The International Question in DSA

Three DSA International Committee members discuss their views on the body’s evolution and socialist internationalism today.

International questions were the main internal fault line of the twentieth century Left. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution split the world labor movement into communist and socialist/social-democratic wings, which had fateful consequences not just for the Left but the subsequent course of world history. Left-wing parties and organizations differentiated themselves by their views on the USSR and its role in the world – whether it represented a deformed or degenerated workers’ state, a form of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism, or an “actually existing socialism” that had to be defended from U.S.-led capitalist imperialism at all costs.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991 took the original source of the split off the stage of history, but it has been outlived by a number of states still ruled by Communist parties: Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, and above all, China. The rise of China from a poor and peripheral country into a contender for world hegemony is perhaps the main story of our age. The intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China marks the return of great power competition after a 30 year interlude of neoliberal globalization and the “global war on terror.” The resurgent U.S. Left has largely been able to avoid international questions, for better or worse. But with the Biden administration dedicating itself to a policy of “extreme competition” with China, we will not be able to keep these questions off our main agenda anymore.

Three current members of DSA’ International Committee – Paul Garver, Austin Gonzalez, and Carrington Morris – recently participated in a facilitated discussion with Socialist Forum on these questions. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you first become interested in international politics? 

Austin Gonzalez: There are a lot of reasons why I’ve been very passionate about international issues. First and foremost,  I’m of Puerto Rican descent. So, being of Puerto Rican descent, I’ve always been very in touch with my Puerto Rican heritage, with Latin American politics to a certain extent. Puerto Rico being a “territory” of the United States always had me very curious, even from a young age. Well, what exactly is a territory? How does the United States relate to these overseas territories or to countries across the world?

I came of age during the Iraq war, which I think had a very deep impact on our country. How did this happen? How  did our country get to this point where intervention of that extent was able to happen where over a million Iraqis died? So, I think that was the beginning of a trend in the United States, a discourse on the left, and definitely in my own personal life as far as taking international issues more seriously, taking anti-intervention more seriously, taking anti-war more seriously.

I was an Obama supporter, I first got really politically active during the Obama campaign. He came out against the Iraq war, during his campaign at least, and tried to present an anti-war persona, although that didn’t exactly pan out during his administration. But there was a moment just a couple of months after his inauguration where he met with Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela at the time. And I’ll never forget Chávez gave Obama a present. He gave him Open Veins of Latin America, a book by Eduardo Galeano. A lot of people such as myself saw that and were like, “What is this book I’ve never heard of?”  I bought the book, read it, and I’ve never looked back since.

Carrington Morris:  I went to college in Washington, DC, and I wanted to study international relations. I studied languages. As far as leftist politics, that was a longer progression. I’m Gen X, and we tend not to be as left-wing as, say, millennials or Zoomers. It took me a while to put things together because among my peers, still to this day, I can’t have conversations with people my own age about theories of change, for example. So, I feel like I spent a long time piecing things together. One part of that was Palestine. I knew something was going on there, and I couldn’t figure it out. All my siblings, for example, have Jewish spouses and it was often hard to talk to and ask questions about the subject because it was sort of taboo.

I was suckered by the Iraq war. I didn’t know where I stood on it, and I ultimately took the wrong side of it. And when I realized how terrible the war was, I swore never again. Another important thing for me was Twitter. I didn’t have children. All my peers had children, so they were taking care of their babies at night. And I was on Twitter at night, reading live reports from journalists in Palestine on what Israel was during the 2014 war. That’s when I was finally able to understand what was going on in Palestine, and I became an activist.

Where I stand now in terms of the International Committee is that we should always be for the many, not the few. I’m not just for American people, I’m for everybody—my fellow human beings. I recognize the humanity of my fellow human beings, and I’m a champion for them. We have a global economy, so we can’t  just limit ourselves and our work to American borders. That can only go so far, and I don’t think it’s very far at all. Climate change doesn’t stop at the border, it’s global. We can’t address climate change, in turn, without being anti-war and anti-imperialist. The powers that be aren’t going to save us. The people in charge, we’re all going down with that ship if we don’t take action. We need to engage as human beings, as socialists; and we need to encourage our fellow human beings and socialists to join us because we need all the people we can get. So we need to work in coalition with international partners. Part of the role of the International Committee is to really impress upon DSA members how important internationalism is. It’s not just an add-on to our socialist politics, it’s integral to it.

