Can DSA Go the Distance?
Can DSA Go the Distance?
In a matter of years, DSA has turned from a musty debate club for retired social democrats into an electoral powerhouse of young, ecumenical radicals. What’s next?
The high point of my involvement in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was the spring of 2018, when I served, somewhat implausibly, as a delegate to the New York City chapter’s convention. In my memory, the day was warm and dotted with colored light filtering in through the high stained-glass windows at Judson Memorial Church near Washington Square Park. A sense of history pervaded the proceedings. Hundreds of activists had gathered to chart the future of the largest chapter of the largest socialist organization in America, recently inundated with members reeling from the syncopated blows of 2016: Bernie’s tragic loss, Trump’s farcical victory.
Having attended several such gatherings during the lean years of pre-Bernie socialism in the United States—our small, self-serious voices in cavernous conference halls, straining against the silent rebuke of empty chairs piled in a corner—I can still recall the relief I felt, an unclenching in my chest, when an unabashed chorus of “Solidarity Forever” filled the entire church with song.
To be sure, there was something of the old pathos in the air. The traditions of past generations weighed—if not like a nightmare, then like a pleasing though not entirely convincing daydream—on our shoulders. (The date was May 5, Karl Marx’s 200th birthday.) But the sort of posturing and pretense I had come to expect from meetings of self-identified socialists was kept to a minimum. Even when my fellow delegates invoked old books and dead radicals, the content of their arguments pointed concretely to questions of strategy. In the past, our interminable sessions were haunted by a repressed acknowledgment of our negligible power; this convention, instead, was freighted with a nagging sense of our potential, a half-delirious suspicion that history was, indeed, at hand. And I much preferred the burden of responsibility to the blithe freedom of futility.
Anyway, there were important decisions to be made. The convention voted to endorse Julia Salazar, a DSA member running for State Senate in North Brooklyn against a corrupt creature of the Democratic Party machine. By a slim margin, we voted against a resolution to begin preparing for a second Bernie Sanders presidential run. And the day concluded with an extraordinary speech, about socialism and science fiction (remembered by those in attendance as the “Star Trek speech”), from another DSA-endorsed candidate: a charismatic bartender from the Bronx. Watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak for the first time, I remember thinking that if this person—a generational political talent if I’d ever seen one—had decided to hitch her wagon to our star, then times really had changed.
In the four years since I served as a delegate, DSA has doubled in size, from 45,000 members to over 90,000. Salazar won and helped shepherd landmark tenants’ rights legislation through the statehouse. AOC upset Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District and became, well, AOC. Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman replaced thirty-one-year incumbent Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th District. The organization did endorse Bernie again (surprise!) in 2019 and contributed thousands of volunteer hours to his campaign. In 2020, NYC-DSA sent its entire slate of five socialists to Albany. In 2021, two more were elected to the New York City Council.
DSA National Director Maria Svart has called DSA “a socialist organization for people who want to win things.” And that’s not a bad pitch, especially for those of us who spent our formative years on the left losing, if virtuously, over and over again. DSA, in fits and starts, has been winning and building power across the country. Though New York remains its stronghold, DSA has elected more than 120 candidates to local office nationwide—including six socialists to the Chicago City Council, four to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and two to State Senate in Minnesota. Meanwhile, DSA members have mobilized to support striking teachers in West Virginia, Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland, while encouraging activists to join unions in strategic sectors across the country. And although housing organizing remains a somewhat neglected part of its national program, DSA members have helped build tenant unions in Oakland, Houston, Boston, and Lexington, Kentucky.
In a matter of years, DSA has turned from a musty debate club for retired social democrats into an electoral powerhouse of young, ecumenical radicals; it remains the most effective socialist organization the country has seen in a century.
And yet it’s impossible to ignore a certain malaise that has settled over the organization, along with the broader left: a sense that an era of ceaseless momentum has passed, and existing modes of organizing have begun to exhaust themselves. In the past year, membership dipped from a peak of 94,000 and plateaued around 91,000 activists—only a small fraction of whom are regularly involved in organizing work.
Those who remain largely agree about the obstacles they face: a difficulty in winning elections beyond a base of downwardly mobile professionals, a failure to translate those victories into legislative change, and—at times—an insular culture of debate, primarily online, in which disagreement can take on toxic, personal dimensions. DSA cadre disagree, however, about how best to resolve these issues: whether to double down on the existing electoral strategy, how to incorporate labor and tenant organizing more fully into their vision, and how best to mediate and overcome internal strife.
