The 2021 Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Convention was held online from 30 July to 8 August. With 94,000 members — it has grown fast since 2015 — the DSA is the largest socialist organisation in the USA since the Socialist Party led by Eugene Debs at the beginning of the 20th century.
We covered the 2019 Convention at bit.ly/dsa-2019.
Since the organisation was effectively refounded in 2016, DSA members are now typically in their twenties or thirties rather than fifties and sixties. Around 10,000 DSA members belong to a union, with a concentration in education and public sector unions. Figures given at the convention suggest that the organisation remains predominantly white.
DSA has transformed itself in the last five year from a small organisation dominated by direct disciples of Michael Harrington, the major DSA theorist and writer to his death in 1989, to a body with a wide range of political views, different organised tendencies, and 207 chapters across the country.
Over 1200 delegates debated motions, organisational priorities, and constitutional changes to the DSA structure. Guest speakers included Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party and Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party of Brazil.
Platform and amendments
The DSA adopted a new political platform. It probably reflects the dominant left-reformist approach of most DSA members, but, as the left-wing Reform and Revolution caucus notes, it moves in a positive direction beyond from the oft-cited view that socialism is increased welfare provision and state investment.
Amendments that would have committed the DSA more clearly to a “rupture” with capitalism did not make it onto the convention floor.
DSA growth has “slowed to a trickle” since the election of Joe Biden as US President. It also seems to have slid closer to the Democrats and away from an orientation to intervention in workplaces and communities. Members reported a frustration with apparent sluggishness and a slow pace of activity.
Previously the DSA’s rapid growth has allowed conventions to avoid much discussion of strategy. The election of Biden, the pandemic, and the slowdown in DSA growth have made more members want that debate, but the convention didn’t have it.
On DSA’s political orientation to elections, a joint resolution from the three largest caucuses within DSA, Bread and Roses, Socialist Majority, and the Collective Power Network, “Towards a Mass Party”, took a step back from commitment to an independent electoral voice for DSA and explicit reference to a break with the Democrats. It said: “DSA will continue its successful approach of tactically contesting partisan elections on the Democratic ballot line while building power independent of the Democratic party apparatus”; so, no independent candidacies for now except in compulsorily “non-partisan” elections like Chicago City Council.
Some caucuses have identified this 2021 resolution as part of a shift to the right, but it reflects the reality of the DSA in recent years. In 2017 DSA candidates in US elections were often running as independents or on the Green Party ticket. Now many more DSA members are running, and as Democrats and often with no mention of being DSA members.
Some have succeeded in Democrat primaries, but in some high-profile recent races DSA members have lost out to establishment Democrats. The argument for the primacy of the Democrat-primary route seems on shakier ground.
The left in DSA was pleased that around 43% voted for an amendment proposed by individuals within the Bread & Roses caucus for a more serious “dirty break” strategy. The advocates of a “clean break” like Socialist Alternative and Tempest are in a much smaller minority again. There remain differences as to the relationship DSA should have to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but only a small minority believe the DSA should not endorse them at all.
The convention voted on about 40 resolutions and elected a new National Political Committee (NPC). Fewer candidates stood for the NPC than in the last three conventions, partly because of an apparent scandal which led to some candidates dropping out.
Voted-on changes to how the DSA operates included providing stipends for members of the NPC and assisting with the creation of more local offices and staff. From a distance, I can’t judge the importance of those changes. Larger constitutional changes like making it easier to recall a conference and electing the National Director were defeated, or did not make it onto the agenda for voting.
Debate on the DSA’s international work highlighted the growing influence within it these days of an “anti-imperialist” orientation which is quite explicitly pro-”Second-Camp”, i.e. aligned with the “camp” of states and movements opposed to the USA in world politics, on the model of the alignment of many leftists with the USSR and its allies during the Cold War. The earlier DSA was defined by mild social-democratic orientations with a species of “Third Camp” outlook.
The debate was focused on Resolution 14, which aligned the DSA with all “mass parties of the left” in Latin America, implicitly including the ruling party in Venezuela. Its most vocal opponents backed Resolution 17.
Shortly before the convention, the DSA international committee, led by people with strongly “Second Camp” politics, organised and fundraised for a trip to Venezuela where they were wined and dined by the ruling PSUV party and had a personal meeting with Nicolas Maduro. They made no attempt to meet with independent unions or with left or women’s opposition groups.
The trip polarised the issue more clearly in DSA. Criticism from groupings like Internationalism from Below still, however, in my view, lacks real political clarity. Dan La Botz has discussed some of the issues relating to this in an interview with Solidarity. Other contributions can be found here and here.
In the run-up to the Convention, delegates voted to put Resolution 14 on the “consent agenda”, meaning it would be voted on with no debate. Only a minority voted either way on the “consent agenda” proposal, but it passed. After a social-media-led push, the Resolution was debated, but only for ten minutes.
It passed, so the DSA will apply to join the Sao Paolo Forum and will orientate to the so-called Pink Tide governments and parties across Latin America.
Resolution 17 was in my view weak as a basis to build a “Third Camp” or “anti-campist” orientation; but just over a third of delegates voted against Resolution 14. That is a sizeable minority on which to build.
The DSA grew during the large BLM demonstrations, but organised DSA contingents on those demonstrations were few and far between. Many DSA members are concerned about a lack of coordinated DSA activity outside of elections.
DSA passed just one resolution on labour organising at this convention. It has yet to clarify what it thinks about the relationship of unions to the Democratic party and whether it is for a rank and file organising strategy, or just generally pro-union without an orientation towards rank-and-file organising rather than to (for example) getting paid union organiser jobs.
The politics of the convention reflected the DSA activist layer, a minority in the 94,000 membership. More than 70% of resolutions came from the various DSA “caucuses”, some of which are entirely dominant in some chapters and absent in others. That was up from around 40 percent in 2019.
The running of the convention was somewhat chaotic, with multiple different channels and online forums having responsibility for different areas. No doubt running a big convention online is unavoidably complicated, but some of the opacity worked to frustrate minorities or to sideline political debate in favour of internal wrangling over delegate entitlements or length of sessions.
DSA still remains the most important organisation of socialists in the United States. It needs Marxists within it to organise in a clear and compact way to realise its potential.