DSA’s Left and Right Both Miss the Point: We Need to Build the Left and the Working-Class Together

by David Thompson

The article “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?” in The New Republic reaffirmed for me why I’ve hitched my wagon to Philly Socialists and the Marxist Center, rather than DSA. It’s not because I share the author’s implied criticisms or think he gave DSA a fair shake. He clearly didn’t! It’s because DSA is having a fierce internal debate in which both sides of the argument are missing the main job of socialists right now: to build the infrastructure of new, independent working class institutions and to develop new leaders from the ranks of the unorganized; leaders with built bases of support outside the Democrat Party and trade union bureaucracy. As Avery Minnelli and Eliezer Levin put it, the job, a massive one, is to rebuild “proletarian civil society.”

As I understand it, the key division within DSA appears to be whether to focus its efforts organizing alongside those who are exploited or alongside those who are oppressed. Nate Moore, writing in Socialist Worker, offers a simple definition of the two terms’ meaning from a Marxist perspective:

Exploitation means the theft that all workers suffer by not receiving the full value of their labor–and which they struggle against through strikes and other actions to win higher incomes and other economic benefits.

Oppression means the discrimination, violence and other negative effects suffered by particular groups, on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or some other factor.

These aren’t rigid categories, but they are helpful to understand two of the main ways capitalism works on people’s lives. Of course, there’s lots of overlap between oppression and exploitation in real life. Someone can be a worker, getting exploited by their employer by day and oppressed by the police at night. Or you can be oppressed at work: abused because of your identity. And these phenomena are interrelated. Oppression helps increase the rate of exploitation–the amount of value that capitalists can squeeze out of us. Having a group of deeply oppressed people–who can’t even join the labor market–creates what Marx called the “industrial reserve army of labor,” which lets bosses pay those who are in the labor market even less (“if you don’t like the wage, someone unemployed will be happy to take it”).

So on the one side of this DSA debate you’ve got the Momentum crew and their fellow travelers. They’re self-described Marxists. They have a dominant position in several chapters, including in Philly, and help set direction for the national leadership of the organization. We’ll call them the “right wing.” This side of the debate is all about exploitation, not trying to hear about oppression. That’s why they get hit by their opponents for being “class-reductionists.” The first plank of their platform calls for “a rank-and-file labor strategy that encourages DSAers to enter the labor movement as rank-and-file workers; win leadership in unions where possible; and organize the unorganized where necessary.” Organizing people who are exploited by capitalism.  But primarily, at least as far as I can tell, this kind of work amounts to showing solidarity with militant trade unionists in their struggle for command of labor unions, acting as supporters for those unionists, building relationships with what rank-and-file caucuses they can. To my knowledge, there aren’t any DSA slates for union officer positions or new rank-and-file caucuses that DSA has formed. Rather, the focus seems to be on building relationships with the people they see as being well-positioned to win that leadership at some point down the line. And even that focus is always secondary to the work of foot-soldiering for progressive Democratic candidates or their policies. Momentum’s convention strategy, for instance, calls for a single-minded focus on Bernie 2020 and makes no mention of any labor work.

Momentum wants DSA to become an organization for everyone who sympathizes with expanded social welfare provision: to “become the political home for the 13 million people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary elections.” They believe socialists can do this by rallying those people round the banner of  “burning demands supported by almost all working people,” “positive universal demands, like Medicare for All and better public education.” Even when they talk about “Fighting Oppression Head On,” Momentum talks about following the leadership of the exploited–in the article with that subheading, they immediately talk about labor unions bringing up issues of oppression–or the campaigns of politicians who make “universal demands” on the system and who then bring more “particular” demands (abolishing ICE, ending cash bail) along as riders.

To its credit, the near term goals of the “right wing” of the DSA debate are at least clear: they want more leftists getting into elected government office (though what the strategy should be for this “parliamentary wing” of the movement is less clear), and to build relationships with oppositional caucuses in the labor unions.

On the other side of the argument you’ve got a “left” wing who claim to be better socialists by virtue of understanding the priority of fighting oppression, not just exploitation. This left is made up by two main sections: people who are basically “party line” socialists “entering DSA” to try to win it to their line, and, second, people with less strict political commitments who would like to see DSA be more democratic and open to doing more than a few projects at a time. Their opponents call them “horizontalists,” “anarchists” (many are), or, in the case of the party line people, “entryists.”

In the “party line” section of this left wing, I see people arguing things that make no sense to me. Things like— your position on Assad is what’s going to make your cadre group reflect the working class in all its diversity. Inside and outside DSA, this crew prioritizes theoretical rigor in their internal collective life. They rake other self-identified socialists who subscribe to different theoretical traditions as “liberals,” racists, crypto-Nazis, whatever.