In a 2021 year-end reflection, Svart encouraged DSA members to think of themselves as “strategic, long distance runners for socialism.” The question remains whether the organization can keep pace.
For better or for worse, New York City remains DSA’s center of gravity. Six of the sixteen members of the National Political Committee (NPC) hail from the city; another is from New Jersey. By focusing on the NYC chapter, this article reproduces a parochialism that sometimes chafes activists from other regions. But my local chapter is the one I have observed most closely; it is the largest; and its power within the organization means its leaders have a disproportionate impact on DSA’s overall work, its public perception, and its future. To understand DSA’s capacity and contradictions—at their most advanced—it makes sense to look closely at New York.
Like many millennials, I campaigned enthusiastically for Bernie in the 2016 primary, less enthusiastically for Hillary in the general, and then, with a great sense of urgency, fear, and—speaking for myself—guilt about the sheepishness of my support for the candidate who almost beat Donald Trump, dedicated myself to mobilizing against the many early outrages of his administration. (At the time, we all un-self-consciously called that work “anti-fascist.”) Immediately, I found that DSA had become an indispensable clearinghouse for anti-Trump action, at least among my peers. This was somewhat of a surprise. My last encounter with the organization had been in college, in 2010, when a few friends dragged me to a sleepy conference of its youth wing, at which the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak lectured—charmingly, though incomprehensibly—and I spent most of my time failing to impress a beautiful Marxist from Sarah Lawrence.
When I rejoined in 2018, DSA had been transformed. Hundreds of freshly minted Berniecrats mingled with a smaller cadre of more experienced organizers—many of them associated with Jacobin magazine—who had joined DSA in 2014 and 2015 in the hopes of building up its left flank. Meanwhile, radicals from legacy socialist organizations poured in, setting aside, at least temporarily, their sectarian grievances against the Harringtonites in the hopes of reaping the whirlwind.
One of the first people I met was Marvin Gonzalez (incidentally, at the time, also a bartender from the Bronx). Gonzalez was assigned by our local branch to meet with me one-on-one, in accordance with a member-onboarding initiative. We met for a drink in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. Gonzalez struck me as a serious radical, but of a particular sort: one of those whose seriousness is tempered by an equally pronounced irreverence. I liked him right away. In our first meeting, he chided me for working at a Democratic Party–aligned nonprofit. “OK,” I said, “but I organized a union there!” He laughed but made no effort to reassure me.
Now, Gonzalez sits on the NPC and works for AOC’s political campaign. When I spoke to him in June, I reminded him of our early arguments about Democrats and electoral campaigns. “What’s that quote? ‘We’re all Keynesians now’?” he said, referencing Richard Nixon’s supposed 1971 declaration. “I think, in the year of our Lord 2022, we are all electoralists now.” Like Nixon, Gonzalez expressed this sentiment flatly—an observation, not an endorsement. Debates about whether to contest for political power in Democratic primaries have more or less ceased. “And that’s a matter of the success of the electoral project,” Gonzalez said.
DSA’s national electoral program is based on a blueprint developed in New York City. That blueprint, according to NYC-DSA electoral committee co-chair Aaina Lakha, involves a democratic process to assess races and issues to run on; identifying candidates from within the membership or allied unions and community organizations; an extensive endorsement process, which earns buy-in from DSA members; and a massive investment in field organizing by DSA’s volunteer base. In the past few cycles, NYC-DSA has run a slate of endorsed candidates who declare their common purpose, coordinate their field and communications operations, and share resources through a fundraising arm called “DSA For The Many.”
Lakha—who ran Jabari Brisport’s successful State Senate campaign in 2020—told me that DSA’s candidates differ from the typical Democrat because “they understand their purpose is not to have a self-perpetuating political career, but to be a part of a movement that’s trying to effect serious change and ultimately bring about a different kind of society.”
Ideally, this model entails as much coordination after the election as before. DSA’s elected officials in Albany are expected to attend weekly meetings of the Socialists in Office Committee. From 9 to 10:30 a.m. every Friday, Queens Assemblyman Zohran K. Mamdani told me, “We meet to reflect, organize, and strategize around the past week, the week to come, long-term projects, and figure out how to move with coherent coordination.” In principle, the socialist bloc acts as a unit.
