in the context of intense repression on multiple fronts, the Trotskyists in the Communist League of America were able to build an organization capable of leading the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.

We do not have the space to relitigate debates from the 1930s, 1960s, or 1970s, but Socialist Alternative rejects the suggestion it has anything in common with the Maoist sects of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS failed because it was unable to build a base in the working class, and we take no responsibility for its collapse.

Militant in the British Labour Party, by contrast, is an important part of our political heritage that we are glad our comrades have brought up. We’re immensely proud of what Militant achieved: The Liverpool Council’s heroic struggle against austerity, the Poll Tax movement that delivered a decisive blow to Margaret Thatcher’s government, and a method of mobilizing thousands of working class people. Each represents an important victory in the hard-fought struggle against neoliberalism.

It is strange to use the example of Militant to argue for the marginalization of organized socialists. The very forces inside Labour that carried out the expulsion of Militant would lead the party to support the Iraq War, embrace savage neoliberal austerity and, years later, wage a vicious war on Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Right is now back in charge, and it is clear that it must be fought. Throughout the witch hunt against Corbyn and the Labour Left, the Blairite wing of the party continues to use Militant’s legacy and Trots” as a bogeyman to suppress working class politics. This approach has been a decisive factor in maintaining Tory rule, showing the disastrous consequences of redbaiting for working people and the left.

DSA is not the Labour Party, and we aren’t carrying out the tactics of Militant. Like all Marxists, we base our work on our perspectives: general assessments of class forces and predictions for how events will likely develop. Perspectives do not provide formulas, of course, but they are fundamental to materialist analysis and the development of on-the-ground strategies.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union necessitated a significant change in our perspectives. We recognized that this monumental event produced a capitalist triumphalism and an acceptance in wide sections of society that there was no alternative” to this system. At all levels of our international organization, we adopted the strategy of the dual task.” This meant struggling to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism while also urgently fighting for the formation (or reformation) of mass worker organizations, be they unions, community campaigns or new political parties.

Given today’s current conditions and the objective need to grow and consolidate the left, our view is that a split or disruption of DSA’s work and internal democracy would be an enormous loss for the socialist movement.

What is Socialist Alternative up to?

While a few of the attacks levied against our members have unquestionably been made in bad faith, we do not fault DSA members for being curious about SA’s aims in joining DSA. DSA members should be proud of their organization and its accomplishments, and the impulse to defend its successes is understandable.

How Socialist Alternative organizes itself internally, how we run campaigns, and our case for breaking with the Democrats and building a workers’ party are among the countless topics we are open to discussing. For DSA members seeking clarification on these questions, we are excited to engage in productive dialogue around these issues as we deepen our collaboration.

Socialist Alternative members have never seen ourselves as competitors of DSA. We have welcomed DSA’s growth at every stage, campaigned on the ground for DSA-backed candidates, and engaged in fruitful joint work with DSA chapters across the country for years.

The idea that our organizations have conflicting interests is absurd. Of course, in a multi-tendency organization, individuals or caucuses may put forward positions that we oppose. Where those disagreements exist, we state them openly. This is the spirit in which we’ve participated in debates that have arisen around how to hold elected officials accountable, the limits of basing electoral work on the Democratic ballot line, and the importance of a combative, movement-building strategy to win victories. These are not criticisms of DSA or attacks on those with whom we disagree but clear statements of our politics and contributions to the necessary discussions around what tactics and strategies are in the best interest of the working class.

As longtime supporters of new, broad formations for class struggle, it is eminently clear why we would see the growth of a big-tent organization of Left activists as an enormously positive development. This attitude is not mutually exclusive with being proud of SA and invested in the ongoing work of our independent organization. Our dual members, in addition to being excited to learn from the many talented activists in DSA, have skills, insights, and organizing experience of their own to share.

