Let’s Seize the Moment
By Maria Svart
I’m sitting on a panel on Medicare for All (M4A) at the Women’s Convention in Detroit in October. And I’m realizing again how critical DSA’s work is in this moment. There are 4,000 women at this conference. Probably a few hundred of them identify as socialists.
I connect M4A to the larger crisis of care caused by neoliberal capitalism. For example, women provide unpaid care in the home because we lack public programs such as universal childcare and healthcare as well as living wages. And women are largely the ones providing low-paid healthcare in the racially stratified labor market, exploited by private insurance, hospital, home care, and nursing home corporations. I say to the women in the room that we need to build independent political power from the ground up if we are to have any hope of moving from these crushing individual burdens to collective liberation.
During this conversation and in others, I bring our socialist values and ideas to the convention’s liberal audience, and I am reminded of my own journey from being a twenty-something mainstream feminist who yearned for more to finding a class analysis and becoming a socialist feminist in Democratic Socialists of America.
Our recognition of the complexities of class, race, and gender in the United States is one thing that drew me to DSA. Our strategic approach to politics—respecting local conditions and, critically, recognizing the need to build grassroots power in order to win—is another.
November 7, Election Day, proved that organizing works. Movements are tested in unpredictable ways, such as after a police shooting or disaster capitalism, as well as predictable ones, such as in the election cycle. With allies like Our Revolution and the shoe leather and cell phones of our members, we supported DSAers running as Democrats, Greens, and independents, depending on political context. We helped elect 16 of them to local office in places from Montana to Tennessee, including unseating the Republican whip of the Virginia House.
I believe our ability to hold this degree of nuance is critical to our success. I have never been satisfied with the idea of simply being ideologically correct. I want to win. And winning on a mass scale in politics, workplaces, and communities, will require building a much larger socialist organization than what we have now. It must be an organization that welcomes a wide range of new people rather than shuts them out. It must be one that is politically independent but that fights alongside mass movements.
What does it mean to build such an organization? For one thing, it means learning to openly disagree in a comradely way. In our toxic culture, it’s not hard to get angry with each other. The difficult question is whether we make conflict constructive or destructive. When I was a union organizer, I saw that members had a choice between standing together against their boss and across their differences or losing the union. We face that same choice now.
DSA members come from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and you can never truly walk in another person’s shoes. In fact, not one of us has all the answers. But within our range of politics, we all recognize the centrality of contesting for state power, of practicing democracy as a means and viewing it as an end, and of using the transformative nature of collective action to build multiracial working-class power.
We may not all think the same, but we turn out to be mostly on the same page when it comes to priorities for action. A spring 2017 membership survey foreshadowed the same three top priorities chosen in August by our convention delegates: 47% listed health care, 27% electoral work, and 25% labor solidarity. This degree of agreement doesn’t exclude differences that naturally arise—how can they not?—but it keeps us from becoming paralyzed. We have a world to win.
That’s why I’ve chosen to devote my life to working-class organization, first in the labor movement and now in DSA. These are the places where we come together to fight authoritarians, whether our bosses in the workplace or the capitalist class in our economic, legal, and political systems. These are places where we support each other in showing up for our communities and the most vulnerable. And they are places where, for the most part, people realize that we’re in a now-or-never moment.
It’s not that what came before Donald Trump was a walk in the park. It’s that Bernie Sanders opened the door and brought democratic socialist ideas back to the mainstream in this country in a way not seen since the campaigns of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. And he did it just in time, as we face not only global authoritarianism but the ecological point of no return. The question is, will we go the way of barbarism or of socialism? Despite his detractors, Sanders is the most popular politician in the country, across demographic groups. He’s made socialism a household word to millions, and November 7 proved that our blend of electoral work and year-round grassroots organizing is the answer. It’s up to us to bring these nascent socialists into a powerful, organized socialist movement. Will we rise to the challenge? Sí, se puede!
Maria Svart is the National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of 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.