When the Wave Crashes

Jamie Peck

An on-the-ground report from the DSA National Convention.

In Atlanta the first weekend of August, over one thousand delegates representing nearly sixty thousand members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convened over the course of three days to set priorities and allocate resources for the largest socialist organization this country has seen since the Vietnam era. Most were keenly aware of the stakes: the two years between conventions will see the conclusion of Donald Trump’s presidential term and potential election to a second, the confinement of thousands more migrants in concentration camps, and what will likely be the final verdict on Bernie Sanders. Other possibilities include a rising tide of reactionary violence, the reawakening or final death rattles of organized labor, and a financial crisis that will make the crash of 2008 look like a skinned knee. As if to hammer home the moment’s urgency, two mass shootings happened that weekend, one with clear white supremacist underpinnings.

In certain moments, this convergence of DSA’s big tent — stitched together from frequently clashing groups of everything from social democrats and “democratic socialists” (I’m yet to be convinced there’s a difference) to anarchists and communists, and yet more who reject even such approximate labels as these — felt like a dinghy paddling in the shadow of a tsunami. We have a little more than a decade until global climate catastrophe irreversibly accelerates, according to a recent UN IPCC report. How are sixty thousand people, drawn disproportionately from the downwardly mobile children of the middle class, going to defeat both fascism and the left wing of neoliberalism in a country of 327 million sitting atop a crumbling global empire? Yet there we were, wearing lanyards. Voting on resolutions. Mingling at parties.

The proceedings occurred atop a factional topography that’s changed significantly from that of the 2017 convention, the first since 2016’s massive influx of new blood in the wake of Trump and Bernie that spiked membership from five thousand to forty thousand in under two years. At the last convention, Momentum, a millennial-heavy slate for NPC with ties to Jacobin, as well as Praxis, a group oriented toward grassroots organizing, organized effectively against the DSA’s old guard, influenced by Michael Harrington, who wanted to preserve DSA’s status as a pressure group within the Democratic Party. (The North Star caucus would soon be born out of this Harringtonite grouping.) The resulting National Political Committee (NPC) was split roughly between the three factions: 5 spots went to Praxis, 7 to Momentum, and 4 to the old guard. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse BDS (a campaign promoting boycotts against Israel), advocate for reparations for the descendants of slaves, and leave the increasingly neoliberal Socialist International. (They also elected someone who turned out to be a sometime police union organizer to the NPC, causing an embarrassing scandal which kicked off a longstanding alliance of the old guard and Momentum against Praxis.)

Since 2017, Momentum has seen a number of splits and rebrandings as it has transformed from a slate into a caucus: Spring, and now, Bread and Roses, which wisely purged the most vulgar class-reductionist elements from its midst. B&R is something of a synthesis, but if I had to approximate its politics, I’d say they’re labor Trotskyists (with less of an emphasis on permanent revolution) who are largely influenced by Karl Kautsky and Vivek Chibber’s parliamentary road to socialism. They favor demands that would immediately benefit the entire “multiracial working class” (a favored term of theirs) in a way that most members of the working class can already understand, like Medicare for All; they refer to this as “mass action.” They’ve adopted the Bernie Sanders campaign as the centerpiece of their political strategy and are currently attempting to centralize DSA’s efforts behind it. (After hearing some of them refer to Bernie’s platform as a “transitional program,” I read Trotsky’s “The Transitional Program,” and it seems like a stretch.) Another key B&R joint is the Rank and File strategy, influenced by the work of Kim Moody, wherein DSA members get union jobs in sectors deemed strategic. It frustrates me to no end that they have thus far branded themselves as DSA’s “Marxist” caucus, but as a friend took care to remind me, there have always been Marxist social democrats, or — fine, oops, ouch — Democratic Socialists. Marxism is just a framework for understanding the world; what we’re supposed to do once we’ve eaten of the old man’s cursed fruit is open to interpretation.

“In certain moments, this convergence of DSA’s big tent felt like a dinghy paddling in the shadow of a tsunami.”

