The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is the largest socialist organization in the US. DSA’s members are building progressive movements for social change while establishing an openly democratic socialist presence in American communities and politics.
At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. DSA fights for reforms that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people. We support reforms that:
– decrease the influence of money in politics
– empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy
restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable.
We are activists committed to democracy as not simply one of our political values but our means of restructuring society. Our vision is of a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives. We call this vision democratic socialism — a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.
We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.
We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.
The DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States today. As of November 2020, membership grew to more than 85,000 and the number of local chapters was 181. As of December 2017, the median age of its membership was 33, compared to 68 in 2013. In November 2018, two DSA members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, were elected to the House of Representatives as Democrats. There they joined a third DSA member, Danny K. Davis. Eleven were elected to state legislatures. In November 2020, Davis, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib were re-elected to the House, and will be joined by two newly-elected DSA members, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, who will also be seated as Democrats.
The red rose is part of the official logo of the DSA, having traditionally been a symbol of socialism since the 1886 Haymarket Affair and the resulting May Day marches from the 19th century to the current day. It was drawn from the logo of the DSOC, its precursor organization, and previously of the Socialist International, which shows a stylized fist clenching a red rose, the fist being substituted with a bi-racial handshake pertaining to the DSA's staunch anti-racism.[failed verification] The fist and rose logo had been originally designed by Didier Motchane and others for the new French Socialist Party founded in 1971 and was later shared by socialist and labor political organizations worldwide.
In electoral politics, the DSA was very strongly associated with Michael Harrington's position that "the left wing of realism is found today in the Democratic Party". In its early years, the DSA opposed Republican presidential candidates by giving critical support to Democratic Party nominees like Walter Mondale in 1984. In 1988, the DSA enthusiastically supported Jesse Jackson's second presidential campaign. Since 1995, the DSA's position on American electoral politics has been that "democratic socialists reject an either-or approach to electoral coalition building, focused solely on a new party or on realignment within the Democratic Party". During the 1990s, the DSA gave the Clinton administration an overall rating of C-, "less than satisfactory".
The DSA's elected leadership has often seen working within the Democratic Party as necessary rather than forming or support third parties. That said, the DSA is very critical of the corporate-funded Democratic Party leadership. The organization has stated:
Much of progressive, independent political action will continue to occur in Democratic Party primaries in support of candidates who represent a broad progressive coalition. In such instances, democratic socialists will support coalitional campaigns based on labor, women, people of color and other potentially anti-corporate elements.
Electoral tactics are only a means for democratic socialists; the building of a powerful anti-corporate coalition is the end.
In 2004, the organization backed John Kerry after he won the Democratic nomination. In its official magazine, the DSA's Political Action Committee said that a defeat for Kerry would be taken as a defeat of the mainstream left, but that “On the other hand, a Kerry victory will let us press onward, with progressives aggressively pressuring an administration that owed its victory to democratic mobilization from below.”
The only resolution on upcoming elections at the DSA's 2005 convention focused on Bernie Sanders's independent campaign for the Senate in Vermont. The organization's 2007 convention in Atlanta featured record-breaking attendance and more participation by the organization's youth wing. Sanders gave the keynote address.
Following Obama's election, many on the political right began to allege that his administration's policies were "socialistic", a claim rejected by the DSA and the Obama administration alike. The claim led DSA National Director Frank Llewellyn to declare that "over the past 12 months, the Democratic Socialists of America has received more media attention than it has over the past 12 years".
For the 2016 presidential election, the DSA endorsed Sanders as its favored presidential candidate. Sanders’ candidacy prompted a surge in DSA membership among young voters. The DSA made it clear that Sanders' New Deal-inspired program did not fulfill the socialist aim of establishing social ownership of the economy, but considered his campaign to be a positive development in the context of contemporary American politics, since he was a self-identified democratic socialist candidate as well as "a lifelong champion of the public programs and democratic rights that empower working class people". The DSA ran the internally-focused #WeNeedBernie campaign to mobilize DSA supporters for Sanders. After Sanders' defeat in the 2016 Democratic primaries, the DSA called for the defeat of Donald Trump, but did not officially endorse Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Ocasio-Cortez's victory and the subsequent publicity for the DSA led to more than 1,000 new members joining the organization the next day, approximately 35 times the daily average and their largest ever one-day increase in membership. These signups helped boost the organization to 42,000 members nationally in June 2018. That number increased to 50,000 by September 1, 2018.
In May 2020, the failure of the DSA to endorse Biden was criticised by 91 "founders, officers and activists" of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s in an open letter "to the New New Left From the Old New Left" published in The Nation. Daniel Finn (on Jacobin) responded that in invoking the specter of fascism under a second-term Trump, the former SDSers are engaging in "melodramatic hyperbole" and, on that climate change is not an issue that can wait until 2024 or 2028. "No socialist", he argued, "who campaigned for Bernie Sanders should feel guilty about abandoning [the Democrats] and concentrating on building a movement that is the only real hope for the planet’s future".
