Democratic Socialists of America

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‘When did everyone become a socialist?’ asks a New York magazine headline. It seems that for many young Americans ‘calling yourself a socialist sounds sexier than anything else out there’. Things certainly are getting strange. For most of the past half century, you had to be a masochist to call yourself a socialist in the US. It risked attracting disdain and ridicule, and put you on the political margins.


I joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a teenager in 2007. It was then the largest such organisation in the US and the country’s sole representative in the Socialist International (it left in 2017). But in the world’s most capitalist nation, with a population of more than 300 million, our socialist movement had just 5,000 members.


I went to tiny meetings, in private homes or community spaces offered for free. There were often fewer than a dozen people. Some, like me, were young; most were over 60. There was never anyone from the generations in between. We learned to sing the Internationale, we heard stories from red diaper babies (children of Communist Party or Socialist Party members) and veterans of the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, we kept the old language and the old fight alive, but we were irrelevant. When I worked one summer at DSA’s national office, we didn’t even have enough money for a water cooler. We carried our mugs to a shared restroom, shuffling past well-dressed professionals who were in the same building, and drew lukewarm New York tap water.


America’s handful of democratic socialists were survivors, a position not new to us. DSA was formed from the shattered remnants of the once mighty Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose most famous exponent was Eugene Debs. By the early 1970s, the SPA had just a few hundred members and was bitterly divided over how to relate to the New Left, whether to work within the Democratic Party, and even where to stand on the Vietnam war.


The SPA split into three in 1972. Its right wing formed the Social Democrats, USA, with civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, formerly an advisor to Martin Luther King, as its first chair. It soon became associated with hawkish anticommunism and was never more than an irrelevant pressure group within the trade union establishment. The SPA’s left continued the Debsian tradition of running independent electoral campaigns, which were often noble but yielded meagre results: his successors won only 6,038 votes in 1976 and 4,430 in 2012.


The SPA’s ‘centre’ formed the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (DSOC) under Michael Harrington, who believed that the antidemocratic nature of US election laws and other barriers made ‘third party’ campaigns futile. Instead, he worked to bring together social movements (student groups, associations), trade unions and Democratic Party officials in a European-style social-democratic coalition in the US, where the term was unknown. Eventually the DSOC merged with a post-New Left organisation, the New American Movement, to form DSA in 1983. But the timing was off. The new party campaigned for a full employment bill, took part in the anti-apartheid movement, and cheered social-democratic victories in France and Greece. This had no impact on the Democratic Party, which swerved sharply to the right in the 1980s, abandoning the spirit of the New Deal and its drive to expand the welfare state.


Willy Brandt, the German Social Democratic party leader, used to say that Harrington could have been a head of state in a European country. But, as conservative journalist William F Buckley put it, being the most prominent socialist in the US was like ‘being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas’. When Harrington died, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, socialism and even social-democracy had almost gone from the American political map. Yet even without its leader or new recruits, DSA survived, just.


A few hundred miles north of our tiny New York office, some other holdouts survived, too. Bernie Sanders’s political life started in obscurity, like Harrington’s, in what remained of the SPA. As a student in the 1960s, he fought for labour and civil rights alongside New York’s workers, but eventually left his native Brooklyn for the rural state of Vermont. His first foray into electoral politics, a state senate special election in 1972, yielded results typical for the US left: 2.2% of the vote.


But Sanders was dogged and his message was simple, denouncing ‘the world of Richard Nixon, and the millionaires and billionaires whom he represents’. Even back then, he was reminding voters that ‘this is the world of the 2% of the population that owns more than one third of the personally held wealth in America’. His words were too clear not to resonate. After an early career littered with failures, he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, running as an ‘independent socialist’. In the next 30 years, the core of his appeal didn’t change: inequality in America is a chasm that can only be closed by a coalition of working people.


Sanders’s message made him a local favourite, and brought him to Washington DC as a congressman (1991-2007), then as a senator (from 2007). But he was still almost unknown at national level until he ran against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries. He linked his fight against inequity to a programme of single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college and a $15 national minimum wage, and won the support of millions of Americans. Most knew little about socialism, but were ready for a politics that put their needs first. Sanders lost the primaries, though he won 11 million votes. In a few months, he had roused American socialism from torpor by returning to its roots: class struggle and a working-class base.


Social context was key to this renaissance. Since the 2008 financial crisis, anger at the power of corporations and stagnating wages has fuelled the return of mass protests, including a long strike by public sector workers in Wisconsin, the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, and a strike by teachers and nurses in 2018. Publications like Jacobin helped define a coherent politics to the left of the Democratic Party. (Jacobin’s subscriber base tripled during Sanders’s campaign in 2016, to 15,000.) Most new readers were in their 20s, often the declassed children of senior managers or professionals. They were angry. It was common to see these new converts to socialism attacking the Democratic Party and the mainstream media online, using the rose emoji to show they belonged to the socialist movement.


Clinton paid the price during the last stages of the primaries. Several dozen members of DSA, including me, distanced themselves from her on 4 November 2016, a few days before she faced Donald Trump; we signed a statement arguing that ‘campaigning for Clinton entails convincing people that she and her party will move to do a number of things — attacking the finance sector, opposing bad free trade deals, raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, defending and expanding Social Security etc — they are not likely to do. Socialists should not undertake this work because it has the potential to undermine our efforts to build a base after the election, when all too often the promised effort to “hold the Democrats accountable” doesn’t materialise’. This position was fiercely debated on the left: representatives of the Communist Party USA argued that the need to oppose Trump required the left to support Clinton.


The post-election atmosphere was unexpected. We had feared we would be blamed for Clinton’s defeat, but instead new recruits flooded into DSA; soon it had 50,000 members (Jacobin’s subscription base grew from 17,000 to 36,000 in two months). Media profiles and the overrepresentation of our members on social media helped.


Anyone could join DSA, and they could apply online. The organisation became a refuge for anarchists, communists and Sanders supporters. Its loose structure gave autonomy to local chapters, which led to great diversity in forms of engagement: DSA has supported the formation of tenants’ associations, helped poorer members of communities to replace car brake lights, and mounted large national campaigns, such as the one for the ‘Medicare for All’ universal healthcare programme.


DSA has also proved a potent electoral threat. In Chicago, six of the 50 council members are socialists. Socialists have been elected to the state legislatures of Virginia and New York. Nationally, DSA was instrumental in the election of a new crop of leftwing Democrats at the 2018 midterms, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (‘AOC’), elected to the lower house of the New York state legislature. AOC is closer to the Democratic Party than most DSA members, but she is vocal about her socialist politics and has used her social media savvy and charisma to build an enormous platform. Since Sanders’s 2016 campaign, millions of Americans have been exposed to our ideas this way.


Yet we’re starting to hit the limits of what we can achieve through media savvy alone. There is a mass movement growing in the US against inequality, but it is not supported by DSA. Sanders has little affiliation with DSA, and AOC is trying to reform the Democratic Party from within. DSA remains largely white and middle-class.


The goal now is to root ourselves within a class movement. DSA organisers helped lead the 2018-19 strikes of nurses and teachers, and hopes to increase its influence among workers through further efforts with trade unions and others. It is now obvious to millions of Americans that far-reaching changes are needed. The US socialist movement is off life support, but is only at the start of its road to recovery.



- Bhaskar Sunkara is the founder and director of Jacobin magazine (New York), former vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and author of The Socialist Manifesto: the Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, Basic Books, New York, 2019.


Copyright ©2019 Le Monde diplomatique — used by permission of Agence Global.

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