In 2015, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held its biennial national convention at a small Christian retreat center in western Pennsylvania. The organization’s entire activist core was there, but the total attendance, including staff, official delegates, and observers alike couldn’t have been more than 200. The most controversial topics were a floor vote on DSA’s affiliation to the Socialist International and reports that someone at the convention was pestering the center’s nuns about atheism. There was absolutely no media coverage.
Five years later, DSA and the broader Left has grown from these very humble circumstances into a meaningful presence in American political life. Politicians who call themselves democratic socialists command international media attention. DSA members have been elected to hundreds of offices around the country, and the organization continues to grow. For better or worse, you can now watch live coverage of DSA’s national conventions on C-SPAN.
As the country begins to move on from the Trump administration, it’s time to take stock of the new democratic socialist Left, to analyze why it grew so dramatically during that time, and what this means for socialist strategy in the US today.
The main story on the socialist Left is the dramatic growth and transformation of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) since 2016. DSA is now around fifteen times bigger than it was four years ago – from roughly 6,000 to nearly 90,000 members. In addition to numerical membership growth there has been a major change in the quality of DSA’s organizational life, from a largely paper membership to active participation and organization building. DSA chapters in cities and states around the country have elected members to office, built workplace organizations, and fought a wide range of issue campaigns from housing and land use battles to demands for publicly-owned energy companies. Anyone who was involved with DSA before its transformation knows just how profound a change this has been.
DSA members should have a good sense of why the ranks of organized socialists have exploded in the United States: rampant inequality, the deep dysfunction of the political system, persistent racism and xenophobia, police violence and mass incarceration, impending ecological chaos – the list goes on. Trump’s election in 2016 was the trigger that converted the oppositional mood behind Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter into a commitment to mass political organization. Specific progressive policies have always been popular, but socialism as a comprehensive political project has not been in quite some time. There’s an old labor movement saying that the boss is the best organizer. Donald Trump proved the wisdom of this nugget many times over.
Beyond Trump, the key to cohering and institutionalizing the widespread social ferment was the two Bernie Sanders campaigns. There would not be a growing democratic socialist movement here if Sanders did not run for president in 2016 and 2020 and pose a serious threat to the political establishment both times.
What We’ve Learned
What have we learned from his time on the national political stage? The Sanders campaigns and the broader political developments they set into motion suggest three main political-strategic conclusions.
Electoral Politics and Class Formation
All socialists, regardless of their ideological background, agree on the pressing need for class reformation in the US. The question is how best to go about facilitating that process. Recent experience leads to the conclusion that wide-scale class formation will for the foreseeable future run largely, though not exclusively, through electoral politics. Election campaigns – and presidential elections above all – are the form of political activity that ordinary Americans engage with the most. Even though the level of popular enthusiasm for politics in this sense is usually not very high – indeed, disgust with “politics” and “partisanship” runs deep in the American grain – any Left political project aspiring to mass support needs an ongoing electoral expression if it wants to be successful, and become a reference point for popular struggles outside the electoral arena.
This has long been the case in advanced capitalist countries with representative government and universal suffrage. But the salience of electoral politics in democratic socialist strategy has only increased as the size and strength of mass-membership organizations in general, and unions in particular, has declined, and as the obstacles to workplace organizing have increased since the 1980s. The decline of organized labor, coupled with the widespread disintegration of working-class community life, means that only a relatively small minority of workers is currently situated to engage in effective forms of collective action at work or in their communities. There are consequently few available channels outside of election campaigns to engage and politicize a mass audience on a regular basis, and the ones that are potentially available are typically defensive in nature and limited to radical expressions of interest-group pressure politics. In this context, electoral activity and public policy must play an important role in reconstituting the working class as a political subject, and in creating a more favorable environment for workers to organize and engage in class struggle outside the electoral arena.
Of course, this does not negate the necessity for socialists to continue working to transform the existing labor movement today. As the 2018 teachers’ strikes demonstrated, significant steps towards class formation can be taken even today through non-electoral means. Labor and electoral organizing can and should be mutually reinforcing, as evidenced in formations like Union Members for Bernie and Educators for Jabari, a group of rank-and-file educators who worked to elect their fellow educator and DSA member Jabari Brisport to the New York State Senate. But rank-and-file labor efforts, for the time being at least, generally impact a smaller number of workers and will ultimately bear fruit in conjunction with continued class formation at the level of electoral politics.
