Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the Prize

To transform society, radicals need to appeal to millions of people, many of whom may never join their ranks.

This summer, amid the horrors of Trump and his neo-Confederate fan club, socialists in the United States marked a revival of their fortunes. In Chicago, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), its membership surging over 25,000, held the biggest convention in its thirty-five-year history. This magazine, whose past editors helped form DSA and many of whose current editors belong to it, happily joined in the celebration.

Now comes the hard part. To transform society, radicals need to appeal to millions of people, many of whom may never join their ranks. “By 1912, the Socialist Party had reached a dangerous point,” Irving Howe once reflected. “It was safely past the isolation of the sect, but not quite yet a mass movement.”

Thankfully, DSA’s diversity of race and gender easily surpasses that of the old SP. But a century ago, the party had a membership of over 100,000, ran several major unions, elected officials in cities large and small, and boasted several of the nation’s leading journalists. Still, the SP’s growth stalled, and, in 1919, the party imploded and was never a serious force again.

How can DSA build a true socialist movement in what remains one of the most thoroughly capitalist nations on earth? Three suggestions from a Dissentnik who, for better and worse, has been active on the left for over half a century:

First, take stands that have a chance of gaining majority support and won’t require a revolution to win. Most Americans can be persuaded to back guaranteed healthcare, jobs and/or income, and decent housing for all. They already endorse racial and gender equality, at least superficially, and favor taking action to curb climate change. But to call for the abolition of prisons or open borders is a sure path to futility. “Imagine” is a great song; it’s not a useful program.

Second, craft a two-legged strategy and pursue it relentlessly. Many DSA members are active in a social movement or a progressive institution. But many should also recruit and work hard for left candidates who can win elections as, yes, Democrats. Both legs further the goal of influencing and, where possible, wielding a portion of state power.

Third, respect differences among your fellow socialists. Any large and vibrant organization will include people who agree about basic principles but disagree about how to implement them. As in 1919, demands for ideological purity convince hardly anyone and can destroy what you’ve already built.

In the words of the great black freedom song: keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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