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Reimagining anti-imperialist praxis in DSA

In this presentation for a Tempest Collective online event, Promise Li examines the principles that should guide our thinking about internationalism in the Democratic Socialists of America, and questions its reliance on “mass parties."

I will spend my time discussing some thoughts on prospects and challenges for international working-class and mass movement solidarity in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As Andrew Sernatinger helpfully charted out in his primer for the upcoming DSA convention, six resolutions about international politics and anti-imperialism are on the table—one of the largest categories behind organizational and electoral issues.

While this general focus on internationalism is correct, much of the rank and file work remains isolated from international struggles. DSA lacks an effective strategy to adequately understand how global capitalism and imperialism function and uplift the forces and alliances that can best promote liberation for all.

I will begin with identifying what I see as the key problem. The Second International–aligned politics of the DSA old guard have been replaced in the recent years of organizational growth with what I call a “soft campist” consensus. This position includes a broad array of actors. Most often they do not know the nuances of political conditions in other countries and rely on soft apologia for regimes that are “anti-imperialist” or “left-wing” in name only, while commenting solely on the U.S. side of any particular issue.

The effect is not aggressive denial of these states’ crimes found in Grayzone disinformation, but a reluctance to support campaigns in solidarity with mass uprisings in these regimes in fear of aiding U.S. imperialism. This is an attractive model that can gather those uninitiated into international politics effectively, but provides no real alternative to the structures of imperialism, which often are not reducible to national borders and geopolitical blocs.

The soft campist elements in DSA are reinforced by the Renewal slate vying for National Political Committee candidate elections at the upcoming convention, and the Collective Power Network caucus. CPN excuse their organized support of repressive parties by identifying them as “mass organizations.” Their advocates have coalesced around Resolution 14, which calls for indiscriminate support of “mass parties of the Latin American Left,” an ethos that some uncritically extend to the state parties of Vietnam and China.

Some of these same authors recently condemned the genuine internationalist alternative of Resolution 17. This resolution correctly privileges mass movement solidarity and embodies a healthy skepticism toward state power and bureaucratic centralization, in keeping with the ethos of the recent mass upsurges from Puerto Rico to France.

Critics see this position as chauvinistic. CPN members Morgan Dowdy and Jack Suria-Linares published a critique accusing Resolution 17 supporters of compelling DSA to:

denounce, from our remote perch in the bosom of the imperialist core, any and all left-wing projects where material reality intervenes against their narrow ideological expectations.

But what determines a party’s “mass” nature? Without the capacity for independent, democratic decision-making, “mass” participation can be channeled toward undemocratic ends, and in itself has no natural relationship to anti-capitalist values without socialist democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party boasts one of the largest party memberships in the world, while its subsidiaries consistently demobilize popular organizing, Marxist study circles, and independent workers’ organizations, and stands at the helm of one of the largest capitalist states.

This blanket support for organizations because of their “mass” character completely misreads where the most transformative forces in the world today are found. It shuts down critique and discussion, legitimizing bureaucratic structures rather than amplifying the democratic minority or non-state elements that genuinely promote popular struggle and revolutionary power.

Hong Kongers march against an extradition bill in August 2019. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Imperialism continues to afflict different communities unevenly—both within states themselves and between states and other corporate entities. We must reserve the right as socialists to critically discern among the forces we relate to and uplift through democratic discussion. Many of the most important struggles in recent years cannot fit into facile paradigms. In fact, many come in reaction to what one might falsely see as the beacons of a geopolitical alternative to centuries of Western imperial rule, from Iran to Hong Kong.

Soft campists have no praxis to adequately account for these sites of struggle, beyond rehashing outmoded, 20th century Cold War paradigms to defend repressive regimes against mass movements in the name of anti-imperialism. This has led to the blatant denial of the reality of authoritarian capitalist exchanges of methods among nation-states, which completely undermines these ideological fictions.

The growth of China is built on decades of super-exploitation of its own working-class, often for global North markets, and murderous alliances with U.S. imperialism, from aiding the massacre of Bengalis and Vietnamese in the 1970s to building its police state in “the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” by appropriating resources from David Petraeus, Erik Prince, the Israeli military, and even the U.S. police force itself.

The Cuban #HeroesdeAzul campaign is a direct reference to the U.S. #BlueLivesMatter movement and policing of Afro-Cubans. The rise of capitalist sectors like tourism parallels the rampant policing that accompanies the violence of gentrification in communities in North America.

When left-wing governments appropriate and build on colonial infrastructures of oppression, we must hold them accountable as well. Calling for the end of U.S. imperialism should mean more than selectively critiquing its vehicles and effects.

