In this critical look at Socialist Alternative, Ryan M and Skyler S grapple with how DSA should orient itself both internally and at the ballot box – from how campaigns build the organization and the class to holding its elected officials accountable without over-reliance on those same electeds to sustain our movement.
With the tasks of the socialist movement so monumental, and the forces arrayed against us so great, it is imperative that socialists seek to unite a majority of workers around our demands. In our work in communities and workplaces, it is fundamental to our mission to unite and build common cause to the furthest extent we can, as the bosses work diligently to divide us. But while these principles are straightforward enough, events since the end of the Sanders campaign have shown the complexity of this task.
In November, Chicago DSA censured Alderman Andre Vasquez after he voted to approve Mayor Lightfoot’s austerity budget. In late December further debate erupted as prominent media figures called on AOC and the Squad of socialist lawmakers to withhold their vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker unless a floor vote on Medicare for All was called. Events like this have sparked broad debate, both within DSA and on our periphery, about the meaning of accountability, organization, left unity, and what socialist strategy should look like in the coming period.
For the last five years, the left has been defined by two looming figures, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Together they created something like the north and south poles of the political landscape, and the left’s potential and prospects were largely governed by the gravitational fields these figures generated. Even before Bernie’s 2020 campaign launched, the dual features of opposition to the monstrous Trump administration and the support for Bernie’s agenda stabilized and created a common ground on which the left operated. This created a much higher degree of unity on the American left than had been found in almost any other period. But now that those figures no longer play the same all-encompassing roles they once did, predictably the political ground has already begun to shift.
Many, if not all, of the debates we have seen play out since November have shared the same underlying character. The diverse ideologies and strategies on the left are having to work out what common ground they still have beyond just a shared abstract commitment to socialism or progressive politics. But real unity, the sort of unity that is a constructive outward force, is rooted in a program—a common methodology of how ideas are put into action. How we organize ourselves, how we make decisions, how we view our relationship between our organization and the movement we operate in; all are foundational to any discussions of left unity.
The question of unity was a throughline in Seattle City Councilor and Socialist Alternative (SA) member Kshama Sawant’s recent announcement that she was joining DSA. “Unity in the socialist movement, on a principled basis, will be crucial. As we engage in serious debates, and sometimes sharp ones, about how we can fight back and how we can bring effective strategies and tactics into the emerging struggles, to push them forward and help lead them to victory.” Her announcement comes just months after SA announced that their members would be joining DSA as well.
What should DSA make of these sorts of developments? There is no question Sawant and SA have been active fighters for socialist ideas and that we share many of the same goals. It’s also clear that SA and DSA take sometimes vastly different approaches on a number of questions, such as electoral organizing, campaign work, and the most effective way to organize ourselves. But without fundamental, programmatic agreement on methods, unity would be a destructive rather than a constructive force in our common work. It would be a unity of form but not function, the same kind of unity you would get tying two cats together by the tail.
This is not a matter of sterile point scoring or dogmatic hair-splitting. If we take our work as socialists seriously, then we have a responsibility to seriously interrogate where we do, in fact, have common ground with organizations such as SA and where we differ, and whether those differences are only apparent or if they point to a fundamental difference on method and our entire theory of change.
But without fundamental, programmatic agreement on methods, unity would be a destructive rather than a constructive force in our common work. It would be a unity of form but not function, the same kind of unity you would get tying two cats together by the tail.
In their announcement on joining DSA, and in their analysis broadly, SA puts a lot of emphasis on their record in Seattle, and for good reason. The election of Kshama Sawant in 2013, alongside examples like Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson MS and the Richmond Progressive Alliance, were important moments in the development of the US left. Kshama has been at the head of many important fights, including the $15 minimum wage and taking on Amazon and Jeff Bezos in their hometown. “Socialist Alternative’s experience in Seattle includes three election victories against the Democratic Party leadership with Kshama Sawant running as an open, independent socialist every time.”
Framed in this way, the conclusion SA draws from this seems obvious: the left needs to break from the Democrats and form a new third party. “We think that DSA will be best positioned to grow and develop both the organization and the wider socialist movement by popularizing the need for a new party, running exemplary viable campaigns outside of the Democratic Party, and focusing its energy on building mass movements. This approach would require DSA decisively breaking from the Democrats and helping lay the basis for a new mass party.”
