Seize The Opportunity To Build The Left

Participants at the national convention.

National Director Maria Svart shared the following remarks with attendees during the first day of DSA’s National Convention on Nov. 13-15 in Bolivar, Penn. – Ed.

We are gathered together in a moment of tremendous opportunity. Who among us could have imagined even two years ago that the question of capitalism vs. socialism as a viable alternative would come up in a mainstream presidential debate? Or that over 700,000 people would donate to an avowed socialist candidate for president? 

But on the other hand, who among us could have predicted that we would have a mainstream presidential candidate claiming that our country could “humanely” deport the millions of people without papers who live and work among us? [Editor’s note: Since these remarks were delivered on November 13, Donald Trump has doubled down on his racist rhetoric.] Or that right-to-work (for less) would be the law in 25 states, including labor strongholds like Michigan.

What are the lessons we can learn from taking a step back and examining the present moment?

One, that by running in the Democratic primary as a proud socialist, Bernie Sanders is helping do the most critical task we face: making the impossible possible. He is reframing the debate, reversing the rightward slide of acceptable political discourse in the U.S., and removing the “socialist bogeyman” as a rhetorical weapon of the capitalist class. This is the opportunity of our lives to build the socialist movement.

Two, that by calling out Wall Street but also responding to racial justice protestors and putting an explicitly anti-racist platform front and center in his campaign, Bernie Sanders is demonstrating the fallacy of the “economic justice first” argument for progressive change. Speaking truth to power resonates with many of the white people that the capitalist class has so carefully cultivated as their shock troops (while disciplining them with the other hand through economic violence). Building a left-wing movement capable of actually winning requires that we build trust across the differences in the working class, which can only be done through real solidarity.

Three, even if we elect Bernie Sanders to the White House next year, we will still face a reactionary Congress, corporate Democrats seeking to prevent transformative reforms, and Republican control of numerous state houses and governor’s mansions. So gathering our strength during this movement moment is critical, because we’re in it for the long haul. We need to expand our capacity right now so we have the infrastructure to keep fighting after 2016.

The good news is that DSA has been growing in recent years and especially recent months. Since the last convention, our first new full-fledged local chapter, Austin, has not only been chartered but has doubled the number of DSA members in their community. Just since Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the presidency, eight new DSA organizing committees have formed around the country.

We have dramatically expanded our national organizing capacity, particularly with the help of our Program and Local Development Committee, We Need Bernie Committee and frequent organizing-skills webinars. We have a volunteer but extremely committed National Member Organizer, Bill Barclay, who mentors new organizing committees and coordinates monthly new member-welcome conference calls. We received a bequest this year that allowed us to hire longtime YDS and DSA leader David Duhalde as Deputy Director for a one-year term to help with administrative work and organizing, a position we hope to maintain going forward (but can only do if you each dig deep into your own pockets as well as help us recruit new members to help fund the staffing expansion).

We have, through the Socialist Strategy Project, intensified our internal political life, and going forward we will have increased capacity to train new and rising leaders in the intellectual underpinnings of our activist strategy, with our strategy statement as an essential tool. We held web-based political education sessions on Marx, Gramsci and other political thinkers. And our student wing, the Young Democratic Socialists, is becoming more fully integrated into the life of the organization so that we can continue the transition to a multi-generational leadership at the local and national level.

But we must do so much more to take advantage of this window of opportunity. Bernie Sanders has hundreds of thousands of donors to his campaign. To sustain his political revolution, we need to organize many of them to join DSA and we need to build new DSA groups in every state. It will not always be this “easy.” I remember a conversation years ago I had with a Southern DSA comrade I’ve known since our YDS days, Seth Hutchinson. I was bemoaning progressive election losses and having a hard time imagining a path forward. Seth said “the class struggle ebbs and flows; we have setbacks, but we also have breakthroughs. The terrain changes, but we have to keep up the fight.”

The Sanders campaign is a positive game changer unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime. I ask all of you gathered here to put your energy towards building a strategic and fighting organization, one capable of creating the 21st century socialism that we need. We’re in a position right now to build on the foundation created by so many who came before us in recent years, from the Dreamers to the Wisconsin Uprising to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. And we have a responsibility to do so.

Ask not what DSA can do for you. Ask instead, what you can do to build DSA and take us down the path toward democratic socialism. With just three months to the Iowa caucuses, let’s make the most of this weekend together!

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