Given that they’ve had a head start, it makes sense that B&R arguably was the most organized and disciplined national caucus at this year’s convention. Credit where credit is due: B&R know how to whip votes. But there were new forces at play this year. The spirit of the DSA’s old guard has been reincarnated in the Socialist Majority Caucus (SMC), an electorally focused faction that claims to be 100 percent pragmatism, 0 percent ideology. To SMC and B&R’s left sits the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), an umbrella encompassing anarchists, syndicalists, council communists, and their fellow travellers, that was formed at the 2017 convention. There’s the Collective Power Network (CPN), which I understand to be a Trotsky-adjacent caucus based primarily in DC and New Orleans. And then there’s Build, which considers itself not a caucus, but a project aimed at building DSA’s activist base through local organizing. Unlike B&R, Build considers DSA’s sprawling, decentralized, and — as my comrade Amy Wilson likes to say — rhizomatic structure and vast array of political tendencies to be an asset rather than a liability. The tension between centralization and decentralization would prove to be a key battle of 2019, sometimes spilling into other areas. For instance, it seemed many decentralizers voted against the Rank and File strategy out of antipathy towards Bread and Roses. (It passed anyway.) In addition to Build, LSC favored de-centralization, while B&R and SMC were very much centralizers. CPN was a bit of a wild card. No faction really dominated the convention; even the NPC delegates were a fairly even split.

There are also a number of new local caucuses that emphasize, variously, the need for a revolutionary Marxist perspective and communist horizon, as well as a more complex analysis of how race, class, and gender bleed together, including San Francisco’s Red Star; Portland’s Red Caucus; Oakland’s left-communist leaning Communist Caucus; and New York’s eclectic and attractive Emerge, of which—full disclosure—I am a member. Some of the comrades in these caucuses were involved or aligned with 2017’s Praxis slate or the now-disbanded national caucus Refoundation. Others, like myself, are current or former members of the LSC. Many caucuses share members with Build. Yet more have no other affiliations. Are you exhausted yet?

The only hard data I have is for New York, which may or may not be representative, but formal caucuses accounted for roughly half of our delegation, not counting those who were sympathetic but unaffiliated. Taken together, B&R and SMC held a plurality. Some of the unaffiliated are alarmed or even hurt by the rate at which people are joining ideological caucuses, thinking it both a symptom and a cause of unhealthy factionalism, and DSA has yet to officially recognize ideological caucuses. But my sense is most members are at the very least grimly resigned to it by now.

Build, LSC, and some of the communist caucuses often voted in a bloc. B&R and SMC often worked in coalition as well. The only noticeable rift between them was on the question of “Bernie or Bust.” On questions of labor organizing, the left caucuses at least partially aligned with B&R, with the notable exception of CPN’s salient critique of the Rank and File Strategy. Some of the divisions were messy or illegible, at least to me.

Most of the convention’s first day was taken up by maddening procedural maneuvers designed to influence the outcomes of various votes. Who were these people who kept trying to change the rules so as to avoid arguing their actual positions? It seems like a major oversight on the part of Henry Martyn Robert, the guy who wrote the rules, not to place a limit on the amount of procedural bullshit a single person or faction can pull in one day. Call it the “having the courage of your convictions” clause. Once this got started, more and more factions participated until it escalated to eyeball-gouging levels of tedium. Call it the world’s most boring arms race.
Certain votes became proxies for bigger battles, like the aforementioned centralization vs. decentralization debate. For example, “Pass the Hat,” a bylaws amendment, was intended to distribute funds from the national organization to smaller, poorer chapters. At a rate of $100 a month per chapter — a tiny fraction of the millions allocated that weekend — it seemed like a no-brainer, but was narrowly voted down in favor of “Resolution on Grassroots Fundraising and Small Chapter Growth,” which had a bit of a “help them help themselves” vibe. As “Pass the Hat” proponents, including Build and LSC, pointed out, the average DSA member pays most or all of their dues to national, but couldn’t tell you much of what national does. With “Pass the Hat,” they would at least be able to say that it gives them money so that they can afford a meeting space. A number of delegates spoke movingly of their struggles to organize under-resourced chapters while working multiple low-wage jobs, and were rightfully upset when the amendment failed. But to a thin majority led by B&R and SMC, promising a no-strings-attached stipend to small or poor chapters represented an unacceptable thumbs-up to DSA’s current, decentralized structure.

