The DSA Has a Future Outside of the Socialist International

Elizabeth Mahony
8 min readJun 12, 2017
Crowd shot at the Acampamento.

In April, I and Neal Meyer, as representatives of the Democratic Socialists of America, attended the Acampamento Internacional de Juventudes em Luta (the International Encampment of Youth in Struggle) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Acampamento is organized by the MES (Left Socialist Movement) current within Brazil’s Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSOL), designed both as a congress for its youth wing (called Juntos!) and as a convocation of international solidarity.

PSOL was formed in 2004 after Brazil’s Workers Party (PT), purged its left wing in an effort to pass an austerity-style pension reform. The purged activists regrouped as PSOL, which is a multi-tendency party, with several internal currents (who maintain their own international affiliations), and which promotes democratic socialism. As of 2016 it had 122,396 active members and 73 elected officials, some of whom are fairly influential, such as Marcelo Freixo and Jean Wyllys.

Present were delegations from socialist parties and currents in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Peru, the United Kingdom, and Portugal.

Overall, the Acampamento was a powerful experience, from which we drew several new lessons. Those lessons can be broadly separated into two themes: (1) how best to renew DSA’s internationalist commitments and (2) organizing ideas inspired by the Acampamento that can be applied to DSA’s work back home. This post will address the first theme and my second, upcoming, will address the second.

In August, the DSA membership will have the chance to vote on whether to leave the Socialist International. One of the most frequent questions raised on this topic is how the DSA will be able to participate in international politics and form relationships with parties abroad without the aid of an International. For me, the visceral experience of being surrounded by socialist activists from around the continent, all of whom expressed the most sincere solidarity with DSA, answered that question for me. There is a wide world of socialist solidarity outside the SI; a world simultaneously deeply embedded in their local struggles and radically open to the international fight; who take seriously the symbolic and material consequences of international affiliations, and who will cheer us on for striking out a more independent, thoughtful, and meaningful path.

The activists in this world are genuinely scandalized by the abuses carried out in the name of the Socialist International, from the French Socialist Party’s neoliberal assault to, until recently, Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian reign in Egypt. They recognize that our comrades fighting capitalism in movements like Nuit Debout have been being tear-gassed and repressed by those same governments that form the SI. And they view the DSA’s continued affiliation as unfortunate, perhaps naïve, in the short term but a true insult if continued.

From the Acampamento, I drew two main conclusions about international solidarity. Much of it is critical of the state of DSA’s internationalism; but some, I hope, can illuminate a path forward for DSA after the SI.

Left movements across the continent, and around the world, are paying attention to the DSA’s growth and the direction it will take. This confers on the DSA a responsibility it has to take seriously.

Our Brazilian hosts and the international delegates present at the Acampamento took an enormous amount of interest in the DSA and saw our growth, as well as Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, as a potentially decisive development in the politics of the continent. The history of US military and financial imperialism in the region casts a long shadow, and in some ways the fate of socialist movements in Latin America rests on the whims of the US deep state. The success or failure of the US socialist movement to take power and/or dispute US imperialism has serious material consequences for the Latin American left. This confers upon the DSA a responsibility to cultivate clarity in its ideas, strategy, and purpose lest it fall once again into “activistism” — activism for activism’s sake, rather than for the purpose of achieving a clear goal — and abandon the struggle for power.

It also confers on the DSA a responsibility to cultivate a genuine internationalist politics. There is a tendency on the US left to understand “internationalism” through such demands as open borders and more generous asylum policies. These demands are an indispensable part of our domestic political program but they betray a humanitarian understanding of international solidarity. Immigrant rights are an end in themselves, but achieving justice for migrants who live in & seek out the United States does nothing to challenge the reality on the ground in the countries producing migrants, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Syria, and Yemen. That requires identifying and communicating with those left forces active inside those countries and providing support to them where they are.

“If in the time of Marx and Engels they could build an international with boats and telegrams, in the Internet age with memes and Facebook we can absolutely build a new internationalism.” — Neal speaking at the Acampamento

The humanitarian vision of internationalism also tends to create a victim/abuser binary that ignores how many Global South states, strengthened (though now less so) by the 90s-early 2000s commodities boom, have begun to act as deputies of international finance and neo-imperialism. Recent literature has developed the concept that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are increasingly acting as “sub-imperial” forces in their regions. When we subscribe to the “victim-abuser” binary we often put ourselves in the awkward position of defending governments that are the direct antagonists and repressers of the Left not just in their countries but in their entire region. This alienates us, rather than endears us, to socialists across the Global South.

