Flirting with Liberals: A Critical Examination of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)

Andrew Dobbs | Politics & Government | Analysis | February 8th, 2018

Should revolutionary Leftists join Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)? The group has added tens of thousands of members and become one of the fastest growing political organizations in the country since Bernie Sanders' historic campaign. Lenin said that we must go where the "millions" are, following the masses. Does that mean Leftists should join DSA?

No, we should not. Any such move is premature at best and doomed at worst, and all of the Left maneuvering in its midst amounts to opportunism, a choice that will lead to political compromise and ultimately either irrelevance or betrayal of our cause and class. The purpose of this essay is to dispel the confusion leading US revolutionaries to miss these clear facts.

DSA's Strategy and Left Idealism

DSA's politics are a material thing, and they are rooted in the shared pursuits of the organization's vanguard. DSA held its largest ever national convention in Chicago in August of 2017, open to any members that wished to attend. No one suggests that there was a large number of members that wanted to go but couldn't and whose votes would have changed the convention's outcomes. This convention represents the voice of DSA's most committed and influential leaders, its vanguard.

By an overwhelming margin--roughly three-to-one--this convention decided to focus on a national campaign for Medicare for All, to be won by electing pro-single payer Democrats to Congress, the White House, and other offices. DSA's vanguard chose a path that commits them to working within a bourgeois, imperialist political party.

This is no accident; it reflects DSA's class character. R.L. Stephens has said that 89% of DSA members are white , and in an colonialist country this indicates that DSA membership is either predominantly drawn from classes other than the proletariat or appealing disproportionately to white proletarians. Whether middle class or unconsciously white supremacist, it does not represent the politics of the US proletariat, and mere argument or good example will not shift that.

On the contrary, social democrats throughout history have, as a result of similar class politics, been quick to collaborate with the bourgeoisie on programs destructive to the lowest productive class, the proletariat. Harold Wilson deployed troops to Northern Ireland; Mitterrand took up an "austerity turn;" SYRIZA immediately capitulated to the central bankers; Ebert and the SPD helped the Freikorps kill Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The examples could, tragically, go for days.

Communists like those in DSA Refoundation or the DSA Communist Caucus--who may be consolidating at some point--should not ignore this history. DSA entry advocates should instead explain whether they believe DSA has a proletarian class character, and if so where the break with historical social democracy has occurred, particularly in light of their commitment to the Democratic Party. If they accept that it is not proletarian they should answer how they expect to overturn its class basis without destroying the organization altogether.

This impossible idealist task is precisely what social democrats claim to be able to do with the bourgeois state. If they are mistaken in that task, then how are the DSA Left factions possibly correct?

The Praxis of Actually Existing DSA

DSA supporters, nonetheless, are quick to point to the Serve the People-style programs they have undertaken in low income working class communities and communities of color, most famously their brake light campaigns. In actual practice DSA is far more diverse in its tactics than its formal goals and strategies would suggest, they argue. These efforts are then openings into which proletarian politics can enter the organization.

These efforts are indeed creative and worth commending, but as long as they are attempting to win proletarian workers over to a social democratic program they are doomed to failure, either by failing to attract any dispossessed workers to the program or by capturing some element of this class and then neutralizing them for an actual proletarian politics. This is the repeated history of social democracy around the world.

Also, how will DSA relate to these projects when election season comes and their stated strategic priorities are on the line? Will they co-opt these projects for their effort to elect pro-single payer Democrats? If so, then the Left factionalists that have joined on those grounds will find themselves campaigning for a bourgeois, imperialist political party--collaborating with the class enemies of the working class.

This question is even more urgent for "base-building" elements such as DSA Refoundation. They put forward excellent proposals around organizing worker centers, solidarity networks, and tenants unions. When elections come and DSA needs all hands on deck to elect Democrats for the sake of their broadly agreed-to and popular strategic goals do these projects become appendages of the Democratic Party or do they undermine DSA's strategy? They will become the enemies either of their class or their organization.

