A summary of Democratic Socialists of America’s Strategy Document – June 2016
2016 was a game changing year for leftists and progressives. We are finally reemerging as a vital and powerful force after an extended period of stagnation and demoralization, and we face a political landscape more favorable than perhaps at any time since the 1960s. For roughly 30 years after the end of World War II, the United States and non-Communist Europe experienced solid economic growth, declining inequality, expanding social services and increasing working-class power, coupled with landmark advances toward racial, gender and sexual equality. In countries such as France and Sweden, labor and socialist movements even made significant (if fleeting) progress toward a democratic socialist transition. Though these gains were tainted in countries such as the United States by the racialized and gendered manner in which they were distributed, this period represents the high-water mark of working-class strength and security in the 20th century.
The Rise of Neoliberalism
Starting in the 1970s, however, in a movement that would become known as neoliberalism, economic elites in these countries began mobilizing politically to lower taxes for the rich and corporations, to eviscerate democratic decision-making both in the workplace as well as at the ballot box, to slash spending on essential social services such as education and social security, to deregulate industries across the economy and to open up flows of capital across national borders. These “reforms” enabled corporations to evade virtually all forms of accountability either to the workers they employed or to the communities in which they operated. In the United States neoliberalism was aided by racialized attacks on social service provision in which African American and Latino recipients of welfare and other anti-poverty programs were portrayed as an “undeserving poor” whose lifestyle was being subsidized by (white) taxpayers (even though whites constituted the largest group of welfare beneficiaries).
The success of neoliberalism across the United States and Europe differed based upon the relative strength or weakness of left-wing political parties and trade unions – leaving working people in traditional bastions of social democracy such as Sweden relatively better off than working people in countries such the United States where trade unions and the Left have been weak historically. But by the early 2000s the historic gains made across these countries in the post-World War Two period had been rolled back dramatically. This, combined with the fall of Soviet and East European Communism and the marketization of the Chinese economy by the early 1990s, led most pundits and politicians to proclaim the ultimate triumph of neoliberalism: “there is no alternative” to the free market became the mantra of policy makers around the world.
Insurgent Responses to Neoliberalism
Given the profound and sustained defeats suffered by the Left and progressive movements during this period, by the mid- 2000s socialists and progressives in the United States and Europe could boast of virtually no examples of successful resistance to neoliberalism. Many turned their eyes to South America, which during this time was practically the only democratic leftist political stronghold in the world. Only a few short years later, however, the situation in Europe and the United States looked completely different: the Left had finally galvanized significant support in the electoral arena, and had pulled the terms of political debate significantly leftward through creative social movement organizing. To name but a few electoral examples, in Greece the left-wing Syriza party came to power in 2014, in Spain the left-wing Podemos party emerged from antiausterity protests in 2014 and only two years later it was the third largest party in the country. Even more surprising were the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labor Party in 2015 and the phenomenal success of Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” during the 2016 United States’ presidential election.
These electoral successes have been paralleled by, and to a large degree made possible by, the rise of a new generation of progressive social movements committed both to thoroughgoing critiques of capitalism, racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of oppression, as well as to the creation of an ecologically sustainable, democratic and egalitarian future. To take the United States as one example, the progressive offensive against neoliberalism began in earnest with the Occupy protests of 2011 and the resistance to Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor offensive in Wisconsin, which put the issue of inequality at the center of U.S. political discourse and cultivated a new generation of activists that have been crucial in more recent movements. In the wake of Occupy, powerful new movements arose to challenge brutal immigration policies (The Dreamers), the shamefully low federal minimum wage (Fight for $15), the epidemic of police brutality and structural racism (Black Lives Matter) and inequality (the Sanders Political Revolution) to name a few. These movements have opened up space for a serious discussion of capitalism, maledominance and racism in our society that has not existed in decades, and which provides unique opportunities for the growth of a democratic socialist movement that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all of the struggles and the structural character of the reforms needed to make real and lasting change.
