What is the Democratic Socialists of America?
Andrew Basta, Jack Clark, Jamal Abed-Rabbo, and Lance Selfa
Platypus Review 137 | June 2021
What follows is an edited transcript of a panel hosted on December 14, 2020 by the Northwestern University chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society, with Platypus member Clay Mills moderating. The full panel can be viewed at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KPlk9GNWNk/>. The panelists were asked to respond to the following description:
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) experienced phenomenal growth following the Sanders campaign and the election of Donald Trump through the 2018 midterms. Following the defeat of Sanders’ second run, the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, and the election of Joe Biden, what are the goals and tasks of the DSA? Is this a moment for the advancement of the struggle for socialism? If so, what does this mean, and might this represent a transformation of the DSA itself? What lessons from history might, if possible, help such an advance?
Andrew Basta: I have been a DSA member since January 2018. In that time I helped found and organize a Youth Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter at my high school, served a year as a co-chair of my local DSA chapter in New York (Lower Hudson Valley DSA), and most recently I have worked with organizers to start a YDSA chapter at the University of Chicago. I also serve as a member of the national Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) and Palestine Solidarity Working Group and on the DSA International Committee. We saw tremendous growth of the DSA over the last four years, and it is essential to look back at this growth to see why this has happened, and why the DSA now is the major player of the American Left.
I think to look at the root of this we have to start at the Bernie 2016 Campaign. In this campaign we saw the DSA adopt a really flexible approach to support them. Rather than focusing on the faults of the Sanders’ campaign or Sanders himself, or slogans they used, the DSA recognized that this campaign had a massive effect upon the workers’ movement. Sanders was organizing sections of the Democratic Party based along class lines, and the organic organization that grew out of that Sanders phenomenon broke naturally with the Democratic Party campaign. So joining the DSA, and specifically the socialist formation that was at the forefront of organizing within that campaign, became a clear next step in the struggle.
I think this growth has massively transformed the DSA’s goals, and now we can see that the task of the DSA is to become a mass working-class organization made to contest for power and continue the struggle for socialism. However, the DSA was not built with the structures for this type of mass organization of the working class.
What this reflects is the weakness or “death of the Left” pre-2010. DSA chapters were mostly email lists. Most regular activities were reading groups or isolated public events. DSA members were often members of the New Left, maybe the post-Left, and were longtime socialists; they were not young people who were getting involved in the class struggle. Now that the DSA has 85,000 new members, the task of the DSA is to become a mass organization of the working class.
Chapters across the country have also led campaigns to explicitly build power for the working class. One of the notable areas where this comes into play is in electoral work. That means maintaining DSA control of DSA campaign efforts, mass canvassing to actually shift working class consciousness and not just stuffing enough ads down the TV.
The DSA and YDSA are really building power. I sincerely hope that the Left can develop, grow and build to materially transform working people’s lives and in the process build a mass socialist working-class organization through the DSA.
Jack Clark: I am consciously not in my opening remarks addressing the DSA’s strategy right now. I am taking rather an historical look at the DSA’s origins and more narrowly the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) piece of the DSA’s origins because that is where I come from. I was the founding national secretary of DSOC. Looking at an attempt to frame politics in a mainstream context, DSOC sought to be a fresh start on the American Left. We were founded in 1973. The New America Movement (NAM) has its own very proud history, and was founded around that same time, in 1971. All of us were responding at that point to the breakup of the 60s Left, and DSOC did in fact succeed in having a lot of fresh voices and aspects. For example, it had a very active Religion and Socialist Caucus, which had not been really a major theme in American socialism for decades. Norman Thomas came out of a social gospel tradition but there had not been much of that in a long time. There was an attempt to break with some of the cultural sense of the old Socialist Party of America (SP), which was very set in its ways on issues like feminism.
