In the U.S., upsurges from the left have come and gone. In recent decades there were mass demonstrations against predatory finance at ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ which turned out to set the stage for the Bernie Sanders’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020. I was well pleased by the breakthroughs in public awareness fostered by Sanders, as well as by the parallel, explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
After my years in the political wilderness, I thought, “Isn’t this lovely. Bernie has broken the ice on socialist rhetoric in top-level U.S. political discourse, and the adorable Bernie youth are swelling the ranks of an explicitly socialist organization. Now I will join too.”
To my way of thinking, socialism is not an all-or-nothing thing. Victories accrue in increments, and the two-party system is hard-wired into the U.S. political process. To borrow from an old slogan, there is no way to democratic socialism. Democratic socialism is the way. The real action is in the national, state, and local legislatures, spurred on by non-violent mass mobilization. The system is rigged against third parties, and nobody is smashing the State.
Progressive policy change occurs through a complementary combination of mass mobilization and the initiatives of the most liberal Democrats in elective office. This path can be tedious and frustrating, and evidently it has driven many former Bernie partisans around the bend. Even so, the Sanders upsurges have given rise to an increasing number of avowed socialist members of Congress. Over one hundred members of DSA itself have won election to public office.
Now all of those gains are threatened, on two fronts.
From the Right, we face the rise of the anti-democratic Trump movement, openly dedicated to violent takeover and liquidation of all opposition from the left. The Democrats’ feeble resistance to this movement is immediately at risk of being extinguished by the likelihood of unfavorable outcomes in the national elections of 2022 and 2024. Now more than ever is the time to fight this future.
From the Left, the leadership of DSA has been intent on disarming the organization it is charged to lead by consistently ignoring the fascist threat and by holding itself aloof from necessary alliances with anti-fascist forces, both to resist Trumpism and to push for advances in democratic socialism.
Contradictions in DSA doctrine and practice have been growing for some time. The greatest one is the growing distance between the organization and our most progressive politicians, including some who are DSA members. Because the same motivation underlies support for Bernie and ‘The Squad,’ and the growth of DSA, something has got to give.
The most recent blow-up transpired around the trip to Israel of the newest Squad member, Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York. Bowman met with Palestinians and Israeli peace groups, but he also sat with the Israeli Prime Minister, the execrable Naftali Bennett. Bowman also voted for U.S. funding of Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system.
Bowman’s trip and vote were seized upon by purportedly left-of-left elements in DSA, including the leadership. Calls for his censure and/or expulsion from DSA have issued from an assortment of DSA chapters and other groups. Besides the sophomoric talk about his sit-down with Bennett (politicians meet with political adversaries all the time), the principal objection was Bowman’s purported violation of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (‘BDS’) strictures on contacts with Israelis.
In lame gestures towards labor from our heavily bourgeois leftists, this has been described as a ‘picket line.’ It’s not a fucking ‘picket line’!
One has to wonder if this brouhaha is really about Palestine, for several reasons.
· Bowman has been defended by Palestinian leaders in the U.S., including Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
· Bowman has not been criticized by the leaders of BDS, on the ground, in Palestine.
· Bernie Sanders and other members of The Squad have taken the same position on Iron Dome as Bowman but drawn no denunciations from DSA. It’s some weird kind of opportunism for a lefty faction to attack a progressive African American politician for the same politics espoused by white pols. But nobody is accusing these critics of political sophistication.
· Bowman himself had the same positions when DSA explicitly endorsed him, when he first ran for office in 2020, not incidentally replacing one of the most rabid pro-Israel members of Congress.
· Bowman is much better on Palestine than almost all Democratic politicians, though he stops short of supporting BDS.
· Many of Bowman’s constituents are Jewish and easily riled by suspicion of excessive hostility to Israel, which a pro-BDS posture automatically triggers.
· The fact is that the Congressional districts in the U.S. where a BDS endorsement would be tolerated by voters can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Insistence that Bowman support BDS implies his inevitable replacement by a strident pro-Israeli Democrat like the one he replaced.
The root of all this is that DSA has been taken over by people who lack political common sense and are not democratic socialists. This is unfortunate because the nation badly needs a strong democratic socialist organization. What DSA instead trends towards is another sectarian outfit that drives away its most capable members and likely supporters.
There are many more Bernie people out here than the DSA leaders holding back the organization, whom nobody has ever heard of. The millions who have to be disappointed by the performance of Democratic Party leaders still have an opportunity to get effectively active. DSA provides that option, but the opportunity it signifies will not be available for long.
There are other progressive groups doing the Lord’s work, such as Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, but none have the reach of DSA, and none are explicitly socialist. The meanings of socialism are diverse, but the brand is politically salient. As a signpost, it points to a full spectrum of objectives worth striving towards.
A 2022 Republican victory will roll up pending investigation and prosecution of the miscreants of January 6. A 2024 victory will roll up everything else. At that point, the window for any sort of Left will slam shut.
Sensible progressives can find groups other than DSA that are working to prevent a Republican victory in 2022. Of course it would be preferable for DSA to get involved as well, including working in cooperation with the broader Left. DSA holding itself apart from this struggle will have a negative impact on its own future, and because of that, will detract from the Left in the U.S.
Max Sawicky serves on the Steering Committee of the North Star Caucus.
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