Then there’s the more heterodox DSA portion of this left, the base-builders, who want to do more mutual aid and show more solidarity with fights against oppression, proudly taking on those “particular demands”. In Philly, they congregate in LILAC (Local Initatives and Local Action Committee), in other towns they’ve joined the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, in others they seem to run branches outright.

Leading lights of this trend recently signed onto the the alternately confusing and disturbing Columbia Falls Statement. On the one hand, the statement rejects the possibility of socialists taking real leadership of political movements. The authors write:

We [DSA] are not powerful enough to ‘own’ any campaign unless it is very targeted in scope or short in time-frame….

    • Coalition work is consistently the best way to build strategies against the bourgeois class and capitalist bureaucracies…

    • We do not see ourselves as the vanguard in every struggle. Rather, we must be humble and defer to coalition partners who have been organizing for decades within their respective liberatory struggles. These partnerships should not be structured as tokenizing acknowledgements, but as mutually beneficial relationships, built around what each organization does best.

Then, after a fatalistic mea culpa about the lack of diversity in DSA, the Columbia Falls Statement authors make the shockingly patronizing assertion that the only thing to be done is to offer more limited avenues of participation for the oppressed, the “weight” of whose poverty will always, inevitably keep them sidelined from meaningful leadership:

We are aware that DSA fails to represent marginalized communities of all kinds to the extent that a socialist organization must. We understand that this is because of the societal and material strain facing poor people of color of all backgrounds (see Piven & Cloward’s “The Weight of the Poor”) and a product of our current recruitment and engagement model.

    • Our organizing must not serve as a form of condescending adventurism as many non-profits practice. Rather we must build intra- and extra-organizational paths that allow poor people to engage in meaningful DSA-related work when the opportunity arises, with the understanding that many do not have the energy, time, or resources to engage in long-term work.” (italics theirs)

The obvious question raised by these two positions is: if the oppressed can’t ever be expected to meaningfully participate in socialist organizations, whose “lead,” exactly, should socialists follow when we join as “allies” or “accomplices” in anti-oppression work? Surveying the efforts of the DSA left locally and nationally, the answer seems to be, mainly, class-collaborationist NGOs, the same self-appointed “representatives” of the oppressed who marshal the Democratic Party’s working-class contingent.

The DSA left would relegate socialists to the status of supporters of and outsiders from anti-oppression struggles. They seem unwilling to imagine socialists being in and of the class we aim to organize.

So while the DSA right focuses on exploitation and the DSA left on oppression, they have parallel approaches: participating in the political efforts of the already organized (the minority). It’s just a question of which set of representatives we ought to prioritize “showing up” for, the exploited or the oppressed.

It’s almost as if both sides in the debate believe the power is already there in the class, it just needs to be activated, turned on, by the right socialist ideas. The DSA “right” will talk about the “millions who voted for Bernie Sanders” or unionized teachers as if they’re sleeping giants—which, potentially yes, but if the liberals keep out-organizing us and winning deeper bases in the class? No. The “left” is less prone to these kinds of “the class is on the march” type statements, but they are also less ready to explain how their approach leads to more working-class power. Sometimes when they talk about things like working to elect Larry Krasner, for instance, they’ll say that the changes they fight for improve the material conditions of the working-class to free them up for liberatory organizing or political work. But mostly, it tends to be more of a moralism—we should do this because it is right.

The central thing is left unclear: if we are just identifying ourselves as socialists but then carrying out the agenda of more powerful, liberal, ruling-class forces—e.g, the Senate Democrats or the foundation-funded non-profit industrial complex—how are we building the power of the socialist movement or the working class? How are we building up the independent forces that could one day take power and remake society?

The question that always comes to mind for me is what the anti-Communist leader of the United Mine Workers John Lewis would ask when he was confronted about Communists doing the lion’s share of organizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)— “who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” Are we going to be better hunters—setting the agenda, building up new leaders—or the dog—tailing the agenda of our temporary allies? One way forward lets us build the independent power of the working class and socialists. The other strengthens the hand of the Democrat Party and the trade union bureaucracy.

Great example: Philly DSA just received an award from a progressive, but by no means socialist, City Councilperson for their work helping Fair Workweek get passed. This was (good!) legislation championed by the union brass of SEIU and UNITE HERE, as well as a Democrat with loyalty both to her Party and to the entrenched leadership of the trade unions (she supported the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ leadership slate over the progressive Working Educators caucus, for instance). Who’s really helping whom in exchanges like this? Does DSA get a “legitimizing” boost from a politician? Or is the politician burnishing her street cred, building out her volunteer base for future elections? Moreover, did DSA recruit new members from their efforts in the campaign? Hone any strategic skills? Confront hard choices about tactical decisions and learn from their successes and mistakes? It’s quite possible, but from my vantage point, it seemed to me that they were simply foot soldiers for commanders in the Democratic Party network, a junior coalition partner– albeit ones who got to brand themselves as a separate support group within that coalition. The priority appeared to be building relationships with the existing leaders of the already organized exploited, taking direction from them.