And make no mistake, withholding resources from the Democrat electoral push will be nearly impossible for DSA's rank-and-file to tolerate. The organization's vanguard, the vast majority of its membership, and its mass base will be focused on an electoral push. Do Left faction leaders hope that the organization's leading elements don't need those resources in taking on the entire US corporate establishment?

The only thing that would prevent the Democrat majority from going over the Left's heads and appropriating the resources for themselves would be their goodwill. The factions entering DSA right now will end up either shilling for Democrats or forced out of their own campaigns.

To the extent that these projects are good uses of revolutionaries' time, it seems that most DSA chapters are happy to bring in coalition partners from independent Left organizations, and such engagement seems to have all the benefits of working within DSA with none of the risks outlined above. When they bail to elect a Democrat to the White House we can keep projects alive and maintain a much stronger position from which to resist co-optation.

Four Basic Permutations of DSA's Future

Such a position of independence and tactical cooperation seems to be the best strategy in general when one considers the likely outcomes of DSA's project at hand. The Democratic Party is both out of power and largely hostile to DSA's politics at this time. To succeed at its project, DSA must gain a position of leading influence within the Democratic Party and the Democrats must take power in a way that lets them enact this vision.

The four basic permutations for DSA's future are therefore: they take power within the Democratic Party and the Democrats win, they take this power and the Democrats lose, they are kept marginal in the party and the Democrats win, or they are marginal in the party and the Democrats lose.

By "take power" in the party we have to acknowledge, of course, that the Democratic Party is liable to remain a very eclectic and diverse institution, but in this instance we mean that the party publicly campaigns on DSA's agenda--at least the Medicare for All piece--and actually makes plans to pursue it as policy. Knowing this, what are the likely outcome for DSA's historic undertaking?

Taking Power in the Party and Losing Anyways

One of these permutations has actually happened in the past--social democrats taking control of the party and then losing to a hated Republican reactionary criminal. In 1972 elements of the New Left won over the Democratic Party, nominating Left liberal George McGovern for president (McGovern went on to coin the phrase "Medicare for everyone") and even in a brief moment of levity entertaining Mao Tse-Tung as the nominee for Vice President.

Immediately following this takeover the party's key electoral elements--labor unions and big city political machines--sabotaged the campaign, deciding that even four more years (ultimately it was only about two-and-a-half) of the hated Richard Nixon would be better than giving the Left a foothold in the party. For 45 years since then McGovern's name has been a shorthand among Democrats reminding them that if they let themselves get too progressive they'll get embarrassed.

DSA and its allies are miles short of where the New Left was at that time, but even Bernie's upstart, not-that-radical campaign with all its approval of imperialism and disapproval of its global critics prompted concerted Democrat sabotage. Whether this costs them a future election or they overcome it and fuck things up anyways an electoral loss to the GOP will make their politics anathema for a generation or more. DSA's mass membership will flee, and whatever work is being done to try and capture this "fastest growing" Left formation right now will have been a waste.

Taking Over the Empire

But what if DSA members and Bernie Sanders supporters take over the Democratic Party and then win the Presidency? This is the claim that Bernie-ites have made since last November: if we were on the ballot, we'd win. If they did, however, DSA and its candidate and party will be forced to ask themselves: what do they do with the US empire?

The most likely answer is that they will go along to get along and betray all the working people of the world repressed by the US death machine. Their official Priorities Resolution had no mention of US foreign policy whatsoever. This is perfectly in keeping with social democracy's historic experience, and US social democrats have little choice, as the resources they need to pay for their proposed welfare state can only be generated through accumulation of super profits extracted from the Third World.

If, however, Left factions were able to convince DSA--now ascendant in the Democratic Party and in actual elected power--to reject US imperialism and to use that position to secure liberation for those under the yoke of North American repression, then all of the Left would need to rally to their side and THAT would be the precise time for revolutionaries to potentially join up with DSA. The deep state and their monopoly capitalist base will have knives out for the socialists at that point, and we will need to defend them by any means necessary.

