OP-ED: We’re all Bad Socialists and That’s OK: A Call for Wholehearted Praxis – Democratic Socialists of America

OP-ED: We’re all Bad Socialists and That’s OK: A Call for Wholehearted Praxis

By Joshua Whitaker

This piece is the first in a series we’re calling “Bad Socialists.” DSA has ambitions for real national coordination as an unprecedentedly decentralized organization. This series aims to improve our internal discourse and operation in order to support those ambitions while remaining true to DSA’s mission and values. If you have ideas for how DSA members can more effectively collaborate on a national scale, let us know.



The DSA has seen incredible, unprecedented success in the last two years, and with it has faced crises of strategy, PR and identity. But, that’s to be expected from a bottom-up organization without a charismatic personality at the helm or a top-down narrative to smooth over differences between a multi-tendency membership. We’ve seen huge growth, an energized membership and exciting but uncomfortable public attention, and it’s how we mobilize in response to these situations that renews and improves our organization.

In general, I think DSAers cherish our grassroots structure. New chapters spring up as our ideas spread, and the national organization has grown and adapted to a growing organization. But, we’re going to constantly face challenges that create new divisions in our ranks that have no prescribed solution. DSA members will have to analyze, respond and reach consensus. It’ll be messy and democratic and the only path to an organization responsive to its members.

These and future crises have and will require furious debate and disagreement, but they ultimately must lead to consensus. Our only power is in coordinated numbers. Our power increases with each swell of our mobilized ranks.

Here are my fundamental assumptions about internal DSA debates:

1. On the whole, they’re grounded in legitimate disagreements about tactics, priority and ideology.
2. Folks on both sides have invested hours of their time, their reputations and their self-worth into DSA and the causes championed herein.
3. Perhaps too often, they escalate into bad faith responses, personal attacks, gossip, snark, posturing, piles-on, and past policing.

This piece is a response to a tendency toward internal policing I’ve witnessed to different degrees throughout DSA that derails solidarity and hurts the socialist cause. Recently, I’ve seen chapter spats turn into public feuds, members’ histories scoured and dragged out for others to evaluate and criticize, and groups calling for internal censorship, punishment, or exclusion. The trend across all these instances is an underlying conviction that DSA can separate the wheat from the chaff, that we can identify the Good Socialists worthy of in-group status and the Bad Socialists to be purged from the ranks or shamed into good behavior. It’s a faulty assumption antithetical to the socialist cause, and if allowed to escalate will spell a DSA relegated to sideline in-fighting, because reintroducing the American people to vulnerability, forgiveness, authenticity and compassion is essential to the solidarity required for a massive people’s movement.

We’re all bad socialists.

Because we’re American. Every member of DSA lives their life under capitalist, imperial rule. We can fight and advocate and live our principles, but we’ll still spend hours plugged into the system for our basic needs, and in turn that will support the exploitative and deadly effects that capitalism exacts. Because of our limited experience and the US’s all-encompassing propaganda, because we’re forced to navigate a world ruled by atomizing competition, because of the psychic alienation caused by unfettered commodification, we all carry resulting traumas and unconscious biases.

Because our society is deeply undemocratic and punitive. Many of us love the DSA precisely for the reasons that it’s an American aberration. Most realms of our lives offer no control over the organizations and groups to which we belong. Many would punish us for proudly living our principles as our authentic selves. Fighting for American socialism must also mean upending our own personal undemocratic and punitive impulses that derail solidarity.

Because we’ve never done this before. No matter how confidently any DSAer speaks or deploys references or masters history or dunks on opponents, they don’t know how to win socialism. The US hasn’t had an energized left in a dozen years. We haven’t had a serious socialist movement in a hundred. Comparisons to international examples are few and imperfect. We’re figuring it out together through practice, experiment and education.

Advocating for excluding folks from DSA rests on a strange assumption: that non-socialists or malicious actors have the opportunity to and interest in capturing and steering DSA’s national strategy, either by sheer number or by securing decision-making positions. But, no small minority should be able to meaningfully influence a deeply decentralized and democratic organization, and doing so would require public endorsement of an organization with “socialist” in the name, a term still met with credulity by both political circles and the 99% of Americans not significantly engaged in politics.