Challenges Facing the Left and Progressive Movements
Yet we must not overstate the strength of progressive and leftist politics today, and likewise we must not understate the extent of the challenges that lie before us. While a new wave of social movement organizing appears to be underway, and while younger people especially are increasingly open to radical alternatives, the Left and progressive movements remain weak. Today we celebrate more the possibility of political openings than the achievement of significant concrete gains. Beyond our relative lack of resources, the structural barriers placed in our path by the nature of the U.S. political system and the extraordinary power of individualist ideology to undermine collective action, Leftists and progressives face a groundswell of racist and antiimmigrant political organization — represented most dramatically by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. As the life prospects of many white people in the 99% continue to decline, and as demographic tides shift steadily toward a United States in which people of color constitute a majority, this reactionary organizing is likely to grow ever more serious.
Racist and anti-immigrant politics not only represent a direct assault on the civil rights of millions (in the form of voter disenfranchisement, harassment and deportation of undocumented workers, and hate crimes, to name a few), but also serve as an effective tool that economic elites can employ to divide sections of the working class (who, by focusing on racial/ethnic fear and hatred, are unable to forge ties of solidarity around shared economic struggles against the capitalist class). In the absence of powerful multiracial coalitions capable of connecting the struggles of working people across race and ethnicity, appeals to racism and fear will continue to gain traction among economically and socially insecure white voters — particularly men, who face the erosion of traditional gender prominence due to the gains of the feminist movement — and the possibility of expanding desperately needed programs to assist the most vulnerable people in our society (let alone more ambitious programs pushing in the direction of democratic socialism) will be further diminished.
In their current form, however, the Left and progressive movements are not well positioned to build the multiracial organizations and coalitions necessary to confront the scourge of right-wing racism and anti-immigrant politics. Historically the Left has been, and, despite the best intentions of many, continues to be dominated by white activists (often middle class men). Organizations of the Left (including DSA) generally reflect the interests, aspirations, and cultural assumption of white working- and middle class individuals more than people of color. Several other factors have also played an important role in limiting the development of multiracial leftist organizations and multiracial coalitions that include a significant leftist presence. These include structural barriers that often constrain the participation of working-class and poor activists in political organizing (such as lack of time, energy and economic resources), the racial segregation of U.S. society that is typically reflected in the demographic makeup of activist organizations, and an individualistic national conversation about race that omits any discussion of class.
Leftists and progressives also face a staggering array of additional challenges: we must defend a woman’s right to abortion and confront a wide range of gender inequities that persist in our male dominant society, even as neoliberalism increasingly divides working and professional women through the rhetoric of meritocracy and “leaning-in.” We must curtail the United States’ often illegal and generally counterproductive military adventures and “democracy promotion” efforts around the world. We must fight to win citizenship for the millions of immigrants who contribute massively to our national prosperity but who are forced to live in constant fear of deportation, and who do not enjoy the political and economic benefits of citizenship. We must find a way to forge deeper cross-national ties among an increasingly global working class with diverse and often conflicting material interests and, perhaps most critically of all given the grave implications of inaction, we must build a progressive coalition capable of forcing the U.S. government to take dramatic action around the effects of human-caused climate change.
Despite these challenges, once in a generation opportunities currently exist for taking the offensive and launching an assertive anti-capitalist politics in the United States. The most difficult — and most important — question that remains, is how, specifically, to make democratic socialist politics a force to be reckoned with in rural communities, towns, cities and states across the country in the coming years. Before addressing this question, however, we turn first to a no less fundamental issue: what is democratic socialism, and why do we place our hope for a better, more egalitarian and humane future in this seemingly abstract ideal?
II. Our Vision of Democratic Socialism
Our vision of democratic socialism is necessarily partial and speculative, and is in no way intended to be a blueprint for a democratic socialist society. To the contrary, the specific contours of the future to which we aspire will be democratically determined not by us, but rather by those who live it. Further, DSA members will — and should — disagree on specific aspects of this vision. Nonetheless, we put forth such a vision, in part to put to rest misconceptions people may have about how our vision of socialism differs from failed models of the past, in part to spark the passion and imagination of potential DSA members wondering what separates our vision from those of liberals and progressives and in part to help expand the terms of our national political discourse in the face of the often overwhelming logic of “there is no alternative.” History has shown time and again that societies fall short of their full potential for human emancipation without radical trailblazers working ceaselessly to pull mainstream political discourse to the Left and thereby expand the “politics of the possible.”
