Fire Starters for Socialism

By David Walls


Millions of U.S. citizens have voted for self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders for president in the 2016 Democratic primary elections. As Harold Meyerson noted in the Spring 2016 American Prospect, “Sanders’s campaign didn’t create a new American left. It revealed it.”

The absence of a strong socialist tradition in the United States was the result of brutal repression and the U.S. economy’s ability to improve living standards for the working class. But the rising inequality gap in income and wealth has made the European welfare states very attractive, and the end of the Cold War has dimmed ideological opposition to socialism.

With the presidential election a few months away, Sanders campaigners are asking what comes after the election. Other progressive presidential campaigns have attempted to build post-election movements. After 2008, Howard Dean’s supporters formed Democracy for America, Dennis Kucinich backers formed Progressive Democrats for America, and Barack Obama’s successful Obama for America became Organizing for America and recently Organizing for Action (and will become part of the Obama Foundation that raises money for his presidential library). They joined such previously formed groups as Wellstone Action (created to carry on the legacy of the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone) and MoveOn (formed as at the time of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton).

Most of these groups were structured as PACs (Political Action Committees) and are run by small groups of self-perpetuating directors. By and large, they have done little to expand or build greater unity in the progressive movement at any level—local, state, or national. Most are disproportionately white, middle-class, and middle-aged. (I present my critique of in the Dissent online symposium on organizing:

For a model that has a chance to build a progressive movement, we must look to the example of institution-based community organizing (IBCO), which has succeeded in deepening ties among progressive groups and expanding civic participation by poor and working-class people, union members, immigrants, and people of color. The broad tradition of community organizing developed from Saul Alinsky’s work has many branches, but all emphasize developing new leadership from under-represented communities and winning a real share of political power in the local city or metropolitan area. A majority of the 200 or so IBCOs participate in national networks—some representing primarily religious congregations (Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO National Network, Gamaliel Foundation), others secular organizations (National People’s Action network).

These people-power “organizations of organizations” tackle such issues from the progressive agenda as affordable housing and homelessness, education reform, transportation equity, criminal justice, and living-wage campaigns. The networks are learning how to coordinate the work of their members to have an impact on state and national policy as well at the local level.

They can build on structures already in place to organize the base of a progressive movement that can elect not only a progressive president but also both houses of Congress. A strong democratic socialist current could help give the movement a transformative character that goes beyond liberal reforms. Other clusters of the social movement left, such as LeftRoots, may also follow this strategy.

Activists who think of the Alinsky tradition of community organizing as the domain of older white male organizers haven’t kept up with changes in the field. A majority of organizing staff are now women and people of color. The “founders’ generation” of the networks is retiring, and their replacements better reflect the constituencies they work among. Gamaliel’s new director, Ana Garcia-Ashley, is the first woman of color (and first bilingual immigrant) to head one of the congregation-based networks. And Gamaliel groups have declared the elimination of structural racism as the foundation of all their work.

Regardless of who wins the primaries and the general election, many socialists will be looking for an organizational home to continue the struggle to transform our social, economic, and political order. Some will no doubt be attracted to whatever is set up by Sanders campaign leaders. Others will want an explicitly socialist group that is active and exciting, but not dogmatic. If it chooses the strategy of building the local base for a movement of movements, DSA can be in the foreground of constructing a new strategic progressive alignment. By emphasizing training in organizing, DSA could offer valuable skills to its new members that can be applied in many settings from labor unions and political campaigns to issue-advocacy nonprofits. These groups have training programs in place. DSA can provide the socialist element.

DSA offers one big advantage over a new after-Bernie group: it has a functioning democratic structure, with an elected national political committee and a delegated convention every two years. That may not seem important at first, but it will.

The program is not particularly complex. Where the DSA group is in a city with an established community organizing group, it should try to join it. If there is no such group, it can begin the conversations to set one up. It can consider joining or launching a Jobs with Justice chapter. Although primarily concerned for labor support, JwJ brings together unions and community nonprofit advocacy groups in ways that draw on the community organizing tradition. Keep in mind that in this approach, member organizations do not lose their own identity, but rather gain allies who strengthen their power. If IBCOs rebuff socialist groups, consider forming or joining a “Friends of Community Organizing” (FOCO) group, which a number of IBCOs are trying as a way to recruit individual supporters. DSA members not affiliated with a DSA chapter might participate as a member of a union or a local environmental, immigrant rights, living wage or FOCO group that is part of the local IBCO.

Does DSA have the staff and resources to add an ambitious new project while expanding its chapter network quickly in response to post-Bernie campaigners? The national staff would need to be freed up to organize and coordinate work with volunteer field organizers drawn from experienced DSA members. DSA’s labor, socialist-feminist, people of color, and religion and socialism groups could add their expertise. The organization is undergoing a major growth spurt, and the need for skilled activists is acute no matter what path the organization takes.

What would be new would be for the executive director to set aside at least a day a week to meet with the executives of allies and potential allies. DSA has had good relations with labor, including unions already working with IBCOs, such as AFSCME, SEIU, UNITE HERE, IBEW, Communication Workers, and the Amalgamated Transit Workers. Contacts need to be strengthened with environmental, civil rights, immigrant rights, women’s and LGBTQ advocates. The deputy director would provide support and mentoring to the volunteer field staff through various means from weekly personal phone calls, monthly teleconferencing, and periodic face–to-face meetings. Both full-time national staff members would mentor the campus chapters and see that they are provided with one-day trainings run by DSA and opportunities to attend longer programs run by other organizations.

I’m not suggesting that all DSA members should become organizers, only that each chapter develop a core team whose members think like organizers and gain some experience. DSA can develop a new generation of radical fire starters, practical visionaries who can keep the flames of democracy and justice blazing, illuminating a twenty-first-century vision of democratic socialism.

David Walls is emeritus professor of sociology at Sonoma State University. He is a co-founder of the North Bay Organizing Project and has served on its leadership council since 2010. His latest book is Community Organizing: Fanning the Flame of Democracy (Polity Books, 2015).

This article originally appeared in the summer 2016 (early June) issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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