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Democracy, Strategy, Modes of Struggle: The High-Stakes Strife in DSA

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In the foreground, a big red banner with white lettering that reads “Democratic Socialists of America.” People in heavy coats, scarves and hats stand behind it. Most are white. The thick crowd extends back down the city street. Lots of people are holding other signs, white with red letters, saying “Working women of the world unite.”

Core questions of political strategy animate the debate roiling DSA. The whole Left has a stake in the outcome.

Many Left organizations are facing serious internal struggles as they work to balance a growing membership on the one hand and a myriad of political challenges on the other. Internal debate and conflict can be healthy, leading to sharper analysis and tighter unity. But conflict is often destructive and leaves us weaker. Indeed, many Left organizations have split or died because members were not able to navigate working across differences.

How can we engage in debate inside our organizations and movements in a way that helps us grow stronger? As the authoritarian right grows and the climate crisis worsens, our political movements will shift, and what constitutes “the Left” itself will change. We need to know how to function effectively and strategically in alliances, and practice the democracy we are trying to defend and deepen. Convergence is committed to exploring such questions. We hope the following article, though focused on DSA, will yield broader insights for Left organizing. – Convergence editor

The campaign in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to expel U.S. Congressmember Jamaal Bowman is not at the root of the sharp conflict taking place within the organization. But it was the trigger for its escalation into a problem that threatens the future of the organization and has major implications for the entire Left. So before getting to the political differences underlying the bitter disputes underway, let’s start there.

Bowman, a member of the Squad, was first elected in 2020 in a contest where he received DSA’s endorsement. In November 2021, he went on a J-Street sponsored trip to Palestine and met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet. Then he voted in favor of U.S. funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” military program.

DSA as an organization is committed to Palestine solidarity in general and to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) in particular. Bowman did not claim to be representing DSA when taking these actions, and DSA’s membership policies do not forbid members from publicly disagreeing with, or acting in ways inconsistent with, organizational positions. But he is a high-profile figure, and it was both warranted and inevitable that his actions would attract substantial criticism from other members.

A significant number of members raised the demand that DSA should go beyond airing criticism of Bowman’s actions and expel him from the organization. Others disagreed that this was the appropriate response. A major debate within the organization ensued.

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From the perspective of building power toward ending U.S. support for Israeli apartheid —the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement in this country—actions other than expelling Bowman would have seemed more in order. For instance, what about DSA committing to a grassroots campaign in Bowman’s district to educate his constituents about Israeli apartheid and U.S. backing for it? Allotting organizational resources, deploying organizers who live in the district and members from other areas, identifying allies, and aiming to build a robust, mass-based voting bloc in that district for Palestinian rights? For that matter, why not launch such campaigns in other districts where there are progressive congressmembers (and local and state electeds) who are on the progressive end of the political spectrum but, because of both their own shortcomings and the weakness of support for Palestine in their districts, do not stand firm on this crucial component of an anti-racist and internationalist agenda?

This kind of effort could help build the clout of the Palestine solidarity movement. By showing that DSA was serious about putting its political muscle where its principles are, it could attract potential allies, including electeds and people considering running for office. It would show that DSA, a disproportionately white organization, is committed to building a strong relationship with progressive Black leaders, Bowman being the most radical Black male in the U.S. Congress. DSA members who participated in such an outward-looking campaign would gain rich experience and be better organizers coming out. And it could educate the entire organization on some home truths about doing politics: you cannot win “at the top” what you haven’t won at the base; elected officials are not the source of radical power; they reflect how much power we do (or don’t) have.

The expel-Bowman effort, in contrast, is inward-looking, focusing more on purifying DSA’s ranks than affecting U.S. policy. And by enlisting non-DSA members’ participation in the campaign to expel Bowman it has added new obstacles to winning broad mass organizations—unions, religious groups, etc.—to adopt BDS; those groups now have to add to their considerations the possibility that their own internal organizational policies will be challenged if, say, a prominent member who does not support BDS indicates that in public. Rather than show that DSA is into building the kind of base that will make it possible for electeds to take positions that are not easy to take in U.S. politics today, it is—consciously or not—a sign that DSA wants electeds to provide a short-cut route to gaining political power.

