In early August, the Democratic Socialists of America gathered in Chicago for their 2023 convention. Nearly a thousand delegates from the organization’s 186 chapters arrived to debate and vote on a host of resolutions ranging from electoral strategies to anti-imperialist commitments and national campaigns for trans liberation & reproductive rights. Across four days, the delegates would also elect a new sixteen-member National Political Committee (the highest decision-making body which meets between conventions), hear reports from staff, and receive greetings from Cuba.
The overwhelming sentiment of members leaving the convention was that it had been productive, positive, and moved the organization forward significantly—at a time when the membership is more sharply divided along political lines than ever before, when membership has declined consistently for several years, and when financial resources gathered by member dues have been stretched about as far as they can go. An outside observer might expect that the tone of debate would skew towards austerity and skepticism of any new direction for DSA, but as an attendee, I am proud to say that the membership consistently rejected all such rhetoric, and chose to meet the challenges before us with the courage and clarity of political vision demanded of socialists everywhere.
DSA is intensely proud of its most singular achievement: the establishment of a mass-membership organization which is democratically controlled by its members and explicit in its demand for socialism in the United States. The convention is our highest decision-making body, leadership elections are open to all members, and members reserve the right to organize factions (sometimes called caucuses) which can advocate their own lines and criticize the organization both in public media and through their own publications. These might seem like innocuous or even trivial features for a political system to endorse, but anyone who seeks them out will find a troubling scarcity not only in the mainstream of the liberal democracies but even within the US left. Two historical factors form a lethal crossfire: on the one hand, first-past-the-post voting (enabled by our wholly decrepit constitution) ordains only two parties as serious competitors free from the constraints which usually define a party; on the other, the fallout of 20th-century official communism orients the revolutionary left towards the “party of a new type”, viewing themselves not as mass-membership parties but clandestine sects and combat organizations organized principally in a military hierarchy. What the DSA represents, then, is no small achievement. For all its faults, it represents the greatest opportunity to debate and decide matters of political importance that most members have seen in their lifetimes, and this remains its most enduring attraction to a new generation of organizers who would otherwise have tuned out.
DSA members are also quick to recognize that while this openness has given rise to a political dynamism not seen on the US left in generations, this has not always resulted in a clear overall direction for the organization—indeed, we must refer to DSA as an “organization” and not a party because the grassroots, amateur, spontaneous nature of its explosive growth (and subsequent minor contraction) since 2016 means that our membership brings a wide range of perspectives to whether and how DSA should (or even could) become an independent socialist party in the US. The DSA emerged in the 1980s as an anticommunist wing of the Democratic party, a separate organization rooted in factions which grew out of the old socialist party, but committed in its messaging and practice to an outright strategy of realignment, not really seeking to challenge the two-party system which dominates American politics. This is one reason why it is incredible that it was the DSA that picked up the more radical leftovers of the Bernie Sanders campaign: the form of the organization, weathered by time but still retaining its lineage in the orthodox parties of the Second International, proved intensely capable of receiving and channeling the anti-capitalist and outright socialist sentiment of his base. It was the content of its pro-Democrat anti-communism which hardly matched, and the tension between these historical facts has caused no small amount of conflict as the organization has tried to move beyond the Cold War and into the 21st century. Now, the default position of today’s members, who in the vast majority were not even alive when the Soviet Union existed, is that the former strategy of realignment is clearly untenable. Interest by new members in DSA is driven almost entirely by an outright rejection of two-party politics, as these are largely the same canvassers, donors, and voters who witnessed the Democrats close ranks for the first time not to prevent a victory by the right but to prevent a challenge from the left. As further developments below should make clear, it is precisely how to mount a genuine challenge to this system that has not yet won a majority of DSA opinion.
We must refer to DSA as an “organization” and not a party because the grassroots, amateur, spontaneous nature of its explosive growth (and subsequent minor contraction) since 2016 means that our membership brings a wide range of perspectives to whether and how DSA should (or even could) become an independent socialist party in the US.