The Party Question
The debate over whether such electoral action should be waged on Democratic Party ballot lines is perhaps the most persistent controversy on the US Left. I was more sympathetic to arguments against tactical use of the Democratic line before the catalytic effects of the Sanders campaigns became fully clear. But the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now. Whether we like it or not, working-class organizers will continue to use major party primaries so long as they exist and bear fruit. Though the Democratic Party establishment proved to be cohesive enough on a national level to defeat Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign, traditional party organizations at the state and local levels are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out. In many cases they cannot effectively defend themselves and their incumbents, and can’t depose insurgents after they win office through election on the Democratic Party ballot line.
Any viable path to a transformation of the party system and a new party of the working class will run through conflict in the Democratic Party. Contemporary American politics is nationalized and polarized, which means that the political-ideological space for state and local level independent parties has, with the partial exception of localities with non-partisan elections, been closed off. As the sociologist Barry Eidlin explains in his book Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, this is not because the U.S. suffers from any inherent allergy to independent left-wing or labor parties. Philadelphia’s working people formed one of the world’s first labor parties in the 1820s, and the U.S. fostered a vibrant tradition of electoral insurgency until well into the twentieth century.
The structure of the nation’s pre-New Deal political economy nurtured this insurgent tradition. Pre-New Deal federalism granted a wide array of authorities and powers to the state governments, including many of the most routine functions of government and the regulation of everyday life. States had broad recourse to the use of “police power,” a concept that is not simply limited to law enforcement. As the historian Gary Gerstle observes in his book Liberty and Coercion, police power conferred on states the right and the duty to look after the economic, social, and moral welfare of their citizens, including everything from issuing corporate charters and building highways, to creating public school systems, to rules governing gambling, drinking, and sex work.
Whatever its flaws, pre-New Deal constitutionalism gave movements like the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) the incentive and opportunity to build and exercise power in state capitals. But as the historian Richard Valelly argues in his excellent study of the FLP Radicalism in the States, the New Deal effectively organized this tradition of independent, state-level radicalism out of American politics. By stretching the size and capacity of the federal government beyond its historic limits to implement a new set of public policies, Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats upended politics at the state level and shifted the main locus of power over the political economy to Washington. This transformation of the American state system greatly strengthened the power of the presidency, and it allowed New Deal Democrats to pursue many of the same goals the FLP, the Wisconsin Progressives, and the Socialist Party sought in their state and local strongholds. And through the impact of the Wagner Act, it had the unintended effect of splitting the labor movement at precisely the moment when the establishment of a new workers’ party might have been feasible. Consequently, America’s once-robust tradition of independent radical parties suffered a collapse from which it has never recovered. It is the long shift toward nationalized and presidentialized politics, not the perfidy of reformists and opportunists, that explains the eclipse of independent radical parties in the US.
None of this is to say, however, that a transformation of the American party system is permanently out of reach. Nor is it to say that we should be agnostic on whether a new party of the Left is unnecessary or undesirable. The US Left is probably not capable of hegemonizing the Democratic Party, because it is not likely that leftists would be able to win the majority of Democratic legislative seats in Congress or state legislatures. As the political scientist Jonathan Rodden demonstrates in Why Cities Lose, the geographic concentration of left-wing voters in a system of winner-take-all single-member districts systematically prevents us from translating voting strength into a proportionate number of legislative seats. This will relegate us to permanent junior partner status in what amounts to a Democratic coalition party, which is not a favorable position to be in. The Left wouldn’t be able to set the agenda, but we would be identified with establishment Democrats because of the shared party label. And of course, calls for “party unity” against the Republicans will be used to browbeat the Left and serve as a ready-made script to scapegoat it for electoral setbacks, no matter what the facts are.
