DSA Is At A Crossroads
Our choice: we can maintain a tiny navel-gazing subculture, or build a vibrant mass movement for socialism. Let’s build a mass movement.
Since November 2016, at least a thousand people have joined the Democratic Socialists of America each month. In early 2017, we became the largest socialist organization in generations, marking the beginning of a new era of politics in this country in which we suddenly have the potential to win an egalitarian, humane, joyful world.
The 2008 financial crisis sparked protest around the world, but it wasn’t until 2016, when Bernie Sanders’s campaign articulated a critique of the “rigged economic and political system” and advanced a concrete vision of a “moral economy” that resonated with millions of people, that “democratic socialism” entered the national conversation to describe a path forward. With Trump’s election, millions more grew disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s abandonment of working people. All this, plus the worsening material conditions of young Americans, have led over 30,000 people to join DSA looking to change the world.
Now DSA is at a crossroads.
We are a “big tent” organization and a democracy, meaning there is no party line we must adhere to, no cabal of leaders deciding our direction. We have to sort out among ourselves what kind of organization we want DSA to be. I see two paths forward emerging for us.
On the one hand are those of us who are tired of both the useless compromise politics of the liberal center and the dead-end wheel-spinning of the activist left. We know that while it’s incredible and historic that 30,000 people have joined a socialist organization, we are still a tiny fraction of the US population. We have to grow many times over and consolidate the democratic socialist movement into an effective weapon against capitalists and elites before we can really transform our society. This is the DSA that reaches out into the non-DSA world to fight class enemies and bring in thousands of new members.
On the other hand are those who are not interested in the millions of working people who are not yet active socialists. Instead, they fixate on the purity and homogeneity of their own in-group and attack other members of DSA for not meeting their standards. This is the DSA that looks inward and fights with itself, disappointing and exhausting activists who joined DSA in order to change the world, and scaring off those not in DSA from joining.
Two examples from this Friday illustrate the differences between these two DSAs.
The Outward DSA
Friday morning, the New York Times published an article by Farah Stockman titled “‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018.” The article describes the kind of DSA I want to be a part of.
It opens with the story of Franklin Bynum, a Houston DSA member who is an openly socialist candidate for criminal court judge. Bynum, one of sixteen socialist candidates running for public office in Texas, “wants an end to a cash bail system that requires people accused of crimes, even minor offenses, to pay money to be released from jail before trial.”
Stockman then interviews a Tulsa, Oklahoma DSA activist who tells her that four candidates for local office are running as open democratic socialists. The article doesn’t mention the backdrop to these races: just days prior, a historic statewide teachers’ strike ended after paralyzing Oklahoma’s political system for almost two weeks. Along with militant teachers in West Virginia,Arizona, Kentucky, and elsewhere, these workers are part of a nascent working-class movement is making history across impoverished, austerity-wracked “red” states. It’s clear that socialists who fight for deeply and broadly felt working-class demands have an excellent opportunity to help lead these movements toward more organization on shop floors, more militant actions like strikes, and demands that benefit the entire working class.
The article also features East Bay DSA’s vice chair Frances Reade, who talks about her own disillusionment with the Democratic Party, how joining DSA gave her a sense that she could change the world, and how our chapter offered her avenues to grow as an activist and a socialist through our massive campaign for Medicare for All and our Socialist Night School. The article linked to our night school syllabus; our website has gotten over a million hits since yesterday morning. Frances is running with me and eleven other organizers for the East Bay DSA Steering Committee elections this month on a program called Bread & Roses.
Stockman interviews other young DSAers and gives a brief survey of DSA’s local activities across the country that I find endlessly inspiring, including the Austin campaign for paid sick days and DSA Cincinnati’s campaign to save their historic public library.
Of course, I would have written a different story about DSA and about socialism, with less of the mainstream press’ obsession with electoral politics and more focus on the completely unexpected surge of class politics and the still-spreading wave of labor militancy. But nothing I write could reach an audience the size of the Times piece, or cause a million curious not-yet-socialists to click through our night school syllabus.
