by Leo Casey,
When I first began writing an answer to this question three weeks ago, I had just participated in four separate conversations where I had to convince comrades – savvy, committed people with decades of political work and organizing experience – to not leave DSA. In the last week, following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and what can only be described as a series of disastrous blunders in DSA’s response, I have seen those earlier signs of trouble turn into actual declarations by individuals that they are resigning from DSA.
I begin here with my earlier conversations, as they provide the stage on which the latest tragedy is playing out. My conversations were anecdotal, but the events of the last week have confirmed that they represent something more than just a few outlier events. We know that DSA has been losing members for some time, although there is not a lot of transparency about how many. The solution of the NPC, the national DSA leadership, was to mount a membership recruitment drive. That avoided the political question of why DSA is losing members, and the political question is at the core of what DSA would have to do to address this loss.
The people I engaged in the earlier conversations had given me four reasons for their disenchantment.
1. The campaign to expel Jamaal Bowman for his position on Israel and Palestine has been a critical inflection point. There were intimations of what was to come before Bowman, when Ocasio-Cortez came under scattered fire for her position on the same question. But the Bowman affair drew much more of a concentrated salvo, and it mushroomed into a public controversy that eventually involved Palestinians outside DSA. Despite the NPC’s overwhelming vote to not expel or censure Bowman, and indications from leading Palestinian activists inside the US and from the BDS National Council itself that they supported the NPC decision, the campaign for his expulsion has continued within DSA, with its advocates inside DSA pursuing a ‘rule or ruin’ approach. Now that DSA member Greg Casar felt compelled to withdrew from consideration for Austin DSA’s endorsement in his fight for Congress because of the attacks on him, again over Israel and Palestine, it is clear that this campaign has begun – not surprisingly – to metastasize.
The immediate issue here is the dogmatic, purist and ultra-left approach to Israel and Palestine, such that the strongest critics of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians and the strongest supporters of Palestinian rights in the U.S. Congress are being attacked as apologists for Palestinian oppression. But those I engaged saw this question as the thin wedge for demanding other purist and ultra-left positions from candidates seeking a DSA endorsement: the underlying political stance is not limited to the particular issue of Israel and Palestine, but is an opposition on principle to “electoralism,” or contesting for the power to govern through elections. The cumulative effect of these demands will be that someone running for a high profile public office could not be elected if they agreed to them, and this reality would quickly drive viable candidates away from the organization. The declaration from a majority of the NPC that it will only endorse “cadre” DSA members for office is an indication that the organization is headed in precisely this direction.
We can now see what lies down this road. I write the morning after the Texas primary election, and Casar – supported by the entire progressive left, nationally and locally, with the sole exception of DSA – has won an overwhelming victory, defeating his nearest competitor by a 4 to 1 margin. By its actions, Austin DSA has made itself into a marginal force on the Texas left and in Texas politics, and in so doing, has exposed to public view the impotence of its endorsement. The same destination awaits a national DSA that insists upon embarking on this sectarian journey.
2. The ‘new DSA’ has had a continuing problem of a fraught internal culture, perhaps best embodied in toxic discourse on social media and its official Discussion Board. What can only be described as poisonous exchanges reached an apex during the Bowman controversy, with rhetoric that labelled those who opposed Bowman’s expulsion “genocide apologists” and with threats of violence on the DSA Discussion Board against the NPC member who led the opposition to expulsion.
There is a particularly disconcerting quality to this toxic rhetoric: those who use it seem oblivious to the implications of viciously attacking DSA’s most prominent Black male member, Bowman, and most prominent Latina member, Ocasio-Cortez, for taking the very same positions on Israel and Palestine that drew praise from many in DSA when Bernie Sanders, a white man, articulated them in the two presidential campaigns DSA endorsed (and from which it organizationally benefitted). Moreover, anti-Semitic tropes are beginning to appear in these attacks.
3. In my earlier conversations, I heard objections to a stream of positions from DSA’s International Committee (IC) – crude support for repressive regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela, a refusal to condemn the forced dissolution of the independent unions in Hong Kong, and a perplexing need to call for an end to nuclear weapon related sanctions on North Korea. All of these positions were far off target, with a decided weakness for siding with authoritarian states so long as they opposed the U.S. But just as importantly, I was told that these positions evinced a lack of political seriousness, with the sort of posturing that is indulged when one feels there is no need to convince ordinary working people that you can be trusted with the responsibilities of governing.
