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Did the DSA Convention Move Left?

Andy Sernatinger analyzes the developments from DSA’s 2023 National Convention.

The last two years have been tumultuous for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The Bowman Affair, the suspension of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and Palestine Working Group (BDSWG), the war in Ukraine, the Rail Deal, and a serious loss in membership numbers, all posed challenges for the DSA since Biden’s inauguration. There’s plenty here for socialists to discuss – so what happened at the Convention of the largest socialist organization in the United States? This report will offer a summary of the developments.

By all accounts, the 2023 convention was a pleasant and comradely gathering. Contentious issues from previous conventions were largely absent. This is likely because even as the membership numbers dropped, the threshold of signatures needed to submit a proposal was raised to 300. 13 of 22 main items on the initial agenda were produced by the National Political Committee (NPC, the official leadership of the organization in between conventions) or various national committees (e.g. Green New Deal Campaign Commission, International Committee) that include NPC appointees in their leadership structure. This excludes the package of six items in the consent agenda (half of which were also NPC recommendations). In sum, the bulk of the convention was taken up by items handed down from the upper levels of DSA rather than developed from the membership. By comparison, in 2019 the NPC produced just one proposal to the convention (calling for the creation of a platform) out of a total of 46 total convention proposals; national committees did not officially produce any resolutions that year.

At the 2017, 2019, and 2021 conventions, members proposed numerous constitutional and bylaws amendments to restructure the DSA in hopes of democratizing the organization. No such proposals made it to the agenda in 2023; the only proposed change was Socialist Majority’s plan to expand the NPC – which failed. (In fact, no constitutional amendments have succeeded in the arc of new-DSA, save one abolishing “honorary” chairpeople in 2017.) This leaves DSA’s bureaucracy unchanged for at least the next two years.

Resolutions vowing to maintain the organization’s current relationship with the Democratic Party passed easily and without much contention. The convention’s outlook largely aligned with former NPC appointee Marvin Gonzalez’s remarks from 2022: “we are all electoralists now.” The convention distanced the organization further from pursuing independence from the Democratic Party while reaffirming the primacy of elections and legislation as the primary means of change. A resolution to nominally “act like a party” asserted that DSA should not pursue independence in the foreseeable future, and the proposal to create a minimum standard for electoral expectations failed 3-2. Stephan Kimmerle observes, “the majority of the Convention was still not prepared to take concrete steps towards democratic accountability and control over DSA electeds.” The idea of using elections as a tool to build social movements, rather than ends in themselves, is now a relic from a bygone era.

While the remaining members of the BDSWG continued to hold the line in defense of Palestine in 2022, the Convention voted to dissolve the working group and hand over its duties to the International Committee (IC). The convention agenda did not include the BDSWG’s resolution declaring DSA an anti-Zionist organization. Delegates were able to insert the resolution onto the Convention Agenda, but it was bureaucratically killed by putting the item at the end of the convention agenda, ensuring it would never be heard by the convention. One account read;

On Sunday morning, a table of delegates near the front left of the hall slowly began to empty as their members – one of whom draped ungracefully by a huge Palestinian flag – left the room. This was, of course, the table for DSA’s national BDS working group, and they had good reason to walk out: their working group was effectively abolished by the delegation.

The celebrations following the convention were due to the election of a purported majority left leadership on the NPC. However, looking behind the rhetoric, the signature policies of many of these groups now constituting the DSA Left were toned down substantially between 2021 and 2023. Marxist Unity Group (MUG)’s agenda had been to turn DSA into an organization akin to classical social democratic parties, tying the platform to membership. The platform, which included solidarity with Palestine and the unrestricted right to strike, was inconsequential in the real political events that unfolded for DSA after its adoption in August 2021. Only one amendment was made to change the platform in 2023, and MUG did not pursue tying the platform to membership again as they ran candidates for NPC, nor did they raise anything akin to their 2021 resolution to run a slate of socialist candidates for Congress.

