Toward an Internationalist DSA

To build working-class power and confront the crisis of climate change, DSA must fully merge with the multinational working class in the U.S.

U.S. socialists have growing opportunities to participate in the construction of an international workers movement for the twenty-first century. Working people around the world overwhelmingly reject austerity, privatization, and the supreme right of unimpeded profit-seeking at the expense of the material and spiritual needs of the vast majority. Faced by deepening misery as well as existential threats to the survival of our species, millions of workers across many countries seek an alternative to capitalism. In the Americas alone, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and Haiti are currently undergoing popular rebellions. The world has entered a period of mass struggle not seen since 1968, while, key sectors of capital and the ruling class increasingly turn toward forms of right wing nationalism as a means to maintain profitability and class hegemony.

In these times, DSA must recognize and leverage our unique position as the largest socialist organization in the United States, the linchpin of global capitalism. Last summer, the DSA caucus Collective Power Network (CPN) published One Américan Left, briefly laying out the historical conditions in which the Latin American mass parties emerged: “The Latin American Left succeeded in re-conceptualizing what an effective strategy could look like for taking state power at a time when twentieth century really-existing socialism had largely discredited the radical traditions of the left.” Today, the gains made by the Latin American left during the “pink tide” are under relentless attack by an alliance of national ruling classes, far-right political parties, global capital, and the U.S. government. Considering the legacy of counterrevolutionary barbarism in Latin America during the last century, DSA must urgently pursue a radical shift in US foreign policy so that left movements throughout Latin America may survive and grow.

The United States’ political economy is closely intertwined with Latin America in numerous ways. As the US-Mexican border moved south due to US conquest, Mexican and indigenous peoples constantly navigated the Southwest in search of jobs. During the late nineteenth century, industrial and agricultural capitalists found these workers insufficient and sought to lean heavily on migrant labor in order to stabilize the labor deficit. Thus, contrary to popular memory, it was common sense policy for the US and capitalists to support open borders and allow migrant labor to live and build the Southwest. As a result, undocumented workers became an integral and inseparable part of the US working class–forming an international working class inside the borders of the United States. Mike Davis and Justin Akers Chacon claim in their book No One is Illegal that today’s working class is “a multiethnic amalgamation of the native and foreign born.”

If DSA is to become a mass movement capable of wielding significant working-class power in the United States, or if we are to participate in a global movement to tackle climate change, we must be internationalists. By building concrete relationships with left and working class organizations abroad, and fully merging with the multinational working class in the United States, DSA has an opportunity to learn from and aid these movements in order to advance an international workers movement capable of combating climate change and rising eco-fascism.

Internationalism as Socialist Strategy

The last four decades have not been kind to the U.S. left. With the advent of the Cold War, the capitalist state pursued a ruthless domestic offensive against the left by purging leftists from the ranks of the labor movement, violently repressing left parties and organizations, and promoting a culture of reaction and chauvinism. By the 1970s and 80s, unmoored from any substantial social base and therefore devoid of the mass character it enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century, the diminished left drifted in two general directions. Some retreated into microscopic sectarian organizations that recast the socialist project as a kind of academic exercise, lifestyle community, or revolutionary party-in-waiting. Many retreated rightward into the Democratic Party and its diffuse constellation of professionalized non-profit organizations.

With few exceptions, both tendencies proved incapable of generating a credible, positive program contributing to the transnational coordination of a global workers movement against capital. The efforts of competing microsects to build new international organizations in their own image invariably stalled out. Eschewing materialist appraisals in favor of inflexible ideological commitments, the microsects sought affiliation solely with ideological counterparts abroad, while often rejecting or attacking working class and left movements they deemed impure. Meanwhile, individual leftists in and around the Democratic Party, whether personally repudiating socialist values or not, found themselves in a position where compromise with the mainstream political center was compulsory–a position that involved degrees of compromise with US imperialism itself.