Paul Garver: With my being a generation older than Carrington and two generations older than Austin, I have to select a decade here. I could talk about the sixties with the Vietnam War, but what really turned me into anti-imperialist was an article in Commentary by Theodore Draper that showed how the U.S. lied about the Dominican Republic intervention in 1965. The lesson I learned from participation in the anti-war and anti-draft movement in Vietnam is that we needed to build a strong domestic movement to change society here in the U.S..

For quite a while I was active in the New American Movement (NAM), I was really focused on building labor. In the 1980s, I realized that labor was running into a cul-de-sac. I was a SEIU local leader and staff person in Pittsburgh, and I was witness to the de-industrialization of western Pennsylvania. I could tell a lot of stories about that, but the point here is that I became more and more interested in building a global labor movement because I thought that’s the only way we would survive.

In pursuit of that, I went on a labor tour of Nicaragua sponsored by the National Labor Committee in 1984. I went to El Salvador in 1986 for a conference hosted by the Jesuit University where I met with all the different factions of the guerillas and the FMLN. And in 1988, I went on a small but serious attempt to build labor solidarity in Guatemala, where I had the experience of meeting with president Vinicio Cerezo, who was a virtual prisoner of the military.  Our Guatemala Labor Education Project delegation was able to concretely help a textile workers’ strike at Lunafil. In the process I met Rudolfo Robles, the  president of the Coca-Cola union, later to be the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) representative in Guatemala, and he became my colleague because IUF general secretary Dan Gallin, who I think is one of the great Marxists of the twentieth century, hired me to work for the IUF.

So from 1990 to 2006 I worked full time building global labor solidarity with the IUF. This is really my formation of my views about internationalism, because I got the opportunity to work on every continent except Antarctica and with all kinds of labor unions of different stripes. We were very open. Dan was a democratic socialist, but he was the facilitator of a huge sprawling organization which ranged from conservative unions through Communist unions. Building a kind of structure where workers could directly participate in trying to check global capitalism and transnational capital was what I spent my time dreaming about and working on. When I came back to the U.S. after formally retiring in 2007, I found DSA rather small and ineffective and not very international. So, I decided to do two things in DSA. One was to help put a lot of effort into building the youth section, which is now YDSA, because we were at an average age of 65 or something like that. And the other was to work on the International Committee.

I’ve been a member of the International Committee in several iterations. I’d like to thank Carrington for the immense amount of work she did as co-chair of the International Committee, trying to put together this structure, and I’m really happy to see younger folks like Austin becoming very active internationally.  I think it’s very exciting to have younger people and especially people of color, Latinos and African-Americans, involved. So, I feel pretty good about this. I realize we have a lot of conflicts in DSA about international activity, and I’ll talk about that later.

Paul just alluded to disagreements and conflicts, and those are real, but it seems like there are also many commonalities. Where do you think there is broad agreement in DSA regarding international politics and socialist internationalism in general? 

Carrington: I think fundamentally it’s recognizing the humanity of people abroad, which I think is no small thing. I think we have also established that we are anti-sanctions, particularly concerning U.S. attempts to put restrictions on the trading activity and economies of other countries. Of course, we are supportive of sanctions on Israel, we are supportive of the sanctions that were placed on South Africa in the 1980s. We are anti-intervention, we are anti-imperialist, we’re in favor of self-determination. I’ll let others go into more detail on that if they want.

Paul: I think we all agree on a couple of things. One is on the importance of international activity, that is, we are international socialists and not national socialists. I mean, that’s a cliche, but it means we have to be globally minded. I think we all agree on building a strong, diverse, and articulated International Committee, and a lot of work has gone into that. We now need to take this machine and make it work. We’ve been building out the structure. Now we’ve got to build its function. To the extent that we have disagreements, I think a lot of them are rooted in generational differences.

Austin: I think there are a couple big issues that the vast majority of DSA members agree on. I think one is being anti-war and anti-intervention. I’d say another key point where there’s very broad agreement is being in touch with and being in solidarity with the international working class. The working class does not end at the U.S. border. We need to be in solidarity with the working class in Venezuela. We need to be in solidarity with the working class in Cuba. We need to be in solidarity with the working class literally everywhere. I think that’s another place where there is broad agreement.

