For an Independent Socialist Movement: An Open Letter to the Democratic Socialists in Congress

Thoughts on the national convention from the Marxist Unity Group caucus.

To the Democratic Socialists in Congress:

The Marxist Unity Group is writing this letter to you to share some good news: a struggle is brewing in the Democratic Socialists of America that brings you new choices and opportunities. You deserve to know about it. Everyone deserves to know, which is why we are also releasing this as an open letter to all DSA members. We all have a choice in this struggle: the struggle for an independent socialist movement.

As DSA members, we will never lose the hope and indignation that powered us through the Sanders campaigns. We see the suffering of East Palestine, Ohio, its residents engulfed in fire and toxic fumes – victims of a railroad disaster caused by decades of bipartisan deregulation. We see the exhaustion of nearly 200,000 American rail workers, denied their right to strike and forced to toil in increasingly dangerous conditions. Indeed, after years of haze and confusion, we can see the truth with painful clarity.

The truth is that Joe Biden is an enemy of the working class; his party is an enemy of the working class. By overriding the rail workers to impose an inhumane contract brokered by the labor bureaucracy, both parties have confirmed their unbending loyalty to the capitalist oligarchy. The capitalists were determined to prevent a strike and avoid any shock to an already fragile economy. But there is another reason for their intransigence: they hope to exhaust the workers and discourage all future militancy. They know that a rail strike would expose millions of Americans to the power of collective action and could electrify the entire labor movement. In our era of audacious union organizing, the threat of militancy is still alive.

To Rashida Tlaib, we thank you for standing with the workers. Last November, you broke with the capitalist parties and refused to vote for the scab deal. Your plain-spoken honesty in this moment embodies the courageous leadership that our country’s working class desperately needs.

To Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we can only express our profound disappointment that you voted with the capitalists to impose the Tentative Agreement and make a strike illegal. With this act, you broke the most basic principle of socialism: your duty of loyalty to the working class. You gained nothing from helping the strikebreaking bill move forward. Even if the Speaker demanded it in return for a separate vote on paid sick leave, House Democrats knew that this measure would almost certainly die in the Senate. Endorsing the vote on paid sick leave allowed them to save face, to scapegoat the Republicans for imposing Joe Biden’s scab deal. This game of “pin the blame on the Senate” is as old as our backwards slaveholder Constitution. The truth is that Democrats and Republicans were equally responsible for the failure of sick leave. You could easily have exposed this reality by proposing an alternative bill that included sick leave, and then holding a press conference to indict both capitalist parties for opposing it. But instead of playing hardball, you marched quietly behind Democratic leadership. Even comrade Tlaib, who took the most principled stance, has reserved her harshest criticisms for the Republican Party, faulting only “the GOP and Manchin” for denying the workers sick leave.

No DSA member in Congress has achieved political independence from the capitalist class. As DSA members, we bear primary responsibility for this situation. We have not developed the party infrastructure that we need to separate ourselves from the Democratic coalition and run self-reliant socialist electoral campaigns. But the underlying problem is not simply a lack of resources: at the core, it is our failure of vision. DSA has given you the stigma and prestige of being associated with socialists, but we have not offered you a coherent political vision and strategy to achieve real success. Our messaging is deliberately vague; we barely acknowledge our own platform, and our leadership is so divided that they struggle to meet with you as a group. We have asked you to struggle on our behalf, but we have not completed our own struggle to become an organized political movement. When you face the Democratic Party, Joe Biden can rebuff you with the same words he once offered a labor leader behind closed doors: “What are you complaining about? You have nowhere else to go!”

Democratic leaders give you schoolyard taunts, ultimatums, and spineless half measures. The Marxist Unity Group is determined to give you a new choice. We are fighting to unite DSA and the socialist movement around a new path of oppositional politics, stridently independent from the capitalist class. From the great U.S. socialist Eugene Debs to historic freedom struggles in Russia and Ireland, socialist leaders across history have built impressive popular appeal through principled opposition to the entire ruling class. In his best moments, Bernie Sanders channeled this tradition with his rousing speeches against the capitalist oligarchy. The American anti-slavery movement also displayed elements of this approach when it challenged the planter class. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the most visionary anti-slavery House members defied their major party leaders, joined forces with abolitionists, and ferociously denounced America’s slaveholding oligarchy. They staged dramatic confrontations in House speakership elections by refusing to vote for slaveholder candidates, built antislavery third parties, and organized mass mobilizations against pro-slavery legislation. Their struggle forged the antislavery Republican Party, sparked the Civil War, and culminated with the destruction of chattel slavery.