In 2021, Reform & Revolution submitted a resolution for the creation of a Democratic Socialist Party and another noting that candidates running as Democrats would explicitly state in their campaign materials that they rejected the Democratic Party. These ambitions were curbed or otherwise found no hearing. This time around, R&R tacked right as the sole Left caucus to endorse Socialist Majority’s expanded NPC proposal, which ended up failing narrowly. To their credit, MUG, R&R, and Communist Caucus did play supporting roles in getting the BDSWG’s resolution on the convention agenda, and in passing a resolution for a campaign resisting the anti-trans attacks in the U.S.

A 2023 resolution that would prevent DSA from endorsing Biden did not make the agenda, but was actually agreed to by the DSA Right, with Renée Paradis of Socialist Majority arguing that DSA should not endorse Biden, on the grounds that he would not stand to benefit from DSA’s endorsement. In 2023, every faction in DSA who participated in the convention refrained from significantly diverging from what has become the political consensus.

Luisa M, who this year was elected as an independent and is considered part of the Left leadership, was censured in 2021 for preventing political opponents in her chapter from running for convention delegates and was stripped of her convention credentials as a full delegate. For her defense, Luisa stated she was unapologetic and would repeat her actions. Despite this, her prominent role in the International Committee has now propelled her to the NPC.

Socialist Majority and its allies were overrepresented in the 2021 NPC by merit of having few candidates to choose from, as the implosion of the CPN-led Cardinal slate led to withdrawals of multiple candidates. In 2023, Socialist Majority, Groundwork, and Uniting to Win (together, the former NPC’s majority) are still well represented in the new leadership (holding approximately 42% of the seats), and considering their numerous scandals over the past two years they don’t seem to have been too badly tarnished in the eyes of DSA delegates. Groundwork was the single largest winner of the new NPC (31.5% of seats), and their politics of explicitly rejecting rank-and-file labor politics in favor of institutional relationships with labor leaders, as well as their “pragmatic” electoral politics should be an alarming sign of the rightward march in DSA.

What is noteworthy about the new leadership is that it is a fresh slate that will hopefully not blunder through the next two years as the last NPC did. The most significant shift on the NPC is further entrenchment of DSA’s campist international politics, which have become hegemonic since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn as DSA’s prime international example in 2019. After Corbyn’s defeat, the reference point for understanding DSA politics internationally shifted from Momentum, an activist group with the Labour Party in the UK, toward the Pink Tide governments in Latin America. This fits a framework consistent with the current campist consensus which looks towards building unity with blocs of “progressive” nation states (seen as opposed to the U.S.) rather than an internationalism based on working class solidarity.

The obstacles the new NPC faces are: 1) the declining membership; and 2) that DSA is on track to run out of money in the next two years. The Convention Compendium noted,

The existing national budget set by the National Political Committee in April projects that in 2023 we will spend over $1.6 million more than we will raise, which puts us on track to deplete most of our current savings over the next year. This deficit means 2024 will be much more difficult.

As has been the case since 2017, the convention passed every resolution and far exceeded the budget of the organization. The convention’s ambition is to overcome its financial constraints by increasing the DSA to 200,000 members. In the meantime, members are being asked to change to a percentage-based, rather than flat rate dues system, though this is voluntary. Dues-sharing payments to chapters are also in question as another potential cost to cut to keep the organization afloat.

There are no landmark decisions changing the direction of DSA coming out of the 2023 convention—we should expect the current course to continue. The convention marks the consolidation of DSA’s post-2020 electoralist consensus, as the BDSWG has been abolished in the contest over DSA’s commitment to Palestine. The International Committee—which has acted like it was the political leadership of DSA for the last two years—now forms a significant bloc on the new NPC. However, the left-right spectrum in DSA has shifted the center of the organization significantly to the right, and brought the Left factions with them, particularly as they set their eyes on joining the NPC. The lack of any significant democratic control over the organization by the membership ultimately means that whatever resolutions have been passed, the NPC will make the decisions about the direction DSA goes. How they navigate the organizational crisis remains to be seen.

Featured image credit: Wikipedia; modified by Tempest.

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Andy Sernatinger View All

Andrew Sernatinger is a Teamster and labor activist in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint, Jacobin, and In These Times .