And yet, there were many reasons for this small-c communist and capital-F feminist to be hopeful. A resolution to support the decriminalization of sex work and push our endorsees to do so as well (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders), passed on the “consent agenda” (Delegates were polled before the convention. If a resolution had strong enough support going in, it made the consent agenda of stuff that passed without having to debate it at the convention first). One group’s efforts to remove it and force a second vote failed overwhelmingly. A resolution in support of open borders — if we’re making programmatic demands, I’d prefer “no borders,” but I voted for it — made the consent agenda as well. A “Bernie or Bust” resolution, committing the national organization not to endorse anyone but Bernie for president, passed over the objections of an SMC-led minority. Resolutions against the US embargo of Cuba, and colonialism and imperialism more generally, passed as well. And, of course, we endorsed the Green New Deal as an ecosocialist priority, punched up by an amendment endorsing the anticapitalist and indigenous liberation group Red Nation’s Red Deal that, among other things, stands against the green militarism espoused by Elizabeth Warren and the like. Over and over, the organization affirmed a political horizon far beyond the work currently within our capacity to do. It will be up to the various left caucuses to lead on the question of how to incorporate revolutionary ideas into our day-to-day praxis in these decidedly non-revolutionary times.

If some of these positions don’t seem to match up — Sanders supports neither sex-work decriminalization nor open borders — that’s because DSA is full of contradictions. But there is a throughline. While one might expect the objections to “Bernie or Bust” to have come from ultraleftists loathe to support this capitalism-saving social fascist, the question of Bernie’s endorsement had been settled well before the convention, when the NPC held an emergency vote legitimized by a straw poll of our membership. The objections instead came from those old and old-at-heart heads who believe DSA should endorse whoever the Democrats ultimately nominate. Remember: It wasn’t that long ago that the DSA endorsed John Kerry and Barack Obama. Given that, these all represent an uneven leftward drift, and as electoral politics are a trailing indicator of movements on the ground, it makes sense that they’d be bringing up the rear. Of course, it remains to be seen if we can make the candidates we endorse adopt some of our more radical views. We probably can’t, but we will try and then insist that these candidates are worth supporting anyway, despite their lack of “purity.” If there’s one thing DSA knows how to do, it’s try.

Bourgeois politics are a slippery slope; as soon as you decide that elections are something socialists should directly engage with, you get into dicey territory. The majority of DSA believes that while it’s worth getting our hands dirty, we have to draw the line somewhere. This is called the “dirty break” strategy, the thing we are dirtily breaking from being the Democratic Party. This time we drew the line at Bernie Sanders, at least on the national level. There’s nothing in there to preclude chapters in swing states from knocking on doors for Sleepy Joe, should they decide that’s a good use of resources.

“And yet, there were many reasons for this small-c communist and capital-F feminist to be hopeful.”

On that note, an amendment overwhelmingly failed that would have removed language from the Class Struggle Elections resolution that gave a nod to the idea that the Democratic Party is not the final stop on this train. Rather, an independent workers’ party is our ultimate goal. I’m skeptical of how ultimate this goal should be, since even an independent working-class party must manage a capitalist economy as long as we have one, inevitably becoming the administrators of austerity (Greece’s Syriza comes to mind). Try as it might, the economy’s not going to destroy itself. I’d also venture to guess my conception of “the party” is different from that of this resolution’s author. But as with “Bernie or Bust,” this utter annihilation of an amendment represents a leftward shift for DSA.