Democratic Socialism as Radical Democracy
DSA believes that the fight for democratic socialism is one and the same as the fight for radical democracy, which we understand as the freedom of all people to determine all aspects of their lives to the greatest extent possible. Our vision entails nothing less than the radical democratization of all areas of life, not least of which is the economy. Under capitalism we are supposed to take for granted that a small, largely unaccountable group of corporate executives should make all fundamental decisions about the management of a company comprised of thousands of people. This group has the power to determine how most of us spend the lion’s share of our waking hours, as well as the right to fire anyone for basically any reason, no matter how arbitrary. Under democratic socialism, this authoritarian system would be replaced with economic democracy. This simply means that democracy would be expanded beyond the election of political officials to include the democratic management of all businesses by the workers who comprise them and by the communities in which they operate. Very large, strategically important sectors of the economy — such as housing, utilities and heavy industry — would be subject to democratic planning outside the market, while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods. In this society, large-scale investments in new technologies and enterprises would be made on the basis of maximizing the public good, rather than shareholder value. Crucially, investments in renewable energy and efficient technologies would be prioritized to guarantee ecological sustainability and the future existence of life on Earth.
A democratic socialist society would also guarantee a wide range of social rights in order to ensure equality of citizenship for all. Vital services such as health care, child care, education (from pre-K through higher education), shelter and transportation would be publicly provided to everyone on demand, free of charge. Further, in order to ensure that the enjoyment of full citizenship was not tied to ups and downs in the labor market, everyone would also receive a universal basic income — that is, a base salary for every member of society, regardless of the person’s employment status. Finally, the work week would be gradually reduced and vacation time would be expanded to guarantee that everyone in society benefited from increasingly efficient technologies that decrease the overall amount of labor needed in the economy (and also to ensure that all who wish to find employment are able to do so).
Economic democracy would be complemented in the political sphere by a new system that combined an overhauled form of representative democracy (our current system) with direct democracy, a system in which individuals participate directly in the making of political decisions that affect them. In this system, the Senate (an extremely unrepresentative political body in which states with very small populations have the same level of representation as the most populous states) would be abolished, and a system of proportional representation would be established so that Congress actually reflects the political will of the electorate. A democratic socialist government would also implement new referenda and recall mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable during their tenure in office, and a vast system of local participatory institutions would be set up to ensure individuals had a direct voice in political decision-making beyond the ballot box. These institutions would include citizen boards for various government services, program councils (at the national, state and local levels) for those who receive government services, and municipal and state-level citizen assemblies that would be open to all and would be tasked with making budget decisions (much like participatory budgeting processes currently in use around the world today). Finally, individual civil and political rights (freedom of speech, assembly, the right to vote, etc.), which are currently routinely violated, would be strengthened, and public resources would be devoted to the development of a genuinely free press and a democratically administered mass media.
While DSA believes that economic exploitation cuts across all other forms of oppression, and therefore that radical economic and social democracy would dramatically enhance most people’s capacity for self-determination, we do not believe that racial, gender, sexual and other forms of oppression are reducible to economic exploitation. Solidarity among all working people who are ensnared in the capitalist system may be a prerequisite for a strong socialist movement, but socialism as radical democracy is much more than the emancipation of a single economic class. The democratic socialist project also entails addressing a wide range of oppressions in law, culture and society that limit people’s capacity for self-determination.
To give a few examples, the work of caregiving, which under capitalism falls disproportionately on women — particularly women of color and migrant women — would be publicly supported through universal daycare, eldercare and paid family leave. In the legal sphere, all citizens would have equal rights, in contrast to the current reality in which millions of citizens (in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, overseas territories and Native American tribes) do not have the ability to elect their own congressional representatives. In the legal system, the racialized system of unequal justice that currently exists would be replaced by a system that featured citizen review boards (vested with real authority) of both the police and court systems. The disgraceful use of prisons to regulate behavior (which disproportionately affects communities of color and the poor) would be replaced with a system that decriminalized a wide range of offenses (particularly nonviolent drug-related offenses) and combined full services to victims with restorative justice, mental health care and various forms of counseling to help people find productive ways to move forward after committing serious crimes. Finally, racial/ethnic and sex/gender-based oppressions may well continue in a socialist society. Hence a wide range of programs to dismantle the privileges associated with whiteness, maleness and heteronormativity would have to be developed, and antidiscrimination policies in the workplace and in social organizations would have to be intensified.