Elected officials are not the source of radical power; they reflect how much power we do (or don’t) have.

After a sharp debate in the various bodies and media platforms that DSA members utilize to consider political issues, the matter went to the National Political Committee (NPC) for a decision. The body voted to reject the demand to expel Bowman.

Things didn’t stop there

In a healthy big-tent organization, this vote would have resolved this disagreement.  Democracy means, among other things, respect for majority rule. The national convention is the highest decision-making body of DSA, and that convention elects (or appoints via its elected leaders) bodies that are authorized to make various decisions in between conventions. When a decision is made that some substantial number of members disagree with, they of course can retain their opinions and try to change policy or personnel at the next convention. But until then, decisions of authorized bodies have to stand. Otherwise, an organization descends into a debating society.

That didn’t happen. The campaign to expel Bowman simply continued, with a pressure effort on the NPC to change its vote. Members who disagreed did not simply register that fact, which would be perfectly appropriate. Rather, they utilized official bodies of the organization that are accountable to the leadership (including the organization’s BDS Working Group) to wage an effort to reverse the decision.

The way many of this campaign’s most aggressive advocates conducted it indicated, as noted above, that the issue of Bowman’s mistaken actions in relation to Palestine was not its main driving force. Had that been the case, the central arguments raised would have concerned how elected officials (and socialists’ relationship to them) fit into an effective strategy to build power to change U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine. There is both a rich history and extensive current practice to look at in this regard.

The gains made by the anti-Zionist Palestine Solidarity Committee in the 1980s via work in the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson’s campaigns, and Harold Washington’s campaigns and administration in Chicago hold important lessons. So do the current efforts to build support for Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to protect the rights of Palestinian children, which falls well short of BDS but is the key legislative project of groups that are willing to throw down for Palestinian rights, ranging from the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights to M4BL. (A measure of the balance of forces around Palestine in Congress, the bill now has 32 co-sponsors, all Democrats, including Jamaal Bowman.) But no discussion of strategy looking at these experiences was present, much less at the center, of the continuing expel-Bowman effort.

Rather, the political focus of debate shifted to DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party. The most aggressive proponents of expelling Bowman have expanded their argument and now anchor it in a critique of the Squad, Bernie and other progressives and socialists who believe fighting for multi-racial, gender-inclusive political power at this stage of history requires engaging the fight within the Democratic Party over its direction. The argument is now that those who oppose expelling Bowman don’t take that position because they think it’s better for building Palestine solidarity; rather, they are accused of siding with Democrats against Palestinians and the Palestine solidarity movement.

And, besides the shift in political emphasis, the expel-Bowman forces have shifted their immediate demands and arguments to focus on various organizational decisions made by the NPC.

Let’s sort out both these levels.

The political agenda: break with the Democrats

The combination of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s exciting 2016 Presidential campaign and the victory of Donald Trump triggered a period of explosive growth and political transformation for DSA. Even though Bernie was not a member of DSA, his popularization of “democratic socialism” was a huge boost for the organization sharing that self-definition. The successful campaigns of the four women of color who formed the Squad in 2018, and then in 2020 Bernie’s second effort and the Squad’s expansion to six, carried that momentum forward. DSA works on many battlefronts besides elections, and its members’ involvement in today’s upsurge of militancy and unionization at workplaces is of great importance. But it is mainly DSA’s identification with Bernie and the new wave of progressive congressmembers, and to a lesser extent some important state and local officials, that has driven its growth. And the organization’s capacity to deploy volunteer canvassers has been the main source of its clout.

