Overcoming Individualism

By Matt Hartman

DSA’s recent growth has been well celebrated. But while it is a sign of hope, it would be a mistake to assume that this path will lead to the socialist movement we want, because who is joining DSA and how they relate to the rest of the world is just as important as how many of us there are.

To be clear, the “Bernie Bro” narrative painting DSA as a monolithically white and male organization is a fallacy that erases the many and longstanding contributions of socialist women and people of color. But there is a kernel of truth to it that has allowed it to take hold: exact demographics aren’t available, but it’s undeniable that DSA’s membership is whiter, richer, and more masculine than the working class we’re working for. To succeed in the long term, we must address that problem at the root by prioritizing organizing projects that create material connections between the everyday lives of DSA members and the working class more broadly.

To even begin doing so, we must admit the limitations of our current growth. We can’t just point to our members who are women and people of color as counterexamples, because individual members cannot refute our demographic shortcomings anymore than the existence of rich Black individuals refutes widespread racial wealth disparities. But the problem is deeper than that as well, because even those who admit the problem too often focus on solutions that don’t actually combat the fundamental issue.

For instance, one commonly proposed solution is antiracism trainings. Certainly these trainings can help give individuals a better understanding of US racial history and the nature of oppression, and in doing so could help DSA members behave in more welcoming ways. But, at core, this approach is about individuals, and as such can have no effect on the broader structural issues in our society that make it so incredibly difficult to build an interracial movement.

The fact is that DSA is struggling to diversify its membership in large part (though by no means exclusively) because the society we are trying to organize is segregated. But no amount of training can overcome sociological realities. Even worse, these kinds of trainings can be expensive and time consuming, which ensures that their audience tends to be white and relatively wealthy.

To be useful, then, individual-focused projects like antiracism trainings must take a backseat to other approaches that address the things lying behind DSA’s demographics—namely, the fact that the people who are joining tend to be disconnected from any broader community, and thus are people who are led to join because they identify with the group culturally. Jacobin publisher and DSA vice chair Bhaskar Sunkara explained the problem well in an interview on Jacobin Radio:

Right now, a lot of the people being drawn to the Left are people being drawn from the middle classes or the declassed sons and daughters of the professional class. They’re not being drawn to the movement as workers or through the process of industrial collective action…[I]f the new socialist movement means people getting recruited in ones and twos [often from social media] and not leaving their strata, not figuring out how to relate to a broader labor movement or a broader working-class current, then we’re in trouble.

DSA’s role must be to provide deeper connections between these socialist-leaning individuals. And doing so, as Sunkara noted, is a “question of rootedness and power and leverage.” As an organization, DSA must work to build the ties of trust and solidarity that don’t already exist in the world, especially those between downwardly mobile white middle class men and working class communities of color, especially their women, trans, and non-binary folks.

But doing so is only possible if we think in terms of socio-economic structures and classes, not in terms of individuals and their personal knowledge. After all, that was Marx’s basic logic in assigning such importance to the proletariat: it wasn’t that they were more capable, as individuals, of building a better world; it’s that they had stronger connections to each other because they lived and worked in close physical and emotional proximity with each other, which gave them leverage over the people in power (if they could organize sufficiently to use it).

Today, the right-wing attack on unions, the resegregation of public schools, suburbanization, the decline of religious attendance, and other broad socio-economic trends have complicated matters, but that only means that our challenge, as an organization, is to find a way to rebuild them.

To do so, we must prioritize projects that respond to the needs of these communities within their daily lives, rather than asking them to take time out of their days to attend our meetings or support our campaigns on our terms—something that’s viable only after there’s some semblance of the solidarity we must build. One promising example is solidarity economy projects, which create cooperatively owned, democratically run businesses.

These businesses should bridge the gap between DSA’s current members and the working class more broadly, creating spaces in which people can join in broad, intergender, interracial, interclass groups to work together, side-by-side, in their daily lives. Encampments like Occupy, protests, and election campaigns all have a role, but they are all inherently temporary spaces, which limits their ability to make lasting connections. Solidarity economy projects, on the other hand, can politicize everyday issues, building these connections into the fabric of life.

For instance, my chapter is working to start a community land trust in Wake County, North Carolina, which would not only provide much needed affordable housing in the area, but would also create space in which our chapter can work together with a community who doesn’t already feel a connection to DSA. We hope to  provide a material benefit to oppressed communities while building the trust and solidarity that provides the base for a socialist movement. Similarly, if DSA members can help workers start their own co-op businesses or provide needed services like dependent care through co-ops, we can build deeper, more permanent connections that will allow the organization to expand organically by meeting the needs of the working class.

Other projects can fulfill the same function. There are unions, of course, and not just labor unions: the New York City DSA chapter is working with a tenants’ union in a gentrifying neighborhood. Similarly, DSA members in gentrifying neighborhoods might create community watch–type organizations for immigrant defense or abortion support networks. The specific projects should match whatever that community’s needs are and should be done with their input, creating the space for DSA to work with those community members on their terms.

DSA’s most promising aspect is its mass appeal, which is a welcome change to the often insular world of leftist politics. But that appeal also opens us up to new dangers other socialist groups don’t face. In particular, it means our growth is more inclined to follow the flows of the capitalist system we’re working within, expanding through the cultural networks that treat politics as a kind of identity to be consumed through social media and training courses. To ensure DSA’s popular vision retains its socialist principles, we must prioritize projects that actively resist that individualized thinking, creating lasting, material connections between our members and the broader working class.

Matt Hartman is a member of North Carolina Piedmont DSA.

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