In August, this question of “party-ism” (for or against) lurked behind virtually every vote. The DSA saw incredible growth when Bernie Sanders chose to run for president and broke the taboo on saying “socialism” in public, and was able to elide many crucial political distinctions by simply getting behind the public figure of Bernie. What were we for? The 99%! Medicare for all! How did we recruit? By telling potential members “We’re the Bernie people!” But now Sanders has stepped back from presidential politics and we find ourselves unable to simply tail a Democratic campaign as a way of agitating for socialist politics. There’s no question that the Sanders campaign and 2016 itself represents an unparalleled inflection point in our organizing, and hardly any members regret getting involved in either of Bernie’s campaigns, but there is now a broad realization that we are going to have to do the hard work of figuring out our own politics, and that we are going to have to find unity of action in an organization which not only allows but facilitates disunity of purpose. In the vacuum created by Bernie’s absence, our previous convention in 2021 voted to adopt an official platform, staking our actual demands but igniting furious debate on the extent to which membership should be bound by agreement to its positions. Standards imply discipline for those in violation, and this is an uncomfortable topic for leftists, and especially for Americans who have never in their lives encountered a political party where discipline, censure, and expulsion are treated as normal and even healthy measures of accountability—where instead they have only ever been characterized as outright totalitarian. The platform, which makes some truly radical demands (ranging from withdrawal from NATO to social ownership of major economic sectors and calls for gender & sexuality justice), remains unenforced. However, it was a series of votes in favor of stricter national discipline and independence from the Democrats which satisfied so many delegates in Chicago this past August. The question of full independence from the Democrats has not yet been answered, but many members perceive in it the life or death of our movement and have taken sides accordingly. While some members bemoan the emergence of divided opinion as threatening to the organization itself, thankfully many more have taken it up and treated it as a sign of our vitality, that by building an organization capable of handling such conflicts we are able to decide matters of great importance and then act on them in ways which other political structures would simply never allow us to touch.
DSA National and Local
If the US were a smaller and more dense society, few of these conflicts would be necessary and would’ve been worked out long ago. The political context of the US, as a continent-spanning colonial empire operating under the world’s oldest constitution (which it neglected to replace even after falling prey to a civil war enabled at least in part by its failures) looms over every decision the DSA must face. The US is a massive country, organized federally into states with highly distinct laws and political climates, to say nothing of outright cultural divisions. Organizing any national project under these conditions is challenging, and yet DSA chapters are present across virtually all regions of the country. The area that each chapter covers can sometimes be as large as several counties, challenging active membership (which for healthy chapters is sometimes as low as a few dozen members, and not all chapters are healthy) to actually organize across all the communities represented by their region, many of which are inaccessible by any kind of public transportation and are either exurban sprawls or rural districts only nominally represented as genuine municipalities. Very few parts of the country can rely on walkable metropolitan centers as the focus of their organizing, and how to approach our totally atomizing geographic and social conditions remains an open question in many instances, and takes up a considerable portion of the discussion which local DSA chapters engage in when they meet to talk about what must be done. Chapters themselves typically hold general assembly meetings on a monthly basis and maintain an active social presence for their members, providing at least some resilience to these conditions. Opposed to the total disintegration of public life in America, at least part of the function of these chapters is to provide a continued social experience where otherwise none would exist.
Once organized, local chapters primarily decide on their own priorities, make their own local electoral endorsements, and are even able to write their own bylaws. This is necessary due to the different state laws regarding nonprofit status—because it is not an actual political party, the DSA is subject to specific laws governing nonprofit entities which vary by state, providing certain legal and financial benefits to our gray area status while providing a significant (though not insurmountable) barrier to party status and significant incentives to avoiding major structural change, with the added consequence of creating unique chapter-level formations which are not readily transferrable across state lines. As I will take up in more detail below, chapters mostly engage in electoral canvassing, strike support for local unions, and political education efforts, though they also have leeway to engage in mutual aid projects, form local coalitions with other leftists, put out their own publications, and organize around other priorities decided by the membership.
Very few parts of the country can rely on walkable metropolitan centers as the focus of their organizing, and how to approach our totally atomizing geographic and social conditions remains an open question in many instances, and takes up a considerable portion of the discussion which local DSA chapters engage in when they meet to talk about what must be done.