But that actually recommends working to build political support and a mass base outside of DSA at this time. The regime will need capacity over and on top of what it took to take power. We will be able to do more good with organizations distinct from DSA built up between now and then than we would liquidating into a movement incredibly unlikely to take this course anyways.

When the Democrats Don't Need You

The next possible permutation is by far the most likely -- that the Democratic nominee owes little or nothing to DSA, disdains their values, and wins anyways. Should DSA then support the nominee as a "lesser evil" or because of some half-assed lip service to Medicare for All, or do they refuse to go along with a class enemy of the socialist movement?

In either case the left liberal petit bourgeois elements in the group are likely to shift their primary loyalty from DSA to the Democrats and the nominee themselves. This is precisely what these elements did with Barack Obama, and they were in fact one of the pillars of his campaign and governing coalition. This nominee will represent their class interests far more faithfully than DSA. The more effective the Left revolutionary tendencies in DSA are in the meantime, the more likely this abandonment will be then.

If DSA decides instead to play the "lesser evil" game it is hard to imagine many of the earnest young workers drawn to them today sticking around for very long. They may help beat Trump, but whether DSA quietly pushes irrelevant policies or begs pathetically for things they know they'll never get from a president and Congress that doesn't like them these young workers will have little reason to stick around. Whatever work Leftists are doing in DSA now will have been wasted as DSA returns to being a tiny faction for weak-tea labor aristocrat radicals.

Yet if DSA does decide to fight against the Democrat they will have the chance to form a substantial Left pole of opposition to the ruling administration and perhaps even a useful foundation for a Left party. The young workers--at least their most advanced and conscientious numbers--will have a good reason to stick around.

Revolutionaries should be preparing to reinforce whatever truly progressive forces come to bear in the future, and such a formation may amount to that. This would be a point to consider joining forces with DSA more formally, and again bringing our independent bases to bear at a moment when they will be sorely needed. As we will see, though, it may not be as revolutionary as we have been led to believe after all.

DSA as Double Losers

The final permutation is an extension of the status quo: DSA is kept out of power within the Democratic Party and the Democrats lose. If DSA's failure is by way of active suppression by party leaders (as badly as they treated Bernie or worse), then DSA will have a strong argument that the Democrats' failure was caused by the suppression, and will have a real shot at catapulting ahead of existing liberal leadership. At that point--again--the reinforcements from the revolutionary wing of the Left will be especially valuable and powerful if it makes sense to join.

It's also very possible that Leftists look at the fact that this outcome was able to happen at least twice as a sign that DSA and social democracy are incapable of overcoming this fate and unfit for the political needs of the moment, thus wiping out whatever work revolutionaries do in their midst until then.

If instead they are given a fair and square shot--at least arguably so--and they are simply rejected by a majority of the Democrat base, then they will be a marginal faction of a losing party. This is the definition of political irrelevance and whatever "explosive growth" they have experienced in the Bernie aftermath will likely evaporate. Yet again any Left efforts within the organization will have been wasted.

What Should We Do Instead?

After all of this there are three scenarios in which work within DSA will not have been wasted or profoundly compromised: if they take over the Democratic Party, win, and begin to dismantle US imperialism; if they don't take power within the party, the party wins, but they buck the Democrats and become an independent Left force contesting the administration; or if they are suppressed within the Democratic Party and the Democrats lose, and they stand and fight in the aftermath.

Each of the three would benefit from well-developed independent Left forces that can arrive as backup to support their efforts when those crucial moments are attained. But if we are being honest with ourselves we will have to acknowledge the present US revolutionary Left's total failure to build these very sorts of forces. Unless we have an answer to the failure we have nothing to lose in following the factions into DSA.

We will not solve this failure on paper. We will come to the solution through practice, but we can examine extant experiments and practices in the light of scientific socialist analysis to gain some ideas on where to start. In particular, we should consider practices outside of DSA's politics and perspective, opportunities we will miss if we all fall into their lines.