For some, the issue is that members who aren’t socialist enough or are socialist in the wrong way might capture DSA strategy. In response, I gesture briefly towards the concept of democracy. If your arguments can’t convince and activate the 45,000 dues-paying and public-support-for-a-socialist-organization-pledging members of DSA, then the US just isn’t ready for your socialism.

Shame doesn’t work.

Another common denominator between the examples I referenced above is how quickly opponents deploy shaming techniques to argue their points: jokes and corrections meant to humiliate, digging through personal histories for disparagable content, singling out and piling on, and censorship or exclusion as a form of public rebuke. Besides being totally useless for convincing anyone of your arguments who doesn’t already agree with you, these techniques cause real, toxic harm to our bond as an organization.

Brene Brown, a social science researcher, articulated it best: "In 50 years of scholarship and research, there is not a single drop of evidence that shame is effective at changing behavior." Briahna Joy Gray recently summed it up for our political moment, arguing that a Democratic Party that excoriates Trump voters rather than confronting why 74% of eligible voters don’t pull the lever for their party will never win back lost voters.

People use shame to assuage their own insecurities, to signal in-group and out-group status to their allies, and as a cathartic release of discomfort and pain. In response, those experiencing shame withdraw from groups, shut down rational thought, and respond with fight-or-flight impulses to avoid self-loathing. Shame destroys bonds of connection and belonging, because it makes empathy impossible. Endemic shame is "highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression."

In short, shame is toxic to productive debate and solidarity, and its manifestations as racism, bigotry, unmeetable cultural expectations, and stringent societal roles shape the crisis the US faces today.

Solidarity requires healing.

Our society is built on shame. We use it to cow workers into accepting humiliating conditions and to subject marginalized communities to divestment and coercion. Both parties use it to corral their bases and stifle dissent. Ubiquitous, internalized shame accounts in part for the gender wage gap, the rate of mental health issues in minority communities, the suicide rate among the LGBT community and the incidence of male sexual violence. It’s the reason my queer ass had to escape my mountain Tennessee hometown to feel safe enough to grow up. (Aha, a moment of vulnerability offered to build trust, to conquer shame.)

When DSA members use shame to argue—with name calling, personal attacks, gossip and innuendo and guilt-by-affiliation, by dredging up personal histories, criticizing for the purpose of humiliating or circling wagons to make someone feel outnumbered and excluded—the organization and our causes lose. Shame causes people to entrench into their opinions, to blindly reject dialogue and seek retribution. Shame turns our debates into shouting matches and dunking contests. Worse, it signals to everyone else the stakes of debate—that wading into DSA politics is just like every other aspect of our public American lives: an invitation for targeted criticism and abuse.

The American populace is deeply traumatized and cynical from decades of economic disaster, state violence, and incompetent elite paternalism. If we want to organize the victims of this trauma for change, then the process of organizing has to heal us as well. That means we have to be an organization in which members are comfortable being vulnerable with each other and truthful about the ways society has hurt us. It also requires compassion and empathy for those who have been hurt in vastly different and difficult-to-understand ways.

Our strength grows with our number. If potential comrades look in on our organization and see us holding each other down with petty shame, then the actions we organize around and principles we adopt are a waste of time. The political revolution has failed before it began unless it can be a source of healing for a policed, skittish, disillusioned American people.

Socialism requires compassion.

As activists, as organizers, as politically engaged citizens, as human beings, we make mistakes. As citizens of the earth with inherent dignity, none of us are mistakes. Forgiveness and empathy are the cure for shame and the path to solidarity despite disagreement.

DSA is incredibly fallible, because people are incredibly fallible. But, the difference between a DSA that creates a massive movement of the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the powerless and a DSA that collapses under the weight of in-fighting and navel-gazing is a cooperative and empathetic membership. Our discourse must begin and end with the hard work of stepping into our comrades’ worldview and responding to them in authentic good faith.

Joshua Whitaker is DSA Weekly’s co-editor on press and electoral politics.

(Image source: Sassy Socialist Memes, on Facebook.)