Now, what those words mean, what those phrases mean, perhaps there’s a little bit of disagreement. But as far as those basic concepts, I’d say there’s very broad agreement there. I agree with Paul that having an International Committee that is robust, that respects our multi-tendency nature, that incorporates various viewpoints, is something a lot of members are very much in agreement on as well.

Where I think there’s potential for engagement from everybody in DSA is in an anti-war campaign, an anti-sanctions campaign, focusing on these things that we all have broad agreement on. I think there’s a lot of potential there, and I think the responsibility of the International Committee and our national leadership is to find those points of agreement and use them to build national campaigns.

Paul, you mentioned before that you think many of the disagreements over international politics have to do with generational differences. What do you mean by that?

Paul: Well, as I said before I got involved in these issues mainly on the labor side in the beginning of the 1980s, and pretty much through 2010. To me, building global worker solidarity is an essential task of socialists, and as a socialist, that’s what I try to work on. Putting the working class first is really important. I noticed in some of our discussions we don’t do that. That is, we focus on various international camps and the conflicts between them, the socialist camp or the U.S. camp or the imperialist camp or what have you.

My view, which I’ve been working on since the 1980s, is that the basic conflict in the world is between the ruling class, which is transnational capital, and the working class. There are no separate camps. Or rather we are the camp, and by “we” I mean not just organized workers but the entire working class, the 99%, which is pretty much the case in every country. There’s a 1% that runs things, and there’s 99% that have to fight for their self-determination and their rights. So that’s the basis of my views on these questions.

I’ve been writing about sanctions with respect to Myanmar, because after going through many struggles and working with the Burmese diaspora it’s pretty clear that the only way we’re going to cut off essential resources to the military that’s making war on its own people is by sanctioning the natural gas joint venture between Chevron and Total, which is to say global capital, and the military. The U.S. is very unwilling to do that because any administration is pretty much in thrall to fossil fuel capitalism, whether it’s on climate issues or whether it’s on human rights issues. The lobbyists for Chevron have their foot in the door, and they’re going to fight strongly against this.

I was a little surprised when that raised the question of whether we could be for any sanctions. And then I looked at South Africa and I looked at the BDS movement with Palestine and said, “Well, we are in favor of sanctions, especially multilateral sanctions and ones that are broadly supported by the subjected population.” So I’m not sure we have broad agreement on being anti-sanctions. The reality is that it’s a very complicated issue. We are certainly against broad and unilateral sanctions, and we’re against unilateral sanctions by the United States. But we’re not against sanctions in all situations.

So I look upon this as an organizer, and I’ll just make one plug. I’m much more interested in doing concrete solidarity campaigns than in issuing proclamations. I think for example, we should campaign for BDS by fighting against all the measures to muzzle the free speech of pro-BDS and pro-Palestine activists on campuses. On Cuba and Venezuela, we should zero in very heavily on getting rid of those sanctions. I mean, we’ve had sanctions on Cuba for 60 years. What has it done except cripple the revolution and make the lives of the people much more difficult? Same is true for Venezuela. We can disagree about the nature of the Cuban or Venezuelan regimes. That’s also a complicated question. They don’t meet the criteria that I would have of having an autonomous working class that can organize and fight for its interests. But on the other hand, we don’t know what they’d be like if they hadn’t suffered aggression from the U.S.

These are all difficult issues, and I think the more we talk about them, the better. In general, we should focus on concrete things rather than proclaiming our feelings about first, second, or third camps. In the labor movement, for example, we don’t necessarily have to agree on the nature of the global proletariat to agree on the importance of organizing workers. So my sense of the disagreements is that they’re mainly tactical, they’re in part a result of a lack of communication, and to some extent they’re intergenerational.

Can you elaborate some more on the points you made about intergenerational conflict and lack of communication?

Paul: People like Austin, for example, have grown up in the period of unquestioned U.S. global hegemony. Now, this probably isn’t going to be true much longer because China might be the most important global power by the end of the century. Older comrades who were alive and active during the Cold War, for example, came of age during a very different period and bring those perspectives with them into these discussions and debates.