As Russian preparations for the invasion of Ukraine began to take shape, the IC took these dispositions and turned them into a number of pronouncements that would prove disastrous for DSA. First, in the days immediately before the invasion, it issued a statement which contained not a single word of criticism of Russia, despite its manifest preparations for an unprovoked, unjustified war of aggression. Second, in the first days of the invasion, it used its official Twitter account to oppose the levying of sanctions on Russia, thus ruling out the one significant means of leverage short of a military intervention that could be used to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. The NPC commissioned the IC to draft a DSA statement, and they decided to leave in it a passage which blamed the Russian invasion on NATO’s “imperialist expansionism” and called for the U.S. to withdraw from NATO. At the same time, the NPC statement implicitly adopted the IC’s attacks on international sanctions against Russia, describing them as “economic brinkmanship.” And to compound its substantive errors, the NPC statement concluded with puerile ultra-left sloganeering – “No war but class war” – as if it were writing headlines for the Spartacist newspaper. At a time when Russia was engaged in an imperial invasion of a weaker neighbor, the DSA statement was to call for what can only be described as unilateral disarmament on the part of those who would oppose this violation of international law.
Taken together, these statements were blunders, wrong on grounds of moral, political and legal principle and blind to the practical political consequences of taking such a stance at this critical moment. The response was immediate: individuals declaring on social media that they were resigning from DSA, tweet after tweet of prominent political foes taking aim at DSA’s position, and a wave of negative media coverage that even extended abroad. Of particular concern are the ways in which these blunders are being used to attack the four DSA members in Congress and Senator Bernie Sanders, based on their connections to DSA. (All five have issued responsible statements, condemning without qualification the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling for the levying of sanctions that target the Russian oligarchy.)
When you hand your enemies a political bludgeon to attack you, as DSA did with these statements on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they generally oblige. And once your enemies sense an acute vulnerability, they circle like sharks smelling the scent of blood in the water. The only way out of the current morass is for the DSA leadership to own and correct its mistakes.
4. There is a feeling among the people I talked with that because of the above, being associated with DSA had become a liability in the political work that they were doing.
I could add some additional points of my own to what came of the conversations I had with others, such as the problem that too much of DSA’s labor work is headed into a cul-de-sac that isolates it from the great bulk of the labor movement. DSA’s participation in the Starbucks organizing is a notable — and welcome — exception. But those four points capture the essence of what I think is now driving good comrades away from DSA.
My earlier conversations and the controversies of the last week around the DSA statements on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the underlying issues raised by both, have convinced me that not only is DSA in a deep organizational crisis, but that it is rapidly headed toward a tipping point which will determine its future: either DSA will devolve into an ultra-left sect that sheds political relevancy and membership at a rapid rate, or the ultra-left elements will split to join/found sects more to their liking and DSA will be able to right its ship.
None of this current crisis is entirely new: these problems have been present and visible within DSA, in one form or another, for the last few years, even if not with the same intensity as the current moment. Many of us have been involved in efforts to oppose sectarianism and ultra-leftism and develop a healthy left politics within DSA for all that time, pushing back against attacks on Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman and insisting on the importance of a Democratic vote to defeat Trump and the GOP in 2020. Those of us who lived through the 1960s and the implosion of SDS have counseled patience, seeking to avoid another generational rupture. We remembered that with time and the practical lessons of actual political work, those who are new to socialism and given to ultra-left excesses usually evolve into a more sensible and reality grounded politics. But it often takes hitting the rock bottom of political catastrophe for them to realize the extent of the hole they have dug for themselves, and the entire process can take some time to complete. In our current context, the problem with this ‘long view’ -- that given enough time and understanding, people will come to their political senses – is that right now, time is the one thing we don’t have in abundance. We are running out of time for what is left of American democracy and for DSA playing a constructive role in the critical struggle against neo-fascism. And we are running out of time before the valuable electoral work DSA has done over the last five years is incinerated into ashes, and DSA becomes a sect beyond redemption.
Of the issues raised by the comrades contemplating leaving DSA, the first – the attacks on Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez, and the drive to eviscerate DSA’s electoral work by demanding that endorsed candidates adhere to ultra-left dogma – is the most politically perilous, both because it strikes at the electoral successes that have made DSA into a budding political force and because it would transform the organization into a sect in ways that would be virtually impossible to undo. I have spent my adult political life working in organizations – labor unions; civil rights, anti-apartheid and LGBTQ organizations; student unions and professional associations; Canada’s NDP and the Democratic Party – in which I had significant political differences with others, including on questions of principle. I did so because I believe in the power of collective action, and it was clear that these broad organizations were the necessary vehicles for being able to engage in meaningful collective action for vital political goals. A similar logic has applied to my participation in DSA over these last five years, as I witnessed developments with which I disagreed, often deeply. But if DSA were to adopt an ultra-left purist stance in its electoral work – in essence, removing itself as a significant force from that work – it would become a sect incapable of meaningful collective action, and it would have eliminated the reason I have to belong to an organization I helped found and lead forty years ago and have been a member of ever since.