But as much as we sought consciously to be a fresh force in American politics and bring in a lot of new people, our roots really were in that old SP, and specifically in what was called the realignment tendency. The realignment tendency goes back at least to the 1950s. The realignment tendency also borrowed heavily from the popular front period of the Communist Party (CP), when the CP was able to maintain an independent identity and play a very active role in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) at the same time that it was clearly driving the left-wing of the New Deal. Even earlier, it goes back to the 1924 Progressive Party campaign in which La Follette took the independent nomination and secured the support of the SP but also the railroad brotherhoods and the major AFL unions. It was also an attempt to bring together a left-wing force that could become a major force in American politics, and the people in that 1924 campaign anticipated that they would displace one of the major parties, but that did not happen.
But this is an ongoing effort. During the 50s with the breakup of the old Communist Party, the 20th party congress speech caused lots of people to leave in disillusion but still hold onto left-wing politics. At the same time we witnessed the growth of the civil rights movement. Leftist ideas were gaining popularity through the Democratic Party. I want to be really clear on this because I think there is a misunderstanding on this: Nobody associated with the realignment tendency ever thought the realignment tendency had anything to do with socialists taking over the Democratic Party. Socialists were too few and too discredited to even think in those kinds of terms. But it did have to do with trying to create a principled liberal party, getting rid of the Dixiecrats and forming a solid coalition of labor, the civil rights movement and enlightened middle-class progressives in and around things like the anti-nuclear-bomb movement. Within that context the idea was: A socialist could have a greater intellectual influence on the shaping of mainstream American politics.
The realignment tendency had some real successes in trying to reach those goals. The 1963 March on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph really embodied a lot of social democratic demands. I. F. Stone has an essay about forums and meetings taking place the day after the march, and he notes the strong influence of socialist demands on shaping the civil rights agenda. A few years later the Freedom Budget for All Americans, which the A. Philip Randolph Institute issued, was a far-reaching radical document with a lot of mainstream liberal support for a real economic renewal of American life.
All of that was promising, but it fell apart around divisions on the war in Vietnam, and below the surface, though this could only become clear later, the growing white backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement. The grand coalition that Harrington anticipated was already starting to come apart. And you can see that coming clearly into focus already in 1967, although the formal dissolution of the realignment tendency came later. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his famous Riverside Church Sermon, breaking with LBJ over the war in Vietnam, saying, “I can’t be a proponent of non-violence here, when the United States is the greatest provider of violence in the world.” At that point, Bayard Rustin, who was one of the major leaders in the realignment tendency, begins to break with King. Rustin, a few months later, opposes King’s effort to create the Poor People’s Movement. King in turn recruits Michael Harrington to write the economic program of the Poor People’s Movement.
This prefigures where the divisions arise a couple of years later: The Socialist Party falls apart and the majority tendency calls itself Social Democrats USA. The people who are the leaders in that tendency, who had all been in the realignment grouping, have become very influential within the top echelons of the AFL-CIO. Lane Kirkland I do not think ever became a member but was a very close confidante. Tom Kahn was a leader of this, becomes a speechwriter for Meany. They take an active role in the Anyone but McGovern Movement in the ’72 Democratic primaries and Democratic Convention, and actively push the neutrality position on the AFL-CIO in 1972.
All of that leads to a breakup, and about a year later DSOC emerges, very consciously not positioning itself as a split off from Social Democrats USA but as a fresh voice honestly bringing in new people. So that is where we come from.
Jamal Abed-Rabbo: I am a member of Chicago DSA and the DSA Class Unity Caucus. I would like to begin my remarks by acknowledging two things about the DSA. The first is that today’s DSA is the largest and most important socialist organization in the United States since at least the 1970s, and possibly even since the heyday of the Communist Party before the red scare. The second is that at the same time, the DSA is objectively a bit of a shitshow. Its decentralized structure and politically naive, predominantly middle-class millennial membership have left it vulnerable to a truly tremendous array of opportunistic wrecking, and Democratic Party or NGO-complex careerism.