Austin: I think Paul hits the nail on the head there, as far as this a generational difference. I was born in 1992, so all I know is U.S. hegemony. I wasn’t alive during the Cold War and the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So, to me, conceiving of the world as being divided into various camps has never really made much sense to me because I’ve never lived in a world where that’s been a thing. I think people often accuse folks who are supportive of the Venezuelan government or the Cuban government of being “campists.” But I tell people all the time, though I might be supportive of these governments, I’m not supportive of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. I’m not supportive of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, right? So, I don’t understand this framing of “you’re supporting these people just because they call themselves socialists or because they are against the US empire,” when that is not the case, at least certainly not in my case.

We are all very much in favor of being in solidarity with the international working class. Where disagreements arise is over how we unpack that phrase and put it into practice. Take the case of Brazil. The mass of Brazil’s working class is aligned with the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). That’s just a fact, right? So, if we want to be in solidarity with the Brazilian working class, to me that means engaging with the PT. There’s been valid criticisms of the PT in the past, which I totally understand. There are people that are more favorable to working with parties like PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, Socialism and Liberty Party), which, hey, I love PSOL and the PT, right? I don’t know that we need to choose. Where are the bulk of workers at? How can we properly be in solidarity with them? In the case of Venezuela, the answer is the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the largest party in Venezuela. That is where the mass of Venezuela’s working people are. If we’re going to be in solidarity with the Venezuelan working class, I would say ignoring that is a mistake.

There are ways to still build unifying campaigns that incorporate these broad agreements, like proper anti-sanctions campaigns on Venezuela or Cuba. Things like that, where there is broad agreement, have tremendous value. Those are things that can make conversations like this happen, where we can get to understand each other a little bit more and actually talk these things out with each other, which is so critically important.

Carrington: I see a real difference in sympathy towards the plight socialist projects have faced around the world. Take Cuba for example. It may not be our kind of socialism, but it’s independent and it doesn’t look like Haiti, right? It is certainly in rough shape in many respects, but I see a lot of that as our fault because of the sanctions that have been in place for so long. So I feel sympathy for what they’ve tried to accomplish, and when I hear our economic sanctions on Venezuela described as the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb, then I’m sympathetic to their situation there. I listen to people who have been dismissive of the impact of sanctions saying, “sure, but the economy was bad before them,” and pretending they’re nothing, or that the situation in Venezuela is all Maduro’s fault, and I just don’t agree.

So, I think that there is a difference in the level of sympathy, and I feel sympathetic to countries that have been absolutely smashed by my country. As a socialist in America I feel a responsibility to undo the damage my country has wrought around the world, and to not be hyper-critical of whatever other countries don’t get right when they’re being so oppressed by us. That’s the difference I see between theoretical socialism and actually existing socialism. Socialist projects are never going to live up to our expectations, right? So I think for us to criticize situations that don’t fully line up with our expectations of socialism is uncharitable.

Paul: Venezuela is a pretty complicated thing. There’s been a big battle within the labor movement in Venezuela for at least 15 years. I think Chávez and chavismo were probably pretty good things for Venezuela. Chávez didn’t build very good relations with the unions, whether left, right, or center in Venezuela. He tried to go around them, and that created some of the problems between the government and the labor movement. It ‘s also very difficult to build a socialist state based on a single crop, in this case the “crop” is oil. Cuba had a problem with over-reliance on sugar and had to be, to some extent, bailed out by foreign support from both Europe and the Soviets in the 1960s. These projects are certainly caught in all kinds of dilemmas, but they cannot be reduced to the impact of the U.S. In the case of Cuba, the U.S. embargo certainly makes things worse and crippled many of the possibilities there, but it’s not the only explanation.

Everybody has great respect for what Cuba was able to do, especially in the government’s first decade, in building up the healthcare system and the educational system. But these situations are complicated, and we also should not confuse any of this with socialism. But both Cuba and Venezuela are fundamentally  examples of attempts to build a national independent self-determination independent of the United States, not socialism.

To widen the lens a bit here, the Bolshevik model, in my opinion, has little to do with Marxist socialism. We could argue over whether the Stalinist consolidation in Russia destroyed the capacities of an independent, autonomous working class. The anarchists and the socialists there were largely exterminated or put into concentration camps. The same is basically true in China. I spent a lot of time in China after I formally retired from the IUF working on the question of whether the Communist government there could be reformed, in the sense that it would allow autonomous labor unions with any kind of independence and any kind of control by the workers. This prospect, which I generally believe was genuinely possible and even gave papers at conferences in China to that effect, has largely been wiped out in the past several years. The prospects for any autonomous activity by the working class, which I mean the 150 million internal migrants who make up the bulk of the industrial working class in China, has been pretty much stamped out.