The problem is that these leaders are leading the working class nowhere. They’re certainly not leading it to socialist politics.

We take a very different approach in Philly Socialists and in what I hope the Marxist Center network will become. Yes, we believe we have to build forces to overcome exploitation and fight for leadership of the labor movement. Yes, we believe we have to build forces to overcome oppression, too, to build the power of the oppressed and to respect self-determination.

But to do it, we think we have a much bigger task in front of us than the “right” or “left” of the argument summarized in New Republic will say: we believe socialists have to play leading roles in creating new institutions and networks to re-organize the working class as a class.

The institutions we help build won’t substitute for working class upsurges, and they won’t create new objective realities. But they will develop “stewards of the class” who can help lead, not moderate, those inevitable surges. And they will create frameworks that serve as vessels for those surges.

Examples in Philly of what I’m talking about:

  • We instigated the creation of a tenants union in 2015 and invested resources getting it off the ground, organizing around many individual class conflicts to develop the skills of ourselves and other tenants we meet. (Nearly all of the members of Philly Socialists are ourselves tenants.) That organization is not a socialist group. It is a group that includes socialists in some leading roles, but it also includes deeply oppressed and exploited people who do not identify as socialists who had heretofore not had a primary political organization. This kind of shared leadership was able to win a version of a reform (Good Cause Eviction protections) that’s eluded local NGOs, with a fraction of the resources of those NGOs. And there’s only more to come. Of course the organization worked with allies and politicians, but the initiative and the leadership was the union’s. No tit-for-tat with the politicians who put it on the floor. Rather than accepting awards or fawning over politicians, the Tenants Union continued to lead the push for reforms the class needs, publicly grumbling at the legislative sponsor of the bill and pushing the mayor to weigh in on rent control. That’s what it can do from a position of independence, rather than from a position of playing second fiddle to liberal politicians and NGOs. As if drawing a line in the sand, a subsequent UNITE HERE-led coalition event did not invite the Tenants Union to participate in drafting housing demands. However, they did invite and feature one of the foundation/union-funded coalition partners in the Good Cause effort as the authority on housing issues, OnePA. They touted their achievement of passing Good Cause–“with the Philly Tenants Union.”
  • As the nationwide surge against ICE took place, a few PS leaders, including our own immigrant leaders, were in a position to leverage our networks inside and outside the organization, mobilize resources we’ve built up over years, and successfully instigate a coalition of left-wing orgs (including the DSA left) to occupy Philly’s ICE offices. That coalition ultimately won demands previously issued by an immigrant-focused NGO, which had also not won those demands. Did we create the surge? Did we do the campaign alone? Or do everything right? No. But we came out stronger and wiser, no less independent, in no way indebted to any NGO or the mayor who gave in. It’s my view that DSA could also instigate such coalitions and such efforts. There’s no reason the left should sign away its ability to do so.

When we are at our best, Philly Socialists’ work is laser-focused on building internal leadership, creating new institutions, and leading our own campaigns. Because of this focus, these two victories have been ways to test our strength, give our cadre new skills, and win more supporters. The victories are materially smaller than the ones the alliance of union bureaucracies, NGOs, and progressive officeholders can currently win. But unlike those, ours are building independent class power, and the independent power of our socialist organization.

So, in the “Marxist Center” that I personally envision, it means we know we have to one day take over the existing unions but also need to start new unions and worker organizations run by and for the exploited. We need to be catalysts creating organizations run by and for the oppressed. That’s how we should be building up our socialist organizations. That’s how we’ll make them rooted in the working class. Always, we need to be clear: we are organizing “the masses,” but we ourselves are in and of the masses.

I hope that more DSA members will be won over to this kind of work. I hope they will take a hard look at where they are, where they want to be, and try things with an eye toward what will leave them in a stronger position a year from now. I hope they move toward the politics of building up the independent power of the working class, and away from following those who seek only compromise with the ruling class. Until then, I look forward to working with my DSA comrades from within Philly Socialists and the Marxist Center.

David Thompson is an administrative assistant and musician. He spent three years on the Philly Socialists Central Committee, including one as its chair. He is currently organizing Philly Socialists’ labor project and is an at-large representative on the Executive Committee of the Philadelphia Tenants Union.

2 replies on “DSA’s Left and Right Both Miss the Point: We Need to Build the Left and the Working-Class Together”

guy from an organization I’ve never heard of even though it’s apparently been around years has big thoughts on movement building

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