In other words the DSA is contradictory. It is not enough to say that the DSA is good or the DSA is bad. The DSA is both good and bad, because it is a site of political conflict. Marxists and those who prioritize class struggle more broadly have made a serious mistake in refusing to engage with the DSA. This political quietism has contributed to the organization’s political and ideological regression since the height of the Bernie bounce in 2016–2017. When Marxists refuse to fight, liberals win — no surprise. Nevertheless, it is fashionable for certain sectors seeking to justify their refusal to contest power within the DSA to insist that the DSA’s present trajectory has been predetermined by its Harringtonite origins and historical ties to the Democratic Party. This is false. The ideology of the DSA’s leadership, which some have labelled neo-Harringtonism, has no actual intellectual genealogy to true Harringtonism. This convergent evolution is brought about by a discrete set of material incentives towards Democratic Party collaborationism, such as careerism in the political campaign and NGO-complex spheres. These incentives are not unique to the DSA; we saw them at work also in the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which obviously had a very different history.
Another argument put forward is that the DSA's present trajectory is dictated by its professional managerial class, or at least its larval professional managerial class composition. And this is closer to the mark, but it still absolves the Marxist Left of responsibility for its quietism and inaction. The reality is that the only political forces that have been active and organized in the DSA since 2016, until very recently with Class Unity, have been anarchists and liberal careerists. But there are reasons to believe that it did not have to turn out this way and that if Marxists are willing to get their hands dirty a little bit, we might be able to salvage something of this organization. The DSA's membership is clearly to the left of its own leadership. The recent Biden endorsement controversy is evidence of this. The DSA's leadership, or a significant fraction thereof, basically tried to do a backdoor endorsement of the Biden campaign in spite of the fact that the membership at the last convention had passed a Bernie or Bust resolution explicitly refusing that possibility.
Any other organization on the Left that arises will face similar challenges to the DSA. If we start a workers’ party or a labor party or a people's party that begins to see some success, it is not like the wreckers and the careerists will leave it alone. Going forward, the DSA must be transformed into an organization capable of attracting and representing the working class politically, independent from the Democratic Party. Class Unity is the only Marxist caucus active in the DSA at the national level. If Marxists despair at the state of the DSA, they should join us.
As for what we should be doing in the DSA, we need political education to introduce the membership to class politics. We need to build capacity at the local level to elect and hold to account politicians who are independent of the Democratic Party and its NGO complex (e.g. Black Lives Matter), including the progressive wing of the same. We need to fight for universal benefits like Medicare for all, unions, and universal childcare to bring the message of class struggle to regular working people.
I will conclude by just saying that the DSA is deeply flawed, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for the Left if we actually seize it. The extent to which the DSA are “just Democrats” it is because people with better politics have not been involved. Marxists will be much better off if they learn how to organize politically disaffected people who are drawn to socialism by the Bernie campaign and learn how to educate them in true class politics. I think that will be much more productive than spinning our wheels and trying to build the same sort of minor Trotskyist party that has failed over and over again for the past several many decades.
Lance Selfa: I am not a self-identified member of the DSA, therefore I feel a bit reticent to proclaim what the DSA's goals and tasks should be or what the DSA should do, given that those are debates really internal to the membership of the DSA. However, I think that having been an activist and member of the International Socialist Tendency for all of my adult life may allow me to make some observations on the Left, including DSA, today. A purpose of the International Socialist Project is to advance a series of propositions and perspectives based on historical experience as part of a dialogue with people who are coming to the socialist movement today. Now the one thing I will say about the DSA and its position on the Left is that its growth and large membership make what it does, what strategic initiatives it takes, consequential for the Left today. So to many people the DSA represents what socialism is today, and so for tens of thousands who joined out of the Sanders campaigns and the others who represent the new socialist movement, the DSA will help to define what direction the socialist movement will take. First, the weight of the DSA as the largest socialist organization in the country will set the pace for the Left, whether it intends to or not. And this is not just in ideological debates but also in practical on-the-ground activity and in the labor and social movements. So what the DSA does or does not do will have impacts in all those arenas. Second, how other forces on the Left position themselves in, around or against the DSA will also have an impact on how the Left develops in the future.
The tradition that I come from, that stands for what Hal Draper called “socialism from below,” came into existence as a revolutionary challenge to the dominant socialist politics of the post-World War II Left: Stalinism and Social Democracy. Our tradition characterized these two political traditions as forms of “socialism from above,” which depended on politicians or bureaucracies or tanks to deliver “socialism” to the masses. In our view this idea vitiated the core of socialism as understood by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg, and Mariátegui, among others, who stressed that socialism was the self-emancipation of the working class, achieved by the working class itself. Socialism from below was our attempt to reclaim that emancipatory core of Marxism and socialism away from a notion that socialism was what existed in Sweden or in the old USSR or China or Cuba.