Now, we can try to excuse that. We can say, “Well, we understand why that happened” and praise the achievements of China’s government, which are great. I think it’s incredible that hundreds of millions of people are living a better material life. But we should not confuse our sympathies with a clear analysis of the actual social dynamics of the society. We have to be able to think, and think intensely, about what our role can be in building a global working-class movement. There are only a few areas where you actually can intervene and have any effective impact, and one of them happens to be in Myanmar at the moment. But let’s try to take off our blinders. Let’s let our sympathies be strong but without putting our heads in the sand or confusing these projects with the kind of socialism we’re trying to build.

Austin: Building on Paul’s last point, our main role is to support the international working class, and to me that entails fighting the military-industrial complex first and foremost. That’s our main responsibility, and I think there is broad agreement there.

When I think about the devastation of the Venezuelan economy in Venezuela and the over-reliance on oil, I think a critical point to make here is that the government has known for a while that it has to become more self-sufficient and be less reliant on oil revenues. It just turns out doing that in practice is a lot harder than putting it on paper. When oil was booming it was very easy to get addicted to the sort of revenue streams oil exports brought in. So, once again, I think context is very important. I totally agree that the actual economy of Venezuela is and has been capitalist, and I think the majority of people both inside and outside the government would acknowledge that. Even the “government bureaucrats” that we talked to on the delegation know that, and would say that Venezuela is a capitalist society attempting a transition to socialism.

It’s not easy. It’s not clean. It’s difficult. It’s not always linear. It’s a difficult process. What is most inspiring to me about the path to socialism they’re trying to build in Venezuela is the communes, which have been built largely by the people themselves. These are people growing their own corn, making their own clothes for themselves, sharing all the proceeds they make in common, trying to be the building blocks of a potential future socialist society. This is where I contrast the Venezuelan “model,” if you will, with other models such as the Cuban one. I much prefer these models of worker self-sufficiency, of workers on the ground being able to organize and produce independently. One of the most instructive things we can learn from Venezuela is about where these communes have come in conflict with the bureaucracy, where these communes have come in conflict with the state. The Venezuelan state has been supportive of the commune projects, but that doesn’t mean the local bureaucrat in, say, Portuguesa or Anzoátegui or whatever, is supportive, right? Very often these communes will come in conflict with their local bureaucrats who are afraid of having their power threatened. So, I think these are examples we can learn from.

It’s a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to look at the mistakes that have happened within the Venezuelan government and say, “Oh, well, I don’t know that there’s any lessons to be drawn here.” If one were to say something like that, I think it would be a mistake.

Paul: I’m really looking forward to the written report from the delegation because the superficial coverage of it does not go into that. I would just encourage that sort of thing to be written up in the report. Before I spoke a bit about when we went to Nicaragua in 1984, where we spent two weeks. Of course we met with the government officials and their unions, but we met with all the other unions and with the opposition too. When we made our written report from that delegation, it had a lot of credibility. I personally discussed it with John Sweeney who was then president of SEIU, and it had quite a bit of influence on his thinking. So when there was a huge blow out over international policy at the 1988 SEIU convention, he actually pretty much agreed with our critical position and came over to it, and brought it into the AFL-CIO when he became federation president in the 1990s. I think it’s great to have delegations like the one to Venezuela, but I was a little concerned about the superficial optics of it. But if what you’ve just described is going to be an important part of your report back, I think that’s a good reason in itself for doing the delegation.

Carrington: Paul is saying that some perspectives on these questions are overly sympathetic to various governments. My sense is that some other perspectives don’t give enough consideration to context, and I think those perspectives are unserious. For someone to criticize Cuba or Venezuela outside of all context and sanctions or whatever is absolutely unserious and should be treated like that. Let’s not be overly sympathetic, but let’s not talk about things out of context—that’s my perspective.

Let’s talk more about the delegation to Venezuela. It would be good to back up here and get into the question of why the NPC, in conjunction with the International Committee, decided to send a delegation to the Bicentennial Congress of the Peoples of the World in the first place? What was the goal, and what do you think was accomplished?

