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You are here: Platypus /The Millennial Left and the Democratic Party: A response to D. L. Jacobs

The Millennial Left and the Democratic Party: A response to D. L. Jacobs

Tom Canel

Platypus Review 140 | October 2021

HERE IS A MOMENT OF IRONY for those who like to ponder such things: I read D. L. Jacobs’s piece “What was the Millennial Left?”[1] while in the process of letting my membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) lapse. The irony is that if I thought his critique of the Millennial Left were applicable to DSA, I would have been more likely to renew my membership!

            The two issues at play for me in my decision to let my membership lapse were firstly DSA’s advocacy of a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party and secondly the increasing tendency within the DSA, if not to solidarize unreservedly with, at least to refrain from any criticism of authoritarian regimes considered anti-imperialist. The latter issue is not alluded to in Jacobs’s piece, so I will not address it further here. However, DSA’s support for a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party has bearing upon Jacobs’s argument that the failings of the Millennial Left lie in its alleged subordination to the Democrats and in a related incapacity to establish a genuinely independent socialist party.

            When we talk of the Left (of whatever generation), I take us to be focusing on the ideological (socialist) left rather than social movements (such as Black Lives Matter or transgender rights) or single-issue movements (like prison and police abolition or BDS). I also claim that the Millennial and the rest of the socialist Left in the U.S. is currently dominated by the DSA. So extensive is this domination that many residual revolutionary Marxists, if not a majority of them, have felt compelled to swallow the bitter pill of joining DSA to try and make it more revolutionary. This action is taken because DSA seems to be “the only game in town.” Assuming that DSA is indeed the only game in town as far as the socialist Left is concerned, I will focus on the DSA here. While I do not presume to provide a definitive analysis of DSA as an organization, I do want to argue that recent political developments in the DSA problematize, at the very least, the claim that the Millennial Left as a whole has subordinated itself to the Democratic Party.

            To ground his critique, Jacobs starts by riffing off a caricature (as he dutifully acknowledges) of a generic millennial leftist, rather than providing a detailed concrete account of actual leftists or ostensibly leftist groups. This caricature relies on a generalized impression of the Millennial Left’s current state. A philosophy of history (and how the Left fits into history, understood philosophically) underlies this generalized impression. Jacobs shares the Platypus understanding of Marxism as capitalism’s self-consciousness of its need to go beyond its own essential unfreedom. According to Platypus, the containment of the October Revolution, culminating in the degeneration of the Bolshevik regime and the defeat in 1919 of revolution in Germany, and the associated containment of an international revolutionary wave, led the Left to regress to a sub-Marxist consciousness. In short, the Left died. The Millennial Left, it is asserted, continues in this lamentable condition. So long as it is dead, it is claimed, the Left in the U.S. will inevitably be unable to escape subordination to the Democrats. According to this understanding, the Millennial Left, still being “dead,” can be assumed to have continued to subordinate itself to the Democrats; there is therefore no need for concrete analysis of current developments within the Left to confirm this subordination. However, concrete analysis of DSA’s recent development, I argue below, raises serious questions about whether DSA actually is subordinating itself to the Democratic Party as Jacobs (and Platypus) assume.

            As was demonstrated by events at the August 1–8 2021 DSA National Convention, the traditional DSA position, which held that the best role for Democratic Socialists involved forging a coalition of the Democratic Party Left, is currently marginal within DSA. (Arguably, the sole concentration of support for the traditional position is within the caucus DSA North Star, largely consisting of holdovers from previous iterations of DSA. Unsurprisingly, I have been a member of DSA North Star.) Significantly, at the convention there was no discernible opposition, at least from a pro-Democratic Party perspective, to the electoral priorities resolution titled “Toward a Mass Party in the United States.”[2] This resolution commits DSA nationally and locally to conduct its electoral interventions — which, admittedly, will often involve candidates running on the Democratic ballot line — with the clear goal of creating a mass leftist workers party, separate and independent from the Democratic Party. (A detailed outline of the underlying strategy is contained in Seth Ackerman’s Jacobin article, “A Blueprint for a New Party.”[3]) DSA’s implicit orientation to the Democratic Party is to run socialists and support other “class struggle” candidates so as to polarize the Democratic Party and create the preconditions for working-class and leftist elements to break from it, creating a genuinely working-class and socialist party in the process. This strategy for creating a new workers’ party is known as the “dirty break.” Students of Left history will no doubt note that this bears a passing resemblance to the strategy of deep entrism into Social Democracy advocated by Ted Grant and other Trotskyists in the decades after Trotsky urged his followers to take the “French Turn” and enter Social Democratic parties in the 1930s.[4] I would claim that the “French Turn” and subsequent Trotskyist “deep entry” into Social Democratic Parties did not involve any subordination to Social Democracy. It would require detailed political analysis to demonstrate that entrism in the Democratic Party will necessarily involve political subordination that entrism in Social Democratic parties did not.