We’re enormously proud to call Kshama Sawant a member of Socialist Alternative. Kshama’s work as the only independent socialist on the Seattle City Council — and the campaign to defend her seat from a billionaire-backed recall—is extremely important for all socialists to study and actively support. The most high-profile victories she’s led, like the $15 minimum wage and the Amazon Tax to fund social housing and Green New Deal projects, each represented huge redistributions of wealth from the billionaire class to the working class in Seattle. These victories were not won through the legislative power of Kshama’s seat but through the building of democratically organized grassroots campaigns that deliberately sought the broadest possible involvement from working class people and organizations.

Our council office has spearheaded landmark tenant protections like capping move-in fees, prohibiting rent increases in dilapidated buildings and banning winter evictions. Earlier this month, we won a guaranteed right to counsel for all renters facing removal from their homes. Throughout her time in office, Kshama has championed tenant organizing, working closely with tenant unions and using her platform to educate renters on how to organize their buildings. Kshama has been a fierce fighter in the Black Lives Matter movement, putting forward a first-in-the-nation ban on weapons against peaceful protest, and she remains one of the only politicians in the country who continues to call for the police to be defunded.

While we are eager to champion Kshama’s accomplishments in office, our work does not solely revolve around her Seattle city council seat. Over the past year, our members have played an important role in a number of key struggles across the country. During the height of the Black Lives Matter rebellion, our members in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in Minneapolis mobilized bus drivers to refuse to transport #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd protestors for the police, demonstrating the crucial role the working class has to play in fighting racism. Workers in other cities would later adopt the same tactics.

During the protests, SA members in the American Postal Workers Union also lent their support to the movement for Black lives by organizing public solidarity actions. We played a leading role in the Somerville Teachers Association’s contract battle that won a crucial pay increase for Somerville paraprofessionals. And our members fought hard alongside DSA and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) against Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s unsafe school reopening in Chicago.

Our work in the labor movement is not limited to unions where we have members. Wherever the working class is fighting for better conditions, from the Oakland teachers strike to the Stop & Shop strike in New England to the union drive in Bessemer, Socialist Alternative has been there to help in any way we can. That work includes building community solidarity, engaging on the picket lines with workers and strategizing the best tactics to win. We played an outsized role in the $15-minimum-wage victory in Minneapolis. Our affiliation with International Socialist Alternative, which is active in over 30 countries on six continents, is fundamental to our politics and has provided keen insight into the global struggle against capitalism.

Characterizing Socialist Alternative’s involvement in DSA as entryism” or a party within a party” is woefully inaccurate, especially given that less than 100 of our more than 1,000 members are in DSA. Most are deeply involved with our independent work as Socialist Alternative, and continue to recruit to SA in workplaces, college campuses, and working-class neighborhoods. All across the country, our members are forging broad community coalitions to fight and win, from Stop The Station in Pittsburgh to Tax Amazon Burbank to an anti-gentrification campaign to stop the construction of a new luxury college dorm in Boston to ongoing tenant organizing in Brooklyn.

Maintaining our independent organization plainly reflects our belief that a tight-knit Marxist party working in conjunction with a broad multi-tendency Left has the best chance to succeed.

Remembering the stakes

Working class people are in a fight for our lives. Our real enemies are right in front of us: billionaires have hoarded unprecedented levels of wealth at our expense while capitalism continues to do irreversible damage to the planet. 

We need to figure out how to win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a living wage, rent control, and ultimately a wholesale transformation society based on human need and solidarity.

Our vision for the socialist movement is vibrant, healthy, and democratic. It is only natural that there will be a period of discussion as we strive to reach principled unity, and this is why we welcome open debates. Sectarian mudslinging reflects poorly on our movement at a time when growing numbers of working people are looking for a way to fight back against the system. 

We can’t lose sight of the seriousness of the challenges ahead, and the objective need for the working class to overthrow capitalism. Socialists have an obligation to lead the way with confidence and strength in numbers. Cynicism, pessimism, and fear are useless when we have a world to win.

Grace Fors is a member of Socialist Alternative’s Editorial Board. She’s based in Dallas.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.