Mamdani unseated a ten-year incumbent by less than 500 votes in 2020. An active DSA member for two years before running for office, Mamdani is fully on program. Looking at his calendar as we spoke, he counted two more meetings with DSA groups in the coming weeks. “For me, there’s no point in doing this without DSA,” he said. “The whole point of being in office is to do the same work that we’re doing as an organization: to use the platform and the resources of the office to fight for the same mission, which is the empowerment of the working class—and bringing forth socialism in all that it is.”
Mamdani sees his role not merely as a legislator but as an “ambassador for socialism”—using his access and public profile to advance working-class struggles. In 2021, he joined the Taxi Workers Alliance in a hunger strike to push then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide debt relief, which the city eventually did. (Mamdani also took Senator Chuck Schumer on a ride-along with a cab driver from Burma whose brother had been driven to suicide by his insurmountable debt.) With local environmental groups, including DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group, he fought the construction of a natural gas power plant in Astoria.
“Some people in my neighborhood,” Mamdani said, “may see me as the face of socialism in their lives.” That carries responsibilities as well as opportunities. On a recent visit to a middle school in Queens, Mamdani met with the seventh graders who run their school newspaper. “All of their questions were about socialism,” he said. “‘We researched you, and these are our questions: How would socialism work? Why is capitalism bad?’ It was great.”
Another place where DSA members serve as “ambassadors for socialism” is on Twitter. The overrepresentation of twenty- and thirty-somethings in the organization has meant that social media is one of the main places where internal debates and grievances play out. Competing ideological factions condemn each other; members attack DSA electeds; strategic disagreements become personal and conspiratorial, descending into accusations of venality, careerism, and racism.
While it would be tempting to dismiss these online contretemps as a sideshow—a trifling distraction from the organization’s actual work—it isn’t quite that simple. Twitter quarrels may be a tempest in a teapot, but the teapot in question contains nearly every major journalist, politician, and activist organization. What happens on Twitter shapes the broader perception of the organization, sometimes to the detriment of attracting new members and allies. As Renée Paradis, one of the architects of DSA’s electoral strategy, put it, “It’s impossible to work with other groups or to work with electeds if you can’t have just a modicum of message discipline.”
Frustrating as they can be, Gonzalez doesn’t see these Twitter flare-ups as a “moral failure.” “A lot of members were just politicized in the last five years,” he said. “They’re learning how to do this, and I want to afford them grace.” Gonzalez himself is no stranger to Twitter tirades. The organization, he said, is still going through “growing pains.” It takes time, trust, and effort to develop a healthy culture of debate, especially within the hostile architecture of social media. But as for those controversies that become media spectacle, Gonzalez said, “It’s an active liability, and everyone knows that.”
If you’ve followed any news about DSA in the past year, you’re probably aware of two scandals: first, a series of statements put out by the organization on Russia’s war in Ukraine; and second, the effort of a group of members to expel Jamaal Bowman over his positions on Israel.
In late January, three weeks before the Russian invasion, DSA’s International Committee (IC) released a statement focused almost entirely on NATO’s aggression in Eastern Europe, making no mention of Vladimir Putin’s imperial aspirations or troop build-up on the Ukraine border. After the war began, the NPC put out its own statement, which was careful to condemn Putin’s criminal invasion while reiterating its call for the “U.S. to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”
The statements were met with vitriol from both liberal and conservative pundits, as well as some leftists who thought they were too focused on NATO complicity and not enough on Putin’s own violent ambitions. The New York Post wrote several articles demonizing the organization and its elected officials. Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported on the controversy. Former White House Rapid Response Director Mike Gwin called the second statement “shameful.”
All of these responses were to be expected. But DSA seemed to have no plan for what to do when the inevitable backlash arrived. If the statements were intended to provide an opportunity to educate or radicalize the public on issues of foreign policy, no one in the organization’s leadership seemed prepared to seize it. Meanwhile, the statements became a liability for DSA electeds, who had to clarify whether they agreed with them or not.
The problem stemmed in part from a lack of coordination and shared vision between the IC and the rest of the organization. Many on the left wing of DSA—those who lament the broadly social democratic orientation of the organization, resent its compromises with the Democratic mainstream, and doubt the efficacy of the electoral project—have coalesced around the IC as a vehicle for their grievances. Its members may therefore feel less of an obligation to preserve the relationships necessary for pursuing DSA’s electoral aims.
