Debating internationalism in the Democratic Socialists of America

Submitted by AWL on 13 August, 2021 - 6:45 Author: Dan La Botz
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Dan La Botz is a US socialist active in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Solidarity. He is a co-editor of the independent socialist journal New Politics, and a supporter of the Internationalism from Below initiative. He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers' Liberty about debates in and around the DSA, especially about what approach the organisation should take to international issues. What follows is an edited transcript. This interview was conducted prior to voting on resolutions at the DSA's recent convention. At that convention, a resolution broadly representing the “campist” perspective Dan criticises was carried by a two-thirds majority.

Daniel Randall: There are ongoing debates in the DSA about what attitude the organisation should take to internationalism. Can you give a sketch of those debates, and give your views on where they're going?

Dan La Botz: DSA has about 90,000 members, but only maybe ten per cent are active. So not everyone is involved in these discussions.

There are a number of different caucuses within DSA, with a range of different politics. The vast majority of the members are mainly concerned with domestic politics. This organisation began [in its current form] with Bernie Sanders running for president on domestic issues - healthcare, education, racism, and so on. Sanders didn't talk much about international issues. Therefore, for those who joined DSA because of the Sanders campaign, internationalism has not necessarily been high on the agenda.

The vast majority of DSA members are also people who, as they've been exposed to socialism, as they've learned more about the global role of the US government, have come to consider themselves to be anti-imperialists. They see the terrible role of the US in international affairs, in terms of its oppressive and exploitative relations with other countries. It's an imperial power which is certainly in a position to dominate the world, including militarily. So DSA members have a healthy reaction to that, which is to want to be against the US government.

The DSA has always had some sort of international committee. Around a year ago, it decided to reorganise that committee, and created two distinct bodies. One is the International Committee, which does political and educational work, and the other is the International Secretariat, accountable to the National Political Committee [NPC], which is responsible for official relations with other groups internationally. I think makes sense, and I think working with others in other countries – with parties, labour unions, and social movements – is really very important. It's right the NPC should control that work, and that there should a special body — the Secretariat — accountable to them.

The International Committee is broader, mainly focused on educational work, and has a series of sub-committees focusing on different regions of the world – North Africa and the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and so on. But DSA is also a very young organisation, so when the international committees were reorganised, a lot of people joined who had very little international experience, simply because of their age.

Within the International Committee, a group of people have taken a particular position, tending to define themselves as the “anti-imperialists”. Their view is that there is one empire, the US, and they are therefore willing to align with, or at least see the virtues of, anyone opposing the US. They don't want to criticise Putin and Russia, or China, or Iran, or Syria, because those are all “anti-imperialist” powers, by definition, because they oppose the US. This has been a growing outlook. It's an easy narrative to promote, because it's appears to be simply anti-US government, so it appeals to people who want to oppose the US.

These viewpoints come out of other political trends historically. Partially they emerge out of the Stalinism of the old Communist Party, which said there were two camps – the USA and the Soviet Union. Then there were the Maoists, who said there was a different pole, China. Then there was the “Third Worldist” point of view. This began in a very healthy way, in the tremendous anti-colonial movements following the Second World War. Hundreds of millions of people wanted to be freed of empire, and we saw new movements against colonialism. Some people saw that anti-colonial upsurge as a distinct pole, opposing western imperialism but not necessarily aligning itself with the Stalinist, Communist world. In many countries of the world, in Latin America, in Africa, new governments which came to power found themselves under great pressure from the imperialist powers. Some of those governments wanted to create socialism, and they found it very difficult to do that. Some leaders decided it was easier to try to get along with the French, the British, or the Americans. But many people [on the international left] continued to support [those governments]. So, out of these currents – Stalinism, Maoism, and Third Worldism – there are residual ideas floating around, which say “you have to be against the US, which means being with anyone else who is against the US.”

Another element within DSA, a healthy element, is anti-racism. But this also becomes distorted in some ways. DSA is an overwhelmingly white organisation. Young white socialists want to be anti-racists. When they think about this on the world scale, they want to put themselves on the side of people of colour. It's a good instinct. The so-called “global south” was a creation of world imperialism, so people in the DSA want to side with countries in the global south.

That's the broad outline of where people's ideas are coming from.

Opposed to this is a current with which I identify. I support a group called Internationalism from Below [IfB], which is doing a lot of educational work. We stand against the US, but we also stand on the side of struggles of workers, farmers, peasants, the oppressed, the poor, women, etc., throughout the world. That means if they're struggling in Belarus, we're on their side. If they're struggling in Myanmar, we're on their side. In China, we're on the side of the Uyghurs. This then pits us against the so-called “anti-imperialists”. Sometimes they attack us, using language like “State Department Socialists” and “CIA agents” because we criticise China.