In the early 1980s, the estimated membership of the DSOC was 5,000, but after its merger with the NAM the membership of the organization grew to an estimated 7,000 in 1987. In 2002, Fox News said there were 8,000 members in the DSA.
Two founding Idahoan DSA members at a big tent event in late September 2018
Following the election of Donald Trump as president, the DSA experienced a rapid expansion of its paid membership. In 2017, the organization passed a resolution calling for the national office to provide the group's paid members with a copy of a financial report in non-convention years. A first such report covering the whole of 2017 and the first half of 2018 was published in August 2018.
Once the coronavirus pandemic arrived in America, the DSA saw another expansion in membership. In May 2020, organizers claimed that the DSA attracted about 10,000 new members since March. And according to DSA leaders, with Senator Bernie Sanders dropping out of the presidential race in April, leftists who were previously aligned with the Sanders campaign moved over to the DSA.
As of November 2020, the organization claims over 85,000 members.
The DSA is organized at the local level and works with labor unions, community organizations and campus activists on issues of common interest. Nationwide campaigns are coordinated by the organization's national office in New York City. As of 2017, the DSA website listed 85 local chapters, two statewide chapters, 29 Young Democratic Socialist chapters and 63 organizing committees. As of April 2018, 181 chapters were extant.
Governance of the DSA is by the group's National Political Committee (NPC), which since 2001 has been a 16-person body. The DSA's constitution states that at least eight of the NPC's members shall be women and at least four members of "racial or national" minority groups. A 17th vote is cast by the representative of the DSA's youth affiliate who elects one male and one female delegate who split the vote. The NPC meets four times a year.
The NPC elects an inner committee of six, including five of its own members and one representative of the youth section, called the Steering Committee. At least two of these are constitutionally required to be women and at least one person of color, with the National Director and the Youth Section Organizer also participating as ex officio members. This Steering Committee meets bi-monthly, either in person or by conference call.
The Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) is the official student section of the DSA. The YDSA chapters and members are encouraged to pursue and promote a democratic socialist political education and participate in social justice activism, often taking part in anti-war, labor and student-issue marches and rallies. The YDSA publishes a newsletter called The Red Letter and a blog titled The Activist. The organization's national activities revolve around supporting the DSA campaigns and initiatives and organizing various student conferences, usually held in New York City. The YDSA is a full member of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY).
The highest decision-making authority of the organization is the organization's national conventions which are held biennially. DSA holds conventions every two years, with the most recent occurring in Atlanta, Georgia.
A student and young adult outreach conference hosted by the YDSA took place on February 13–15, 2015 in Manhattan.
The DSA publishes Democratic Left, a quarterly magazine of news and analysis. This publication continues in an uninterrupted run from the original Newsletter of the Democratic Left published by the DSOC (the DSA forerunner) since its establishment in 1973. In 2008, DSA members active in the American labor movement founded Talking Union, a blog that focuses on labor politics, working-class struggles and strategies.
Left-wing quarterly magazine Jacobin is considered to be very close to the organization, although there is no official affiliation between the magazine and DSA. In 2014 its editor Bhaskar Sunkara, who is a DSA member, said that Michael Harrington was “very underrated as a popularizer of Marxist thought".
Put it this way. Marx was a democrat with a small "d". The Democratic Socialists envision a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning [...] and racial equality. I share an immediate program with liberals in this country because the best liberalism leads toward socialism. [...] I want to be on the left wing of the possible.
Harrington made it clear that even if the traditional Marxist vision of a marketless, stateless society was not possible, he did not understand why this needed to "result in the social consequence of some people eating while others starve".
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the DSA voiced opposition to that nation's bureaucratically managed economy and control over its satellite states. The DSA welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union. Sociologist Bogdan Denitch wrote in the DSA's Democratic Left (quoted in 1989):
The aim of democrats and socialists should be [...] to help the chances of successful reform in the Soviet bloc. [...] While supporting liberalization and economic reforms from above, socialists should be particularly active in contacting and encouraging the tender shoots of democracy from below.
The DSA regards the abolition of capitalism and the realization of socialism as a gradual long-term goal, therefore the organization focuses its immediate political energies on reforms within capitalism that empower working people while decreasing the power of corporations.
A member of the Socialist International (SI) from its founding in 1982, the DSA voted to leave the SI in August 2017 over its acceptance of what the DSA perceived as neoliberal economic policies.
The DSA characterizes its vision of socialism as an economic system based on maximum decentralization that can be supportive of a range of models for social ownership, including publicly owned enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives. The DSA rejects centralized economic planning in favor of a combination of democratic planning and market mechanisms: Because the DSA does not believe capitalism and private corporations can be immediately replaced with socialism, it is favorable to using government regulations and organized labor to make private businesses more accountable to the public interest.