While the local chapter is the primary way in which every member will interface with the organization as a whole, our work is also conducted through a number of national committees and membership bodies. When delegates to our biannual national convention vote to authorize a national campaign, its authority will then pass on to a commission or committee endowed with the ability to carry it out. DSA boasts labor and electoral commissions in addition to an international committee, multi-racial organizing committee, and several administrative bodies which sustain the technical infrastructure that chapters require. Membership in these committees is generally open to any member in good standing, though some have been granted the ability to close their membership—whether or not a committee remains open and why has been a source of contention at various conventions as different factions will attempt to institute their preferred policies for labor and electoral campaigns, among others. Our international committee took serious heat in 2022 for putting out a statement which called on US socialists to oppose both Russia’s outrageous invasion and NATO’s egregious incitements, and calling for a negotiated settlement as opposed to military aid (our most recent convention debated and voted to uphold these same principles).
Interaction between the national and local life of the organization is limited, but ties are growing closer. The explosion of membership in 2016 seriously stressed the national structure and made grassroots local work the default setting for new chapters, sometimes confusing members who preferred to avoid any national entanglements or who resented national priorities which seemed to conflict with local conditions.
Funding between the national and local organizations has also been a point of contention—prior to 2016, DSA’s chapters were secondary to its national presence, and locals might not have received any share of the dues which members paid to DSA; grassroots activity was so limited that it hardly made any difference. In fact it was only after the Bernie campaign and the sudden proliferation of locals that most members were urged to pay monthly dues, and hasty reforms were made which enabled a dues-sharing program in which chapters could receive between 10 and 20 percent of the monthly (not yearly!) dues that the members in their territory were paying. This distinction might seem bewildering or overly complex, but consider that as a multi-tendency socialist organization, it would be alternately hypocritical or doctrinaire for DSA to coerce its members into financial contribution, and the option to waive dues for any member experiencing hardship is both well-known and freely exercised. The most recent convention passed a resolution to campaign for proportional income-based dues as a compromise solution.
The debate over local conditions and national discipline reaches far back into the left’s history, and to some extent mirrors the debates over early forms of democratic centralism found in the original SPD (and which also plagued the US’ own 19th century SPA). This is another question which we do not expect to settle soon, since it runs up against the very nature of the United States itself, but we continue to struggle for clear national policies and an appropriate amount of local autonomy for chapters.
It was only after the Bernie campaign and the sudden proliferation of locals that most members were urged to pay monthly dues, and hasty reforms were made which enabled a dues-sharing program in which chapters could receive between 10 and 20 percent of the monthly (not yearly!) dues that the members in their territory were paying.
DSA’S Labor Strategy
DSA’s labor work has historically focused on two areas: strike support and what it refers to as the “rank & file strategy”. As the only major political organization actually willing to break with the rhetoric of capitalist realism, a significant achievement of DSA is that it has persuaded a not-insignificant number of Americans that political action and labor action are the same, that the working class will be the vehicle of revolutionary change in our society. Notably, neither of these beliefs are definitive: despite their spread through influential sectors of US public opinion, they do not tell us what form the DSA should take, what our exact relationship to the working class should be, or indeed what sorts of changes a revolution in our economic system would actually mean. Again, members remain divided on these questions. The explicit labor strategy which has won out under these conditions is known as the “rank & file strategy”, a pleasing formula that hardly anybody can disagree with but that lacks overall political content: it asks that DSA members seek union jobs and agitate for more democratic conditions within the company-friendly business unions of the AFL-CIO, radicalizing apolitical unionists along the way.
By any measurement, DSA’s labor work has been a success: while the membership remains predominantly white, college-educated, and professional, it has built lasting and somewhat durable relationships between the existing labor movement and the socialist left. The creation of the Emergency Worker Organizing Committee (EWOC), a partnership with several national unions to assist in organizing essential workers during the pandemic, has proven so successful in connecting unions to unorganized shops that the project continues and has even spun off into an Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee to hopefully repeat its success in organizing renters against their landlords and our broader cost-of-living crisis. The near-miss of the Teamsters saw national mobilization and preparation by the DSA, and the ongoing UAW and SAG-AFTRA strikes have seen massive participation from members, not just in rhetoric but on the picket lines themselves, where photos frequently depict union and DSA members holding signs together and standing opposite police in solidarity. Generally speaking, the rank and file on any given picket line are glad to receive DSA delegations, a major step forward for a US left once identified only with haranguing irate workers with newspapers and pamphlets.