SA has always framed their work on the Seattle City Council as just such a sharp break and as an example of how a new mass party could be formed, contrasting their methods against DSA’s as something quite different. And while there’s no question Sawant’s positions have been a sharp contrast to mainstream Democrats locally and nationally, that alone doesn’t paint the whole picture of Sawant and SA’s work on the council. Alongside sharp criticism, SA has also shown a willingness to build common cause with individual Democrats and formal party leadership when strategic.
In her 2013 election, Democratic leaders like former King County Democratic Party Chair Daniel Norton endorsed Sawant. The Stranger noted that “the fascinating thing about this race is how much quiet support Sawant has garnered from Democratic Party activists—and yes, even a few elected officials” and that “Sawant should have little trouble working with Democrats to help push forward her agenda.” More recently in her 2019 re-election race, where it was revealed that Jeff Bezos was pouring money into her challenger’s campaign to defeat Sawant, she stood side by side with Council Democrats Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González who endorsed her re-election along with Democrats from the State House. This was the same year that SA endorsed Bernie Sanders—despite declining to do so in 2016—even though he was running in a Democratic primary.
Aside from generalizations about being in “solidarity” with the movement around Sanders, SA doesn’t explain how endorsing Sanders fits with their broader strategy of drawing as clear a line as possible between them and the Democratic Party. This is no sin in and of itself. DSA’s inside-outside approach to electoral work is totally in line with this sort of strategy. But we are not trying to build a third party, and for SA, as “an explicitly revolutionary Marxist organization”, these sorts of zig-zags in positions are conspicuous. Where do they draw the line between blanket rejection of engagement with the Democrats and supporting and accepting support from sections of the Democratic Party? Are these decisions in fact “principled”, anchored in an internally consistent analysis? Or are they simply pragmatic decisions based on the political needs of the moment?
Looking beyond Seattle, their electoral record doesn’t appear to indicate some untapped potential for third-party candidates that DSA has somehow been unable or unwilling to pursue. Since electing Sawant to the Seattle City Council in 2013, SA has been unable to make breakthroughs in any other race, including Ty Moore in 2013, Jess Spear in 2014, and Ginger Jentzen in 2017. While these campaigns were impressive in many ways, they didn’t result in victory and dominate so much of SA’s resources and attention that they can only attempt at most one yearly.
The most recent example is perhaps the most instructive here. Joshua Collins, a trucker, ran for Washinton’s 10th Congressional district, was endorsed by Socialist Alternative, and identified himself publicly as an SA member.
Collins appeared to exemplify SA’s approach to elections, summarized as the need to “engage with broader mass forces in struggle, point the way forward to victories, and in the process popularize the need to break from the Democrats and form a new working-class party.” Collins’ popularity spiked due to his adoption of a Rent Strike 2020 campaign which garnered over 2 million signatures and which helped his campaign earn $258,000 in donations.
SA strongly supported his candidacy, having Collins appear alongside Sawant on livestreams and making a May 1st national rent strike a prominent feature of their work.
While Collins originally declared his intention to run as a Democrat, just a few weeks after receiving SA’s endorsement he announced that he would instead register to run under the banner of the “Essential Workers Party”, a “party” created by his campaign that he hoped his successful run would help galvanize.
Collins’ momentum, however, was stymied by controversy, questionable campaign decisions, a disappearance from social media, poor performance in interviews, and an overall lack of communication to his donors about his operations or plan. Ultimately the campaign was a clear failure. Despite spending over $200,000 in the race, Collins earned roughly 1,000 votes, less than 1% of the vote overall, trailing behind a joke candidate running on the “Congress Sucks” party line.
Although stating at the time that running third party “makes sense” for this race, he felt differently about the decision after the campaign ended. “We thought, based on public sentiment & the level of disapproval the parties had at the time, that this was a good move. Clearly, it wasn’t. Wish I knew now what I knew then. People will trash the Dem Party, but they’ll still vote for it at the end of the day.”
The charitable conclusion is that the Collins campaign says nothing about SA or its assertion that there is massive untapped potential for a third party in the US that the left so far has simply been unwilling to pursue. That Collins was simply lightning in a bottle that failed for personal rather than political reasons. But even granting all that, with all the experience that SA points to of running winning third party campaigns, and holding their candidates accountable, why was the lack of seriousness not a serious red flag for an organization so fixated on holding their candidates to a higher standard? Upon closer inspection, SA’s formula for holding electeds accountable is far less effective than it appears at first blush.
…[T]heir approach generates a core tension between SA and the movement they operate within: a desire, on the one hand, to have some orientation to mass movements while on the other wanting to maintain effective control of such involvement.