Beyond addressing the legacies of gender, racial, sexual and other forms of oppression, democratic socialism would bring about a cultural renaissance in which a vast array of new artistic practices and lifestyles would flourish. With more free time, protection from the vagaries of economic exploitation and deepened norms of respect and solidarity, individuals on a mass scale would be able for the first time to freely choose how they wanted to develop as individuals, limited only by principles of mutual respect and the absence of exploitation and oppression. Race- and gender-based identities, despite having their origins in systems of oppression, would no longer be imposed upon individuals by society, and would likely play a positive role in shaping individuals’ identities.
It should always be remembered, however, that like every other form of society, a democratic socialist society cannot produce total social harmony. Such a society will always have to navigate among the competing claims of different groups and democratic political institutions will always be needed to arbitrate and mediate such conflict. Democratic socialism, that is, will not be the utopia that many socialists of old imagined. Yet the achievement of a democratic socialist society would nevertheless mark one of the greatest advances in human history. Instead of war, there would be peace; instead of competition, cooperation; instead of exploitation, equality; instead of pollution, sustainability and instead of domination, freedom. Life would still have sorrows as well as joys, and there would still be failed projects and unrequited love. But with democratic socialism there would no longer be unnecessary suffering imposed on the mass of society by institutions over which we have no control.
III. Our Strategy
With this vision in place, we turn finally to an overview of DSA’s strategy for moving the needle of emancipation closer to democratic socialism over the coming years and decades. We believe democratic socialism is the only humane and democratic alternative to capitalism, but considering our limited resources at present we must think carefully about how to translate our socialist ideals and values into a viable political strategy. Given the magnitude and scope of the challenges we face, as well as the democratic and decentralized nature of our organization, there is no strategic silver bullet, or single, all-encompassing campaign to which we can devote all of our organizational resources. Rather, our strategy — based on the preceding analysis of current political and economic conditions — consists of fighting on a number of interconnected fronts in the short-term, leveraging gains made in these struggles into more structural, offensively-oriented changes in the medium-term and ultimately employing the strength of a mass socialist party or coalition of leftist and progressive parties to win political power and begin the process of socialist transformation.
In the short-term, our strategy consists of working concurrently on a range of projects that we detail below (the relative emphasis placed on each will be determined by local conditions). Regardless of the particular struggle(s) in which a given DSA chapter is engaged, however, in all cases we will focus on overcoming the historic bias of our organization toward white (particularly male) activists. We will do this by building deeper ties with organizations representing poor and working-class women and people of color, and by devoting significant organizational resources to educating our members about the importance of antiracist organizing and of cultivating welcoming, inclusive DSA chapters. Below is a summary of the most important struggles in which DSA will participate over the coming years (this list is by no means exhaustive of all the activities undertaken by DSA chapters; details of additional lines of work can be found in DSA’s strategy document).
Building Multiracial, Intentionally Intersectional Coalitions
DSA’s analysis of the interrelationships among many different forms of oppression under capitalism suggests that the only democratic socialist strategy capable of effective resistance to capitalism is one that links together antiracist, feminist, LGBTQ, labor, anti-ableist, and anti-ageist (as well as other) movements by “connecting the dots” between them. We consider each of these struggles to be mutually reinforcing, and believe that the success of one ultimately depends on the success of the others. Further, capitalists have consistently used appeals to white racism, and tensions at the intersection of gender and race, to maintain divisions among the working class. In order to overcome these divisions and forge deeper solidarities across the working class, it is essential that a disproportionately straight, white, male, English-speaking, mostly college-educated socialist organization such as DSA prioritize racial justice work and organize actively within struggles where racial, gender, class and sexual oppression intersect. We must do so with humility and take our lead from the organizations that organize and are led by poor and working-class people in those communities.