Despite this trajectory, from 2016 on a portion of the new members who flooded into the organization did not agree with the political strategy of the candidates themselves. Bernie and the Squad operate from the view that defeating a Republican Party now controlled by racist and misogynist authoritarians at every level is a prime task; that this requires building a broad electoral front of all those opposed to the Trumpists and voting for non-progressive Democrats to beat MAGA supporters; and that these tasks need to be done alongside building independent progressive clout. In short, they share an “inside-outside” strategy which involves both unity and struggle with the mainstream forces in the Democratic Party.

A portion of the DSA membership disagrees strongly with this strategy. And within this cohort are several groupings or caucuses with a well-developed alternative. In their view, treating the Democratic Party as a terrain of battle is a fundamental error which inevitably leads to abandoning the socialist project. For them the key task of this period is to establish an untainted revolutionary pole in the mainstream of U.S. political life. To do that it is necessary not only to differentiate this pole’s politics from liberalism and all other left-of-center currents, but also to be completely separate organizationally. Forming a purely working-class revolutionary party is therefore the overriding task, to which all other tasks must be subordinated.

Even with the MAGA bloc aiming to take the country back to some hybrid system combining Jim Crow, Christian supremacy, and McCarthyism, the amount of attention paid to defeating that bloc at the ballot box or anywhere else is seen as a purely tactical matter. So is what kind of relationship should be built with non-socialist progressives or socialists who advocate work that entangles anyone with the Democrats or in any other cross-class alignment. These are to be considered only by the criteria of how they might or might not advance the task of building a revolutionary party, allegedly ensuring the “class independence” necessary for any forward motion in the direction of socialism.

Bernie changes the game

Before Bernie’s campaign, those who held this view opposed voting for anyone on the Democratic Party ballot line without exception. But Bernie’s 2016 campaign, where running as a Democrat he made socialism more popular in the U.S. than it had been in decades, punched a huge hole in that position. It was a factor (though not the only or even the main factor) in the largest group holding that view—ISO—disbanding; in splits within Socialist Alternative; and in many members of Solidarity and partisans of this view with no other organizational affiliation backing Bernie and/or joining DSA.

These activists now acknowledged, as did people with different histories and many newly radicalized individuals, that it was acceptable for socialists to run on the Democratic ballot line. But for many (not all) of these, no engagement beyond that was to be permitted. And DSA should only endorse socialists who promised to prioritize accountability to DSA itself over accountability to the broader progressive coalition that had to be forged for any campaign to be successful. The goal was still to build a self-contained revolutionary party, but the road to a complete break with the Democrats—including a separate ballot line, which was supposed to happen as soon as possible—now lay through the temporary tactical necessity of capturing the Democratic ballot line where possible.

Post-2016 DSA electoral work, often appearing to reflect a unified organizational effort, was in reality a complicated mix. Some members conducted that work as a steppingstone toward a break with the Democratic Party. Others pursued the kind of “inside-outside” strategy practiced by Bernie and the candidates who became the Squad. Tensions existed beneath the surface. But in practice, in campaigns to win a Democratic primary and to win the general election after a nomination was won, alliances with a wide range of other progressive groups were both necessary and possible. And many non-socialist progressives ran for office on programs that were all but indistinguishable from those advanced by socialist DSA members.

So, despite attempts by some in DSA to build a high wall between hoped-for members of a soon-to-be-established pure revolutionary party, serious political alliances and relationships developed between most DSA electoral activists and much wider circles. And in these wider circles, the strategy of Bernie and the Squad, including the high priority placed on electoral defeat of the Trumpified GOP, was—and is—overwhelmingly dominant.

In 2019, when the Left had high hopes for Bernie’s success in 2020 and the mainstream Democrats failed to offer a compelling agenda, the “stay away from the Dems” view in DSA had wide appeal. The result was passage of the “Bernie or Bust” resolution at that year’s DSA convention. But in Spring 2020 Bernie conceded the nomination to Biden, endorsed him and campaigned hard for his one-time opponent.