In the current conjuncture the DSA has more in common with, and more to learn from, the new formations who have formed to dispute the center than from the older mass social-democratic and workers’ parties.

In discussions about the DSA’s international relationships the question of what our organization gains from its global ties is often skipped over in favor of discussing the symbolic values of such relationships. The question becomes how would it look to ally ourselves with one party versus another, instead of what the content of that relationship might be.

The Acampamento showed clearly that when it comes to Latin America, those newer parties and formations that have formed to dispute the center are extremely open to DSA and prepared to offer relationships rich in content. Furthermore, the challenges, strategic questions, and capacity of these formations are much more comparable to those of the DSA than those of mass parties. Like the DSA, many of these have strong youth bases but are weak in organized labor. Like the DSA, they struggle with the logic of “lesser-evilism.” And like the DSA, they are marginalized from mainstream politics both by the political machines of liberal and conservative partie s and by their lack of access to mass media.

DSA delegates (me, center, and Neal, back row behind Nuevo Peru) and Black Lives Matter US (far left, behind the Juntos flag) with most of the other international delegations. (We DSAers really need to get better about taking our flag everywhere)

Some may view these weaknesses as unpalatable, preferring to devote our organization’s attention to more “safe” and established representatives of the Left. But the strategies these younger parties develop to confront these vulnerabilities and intervene in politics despite them are much more applicable to DSA than those strategies used by mass liberal-left parties. Their successes are our successes. Their setbacks are our setbacks. We need relationships with these formations that allow for open strategic communication, debate, and above all, mutual solidarity.

The DSA will mature much more as an organization when invested in such struggles than when futilely trying to mimic the tactics of parties with vastly different capacities, history, and relationships to government. And our support has a disproportionate impact, materially and symbolically, on such formations as compared to labor or soc-dem machines that have very little need for our solidarity.

That said, the vulnerabilities of these formations should not be over-emphasized, as in many areas they are considerably more advanced than the DSA. PSOL, the example I am most familiar with, has had an impressive electoral impact, considering the staggering size of Brazil. (This is the most obvious commonality between the Brazilian and US left — how do you do politics at a literally continental scale?). Others have successfully organized bases of workers and taken leadership of unions. Obviously in the US we encounter unique obstacles in both these areas. But we still have much to learn from those instances where the international left is more advanced.

Of course, this does not provide a hard-and-fast formula for international relationships. Many newer, smaller left groups are irretrievably sectarian or strategically hopeless (usually the two go hand-in-hand). Some mass soc-dem/workers’ parties deserve careful consideration — for instance, the UK Labour Party, whose Blairite right wing is hopelessly reactionary but whose left wing has a small chance of taking control of the party. We must assess based on a number of factors, such as where the existing left in the country at hand has decided to organize; the larger political balance of forces; the ideological content of an organization; and whether it is internally democratic. But in those cases where smaller or newer formations show genuine intent and strategy to build a mass socialist politics and to mount interventions against the neoliberal consensus, the DSA should seriously consider building a mutual relationship.

Banner from Sao Paulo’s International Women’s Day March: “Neither Trump nor Temer. Together against regression and for more rights”

(It should be noted that the relationship between Marea Socialista, the Venezuelan delegation present at the Acampamento, and Venezuela’s PSUV cannot be accurately described as between “the Left” and the “center” — the dynamic in Venezuela is much more complicated, and deserves further thought, which would take up too much space here. The “left” and “center” framework does, in fact, present pitfalls in analyzing Brazil as well, but for our purposes here does the job.)

There is no single blueprint for renewing internationalist politics in the twenty-first century. Our belief that there is has led the DSA to cling to the Socialist International in the vain hope that this obsolete organization will make the hard decisions for us. Our hope should have been in those spontaneous waves of resistance, independent of and often confronting the old mass parties, that we’ve witnessed since the Great Recession; the Arab Spring, Spain’s indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Brazil’s 2013 June Days, Greece’s massive anti-austerity movement, South Africa’s #FeesMustFall, and more. In South America, where the paradoxes of the Pink Tide complicate the popularization of new left movements, the explosion of feminist (#NiUnaMenos) and antiracist movements likewise signals that millions of people are actively searching for a new politics. All have fought unique fights, tethered to the realities of their situations, yet have chosen strikingly similar tactics of occupying public space and confronting urban police. The seeds of a new international were born in those struggles, and though many have been buried by war or political defeat, some survive. It’s time for us to move towards them, not away from them.