In the coming months, DSA will have to make a critical decision that will determine the organization’s future: will it endorse for re-election all four members who are currently members of Congress – Bowman, Bush, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib? If all four are endorsed, the ultra-left forces in DSA will howl betrayal and worse, and they will look to split the organization as they leave. But DSA would then have an opportunity to right the organizational ship that has been dangerously listing. If they are not endorsed, the organizational die will be cast: DSA will be deep into an inexorable transformation into a sect, and there will be no place in it for serious democratic socialists who want to be build a movement that can contest for political power through elections in the here and now.
I have heard it suggested that this question might be finessed – that Bowman might be convinced to not seek endorsement; that as elected officials, the four DSA members of Congress will not want to have a public break, and so agree to some face-saving approach; and so on. I am not inclined to spend a lot of time dreaming up scenarios that would theoretically allow DSA to avoid facing this moment of decision. The other three DSA members of Congress have indicated their deep disapproval of the campaign against Bowman, and they will almost certainly pull back from a DSA that did not endorse him. Their alienation from DSA can only have grown over the last week, as they have found themselves sharing in the consequences of political blunders that DSA alone had committed. If Bowman himself does not seek endorsement, or asks and is refused, ultra-left forces inside DSA will consider that a victory, and then turn on Ocasio-Cortez, who also has a position on Israel and Palestine that does not meet with their approval. Additional purist litmus tests will be developed for the members of Congress and other candidates seeking DSA endorsement. The controversy over the Greg Casar endorsement demonstrates that the attacks on DSA’s high profile elected officials and viable candidates are a disease of our organizational body politic that cannot be contained to an isolated instance; they will either be politically defeated, or they will spread throughout the entire body. We have arrived at an unavoidable moment of truth.
The issue is how we respond to this moment. There is a history of how U.S. socialist organizations have confronted the development of fundamental and irreconcilable political differences in their ranks that might provide a guide. I want to highlight one such episodes as an illustration of what not to do. It is the story of the U.S. Communist Party post-1956, after Khrushchev’s report on Stalin’s crimes. In the wake of these revelations and the self-reflection they engendered, the forces for anti-Stalinist renovation and democratization had the support of a substantial majority of the party’s membership. But that majority never consolidated itself, never engaged in sustained collective action within the party, and soon began to dissipate, as individual after individual became disillusioned and dispirited and left the party. In the end, it was the disciplined minority of hardline Stalinists that won the day, albeit at the cost of the party losing most of its members.
DSA is at a similar critical juncture: if we can’t turn the tide of ultra-left sectarianism in DSA, if the connection to the four DSA members of Congress is sundered, then DSA will quickly go the way of the post-1956 Communist Party. Even staying in its current divided state has ceased to be an option: the longer DSA continues on its current path, as manifest in the attacks on Bowman and Casar and the statements on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the more individual members who believe in democratic socialism and want to be part of an organization that can impact mainstream American politics will leave. To put off the decisive struggle over the future direction of DSA to some future day is to guarantee the victory of the ultra-left and sectarian forces in it.
My plea to the comrades who were thinking of leaving DSA was this: “Don’t act as individuals. What we do, we should do together, collectively.” Let us not be the cause of our own undoing, as the anti-Stalinist Communists of 1956 did, scattering as so many individuals. If our belief in democratic socialism means anything, surely it should mean a commitment to collective action.
Now is the time to come together around this demand, which will determine the future of DSA: the NPC must re-endorse all four DSA members in Congress for 2022. Currently, the four DSA House members are in the processes of local re-endorsement, with Rashida Tlaib receiving 98 percent approval from the Detroit chapter, and both Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman beginning the process in New York. Unlike his three comrades in Congress, Bowman faces serious primary challengers from the right. It is critical that national DSA defend our own and the NPC endorse him and the others as soon as the local DSA chapters complete their processes. We will not accept temporizing or delays; we will not countenance equivocation or vacillation. The NPC must make a decision to re-endorse as soon as the nominations arrive.
Leo Casey is a member of the Steering Committee of the North Star Caucus
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