I take that historical detour to bring us back to today because I think that in some ways we are back to a time where the definition of socialism is up for grabs. We are in a period where neither of the seeming monolithic pillars of Stalinism or Social Democracy have the power that they did prior to 1989. But in the U.S., where socialism has traditionally been weaker than most other places, the newest and most dynamic element in the Left today is an echo of that post-war social democracy, perhaps blended with 1930s–40s popular front Communist parties or the 1970s Euro Communist parties. One has only to read Jacobin to see those historical references raised again and again. We could say that the DSA's practice has been predominantly electoral and predominantly oriented around the Sanders campaign. This would fit with the characterization of the organization as the 21st-century U.S. equivalent of those earlier Social Democratic or Euro Communist efforts. The DSA has also gained support from veterans of the socialist Left who gave up building an independent socialist alternative in favor of supporting social Democratic candidates running as Democrats. I think this is one of the things that did actually impact the ISO. This Left put most of its eggs in the basket of Bernie Sanders’ run in the Democratic Party primary, but the Sanders camp challenge flamed out as the Democratic primary electorate aligned itself with the Democratic establishment's preference for a mainstream anybody-but-Trump figure in Biden. The final stage of this process emerged in the fall when many of these socialists, the leading figures of Jacobin, people who had been the theorists of the “dirty break” and so forth, urged to vote for Biden, often justifying their moves with amped up rhetoric about saving the U.S. from fascism or from a Trump coup. And of course the Trump coup has sort of descended into farce now, but those popular front arguments gave leftists a rationale for supporting the neoliberal ticket of Biden-Harris against Trump. And that includes people from the tradition that I come from, such as Dan La Botz at New Politics.
Now just around the time that much of this Left was refocusing its attention on the election of Biden, the uprising after George Floyd’s murder took place. It created by some estimates the largest social movement in U.S. history, and while thousands of members of the DSA took part in the protests, the organization itself was found lacking for not mobilizing around the uprising. It was an illustration of its fundamentally electoralist orientation. So when comrades talk about building power through elections, I think that that puts elections and electoralism at a much higher level than in the traditional communist or socialist point of view, which saw electoral politics as subsidiary to the struggle for socialism on the ground in the working class and in the social movements, such as the one around Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Now that the election is over, what has the Left gained? Now let us not forget that people like Sanders and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] actively promoted Biden and mobilized people who were in the streets in May and June to the ballot box. The Biden-Sanders commission drew up a number of policy planks but it rejected the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a ban on fracking and other progressive positions. So after they have willingly signed on to the campaign while agreeing to put aside their signature policies, they cannot credibly criticize Biden for not running on these issues. On this point AOC is actually more honest in admitting that she compromised than I think are the social democrat Monday-morning quarterbacks at Jacobin. Now there remains the mantra about, “vote for Biden today so we can fight him tomorrow,” yet we can predict that tremendous pressure will be exerted on the Left once Biden takes office with a narrow house majority and likely a GOP controlled senate. The Left will be pressed to stand with Biden who will be said to be doing as best he can with conservatives calling the shots in Congress and with the right-wing mobilization in the streets over the next couple of years. Trump may be out of the White House, but Trumpism is going to live on. And as we have become painfully aware, the election season never ends.
The summer's racial-justice uprising showed another path to progress: that of mass struggle. But without an independent socialist politics and organization, even a massive movement risks being dissipated or diverted into voter mobilizations for the Democrats. Navigating the next few years will require much more than a reformist understanding of how society changes. We will be living with a mainstream Democratic administration that will most likely be hamstrung from the start. The pandemic will continue to wreak havoc into the next year or more, and finally the Right will gain more footing as it grows in “opposition” to the administration. Are we being set up for a Trump comeback or a more competent Trump-like figure to take over in 2024? The only thing that can alter that course of events is mass struggle: working-class struggle and a genuine commitment to political activity independent of the Democrats’ electoral calculations.