This kind of press is exactly what socialists need now for our movement to grow. While DSAers are only 0.01% of the US population, democratic socialists have the potential to reach millions with powerful class-struggle politics. If we do, it will be thanks to Bernie Sanders’s immense popularity, historic teachers’ strikes, and our highly visible mass campaigns for demands like Medicare for All and affordable housing across the country, as well as brilliant, strategic, and locally-specific campaigns like those in Houston, Austin and Cincinnati.
This is how we will build a mass movement. While it’s essential right now that we recruit our friends by the ones and twos, only through highly visible and massively popular independent socialist activity can the surge of membership from 5,000 to 35,000 become 300,000.
Only through such a movement — with hundreds of thousands of brave, deeply committed socialists driving the political agenda for millions of fellow travelers and sympathetic workers — can we change the world.
As one might guess from the Times article, this outward-looking, movement-building DSA is most of DSA. This weekend is DSA’s first Medicare for All “Weekend of Action”: hundreds of DSA activists from over forty chapters are reaching thousands of ordinary people, talking to them about their healthcare, about our predatory, capitalist healthcare system, about capitalism and the climate crisis, and about socialism. I couldn’t be more inspired by the commitment, intelligence, and resourcefulness of our comrades across the country. The future is bright.
As with a variety of political tendencies in DSA, the Bread & Roses slate enthusiastically affirms this style of politics. Our analysis document reads,
To build the power of the working class today, East Bay DSA should pursue mass action as our strategic orientation. This means gearing our activities toward the diverse working-class majority not yet in DSA — through canvassing, demonstrations, town halls, rank-and-file unionism, independent media, and more — and bringing them into open conflict with landlords, bosses, and their political functionaries.
Along with dozens of other fantastic East Bay DSA organizers, we have been helping to build outward-facing campaigns for Medicare for All and for rent control and public housing, taking part in demonstrations against deportations and supporting workers’ organizing, while drawing in over forty people every other week to study democratic socialism with us in our night school.
I’m proud to have played a part in helping to build this DSA over the last year. Our numbers, our skills, and the strength of our analysis are only growing. The broad working class, meanwhile, continues to grow more militant and more interested in our ideas.
The Inward DSA
Compare this with the other DSA.
Friday afternoon, a Boston DSAer’s Twitter account published links and a series of screenshots showing private documents for the Bread & Roses slate written by me and some other East Bay DSA comrades marked in bold, “Not for circulation — do not share.” Because we are organizers, we had a Google Drive full of organizing documents, tools, and spreadsheets.
How these documents were accessed by strangers isn’t totally clear, but the intention of the people who did it is: they seek to intimidate members of DSA from engaging in the most basic democratic organizing within our organization and to give us all the sense that even in pursuing ordinary political goals in a political organization, we are subject to a climate of hostile surveillance and attacks — and that anyone they disagree with could be targeted next. This is profoundly undemocratic behavior meant to choke political debate and suppress candid political participation in our organization.
After stealing the documents, these comrades focused on one in particular, a tool designed for a small group of our core supporters. We take DSA, our chapter, our comrades, and our politics seriously, so we prepared ourselves to have thoughtful, honest, and detailed conversations with fellow members about the contentious political issues that will arise during the convention process, especially around our political platform — standard stuff in democratic politics. Twitter users jumped in and dug up archived comments from previous drafts of the document, which they screenshotted and shared, along with copies of other documents they downloaded. Following this, others on Twitter and Facebook posted and reposted the documents and screenshots, then argued that Bread & Roses, and myself in particular, should actually be ousted from leadership.
In two screenshots, I describe other individuals in the chapter as “crazy” and a “nutjob.” Let me be unambiguous: this language is offensive and tied to a history of marginalization and stigmatization of people who suffer with mental illness. For this, I apologize.
Let me also be unambiguous on this point: the larger episode which brought these private comments to Twitter is emblematic of the kind of politics that is antithetical to DSA growing into a mass movement that can bring in ordinary people beyond the currently marginal activist left.
