Former Leaders of SDS, Meet the Current Members of DSA

The authors of “An Open Letter to the New New Left From the Old New Left” failed to grasp several things about the Democratic Socialists of America.

Joel Bleifuss May 27, 2020

At the Bernie Sanders rally at the LA Convention Center on March 1, an attendee sports a Democratic Socialists of America jacket. (Courtesy of Cory Doctorow/ licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the Trump admin­is­tra­tion abdi­cates its respon­si­bil­i­ty for mass test­ing and con­tact trac­ing, tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly work­ing-class and peo­ple of col­or — are dying.

Generic anti-Trumpism and leftward tut-tutting is not a winning campaign strategy. It is choosing ease over effort, convenience over organizing.

Mean­while, America’s young peo­ple — loaded with col­lege debt, inad­e­quate health insur­ance and bleak job prospects — con­front an increas­ing­ly dystopic future. The pan­dem­ic is, of course, not the only threat; cli­mate change is poised to wreak unimag­in­able hav­oc. Young peo­ple right­ly think that the free mar­ket has failed to pro­vide solu­tions to both crises.

Inspired by Bernie Sanders, many mil­len­ni­als have turned to demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism. In one of the most hope­ful polit­i­cal devel­op­ments in decades, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) has seen its mem­ber­ship grow from 6,500 in 2014 to 66,000 today. (In These Times was found­ed by mem­bers of the New Amer­i­can Move­ment and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee, which merged in 1982 to form DSA.)

So it is dis­con­cert­ing to read an open let­ter in The Nation, signed by 81 for­mer lead­ers of Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety, that con­de­scends to tell DSA youth to face facts.” Those facts being: A com­mon effort to unseat [Trump] is our high moral and polit­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty.” The sig­na­to­ries are grave­ly con­cerned.” They wor­ry that some Bernie sup­port­ers have refused to endorse Biden, includ­ing the lead­er­ship of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.”

Before being so quick with the pen, these mem­bers of the Old New Left” — as they describe them­selves — should have con­sid­ered how DSA oper­ates, what its mem­bers do and the con­sid­er­a­tions that inform its approach.

DSA is a demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion. At the most recent con­ven­tion, del­e­gates vot­ed to only endorse can­di­dates who open­ly iden­ti­fy as social­ists, like Bernie Sanders.

But the group’s stance on 2020 does not mean DSA mem­bers will be sit­ting out the elec­tion. After Sanders sus­pend­ed his cam­paign, DSA’s gov­ern­ing body, the 16-mem­ber Nation­al Polit­i­cal Com­mit­tee (elect­ed every two years by ranked-choice vot­ing), issued this state­ment: We ful­ly agree with Sen. Sanders that tak­ing on the reac­tionary, racist and nation­al­ist right wing rep­re­sent­ed by Don­ald Trump is imper­a­tive for the sur­vival of mil­lions of work­ing-class peo­ple across the coun­try and the world.

Each of the 325 DSA chap­ters sets its own agen­da, work­ing on local issues like hous­ing jus­tice, immi­grant rights and envi­ron­men­tal efforts. Chap­ters will also be turn­ing out the vote for their own endorsed demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist and ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist can­di­dates. Many DSA mem­bers are also orga­niz­ing around nation­al ini­tia­tives, such as sav­ing the Postal Ser­vice, sup­port­ing laid-off restau­rant work­ers, and form­ing the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (in part­ner­ship with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal work­ers) to offer logis­ti­cal sup­port for work­place organizing. 

Are DSA’s crit­ics in The Nation engaged in sim­i­lar efforts in their local com­mu­ni­ties? Gener­ic anti-Trump­ism and left­ward tut-tut­ting is not a win­ning cam­paign strat­e­gy. It is choos­ing ease over effort, con­ve­nience over organizing.

Maybe DSA is wrong. Per­haps it should express­ly direct mem­bers in swing states to vote Biden. The group’s posi­tion, how­ev­er, is informed by an assess­ment of both its lim­it­ed capac­i­ty to influ­ence nation­al elec­tions and the lim­it­ed util­i­ty of its endorse­ments — and cer­tain­ly not by indif­fer­ence to the threat Trump poses.

The wider pro­gres­sive move­ment faces many chal­lenges. A polit­i­cal­ly vibrant, youth-led Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca is not one of them. In fact, DSA is build­ing what so many respectable gray heads on the Left have long called for: an inter­nal­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that anchors a vision of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism to imme­di­ate social demo­c­ra­t­ic demands, and that resists the siren song of quixot­ic third-partyism.

Maybe we Boomers are just cranky because we are not in charge.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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