The vast bulk of progressives and radicals outside DSA, especially those rooted in labor and communities of color, worked hard for Trump’s defeat. And following the election, the extreme danger posed by the Trumpist camp was underscored by the GOP closing ranks after January 6. Simultaneously the Democratic Party mainstream shifted away from their previous neoliberalism. DSA members moved toward a more realistic assessment of the actual balance of forces in U.S. politics than had been the case in 2019. A resolution reasserting the “Bernie or Bust” perspective in different form (demanding that all DSA-endorsed candidates incorporate public advocacy of a break with the Democratic Party into their campaigns) failed at the 2021 DSA Convention.

But a section of those who disagreed with the Convention vote did not reconcile themselves to waiting until the next Convention to re-raise their view. Then came Bowman’s serious misstep regarding Israel-Palestine. Here was an issue that—if Bowman were expelled—could lead to a break not just with him but with the entire Squad, Bernie, and others who identify as radical or socialist but see the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle.

No doubt those whose main priority is building a pure revolutionary formation believe expelling an elected who is not firm on Palestine is the right thing to do in itself. But their underlying strategy is more rooted in the demand to break with the Democrats. In that context, the Bowman controversy is a convenient “wedge issue” to accomplish that break without a frontal assault on the position adopted at DSA’s 2021 convention.

Internal democracy?

Those are the politics that account for the campaign to expel Bowman continuing and even intensifying after the NPC vote. The effort, at least for a time, crowded other matters off chapter agendas and became a preoccupation in internal DSA media. Rhetoric and accusations escalated, reportedly up to and including death threats. Tensions mounted among people on different sides and within leadership bodies. People with various views on the issues at hand tried to simultaneously lower the conflict temperature and raise the political level of debate. But overall, an all-too familiar pattern characterizing internal battles in socialist groups took hold: issues of internal democracy and alleged “top-down” leadership became prominent, obscuring the political issues underlying the internal conflict.

Issues of internal democracy and alleged ‘top-down’ leadership obscure the political issues underlying the internal conflict.

With respect for majority rule having broken down (it was thin in DSA in the first place) all kinds of uncomradely behavior became common. The leadership—and others—tried to enforce organizational rules. But sorting through the rights and wrongs of each specific situation was time-consuming, wearying, and thankless. With vital external work tasks not getting the attention they required, the NPC succumbed to the temptation to try to move forward by using organizational means. In this case, that took the form of moving to de-charter the BDS Working Group.

Proponents of the de-charter argued that the Work Group was not staying within its mandate as a body subordinate to the NPC, was using organizational channels to oppose majority rule and violating democratic norms; and that several members were making abusive allegations against some NPC members. They made a strong case. But a membership overwhelmingly committed to Palestine solidarity would clearly react differently to the suspension of a BDS-focused committee than to the decision not to expel Jamaal Bowman.

A broader and deeper discussion in the organization about the Working Group’s violation of democratic norms, with more specifics about how it would move forward with Palestine solidarity efforts, would be needed to avoid another round of bitter conflict. Instead, the de-charter, and the rush by some DSAers to galvanize support for the NPC decision before the organization as a whole could obtain and absorb all the necessary facts, caused more problems than it solved. And the decision was later rescinded.

Utilizing organizational means is a perilous course, especially when important political issues underlie internal conflict. Identifying and debating those issues in full view of the membership—putting politics front and center—is a far better course. Failure to do this, and failure to use all available channels to give the membership information and an opportunity to air their views, almost always backfires. It allows those violating democratic norms to assume the posture of victims being persecuted by an allegedly dictatorial leadership.

Especially in a young organization where leadership bodies have not yet earned significant political authority—and given the lack of leadership accountability in so many past socialist groups—this stance generally garners sympathy. By their nature, crackdowns on abusive behavior or rule violations have a large proportion of messy, “they said, they said” charges and sometimes facts and allegations are at least partly confidential. These problems are exacerbated in DSA because the NPC, rather than some independent, non-leadership body, is designated as the arbiter of grievances and other kinds of disputes.