They also gave masterful agitational speeches designed not to seek conciliation with the planter class, but to speak directly to the people as their tribune and encourage popular hostility to the “Slave Power”:

While I am forbidden by law of Congress to give a cup of water or a crust of bread to the hungry and thirsty fugitive, or commanded to lay violent hands on his person [to return him to bondage] … rest assured sir, I shall treat all such laws with contempt. I shall trample them under my feet, as an outrage on humanity, and an insult to God. –Charles Durkee, Free Soil Party congressman

In time, rail workers may trample on the Railway Labor Act and strike in defiance of Congress. Thousands of brave people may defy the law and the judicial system as their attacks on reproductive freedom continue. Will DSA members in Congress stand with them both? You do not seem prepared for this at the moment. A capitalist oligarchy has replaced the old slaveholder oligarchy, and we are concerned that it will completely co-opt you if you continue to approach elected office without a clearly defined strategy. A congresswoman who began her tenure with a sit-in at the Speaker’s office has progressed to firing her chief of staff for his harsh criticism of Democrats, and has now voted “yes” on a strikebreaking bill. You have wavered or divided on questions that should be easy for socialists to answer, from Pentagon slush funds to support for the Israeli military, and voting with the parties of imperialist capitalism to send $68 billion of NATO arms shipments to Ukraine. This path may win you committee appointments and tiny concessions, but it will never liberate the working class, nor is it likely to deliver significant reforms. Before you were elected, you were teachers, nurses, bartenders, and social workers! Remember the countless working people who have struggled beside you. Do not allow yourself to become complicit in their subjugation.

There is an alternative to seeking table scraps as loyal soldiers of the Biden agenda. An oppositional strategy does not reject the need to win reforms, but does so by rallying the political expectations, confidence, and ability of the working class – organizing them in the millions into a democratic, dues-paying, mass membership socialist organization. Even if we are not ready to build a legally-recognized third party, the approval of the state has never been the socialist measure of what a party is. We must build an organization that can function as an independent, socialist, working-class party, even if it does not have formal legal recognition. We will back you tenaciously if you help us organize this socialist party, and it will be a weapon more powerful for you than any backroom deal or committee assignment.

As independent socialists, we understand that class struggle is a zero-sum game. While we recognize divisions within the ruling class, we do this to exploit their differences and win concessions as a working class opposition. Because the long-term needs of workers and capitalists are fundamentally opposed, one cannot be both a good Democrat and a good Socialist.

The rising U.S. labor movement is the most promising development of our time. Socialists are the most energetic organizers of that movement. To best assist the labor movement, congressional socialists should inspire it with visionary politics and align themselves with its bleeding edge. Together, we can build an assertive, self-reliant socialist movement and a sweeping challenge to the capitalist oligarchy. In the coming years, this is exactly what we will encourage you to do with us. In that spirit, we urge you to take these three steps towards political independence:

  1. Form a House Socialist Caucus. Denounce the treachery of both capitalist parties. Withdraw from the House Democratic Caucus and the failed House Progressive Caucus to create your own independent group. Assign designated roles to one another, issue your own press releases, and hold public events together on behalf of the socialist movement. DSA members will work unceasingly to offer support to an independent House Socialist Caucus.
  2. Vote as a bloc. Reject divided messaging. Consult DSA, deliberate together, and strike with one fist as the voice of the socialist movement in Congress. Display your newfound discipline and independence by refusing to vote for the Democratic candidate in future House speakership elections.
  3. Adopt and Promote the DSA platform. Pledge yourselves to advancing the ambitious platform that DSA adopted in 2021. Make it the foundation of your speeches and grassroots organizing. Create slogans that quickly convey its meaning to the masses. Even if you do not agree with every specific element of the DSA platform, by accepting the document as the overall vision of socialists in the U.S., you can help to restore the unity and determination that we enjoyed during the Bernie campaign. Fight to turn DSA into a mass-membership party that can mobilize voters; guide socialists in office; and fund and train candidates for Congress, state assemblies, and local offices.

We recognize that our vision is audacious, and we do not expect you to embrace it immediately. If the Socialist Caucus begins with four people, then we will welcome the four. If the Caucus begins with one person, we will welcome the one. You can rest assured that an overwhelming majority of DSA members would enthusiastically support your steps towards independent socialist principles.

We recognize that forging an independent path will take time and effort on all our parts, and we are prepared to begin laying the groundwork ourselves. The Marxist Unity Group is determined to build an independent socialist movement. In the leadup to DSA’s 2023 convention, we are working with our allies to build a pro-party coalition in DSA. We held a panel on April 8th to discuss this project and another on May 20th. We hope that these will be the first of many public events. We have already submitted convention resolutions (see here) to begin transforming DSA into a principled, self-reliant, democratic membership party. Two of these resolutions were written by MUG alone, and five in coalition with the Reform and Revolution caucus. We also support an amendment recently proposed by the Bread and Roses caucus, which explicitly addresses the need for bloc voting between socialist electeds and independent legislative caucuses. We urge DSA members to sign it here before the deadline on June 28th. Our own resolutions build on the Bread and Roses proposal by enshrining the DSA platform as the basis for socialist unity and agitational campaigns.

Our dialogue with other caucuses is ongoing, and we expect to revise our proposals as our coalition develops. But if you are a DSA member who wants a new choice, we urge you to stand beside us by advocating for these proposals within your local and on the convention floor. If you are not a DSA member, then please sign up with DSA and join the fight!

We will do everything in our power to win DSA members to our cause. If we do not win at convention, then we are prepared to conduct principled electoral work as a minority wing of DSA. If necessary, we will help create electoral structures within DSA with the capacity to run dedicated, principled socialist tribunes for office. We promise to support this project with our time, our skills, our donationsand with unrelenting faith in the socialist movement. We look forward to the day when our leaders embody that same faith, and the red flag of socialism flies high in the halls of Congress.

Solidarity Forever,
the Marxist Unity Group