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Racism, self-determination, and the dissolution of the Palestine working group

A reflection on the DSA Convention

The DSA voted to dissolve the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDSWG) and force it into the International Committee despite protest from both groups. To ignore the gravity of this decision and its implications would be a disastrous mistake–a mistake reflected in the celebration of the new DSA leadership.

TThe overwhelming response of the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) left wing to the organization’s convention earlier this month is celebration. However, given the definitive defeat of the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group and the continued absence of the national DSA in anti-racist and abolitionist struggle, a more honest balance sheet should be drawn.

At the culmination of the Convention, a motley crew of reformists, campists, and supporters of socialism from below captured ten out of 16 available seats on the National Political Committee (NPC) to form a much-touted “left-wing majority” on the DSA leadership. Despite having to wage a tooth-and-nail fight even to debate many of the organization’s most controversial issues, the Left nevertheless succeeded in securing support for a national campaign for trans liberation, as well as an affirmation of the principle of independence from the Democratic Party–though a resolution to actually operationalize that principle through organizational policy failed, receiving only 40 percent of the vote. The response of  Cliff Connolly, writing for the Marxist Unity Group, was reflective of much of the DSA Left: “The year 2023 marks a profound shift in the politics of DSA.”

Such hyperbole is misplaced, not least because it misses critical weaknesses of the DSA that have led to an organizational crisis and that were largely left unaddressed and unresolved at this convention. It also misses the political importance of one decision that was made.

During the convention, by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, the convention voted to dissolve the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDSWG) and force it into the International Committee, despite protest from both. To ignore the gravity of this decision and its implications for both the political character of DSA and its relationships with anti-racist and anti-imperialist organizers around the U.S. would be a disastrous mistake–a mistake reflected in the celebration of the new DSA leadership.

Thus, while one left-wing delegate celebrated this convention for demonstrating that DSA is no longer “the organization of letting Jamaal Bowman vote for the Iron Dome,” the truth of the matter is that the convention proved the exact opposite by endorsing an unambiguously racist approach to the self-organization of its Black and Brown members. For four years, DSA’s BDSWG has represented one of the most dynamic, progressive, and uncompromising elements within DSA. Despite significant pushback from Zionists within the organization, they have led the struggle to challenge the vision of DSA founder Michael Harrington, who expressed a pro-settler-colonial, pro-apartheid vision for the group. In the face of unilateral, anti-democratic repression from the outgoing national leadership, the BDSWG organized an uproar. They galvanized the pro-reform sentiment that resulted in this convention’s NPC election and posed the question, “Which side are you on?” to the entirety of DSA’s membership. In a word, they have acted like socialists.

While the DSA right justified its arguments against the BDSWG on grounds of procedure, organizational discipline, and comradely behavior, make no mistake: The overriding dynamic behind the push to silence the BDSWG was racism. Time and again, the principled Palestinian organizers of the BDSWG pushed the political envelope just a little too far for the comfort of the electoralist-dominated outgoing leadership. They refused to let their opposition to the genocidal, settler-colonial project in Palestine be traded away for political capital with DSA’s members in elected office, for whom anti-Zionism is still too politically dangerous of a stance with which to be associated. And because the BDSWG would not agree to sit down and quietly share an organization with people enthusiastically contributing to their oppression, the conservative leadership sought to marginalize them and silence them at every turn.

With this decision, the convention has sought to rid itself of the potential consequences of taking a stand against racism. This is not a debate about electoral strategy or social media messaging. This is about the socialist movement’s approach to the radical self-advocacy of our Black and brown comrades. Will we support their self-organization, uplift their demands, and follow their leadership in the fight for their own liberation? Or will we sacrifice the political priorities of oppressed people on the altar of power?

In this convention, DSA chose the latter; it has in fact chosen the latter repeatedly even as anti-racist struggle has carried this country’s working class movement in recent years. While millions took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, and tens of thousands of working-class militants experienced combat with the state for the first time in their lives, DSA focused its national strategy on so-called “class-wide demands” like medicare for all. There are chapters in the organization that must have imploded and rebuilt half a dozen times at this point due to persistent failures to adequately address questions of oppression in the organization, with chapter leadership being left in the hands of unrepentant misogynists and racists; and whole cities have seen their Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus locals and other anti-oppression formations be either purged, or else driven from the organization by racism and class reductionism from their “comrades.”

On a national level, the organization is in crisis, having bled tens of thousands of members and seen dozens of chapters become inactive since the organization’s high-point. And the centrality of racism to this dynamic–or at least, an insufficient attention to the centrality of white supremacy to the organization of US capitalism–is obvious in the makeup and activity of the organization that remains: Across the country, DSA chapters are integral to progressive electoral coalitions and relatively absent from fights against racism and for abolition of police and prisons.

I’m not a member of DSA. I left after the leadership of my chapter–supporters of the outgoing NPC right–managed to piss off virtually every pro-Palestine activist in my city with racist chastisements for “only caring about Palestine.” I don’t hold anything against my comrades on the revolutionary Left who choose to carry out their work inside of this country’s largest socialist organization. I share an organization with many of them. But I implore these comrades: This cannot be a moment for short-sighted celebration.

The DSA has carried out a massive betrayal of its stated values in this convention, and your Palestinian comrades are watching to see whether you will be genuine allies in their fight for liberation or opportunists looking to sell them out. The entire socialist movement is relying on you to demonstrate in action that socialism means nothing if not support for the movements of all oppressed people to get free.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.




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Jonah ben Avraham View All

Jonah ben Avraham is a Midwest-based socialist and anti-fascist activist. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.