But that is a mistake. “The International Committee project, in my opinion, just does not exist without the social democratic efforts that we’re doing,” said Gonzalez, who serves on the IC. The reason socialist parties outside the United States care about DSA “is because we have members in Congress”—elected officials who can be moved to pursue a cooperative agenda and oppose CIA and State Department meddling abroad.
The second major conflict reflected anxiety within the organization about whether it can effectively hold accountable the electeds it endorses—especially those like Bowman who DSA endorsed only a few weeks before the election, and who was not already a DSA member before he ran for office.
Last fall, Bowman voted, with all but eight Democrats and one Republican, to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and then traveled to Israel/Palestine on a trip organized by J Street, a liberal Zionist organization. Both actions violated DSA’s 2017 endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But while many in the organization were disappointed in Bowman’s actions—the NPC “strongly condemn[ed]” them—some, including several smaller chapters and the BDS Working Group, a national team of activists devoted to the Palestinian cause, moved to expel Bowman from the organization altogether. After the NPC declined to pursue expulsion, the working group continued its campaign to demonize the congressman—primarily on Twitter. In response, the NPC voted to de-charter the BDS Working Group, saying that it had violated DSA’s code of conduct.
“No one is saying not to criticize Bowman,” Paradis said. But given that Bowman is “the most prominent Black socialist in Congress” and has one of the better voting records, overall, on Israel/Palestine issues—Engel, whom Bowman defeated, was one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in Congress—“an organization-wide drumbeat for his expulsion” over an issue that divides many of DSA’s electeds was, from Paradis’s perspective, absurd. If this is how DSA treats its allies, she said, “it’s impossible to imagine congresspeople wanting our endorsement in the future.”
Justin Charles, another member of the NPC from Brooklyn, took a more diplomatic stance. “In some ways, DSA can be a liability for [Bowman],” he said. (A significant portion of Bowman’s Westchester constituents are Jewish Democrats who support Israel.) The question DSA should be asking, he said, is whether the organization has the power to back up its electeds if they take a stance that might imperil their reelection. “What cover can we give to these people if they want to take a bolder stance on Palestinian solidarity? If they want to say, ‘No more Iron Dome,’ what are we going to do for them?”
Mamdani represents an ideal type of the DSA politician: a card-carrying elected who is willing to subject himself to the democratic discipline of an unwieldy mass of irksome radicals. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “that the rank and file of the organization has been emboldened to make demands of elected officials.” Not least, he told me, because otherwise the pressures of conformity, the coercion of Democratic leadership, and the call of individual careerism would be too strong. “We cannot count on our electeds going into these spaces coming out the way they were sent in. And I say that as an elected. These places are built to isolate you. . . . It’s important to have a support system that renders that pressure ineffectual.”
But Mamdani is first to admit that such a support system is not yet firmly in place. And it’s in this respect—among others—that the limits of the “Albany Strategy” begin to reveal themselves.
NYC-DSA’s six legislators can’t transform the state on their own; they need more numbers. And in the meantime, they have to deliver for their constituents. But to participate in lawmaking, retain their committee chairs, and bring bills to the floor, socialist members have to—at least occasionally—compromise and play nice with the leaders of their chambers. Whereas DSA’s strategy was once exclusively about running candidates, breaking things, and being maximally confrontational, electeds must now balance that antagonistic spirit with an obligation to pass things that materially improve their constituents’ lives, even if they fall far short of revolutionary reforms.
This, Gonzalez told me, is the real strategic conflict in DSA—not between electoralists and non-electoralists, but among different varieties of electoralism. On the one hand, there are those “who think the point of the elected is to pass legislation, to make friends and try to pass these reforms within the progressive bloc.” On the other are people who argue that “we cannot pass legislation as the opposition,” so a DSA politician’s role is to agitate for socialist policy and politicize the obstacles to achieving it—naming our enemies in leadership and highlighting the undemocratic features of the system. “Your role in the state legislature is to fight people who are against our policies,” Gonzalez summarized, “not to be part of it.”
Lakha, for her part, rejects this dichotomy, which, she said, mistakes a tactical question for a strategic one. “As a tactical matter, we should just do what seems smart,” she said. Sometimes you blast leadership; sometimes you don’t. Challenging the majority leader or agitating other members—every so often—isn’t equivalent to “destroying any possible future of working together.”