Austin: Why did we even go? It’s important to note that the International Committee has gone through, as Paul referenced earlier, three or four iterations, and has continued to evolve. This latest iteration as a result, I suppose, of our 2019 national convention, has attempted to make a priority of connecting with parties and movements throughout the world, but our hemisphere in particular. Our 2019 national convention passed a resolution that made it a priority to once again build a focus and build relations with movements and parties throughout Latin America and the Americas broadly, specifically with parties of the mass character, which again, is a phrase that can be unpacked in various ways.

Last year, a couple of DSA members went down to Venezuela as a part of a delegation with an organization called the People’s Forum. This was not an official DSA delegation, but individual members who went with the spirit and goal of building up connections with movements and political parties in Latin America. The contacts they established led to conversations about having dialogue with different political parties in Venezuela, not just PSUV, but opposition parties too. This is a country that’s in the news a lot, for many obvious reasons. It was through those contacts that at the beginning of this year, the Simon Bolivar Institute reached out to us and told us there would be a big event this summer, referring to this Bicentennial Congress of the Peoples of the World. To put it in the simplest terms possible, the event was organized to mark the 200th anniversary of Venezuelan independence.

The argument that I and my fellow NPC liaison to the International Committee Blanca Estevez made to the rest of the NPC was that this is a non-controversial thing to celebrate. It’s a good thing to honor how Spanish-speaking South America was able to free itself from the Spanish empire and abolish slavery. Beyond that, we were told that the event would have plenty of representation from all parts of the world. So there was a big networking aspect to it too, not just in order to meet Venezuelans but other socialists and working-class activists from around the world. Over a thousand different people attended, which was an amazing opportunity.

But another aspect of this, and in my opinion, the most critical aspect, was to promote normalization of relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. If we are to engage in some sort of anti-sanctions campaign that begins with treating them like normal people, at least in my view. If we get an invitation from PSUV or the Venezuelan government or the Simón Bolívar Institute (which is where it came from, in this case), I think we shouldn’t just run away with our hair on fire.  So the question for us was how to engage with this event and this invitation critically? How can we send a delegation that respects the multi-tendency nature of our organization, and is prepared to engage with different organizations and build relationships with them? How can we play some role in normalizing relations with Venezuela?

We also wanted to gain lessons from what has been unfolding in Venezuela, not just their successes, but also their failures. The government in Venezuela has failed plenty of times. If our movement wants to win political power and responsibility, we should learn not just from others’ successes but also their mistakes so we can do our best to avoid those mistakes. We wanted to engage not just with political parties, but as I said before with the communes too, which involve average working people in Venezuela of every different stripe, of every different background. And as Paul referenced earlier, getting a nice, robust written report about the event and the situation on the ground in Venezuela would be a good thing for our organization.

I was talking to one of the co-chairs of our Americas working group the other day, and he phrased it in such a way that for some reason just struck me. He said, “Austin, this report is so critically important because this is a primary source.” And in my head, I was like, damn, that’s actually true. This is something that people can look back on in 10, 20, 30 years and get a sense of what Maduro’s Venezuela was like. Oh, well, DSA sent a delegation down there. What does the report say, right? It’s critically important for that institutional knowledge aspect of that, to tell people what we saw from our perspective. But I’ll leave it at that. I imagine that both Carrington and Paul have thoughts here, but Carrington was also a member of the delegation. I don’t know if she has anything to add.

Paul: I’m glad Austin, Carrington and others went, and I’m looking forward to the report. Austin makes a good point, it will be a primary source that we can learn from. Maybe some people will be critical of it when it comes out, but I think that’s good.

Turning toward the resolutions that have been proposed to the upcoming convention, there’s one to re-emphasize our work on Latin America and to join the São Paulo Forum (Foro de São Paulo, FSP). I think we should do that, because the relation to the PT in Brazil is extremely important. You cannot overestimate how important Brazil is. It’s the biggest and probably the most strategically important country in Latin America. Only Mexico, maybe, and Argentina compare with it. The FSP is a little bit bureaucratic, but then I should talk about bureaucratic global organizations, having been involved with the International Trade Union Confederation and other ones. I just think the more experience we have, the more delegations we send, the more we debate the results, the better we are.