However, success isn’t hard to achieve when the bar is almost hilariously low: despite what some have termed the Hot Labor Summer, labor still hasn’t recovered from its outright annihilation during the neoliberal era. All that it took to earn labor’s respect was for DSA to show up at all in any meaningful way. Now that the past few years have proven that we’re willing to stick around and utilized the experience that we’ve gained while organizing, members are beginning to debate what comes next for DSA’s labor strategy—is “rank & file” enough? If we were to take an active role in politicizing unions and tying their demands to our political vision, what would that look like? DSA members share an outright aversion to the pamphleteering adventurism of the micro-sects, but are equally likely to perceive totally independent unionism as a kind of slow suicide for labor. DSA’s platform calls for industrial unionism and independence from the AFL-CIO, but as the CIO’s inclusion in the AFL testifies, this is easier said than done. The UAW’s recent demand for a shorter work week has put politics back on the table, and there is a clear desire among DSA’s members to go even further, but as with the political and party questions, we have only just begun to determine our actual path forward.
Apart from its labor work, DSA’s success and public profile can largely be attributed to its electoral endorsements and campaigns. Beginning with the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to our lower House of Representatives, DSA has endorsed slates of candidates at the national level who remain in office. All of these national representatives have been outright Democrats, but several are DSA members. This has naturally been a major factor in the debate on party-ism and the meaning of our platform—DSA reaps enormous benefits from the visibility provided by these elected officials, who nevertheless frequently violate our democratically-decided principles, even if they do represent the single most consistently progressive wing of the official US political system. To some, their loss would be absolutely catastrophic, and sees them as our de facto leaders, with our role being to support them rather than lead them. Others see elected representatives unconstrained by the platform as largely unaccountable and dangerous, actually holding back the development of our politics and obscuring our message. Either way forward entails a loss—leaving electeds to their own devices makes coordination and strategy almost impossible, while pushing them too hard to fall in line could seriously damage the organization or even cause a split as debates spill over into outright conflict with our national representatives in the public eye.
At the local level, DSA chapters have seen more success devising strategies independent of the Democrats. While truly independent runs have been relatively rare (though DSA members in Republican-led states have begun to express their concern that they have practically nothing to gain by participating alongside Democrats), local chapters have chosen to pursue operational independence during and after campaigns by building and operating separate institutions: seeking access to independent voter databases, fundraising on their own, and most importantly creating Socialists in Office committees to coordinate the relationship between endorsed officials and DSA chapters, as well as to ensure coordination/prevent competition between multiple endorsed electeds operating in the same region. The establishment of these committees has encouraged many in DSA to advocate for parliamentary-style fractionalism, where even though the US’ electoral system lacks many of the features of European-style parliaments, we can consolidate our power at the local and national level through bloc-voting tactics coordinated in the Socialists in Office committees. Chapters in New York City, who can generally rely on greater member resources and less outright hostility to socialist politics, have seen the greatest success in implementing this strategy and exporting it as a model for DSA as a whole.
Decline in membership
It is true that DSA’s membership has declined over the past few years, from a peak nearing 100,000 in 2020 to approximately 83,000 today. We can attribute this decline to a number of factors, but the two most important are the end of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns and the frustrations of the COVID pandemic (it is important to point out here that US political organizations have seen a categorical drop in membership across the board).
Rather than present the declining membership as a crisis, most members see it as an opportunity for political development through distillation. Political activism in the US has long been dominated by nonprofits and NGOs, “vote with your dollar” types who send increasingly frantic fundraising emails with terrifying narrative arcs that never seem to resolve. Sanders himself, who pioneered the crowd-funded presidential campaign in American politics, sometimes failed to distinguish between political agency and donating to a campaign—to that extent, a significant portion of DSA’s membership list are holdovers who clicked “join” in 2016 and have just been trashing emails and following AOC’s tweets ever since. It’s true that a declining membership results in less money for DSA (though the push for income-based dues at the convention will prevent a collapse), but to those who have been showing up to meetings, taking votes, preparing campaigns, knocking doors, and airing theoretical debates in publications, they are ready to transform what it means to be a DSA member. Though there are fewer total members today than there were two or three years ago, the continued erosion of federal legitimacy continues to pull in new members at rates not so different from years past, and the political maturity of the members who have stuck around is beginning to snowball into tight, effective coordination at both the local and national level.
