Palestine, electoral politics and the DSA

August 28, 2018

Benjamin Balthaser, a member of DSA, co-chair of the South Side Chicago DSA branch, and an author and writer for such publications as Jacobin, Boston Review, American Quarterly and In These Times, comments on the relationship between the growth of the organization, the prominence of successful candidates and opposition to imperialism.

SINCE ALEXANDRIA Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for Congress, a debate has erupted inside and outside the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) about positions taken by these high-profile DSA members on Palestine and the American empire.

The charge is simple: These newly minted left celebrities, who can claim a grail of victory all too remote for most on the left — refuse to take clear stances on the ongoing Israeli apartheid against Palestinians; in general, they say far too little about the global U.S. war machine. Ocasio-Cortez’s recent tweet praising John McCain has only rekindled this debate.

The contours of the debate should be rather familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of 20th century politics: Either the left can’t stake its success on “ultra” positions against U.S. imperialism; our task is to build a mass movement around bread-and-butter issues Americans care about. Or: a left that does not place U.S. imperialism, global solidarity and the most vulnerable at the forefront is not a left at all, and empire is, of course, very much a bread-and-butter issue.

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As much as the second position is “correct,” I feel both are rather abstract; they elide the strange nature of what is taking place right now.

Two socialists, both women of color, are poised to land seats in Congress; dozens of socialist candidates in races large and small appear slated to win, and tens of thousands of new members sign up with DSA, with more pouring in every day. The New York City chapter alone has more members than DSA had nationwide two years ago. DSA has more members in Chicago than any of its socialist rivals have nationwide.

And DSA’s response to this influx of new members, as an organization, has been not to moderate, but move left: At its national convention last year, delegates voted to embrace the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli human rights violations; it endorsed the creation of an Afro-socialist caucus that includes abolition of prisons and police as part of its platform. The size and militancy of the organization, at least on paper, is staggering to anyone who came of age in an earlier time.

And yet, the DSA is not a party in a traditional sense, as much as I would like it to be: Its delegates or national leadership has little control over the ideological alignments of its membership. Most of its tens of thousands of new members don’t regularly come to meetings, and aren’t involved in working groups or out canvassing for elections.

FOR MANY young people joining DSA, “socialism” is a word that has lost its coordinates to history. It doesn’t mean the Communist Party let alone Debs’ Socialist Party. The word, if it means anything, articulates a break with the status quo; it is a word that summarizes a scandal: all the ways neoliberalism has failed us and that we need something else, a new politics, a new relationship to capitalism and our communities.

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Socialism, as it’s used, is a structure of feeling, a common sense, a kind of signification, rather than a coherent ideology.

My sense is that the DSA is more like a social movement than a party — no one’s really organized it (and certainly the DSA didn’t go out and recruit these new members); chapters and candidates sprout up and announce themselves without checking with DSA’s National Political Committee or the many regional executive committees.

I’m reminded more of what I’ve read of the early days of the CIO than anything else: It was described as a kind of social democratic working class revivalism; workers would occupy their factories and call up organizers asking what to do next, rather than organizers going out a patiently creating a campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, I would guess, would probably not be socialists two years ago, and joined in the same wave that many new, previously not-socialist members joined.

This, of course, creates a strange kind of break, in which the membership is both ahead of and behind the “leadership” of the party; taking risks and showing up — and winning! — in ways that would have been unimaginable to any of the seasoned activists who make up the center of the organization.

Certainly if anyone asked me if a socialist should run for Congress, I would have said no, especially not against an entrenched party hack such as Joe Crowley, or for a seat as prominent as John Conyers’.

And so it is hard to feel cynical or betrayed by people, by activists, who saw an opening and leaped — and in leaping, broke the conjuncture open for a new kind of social democratic politics, a politics that we die everyday, quite literally, for want of.

This break, this rupture, is not just about electoral politics. As people see Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib claim victory, they come into material contact with grassroots socialist organizing, and at least some number will wander over to their local DSA branch or chapter.

This break, we should be reminded, is not ideological — it is transformational. The hardest thing to convince people of is not that capitalism is bad — its failures are all around us, stinking to heaven. It’s that anything can be done, that any change is possible at all.

