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Quick Takes: Whither the Democratic Socialists of America?

Ralph Seliger
January 24, 2018

by Ralph Seliger


BACK IN 1982, I witnessed the merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC — usually pronounced “dee-sock) with the New American Movement to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Nearly ten years before, DSOC had split from the Social Democrats USA (SD), itself the main remnant of the old Socialist Party (SP) associated with Eugene Victor Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington.

Harrington had achieved mainstream prominence by writing The Other America, which was widely credited as influencing Lyndon Johnson to launch the War on Poverty. A dynamic speaker and prolific writer, Harrington inspired me to join the SP and its successor, the SD, and then DSOC. Among the notable intellectuals and activists who joined Harrington in DSOC was Irving Howe, a chronicler of secular Yiddish culture, a champion of anti-Stalinist socialist thought, and a founder of Dissent magazine and of the Socialist Scholars Conference (now the Left Forum).

In my early 20s, I was torn between the SD and DSOC. Eventually, I wearied of both and never joined DSA. I expressed my political passions in the service of left-Zionist groups in the U.S. allied with the Mapam (socialist) party in Israel, its successor, the Meretz party, and other partisans of a dovish Zionist vision, like Americans for Peace Now. (Alas, peace looks no closer there than democratic socialism here, but that’s another story.)

The SD mostly ran out of gas during the 1970s (notwithstanding its current modest revival), and some of its leaders became associated with the first generation of neoconservativism (see “How Neoconservatives’ Shift from Left to Right Inspired Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Thinking”). Prior to this dissolution, the SD had shared with DSOC and DSA a commitment to “coalition politics” as outlined by Bayard Rustin (an aide to Martin Luther King, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and a leader of the SD) in “From Protest to Politics,” an essay published in 1965 in Commentary magazine (some years before Commentary moved right). They favored a coalition within the Democratic Party of minority groups, organized labor, and liberals. They also sought a “realignment” strategy that would allow progressive forces to break the stranglehold of the racist bloc of Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) and take control of the Democratic Party.

Ironically, realignment became a conservative gambit, with Reagan and the Republican party cashing in on Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to eventually flip the “Solid South” from the Dems to the GOP, creating a hard-right party. But the concept of working for progressive change within the Democratic Party remained a DSA touchstone long after Harrington’s premature death in 1989. Apparently, this approach was recently changed, with the DSA now endorsing only those candidates running explicitly as socialists, though not necessarily outside the Democratic Party.

The DSA’s membership has skyrocketed since November 2016 from about 6,000 to over 32,000, bringing about a startling youthful shift. According to Anna Heyward, in an atypically long article in The Nation (“Since Trump’s Victory, Democratic Socialists of America Has Become a Budding Political Force”), “the median age of DSA’s membership [today] is 33, down from 68 in 2013.” The membership boom has been inspired by Bernie Sanders’ rise to national prominence as a “democratic socialist,” coupled with a backlash against Trumpism. (Paradoxically, Sanders has never belonged to DSA.) An additional factor is alienation from the Dems, epitomized by Hillary Clinton’s real and imagined shortcomings, and a sense that the party is dominated by pro-business neo-liberals.

At its convention last summer, the DSA withdrew from the Socialist International, the alliance of social-democratic and labor parties from the days of Marx and Engels. The SI (like the Democrats) was accused of embracing neo-liberalism. In Harrington’s time, the association with the SI was a point of pride and a source of public policy insights from foreign politicians and officials who had an actual track record in government.


THEN THERE WAS a decisive vote endorsing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel. If still alive, Harrington and Howe would likely have endorsed a settlements-only boycott (DSA’s previous position), in accord with the position of some left-Zionists. Overall the resolution is a one-sided statement of solidarity with the Palestinian leadership of BDS, completely devoid of sympathy for Israel’s raison d’être as a homeland for a historically oppressed people and making no mention of its legitimate security needs.

Particularly telling is the fact that DSA even rejected “a friendly amendment” to the resolution on the question of refugee return: The amendment suggested monetary compensation as an option (as actually appears in the text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194) for Palestinians who “chose not to return or are unable to gain ownership of their original properties.” Although explained as an effort to allay Jewish fears that they’d no longer have a place for themselves in Israel once a “just solution is found,” DSA chose to support the BDS demand of a full right of return for generations of Palestinians classified as refugees.

So there’s some broken china from this upsurge of youthful energy. Most new recruits to DSA probably think of themselves as revolutionaries, and many identify explicitly as “Marxists.” Marx deserves his due as a formidable analyst of 19th century capitalism, yet it’s hard to see an identification with “Marxism” — given its totalitarian Leninist and Stalinist baggage — as politically useful in 21st century America.


Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued as a print publication, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.