The Proletarian Subject and the Workers' Party Error

First things first, if their politics are wrong because of their class character, then we should instead seek out the politics of the proletariat. The problem with this is that in the United States the proletariat has no politics at this point, which should make it pretty easy to determine the revolutionary task at hand: building proletarian subjectivity.

The revolutionary Left errs on this question -- and thus ends up tailing DSA or other non-revolutionary elements -- because it believes that developing proletarian subjectivity is synonymous with founding a "workers party" or an even less specific "Left" alternative party. DSA Refoundation does this explicitly, calling their proposed network of organizations "the skeleton of a Workers Party." Some of the more left-wing veterans of the Bernie Sanders' campaign organized under the banner of the Movement for a People's Party announced in late January that they are now working in solidarity with DSA Refoundation.

Together they reflect a predominant idea in contemporary left politics, that a new leftist party is what we really need, despite the global failure of such parties to even so much as slow capitalism's advance in the last half century at least.

This yearning for a workers' party reflects an awareness of the need for a revolutionary subject that can confront capitalism, but it makes two important mistakes. First, it conflates the proletariat with the working class. In the United States in particular, however, capitalism and its historic expressions in settler colonialism and imperialism have created a productive class with widely varying levels of social and material assets, many of which distort their interests and political positions.

Engels observed this same phenomenon in England as far back as 1858, "The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable." White US workers' role in exploiting this country's internal colonies only amplifies this effect.

It is true still that over time "society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other - Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." It is for this very reason that the proletariat--the dialectical synthesis between absolute dispossession and absolute productivity--can represent the entire working class, as their emancipation will require the liberation of all workers and humanity at large. But rooting a political subject in any other fraction of the broader working class--those privileged by race or nationality or various sources of social capital, etc.--will ultimately favor maintaining those privileges at the expense of those exploited to produce them. In short, it will favor the pursuit of a merely gentler or more "progressive" class society, not the abolition of all class distinctions, the basic necessity of the proletariat and the essence of communist politics.

The second error giving rise to the "workers' party" hypothesis is the assumption that the subject here must necessarily take the party form. What we know is that the initial formations embodying proletarian subjectivity are likely to be too small and too narrowly focused to take on the tasks and responsibilities of a party, and so determining today that they must ultimately become that party is to supplant our judgment--divorced from real conditions--for the assessments of the organized proletariat themselves. This is another idealist error, and it may be the key error of Left organizing in this country, period.

The Mass Line and Its Obstacles

We will develop such proletarian subjectivity with skillful application of the mass line, and so the basic task at hand is to train and educate a core communist cadre that can then undertake mass line investigation, developing programs that proletarians can adopt as their own. It really is as simple as this, but there is a major obstacle standing between our existing small group Left and this seemingly simple outcome: we too are predominantly non-proletarian in our class character.

The proletariat in this country may not have a subjective program, but to survive each proletarian -- particularly the very advanced elements that will form the vanguard of any subject drawn from this class -- knows explicitly not to trust the classes and categories from which the typical US Leftist hails. These Leftists are well-versed in proletarian political analysis arrived at through sound scientific reasoning, but dropping into these dispossessed, colonized, disenfranchised, and exploited communities and waving the correct ideas for their liberation is guaranteed to fail.

Unfortunately many US Leftists have stopped there, unsure of where to move forward. They double down on that ideological development, forming study groups, or they form political groups and boutique parties with random, ineffective practices. DSA Refoundation's base-building document includes an uncanny description of this very sort of sectarian "vanguardism."

It is no wonder they see DSA's growth, strategic confidence, and creativity as very attractive compared to this -- indeed, it is probably better to join DSA than almost any other present US Left revolutionary formation. The question is whether their opportunism is better than struggling for something more difficult, but truly new.

Connecting to Social Movements

The resolution to this contradiction between existing revolutionaries and the revolutionary class-to-be can be found, I would argue, in the Third World. It is here that social democrats like those in DSA are unlikely to turn, but we should presume that proletarian revolution is unlikely to arise among the beneficiaries of global imperialism. When we look to the more advanced Left revolutionary forces around the world--in the Philippines, in Venezuela and the other Latin American Left experiments, formerly in Haiti under Fanmi Lavalas, in Morocco's Rif uprising and in South Africa -- we see that Left parties and revolutionary subjects have arisen amidst larger social movements.