Austin: One more point about the delegation to Venezuela. It ties into why we sent an election observer delegation to Peru – we want to show that we have the capacity to do this kind of work and do it in other places like Brazil. There is a critical election in Brazil next year, and we should be sending people to it. There’s no reason that the largest socialist organization in the United States should not be there with our Brazilian comrades. Sending a delegation to Peru or to Venezuela shows not just that we care about what’s going on in our hemisphere but that we’re serious about this sort of work. I think getting an electoral observer delegation to Brazil next year should be an absolute priority, because of the reasons you outlined, Paul.

Does the FSP have its issues? Absolutely. Is it bureaucratic? Absolutely. But I also think this is an example of once again, engaging with our reality as it is.  And the reality is that when it comes to the organization that is the largest alliance of left-wing parties and movements in our hemisphere, that’s the FSP. I think engaging with it and doing what we can to make it better is an important thing.

In the discussions and debates over international politics we sometimes see a distinction made between, say the “old” International Committee and the “new” International Committee. Often, the premise of this distinction is that the “old” International Committee was supposedly too conservative, or Trotskyist, or “third-campist.” What’s your take on this distinction? 

Paul: The live history of the International Committee began with the debate over whether to stay in the Socialist International or not. So, for two years, it was largely a forum discussing that issue. In order to make it interesting, we had a pretty broad membership that broadly reflected both sides of the discussion. My own position was the Socialist International, after having to represent DSA in two of its committee meetings because I lived in Geneva, was that it was lethally bureaucratic. When I say the FSP is bureaucratic, the Socialist International was lethal. That’s what constituted DSA’s international work for a long time, and it was pitiful. So, I didn’t so much oppose leaving the Socialist International because I wanted to make sure we had something in place to replace it. We had some great debates in that discussion where I usually disagreed with many people. But I think we ended up with the right resolution.

We’ve been trying to look for an alternative formation ever since, and we have not succeeded very much. The various Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist groups, like the Fourth International, are generally well-meaning but they’re very small and ineffectual. They pass great resolutions and do great analysis, but they have no pragmatic work. So, if you look at the first iteration of this International Committee, that’s what it was largely revolved around. It’s probably true that social democrats and various third-camp perspectives were overrepresented because they constituted the two main poles of the extreme ends of the debate. I have disagreements with comrades who have those perspectives but I think they were a great source of discussion within the International Committee. I hope as we fully open up the International Committee to all of DSA’s membership, we don’t decide that certain tendencies are not allowed because they’re vocal or sometimes can be abrasive.

So that’s the history to some extent, but I do think the transformation that Carrington and others had a lot to do with is going to work. As for the resolutions, I’m spiritually aligned with Resolution 17, which is, I think, consistent with the tradition of International Socialism. I think all the various efforts to tinker with the structure of the committee by resolution are probably misguided. The major problems we have aren’t so much political as structural, and it was important to build out the work with these subcommittees. But they don’t interface with each other very well. It’s very hard for the steering committee and secretariat  members who act as liaisons to actually have the time and energy to work on that. So, I’ve segued into what I think the International Committee should do. I think we need to work on that issue.

As a co-chair of two different subcommittees, labor and then eco-socialism, I felt sometimes we did not have access to important decisions because they were going on somewhere else in the organization. And I think something that would give the co-chairs access to at least a discussion forum about policy would be really helpful. The one resolution that I see as totally unrealistic is the proposal to have three co-chairs for each subcommittee. I mean, we’re having trouble getting two, right Carrington? We have to dragoon people into it at the moment. So I’m against resolutions that tinker with the structure of the International Committee, except to deal with the issues I mentioned.

Carrington: I think that a correction was made, and like with so many things there’s a pendulum swing. I think what we’re seeing here is a little bit of a pendulum swing away from the old committee to the new committee. I think we’ll eventually end up somewhere back in the middle.

I agree with Paul about not tinkering too much with the structure. It’s important to remember that one year ago, the International Committee did not have members. We decided to start with constituting the leadership positions with people who worked on the former incarnations of the committee, people who had excellent applications and skills to contribute. Then we brought on membership. Not all the subcommittees grew. Some subcommittees are hanging on by a thread. The Anti-War committee is absolutely thriving. Then there are a bunch of different ones in between. What that means is some subcommittees have like seven active people in it. For those seven people to elect who would be steering and subcommittee chairs, that’s not necessarily more democratic. Right now our focus is to build up leadership from within subcommittees. Build up subcommittees and then build up leadership within subcommittees and then fill leadership with these members.

