I want to weigh in on the call from Jeremy Gong and Nick French (“G-F”) for a new progressive mass organization, and the response from Jared Abbott and David Duhalde (“A-D”). G-F calls on the likes of Bernie Sanders and ‘The Squad’ to spearhead the formation of a new national progressive front, in light of the failure of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to meet such limited goals as “Build Back Better,” among other deficiencies. I’m a member of DSA’s North Star Caucus, but this reaction is not any sort of collective caucus statement. My guess is that no more than a minority of North Star would agree with it.
To begin with, their analysis of the current state of play is flawed in two major respects.
One is that the problems of Biden and the Democrats are in important ways partly due to uncontrollable, external factors: the pandemic, which is really ongoing, and disruptions in global supply-chains due to Covid and the war in Ukraine. There is also the political choke-point of the unusually thin Senate majority, where Democratic victories depend on two highly unreliable and unreachable senators, namely Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, though we could attribute the thinness of the Senate majority (the House is no stronghold either, by the way) to general Democratic Party inadequacy.
Two is the utter obliviousness to the danger of fascism posed by the Trump movement. I would argue that a takeover of the national government by the Trump-led Republican Party would progressively delegalize DSA’s current array of organizing initiatives. Florida gives us a taste of what would come. Florida, where ex-offenders are being jacked up for voting, where discussion of racism and gender in schools is prohibited, where it is legal for drivers to run over pedestrian protesters. When it comes to Trump, DSA’s National Political Committee has been AWOL, going as far as to say there would be no difference in the election of either Biden or Trump.
Addressing the first of these – DP weakness – requires blocking the advance of fascism, and that requires defense of democratic institutions, including organs of the State that take action in defense of those institutions.
Would a broad progressive front described by G-F be an asset right now? I would have to agree, but as Abbott and Duhalde point out, if Sanders and his likely collaborators are not moving in that direction, a good question is why not. It would be a good journalistic exercise for Jacobin to ask them. It’s certainly not out of any lack of initiative. Sanders has been a non-stop organizing dynamo since losing in 2016. Notwithstanding the similarity of his politics, he simply shows no interest in working with DSA. The Squad is not much different, especially in the wake of DSA’s disastrous attacks on Rep. Jamaal Bowman. (Disastrous for DSA, that is.)
Bottom line, if your political “strategy” is premised on proclaiming that somebody else should do something, that’s a problem. By what process does it come about? It’s like being in a hole and recognizing that you need a ladder. One might stop to consider why the appointed leaders decline to take up the mantle being assigned to them, but neither G-F nor A-D ever do that.
A positive dimension of the G-F case is the apparent support for a broader politics than currently upheld by DSA itself. They speak approvingly of “Sanders-style progressives.” I say “apparent” because this born-again flexibility is not necessarily consistent with G and F’s past roles in DSA, but I have to leave that judgement to others. A-D are of course supportive in this vein and enjoy more credibility, at least from where I sit. In this respect, G-F and A-D are both in agreement with North Star Caucus.
But there is still a problem. What’s missing in both analyses is much interrogation of class politics in the U.S. of 2022. G-F mention Black Lives Matter briefly but neglect to note DSA’s absence from that struggle. In general, DSA is stuck in a "class politics" mindset that glosses over the predominance of race in U.S. politics and culture. As a comrade in North Star reminds me, it’s all well and good to fight for the meat and potatoes that everyone needs, but before material sustenance, there is also the matter of fundamental citizenship rights. The right to walk the streets, drive, shop, assemble, and vote in security. The right to be. As the saying went, “Sandra Bland had a job.”
The unpleasant truth is that DSA is snow-white, and the U.S. working class is not. I happen to think there are many black socialists, but they show little interest in DSA or any other white left group. Until we face that, we’re going nowhere.
I’ve lived through more than one popular left upsurge. You can’t summon these like fundamentalists praying for the return of the Messiah. What we can do is be ready to take advantage of them when they occur. The most recent missed opportunity was Black Lives Matter. Before that there were the Sanders’ campaigns. And before them, the Occupy actions.
I could also point to an interesting moment in 1999. We had tumultuous mass actions in Seattle, the “Teamsters and Turtles” convergence of workers and environmentalists focused on Bill Clinton’s neoliberal trade policies. This promising agitation got lost when first, the Democratic Party allowed Republicans to steal the 2000 election, and then after 9-11, everything became subordinated to the Bushists’ “War on Terror.”
DSA didn’t amount to much in 1999, but it could have come out of it being more. Since I’m old, I could also note the year 1969, after which all the major factions of SDS, sectarians all, came to grief, and our guardians of law and order destroyed the Black Panther Party. By then, SNCC was already kaput. (It’s easy to be cynical about democratic institutions after that, but it would still be wrong.)
In all these episodes, the masses of people in motion were ripe for socialist leadership that was not forthcoming. I’m afraid the calls for some new mass organization suited to such a mission are a solution untethered to the problem, which is that too large a proportion of U.S. socialists, particularly DSA, are alienated from the chief political concerns of the multiracial U.S. working class. 2020 proved that the chief such concern was booting Donald Trump out of the White House.
Second thoughts prompted by feedback from comrades:
I thought about my "snow-white" remark while writing, realizing we have numerous Latin and immigrant members. I don't mean to erase them. What is true is that our membership is overwhelmingly not-black, and especially not black/working class, and I think African-Americans are the likely irreplaceable political backbone of a mobilized U.S. working class, as with #BLM. This was crucial in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
There is potential to partially remedy this as with respect to labor struggles, but my view is that the grassroots work (labor, evictions, state and local elections) is only one of two essential tiers, the other being national politics -- the election of Congress and the president. Neither works without the other. DSA is nowhere in the second tier. Counter-productive (e.g., the Bowman/Cisneros/Casar fiascos) if anything.
I tried to say the G-F call for outreach, credibility aside (given the authors), was consistent with A-D and our own caucus outlook, which is all to the good.
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
Poor People's Campaign
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