The good news about the otherwise awful year of 2020 is that millions experienced a political awakening. The challenge for the socialist Left is to prepare itself to offer political and organizational alternatives to a militant minority of the awakened. Socialists committed to this position should be laying the groundwork for a renewal of the politics of socialism from below in preparation for a future mass struggle along the lines of what we saw in the spring, but also more challenging to capitalist relations. The last time that the revolutionary Left grew across the world was in the post-’68 time of revolutionary upheaval that broke through the domination of Stalinism and Social Democracy. We have yet to approach that political conjuncture, but to me that is where the hope for the future lies.
AB: Electing socialist leaders has been characterized as “socialism from above.” Electing socialists is a reflection of growing worker and working-class power. We as socialists want to change our society and exercise power to reject illegitimate power and the ruling class, so rejecting electoral politics or state power as a means of expressing that power leaves us isolated and out of power. And that does have to be tied in obviously to this actual movement building and worker self-actualization, but the movement cannot fully reject electoral strategy as “socialism from above.”
JC: I want to make a controversial point: You need relationships with the institutional labor movement. I am all for socialism from below, I have been a member of the Association for Union Democracy for decades. I believe that workers need to control their own unions, and I believe that people who are elected by their fellow workers to head unions have some legitimacy until they do not, and that you work with the institutional labor movement and that is part of how you change the way things happen. An even more controversial point I will make is that in the history of U.S. politics, there is both tension and common ground between liberals and socialists. I do not regard liberals as the enemy, I regard us as working in some kind of continuity. I was very involved in fighting against the Carter administration’s right turn. We were entirely principled on that.
JA: It is great that we have elected a lot of nominally socialist politicians, but as we are seeing in Chicago, with Andre Vasquez’s recent vote and Lori Lightfoot’s austerity budget, without the ability to discipline these candidates it is not entirely clear what that is going to amount to in the end. Kshama Sawant, for example, was elected by Socialist Alternative, and Socialist Alternative controls everything about what she does. They control her votes, they control her staffing, and she surrenders a significant portion of her salary to the organization. She is held to a level of party discipline that the DSA does not hold its electives to and that is something that we need to replicate. It does not really do us any good if we are electing a bunch of socialists and then half of them turn around and start cutting deals with Pelosi or Lori Lightfoot.
I think Lance’s points with regard to the DSA’s flirtation with Biden are entirely correct and, for the record, Class Unity did publish an editorial saying that the DSA leadership needs to shut up about supporting Joe Biden. But I would disagree with his suggestion that we need to be somehow tailing BLM. BLM itself was a distraction for the Left from the overwhelming economic crisis that is hitting the entire working class right now. Yes, maybe some police killings were the straw that broke the camel’s back, but BLM is gone now. That’s not what the working class needed to be mobilized in a coherent and a durable fashion. The Left needs to be very careful about tailing whatever social or protest wave pops up to distract us from the brute economic factors that the bulk of the working class is actually concerned with. We should be talking a lot more about where the hell the stimulus checks are, why the government has not been paying people’s wages, than we should be talking about BLM at this moment.
LS: In terms of the overall trajectory and struggle, the structure of the organization actually prioritizes the electoral struggle, the electoral campaigns, partly because of the leadership. Even the main caucuses such as the Jacobin or Bread and Roses (in my mind, nearly indistinguishable) come up with a lot of Marxist-sounding justifications for what is mostly reformist social democratic electoral politics. Real transformational socialism is going to have to break with that and actually orient itself towards socialism from below.
We could have debates about the characterization of Black Lives Matter. We cannot be too focused on electoralism, but the answer is not just supporting so-called “universal demands.” We must participate in the struggle from below. The struggle from below presents itself in many different ways and socialists must be active and agile and work within it. A socialist movement must be at the forefront of the fights against oppression and exploitation.
What does class struggle mean for the DSA?
