Leo Casey responds to critics of our positions on the DSA Discussion Board.
I think that Comrades Ryan Mosgrove's and Jason Schulman's responses here are substantive, albeit politically mistaken in my view. I take a pass on comments that are little more than name calling and political posturing, but I feel that it if there is going to be constructive political debate and dialogue on this site, each of us should engage substantive comments with which we differ, as much as we are able to do so.
My disagreements with them are basically two -- what I would describe first, as the absence of a strategic outlook in their views of how we should advance our politics, at least as it relates to the question at hand, and second, as a misunderstanding of where DSA's power and influence lies, and what that means in terms of how we should relate to elected officials and other parts of the broad progressive left.
The Absence of a Strategic Perspective
On the first count, I disagree with the view that democratic socialist politics is constituted by a set of fixed principles that one then advocates in all circumstances, and against which one measures all actual political interventions. Political debate and political struggle more generally are conducted on a strategic battlefield, not written down on an empty page in a book where we can lay down our principles as we wish. (Somebody once wrote, we make history, but not as we please.) It takes place on a complex terrain, with points where our forces are in strategically strong positions to win battles and points where our forces are in strategically weak positions and will almost certainly lose battles. That terrain is dynamic: it changes and shifts, and what was a strong point yesterday can be a weak point tomorrow, and vice versa. It is particularly important to have a sober assessment of one's own forces, of one’s strengths and weaknesses: overestimating your own strength invariably sends you into battles at your weak points and the foe's strong points, and it leads to losses with long-lasting strategic consequences. Even forces that are a relatively weak position, such as the left in Congress and in the U.S. more broadly, can win battles, but only when they pick them carefully, identifying positions of relative weakness for the stronger enemy. Power is accumulated when you win battles; it is dissipated when you lose them. Identifying and understanding the key points of leverage is essential in building and exercising power in politics.
What strikes me about both Ryan's and Jason's approaches to the Iron Dome vote was that they ignore all the strategic questions, that they pay no attention to the strategic terrain on which the question of Israel and Palestine is fought, and instead treat the question as simply one in which we should measure that vote against what they think is a correct position of principle on the Israel-Palestine question. I have differences with how they understand they understand a principled position, differences what is happening in Israel and Palestine, at least insofar as I understand their positions from their comments here. But I have a more far-reaching difference with their insistence on treating the vote as an issue of principle alone, without any consideration of the strategic terrain in play. In isolation from a consideration of the strategic battlefield on which politics is conducted, principle quickly hardens into dogma, and dogma invariably isolates and paves the way to defeat.
This absence of a strategic perspective is important because AOC and Jamaal Bowman are employing savvy understandings of politics that combine principle and strategy in their approaches to the Israel-Palestine question. Both have taken courageous stances in support of Palestinian self-determination and right, and both have taken votes in Congress that reflected those positions -- and garnered significant push back from AIPAC and its allies for doing so. It is not insignificant that Congressman Richie Torres, who decided to stake out for himself a political profile that is in opposition to AOC, Bowman and the democratic left in NYC, decided to go after them on the question of Israel and Palestine. It is also not insignificant that the folks who are behind the recent calls to NYC voters saying that democratic socialist candidates for elected office support Hamas’ attack on Israel chose this issue. All of this reflects how our opponents understand the political terrain – that AOC’s and Bowman’s support of Palestinian self-determination and rights and their willingness to buck AIPAC on votes such as the McCollum bill is a politically weak point, that can be used against them. It would be foolish to not recognize this reality, and to proceed without consideration of what that means on how to engage the issue strategically. And AOC and Bowman are not politically foolish.
In this context and on this strategic terrain of the Israel-Palestine question (which varies in different parts of the country: AOC’s and Bowman’s NYC is not Detroit, St. Louis or Minneapolis), the Iron Dome bill was specifically framed as providing protection from Hamas' practice of indiscriminately sending missiles into civilian centers inside Israel. It was a strategic trap, where opposition to the bill would be represented as support for Hamas' indefensible waging of war against civilians. Whatever you think of the ways in which ‘principle’ has been constructed on the Israel and Palestine question, to insist that this was "the hill to die on," to choose this vote as the place to have your fight, at the strongest possible point for your opponents and the weakest possible point for you, is to embrace certain defeat, with long-lasting negative strategic consequences for being able to advance Palestinian rights and self-determination in the Congress. There was a reason why the vote on this was 420 to 9, and it wasn’t because there are only nine members of Congress that support Palestinian self-determination and rights. By contrast, a savvy strategic approach would be looking for votes and ways to frame the question that focused on the weaknesses of AIPAC, such as the occupation of the West Bank and the de facto Israeli government policy of annexation by settlement, or of the efforts at expropriating Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.
The Misunderstanding of DSA’s Power and Influence
Both Comrade Ryan’s and Comrade Jason’s comments express a view toward elected officials who are DSA members which borders on antagonism: Ryan talks about DSA needing “to confront” elected officials who are members and Jason says that DSA shouldn’t have “to kowtow” (an unfortunate term that should be avoided) to them. In addition to the resentment expressed in those sentiments, there is an implied view that elected officials owe their positions to DSA and should be under DSA “discipline” to follow the organization’s line.
There is much to unpack in these attitudes, but I will limit myself to a few points here. To begin, the notion that elected officials such as AOC and Bowman owe their election to DSA seriously misunderstands the broad nature of the coalitions that just re-elected AOC and put Bowman into office for the most time – coalitions that included, along with DSA, the Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Sunrise, Our Revolution, Make the Road, and various unions and community organizations, just to identify some of the better-known participants. Every one of those organizations understands that they are part of a broad coalition, and every one of them sees their power and influence in that context, as a contribution to a larger movement. A presumptuous DSA declaration that we were uniquely responsible for their election, and that we had the right to “discipline” them for failing to meet one or another of our litmus tests, wouldn’t just alienate the elected officials – it would be an act of sectarianism just as certain to alienate every other organization in the coalition. DSA would politically isolate itself, putting ourselves in the poorest of strategic positions, and the power and influence we have amassed from our contribution to these coalitions will quickly dissipate. We would lose members who joined and were active precisely because they saw it as an effective vehicle for advancing that coalition and electing people like AOC and Bowman. In misunderstanding the nature and extent of our power, and how it had been built in coalition, we would commit the cardinal political sin of overestimating our own strength, to our detriment.
Part of the problem here and part of the origins of the resentment expressed – and I will end on this point – is a (mis)understanding of how political power and effective political organization can be built on the U.S. left, by socialists. The implicit notion here is that the DSA should be a cadre organization that operates with some version of discipline, in which individual members – including elected officials – are required to follow the line of the organization. The resentment develops because AOC and Bowman are not, in fact, dependent upon DSA in ways that would actually allow the organization to successfully impose such discipline. Whatever one might make of a century of failed efforts to build politically successful organizations along these lines in the U.S., in various political traditions, it is clearly an archaic and less than helpful conception in the current historical moment. It is certainly the not the way in which has grown to this point. In our times, political leadership cannot be imposed through organizational dicta, but must be exercised through a project of building political and cultural hegemony, in coalition with others on the broad progressive left
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