I’m not in the Democratic Socialists of America, but I have been interviewing a number of its members lately, for a forthcoming series of articles in this magazine and an academic project. And while I spend much of my time writing critiques of various things and people, I like to appreciate what’s good in the world, and I’ve come away with the impression that the DSA are very good indeed. If you’re a leftist or leftish person who feels isolated and wants to actually push politics in the right direction, joining the DSA seems to me like one of the more promising ways to do that.
DSA has hundreds of chapters, and I’m sure they vary widely in their culture. I’ve only had snapshots of the New Orleans chapter. But here, the local DSA has exactly the sort of qualities that have long been hard to find in left groups: practicality, organization, and friendliness. What has impressed me most is that they fundamentally care about actually getting things done, and not just engaging in symbolic politics. They realize that in order to achieve political gains, you have to have a political strategy, and you have to organize really damn well.
That may seem obvious, but for a long time it was very hard to find left organizations that felt “serious.” Many of us in our late 20s and early 30s watched the Occupy movement in 2011 give a momentary hope that a vibrant new left was being born, only to fizzle out amid disorganization and the lack of a clear agenda. What’s great about DSA is that it has learned the right lessons. When I talk to members and ask them the hard questions, like what issues socialists should pick in order to maximize the chances of increasing their mainstream appeal, they have all thought hard about the answers. There seems to be a consensus in DSA that we’re tired of losing, and we want to find out why we were losing and fix it.
Most of the DSA members I have spoken to are a very appealing kind of “pragmatic radical.” They have very clear political differences from liberals, and want to see a fundamental transformation in political and economic life, but they’re realistic. They know that a single-payer healthcare plan like Medicare For All is a good first step, even if having Canadian-style public insurance is not exactly a workers’ utopia. (It’s a sad demonstration of how askew American politics is that having something that falls far short of the British NHS—which socialized providers rather than just socializing insurance—is talked about by the liberal party as “politically impossible.”)
One thing that makes the DSA somewhat exciting is that it’s a “big tent” of the left, and so all the issues that the left had differences of opinion on get hashed out within the organization. Should we be more “centralized” or “decentralized”? How can the labor movement and the environmental movement keep from being in tension? How can “class politics” and “identity politics” be reconciled? What kinds of compromises are necessary and useful, and what kinds are capitulation? DSA members range from those who are simply to the left of the Democratic Party establishment to hardcore Marxists and anarchists, and so there are real internal tensions. That may make the thing sound like a mess, and to some degree it always will be. But I think in the Trump era, there is a determination among most on the left that we can’t let our differences lead to the same tendencies that tore apart prior left movements—we can’t become a circular firing squad. We have to approach one another in a spirit of comradeship, because while the debates are important if we don’t achieve a rough consensus we’re not going to get anywhere. So DSA members have internal differences on the degree to which they should be focused on electoral politics versus labor organizing versus issue-based campaigns, but they’re trying to reconcile them.
Doug Henwood, in his new article about DSA, is right when he says that walking into a DSA meeting is a “strange and lovely thing,” that you find a “group of mostly young people [who] treat one another in a respectful, comradely fashion, and try to think and talk through seriously what they’re doing. ” If you’re on the left and you’re used to losing, it’s inspiring, because it feels like a group that could actually win. DSA New Orleans general meetings have 80 people at them, which isn’t many for the size of the city but is huge compared to what a socialist meeting would have attracted a few years ago. If we assume that we’re at the beginning of a process rather than the end of it, then it’s a very good start. DSA has already elected people to office around the country. DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has helped to put socialism on the national agenda, so that now FOX News completely obsesses over her and the National Review feels it necessary to put out an entire issue on why socialism is bad.
Separate from the difficulty of bringing socialism to a country that has been historically hostile to it, the DSA faces a colossal organizational challenge. For many years, it was minuscule, with a few thousand members. Now, it has well over 50,000 members and is continuing to grow. The organization was not designed to handle that kind of sudden growth. The national staff is tiny and unable to facilitate the necessary level of communication among chapters. It’s not always clear who is “steering the ship.” But everyone is trying to work it out together, and turn the organization into an effective political force that builds on the existing victories.
There are other challenges, too. DSA membership is disproportionately white, male, and college-educated. But I haven’t yet spoken to a member of the group who is unaware or unconcerned about this, and everyone is thinking about how to diversify the member base, making it reflect the composition of the American working class. There is also the question of internationalism: Ultimately, the DSA needs to be part of a DSW, the Democratic Socialists of the World. It’s impossible to fight issues like climate change and global labor exploitation within the borders of one country, and expanding beyond U.S. politics is going to be critical. But as I say, we are in the early stages.
I will be writing more about the DSA, and more closely discussing what they are actually doing, what is working, what isn’t, etc. For now, I just want to note that in a somewhat bleak time for the left, it’s one of our best hopes. It’s a great place to find community and work together on projects that have real value. If you are a lefty who feels alone and pessimistic, and wants to work on something inspiring, I would recommend seeking out your local DSA chapter immediately. For too long, it was difficult to find comrades. Now the comrades are finally getting together and beginning to build power.
Current Affairs would like to offer all DSA members $10 off subscriptions to our magazine. Use this link to deploy the IAmInDSA code. Yes, right now we’re doing it on the honor system, and no, we have no way of knowing if you’re telling the truth.
If you’re active in your local DSA, and would be willing to be interviewed about your experiences for future articles and academic research, please contact [email protected]
Special thanks to my colleague and DSA member Cate Root who is doing heroic work helping me understand the inner workings of DSA and setting up interviews and much more.