Under these conditions, much of the left effectively reduced the scope of internationalism to its negative dimension: opposition to imperialist war. Despite the revolutionary posturing of the microsects, and the attenuated radicalism of the left wing of the Democratic Party, both groups usually participated in broad, cross-class, cross-ideological popular fronts against U.S. aggression. This approach led it into the international protest movement against the Iraq War in 2003, a large-scale mobilization that included some of the largest demonstrations in human history, yet which failed to stop the Bush Administration, the Republican Party, and much of the Democratic Party from initiating a calamitous slaughter that continues seventeen years later.

While anti-imperialism is undoubtedly a core aspect of socialist internationalism, it loses strategic value when collapsed into a form of micro-issue politics that brings with it no organized social base and that struggles to differentiate itself within a broad political coalition. Such was often the case with left participation during the Iraq War period, when the anti-war movement was ideologically dominated by right-libertarian isolationists on the one hand, and liberal pacifists on the other. In short, anti-imperialism tends to lose all socialist character unless it exists within a broader internationalist framework.

For socialists, anti-imperialism flows from a strategic understanding that ultimately the emancipation of the working class in one country is contingent upon the emancipation of the international working class as a whole. Almost any situation in which the ruling class pits the workers of one country against those of another is ruinous to the consolidation of an international workers movement and therefore must be mitigated at all costs. In this sense, discrete anti-war campaigns are essentially tactical. They should project out of an internationalist strategy aimed at two mutually-reinforcing primary objectives: building solidarity with left working-class movements beyond U.S. borders, while contributing to the growth and unification of a workers movement across national and ethnic divisions inside the U.S. itself.

Solidarity begins with developing cross-border institutional relationships. This process can act as a mechanism by which the U.S. left can learn from, amplify, and bolster the struggles of left movements in countries all over the world–especially those subjugated by economic, political, and military forms of U.S. imperialism. Rejecting the sectarian impulse to associate based solely on programmatic or theoretical agreement, we should understand that our role is not to anoint the legitimate representative of the working class, or insert ourselves into inter-leftist disputes in a given country. Instead we should embrace a more flexible approach that prioritizes relations with left organizations and movements comprised of substantial working class bases.

Meanwhile, the unification of a multinational, multiethnic U.S. working class requires a serious commitment to mass education in order to counter the spread of national and racial chauvinism in U.S. society. It also involves offering significant organizational support to the political and economic struggles of immigrant and migrant workers inside and outside the contemporary labor movement, with the aim of moving toward an eventual merger of social forces into a diverse, self-conscious workers movement.

Lastly, opposition to imperialist foreign policy ultimately implies the need to offer an ambitious policy alternative that can be taken up and implemented by a potential democratic socialist government. Like anti-imperialist activity, a socialist foreign policy should emanate from the basic premises of socialist internationalism, and both fortify and augment international work at all levels of class struggle. While the programmatic details of what a socialist foreign policy should look like in the U.S. today are well beyond the purview of this piece, the competitiveness of the Sanders campaign in the Democratic presidential primary places the question squarely on the agenda for the first time in many decades.

Internationalism in DSA today

At present, DSA as a whole lacks credible democratic institutions for confronting international questions or building cross-border relationships with movements and organizations in other countries. Although the 2015 National Convention voted to create an International Committee (IC) to begin addressing these challenges, the formation has largely failed to forge durable international bonds that materially affect day-to-day political education, organizing, and recruitment at the chapter level.

Today it cannot yet be said that DSA’s membership shares a broad strategic analysis regarding the contemporary international situation. Indeed, where positions have been articulated by sections of the organization, including within the IC itself, they are often internally conflictual. This state of affairs prompted CPN’s Resolution 4: Building the International Committee (R4), an effort to further define and focus the work of the IC, and to present an argument to DSA’s membership that Latin America should be considered the key strategic region for building international relationships in the current period. R4 was adopted with near-unanimity by the 2019 National Convention.

Historically, many IC members could be said to be social democrats or the supporters of the “third camp” position. While these two poles no longer define the IC as a result of expanding membership in the Summer of 2019, they continue to influence the committee’s political dynamic. These tendencies are historically united in their hostility toward communist parties and movements that received support from the Soviet Union or drew from the spectrum of communist traditions. Social democracy traces much of its lineage to Western Europe and the parliamentary road to socialism, while the third camp position comes out of various anti-Stalinist traditions that opposed both the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The results of the 2019 Convention, however, clearly indicate that there is significant interest among active DSA members for a broader international Left unity, and the positions of the IC are beginning to shift.