JA: Jack Clark argued that there is not a discontinuity between socialism and liberalism. This makes it hard to reach the (diverse, multiracial) working class because they largely hate liberals. This is a serious impediment for the American Left, which emerges out of the left-wing of the liberal Democratic Party, because when we go out into culturally conservative parts of the country and people ask, for example, Bernie questions about gun rights, and Bernie flip-flops to adopt the cultural liberal stance of the Democratic Party in which he was running, it does not reach them.
JC: Liberalism means a lot of things. It is a very confusing tradition. The label “neoliberalism” referring to a totally laissez-faire set of arrangements in the economy adds to the confusion. But in the American context, liberalism has always meant a reformed tradition and an openness to change and an openness to doing things differently. The institutional labor movement is, in its political orientation, liberal. And it’s liberalism has improved (e.g. on gay rights and anti-racism). That is the result of real struggles, but not primarily socialist struggles. It is the result of the struggles of well-meaning people with really liberal intentions trying to open the society and give more room to people.
LS: Karl Marx was originally liberal. The first thing he wrote was a defense of free speech, but he broke with that because he saw the limitations of liberalism and its accommodation to the system. Much of the history Jack Clark recounts was due to the fact that liberals were in power in the Democratic Party.
Today there is an effort to recruit people to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, including the members of the DSA, the Squad and so on, trying to figure out a way to work with the Bidens of the world, but the Bidens of the world are really the people who run the show. Unfortunately, at election time the progressives and now some of the democratic socialists are the people who hold their tongues, stand for unity, mobilize people to vote, put these people in power. Liberalism may be more liberal in terms of racial, ethnic, and so forth questions now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. However, there will be little in terms of progress on economic questions, nor will there be progress on questions of racial justice on a large scale. Remember, Biden was not in favor of defunding the police. As a socialist all my life, I have never been in favor of supporting any Democratic politician or any socialist who runs on the Democratic Party line because it is always a compromise with the Democratic Party, which is one of the two ruling capitalist parties of the country.
How would the panelists define a socialist politician? What exactly does that mean to each of you?
JA: Most of the DSA believes that a socialist politician is someone who is a politician who is a socialist in their heart and who genuinely believes in socialism. Historically, if you look at successful socialist and social democratic parties in the heyday of social democracy, they disciplined their politicians. A socialist politician is one who is under the discipline of a socialist organization. That’s the only answer.
JC: AOC is by anybody’s definition a socialist politician.
JA: I do not know about that.
JC: She’s been about as outspoken as anybody in it identifying herself as a democratic socialist. AOC quite properly said she is accountable to the people who elected her, her constituents. In the vital social democratic parties that existed in the heyday of social democracy there was less controversy about this because the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the voting population that put the deputies into the German parliament were more or less the same people. If there was such discipline today, a fairly middle-class strata of DSA members who are very politically conscious and read and study a lot and are willing to be very verbally combative would place themselves above a poor and working-class community and say “you’re answerable to us, not them.” I do not think that works even in basic democratic theory.
JA: But it works in Seattle. Kshama Sawant has been able to pass the Amazon head tax and reorient city council entirely around her messaging and her campaigns because her feet are held to the fire by a disciplined political organization (Socialist Alternative) that does not let her get off the hook. AOC can be accountable to her constituents, and what does that mean in practice? In practice, that seems to mean AOC is accountable to Nancy Pelosi.
You are pointing to the necessity of a party, but is the DSA capable of being that?
JA: In its present state, certainly no. The DSA needs to be attempting to lay the groundwork for something like that to emerge. And whether the DSA will be the major constituent part of that party in the future or not, I do not know. But I think that the question of the party is essential. We cannot use the Democrats or the Republican Party and hope to achieve anything substantial over the long term. In the short term, I disagree with Lance Selfa when he categorically rules out ever running on the Democratic ballot line. I think for pragmatism’s sake you have to do that sometimes. You should insist on other mechanisms to hold politicians to account. The party surrogate model that Dustin Guastella and Jared Abbott laid out in that Catalyst article is a good starting point for this. We need to be creating a membership organization that is capable of disciplining politicians that run on whatever ballot line, be that Democratic, Republican or Green. A party for the working class is essential.
