A Socialist Strategy for the 21st Century

Frank Reynoso

By Jared Abbott and Joseph M. Schwartz

DSA’s current organizational statement of principles and strategic vision, “Building the Next Left,” was written almost 20 years ago, when the political and economic situation was different from that of today. It’s time for a new statement, and the 2013 national convention mandated a two-year, organization-wide discussion in preparation for the rewriting.

Our long-term goal continues to be to achieve a democratic socialist society in which institutions—be they political, economic, social, or cultural—are democratically controlled by their participants. On the way from here to there, what are the intermediate steps, the strategy? 

A coherent socialist strategy must first assess the state of global capitalism (its strengths and vulnerabilities), of contemporary U.S. politics, and of the social movements that resist aspects of capitalist domination at home and abroad. In turn, this evaluative process should shape DSA’s understanding of how to build a stronger independent socialist movement that can help move the broad progressive movement in a socialist direction, as well as become an important political force in its own right. Finally, a coherent strategy would outline the specific tactics upon which DSA should focus its limited resources in the short- to medium-term.

To date, about 80 of DSA’s most active leaders have taken part in an online forum and participated in monthly small-group conference calls on various strategic issues, such as the future of the labor movement and racial politics. What have we learned and what are the next steps?

History of DSA Strategy

When DSA was formed in 1982 out of the merger of the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, many believed that the election of French Socialist President François Mitterrand and the focus of several European socialist parties on worker control of production prefigured the growth of a more radical trend in social democracy. Consequently, DSA’s original strategy envisioned strengthening the labor and the socialist wing of what we hoped would be a revitalized and radicalized U.S. liberalism and European social democracy. Few imagined the depths to which the left and labor would fall nor the resounding success, by the 1990s, of the bipartisan, neoliberal project of de-unionization; deregulation; decreasing taxes on the rich and corporations; and trimming, if not gutting, social provision.

In 1995, after a four-year, organization-wide discussion, DSA revised its 1982 founding strategy document to argue that the organization had to take on not just the right but also centrist, corporate-funded Democratic Party elites. The document also stressed the importance of opposition to the right’s use of racial politics to appeal to sectors of a de-industrialized white working class and the need to both rebuild American labor and strengthen emergent global labor and “fair trade” movements. This strategy, however, did not fully anticipate the spread of “third way” social democracy to the European continent or the displacement of socialist ideology among radical social movements by decentralized, “horizontalist” and anti-statist visions.


In the current discussions among DSA activists, points of general agreement and points of disagreement have emerged. Most participants in the strategy discussion concur that DSA must develop a more serious internal educational culture that equips our members to articulate a socialist critique of capitalism and a vision of a socialist society. We must also educate effective organizers who build DSA’s capacity. Most also concur that DSA local chapters need to engage in a stronger public moral critique of capitalism, while offering a compelling vision of an alternative society.

At the same time, two somewhat contrasting, albeit quite broad and porous, “strategic camps” have emerged. The first might be loosely termed a more militant version of DSA’s traditional focus on coalition politics.  This tendency would argue that in order to move the United States toward a more democratic and egalitarian society we must defeat right-wing racist efforts to restrict the franchise, deport immigrants, and gut social provision. At the same time, DSA should work to limit the power of capital (for example, by fighting for single-payer health care, labor law reform, and a financial transactions tax) and to reverse the stranglehold of big money over the political system. This strategic analysis contends that in order to put more radical “non-reformist” reforms on the agenda—reforms that limit the rights of capital, such as public ownership of the finance industry or mandated worker representation on corporate boards—the left would first have to build the political power necessary to reverse neoliberal policies of tax giveaways to corporations, the de facto elimination of a right to form unions, and the privatization and defunding of public goods. According to this analysis, if the broad labor-left is weak and the center-right is dominant, then there is little possibility of winning a full-blooded socialist alternative.

Anticapitalist Education

The second tendency argues that even if the conditions that produced social democracy and welfare-state liberalism in the post–Second World War era could be revived, an alternative strategy to the class compromise of the Keynesian welfare state would be necessary to constrain the retaliatory power of capital. From this perspective, any revived progressive movement will fail to realize its full anticapitalist potential without a radical pole pushing it to the left, and socialists will fail in their medium- to long-term goals unless they build an independent space for socialist politics. This perspective contends that DSA should put its energy into organizing around explicitly anticapitalist demands—or at least framing more moderate demands in non-reformist language that emphasizes their anticapitalist potential—as well as building explicitly anticapitalist movements of resistance (such as Occupy Wall Street). While concurring with the other broad tendency in DSA that we must be deeply involved in anti-austerity/anti-racism coalition work, this strategy would also emphasize radical public education around alternatives to capitalism and activist projects to the left of social democracy. They might also hold that, if DSA is to do electoral work, it should prioritize running explicitly socialist candidates.

Although significant differences exist between them, these two strategies are by no means incompatible, and many DSAers reading this will likely see themselves within one camp on certain issues and within the other camp on others. As an organization we face real and important strategic choices, as our human and financial resources are limited.

Next Steps

The next stage of the strategy discussion process will be to solicit and discuss position papers on a range of strategic questions from any interested parties in DSA and encourage local chapters to hold their own discussions. Meanwhile, a drafting committee will begin work on a new statement of principles and strategic vision based on inputs received from the strategy conference calls. The committee will produce a document in early 2015 for discussion at a “virtual” strategy conference May 2-3. To save costs in a year when we also have a DSA convention, we will hold weekend-long, regional in-person meetings that will be connected by video conferencing. This is in lieu of a national meeting and will allow more people to participate.

The conference will provide the drafting committee with the necessary feedback to redraft the document. The drafting committee will then distribute the revised document throughout the organization for discussion, which will lead to a working paper that can be debated and voted on at the November 2015 DSA convention. We urge all rank-and-file activists in the organization to participate in the process and help set our organization on the best possible course for growth and success in the coming years.

Joe_Schwartz_AID.png Joseph M. Schwartz teaches politics at Temple University and is a vice-chair of DSA and a member of its National Political Committee (NPC).


JaredAbbottAID.png Jared Abbott is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Harvard and a member of the DSA NPC and chair of its Strategy Project Committee. For more information on the strategy discussion process or to join the discussion (which all DSA members are encouraged to do), please contact Jared Abbott at jaredabbott@g.harvard.edu

This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For an example of what the strategy discussions might look like, the Coordinating Committee of the Young Democratic Socialists have posted a strategy document: Statement on the 2014 Elections on their blog, The Activist, and David Duhalde of DSA has posted a response: http://www.ydsusa.org/keep_our_options_open.

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