The question, therefore, is which strategy will be most effective in making a new party a realistic possibility. Such a strategy will likely move on two main tracks. The first is continuing to heighten conflict within the Democratic Party through maximum contestation of primary elections. If moderate and establishment Democrats are threatened with extinction in districts they’ve long taken for granted, they may suddenly acquire an interest in proportional representation out of self-preservation. When DSA member Jabari Brisport successfully ran for New York State Senate last year, the retiring senator who held the Brooklyn seat for decades denounced DSA as “a movement to take away our power nationwide” and said socialists “need to get their own party.” She was quite right, we do need our own party. The most promising route to getting there, however, is not simply to declare one but to keep squeezing establishment Democrats out of one-party districts through primary campaigns.
The second is Electoral College abolition and other electoral reform measures. In a nationalized party system organized around the presidency, the Electoral College is the linchpin holding it all together. Remove the incentive for two big parties capable of cobbling together the 270 electoral votes currently needed to win the White House, and new space will open up for outsider parties to run meaningful campaigns and win as many popular votes as possible. This goal may be more achievable than it might initially appear. If Democratic presidential candidates begin to win states like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas while keeping the upper Midwest states in their column, the Republican Party may begin to rethink the virtues of a winner-take-all Electoral College that blocks their path to the White House. If that happens, a genuine possibility of winning a national popular vote, one of the main keys to a different kind of party system, will begin to present itself.
An honest appraisal of the state of the US Left makes it difficult to avoid some fundamental conclusions regarding political strategy. At this point, it should be clear that the only viable political-strategic orientation for US socialists is what Ralph Miliband called Marxist or Left reformism. The simple proof of this is that DSA is growing in size and strength while other socialist currents have stagnated or collapsed.
The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the U.S. context, they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action as well as a dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party. This fundamental incompatibility is the cause, not the consequence, of the “unpleasant characteristics” of many Leninist and Trotskyist groups that Ralph Miliband identifies in his classic 1976 Socialist Register essay “Moving On.” The unsoundness of their “basic perspectives as to the ways of socialist advance,” as Miliband put it, leads to isolation and all of the organizational pathologies which flow from it.
To its credit, the emergent “base-building” tendency in the US Left seeks to avoid many of the problems and limitations of the older Leninist-Trotskyist Left. Individuals and organizations associated with this tendency are also involved in useful attempts at organizing workers and tenants around the country. But in all likelihood it also will remain marginal because of its de facto anti-electoralism, its insistence on “dual power” strategies, and an inclination toward catastrophism. Base-builders do not reject the need for a political party or electoral action but tend to postpone active contestation of elections to the indefinite future, until the time when the unorganized in their millions have been organized. The problem with this formulation is that in the absence of electoral action, that time may well never come. Posing an abstract order of operations – build the base first, then enter the electoral arena – overlooks the crucial role that electoral politics and state policy plays in the process of class formation, particularly in the current period.
In the end, the base-builders will likely find themselves trapped in what the Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams called “militant particularism”: a localized and narrow pattern of action that, whatever the tactical or rhetorical radicalism of its practitioners, cannot be generalized into a broader political movement. In that sense it faces the same limits as the most mainstream expressions of trade unionism and community organizing. Even if we witness state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, an eventuality many base-builders take as given, it’s likely they won’t be able to take advantage of the situation because their strategy will keep them too small and isolated beforehand. Why should the desperate masses turn to organizations they’ve never heard of for salvation?
It is important to clarify briefly what exactly Marxist or Left reformism means to forestall certain objections and criticisms. It does not entail a rejection of class struggle, nor of the working class’s leading role in the fight for socialism. Nor is it synonymous with a narrow parliamentarism obsessed with running and winning election campaigns above all else. While such a strategy does stress the importance of electoral success and political representation, it is both theoretically and practically compatible with extra-parliamentary forms of struggle – strikes, demonstrations, and the like – that are not directly related to formal electoral politics, as DSA members throughout the country demonstrate every day. And ultimately, as Miliband argued in Marxism and Politics, if such a strategy is taken to its necessary conclusion it “must lead to a vast extension of democratic participation in all areas of civic life – amounting to a very considerable transformation of the character of the state and of existing bourgeois democratic forms,” not a chastened reconciliation with the political-constitutional order.