These sentiments were reflected in three internationalist resolutions adopted by the 2019 Convention. The first two created new working groups in support of decolonization and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The third directed DSA to join a national organization in solidarity with Cuba. These resolutions passed together as a “bundle” and without substantial political deliberation. In general, there’s strong support among core DSA members for internationalist programs, but there’s a lack of clarity about how to cohere and concretely implement such programs. The IC is divided over the bundled resolutions on both procedural and political grounds–rightly questioning the creation of micro-issue working groups as ineffective and fragmenting, while at the same time seeking to implement the resolutions without directly supporting the government of Cuba.

A programmatic focus from DSA on building ties with non-European left movements offers a more strategic opportunity to diversify and grow DSA among the working class of the United States. The international guests for the 2019 national convention began to reflect this orientation, with representatives from Venezuela, Palestine, Peru, and the Philippines.  Like the immigrant groups that arrived from Europe in the twentieth century, contemporary immigration from regions like the Middle East and especially Latin America are shaping the economic and political conditions inside the United States today.

Building the International Committee

R4 directs the NPC and IC to work together to establish relationships with left, socialist and working class organizations across the world, prioritizing relations with movements in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, the Caribbean, Latin America, and US imperial holdings including Puerto Rico, and to offer material and symbolic solidarity and support to these movements. It further requires the IC to issue both quarterly bulletins of news and analysis of major international developments relevant to working people, as well as an annual report documenting the committee’s activity, progress, and future plans. Lastly, R4 directs the IC to develop clear and public rules for membership in the committee, and to prioritize applications of undocumented, migrant, and immigrant workers and their children (conscious of the need for information security for those comrades with legal vulnerability).

Lastly, DSA should participate in the regional bodies that convene the Latin American left: we should seek observer or member status in the Sao Paulo Forum and send delegations on behalf of DSA to formal gatherings in the United States and Latin America that deal with politics, policy, and cross-border solidarity, like the Seminario del Partido del Trabajo de México. Further, the IC should take a multifaceted approach in choosing organizations to build relationships with throughout Latin America. For example in Brazil, while PSOL is a growing far-left organization, the mass Workers Party is crucial to understand, learn from, and engage with. DSA should build relationships with both organizations, particularly as they consider reuniting to oppose the fascist Bolsonaro government.

Uniting the International Committee with DSA Membership

In general, DSA faces a multitude of interrelated structural challenges at the national level, which the 2019 Convention attempted to address with mixed results. The rapid proliferation of national working groups over recent years–often with missions that overlap, exist redundantly in relation to other national bodies, or would be more effective and accountable under other national bodies–is one such challenge that impacts DSA’s ability to act effectively as a coherent national organization. International relationship-building in particular requires a significant degree of centralization, baseline programmatic unity, and a concentration of skills and knowledge. Above all, DSA’s formal interactions with organizations and movements abroad must be carried out with one united voice–our organization’s credibility in the eyes of would-be international partners hangs in the balance.

Ultimately there are two critical arguments for why DSA as a whole must embrace the IC for what it is: the legitimate, democratically-accountable national body under which all international work should ultimately be consolidated. The first is straightforwardly a structural and organizational argument. At present there are thirty-three national bodies, most of which are working groups devoted to campaigns or single-issues, although this list also includes national commissions and committees. Many of these bodies are woefully understaffed, or staffed by overcapacity leaders stretched thin across multiple local and national commitments. Such conditions are a recipe for burnout, communication breakdown, the wasteful replication of work, and the fettering of collective political development.

The second argument is political-strategic; as briefly outlined above in the “Internationalism as Socialist Strategy” section of this piece. That is, an ambitious internationalist strategy is not realizable when reduced in practice to a series of micro-issue campaigns siloed off in separate national bodies. In this sense the division of international work into isolated bodies is not only organizationally unwieldy, it’s politically backwards. Healthy democratic institutions are not static monoliths–they are structures in motion, powered by the churn of constant tension, collision, and resolution. If DSA is going to become a truly internationalist organization, political and strategic disputes on international matters can and must be worked through and resolved within the IC itself.