We would be wise to follow that model, bringing our capacity to social movements working in proletarian communities in the US and engaging in a deliberate and patient mass line investigation there. The obstacle here is that the deepest reaches of the US proletariat have few authentic social movements engaging them, instead they are beset by parasitic or patronizing NGOs. NGOism captures social movements, drawing them into the foundation-driven, professionally-directed non-profit industrial complex. DSA Refoundation in particular calls this out, but then suggests that they will carry out a praxis guaranteed to draw them into these very orbits. How we should instead avoid these class enemies while engaging our potential allies is another key question for our work.

And it is here that we reach the boundaries of present knowledge; moving beyond which will require further social practice. Still, we can answer the question of what we should be doing instead of joining DSA: identifying social movements and material struggles in our communities with authentic entry points into the proletariat, serving them as we can and using the mass line to investigate unspoken demands that we can develop into real proletarian political programs.

Cases of Possible Success

This is an incredibly complicated task, but some apparently correct examples have already been undertaken. Philly Socialists have built one of the largest, most resilient non-DSA socialist organizations in the country, with roots first in Serve the People programs widely respected among some of the lowest-income, most dispossessed elements of that city -- especially their free ESL classes. They also established a Tenant's Union that has confronted landlords and forced eviction reforms at City Hall that should materially slow gentrification and displacement.

Regarding housing struggles, New York City's Maoist Communist Group (MCG) has demonstrated an entirely different set of tactics, eschewing any "policy" work. They have established some initial roots in low income housing complexes in Brooklyn where they have developed a theory and strategy they summarize in the slogan "Struggle Committees Everywhere!"

These committees arose out of their efforts to fight displacement in aggressively gentrifying neighborhoods, and are a pre-party vehicle for proletarian subjectivity that could be adopted elsewhere. Every Left group hoping to build towards revolution in this country must engage with their theoretical documents and summations .

In Austin, our work as Austin Socialist Collective has been much more uneven, and we are not yet prepared to sum up these experiences. We have, however, seen that shop-to-shop outreach done initially through the Fight for 15 campaign has been a quick way to immediately touch our local proletariat. Some specific direct actions confronting wage thief management have impressed these workers and very effectively demonstrated the class struggle for everybody on the shop floor. How we deploy these tactics and to what ends in the future remains to be seen.


Regardless of the firm judgments here, none of this should be read as calling for unnecessary hostility or animosity towards DSA. There are a number of earnest potential revolutionaries there that will either be strong allies in the unlikely event we need to rush in or strong recruits when they join the much more likely exodus to come. In the meantime we should sincerely explore all opportunities for effective united front work with DSA in our communities.

If all our best Left elements have liquidated into the organization we can't add to their capacity, and if they do fail we will be starting out from scratch at that point, even worse off than we are today. The notion that whatever work is being done under its auspices now can be carried forward unchanged even if DSA changes for the worse is an idealist mistake. As an institution it will act upon and move the people and organizations working within it, and it will move them in a direction away from proletarian politics.

Honest Leftists must, nonetheless, acknowledge that accomplishing our tasks is a far less clear path than DSA factional entryism, and we are probably no more likely to succeed than DSA is. The best way to guarantee our failure, however, is to fail to act at all, defaulting instead to the less threatening path offered by social democracy. If we do that we will get what the Left around the world has had for decades at least--a politics that claims a great deal and delivers only ruin.

In the short run, we can build outside of DSA to catch our comrades when they fall out from it, or perhaps to rush in when they really need our help. In either case we must build outside its boundaries. Their future is uncertain at best, and the opportunities too many are hastily seeking really are opportunistic. The true revolutionary path is one of patience; a lonely one in comparison for sure, but our true friends can only be found among those too low for opportunists to wait upon. Let's find one another in their midst.