In the wake of the censure of Alderman Vasquez by Chicago DSA, SA called on DSA to adopt their own practices for holding elected officials accountable. “DSA members in elected office accepting only the average workers’ wage as their salary, and donating the rest back to the movement” as SA does, and that this “would also help hold them accountable to our overall program and mission.” While this is a good idea in the abstract, in practice it raises some concerns about building a truly independent party.
The key phrase here is “donating the rest back to the movement.” What this means in practice is an elected effectively setting their dues to whatever amount would bring their take-home pay down to prevailing worker’s wages. So say an elected was paid $100k a year, and the prevailing wage was half that, their dues would be something like $50,000 a year. That is a significant amount of money and if it were spread out over dozens of electeds across the country, it could end up comprising a significant portion of an organization’s budget.
It isn’t hard to see the problem here. DSA prides itself on being member-run and member-funded. And while having electeds donate most of their salary to the organization doesn’t strictly speaking conflict with that, it’s easy to see a situation develop where the organization grows to depend on that money to finance their work, giving those electeds an outsized influence on the organization and its decision.
This exact thing was alleged by the “Minority Group” which left SA in 2018 to join DSA and form the Reform & Revolution caucus. In their open letter, they wrote that “an over-reliance on the council office” had developed in the leadership “which has driven them towards an opportunist political and organizational approach out of fears about Kshama getting re-elected in 2019.”
In internal documents published by the Minority Group upon their departure, they give further details about how they believed the work of the organization, and even their internal democracy had become subordinated to the Council Office. “The Seattle organization is being increasingly led by the council office, which will take decisions and then mobilize the branches ‘in coordination with the SEC’ to campaign in support of its initiatives. Changes in the composition of the SEC and the Council Strategy Team have been carried out undemocratically, leading to a situation where our public representative, with the support of the EC Majority, has removed those who raised disagreements.” The final sentence refers to an instance where an SA member working in Sawant’s office was terminated, allegedly as a result of taking positions within SA that the leadership didn’t approve of.
Even if we look beyond just Seattle and expand our view to SA’s electoral work internationally we see that their formula for accountability has a complicated record. In Ireland, their sibling organization the Socialist Party (SP) grew its greatest ever share in the Irish parliament in the early 2010s. In the context of the anti-austerity movement in Ireland gaining steam, and in a coalition ticket with other left forces called the Anti-Austerity Alliance, the SP elected as many as seven TDs to the Dail Éireann and as many more local councilors (mostly in Dublin).
However, the SP had trouble balancing the desire to keep electeds on a tight leash and the objective need to build the Left more broadly outside of the confines of SP-controlled formations. In 2012 Socialist Party TD Clare Daly resigned, citing her desire to work more to build the United Left Alliance–a broad electoral formation in which the SP was a member –as the reason for her departure. Even just recently one of the SP’s most prominent electeds, Paul Murphy, left the SP, again citing his desire to work harder to build common cause with a broader coalition as the reason. Today, the SP has gone from a zenith of seven to just one TD. Even within the parliamentary system, which arguably lends itself most readily to the sort of accountability third-party advocates seem to want, SA’s approach is no silver bullet.
The examples in Ireland, the Collins campaign, the zig-zagging on phenomena like the Sanders campaign, are certainly not an argument against socialists holding their elected officials accountable to the organization. However, they do underline two crucial points. First, the way SA talks about their model for accountability doesn’t always conform to reality, nor is it a shortcut, and poses its own very serious ramifications for building socialist organization. Secondly, and more acutely, their approach generates a core tension between SA and the movement they operate within: a desire, on the one hand, to have some orientation to mass movements while on the other wanting to maintain effective control of such involvement. Not only has this tension lead to many challenges even holding onto their electeds without compromising their organizational integrity, it’s also produced bizarre oscillations in their campaign work outside the electoral field.
The most recent example of this is the Rent Strike 2020 campaign, which helped launch the Joshua Collins congressional campaign to prominence. SA made the campaign a central aspect of their work in the summer of 2020, calling for a national rent strike on May 1. While they stated they intended to use the action to build grassroots organizations for a longer-term movement, according to the website the campaign hasn’t held an organizing call since August. It is also not clear how this campaign is working to establish formations like tenant unions which could democratically lead the housing justice movement from the bottom up.
One campaign simply not panning out is understandable, but pushing hard on a campaign that SA appears to be the only “partner” in, only later for it to be dropped for no obvious reason appears to be a theme. An initiative called “Workers Speak Out” was launched in March 2020, only to be dropped some 12 weeks later. Socialist Students, another campaign, was launched in August 2016 only to disappear from public materials a few months later. Movement for Bernie was launched in the midst of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, then renamed Movement for the 99% after the campaign ended, again only to disappear from public materials.