The failure of revolutionary socialism to grow even in the midst of major capitalist crises underscores its lapse into futility. In his last book, Socialism for a Skeptical Age, Miliband concluded that “the best that the Left can hope for in the relevant future in advanced capitalist countries is the strengthening of Left reformism as a current of thought and policy in social democratic parties.” The emergence of Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party bore this forecast out, even if their defeats also point to the huge challenges facing the new Left in North America, Britain, and elsewhere. Just because this is the only road available to us doesn’t mean it won’t be filled with potholes, switchbacks, and other drivers trying to run us off a cliff.
There are many obstacles in the way of democratic socialist advance in the US. Three challenges are likely to present themselves repeatedly in the coming years: the problem of sectoral and geographic concentration; a political system that is structurally biased against the places where labor and the Left are strongest; and the need to build strong social and spatial alliances.
Sectoral and Geographic Concentration
One of the most striking things about American politics is how closely the structure of political conflict maps on to patterns of economic geography. The Brookings Institution recently released a study showing how Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economic output, while Trump-voting counties account for the remainder. Democratic-voting areas tend to be urban, dense, and metropolitan, while Republican-voting areas tend to be small-town, exurban, or rural. The economic and social composition of these areas are very different, and in the US these differences are often translated politically into the language of culture war.
With the decline of industrial unionism, what remains of organized labor also tends to be concentrated in the more urbanized, metropolitan areas of the more urbanized, metropolitan states. These pockets of strength include education, health care, government employment, and some areas of services employment in the private sector (building services in cities and metros, for example). The sectoral concentration is related to and compounded by the geographic concentration. An often overlooked fact about the US labor movement is that a majority of union members live in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington.
Active DSA chapters and social movement organizations also tend to be concentrated in the same geographic areas and social milieux. While DSA members and the Left in general can often be too hard on ourselves regarding our class and social composition, there’s no doubt that we tend to draw on people employed in professional and sub-professional settings. For better or worse, this does not make us unique from an international perspective. Much the same is true of the newer left-wing parties and movements in Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere. This is not a fatal flaw, but it does pose important political and strategic dilemmas we have to solve.
Structurally Biased Political System
These dilemmas flow directly into the problem of a structurally biased political system. The structure of political representation in the U.S. systematically under-represents precisely those areas where labor and the Left are strongest. This means that the labor movement, for example, consistently struggles to win reforms at the federal level where they are most needed. It also means that while the Left can win elections and build strength in cities and inner-ring suburbs like lower Westchester County, New York (which abuts the Bronx and contains smaller cities like Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon), we may find it difficult to break out beyond these places. If we can’t build power in suburban, exurban, and rural areas, we will remain a distinct minority in legislative bodies and won’t be able to win statewide elections.
The structural biases of the political system currently work to the benefit of the Right, and they know it. This is why they defend the undemocratic aspects of the constitutional order, and why they will likely become increasingly anti-democratic in the years to come. The Republicans and the far Right in general have a strong incentive to lock the political and social order in place, which means that they have an incentive to double down on their racism, their xenophobia, and their contempt for popular rule.
The challenge for the Left is to wage a battle for democratic political reform without making it seem like little more than a self-interested bid for capital-D Democratic partisan advantage. To do this, we need to establish social and spatial alliances that will allow us to broaden our appeal and prevent us from being trapped within the current structure of urban-rural, college educated/non-college educated, and racialized conflicts.
The strategic foundation of all successful 20th century left-wing movements, from Russian Bolshevism to Scandinavian social democracy, to Maoism, to the North American farmer-labor movements was the “worker-peasant alliance.” We don’t have many peasants or small farmers anymore in the U.S. But if we want to continue making advances we must recreate an updated version of this kind of social-spatial coalition, one that is appropriate to the current shape of the class structure and partisan alignments in this country.