To an extent, it is understandable why DSA members felt compelled, intentionally or not, to circumvent the IC at the 2019 Convention by producing resolutions for the creation of new working groups. Often the IC has functioned in isolation from the vast majority of DSA’s membership, lacking transparent processes for onboarding new members and largely detached from daily life at the chapter level. Because of this, the IC has been less capable of responding to the membership’s overall shift toward broader anti-imperialist and internationalist positions. It also has to be said that the committee’s membership is not yet representative of the diversity of either the US working class, or even of the leadership strata of DSA at the regional and national levels.

On the other hand, criticism of the IC has often failed to grapple with the full political context surrounding the committee and national DSA. To begin with, the IC does not have independent authority to change its orientation or structure without approval from the NPC. We should understand this state of affairs not as a roadblock to progress but as a fundamentally democratic strength. The IC’s formal subordination to our organization’s highest elected leadership body is the foundation of its legitimacy and of the accountability of its policies. 

The IC also deserves credit for a number of internal reforms it has implemented with the NPC since 2018, a process which recently culminated in a detailed restructuring plan for the committee. The plan includes the creation of two leadership bodies that would jointly manage the bulk of DSA’s international work. The first would be tasked with international relationship-building and advising the NPC, while the second would focus on strengthening ties and coordinating work between the IC and chapters.

The restructuring proposal was adopted with amendments by the NPC during their February 1 meeting. The most substantive amendment included language affirming that the IC’s restructuring must be executed in accordance with the guidelines laid out in R4, including membership processes directing the IC to prioritize the recruitment of migrant and first- and second-generation immigrant DSA members with ties to Latin America. With an NPC-approved restructuring plan and clear strategic directives adopted by the Convention as R4, the IC is well-positioned to make substantial progress in 2020.

As DSA builds the IC, we must continue to break down the barriers between the work of the Committee and the DSA membership. Rank-and-file members need to be systematically engaged through political education in order to spread knowledge of the international situation with a special focus on Latin America. Such a program should be developed and administered by the IC alongside the new Political Education working groups to educate members on topics including:

  • The historical role and central influence of immigrant groups on the socialist and labor movements throughout the history of class struggle in the US
  • Latin American history and politics, with a focus on the mass parties of the last several decades
  • The role of US foreign policy in Latin American and its effects on migration
  • The regional walkouts by immigrant workers and their arrival to the U.S. and its labor movement

The IC can also work with members and national bodies in order to:

  • Compile and distribute strategic documents, contemporary news, and general resources on Latin America
  • Produce national solidarity campaign tool kits distributed to chapter and regional leadership, following the precedent set by the Venezuela Solidarity Organizing Packet

Further, the relationships that the IC builds can and should be leveraged to help DSA’s growth through campaigns at the local and regional level. Particularly as regional organizations develop, the IC should help DSA chapters formulate strategy and connect them with international working class organizations that have significant presences in their regions. These campaigns would ideally merge local immigrant communities with international ones in countries negatively impacted by U.S. foreign policy–particularly Mexico, Haiti, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Central America.

By offering to campaign alongside these organizations, DSA can build and strengthen national-level relationships with them, while also expanding our membership into sections of the working class far afield the activist bubble. Material progress in developing a mass party model for DSA would offer working class communities an opportunity to press their demands with a wider base by joining and engaging as members. Pursuing these partnerships would involve merging R4 with DSA’s Growth and Development Committee, which was created by the 2019 Convention through the adoption of CPN’s Resolution 2.

The working class in the United States is deeply international and multiethnic, and always has been. Migrants do not arrive as empty vessels to be helped from above, but carry forward their own cultural traditions, historical experiences, organizing struggles, and political analysis. It’s no coincidence that Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are all elected from working-class immigrant communities. For DSA to become a mass working class organization capable of participating in an international movement toward an ecosocialist horizon, the principles and practices of internationalism must become key elements in national, regional, and local policy, from relationship-building to campaign selection and recruitment.