The specific coalitional work undertaken by each DSA chapter will vary depending on local circumstances, but could include, to name a few, fights for universal health care and for higher quality public education, and struggles against prison expansion, police brutality and discriminatory treatment of undocumented workers. In most cases DSA chapters will have to choose between several equally worthy campaigns to which they might devote their organizational resources. In these cases, chapters will have to pick campaigns based on considerations such as the degree to which the campaign engages issues important to a diverse range of communities, and the degree to which those involved with the campaign are likely to be open to democratic socialist politics.
The fundamental social relationship in capitalism is between the worker and the capitalist (employee and employer), and the exploitation of workers by capitalists is the primary source of profitability within the capitalist system. This relationship gives an organized working class tremendous potential power, and it makes the self-organization of working people an essential weapon in anticapitalist struggle. Further, labor organizing gives DSA members a chance not only to work toward a revived workers’ movement but also to build DSA. U.S. history has shown that the best recruits for socialism are experienced and radicalized workers, and, similarly, that the best workplace organizers are socialists. For these reasons we must place the trade union movement and newer, less traditional forms of worker self-organization (e.g. workers’ centers) front and center in our priorities. This work is especially necessary today, when worker organization is at a historic low after decades of relentless corporate attacks.
The most important DSA involvement in the labor movement in the coming years will be in our individual capacities as unionists. We cannot — and should not — direct our members to find employment in certain sectors of the economy in order to work as rank-and-file organizers. We can, however, encourage and support our members who become rank-and-file activists, as well as shop stewards and local union officers, and encourage dialogue and coordination in sectors where many DSA members work, such as health care, social services and teaching. Unions need good staff and paid organizers, but a revival of the labor movement will depend above all else on militancy among rank-and-file workers themselves.
Although organizing in the workplace is still essential, smaller workplaces, less-stable employment, and the antisocial tendencies of neoliberalism point toward the importance of community organizing as a crucial complement to labor organizing. Most DSA chapters have been organized on the basis of a metropolitan area. Nothing should stop DSA members from organizing on a neighborhood basis as well. They should talk to their neighbors, determine which issues most urgently face the community (for example, tenants’ rights, police brutality or shoddy, under-funded public services) and organize strategically around those issues. Community organizing is a particularly effective means of developing strong and lasting ties with communities, which has often been a shortcoming of DSA chapters. Such work could also help our activists connect to people of diverse backgrounds and thereby incorporate a broader range of views and create an organization more representative of the working people of this country.
Organizing in Higher Education
Every year, state legislatures slash funding for public colleges and universities, resulting in dramatic increases in tuition and class size. University administrators have replaced state workers with privatized, exploited workers in food and housekeeping. At the same time, they have replaced full-time, tenured, and tenure-track faculty with graduate students and a low-paid, nobenefits army of adjunct professors (professors without job security and usually without benefits) to provide instruction. Students graduate with large amounts of debt and their degrees are less and less likely to secure them adequate post-college employment. This crisis in higher education could result in the death of an affordable, democratic system of higher education in the United States or in a powerful movement of students, staff, faculty and communities capable of taking back the system. We believe the latter option is possible and that DSA can play an important role in fostering its development.
Free public higher education is a key example of what we might call a “transformative” reform that helps to popularize the idea of socialism and to make further, more dramatic reforms possible in the future. Free public higher education would mean taking what should be a universal public good out of the marketplace, putting it under democratic control and guaranteeing it as a right to all citizens — and funding it by a truly progressive tax system that makes the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of government revenue. Beyond its inherent benefits, such a campaign would also show people that socialist policies are both desirable and achievable. Gaining free public higher education could serve as a crucial step in making democratic socialist politics more attractive to a wider cross-section of the U.S. public.
Achieving our goals will require grassroots organizing and “street heat,” but it will also require a critical mass of political office holders to implement them. Although elections in and of themselves will not bring about major political, economic or social reforms — let alone establish a pathway to socialism — it is difficult to imagine how we could achieve any of our objectives in the United States without taking part in the electoral process. In the short term, we need to engage in electoral activity for several important reasons: to defend existing rights; to put forth new demands for social and economic justice that could change public conversations and thereby create openings for more fundamental structural reforms down the road; to attract new members to DSA and thereby build our capacity as an organization; and to build and sustain non-electoral activism. The nature of our electoral activism will vary based on local political conditions. But it will include supporting progressive and socialist candidates running for office, usually in Democratic primaries or as Democrats in general elections but also in support of independent socialist and other third-party campaigns outside the Democratic Party. In the medium-to-long-term we will work to build the organizational capacity necessary to run candidates of our own (as one of DSA’s predecessor organizations, Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and DSA itself were able to do in the 1970s and 1980s), to forge larger socialist electoral coalitions both within and outside of the Democratic Party and ultimately to create a majoritarian electoral coalition in support of socialist political and economic reforms.