            Leading up to the convention, to the extent that there was debate in DSA about breaking with the Democratic Party, the debate revolved around how “dirty” the break should be — i.e., how explicit and overt should socialists be in advocating a working-class split from the Democratic Party — not around whether there should be a split at all.[5] It is possible, I suppose, that some might be advocating a more covert form of the dirty break as a cover for ambivalence about actually breaking with the Democratic Party. This would of course be noteworthy. I do not think that is actually happening, but even if it were, it would be equally noteworthy that the consensus among DSA members supporting a break with the Democratic Party is so strong that those who feel ambivalent about it need to dissemble.

            Platypus leader Erin Hagood, speaking at a Platypus “What is the DSA?” panel at the 2018 Left Forum,[6] pointed out provocatively, but I think plausibly, that the “new” DSA, contrary to the self-image of at least some of its members, is not a working-class formation, but instead an expression of middle-class discontent. The discontent lies in contemporary capitalism denying young middle-class people the futures that they feel they had been promised and to which they naturally feel entitled. If true, this characterization of the DSA membership as not being working class raises the question of whether DSA would actually be capable of stimulating the kind of insurgent working-class politics to which it aspires. The answer to that question is not necessarily clear. Graduates of the highly edifying Platypus reading group will recall that the spark for Third Estate insurgency in 18th-century France came not from discontents within the Third Estate (the common people) itself, but from discontents within the First and Second Estates (the nobility and the clerisy).[7] In his much discussed work What is to be Done?, Lenin argues that socialist consciousness will not emerge spontaneously from within the working class, but has to be introduced into the class through the activity of professional revolutionaries, some of whom may be from a non-proletarian background. There is historical precedent for discontent within the middle-class youth, in particular, precipitating general social unrest, including working-class insurgency. Even a predominantly middle-class composition need not necessarily doom to failure DSA’s project of enabling working-class radicalization. The claim that such failure is indeed inevitable requires concrete analysis of the political conjuncture as a whole and what interventions DSA is capable of, not just the assertion of a general philosophy of history, however sophisticated it may be.

            Admittedly, a pervasive vagueness within the DSA about what exactly it means by the “working class” presents a challenge to understanding the DSA’s ostensible commitment to creating a workers’ party out of a dirty break with the Democrats. Notwithstanding the presence of avowed Marxists decrying identity politics, one gets the impression that “working class” itself has come to be a marker of political identity rather than a socio-economic identification. Arguably, DSAers operate less with a strictly Marxist understanding of class and more with a populist understanding of the working class as the “people,” incorporating all who are disadvantaged under capitalism and whose interests are opposed to those of the economic, social, and political elites who benefit from the iniquities of capitalism. The “class struggle” electoral candidates whom DSA will support would therefore be expected to consider transgender rights, for example, as an integral part of their class struggle (working class) platform. Furthermore, according to this understanding, young middle-class people who are denied the career and personal opportunities for affluence that they feel were promised if they worked hard and followed the rules, can legitimately define themselves as working class. This may drive theoretically rigorous Marxists crazy, but theoretical fuzziness does not always undermine political efficacy. Clearly though, even if actualized, the working-class party to which DSA aspires will not constitute the Leninist vanguard party of the revolutionary proletariat that some Marxists feel is required. Instead, it would be more of a radical, left-populist party espousing socialist ideas and reforms in order to lay the groundwork for socialist transformation.

            While there are clusters of DSA members who do advance some form of revolutionary vanguardism, votes at the 2021 Convention showed them to be a small minority of the organization. (As consolation, DSA’s Trotskyists and other aspiring Leninists might consider that they were at least a discernible presence at the Convention, which is more than could be said for advocates of building a long term democratic left coalition within the Democratic Party!) A prerequisite for DSA enabling the political developments it desires is that it develop the organizational capacity to intervene as a coherent force when opportunities present themselves. It is noteworthy therefore that, while the different caucuses and factions within DSA differ about specific organizational reforms, they all seem focused on restructuring DSA so that it can indeed intervene in a more coherent and disciplined manner politically. This is suggestive of DSA, not liquidating into, nor subordinating itself to, the Democratic Party, but seriously aspiring to political independence from it.

            Despite continued predictions that it would peak and fracture multiple times over the last couple of years (either when Sanders lost in the primaries, or when Biden won against Trump for example), DSA’s growth since 2016 has continued to be impressive. The organization now claims several thousand more than 90,000 members, making it the largest socialist organization in the U.S. since the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. However, there is some evidence that an inevitable (temporary, DSAers hope) pause in this rapid growth is, at last, at hand. The chief task in the next couple of years may be one of consolidation and maintenance of membership levels. One senses that DSA’s leadership, as ideologically diverse as it may be, agrees that increasing DSA’s capacity for political effectiveness in pursuing its strategic aims is key to membership retention and future growth. The possibility remains (as I fear is the case) that any break with the Democratic Party is not viable, or that (as I also fear) it would have problematic political side-effects if accomplished. But with regard to the Platypus Review piece to which I am responding, my point is that what is arguably the core of the Millennial Left, the DSA, seems intent on not subordinating itself to the Democratic Party and is taking steps as an organization to avoid that outcome. Therefore, the argument that the Millennial Left as whole is so subordinated, needs, at the very least, more fleshing out than is provided in the article as it stands. | P


[1] D. L. Jacobs, “What Was the Millennial Left?,” Platypus Review 137 (June 2021), <https://platypus1917.org/2021/06/01/what-was-the-millennial-left/>.