Earlier this year, when Queens DSA city councilwoman Tiffany Cabán and several other progressives voted against Mayor Eric Adams’s city budget proposal—which maintained NYPD bloat at the expense of housing and education—City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams appeared to retaliate by cutting discretionary funding in their districts. In Cabán’s case, that meant a Boys & Girls Club in Astoria would lose $150,000. But with AOC’s help, the organization was able to strike back, criticizing the speaker for “punishing kids” to score political points, and the funding was restored. (The dissenting voices still received less overall discretionary funding than the councilmembers who voted for the budget.) Mamdani described this coordinated response as an “ideal vision” for how DSA can stand up to intimidation from leadership.
But, Lakha insists, there is no path to a socialist majority that relies solely on a “highly agitational approach” without any participation in the legislative process. At some point you have to deliver reforms that benefit working people to build your constituencies. And that will involve “getting in the muck of working in the Democratic Party and getting people who are not socialists or not even progressives to support our agenda,” she said.
For the time being, Lakha said, “I think it’s really good for socialists to have an influence in the legislative process.” No matter how small.
In the June 28 Democratic primary for State Assembly seats, DSA incumbents handily won their races, and climate organizer Sarahana Shrestha—endorsed by DSA as well as the Working Families Party—defeated thirteen-year incumbent Kevin Cahill in the New Paltz–Kingston region of the Hudson Valley. And on August 23, DSA member Kristen Gonzalez won a State Senate primary against Elizabeth Crowley, cousin of Joe Crowley, who was endorsed by Mayor Adams.
Shrestha’s victory was important for the organization—its first win upstate. But the other four challengers on the Assembly slate and another for State Senate lost. This result was something of a comedown from the full-slate sweep of 2020, raising the persistent question of whether DSA, despite its proven capacity to run professional campaigns with high participation from activists, can continue to win enough elections to keep the Democratic leadership on its toes and grow the socialist bloc in Albany.
“We no longer have the element of surprise,” Charles said. “We find ourselves in a situation where we’re running up against certain limits.” The election of AOC and Julia Salazar in 2018 spooked the state’s establishment Democrats. For a time, they felt as though no incumbent—regardless of their seniority or connection to the machine—was safe from a left-wing primary opponent. Such anxiety likely contributed to the leadership’s willingness to pass powerful tenant protections in 2019.
But now the specter of socialist challengers seems to haunt fewer incumbent Democrats. And some NYC-DSA activists wonder whether winning a seat or two every few years is sufficient—either to achieve the reforms we need in the short run or to build the politicized mass base we’ll need for the long haul.
For critics of the Albany Strategy, these losses are further indication that NYC-DSA was wrong to assume the successes of the Sanders campaigns—which activated large numbers of people previously uninterested in politics and attracted thousands of new members to the organization—would translate down ballot.
There are two ways to think about this problem: as a question of organization, and as a question of political theory.
From an organizational standpoint, electoral work is meant to function as a “front door” into DSA. “What is the first thing people think about when you think about politics? It’s elections,” said Aaron Taube, a former co-chair of the Queens electoral working group. “So they join, and they work on a campaign, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I want to do housing work, or I want to get involved in the labor movement.’” But as Taube admitted, the sort of member who is likely to enter through that door, who is able to become a leader on an electoral campaign, tends to be the sort of person who already predominates in DSA: a young, semi-professional with a lot of downtime, a job in front of a computer, or a flexible schedule.
And even if electoral organizing is the front door, it’s not clear that NYC-DSA has all that many other rooms in its house. Campaign work has created path dependency: in order for DSA electeds to be effective at legislating, DSA must keep running campaigns to put the fear of God into other incumbents, diminishing time and resources dedicated to other kinds of organizing.
As a theoretical matter, the question remains whether electoral work can have the base-building effects assigned to it by its most sanguine champions. In the best case scenario, campaigns reach people in the places where they are already connected to each other—their buildings, neighborhoods, workplaces, and so on—deepening their bonds and sense of collective power. But when such entanglements are not already present, it’s not clear that getting people to vote will knit them together.
A campaign, even a winning one, tends to solicit serial activity from individuals: asking many people to do one thing on their own, rather than requiring them to do many things together. In other words, it is not self-evident that electoral campaigns generate solidarity. As Charles put it, DSA ought to exist to “create opportunities for people to experience solidarity”—to experience our essential interdependence, not as a source of unfreedom but as the condition of our liberation.