DR: To anyone who knows the DSA's history, it seems counterintuitive and perverse, given the DSA's own tradition, that its international politics would be characterised by the trends you're talking about. It shows that we're dealing with a new organisation, one that's been wholly remade on a different basis. On the one hand, that embodies an enormous potential and is extremely positive, but as you've shown, it also means there are some potentially problematic and even reactionary politics in the mix.

DLB: I would never have joined the old DSA. When I became an active socialist in 1969, there was already a pre-DSA current, the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee, DSOC, which became DSA. They were committed to the Democratic party, lock, stock, and barrel. The Democratic party to me, as a young activist, was the party of war and imperialism. It was the party of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, which had given us the Vietnam war. It was unconscionable to someone like myself to think of joining the DSA.

DSA was also very committed, at that time, to support for Israel. It was also aligned with the labour bureaucracy. Some of its leading members were prominent union bureaucrats – people like William Winpisinger in the machinists' union and Jerry Wurf in the union of public employees. So, DSA had certain characteristics that made it impossible for someone like me to join.

But when Bernie Sanders ran, and tens of thousands of people came into DSA, it turned the whole apple cart upside. Two conventions ago, DSA voted to disaffiliate from the Socialist International, which is the international of the social democratic parties of Europe. These parties have been managing capitalism in Europe for decades, including managing austerity. In the developing world, the parties affiliated with the Socialist International are very often parties that are authoritarian. At the same convention, the DSA voted to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Those two resolutions fundamentally changed the approach to international issues. On the question of the Democratic party, things didn't change so dramatically. Sanders certainly remained aligned with the Democratic party, broadly speaking, although he was not a Democrat.

DR: How do you expect these debates to play out at the 2021 convention?

DLB: There is an important prelim to that. Just before the convention, DSA's NPC decided to send a delegation to Venezuela, to meet with the official Venezuelan leadership, including a meeting with President Nicolás Maduro.

What was shocking to me, and many others, was that there was no attempt to meet with the socialist opposition to Maduro in Venezuela. There is an opposition of socialists in Venezuela, there is an opposition of labour unions, there are women's organisations opposed to Maduro.

By only meeting Maduro, and not his working-class, socialist opponents, DSA effectively endorsed Maduro. This is at a time when five million people have left Venezuela, 3,000 people have been killed by the government in extrajudicial assassinations, hundreds of people are being held in jail. So to go to Maduro's dictatorship and endorse the government in that way was appalling. That was in the lead up to the convention.

Because of the Covid pandemic, the DSA convention, of around 1,250 delegates, is having to be held virtually. Unfortunately, there is no alternative because of the pandemic, but this is not a good way to hold a convention. A lot of what a convention should be about is meeting people, socialising, talking, learning from each other, being able to exchange opinions. A live convention is far better than a virtual one.

Some of the international resolutions got bumped off the agenda altogether, and others have been placed on the “consent agenda”, made up of items delegates have decided are likely to be backed by a large majority, meaning several items can be passed at once without debate. This means that, by and large, the international questions will not be debated. This is unfortunate for a socialist organisation that says it wants to be more involved with other groups around the world. This could change, but even then, I think it will be a very brief discussion.

[In the event, the international debate was limited to 15 minutes.]

As another part of this debate, some members have put forward resolutions to democratise the International Committee. Committees in DSA generally elect their own leaderships, but in the International Committee the leaders have been imposed by the NPC. There are resolutions attempting to make the committee more open and democratic. It's appropriate for the International Secretariat, which is responsible for official relations on behalf of DSA, to be more directly controlled by the NPC, but the International Committee is not making policy for DSA, so it should be more autonomous, able to elect its own leadership, open to lots of people, and able to discuss and debate the big issues.

DR: You've already mentioned the Internationalism from Below initiative; what else are people who identify with these traditions – whether we call that the tradition of “socialism from below”, or the “Third Camp” tradition, or something else – doing to organise and intervene in DSA?

DLB: I identify with the Third Camp tradition, which adopted the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow”. That was the slogan of the International Socialists [IS] who I joined in the 1970s. We wanted to support movements around the world struggling against capitalism, and against the Communist states that we called bureaucratic collectivist.

Within DSA today, there are others who come out of the International Socialist Organisation [ISO], which was linked to the Socialist Workers' Party in the UK, which had a state-capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union. The IfB group, which I'm part of, involves some who are DSA members, and some who are not. But it was created partly in response to the lack of meaningful debate over international questions within DSA. Some of those people come out of my tradition, and may have been members of the former IS or Solidarity, and others come out of the ISO tradition. There's also a group of people, which overlaps with IfB, associated with the journal and website Tempest.

Prior to the convention, Promise Li, who's a member of Solidarity and DSA, wrote an article intervening in the debate. Natalia Tylim also published an important article in Tempest, and I published an article in New Politics. We tried to coordinate, and raise issues which spoke to the debates within DSA. But, as I've said, the great majority of DSA members are not really engaged in the debates. Many of those that are remain reluctant to go beyond “anti-imperialism”. To do that requires really thinking about and analysing each country and trying to follow the different groups active there, which is not easy.