So, that is our goal. But to jump the gun and implement these structures before it’s time, I think is a big mistake. I am supportive of Resolution 14 because it supports the work we’ve been doing and doesn’t saddle us with unworkable structures. As for the other resolutions I think Resolution 17 would prevent us from doing work in or with people from certain countries because they’re not practicing “real socialism” or something. That’s how I see it, at least. Some of the language in Resolution 19, which addresses immigration, seems too restrictive in terms of who we can and can’t work with. In general, I think we should try to work with what we’ve been able to build so far and see how it turns out. By the next convention two years from now, we’ll have more information than we have now in terms of what kinds of structures and processes should be kept, discarded, or changed.

Austin: I second a lot of the points that Carrington and Paul made. I think one point that I would drive home when I think about the “old” International Committee” or the “new” International Committee is that DSA itself has experienced a lot of changes and growth in the last five years. When I think about “old or new” or whatever, this is the International Committee merely trying to catch up with that growth and has gone through different periods where it’s reflected where the organization was at.

This is a process. The International Committee will continue to evolve as DSA changes and evolves. As for convention resolutions, I think they are all made in good faith, and that everyone wants what they think is best for the organization. But I share the concerns Carrington and Paul have expressed concerning resolutions that would alter or change the committee’s structure. I don’t know that this committee is ready for proposals like giving the subcommittee chairs more direction over its affairs. I think it’s good that the committee is closely linked with the NPC, the only body that is elected by the membership at our convention. Also, a lot of these subcommittees are still growing. Carrington mentioned how some of them are basically on life support right now. If some of these resolutions pass, you might see a situation where a subcommittee that is barely active gets spots on the overarching committee’s leadership body. That’s not very democratic to me.

What do you think the next NPC can do to educate DSA members about international politics and develop their capacities to do practical work on these questions? 

Carrington: As much as we’d like to build this work at a national level, what we really want is people acting on a local level. We’d love to see international committees springing up at the local level around the country, and for members to be in contact with neighbors who might have concerns abroad and contact with legislators who might be able to do something about these concerns.

Austin: First of all, I would love to see our organization do more things like this conversation we’re having. Let’s have some dialogue, more proper dialogue. Maybe a little less of the Twitter beefing. When I think about more tangible, concrete things that the NPC can potentially lead on, I agree with Carrington that it’s time to help build locals’ ability to carry out campaigns at that level. I think we are ready for a strong national anti-sanctions campaign. And when it comes to countries that we are sanctioning, a national anti-war campaign. I’ve had only brief interactions with our national PRO Act campaign, but it’s been great to see how effective they’ve been in building a campaigning apparatus and moving locals, such our locals here in Virginia, to target our ineffectual Senator Mark Warner. It’s a great example of our NPC, national level working groups, and locals all working together in tandem for a common goal. That’s powerful stuff.

I see a genuine, broadly felt desire to lift the embargo on Cuba. Let’s push forward on that, a national campaign to lift the Cuban embargo. Let’s call our senators, call our representatives the way we’ve done with the PRO Act campaign. I think the tide is turning regarding the embargo, we need to keep building grassroots pressure to win legislation to end it. I think building those sorts of efforts are very doable, and extremely worthwhile.

Paul: I hate to end on a note of such strong agreement! But I resonate with what both Carrington and Austin said.  I’m very much in favor of specific campaigns that engage the locals. And in order to do that, we need to do better political education. We need to explain why we support the McCollum bill to put conditions on military aid to Israel. We need to explain the Honduras bill, the Berta Cáceres bill. We need to explain the Burma bill that’s coming up. We can say anything we want in convention resolutions, but if the rubber doesn’t meet the road with the locals they’re not going to mean anything.

So, I think we need to take seriously developing the capability, both the information and the skills, to do effective lobbying and to choose a couple of important campaigns. And I don’t think we can do that as a convention. I think we have to do it with the International Committee and its different bodies advising and working with the NPC.

Carrington: There are so many battles we could be fighting. But we need to pick a few, and really work out our strategic orientation in advance. I talked to NPC member Sean Estelle, who’s done a lot of work on the PRO Act campaign. They said they spent months having intensive strategy sessions before launching their campaign. That’s something the NPC could help us with or lend support to. There’s so much to address and to work on, but even with our differences I think we’re well positioned, we have a lot of really good people; and as they say, we’ve got a world to win.