Members have their complaints about the electoral program, but its quasi-hegemony derives in part from a refreshing norm within the new DSA. As Jordan Brown, a member of the Central Brooklyn branch, told me, “It’s sort of a meritocracy.” New initiatives, he explains, “need to be connected to a model—a pilot—of the work, so that you can say, ‘Here’s our strategy, and here’s an example of it being successful.’” A good analysis will only get you so far; if you want the organization to shift strategic direction, you have to show, through organizing, that it’s worth it.
“That is a baseline level of agreement among people in the DSA: you have to get involved in the work,” Brown said. For this reason, DSA’s leaders tend to be inured to the grievances of ideologues who complain (especially online) about strategic priorities without building—at least in miniature—an alternative. DSA is a big tent ideologically, but also strategically: if you build it, they will come.
Electoral work reigns, then, in part because it bears measurable fruit: candidates elected; bills passed. Meanwhile, forms of work that produce less easily quantifiable outputs—namely, labor and tenant organizing—receive less attention. This can generate a perverse cycle. As even DSA’s most buoyant social democrats will insist, a better organized working class is the prerequisite for socialist electoral success. So it stands to reason that a socialist organization “for people who want to win things” should be expending a great deal of time, resources, and energy supporting and facilitating worker self-organization wherever it arises. It’s a shibboleth among DSA organizers that one should avoid the “austerity mindset” that these competing organizational emphases are zero sum; rather, they are fundamentally synergistic. But it doesn’t always feel that way.
In recent years, the left has celebrated organizational successes in which DSA played almost no formal role: the Amazon Labor Union victory in Staten Island, the growing nationwide Starbucks unionization drive, and dozens of tenant unions built over the past two years during fights over rent and housing conditions. It’s pointless to fault DSA for failing to lead these efforts. After all, they have advanced their aims just fine without DSA’s leadership, and many DSA members and working groups have taken it upon themselves to join and support them. Nonetheless, for some members, it’s difficult to avoid a sense that DSA’s oft-stated aspiration to be the mass organization of resurgent socialist energies in the United States is belied by its conspicuous absence from the most exciting fights and spontaneous mobilizations. Some leveled the same criticism during the George Floyd uprisings in 2020. Many members joined in protests, but the national organization itself played a minimal role.
DSA has never wavered in its commitment to the labor movement. But in addition to strike solidarity work, that commitment has mainly manifested in the “rank-and-file strategy” adopted in 2017 to encourage DSA members to join existing unions and become leaders who can push for more militant action. Only since the mid-pandemic founding of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, in collaboration with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, has DSA dedicated itself to supporting hot shops, new organizing, and worker demands in unorganized industries.
Tenant organizing, meanwhile, has long been the neglected stepchild of the organization, embraced most fervently by communist dissenters from the electoral mainstream and by activists in states and cities where electoral and legislative organizing is especially fruitless. For those who argue that electoral campaigns are of limited utility in sustaining DSA in leaner times for the left, tenant work—unglamorous and slow but responsive to working people’s immediate material needs in a time of persistent crisis—seems like a path forward.
Such disagreements over strategic priorities are a product of what Taube called “the gift and the curse” of a big-tent organization. DSA’s ecumenism means many kinds of radicals can find a home in DSA, and they have. But without an official line, disagreements over what is to be done never cease, taking time and energy away from doing anything.
Exhausted with this strategic stasis, some members and leaders have resigned themselves to organizational realism. Clearly, DSA isn’t the mass organization of working-class power in the United States. And maybe it never will be. As one member put it, DSA doesn’t necessarily have to be “the whole shebang” for socialism—a party surrogate lying in wait to replace the Democrats with a true vessel for proletarian power. Rather, the organization might instead embrace what it already is: a highly effective vehicle for electing tribunes of working-class politics, in certain places, and for training talented organizers to shape and lead mass struggles, without requiring participants in those struggles to be—or even want to be—socialists or members of DSA.
One thing almost everyone in the organization can agree on, however, is that the world won’t wait for DSA to settle its strategic identity crises. Whether leading or following, DSA must dedicate itself to the immediate fight against the reactionary right—to defend LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom, and democracy itself—while continuing to expand the horizon of the possible on climate, housing, and labor. “I joined DSA because it felt like a place where you could really effect change . . . where people were really organizing for power,” Paradis said. “If it becomes a club where what we do is issue statements—‘resolutionary socialism’—I’m not interested. [Because] the world is on fire.”
Sam Adler-Bell is a Brooklyn-based writer and the co-host of the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.