Standing on the mezzanine of the UIC Forum with my co-hosts, we watched the 2017 DSA Convention unfold below us. In a room of a thousand people, motions, amendments, and resolutions flew down from the podium, out into a crowd where, from our vantage point, we saw the hurried back and forth of voting, debates, and a slow rebuilding of a political organization from the ground up. I interviewed and spent time with people from all across the nation, from cities and from farm towns, from chapters of hundreds of people to chapters who could barely fill a room. Our mission was to discover what had brought together the largest gathering of socialists since the end of World War II. Here, I want to discuss my observations of the event, as somewhat of an outsider to DSA politics, gathered through conversation with delegates, observers, press, administration, candidates.
Every person seriously involved in organizing who we spoke with discussed not only the excitement and energy of the convention, but had a sense of the place this convention would have in a longer history of the left in America: a resurgent moment, hopefully the first of many, where the shadowed and hidden world of socialism came into the open, its successes and failures laid bare in full view of the world, to critics, supporters, and into the fray of the political battles that will need to be won.
We were in Chicago, and the inevitability of the failures of our current economic model surrounded us. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s name came up time and time again as the butt of jokes at the expense of the ailing neoliberal project’s total incapacity to address the basic human needs which organizers made the object of their activism. Prominent individuals were not the only targets of their ire. Discussions focusing on attacking and dismantling the tools used by capitalists — the tools brought to bear upon the communities most of these organizers call home — were frequent, potent and angry.
The hot buzz of a discontented youth rang loud at the YDSA conference, as an informal coalition of some of the youngest delegates described their processes of seizing any and all means at their disposal — from their campuses, other chapters, local outreach organizations, family, churches, whatever they could lay hands on — to reverse the damage and heal the scars capitalism has left on their communities.
I saw teenagers use their adept understanding Robert’s Rules and the machinations of political organizations to shut down center-liberal dissent, to band together with comrades and demand their voices be heard. I saw rural delegates meet and discuss the safety issues they face as socialists in the petri dish of economic degradation that has cultured a reactionary violence, a violence they have met in turn with an untempered courage in their eyes. I saw urban organizers describe the daily hollowing out of impoverished communities, the long term suffering their friends and neighbors have experienced while under siege in racist class war and listened to them describe their infiltration of the behemoth of power that political machines maintain.
Raising their voices, they told story after story of their work, from organizing strikes, to the daily conversations with working class people whose unbandaged wounds of wage slavery still oozed, to confronting politicians in public, shaming and terrorizing them out of their aristocratic independence, however briefly. I heard the cheers of solidarity with Palestine, I heard hisses of anger at the dimming lights of an exclusionary old guard whose grasp to power within DSA waned with every vote, I heard the fiery, drunken revelry of socialists, socialists in full force, singing hundred-year-old songs whose embers they refuse to let die.
I learned to separate the work of the organizers from the work of the organization; to see beyond the gavel’s clap and procedural rules and meet my friends and comrades as organizers who had decades of discontent to fuel them onward toward greater and greater ambitions. I saw people of all variety of backgrounds — rich kid class traitors and city slickers, country bumpkins and mountain dirtbags — throw themselves into conversation and appreciation of their shared struggle.
DSA is a flawed platform, one whose foundations have begun to find solid ground below the muck, but there is much work to do both within and outside of the organization. In conducting our interviews, we decided to focus primarily on the individual organizers, those working people who, in spite of their various circumstances, sacrificed their time, their energy, their money, and for some, their security, and have put themselves at the absolute front line of organizing. Door-to-door knocking, phone banking, contacting and re-contacting members, conversation after conversation with the hostile, the misguided, the angry, the desperate — all to build a bedrock for the inevitable hard times ahead.
A dark heart beats in America, and its blood courses through this country. Fed a steady diet of the misery of working people, metabolites of wrath and violence fill its veins. As it grows larger, it becomes harder and harder to escape its bloodsoaked logic, the mass conscription of daily life in service of the unending heart-beat rhythm of the market, of war, of poverty, addiction, death. It is a reactionary horror whose strongest opposition is and always has been the mass of working people standing in solidarity — a deliberate solidarity, a solidarity carved from hard lives and hard work. I do not care for many of the tepid positions DSA has held in the past, and have banged my head against a wall at some of the more reactionary and liberal voices who worked their way into the organization. But there is a great undertaking here, and it has grown stronger, and stabler, and demands more and more from an organization that has spent decades sleepwalking between reformism and a directionless activism.