In his 1981 “Beyond the Cold War” lecture, British historian E. P. Thomson prudently noted that the USSR and its allies monopolized the discourse of “peace,” while the U.S. and its allies did the same with the paradigms of “freedom.” Socialist David Brophy sees a similarly reductive dynamic at play today. We are offered a false ultimatum of either anti-war work or imperialistic “human rights” advocacy—just as regimes from China and Venezuela to the U.S. continue to economically and politically constrain the rights of their people.

At the heart of these issues is an age-old problem: a failure to understand and connect the intimate relationship between mass, anti-capitalist movement-building and political democracy encapsulated in the praxis of democratic socialism. The leadership of DSA has not found an ideological alternative to various forms of bureaucratic statism. What the recent Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela–sponsored DSA delegation to Venezuela showed us, in effect, is how the Second International and the São Paulo Forum are two sides of the same coin.

What we need is reimagination of how we conduct international solidarity on an organizational level that moves beyond performative street actions by ANSWER Coalition or bureaucratic exchanges conducted between DSA and these so-called mass parties. I do not profess to invent a new solution for internationalism today. I do not need to. Alternatives are already beginning to emerge at a grassroots level.

The issue at hand is: why is DSA and the mainstream of the U.S. Left largely delinked from or dismissive of these efforts? Why are DSA members proudly live-tweeting their stays at five-star hotels in Caracas receiving more traction than perhaps the most coordinated U.S. Left effort in years to provide solidarity to Myanmar trade unionists against the military coup (an effort that includes members of the DSA International Committee)?

U.S. socialists often do not understand that many of these recent pro-democracy movements, which undoubtedly contain West-pandering and imperialistic actors, exist in regions in which ruling authoritarian Left parties have sought to completely neutralize traditions of a democratic Left alternative to movement-building. We should not abandon mass movements for state parties.

Despite the fact that the actually existing “left-wing” states and mass parties of the last century are dead ends, the U.S. Left has consistently sabotaged its own capacity to discover new socialist paradigms. While leftists scoff at the small sizes of dissident Left groups like Marea Socialista as “idealistic” and not worthy of solidarity because of their distance from “mass” support, have we stopped to consider the overwhelming pressure these movements have faced by state socialists, class enemies, and U.S. imperialists alike who have sought to marginalize them?

To discern between allies and enemies is no expression of chauvinism, but a marker of socialist clarity. With this in mind, how do the authors of Resolution 14 expect us to understand and navigate through, say, the various factions and currents within the diverse Partido Socialismo e Liberdade in Brazil or mass politics in regions in which independent mass parties, organizations, and activists are criminalized and suppressed, from China to Egypt?

We are in the position to extend concrete solidarity to oppressed peoples with our organizing resources here, from the organs of the DSA International Committee to labor commissions of local DSA chapters. This is not to determine their terrain and horizon of struggle for our international comrades, but to stand as internationalists in solidarity with people oppressed by regimes, no matter the color of their flag, and allow them to discover their path of struggle on their own terms, in order to build a socialism for the 21st century together.

More concretely, how can we factor in the role of logistics and supply-chains in connecting systems of oppression beyond geopolitical blocs as a key consideration of our anti-imperialist work and of indigenous organizing against exploitation from the Amazons to the Tibetan water basins? We need to rethink what counts as international solidarity activism, and develop more organic connections between the International Committee and various other branches of DSA work, and also simply provide space for political exchange between rank and file organizers who are not apologists for the oppression of others in their own regions.

In the past year or so, another organization that I am a part of, Lausan Collective, has brought together trade unionists from different sectors to learn from each other’s experiences. In one exchange, cleaning worker organizers from the U.S., Hong Kong, Colombia, and Malaysia organically came to propose developing a joint international cleaning workers’ program. Trade unionists from Southeast Asia have told me about their desire to learn from activists who have organized against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as they face the rise of the now largest free-trade agreement in the form of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The possibilities are legion. Resolution 17 represents a small but important step toward opening the door to the grassroots mass movements that are pointing the way to the future of the democratic Left, rather than the “mass parties” centered in Resolution 14, which are shibboleths of the past as well as oppressors in the present.

I encourage more good-faith debates between comrades on both sides of this issue, and call on my allies to model what working through ideas democratically and collectively in a mass organization should be. It is time to reimagine anti-imperialist and internationalist praxis in the U.S. Left.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons, modified by Tempest.

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Promise Li View All

Promise Li is a socialist activist from Hong Kong and Los Angeles and a member of Tempest and Solidarity (US). He is active in international solidarity with movements from Hong Kong and China, tenant and anti-gentrification organizing in Chinatown, and rank-and-file graduate worker labor organizing.