By Maria Svart
The 2013 DSA convention, held in Emeryville, Calif. from October 25-27, brought together socialists from across the country to rejuvenate DSA’s organizing capacity and reorient our strategy.
Neoliberal capitalism’s attack on unions and the social safety net has weakened working people and the public programs we demanded and won from government during the New Deal. But the dramatic rise in inequality caused by bipartisan policies of austerity and upward income redistribution has given rise to grassroots resistance by low-wage workers, immigrants, and indebted former college students. Convention sessions focused on how socialists can strategically help build these new movements. The convention also marked the beginning of a generational transformation within DSA, as those under the age of 35 constituted almost one-third of the 100 attendees.
The Friday plenary session on “Understanding Power and Oppression” introduced a series of caucuses in which delegates reflected on issues of class, gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. To accelerate the recruitment of younger members, convention delegates committed to expanding DSA’s “Drop Student Debt” campaign. The campaign works for a short-term alleviation of the student debt burden through an expansion of the Obama administration’s Income Based Repayment program, while raising the long-term transformative goal of free and universal higher education. DSA local chapters using the campaign have increased their visibility and recruited younger members into their activist core.
The convention also began a two-year, organization-wide grassroots strategy discussion designed to build on DSA’s historic strengths while reshaping our politics so as to respond to 21st century neoliberalism. Introductory talks by me, DSA Honorary Co-Chair Gus Newport, and National Nurses Union Political Director Michael Lighty (who served as DSA national director from 1990-1993) set the context for the “strategy reboot.” I addressed the need for the socialist movement to root itself among a young generation that is skeptical about capitalism. Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley, Calif., and a veteran civil rights activist, urged socialists to join mass struggles against the prison-industrial complex and voter suppression. Lighty argued that neoliberal capitalism’s belief that “there is no society, just individuals” yields a politics of austerity and environmental degradation that impoverishes children, guts pensions, and threatens the future of the planet.
DSA National Vice-Chair Joseph Schwartz’s Saturday morning plenary address set the stage for small group discussions. He argued that DSA’s founding strategy assumed that socialists would be the left wing of a revitalized New Deal coalition grounded in the traditional labor movement. But since DSA’s 1983 founding, the Democratic Party’s national leadership has embraced a bipartisan consensus favoring “the four Ds of neoliberalism”: deregulation, de-unionization, decreasing taxes on the rich, and defunding social services. Thus, DSA strategy, Schwartz argued, has to both defeat the anti-democratic far right and build ties between a weakened labor movement and movements of the dispossessed: immigrants, low-wage workers, victims of the prison-industrial complex, and indebted recent college graduates. Finally, Schwartz held, DSA should be more militant in its critique of capitalist injustice, while offering a visible socialist alternative.
The East Bay DSA chapter hosted a packed house of delegates and Bay Area supporters for a public event featuring rousing speeches by Nation writer John Nichols, LeftRoots co-founder Steve Williams, and Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Excerpts from and videos of their speeches are posted online at https://www.dsausa.org/convention_2013_report .
Author, photographer, and immigrant rights activist David Bacon illustrated the grim results of global capitalism run amok with his moving presentation and slideshow at the convention banquet. Remarks by Tom Hayden, the other banquet keynote speaker and veteran social-change activist, are also available at https://www.dsausa.org/convention_2013_report .
Our convention affirmed that to take on the capitalist oligarchy, DSA chapters must be rooted in the local grassroots resistance movements. Only by building an international movement that prioritizes human and labor rights over the accumulation of profit can we accomplish that task. Building DSA at the local and national level, delegates affirmed, will contribute to this project of a lifetime.
Maria Svart is the National Director of DSA.