At the head of the charge are well-read, tireless and prepared new organizers who have — through a combination of both the inequalities perpetuated by our hellish economic system and their unique place in history. Hung over the ledge of ecological and economic disasters, whose solutions lie beyond the scope of the current neoliberal and technocratic consensus, they demand an end to the causes, not the symptoms, of their misery. Who stands in their way? From within: the reputation-building, the staid, the lying opportunists, the self-interested who have seen their book club turn into a serious organization, one they no longer are permitted to captain. From without: the hordes of the downwardly mobile, broke, and confused people who, through a dispassionate calculus ensured by the various self-sustaining mechanisms of the modern world, have come across a hateful and cannibalistic culture which prevents them from seeing into a future less dreadful than the world we live in.
Aside from the stew of oafish chauvinists on the right, who lay their flimsy criticisms — and real violence — at DSA, left-wing critique of DSA (some deserved and some disingenuous) is another constant. The voices that criticize DSA come from a variety of places, from anarchists who find the often bureaucratic processes of national politics confining at best and actively damaging at worst, to hard-line Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists (and others, I’m sure) who find fault with DSA’s big tent tightrope walking between radical and liberal-left politics. But rather than viewing these voices as a gadfly, or an attempt to weaken the power of DSA, I have heard these voices play an important role in the radicalization and efficacy of organizers who work within DSA. There would not be a body of young people reading Marx, Lenin, or getting engaged with political organizations if it were not for these sharp voices.
The fighting among the left, the most bitter criticisms, so long as we are motivated by the goal to build socialism here and now with the tools we have, can only make us stronger. DSA will not bring about any mass change alone; this is not its value. DSA is large, it is growing, and has empowered working people to create a multitude of platforms around the country: platforms for campuses, cities, towns, and those of us in the middle of nowhere to engage in a meaningful struggle with capitalism, here and now, with teeth bared. Local DSA chapters have sewn themselves tightly to local struggles and have found the soft spots in capitalism’s scaly hide. The reason the convention was of this size and prominence has everything to do with how effectively local campaigns have agitated independently, and how quick DSA was to incorporate this network of struggles into its structure.
Additionally, there is a constant flux in the left today. Loud voices soften, soft voices harden, minds are made up and then changed, tendencies are swapped in and out. This is not necessarily an indication of any fundamental issue with the left. I have a more optimistic reading of this: the left is growing, and it grows into a space with very little memory of a vibrant left wing ever having existed. What little remains has been all but brushed off to the sidelines by neoliberals and the far-right. Today’s left is, for all intents and purposes, a clean slate. Leftists, especially young leftists, now approach the giant texts of the last two centuries with a new curiosity, finding reflections of their own lives in the struggles that have come before them; cut off from any direct genealogy to these past movements, a collective learning (or re-learning) begins.
The people becoming leftists today — the wide-eyed converts, the dirtbags, the hungry, angry, outcast youth — are not becoming leftists because this text or that text swayed their opinions, or had a moment of clarity and stomped off textbooks in hand to join a revolutionary organization. They are becoming leftists because for decades they have seen their communities and lives destroyed, and materialist, left-wing politics answers some of the most burning questions that hang over them. They read, they listen, they engage, and as things make more sense, as more questions are answered, an image of a world that could be reveals itself, and it is tempting and beautiful. And so those who want to create this world organize and engage with comrades, family, and friends, even though the path forward might not yet be clear. We do not speak with the same confidence about the future as our counterparts in years past; we do not yet see the end of this tunnel. We know there are hard times ahead now, and our only hope to be saved from the deepest darkness of this future is that we stand in the profound strength of solidarity. The work of the organizers I met is the strongest preparation for that darkness that I have seen.
It is tempting to use the metaphor of a seed being planted to describe their work, but it is not nearly so gentle a process. Instead, I think of these organizers wandering in the wilderness, gathering kindling and brush, sometimes finding larger branches, sometimes a log, and hauling them together, against bitter cold and wind, to prepare a great bonfire to illuminate our dark future. They do not see the fire yet, but they see its fuel, and that is enough incentive to start work now. The conference showcased this new breed of leftists, and the organization they have forged, not out of one movement or one fight, but of hundreds of fights in hundreds of places, with thousands of people, against millions of dollars. They may even change the world.
Discourse Collective coverage of the DSA Convention would not have been possible without support from our community of patrons and one-time donors, as well as guidance and assistance from staff at the convention and DSA members who helped coordinate our first serious journalistic endeavor. Some particular thank yous must be made: first, to Markus, for handling financial matters and helping all three of the members attending out of some tight spots. A huge thank you to Christian, who got us our press passes and huge amounts of background information. Thank you to Jack, for putting me up in his apartment and showing me the best Mexican food restaurants in all of Chicago. Thank you to Brad and Emma, for buying me and Ian some amazing Cuban food and for being a huge help wrassling up interviewees. Thanks to Max, who was a constant help at the press desk and consistently lent a hand. Thanks to Paul for the smokes and the books and Aubrey for the place to sleep, even if it was freezing cold. Thank you to our donors and subscribers for making this happen.