When it came time to debate a resolution that would create a national “antifascism and direct action” working group, things got interesting. (I’m still unclear on precisely why these two things were paired but can guess the direct action here mostly pertains to antifascism.) At first glance, antifascist organizing might seem an odd fit for DSA. Or rather, the image most people have of antifa — black bloc anarchists fighting in the streets — might seem to clash with the image most people have of DSA — well-behaved nerds canvassing for Bernie. But in some parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest where the authors of this resolution hail from, antifascism is a major priority for organizers in DSA, some but by no means all of whom are with the LSC. I know that in New York City, this priority is shared by most members, who take it as a given that we should show up to counter them whenever a bunch of white supremacists descend on a city or try to intimidate people at an event. When a group of NYC DSA members randomly encountered alt-lite grifter Milo Yiannopoulos at a pub after a meeting of the Citywide Leadership Committee (a body which has been compared to model UN), they calmly but firmly chanted “Nazi scum get out!” until he did just that, generating an amusing Fox News segment.

Of course, a vocal minority believes DSA has better things to do than pay attention to a bunch of LARPing losers who will give up and go home if we only just ignore them, or so the theory I’m ungenerously paraphrasing goes. An overlapping, if less vocal minority, is no doubt concerned about how being associated with an organization that has anything resembling a militant (or “terrorist,” if Trump has his druthers) wing might affect their future job prospects in a realigned Democratic Party. But the majority of concerns raised at convention were over information security. As someone who came of age in a world of strict IRL-only rules for anything that might run afoul of the law, I, myself, had doubts about the resolution’s promise of a “secure online platform for antifascist organizing across DSA chapters” and the even more dubious “Zoom calls.” I’ve been taught to always assume our intelligence agencies can read any electronic communications they want, and a lot of antifascist work must be done in secret in order to be as safe and effective as possible. But as white supremacist violence spikes both within and outside of the official state apparatus, and the Trump White House takes steps to criminalize any and all attempts to oppose it, now is not the time to back down. And not all antifascist work is illegal. While fighting in the streets and certain kinds of doxxing certainly are, there are other activities like intelligence, security, and counterprotesting which can absolutely be done in the open. The challenge going forward will be to have a public-facing working group that neither gives up the ghost on clandestine activities nor ties the hands of those who wish to engage in them. As our current cycle of struggle accelerates, this will be essential for the organized left to figure out in pretty much every area, so we might as well start now. And, while this kind of respectability politics can be problematic, it might not hurt antifa to have some well-behaved nerds out there putting a new face on it.

This is just a small sampling of what went on over the course of the Convention. I haven’t touched on the housing justice resolutions that passed, most of them good. I have to credit B&R for voting for “Organizing the Unorganized” as a complement and not a competitor to their flagship Rank and File Strategy. Yet more resolutions never made it to the floor; it was to our detriment that good measures on prison abolition and a bad one on running “socialist DAs” were referred to the NPC to vote on. The inspiring “Mass Strike for Reproductive Justice,” too, was sent up the chain of command. But how much does the chain of command matter? As my comrade Jennifer James put it when Vice asked what will happen if it doesn’t pass: “fuck it, we’ll do it anyway.”

I came away from the convention thinking we’d achieved a lot and nothing at all. We’d made millions of dollars worth of plans ranging across the entire spectrum of leftist theory and tactics. But, as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and the left no doubt is in for a pummeling. It’s also hard to know how much setting “priorities” means in a mostly volunteer-run, if swiftly professionalizing, organization that has yet to adopt democratic centralism.

If there’s one thing that prompted me to get involved in DSA after a brief stint on the NYC ultraleft, followed by a tactical retreat to my armchair, it was the sense that they’re out there doing things in the world, in all of the messiness that doing things in a mass organization entails. While some adhere loosely to tendencies of the past, most of us are developing our politics as we go. I don’t claim to know what’s going to work in the end, if anything. What I do know is that we have precious little time left to build socialism before barbarism takes hold. To revisit my earlier metaphor, we don’t always agree on how to paddle the dinghy, but we remain aware of a certain linked fate. The tsunami swallowing more and more of the horizon terrifies us but it also gives our lives meaning. Members of every caucus and faction can testify to that.

When the wave crashes, we’ll all go down together, only I’m lying, because the lowest already have been claimed. When the wave crashes, there might finally be a revolution. When the wave crashes, at least we can say that we tried.