[2] All of the resolutions proposed for the 2021 DSA convention can be found at <https://convention2021.dsausa.org/2021-dsa-convention-resolutions/>. The following is the full text of the resolution “Toward a Mass Party in the United States (Electoral Priority)”:

Whereas, electoral politics is a central pillar of a viable socialist strategy in a formally democratic state;

Whereas the US party system currently does not allow for traditional political parties—private organizations with control over their membership rolls and ballot lines—but rather is made up of coalitions of national, state, and local party committees, affiliated organizations, donors, lawyers, consultants, and other operatives;

Whereas the US political landscape is dominated by two such coalitions, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, whose ballot lines are controlled by state law and not by any particular party apparatus;

Whereas the Republican Party has an anti-democratic coalition consisting of overt white supremacists, the most reactionary wing of capital, and a growing reactionary minority of working-class people;

Whereas the Democratic Party coalition has the historical support of a multi-racial working-class base, has been trending toward higher-income middle-class voters, and is dominated by the political preferences of its capitalist donor class;

Whereas socialists need a political party to organize the working class in order to contest elections, to act as a vehicle to organize the millions of working people who are not yet socialists, to win democratic socialism, and to function as a political pole for democratic socialism; and

Whereas the unique nature of the US two-party system requires that socialists continue to contest partisan elections chiefly on the Democratic ballot line; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, that DSA commits to making electoral politics a priority for the next two years; and

Resolved that DSA and its local chapters commit to the project of building a working-class party: a mass democratic political organization capable of taking state power with a strategy for social transformation; and

Resolved that DSA will continue its successful approach of tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line while building power independent of the Democratic party apparatus; and

Resolved that DSA commits to developing state-level organizations and orienting toward running candidates for state legislatures, both as a means to contest the power of state government and to build capacity for statewide and federal races; and

Resolved that DSA chapters commit to building the organization and skills necessary to recruit candidates and win campaigns through member-led mass outreach and to build chapter-level electoral working groups or committees that persist beyond a particular campaign or election cycle; and

Resolved that DSA commits to defeating the reactionary, anti-democratic right wing of capital represented in the Republican Party while opposing the dominant corporate and neoliberal Democratic establishment; and

Resolved that DSA commits to building a multi-racial working-class base, electing Black socialists and other socialists of color, advancing racial justice, building coalition with organizers of color, and diversifying our membership; and

Resolved that DSA commits to a strategy of using elections to win reforms that materially advance the interests of the working class and aim to democratize our economy and society; and

Resolved that DSA commits to a strategy of class-struggle elections that polarize the working-class majority against the ruling-class elite; and

Resolved that DSA commits to electing socialists who will act as organizers in office and use their offices to grow our movement, contest for state power, and develop working class self-organization and activity; and

Resolved that DSA commits to electing socialists who will deliberate with DSA members and act in concert with DSA to carry out a member-driven political and legislative strategy; and

Resolved that DSA chapters will work to develop a labor strategy for campaigns, including seeking union endorsements, developing campaign events and outreach to rank-and-file workers including union caucuses, identifying and encouraging union members to run for office, supporting pro-labor policy demands, and articulating the importance of a mobilized and militant labor movement in campaign outreach, in coordination with the DSLC or chapter-level labor groups; and

Resolved that the National Electoral Committee will continue to coordinate and support electoral activities across DSA chapters, with access to national promotional resources upon request; and

Resolved that the National Political Committee will prioritize regular communication and collaboration with the National Electoral Committee, in line with the role of electoral organizing as a unique priority within the organization; and

Resolved that DSA commits to devoting the time of two full-time organizers on national staff and to substantial resources over the next two years to build DSA’s independent socialist electoral infrastructure at the national level and in as many chapters as possible.

[3] Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin, November 8, 2016, <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman/>.

[4] Ted Grant, “Problems of Entrism,” originally published in March of 1959, <http://www.tedgrant.org/archive/grant/1959/03/entrism.htm>.

[5] See Eric Blanc, “We Should Focus on Scaling Up Working-Class Power, Not Debating the Dirty Break,” The Call, August 6, 2021, <https://socialistcall.com/2021/08/06/dsa-dirty-break-electoral-strategy/>. See also Nick French, “Let’s Recommit to Building an Independent Party”, The Call, August 2, 2021, <https://socialistcall.com/2021/08/02/lets-recommit-to-building-an-independent-party/>.

[6] The panel discussion “What is the DSA?” was held on June 6, 2018, at Long Island University in New York during the Left Forum 2018 conference. Video of the event is available online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiYWZEMkTqk>.

[7] See Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes’s famous 1789 pamphlet, “What is the Third Estate?,” the full text of which is available online at <https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/Sieyes3dEstate.pdf>.

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