AB: Andre Vasquez, who was elected in Chicago by the DSA, was expelled from DSA membership because he voted for Lori Lightfoot’s austerity budget. These people would not be elected without DSA knocking every door in their district.
JA: Andre did not need DSA. If he wants to reorient himself as a kind of center-left progressive Chicago politician, he does not have any reason to care about being expelled.
Lance, you employ Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci. Does the problem of internal organization within the DSA connect to this historical tradition?
LS: In terms of holding politicians accountable, read August Nimtz’s book Lenin's Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels Through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both (2014). The Bolsheviks in the tsarist Duma considered themselves activists who were there to stir the pot and proclaim for socialism. Most of them would never vote for a budget, let alone a war budget. AOC has voted for the defense budget, by the way. So there were socialists as activists proclaiming from parliament, but that was connected to a particular organization.
It was not an organization that has a specialization between politics and economics, as the old socialdemocratic parties do, and as the neo-Kautskyans in the DSA would like to have, where there are trade-union specialists, there are electoral specialists, and maybe they get together and talk about socialism on May Day. The socialist tradition I am more familiar with, the Leninist tradition, believes the two are interlocked. In the Comintern, the electoral struggle is always subordinate to the class struggle. And the class struggle also has a broad purview, it is not just workers in the factories: It could also be workers in the fields, it could be fighting on antiracist demands. You can only talk about real accountability, and to what politicians are accountable, when you have a strong organization that has a fundamental agreement on what it is fighting for, that actually puts the parliamentary struggle second to its goal, and has an ideological anti-capitalist point of view.
How do Shachtmanism and Cliffism bear today on the Left? Which is to say, how are they necessary today? Some panelists seem to desire a sort of “dirty break” with the Left of the 20th century, and particularly social democracy and the New Left. Why is this implicit “dirty break” with the history of the Left in the 20th century necessary for the Left today?
JC: Max Shachtman was a very important figure because he understood that the nature of the Soviet Union was not a workers’ state. That was a very important historical contribution, but that is not a current debate, so he is not relevant.
I would take that a step further. Michael Harrington was a mentor of mine, a very close friend and a brilliant intellectual. There used to be a joke that ran around the youth section of DSOC and DSA about “revisionism never” and Mike’s line was “revisionism always.” As much as I valued him, and still value the insights he had, he is not a reliable guide to where we need to be right now.
LS: The tradition I came from, the ISO, was descended in some ways from Shachtmanism, but also broke with it. While we identify with the socialism from below of Hal Draper, Draper broke with Shachtman over his anti-communism and accommodation to the Democratic Party. The unfortunate thing of course now is that many of the ex-leaders of the ISO are back in the DSA because they actually moved back in the direction of the Democratic Party and abandoned the independent point of view. In the United States, class independence means independence from the Democratic Party. It’s a hundred-year-old question. We need to take it seriously today.
When I talk about Lenin and Leninism, I do not mean to say that everything that Lenin ever wrote is applicable to the United States today. A key insight of Leninism is that you must lead with politics, you must connect and bring the political questions always into the working-class struggle and not hide it somewhere separately. The fight against oppression is another key insight of Leninism. In fact, it was the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union that forced the American Communist Party and the American socialist movement to take the question of race much more seriously than they had before. This is the key dividing line in the United States today.
JA: I would like to disagree very quickly with the notion that race is the primary dividing line in the United States today. I think that class is fundamentally what occupies most people’s time and concerns.
LS: Race is the fundamental dividing line in the working class. I believe class is the fundamental division in society. That’s a fundamental point of Marxism.
JA: I think the New Left was a comprehensive failure by every metric and it is a waste of our time to try to learn any lessons from that except for negative lessons. Now if you want to talk about the history of the early 20th century Left before it started down that cul-de-sac, you know of the German Social Democratic Party, and the Bolsheviks, that is great. I am not an expert in that, but I think that is a much more valuable use of our time than trying to squeeze some blood from the stone of the New Left. |P
Transcribed by Asher Bentley, Addison Kwasigroch, Clay Mills, Diaz Mathis, Michael Snider, Lou Sterrett, and Ellie Thomson.