Re: Democratic Socialists of America
Can reform be the route to radical change?
Muffy Sunde
volume 38
issue 4
August 2017

Illustration: Ralph McClendon

In the U.S., positive feelings about socialism are busting out all over, and polls show this was true even before the Bernie Sanders campaign. Left organizations are experiencing a surge of interest, especially the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which reports that its membership has more than doubled since Donald Trump’s election.

DSA is a multi-tendency “big tent” organization. On the Left, it is part of the social democratic current — socialists who view capitalism as capable of meaningful reform. DSA advocates for a society in which “everyone should be able to live a full and dignified life.” But is its orientation toward how change is made at odds with its beautiful vision?

The question is an important one, because real change is exactly what its new members want to create.

Left wing of the Democratic Party. DSA stands for the best of things: reproductive freedom, abolition of poverty, affordable and decent housing for all, universal Medicare, free education through college, a stop to all forms of discrimination, and an end to mass incarceration and military and police brutality. It calls itself socialist feminist.

But DSA believes its goals can be achieved by working through the Democratic Party— even though many new recruits cite disillusionment with the Democrats as their reason for joining the group.

DSA does not consider itself a political party, though it has run candidates in its own name and as Democrats. Its endorsements have gone mainly to Democrats, including presidential contenders Walter Mondale, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders.

It’s a pragmatic organization, one willing to endorse candidates who don’t align with its values but have a chance to win. It says upfront that it isn’t interested in running “protest candidates” with good principles but little chance to make a big showing.

But the Democrats represent the opposite of what DSA stands for. They have shown that they are not worthy of the hope that generations of young people, workers, and oppressed people have placed in them. They are funded and controlled by the very institutions that DSA fights, the big banks and top corporations. They are a dead end.

A step-by-step approach. In “Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice,” DSA outlines “a strategy of gradually encroaching upon the prerogatives of capital” to democratize the profit system through elections and popular pressure. This emphasis on democracy is compelling for people sick to death with the maddening bureaucracy of everyday life and a repressive system they have almost no say in.

Revolutionary Marxists like the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) believe in democracy too — a democracy of the working-class majority. But how do we get that other than by seizing power?

Social democrats (aka democratic socialists) point to victories won under capitalism as evidence that the system can be reformed. Labor upsurges in the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they say, prove that the capitalist state will respond to popular mobilizations.

But all these struggles for change have left the “free market” in place, and moreover their gains are always temporary. Today, here we are again, battling for reproductive justice, voting rights, a livable minimum wage, you name it.

And, in fact, social democratic parties in Europe, political kin to DSA, are at the forefront of dismantling the very reforms they once advocated. Since the economic crisis of 2008, democratic socialists in power in France, Spain, and Greece have attacked pensions, healthcare, the eight-hour workday, minimum wages, environmental protections, and more.

Evolution is key in the life of social systems, but it takes revolution to bring a whole new one into being. Such was the case when capitalism replaced feudalism — think of the heroic French Revolution — and such will be the case when socialism replaces capitalism.

An allergy to the revolutionary party. No big goal is attained without organization, leadership, discipline, strategy, learning from the past, and collective thought and hard work. Whoever won an Olympic medal, or even a spelling bee championship, without these things?

The same holds true for radical social change. The revolutionary or vanguard party, also called the Leninist or Bolshevik party, is nothing more or less than a leadership body that allows workers and the oppressed to express their power.

However, DSA opposes Leninist parties, which it calls “usually thoroughly authoritarian” in its “Toward Freedom” document. Who would want to be involved with that? As DSA organizer Brandon Rey Ramirez put it in a Portside article, “People want to be part of something where they feel like it’s not super bureaucratic.”

But the idea that revolutionary parties are undemocratic by nature is a myth (although it’s not unheard of). Part of the problem goes back to differing views about the Russian Revolution, whose 100th anniversary is this year.

DSA claims that Leninism, with its central concept of the vanguard party, leads directly to Stalinism, the totalitarian control of a “socialist” bureaucracy over the people. But FSP believes that Stalinism has nothing to do with Leninism or socialism and everything to do with counterrevolution. FSP traces the causes of the rise of Stalin and his bureaucracy to the very specific harsh conditions and world capitalist hostility facing the Soviet Union after the revolution.

Overthrow of capitalism in the U.S., however, would not face the same obstacles. By liberating millions in this country, it would also enable people around the world to make their own revolutions without interference from Uncle Sam.

In pursuit of left cooperation. Many DSA local chapters are inviting members of other left groups to their functions, sponsoring joint speaking gigs, and seeking collaboration in other ways. It seems there is a fresh wind blowing.

And cooperation is urgently needed among all the people who have set themselves against the powers-that-be. All of our rights are at stake and for many people the issue is nothing less than sheer survival. Even the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.

A special responsibility lies with those of us who are socialists. Working together in democratic united fronts with a working-class program and leadership, we can fight the right wing and corporations while also debating principles, strategies and tactics. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to get onto the right path toward a sane, humane, international socialist system.

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