And yet, of course, these candidates fall far short of the DSA’s own positions on many things — not just Palestine, but also capitalism (I’ve noticed far fewer people are angry that AOC has not called for the democratic ownership of production, which is also an official DSA position).

Clearly people are right to try and reach Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, and certainly have every right to confront them on the shortcomings of their politics. And very obviously, the DSA needs to invest what time and capacity it has (which is limited, all volunteer, erratic and grassroots, with no paid staff) in member education on these important issues, in particular Palestine and U.S. imperialism.

But to simply say: DSA candidates must take a hard position on U.S. imperialism and Palestine misses not only the real relationship between DSA and these members, but also the constitutive nature of this movement and its relationship to the left.

PEOPLE TALK about the DSA as a stable entity, an organization like United Auto Workers or even the International Socialist Organization (ISO), that has a clearly defined leadership and that can hold members to account when they refuse to accept the organization’s agreed-upon, core principles.

DSA is both far more and far less: It is a movement of ordinary people rising up and demanding more, who have come to it not as fully formed socialists to a fully formed organization, but rather as the sum total of their motion. No one asked Ocasio-Cortez to run; shall we rescind our endorsement and cease working to ensure she’s elected? To tell these new DSA candidates to go home until we get the socialists we’d rather have?

To say yes, I think, is to fatally misread the situation, to privilege ideology over the real movement of people — a thing hard enough to grasp on the wing. The question to me is less are these people right or wrong, but what is the role of a left inside and outside of a new social movement?

Socialism is not just an analysis of capitalism. That’s easy enough to have. Go downtown into an American city and see homeless people lining the street while buildings remain empty; go to the many deindustrialized small towns across the Midwest boarded up like sets for horror films; go to Flint, Michigan, where you can’t drink the water; go the South Side of Chicago, where I hear gunshots nightly from the streets; go to the fields of California where smoke fills the sky from our burning forests and migrant farmworkers breathe Malaoxon in the hot strawberry fields: the decay and obscenity of American capitalism is all around, if one cares to look.

Socialists, of course, have an analysis that links, as Richard Wright famously said, the woman hoeing cotton in the South and the men who loll in swivel chairs on Wall Street. But the analysis is not what makes a socialist: It is the question of what is to be done, how do we go from here to there.

This is simply to say that the answers are not easy. A comrade in DSA recently posted that he’s happy DSA can include people who support BDS and those who don’t. This seems insufficient: Clearly we wouldn’t say we are happy to have in our organization people who support apartheid and those who don’t.

And yet equivalent calls to expel, rescind endorsements or to threaten these activists who have leaped ahead of the organization they are now paradoxically spokespersons of, seems equally shortsighted.

The hardest thing, as C.L.R. James writes in his Notes on Dialectics, is to capture the nature of a thing in motion, in the moment of its change. We are in a moment of dialectical upsurge, and we need to take stock of the complicated place it puts us in.

Even the question of electoral politics is not as simple as having an opinion about the Democrats and their potential for reform: Elections are not only a question of power, but of mass culture, signification, hegemony and the strange civic religion of voting that has reached a fever pitch with the victory of Trump.

The DSA’s strength is that it is open enough to bend with these whipsawing currents, and yet needs to create structures and mechanisms to engage new members as they come in: to educate and train them and to create campaigns that will build the organization over the long term.

Anti-imperialism needs to be part of this. As I’ve written elsewhere, what made the socialists of the 1930s unique is not only that they had an analysis of global capitalism, but that they connected it to daily struggles, linking fascism to Jim Crow, the U.S. military budget to social programs, even the culture of football to imperial masculinity.

But these are efforts that need to be built, piece by piece, member by member. There are no shortcuts.

And such organization needs to be built: German-Jewish and Marxist critic Walter Benjamin famously warned shortly before his death that the “conformism” of “social democracy” can sap revolutionary movements and moments of their vitality, their radical strangeness, as social democrats embrace the limits of the system they say they oppose.

We could be in a moment that is potentially a real break from the last 30, maybe even 50 years of defeat and loss. It is the challenge of our generation. And I’m also convinced that what is needed is a way to engage, move forward, build, and we do that first by realizing the radical and chaotic mess of reality — what the real relationship of DSA is to people who call themselves democratic socialists.

Further Reading

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