SA’s record with external campaigns bears more than a passing resemblance to what is sometimes called “front group-ism” or “tailism.” This is a feature of some forms of left organizing, often associated with sectarian models, where rather than seeking to be full partners with other organizations in common work, organizations instead throw up astroturf style “campaigns” that are really just little more than banners and slogans with no real life or mass character. The objective is less to actually win the demands they promote, but rather to capitalize off the popularity of those demands by creating a transmission belt between the broader movement and themselves in order to acquire more members, more volunteers, and resources. It’s a transactional approach whose objective is more about access than building the collective capacity of workers themselves.
As outsiders to SA, we have very little access to the internal discussions that would help illuminate how SA conceptualizes their relationship to this external work. However, the limited documents we do have seem to verify they see this relationship as principally a question of “access.” In one of the documents published by the “Minority Group,” SA’s Executive Committee states, “Our relations with left figures in DSA can be important for us, but only insofar as they give us access to DSA’s fresher layers who are moving into struggle. The key relationships with DSA members will be built through local collaboration on issues in which we can set the political tone of the actions, meetings or campaigns taking place.” (Emphasis added.) They go on elsewhere to say that they consider these layers to be “ultra left” on questions like “policing, prisons and BDS” though they don’t elaborate on what they mean by this.
“Campaigns” like this are nothing new to DSA members, and many times we’ve been accused of not getting involved in such campaigns for “sectarian” reasons. But the internal life and energy from working class people in a campaign is not a secondary issue, nor is it irrelevant whether the campaign has a real plan to win what it sets out to do. Whether a campaign has real momentum behind it, seeking real credibility and buy-in among our class, or if it is simply a slogan with a website and a hashtag is essential to any serious Marxist analysis. Questions like what level of organization are we leaving behind and who are we organizing who weren’t before are not ancillary issues; they are at the heart of questions of what work to take up.
The collective power of workers is the only path to socialism, but while workers are scattered and unorganized they are fundamentally disarmed. Even if slogans and hashtags could bring about some kind of spontaneous workers revolution, without organization our movement would be crushed under the weight of it, shattered to the core by the hammer blows of events. There is simply no shortcut to the task of organizing the working class as a class, and real, serious, living campaigns and organization are critical to that task.
One of the cofounders of SA’s sibling organization in Ireland, Peter Hadden, perhaps said it best in discussing a proposal for joint work between the SP and another socialist organization (the SWP), “The problem with SWP ‘committees’ and ‘campaigns’ is not that you have initiated them. We applaud bold initiatives in launching mass activity where these can tap into a mood among the working class and the youth. The real problem is that they are never given any life – there are no structures, no internal democracy – they are simply an implementation device for decisions taken elsewhere by the Political Committee of the SWP.”
DSA’s campaign work is by no means perfect, but wherever possible we try to establish campaigns that we can work on long-term, and—ideally at least—work to consistently review and improve them over time. The Gimme a Break! brake light clinic campaign in New Orleans DSA and Stomp Out Slumlords in Metro DC DSA are good examples of this. Just weeks ago SOS released the latest in a series of detailed public reports on what their work has looked like and how their strategy has evolved and changed over time. New Orleans DSA brake light clinic released a similar retrospective in 2019. They also give attention to how the broader community they are working within has influenced and impacted their work. The Stomp Out Slumlords campaign has even successfully organized and integrated tenants unions into the life of the campaign.
Socialist Alternative and organizations like it making such errors would not be such a sin if “accountability” weren’t so central to their identity. Though SA claims that their model means that “candidates and our members are democratically accountable” to the decisions the organization takes up there seems to be very little evidence supporting this, in fact, quite the opposite. Internally SA lacks what most DSA members would regard as a basic function of democratic accountability: competitive elections for leadership by direct vote of the membership.
In DSA all executive leadership is elected in this way. Any member is free to run and the membership votes. Though how the votes are calculated may differ from chapter to chapter, and at our national convention it’s the directly elected delegates who vote, they all have that basic feature in common.
SA’s system is quite different. In what is known as the “slate system,” the outgoing leadership proposes a slate which is then voted up or down by the members (see the figure below for an example). While slates of candidates on a common platform are somewhat common in DSA, that is not how this system operates. There are no ballots, there are no candidate statements, there are no questionnaires or forums or platforms. The old leadership proposes the next leadership (usually consisting principally of the old leadership) and the members vote “yes” or “no” by raising their hands. This system is used for every internal election, from the chapter to the national level, with even delegates to the convention being elected by slates advanced by the local leadership (who are themselves also elected by the slate system). It doesn’t require much imagination to see the problems with this for democratic accountability.