Everyone who dug through our private documents and shared them on the internet in order to harm our political project has demonstrated their commitment to creating a toxic, paranoid, and disempowering atmosphere in DSA. These are the tactics of people who have no belief that we can build a mass movement to win a better world — the best they can hope for is an irrelevant, inwardly gazing subculture where activists display their moral correctness, fight in a dirty, unprincipled way over process and structure, and relentlessly surveille and police their peers.
What nascently political person (like perhaps any of the New York Times readers who clicked through to our night school syllabus, or anyone we meet at their doors while canvassing for Medicare for All or rent control or criminal justice reform) would see this behavior on display for the world and think, “These are the kind of people I want to spend time with”?
Unfortunately, as a leader both locally and nationally, I’ve been subject to personal abuse from this segment of DSA for months. To be clear, these members are few. The vast majority of people who’ve come to DSA have come in order to work, learn, and organize together in a vibrant, multifaceted, and welcoming organization.
But as we’ve seen both locally in the East Bay and nationally, it only takes a few bullies to cast a pall over our in-person activities, to demoralize our most committed organizers, and to repel new members from participation. This is the kind of purity-obsessed, inwardly focused, bizarrely destructive and hurtful action that has kept much of the left marginal and ineffective.
To talk about why we must reject the tactics of those who want to bully us into the same dead-end politics that have halted other promising movements in their tracks, I want to explain a little bit about my own experiences with those committed to this kind of self-destructive politics, especially as it relates to my own disability.
Disabled, but energized by socialism
For nearly three and a half years, I’ve been disabled by chronic Lyme disease.
At times this has meant debilitating neurological symptoms, as well as crippling chronic pain, often making it difficult or impossible to walk more than a few minutes, or even work on a computer or drive, much less engage in other normal but more strenuous activities.
This has had a shattering effect on my life. It forced me to move back across the country to live near my family in early 2015, and I have been unable to work steadily since then.
Just getting by in life is difficult sometimes for me, but with the heroic aid of dozens of comrades, family members, and friends, I’ve managed to not just get by, but to pour as many hours as I can manage each week into my work with DSA and to building the democratic socialist movement.
Still, chronic pain has often dramatically limited my ability to do many things, including volunteer for DSA. I care about and believe in DSA more than anything I’ve ever been a part of in my entire life; being limited from participating in it has been heartbreaking.
And my time in DSA has been made worse by other members who engage in nasty smears against me related to my disability — all while repeatedly calling me “ableist.” These are in many cases the same people who participated in the Twitter attack on Bread & Roses this week. Here are a few examples.
- DSA members have spread rumors that my disability is faked. At the national convention in Chicago last year, where I was running for NPC, I had to be in a wheelchair for one day. Later, I was told there was a rumor spreading, meant to deter people from voting for me, that I didn’t actually need the wheelchair but was using it to garner sympathy.
- After a general meeting debate in East Bay DSA, when I was slow to get to the microphone because of leg pain, comrades spread rumors after the meeting that I was intentionally limping to stall for time and keep others from speaking.
- I missed a recent anti-war protest because I couldn’t comfortably participate in a long march. On Twitter, our political opponents said I didn’t care about opposing imperialism.
- Door-to-door canvassing naturally plays a central role in in DSA’s Medicare for All campaign, and East Bay DSA’s organizers have supported chapters around the country to start their own Medicare for All campaigns. But I’ve repeatedly been called “ableist” because I promote canvassing as a tactic. Due to my own disability I have not personally canvassed for anything since November 2014, before I got sick. Not only are these accusations unreasonable, since not everyone is able to do everything and yet many of these same activities are politically necessary, but they are also hurtful.
I don’t really like bringing all of this up. For the most part, I haven’t. (This despite the fact that I have been told by my detractors that I “hide behind my disability.”) I feel awkward and embarrassed to talk about it now. I hope that my contributions to building DSA and my and my comrades’ ideas about socialist strategy are compelling enough on their own — I shouldn’t need elements of my personal biography to win others to the politics I support.
I’m committed to a DSA that is as welcoming and friendly as possible for new members, which is why I have not disclosed these attacks publicly before. Perhaps that silence was a mistake, as it has given cover to the same bullies who attack other, less prominent members of our organization online and in person. I mention it all here because I am currently faced with a number of Twitter users who, after accessing personal documents and scouring them for anything they could use to attack me and my comrades, are now attacking me as an “ableist” who supports “white supremacy” and demanding my resignation.