All that played out in DSA in arguments about the de-chartering and applying discipline to certain individuals. Mistakes were made on all sides. These need to be identified and the lessons used to improve organizational practice, and perhaps do some restructuring, going forward. But whatever mistakes were made on this front, they are not the reason tensions in DSA have reached the point they have.

The fundamental reason the political differences shaping this struggle have led to tension and crisis rather than greater political understanding is this: A minority in the organization refused, and still refuses, to accept the will of the majority, as expressed in the last Convention and in the NPC vote rejecting the demand to expel Jamaal Bowman.

Tear members down or lift members up?

An additional factor makes the current fight in DSA so toxic. “Call-out culture”—harsh criticism of individuals that attributes political views a person disagrees with to character flaws or lack of commitment on the part of the target—is widespread in DSA, as it is in all too much of the broad Left. The result is that political debates, especially on the internet, deteriorate rapidly into personal attacks.

My generation is no stranger nasty and destructive internal Left debate. The sectarian wars we conducted during the 1970s and ’80s were counter-productive to say the least. But it was political sectarianism: we lost any sense of proportion, exaggerated small differences, and gave our opponents’ views every negative label in the book. But for the most part, we considered our opponents carriers of bad—even counter-revolutionary—lines, not bad people. We aimed to “win them over” to our supposedly enlightened perspective—”cure the disease to save the patient.”

There are lessons to be drawn on this from my generation’s mistakes. Yes, each of us carries baggage from growing up in an individualistic society founded on racism, sexism and other forms of dehumanization. But people enter the radical movement and join an organization like DSA to contribute to changing that society. They are to be valued and given the tools to grow as they engage in political activity. Except for police agents (when we can identify them with certainty) and the occasional person too damaged to work in any collective setting, our default assumption must be that everyone acts in good faith. Attacking people’s character or treating others in ways you would not want to be treated—not to mention threatening someone’s personal safety—should be out of bounds.

Our default assumption must be that everyone acts in good faith.

That does not mean that there aren’t political views and practices that are destructive. There are. But they need to be taken on as political views one thinks are badly misguided, not as indications that their proponents are bad people or less committed to social justice than “our side.”

Some kinds of politics are destructive

Keeping that polemical standard in mind, it is still true that there is a political perspective held by some currents in DSA that is not just erroneous but destructive. Whatever the good intentions of its advocates, it translates into the kind of “rule or ruin” practice that has weakened or destroyed numerous broad Left organizations in the U.S. and around the world. This perspective holds that building a purified revolutionary party is such an important priority that it justifies doing whatever it takes within DSA to gain influence and recruits for that perspective. If DSA is badly weakened or even destroyed in the process, that is not just acceptable. It is a good thing.

This general perspective has a long history in the socialist movement. Its clearest expression is not in the words of its critics, but in those of its own proponents. For example, dedicated revolutionary and main founder of U.S. Trotskyism James Cannon voiced it as he offered his summation of the results of his group entering the Socialist Party USA in the 1930s, and then exiting to form the Socialist Workers Party:

“The [SWP Founding] convention adopted the entire program of the Fourth International without any opposition. This showed that our educational work had been thoroughgoing. All these accomplishments can be chalked up as evidence of the political wisdom of our entry into the Socialist Party. And another of them-and not the least of them-was that when the Socialist Party expelled us and when we retaliated by forming an independent party of our own, the Socialist Party had dealt itself a death blow. Since then the SP has progressively disintegrated until it has virtually lost any semblance of in-fluence in any party of the labor movement. Our work in the Socialist Party contributed to that. Comrade Trotsky remarked about that later, when we were talking with him about the total result of our entry into the Socialist Party and the pitiful state of its organization afterward. He said that alone would have justified the entry into the organization even if we hadn’t gained a single new member. Partly as a result of our experience in the Socialist Party and our fight in there, the Socialist Party was put on the side lines. This was a great achievement, because it was an obstacle in the path of building a revolutionary party. The problem is not merely one of building a revolutionary Party, but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is a rival. Every other party is an obstacle.”