We will also participate in the climate justice movement against the devastation wreaked by global capitalism on the most vulnerable people, cultures and ecosystems. Our commitment to this movement aligns us with the struggles of indigenous peoples against the plunder of their fossil fuel and forest resources and the life-destroying pollution of our air and water. It also positions us against the negligent attitude shown by the global North towards black and brown communities around the world who are disproportionately affected by the violent storms, floods and famines caused by the carbon poured into the atmosphere by the developed world.
Climate justice organizing for DSA chapters will often take the form of campaigns for institutional divestment from fossil fuel capital, protests and other forms of organized dissent against domestic policies and international agreements that undermine environmental protections. Organizing as open socialists gives DSA members the opportunity to organize around widely supported “green” causes under the banner of the anticapitalist “red” movement. Participation in the climate justice movement also enables DSA to stress its internationalist politics, as this movement is part of a broader fight against corporate domination of social and economic life, and in favor of a democratic international order that enhances global labor, human rights and environmental standards.
In a globalized economy, the commitment of socialists to international solidarity is not just a moral imperative but a pragmatic necessity. DSA will stand in solidarity with movements around the world fighting to raise global labor, environmental, and human rights standards in opposition to corporate “race to the bottom” policies. Such solidarity often will take the form of opposing our government’s own foreign policy, which supports undemocratic international institutions (including pro-corporate “free trade agreements”), and which backs, often through military intervention, authoritarian regimes that support U.S. government and economic interests.
Building DSA and the Socialist Left
DSA’s role in building progressive social movements is essential to our work; regardless of what we gain as an organization from this work, it is an end in itself. Additionally, through our coalition work and community organizing we learn invaluable organizing skills and discover countless ways to improve the work that we do. However, in order to be effective in this work, as well as to build broader-based, independent socialist organizations that we hope will grow over time into a powerful political force, we need to dramatically increase the ranks of the socialist movement in the United States. While DSA has expanded significantly since 2010, there is still tremendous room for growth, especially in the wake of Sanders’ Political Revolution, which exposed countless young people to the idea of democratic socialism for the first time. In order to take advantage of this potential, DSA chapters will use a range of tactics to help expand our activist and membership base. First, we will place a greater emphasis on our critique of capitalism and positive vision of democratic socialism in our coalition, public education and community organizing work. We will also devote more resources to developing new leaders through individual mentoring, skills training and educational programming. Finally, we will engage in regular and intensive assessments of our organizational progress, while always working to recruit as many new members from a diverse an array of backgrounds.
Success across this spectrum of struggles should lead to a period when we can talk seriously about the transition to democratic socialism through reforms that fundamentally undermine the power of the capitalist system (often referred to as “non-reformist reforms”), such as the nationalization of strategic industries (banking, auto, etc.) and the creation of worker-controlled investment funds (created by taxing corporate profits) that will buy out capitalist stakes in firms and set up worker-owned and -operated firms on a large scale. While it may sound premature to begin discussing such long-term objectives before we have achieved our more modest (though ambitious) short-term goals, it is critical that we advance a clear vision of our short-, medium- and long-term objectives and a credible account of how we might move from each stage of struggle to the next (more details related to this question can be found in DSA’s strategy document). If we are not clear about where we are heading, we risk both losing track of the importance of our socialist identity and making strategic errors for the sake of short-term tactical gains.
For the foreseeable future our primary focus will be on building a vibrant, independent democratic socialist movement and helping to cultivate progressive coalitions capable of wielding political power at all levels. But we should never lose sight of the democratic socialist vision that serves as the guiding thread tying together the many struggles for freedom and equality in which we are constantly engaged, day in, day out.