Organizations that use the slate system typically claim that this is simply how elections work within the Marxist tradition, but this is not true. The Bolshevik party, all the way up to and including the period of the seizure of power, did not use the slate system. In fact they elected their central committee the same way DSA elects its NPC: competitive elections by direct votes of delegates at a conference. The slate system first came about during the period of war communism, coinciding with the banning of factions within the party. Though Lenin argued that these systems were extreme emergency measures to keep the party together during a time of war, they remained in effect as the leadership of the party transitioned from Lenin to Stalin due to Lenin’s failing health. It is from this period that the slate system draws its origins, not anything specific to the Bolsheviks or democratic centralism as an organizational model.
SA have their own critiques of DSA’s democratic practices, specifically related to the “ban” on democratic centralist organizations in DSA’s bylaws. “We think DSA should remove this exclusionary rule as another useful step towards transforming the socialist left into an important component for the emerging class struggles.”
The rule is a dated artifact of a different time that is never even enforced and does little more than cause friction. But it’s also emblematic of a deeper problem within DSA, specifically how that one article of DSA’s bylaws is the only thing even resembling guidelines for internal formations in the organization.
DSA should remove the ban and replace it with a very simple alternative that would apply to all internally organized ideological formations: that their leadership be decided by competitive elections and direct ballot of their membership. Such a rule would apply to formations in DSA such as caucuses, or outside organizations such as SA looking to work within our own. This has already been standard for all DSA chapters in the country and CPN has elected our leadership this way since our founding conference in 2019. This would not mean that every single committee and working group in DSA would hold direct elections. But for formations explicitly seeking to organize for a specific perspective or ideological point of view, we think it isn’t much to ask that they be accountable to their members and organize themselves democratically.
Questions like what level of organization are we leaving behind and who are we organizing who weren’t before are not ancillary issues; they are at the heart of questions of what work to take up.
The value of a close inspection of Socialist Alternative and their internal life—such as it is—is not because SA occupies some unique importance on the left, but because such an appraisal discloses very graphically the fundamental features of this approach which SA applies and some on the left share. In a political moment where DSA experienced titanic growth and lived for four years in a pro-Bernie anti-Trump left, how will we as an organization define ourselves on this new terrain? In such a formative time for the future of our organization, these voices will certainly be part of the refrain, especially as groups like SA explicitly announce that they intend to enter DSA and take part in those debates.
DSA has certainly seen our fair share of critique. That is likely to intensify as organizations and personalities jockey for this or that left flank in a post-Trump world. But so often when we look just a little deeper and ask very basic questions like “Who do these people represent? Who elected their leaders? How do they reach decisions?” we find organizations that are run by singular strong personalities, organizations run by staff funded exclusively through grant money, ossified sects who’ve had the same leadership for twenty years, groupings of influential people with just a name and a logo on a website to try and pass themselves off as an organization, or something somewhere in between. The fact is that for literal decades in the US the left consisted of little else. As a democratic, member-run, and member-funded organization, it’s DSA which is the exception. This is part of what makes DSA not only worth building and protecting but altogether unique on the US left.
The left today is faced with enormous opportunities but also serious challenges. Events have shown that despite the influence we’ve built as DSA, our reach still exceeds our grasp. What is needed to rise to the challenge of the moment is a mass socialist organization, not of 100,000, but millions; an organization deeply embedded in the day-to-day lives of an even broader layer of millions of people, through their unions, neighborhood associations, and through active campaigns with clear goals.
To create that sort of movement, we can’t rely on the same old tactics that established the left as a fringe element for decades, and from their inception were formulated to deal with a period, not of opportunity, but of global retreat for socialist politics. Preserving a Marxist orientation and growing in the period we find ourselves in today requires that we hold on to the fundamental methodology of Marxism, rather than just the shibboleths and formulations that give the appearance of strategy. We can’t rely on the “get-rich-quick” schemes of front groups and tactics that amount to little more than performance art.
Opening ourselves up through direct mass work with our class, even when that process is messy or where we can’t maintain strict control over its trajectory, is not a weakness of DSA’s approach but one of its greatest strengths. It isn’t just the most effective method for mass politics, it’s in fact the only approach that has the potential to bring us forward to victory, rather than a long process of managed retreat.