James P. Cannon, “The History of American Trotskyism,” Pathfinder Press, New York, 1972, pp 252-253

Let me be crystal clear about this. I think the labels from the pre-1989 Left—Maoist, Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Social Democrat, etc—are mostly useless in understanding today’s Left. Not all those who identify with Trotskyism share Cannon’s views or engage in anything like the kind of practice he praises. And all too many who identify with other ideological currents in the pre-1989 Left do engage in “rule or ruin” adventures. So broad-brush generalizations about any ideological tendency must be resisted. (To reinforce this point: what use are pre-1989 categories when leading voices in the allegedly “Stalinist/Tankie” Communist Party USA vehemently condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while three groups from the Trotskyist movement (Socialist Action, Workers World Party, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation) refuse to criticize the Putin regime’s aggression and blame the entire situation on US/NATO imperialism?)

That said, it would be the height of naiveté not to see that there are groupings within DSA that are operating in a manner that subordinates the integrity of DSA to their conception of a higher good. Some entered DSA as a group with their own discipline; others evolved within DSA since its 2016 explosive growth and transformation.

Political strategy is the bottom line

This is not an issue DSA can resolve by organizational means. It is a matter of identifying the core political issues and the different views advocated by the contending currents in the organization. Peel away all the back-and-forth about who mistreated whom, all the noise and call-out attacks on social media, and all the “gotcha” questioning of people’s character and commitment. Then you get to the bottom-line political choice DSA must make.

DSA can focus outward and continue on the path most connected to its recent growth: establishing itself as a socialist force within the progressive trend in U.S. politics whose most prominent figures are Bernie and the Squad. Taking that course would mean focusing, like the vast bulk of that trend, on both defeating the authoritarian right and building the independent strength of social justice and socialist forces in the process. It would point to synergizing electoral work with efforts to revitalize the labor movement; strengthen the urgent movements for racial justice, gender justice, and environmental protection; and root the organization the multiracial, gender-inclusive working class. And it would involve work to rebuild the tattered and beleaguered peace and solidarity movements, including serious efforts to build a voting bloc committed to Palestinian rights in as many congressional districts as possible.

Alternatively, DSA can prioritize a purification effort and set a course toward building a new revolutionary socialist party outside of and in opposition to that trend. Expel Jamaal Bowman and move to break ties with others in the Squad and Bernie because, according to one of the prominent expel-Bowman advocates:

“DSA’s “electeds” and allies, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and of course Bernie Sanders, all ceased any semblance of being an opposition and instead branded themselves as the staunchest liberal Democrats who would try to work harder in service of the Democratic Party.”

This choice is at the core of DSA’s current internal conflicts. The debate about it can be conducted in a way that brings more light than heat. It is a multi-faceted debate that in this case pivots on electoral strategy but reflects different assessments of the current balance of forces in U.S, politics, different views on the relationship of the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism, and—of special importance—the inter-relationship of white supremacy with U.S. capitalism and what that means about the nature and danger of today’s Trumpist bloc. (Besides what is in this essay, my opinions on these issues are presented in the 20-plus columns I have written for Convergence—formerly Organizing Upgrade—over the last two years, available here. And for a specific critique of overly narrow views of the alliances needed to effectively challenge U.S. racial capitalism, see the Convergence symposium “The White Republic and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” especially the concluding essay here.)

Once DSA makes this choice, it can and should be tested out for a period of time. Those who disagree certainly have the right to remain in the organization and re-raise their alternative perspective at the appropriate time, likely a national convention. But no socialist organization can function effectively if it is embroiled in constant internal strife over a fundamental question such as where it positions itself within the politics of the country in which it functions.

DSA is the largest socialist organization the U.S. has seen in at least 70 years. Its explosive growth since 2016 has heartened everyone on the progressive side of the spectrum at a time of humanity-threatening crises and a dire threat from right-wing authoritarianism. The entire Left has a stake in the direction DSA chooses to take.