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DSA, In Or Out?
I've met Maurice Isserman (pronounced like "Morris"), but we are not friends. I doubt he is even aware of me, and why should he be. He is an eminent Professor of History, and I’m a retired scribbler. Decades ago, I went to a book talk he gave at the Politics and Prose bookstore in D.C. for his book with Mike Kazin. I lined up to shake his hand but had not bought their book to sign. Not kosher, I guess. He looked at me like I had passed gas. (I hadn't.) I still haven't read the book, or even purchased it. These days I am looked at askance by Dissentchiks, if looked upon at all.
Now he has published his farewell letter to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in the wake of its fumbling leadership's responses to the Hamas atrocities in Israel. I admit to being conflicted about quitting, but I've decided to remain a member. It doesn't prevent me from doing other political activities I find worthwhile, nor does it stop me from saying what I think about the Mideast. I can afford to drop it the monthly $15 membership dues. I can join other organizations too.
I would join J Street, the liberal Zionist organization that Rep Jamaal Bowman (ex-DSA member) was excoriated for associating with, though I am anti-Zionist and not a liberal (in my mind, at least). Just to say F-U to the relevant characters in DSA. But evidently you can’t join J Street; you can only give them money.
(Perhaps now is a good place to interject, I am a participant in the "North Star caucus" of DSA but I am not speaking for it here. Chances are its other members would disagree with much of this note.)
Working with DSA on the ground is impractical for me given my geographic location. To be honest, I don't find the local activities compelling in any case. I'd rather leaflet for our local Democratic anti-MAGA candidates.
Isserman reiterates most of my own views on DSA's leadership, but I do have a few bones to pick with his piece in The Nation.
One long-standing difference I have with he and other DSA old-timers is putting all our troubles down to "entryists." This refers to ultra-left, dogmatic sects seizing on opportunities to colonize more successful, larger organizations by joining and trying to steer them in their own preferred, wacky directions.
I wouldn't work the "ultra-left" tag heavily. I'm no Marxist scholar, but in the DSA exchanges I have witnessed among the further-lefts (sic), I don't see much Marxist theorizing or doctrine.
There is a parallel to SDS. The frustration of the Weathermen led to bombs. There is no likelihood of a repetition of that, except from the Trumpist underground. In DSA, the frustration takes the form of the performance of alienation from the broader progressive political discourse, not incidentally to the prevailing mindset that is sensitive to anti-Semitic tropes.
I was once one of those further-left characters (anti-bomb faction, to be sure), though I never joined a group whose politics I disliked for purposes of internal proselytization. Back in the day, I thoroughly disliked Michael Harrington. I don't think much of him now either.
DSA does have such influences. They go by names like Red Star, the Marxist Unity Group, and the Communist Caucus. Imagine joining a democratic socialist group and forming a "communist caucus." Since the national DSA convention this past summer, their influence has grown. Still, in my view the source of DSA's waywardness is not limited to these misguided comrades.
Among DSA members, there is a more general frustration with the Sanders movement running aground in 2016 and 2020. The vast bulk of DSA's recruitment explosion after 2015 is from Sanders' supporters, and subsequently, from the rise of AOC. Sanders broke the ice for terms like "democratic socialism" and pushed it into the political mainstream.
The frustration with Sanders not receiving the nomination was borne of political immaturity and naivete. He was never going to get it, and if he did, he would have been smoked in the general election in a wave of Red Scares. The center of the party would have run away from him like it did McGovern in 1972 and even Mondale in 1984. Unfortunately, the U.S. was not ready for Bernie's politics. It still isn't. That's no reason not to promote it, but failure to be realistic breeds political misfeasance.
(The reader is referred to McGovern and Mondale’s electoral college totals and imagine what a replay of that would mean these days for the near future of democratic socialism.)
The frustration has led to political confusion and ineptitude, to the point where some fools proclaimed that there would be no difference for the U.S. if Trump or Biden were elected. Parallel with the onset of such delusions, DSA leadership shed its most eminent luminaries, as Isserman notes. Now we have a crew in the "National Political Committee" that nobody has ever heard of.
It would be wrong to expect a long roster of lefty celebrities in leadership. We don't want an organization owned by rich people, like a certain lefty publication I could name. But the complete absence of any such people is a tip-off to the insularity of the organization. It's not that hard to make a bit of a name for yourself on the Left. Write a book. Publish somewhere. Do a fucking podcast. Even so, DSA has nobody.
In its current and recent incarnations, DSA has never denounced Bernie Sanders, even though he shares politics with lesser personalities whom DSA has reviled, rejected, and driven out of the organization. The first principle of DSA's political opportunism remains tailing Sanders, whose politics it increasingly rejects.
I think Isserman's focus on entryists is more of a reflection of personal and historical memory, to past internecine leftist disputes, than to current developments.
My point about the Sanders tailism dovetails with a point Isserman makes, that the ‘ultras’ are out of sync with politically successful DSA members -- those elected to office doing useful things. Such reforms are anathema to the alienated person. They entail engagement with the outside world, and even worse, compromise.
As things stand, the furor over Gaza has reduced to two those pols for whom the bulk of the DSA leadership has a good word -- Rep Rashida Tlaib and Rep Cori Bush -- each of whose districts afford their representatives the leeway to more vigorously defend Palestinian rights. But in the end, these two will be cast off as well. After all, they are Democrats in the parliamentary business, and no reform sponsored by the Democratic Party can fix Capitalism!
The links between DSA statements, from either leaders or other quasi-official bodies, to ambiguous indulgence of the Hamas atrocities might be overstated in the Isserman essay. I am not going to litigate the details. The bigger point is that failure to be unambiguous, as Sanders and AOC were, opens your gates to the enemy. This is the crux of the political incompetence that will cripple DSA’s ability to scale up beyond its current cohort of electeds, or worse, hold onto the ones it still has, or sort-of has, now
So what next? Why stay in DSA? I’m not all that active to begin with. In my experience, the current, problematic brand of activism and ideology displayed tends to burn itself out. If I live long enough, I’ll be around when they’re gone. Or others will. At some point by your 30s you have to stop living like a Bohemian when you get to thinking about having a family and/or a career.
In the meantime, it’s important that the concept of democratic socialism lives on, even if the organization named for it refuses to uphold its values. Democratic socialism provides a beacon towards which public policies should be directed. The alternative is Clinton/Obama-style noodling with rubbishy, neoliberal “I believe in the market” nostrums. If you’re in DSA, stay in. Join the North Star caucus. Lurk. (Can we be entryists in our own organization? LOL.)
The cure for Capitalism is less capitalism – the continually reduced scope for market-based decision-making. Elevated labor standards, more sharing, serious stewardship of the natural environment. A rejection of lethal military interventionism, except in defense against imperialism. DSA at present is taking itself out of the game, but it has to come back, sooner or later.
Conversely, if you quit DSA, where does that leave you? In a new organization? Which would come together how? How would your own DSA-related views ever surface above the broader status quo, which with respect to Palestinian rights, has become positively toxic in the U.S.? If Sanders or AOC launched a new organization, I would jump from DSA and join it the next day. But thus far they have shown no inclination to do so.
Right now I would say the priorities are: 1) prevent further carnage in Gaza; 2) keep Trump out of the White House. (The latter is necessary for the former.)
Who cares if somebody quits a tiny leftist organization?