At the 2017 DSA Convention, the group announced its withdrawal from the Socialist International (SI). The resolution passed states that the DSA will "[build] direct relationships with socialist and left parties and social movements around the world that we can learn from and which share our values. [...] Our affiliation with the Socialist International hinders our ability to develop stronger relationships with parties and social movements that share our values and which, in many cases, are bitterly opposed to their country's SI affiliate(s)".
At the 2017 convention it also passed a resolution which solidified the DSA's solidarity with the cause of the Palestinian people and with the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: "Democratic Socialists of America condemns all efforts to deny the right of Palestinians in the United States and their allies to free speech, assembly, and academic freedom". The resolution further condemned Israeli actions, comparing those actions to apartheid. The DSA has shown its solidarity with Ahed Tamimi. The organization called for immediate release from detention. The statement also reiterated the DSA's support for the liberation of the Palestinian people.
In 2016, the DSA issued a statement of solidarity with Venezuela. The statement called the sanctions placed on Venezuela by the Obama administration unjust and illegal. It called for the United States to cease its interference in Venezuelan affairs, saying: "We call on the President and Congress to reverse these actions and stop seeking to undermine the Venezuelan people and their legitimate, democratically elected government".
Positioning itself as an anti-racist and anti-fascist organization, the DSA connects this fight against fascist groups to its broader struggle against capitalism, saying on its website: "We believe that the terror unleashed on our comrades can be defeated. We also believe that the wider system of racist oppression can be defeated, but only with the ending of the capitalist system which birthed it".
The DSA believes in defending communities from neofascist violence and building a multi-racial working-class movement. This involves deplatformingreactionary and racist groups and events, believing that a united front of left-wing organizations needs to confront these forces wherever they appear.
Labor movement and workers' rights
The DSA has long been a supporter and defender of the labor movement in the United States and has also argued for the increase of international worker solidarity. The DSA believes in a livable minimum wage for all workers, but it notes that this fight only goes so far and is only the first step in building a more humane economic system: "Ultimately the minimum wage only works for those lucky enough to find a job – even a low paying one – and it doesn't really "work" for them, because it doesn't come with health benefits, adequate schools, or enough money to set aside for retirement". The DSA members have been supporters and active participants in fights to increase the minimum wage across the country, including the Fight for $15 protests.
The DSA opposes right to work laws, which are seen as an attack on the rights of workers and the historic advances or the labor movement. It is argued that the enactment of these laws reduces the efficacy of collective bargaining agreements, putting workers at a disadvantage. In a statement released in 2014, the organization said: "Such "right to work" laws consciously aim to weaken union strength; they are the main reason why the "right to work" is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "the right to work for less".
The DSA argues that financial elites have consciously fought to destroy union power in an effort to solidify the hegemony of markets and corporate power. The organization believes that for an equitable and sustainable economic system that the production of wealth should be under the democratic control of those who produce it. The DSA also emphasizes the role played by immigrants, women, disabled workers, LGBTQIA+ and workers of color in the broader labor movement, believing that all barriers between working people must be broken in order to help create and maintain a broad and unified labor movement.
The DSA is committed to the rights of the LGBT community, connecting anti-gay prejudice to capitalist exploitation. This includes pushes for equal rights and protections for all those who identify as LGBTQIA+ as well as rights to housing, jobs, education, public accommodations and healthcare. The DSA recognizes that those who are most discriminated against based on identity are disproportionately women and people of color. The organization also seeks to ensure public schools are safe places for LGBTQIA+ students and that students should have total access to facilities that reflect their gender. The DSA supports the protection of same-sex marriages, but it "views marriage as only a first step in recognizing the diversity of human relationships".
The DSA aligns itself with the socialist-feminist movement. The organization holds that capitalism is built on white supremacy as well as male supremacy. The DSA maintains that reproductive rights are central to the feminist movement. Connecting democratic socialism and socialist feminism, the DSA says "that birth control and safe abortion should be provided as part of a comprehensive single-payer healthcare program". Believing that electoral politics can only take socialist feminism so far, the organization also says that the emphasis must be on community-based grassroots movements. The DSA further says that socialist feminism must include the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The DSA is opposed to Zionism and the current form of the State of Israel. Members view them as imperialist and a form of ethnostate. The DSA formerly supported Israel throughout much of its history, including socialist and progressive individuals and movements inside the state. In 2018, Jo-Ann Mort, former vice-chair of DSA, described the group as formerly having been "the place to go on the left if you were a socialist and you were pro-Israel".Alternet noted that this has been a dividing issue, with older members "tried to reconcile socialism with Zionism" while younger members recognize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a "time-tested means of nonviolent protest" and "the most powerful force to combat Israeli apartheid in the 21st century".
On August 5, 2017, members of the organization passed a motion to formally endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
^Dorothy Healey and Maurice Isserman, Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990; pp. 245–249.
^O'Rourke, William (1993). "L: Michael Harrington". Signs of the literary times: Essays, reviews, profiles, 1970–1992. The Margins of Literature (SUNY Series). SUNY Press. pp. 195–196. ISBN 0-7914-1681-X.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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