by Susan Chacin, North Star Steering Committee Co-Chair
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is going through an internal crisis. Members of the National Political Committee, NPC, have resigned and leaders from various tendencies are at odds with each other. Many chapters have been weakened by sectarian disputes. The details of these disagreements are less important than the fact that the dissention is distracting us from what should be our focus: building a broad political movement capable of winning influence and actual demands at the local, state, and national levels.
North Star, a caucus of DSA, is calling on everyone we know to organize and participate in the most urgent struggle of our times: the fight to save representative democracy in the U.S. Many DSA members and friends are already active in such struggles. They see that the Left has an important role to play in building people power. As a “big tent” organization that includes a wide range of leftists, DSA members can disagree about how best to advance the struggle to meet human needs, defend working people’s rights, uproot racism, sexism and homophobia, and save life as we know it on this planet. What we must not do is let our differences inhibit our role in building a left-center electoral force that rejects the authoritarian, right-wing assault being carried out on our imperfect democracy. If we dare to struggle on this terrain, we have a good chance to defeat the MAGA-dominated Republican Party at the midterm elections.
The crisis in DSA is being perpetrated by ultra-leftist sectarians. These members may believe that they represent Marxist principles, and that collaborating with people who disagree with them, whether they call themselves socialists, progressives, or liberals is a betrayal of a “correct line.” What they are ignoring is the most important mandate of dialectical materialism: to understand the political forces in play, and defend workers’ hard-won gains in the actual contests being waged against us. To put this in classic Marxist terms, the principal contradiction of our times is between the new alliance of capitalist elites with authoritarian neo-fascist populism attempting to destroy the growing strength of a pro-worker, anti-capitalist left mobilizing to protect and extend working people’s rights.
Many Democrats and socialists of all stripes were encouraged by Bernie Sanders’ campaigns and by the victories of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and other members of the “squad.” Pramila Jayapal’s leadership and the Progressive Caucus in Congress have shown that leftists can have an important impact even within the Democratic Party. Favorable attention to Elizabeth Warren’s several plans for making capitalism more equitable have shown that even non-socialists can advance worthy reforms. It is dawning on even some centrist politicians that giving voice to the needs and demands of working people of all races can be a winning strategy.
Since the Occupy movement and especially since Bernie’s campaigns, the U.S. Left has seen its own progressive “spring.” In the face of climate crisis, run away inequality, and the inadequacy of our for-profit medical system, capitalism is subject to more scrutiny than at any time since the great depression. The tremendous growth of left-wing activity is exemplified by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) currently counting close to 90,000 members, up from only around 5,000 in 2015, an 18 fold increase. The wide support for Black Lives Matter following George Floyd’s murder signifies a new awareness among white people of the effects of poisonous racism. The MAGA movement is a backlash against this blooming Left as well as a reaction to the election of the first African American president.
Can DSA help socialists avoid seizing defeat from the jaws of victory?
DSA’s rapid growth has brought many young organizers into leadership but it also poses serious risks based on their inexperience and alienation from more mainstream political tendencies. The left is also plagued by resentful theoreticians of old controversies which, while they offer useful cautions, may deserve a place in the dustbin of history rather than animating endless debates about their applicability to current events. In this climate, effective resistance to the outlandish transformation of the Republican Party into Trump worshiping neo-fascism becomes particularly difficult. We must prevent these factors from pushing DSA into premature demands for political purity. To do so would throw away the new respect for us as socialism among voters and organizers: we would be seizing defeat from the jaws of hard-won victory.
When I was a young, newly radicalized socialist in the late 1960s, I too thought that my generation was seeing the future more clearly than our elders and that revolution was just around the corner. Now I cannot help but reflect on how arrogant we were. We could hardly have expected to withstand COINTELPRO and its successors. The FBI waged decades-long programs of domestic spying, assassination, and left wing disruption. Not that we didn’t suspect that the “system” was capable of such crimes, we just didn’t imagine how vulnerable we would be to their effect. I was spied on by an undercover Los Angeles Police Department agent in our chapter of the New American Movement, one of DSA’s two predecessor organizations. The slimy bastard maintained a sexual relationship with a good friend of mine for years and was only exposed when it was found that he had married another LAPD secret agent. The Left would stand much stronger if Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so many other less well-known leaders had not been assassinated and harassed relentlessly.
It would be naïve to assume that DSA and others of our organizations are not similarly targets of government and right-wing spying and disruption programs. The recent movie about Fred Hampton’s murder lays out a case of infiltration in tragic detail. The best strategy for resisting the ravages of spies and agents provocateurs is not to hunt for them, it is to ask how they would be acting. If what is taking place resembles the disruption that an agent would cause, it is time for a “time out,” and a reexamination of our organizational process.
Incorporating the benefit of elders’ experience with younger comrades’ expertise, it has fallen to the North Star Caucus and our allies to try to stem the ultra-leftism that is rampant in DSA. Jamaal Bowman, Congressman from New York and a member of DSA, has been a target of this mistaken tendency. Despite his strong progressive performance in the House, a coordinated campaign was waged against him in DSA based on his visit to Israel and votes for Israeli military aid. This campaign incited many chapters of DSA to call for him be expelled from the organization even after the NPC voted to censure rather than expel him. At this writing, the resulting controversy is still not resolved. Bowman is not alone in the crosshairs of these ardent would-be revolutionaries. They have also alleged that Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (AOC) has been soft on Israel and unable to deliver real change. In 2020, such partisans refused Bernie Sanders’ calls to defeat Trump by supporting the election of President Biden, ignoring the crucial role Sanders had played in catalyzing the new respectability of democratic socialist positions and the growth of DSA itself. Attacks on Bowman’s defenders, and on the DSA members who are urging support for the Progressive Caucus in Congress, have been vitriolic and threatening in a way that bizarrely echoes Right-wing rhetoric and tactics.