Ultimately the Third Camp, or “socialism from below” tradition is presently quite weak. In early voting it looks like around a third of delegates at the convention are supporting the motions we've been trying to promote. IfB has done some terrific educationals.

I was also very pleased to see recently that the Afrosocialist Caucus, a Black socialist caucus in DSA, organised an excellent discussion on Cuba. I don't know much about the politics of that caucus, but they invited four young Black people from Cuba, three of whom are living there, and the four of them talked about the reasons behind the recent protests. It was very clear that they rejected both the Cuban government's line, and the right-wing Miami line. They were trying to grapple with what was happening. It was a fabulous discussion. They were saying, “get rid of these Cold War ideologies, let us try to understand where we are without any of these shibboleths from the past.” So that's a very healthy sign, and was very heartening to me.

There is also a caucus within DSA called Bread and Roses. In a certain sense it is a more left-wing version of the old DSA. It's very concerned about Democratic party electoral politics. It says it wants to orient DSA to work in the unions on a rank-and-file basis, although it's not clear to me exactly what that term means to them. Many of its members are very knowledgeable on international issues, and share the Third Camp, “socialism-from-below” perspective, but they have not usually wanted to raise those questions as issues of principle within DSA.

DR: It seems from that picture that the effort to push back against “campism” is being hindered by being somewhat diffuse and uncoordinated. The campists have a clear and emotionally simplistic narrative – USA bad, those opposing the USA good. It has a certain transgressive, radical veneer, because you're siding with the enemies of “your” state. There's a large Internet sub-culture around much of these politics, including fairly hardcore Stalinism. So the campists in DSA have the benefit of all of this, and the intervention in favour of an alternative position seems a little disconnected. What potential is there to tie the threads together, so that when the next democratic struggle in a so-called “anti-imperialist” state erupts, comrades are in a position to mobilise DSA's not-insignificant weight in support of that struggle, rather than in defence of the state against which it's taking place?

DLB: This convention has brought together people who have been fighting to get debate and discussion about these issues. There's probably another 100 or 200 people who are connected and in touch now, whether that's through Tempest or other platforms. I don't know whether that could become strong enough by the next convention, which will be in two years, to reorient the DSA's perspectives,

DSA also has other problems. Its membership growth is declining, which is not to say that the organisation is shrinking, but it's not growing as rapidly as it had been. It has financial problems, as it's a big organisation with declining revenues, as we're recruiting less. Some of the caucuses have behaved in a pretty nasty way, and the very snarky stuff that goes on across social media creates a bad atmosphere. One of the things I loved about DSA when I first joined, around the Sanders campaign in 2016, was that it seemed so wholesome: all these young people discovering socialism, coming together because they wanted to create a socialist society. Now I feel like the viciousness of many of the internal debates makes it much harder to recruit people.

But, I do believe there is a convergence of people around our line of thinking, and I believe we can grow in influence.

DR: Finally then, what's your general assessment of the prospects for DSA across the board? We've focused on international issues, but the convention will also discuss domestic politics. Presumably the convention will also discuss labour strategy, and so on. It's an incredible source of potential – nearly 100,000 members in a socialist organisation, the biggest left group in America since the party of Debs. It's an exciting development for the global left. But, as you've related, there are some real challenges. So, what are the prospects, and what needs to happen for the potential to be realised?

DLB: DSA currently is maintaining its course. It will come out of this convention still committed to running candidates within the Democratic party, and committed to labour unions, but without any clear analysis of the nature of the labour bureaucracy. That's a key question for socialists. In my tradition we've historically viewed the bureaucracy as a caste. We thought not so much in terms of the “left unions” against the “right unions”, but in terms of the bottom against the top, mobilising the rank-and-file workers to push their leaders forward, or push them aside. DSA doesn't have that view, and I don't see any fundamental changes coming out of this convention.

The DSA now doesn't have Sanders' campaigns to look to. We have Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who makes excellent statements on many issues. On Cuba, she said “oppose the embargo, but support the democratic protests”, which was a much better statement than I'd expect from someone in her positions.

There are many ongoing crises, including the health crisis. The Democratic party is functioning in a way that has progressive elements, but is certainly not all socialists would want. Trump is not dead, and under the influence of his movement the Republican party is more and more redefined as a racist party, as an anti-science party, and so on. In general, it's hard to read the possibilities for the left in general and for DSA in particular within the broader politics at this moment.

A lot depends on the class struggle. The level of class struggle in the US is remarkably low. We had the phenomenal demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, against racism and police violence, but that did not cohere. No-one called a Black Lives Matter congress. So an ongoing movement with a plan did not emerge out of that. Many groups use the BLM name, and there was a wonderful programme published by people associated with BLM, but no cohered ongoing movement emerged, and in general there is still a low level of struggle. Socialist organisations live in the seas of social struggle, and at the moment the seas are too calm.

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