Attacks on East Bay DSA
But more harmful than these attacks on me as a disabled person is how a few members of East Bay DSA have engaged in a months-long campaign to derail our work, to drive away reasonable and friendly members from the chapter, and to weaken our fledgling democracy.
Most of these people have not chosen to meaningfully participate in any of our campaigns or committees, although many of them are now running for leadership with an almost entirely negative campaign against us and the current leadership. Instead, they have focused their participation in the chapter on doing things like:
- making veiled threats of legal action against us, forcing us to frequently seek advice from lawyers who assure us the pretexts are baseless and meant only to intimidate;
- physically assaulting another DSA member at a chapter event during a political disagreement;
- deliberately derailing or hijacking breakout group discussions at large meetings, intimidating and silencing other members;
- publishing private correspondence on Twitter (even before this most recent incident) to incite harassment against members who have stepped up to take on difficult roles;
- posting in our East Bay DSA Members Facebook group a nasty screed that litigates the racial bonafides of a Latina comrade they disagreed with, who they described as “sub-melinated”;
- doxxing a young Jewish comrade on Twitter who was helping the chapter carry out a project our opponents were unhappy with; he then received anonymous threats including messages calling him a “kike” and “kapo”; and
- sending cronies to record video of chapter events they want no productive part in, with the apparent bizarre intention of catching us slipping up (on what, it’s not quite clear), creating a climate of intimidation and surveillance.
Through all this, multiple organizers, often women, who have been incredible leaders in East Bay DSA have sustained constant harassment in person and online, making them hesitant to run for leadership and the abuse it has come to entail. This kind of bullying by a few persistent members, meant to silence and edge out democratically elected opponents, also has the effect of burning out core organizers and discouraging new people from taking on prominent roles or speaking their mind in public.
This behavior is all of a piece with the Twitter leakers and those who insist on weaponizing “ableism” against me, someone who has overcome enormous physical limitations to contribute to building this chapter. This behavior has been fueled by a pervasive online culture of hostility and antagonism toward anyone who disagrees with the bullies’ personal ideas.
None of these people are serious about creating a movement that large numbers of people would spend time and energy in. In fact, I would argue that they are terrified of socialism becoming a mainstream, mass movement which would drain away the power and influence they wield through policing other activists on subcultural social media. They would rather be big fish in a small pond, posturing with their correct answers, than part of a millions-strong movement that can actually change the world.
We Are Many, They Are Few
All of this is incredibly disheartening for those of us who joined DSA because we want to make history by bringing thousands and then millions of ordinary people into the fight for socialism. But it’s important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of DSA members share our goals and find the kind of behavior that I’ve discussed here toxic and destructive to the movement we want to build.
The inwardly obsessed, overly online, factionalist elements are on their way out. They grow louder as their influence in DSA wanes, but the overwhelming majority of DSA is moving in the right direction. At the exact same time a small handful of people hacked private documents and posted them on Twitter, DSAers in forty — forty! — chapters around the country were preparing for this weekend’s massive Medicare for All push.
I’m a part of Bread & Roses because it’s a group that is dedicated to exactly this kind of politics. But we don’t think we have all the answers. We’re in DSA because we believe that a democratic, multi-tendency approach to socialism is the only way forward. We want to work alongside with, learn from, and yes, even argue over politics and strategy with our fellow comrades, because doing all of that together is exactly what will make for a strong movement that will allow us to win the world we want.
What won’t help us build that movement is online mudslinging and constant attacks on others in our organization that acts to chill debate and deter people from taking an active political role. What will is working hand-in-hand with our comrades to build the kind of mass movement we know is possible. Let’s build that movement in DSA together.
Jeremy Gong sits on the Steering Committee of DSA’s National Political Committee and on DSA’s national Medicare for All Campaign Steering Committee, and he has served on East Bay DSA’s Steering Committee for over a year.
Photo credit Kansas City DSA.