In this situation, the old adage to not let the best become the enemy of the good is more relevant than ever. The North Star Caucus is determined to let the world know that there are life-long socialists who see the long view. We are adamant that socialists must unite with the wide range of progressives who stand in strong opposition to the neo-fascists reigning in the Republican Party. Seeing DSA members turning on elected representatives, many of them “people of color,” who have been carrying the standard of socialism bravely into Congress and the public marketplace of ideas is intolerable. It summons the old sarcastic joke that when the Left appoints a firing squad, we draw up in a circle.
This ultra-Left dogmatism plays into the hands of the right-wing commentators on all platforms who are busy trying to resuscitate Cold War fears linking socialism to authoritarian communism. Pro MAGA voices are all too happy to claim that calls to end brutality and murders of Blacks and protesters all amount to an Antifa agenda of abolishing or defunding the police. Republican politicians in Congress and state legislatures have animated the fiction that educating young people about the history of our country and the legacy of slavery amounts to preaching hate for Whites. Reproductive rights have been extinguished in many states and anti-gay and transgender repression is resurgent. And all of these measures, the right-wing talking heads claim, are necessary to stem the socialist agenda of abolishing the White Christian nation’s virtuous regime of world leadership.
It is by no means certain that the Democratic Party will lose control of Congress in the mid-term elections this year. But that prospect, so deeply scary in the climate of Trump’s dominance over the Republican base, is made more likely by ultra-Left intolerance for the broad spectrum of progressive forces. These dogmatic radicals make unity in defense of voting rights more difficult if not impossible. Recent demonstrations of this dangerous tendency in Texas showed the Austin chapter of DSA refusing to participate in the successes enjoyed by Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar. These candidates were hailed nationally for standing up to the ultra-Right. Thousands of primary ballots were thrown out by elections officers in the election due to newly instituted voter suppression laws. But where were DSA members? Not only was DSA missing in action, we actually alienated our allies in a state struggling to withstand vicious attacks on reproductive rights, racial justice, and immigrants.
Now that the world’s attention is focused on Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, we have seen another expression of DSA’s Achilles heel. While condemning the invasion, the DSA National Political Committee’s statement on the war included a reference to NATO’s growth as provoking Russia’s attack, and called for U.S. withdrawal from the alliance. With European democracies on high alert for further Russian aggression, DSA has placed itself in an untenable position of saying “a plague on both your houses.”
This is why the North Star Caucus of DSA is speaking out. We are urging the National Political Committee to endorse DSA members who have represented us in Congress for re-election if they request it. If “endorsement” is too strong a form of support for a candidate, DSA could develop other terms or categories to use in collaborating with community organizations and campaigns. Slate cards can recommend votes for people without explicitly endorsing or state that electors should vote against other candidates.
We are also alerting the whole organization to the dangers of ultra-Left intransigence such as demanding unquestioning support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) policy from candidates. North Star in no way accepts Israel’s policies and its oppression of Palestinians. But BDS should not be a litmus test for support of progressive candidates. DSA is too valuable an organization to be overtaken by dogmatic politics. Whether our internal opponents are acting from an abundance of socialist optimism or a more partisan effort to draw us apart from liberal and centrist allies, North Star insists that DSA must reject ultra-leftism and secure its position as the socialist voice in a united front against the racist, authoritarian elements that are attempting to destroy the Left and representative democracy.
What can North Star do toward these ends? We urge DSA members to join North Star and our “Democracy Defenders” project. North Star plans to reach as many chapters and members as possible to find out how they are supporting voters rights, campaigning for progressive candidates, and working with other grassroots organizations to turn out voters. DSA members who belong to labor unions can support active labor engagement in support of progressive candidates. We plan to build communication, coordination, cooperation, and ultimately collaboration among as many individuals and groups as we can. Each state and locality is different, but there are strategies suited to increasing electoral engagement in any setting.
If you agree with this assessment, there are many ways to spread the word that members of DSA are rejecting sectarian purity and organizing both inside DSA and with other comrades on the Left. Here is an example of an “elevator speech” you could read at a DSA chapter meeting or local event, or use to contact comrades you know around the country:
I am a member of a group of DSA members determined to mobilize to defeat the neo-fascists currently dominating the Republican Party. We believe that the principal contradiction in the struggle for human rights today is the threat of a right-wing takeover in the U.S. The North Star Caucus of DSA is uniting with the many organizations working to defeat the racist, authoritarian bullies who are bent on destroying representative democracy in this country. DSA is going through a crisis, due in part to our “big tent” philosophy and the large number of new members who flocked to the banner of democratic socialism. We insist that as we find ways to disagree, we join hands to win “non-reformist reforms” by electing democrats and left-wing independents and defeating Republicans at every level of government. Join us!
Click here to join North Star Caucus and the Democracy Defenders
Susan Chacin, Co-Chair of the DSA North Star Caucus Steering Committee served two terms on the DSA National Political Committee 1999-2002 and was a co-facilitator for the East Bay DSA local for about 17 years.
North Star caucus members
antiracismdsa (blog of Duane Campbell)
Hatuey's Ashes (blog of José G. Pérez)
Authory and Substack of Max Sawicky
Online University of the Left
In These Times
The American Prospect
Black Agenda Report
Dollars and Sense
Working Families Party
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism
Progressive Democrats of America
Democracy for America
Black Lives Matter
Movement for Black Lives
The Women's March
Jewish Voice for Peace
National Abortion Rights Action League
National Organization for Women
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights