There can be no doubt that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), now with over 92,000 members, is by far the largest organization on the US “Left.”
But of what use is a large organization when it is incapable of even articulating revolutionary demands, let alone pursuing them? Their self-described goal is “socialism,” but in political terms, they serve as little more than junior partners to the Democratic Party — by the admission of their own youth organization, a “fundamentally capitalist” Party. The DSA aims to “win ‘radical’ reforms like single-payer Medicare for All, defunding the police/refunding communities, the Green New Deal, and more…” Their project is reformist at its core: instead of fighting to transform society through revolution, they are satisfied with reforming aspects of it, making capitalism friendlier and reducing inequalities.
The class-dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is one of the fundamental realities of capitalist society. Socialism requires the victory of the working class over the bourgeois state, necessitating socialist revolution. If the interests of these two competing classes are diametrically opposed, then so must be their politics. Reformist organs like DSA attempt to wash over this contradiction, wielding the political tools of the bourgeoisie to win incremental changes that do nothing to build up a revolutionary movement.
Though DSA (and therefore its student branch, YDSA) is programmatically dedicated to reformism, many students with revolutionary sympathies may be drawn into their orbit as a matter of convenience. This is understandable, given the present organizational weakness of the student movement, and the lack of seemingly effective options. During the pandemic we observed that students displayed a willingness to protest, and many still feel the need to “get involved” and “do something practical” in this time of economic crisis and political confusion.
However, we reject the notion of “organizing for organizing’s sake.” No amount of apolitical reform struggles will ever present a real challenge to the ruling class. The content of our long-term goals will inform the steps we take to reach them, and in turn will help to determine whether this student movement can bring about the radical changes that previous movements have failed to affect. If our goal really is socialism— the revolutionary transformation of society toward the abolition of capitalism and class distinctions— then the positions we uphold and the demands we articulate must be revolutionary.
But is it possible for revolutionary students to use reformist formations like YDSA as an organizational base, and develop revolutionary positions from within them?
1. The historical conditions don’t exist for the clarification of revolutionary positions within DSA.
In the twentieth century, there were a number of organizational ruptures where radical sections of reformist organizations broke away to take up revolutionary positions. This occurred in 1919, when the Young People’s Socialist League split from the reformist Socialist Party, and again in the 1960s when the Students for a Democratic Society split from the League for Industrial Democracy and turned towards a revolutionary outlook.
In those sequences, world-historic socialist revolutions in Russia and then in China helped guide revolutionary students to differentiate themselves from their reformist organizations. No such reference exists in the world today, so revolutionaries are confronted with the task of developing revolutionary positions on the basis of the lessons of the 20th century. The essential work of consolidating around the distinct politics of the proletariat is challenging enough — it is made needlessly more difficult when revolutionary students must contend with their own reformist programs and leaderships, committed to facilitating the politics of the bourgeoisie. So long as they remain tethered to reformist organizations and programs, their efforts will continue to be funneled into capitalist political projects.
But can reformist organizations be changed into revolutionary ones from within?
2. Resolution 8, and the continued disorientation of DSA’s left wing.
The herculean task undertaken by DSA in attempting to drag the Democratic Party “to the left,” is paralleled in the efforts of various entryists and radicals seeking to similarly affect the DSA. Recent events bear an instructive example of where this approach inevitably leads.
One towering accomplishment of the DSA at their 2021 convention was to formally recognize their own organizational insufficiency. Resolution 8, which passed, raised the demand for the construction of a “working-class political party” that is “capable of taking state power.” DSA’s continual failure to bring about even the modest reforms that first rallied them in 2016 has evidently revealed the limitations of working within the Democratic Party.
We hold a position that is ostensibly similar. The working class will require its own political party in order to affect socialist revolution. But resolution 8 takes pains to remind us that, for DSA, bourgeois electoral politics is a “central pillar,” of any “viable socialist strategy.” DSA upholds their special opposition to the Republicans, in particular, as an “anti-democratic coalition,” and further enshrines the necessity of “contesting partisan elections, chiefly on the Democratic ballot line.”
Business as usual. The “fundamentally capitalist” Democrats will continue to provide for the “socialists.”
Two failed amendments to the resolution are worthy of note. Amendment 5 sought to reject the strategy of taking over “capitalist-controlled” Democratic Party institutions and raised the demand to build a working-class party “independent of capitalist influence.” Amendment 6 merely stipulated that DSA candidates should “promote a socialist message about” (i.e., criticize) the Democratic Party.
The significance of these purely rhetorical amendments need not be overstated; their success would have brought DSA no closer to becoming a revolutionary organization. But their failure is indicative of the embarrassing extent to which DSA is politically dependent upon the Democrats.
Back to the drawing board for the caucus radicals. There’s always next year!
3. The reformist “socialist” movement is in a period of international crisis.
It would be a mistake to view the failure of radical reformists in the US following the defeat of Sanders in 2020 as an isolated phenomenon. The infamous 2015 capitulation of Syriza in Greece, the crushing defeat of Jeremy Corbyn as the head of British Labour, and the humiliating retreat of Podemos after May’s regional elections in Madrid are just a few examples that elucidate this worldwide trend.
This is far from the first period of global disorientation within the false “socialist” movement. There was a similar phase of retreat for the modern revisionists after the 1991 dissolution of the revisionist Soviet Union. The disorientation of today’s reformist “socialists” reveals that, as ever, the radical petty-bourgeois reformists of the world are totally subject to the course of bourgeois politics. They are incapable of staking out an independent position, and as a result, they are consistently swept to the side.
The proletariat has its own politics. Student revolutionaries don’t have to treat socialist revolution like a distant or utopian hypothetical; it has happened before, and it will happen again.
If we have the discipline to make it so.