While we can’t yet claim to be operating an efficient political machine, even just two or three years in DSA has seen many of our members develop wholly new skills and capacities. Most committed members will serve in some kind of leadership role and take on responsibilities to their chapter, whether as the official leadership of the chapter’s executive committee, as a member of a working group, or as a member responsible for carrying out some part of an ongoing campaign. As unpaid volunteer labor, these positions tend to cycle fast, which has the tendency to make chapter leadership unstable and volatile, but also gives very many members the opportunity to make important decisions, moderate discussions, and guide the direction of a local organization. DSA chapters are generally allergic to leaders serving more than a couple of year-long terms at a stretch, which prevents abuse of leadership roles but also prevents strong leaders from committing to long terms of service and carrying out long-term capacity-building projects.
Rather than present the declining membership as a crisis, most members see it as an opportunity for political development through distillation.
There are still those of us who groan when Robert’s Rules are mentioned, but what once seemed arcane now feels second nature. Now, members of even just a few years’ experience are generally able to turn around and mentor newer members who are just joining. When I joined DSA five and a half years ago, it was an aging unionist and longtime member who had to teach us how Robert’s Rules of Order worked, literally passing the torch from one generation to the next. Where most DSA members couldn’t name our national committees or articulate the stances of our fledgling caucuses during either of Bernie’s campaigns, today’s DSA is much better at explaining itself to members and making its governing structures known publicly. In many respects, the DSA is a mess: poorly funded, sprawling, uncoordinated, amateur in practically every way—and yet, it has demonstrated an ability to grow and develop, if not always in members then in the depth of its political work. The membership may continue to decline for some time, until a more generalized crisis (or perhaps the reelection of Donald Trump) spurs mass recruitment again. This time, we will be ready to meet them.
What are the ultimate prospects of an organization like the DSA? For all that I’ve said here, it has not yet cohered around a single, stable plan—its strategy remains fragmented, and its ability to mobilize its membership towards a single decisive strategy is still uncertain. While explicitly socialist and running far to the left even of our own Communist Party (which is still intent on an outright popular front/realignment strategy), what can we really say about an organization that can’t even organize itself into a proper party? Leadership chafes against a constitution written for a few hundred members in the 1980s and our national structure is not yet capable of making itself truly felt at the local level, despite advances and some closer ties.
Nevertheless, DSA looks to the future: its members think not in terms of the coming 2024 election (where we will probably not endorse a candidate), but of future cycles and towards the ultimate arc of socialist triumph in the US, a vision which no longer seems ridiculous or outlandish—long and difficult as it may prove, the road to power is there, is open, is something we can imagine and debate and struggle for together. This in itself is a massive achievement: where we were once resigned to apathy and inaction, local DSA meetings are places where members can meaningfully vote to decide what matters and what they should be doing, then go out and act on it. Our most recent convention did not settle all of the pressing questions that challenge our ability to imagine this future, but it did showcase the strength of a coalition of members determined to establish an independent socialist party and (as Marx had it) “win the battle for democracy”. This would not have been possible even just a few years ago, and the rising degree of political development showcased at the convention inspires confidence that the next few years will see a marked improvement in DSA’s willingness to boldly express a socialist vision to the public.
I’ve tried here to outline the DSA’s structure and major areas of focus for an international audience. I’ve tried to balance our major political innovations with our very serious deficiencies. This might seem to create a whiplash between self-deprecating criticism and blind hopefulness, but this is in some ways the experience of being a DSA member in 2023: a window of possibility has opened, and historical barriers which we have yet to overcome threaten to close it. The DSA will continue demanding socialism and organizing for victory, and no matter whether it accomplishes its historic mission or collapses like so many attempts before it, the thing that can’t be taken away is that it has trained an entire generation of socialists in democracy, politics, and labor organizing in a way which would otherwise never have been possible. As always, we look towards the future.
Yossarian is a pseudonym for a currently active DSA member. Those interested in joining the DSA can find out mor information on the organisation's website.