Unlike our predecessors, we face the unique challenge of starting with a largely white-collar base and expanding it into other sections of the working class rather than the other way around. This situation poses many organizing dilemmas that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. While it may be tempting to denigrate the so-called “professional-managerial class” — better understood as college educated, white-collar workers — as a barrier to socialist advance, the fact is that it is one of the main constituencies for socialist politics today. As Miliband argued in Socialism for a Skeptical Age, this constituency “consists of men and women who are employed in the state sector and who therefore have personal experience of the inadequacy of the state’s provision for welfare and collective services, and who themselves suffer from the parsimony of the state; or if they are in the private sector, have personal experience of the hierarchical and undemocratic nature of the work process, and who may well feel that it does not give sufficient weight to their capacities.” In the U.S. and elsewhere a significant number of people in this class fraction are tending toward the likes of Sanders, Corbyn, Podemos, and the emergent Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in Brazil.
In an important 2019 study, the political scientists Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm demonstrate how this particular class fraction has grown from nearly nothing to a substantial minority of the population since the 1950s. A product of the dramatic expansion of higher education, this relatively high-education/low-income group tends to combine left-wing views on economic issues with libertarian and progressive views on the family, gender, sexuality, and race. This puts them into a partially contradictory relationship with the “traditional” working class, whose members tend to combine progressive economic positions with relatively conservative views on sociocultural issues. The challenge for the US Left is to appeal to both of these sections of the class while minimizing conflict over areas of disagreement, something that will be difficult to achieve in an electoral system whose combination of first-past-the-post with presidentialism forces all of this programmatic diversity into two big parties.
Undue hostility toward the “PMC” is short-sighted and self-defeating. It is currently the Left’s core constituency in advanced capitalist countries, and it is currently DSA’s main social base. It will only continue to grow in size and political influence as the proportion of blue-collar manual workers continues to shrink. Instead of treating it as a fly in the ointment, we need to organize its ranks into a movement for collective services, particularly Medicare for All, and economic democracy. The British socialist economist Grace Blakely describes this as a coalition of people who live off work against people who live off wealth — workers versus owners, broadly defined, or what Swedish social democrats in the 1970s called the “wage-earner alliance.”
What To Do Next?
One needn’t share James P. Cannon’s politics to agree with his most memorable turn of phrase: “the art of politics is knowing what to do next.” With Joe Biden likely to preside over a weak and ineffective administration, democratic socialists must fight to win everything we can from it while building the foundations for enduring political power.
The politics of class formation: The class structure will not, on its own, create a ready-made class base for our movement. To a significant extent, democratic socialists need to create our own base through political means. The growing number of left-wing candidates winning office at every level gives our movement an opportunity to keep building a base through those offices. This entails some of what any elected official has to do to stay in office, like providing effective constituent services. A democratic socialist officeholder would go beyond this by using their resources and legitimacy to build political organizations in their districts and promote workplace organization as widely as possible. This is what DSA members in New York aim to do with our recent string of electoral victories, and it’s something that socialists can do anywhere they win office.
Democratic socialists in office must work to pass legislation making it easier for workers to form unions and engage in other forms of collective action. They could also build a more politically conducive social structure through policies like the Green New Deal that create green industrial jobs in urban and rural areas; housing and land use policies that promote collective ownership and use values over speculation; and transportation policies that link regions together and boost public transit.
Strategic carpetbagging: The trend toward suburbanization could, in time, undo the sharp geographic polarization of American politics. But again, the objective development of social geography will not, on its own, create political openings for the Left. In the years ahead, citified socialists with the means and inclination should seriously consider moving to and rooting themselves in places where the Left is basically non-existent, but the social and economic conditions offer something to work with. This could include the increasingly diverse suburban areas one finds in every state, small-town and rural areas in states like New York or California, or regions where the Left has historically been weak, like the southwest or the Deep South. There is certainly no guarantee of success, but the carpetbagging career of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, a state politically transformed by decades of in-migration, shows how a sustained and coordinated effort along these lines could bear fruit.
Strategic industrialization: Socialists with the interest and ability should do what they can to build workplace organization in the places where it’s needed the most, and where the potential overlap with political action is most promising. There are many fields that come to mind, including those where the Left has begun to build a presence like healthcare and education. And as the pandemic shifts more economic activity online, logistics and warehouse work will only become more crucial. It is economically strategic, and it tends to be concentrated in the kinds of small-town and rural places where the Left needs to grow, like northeastern Pennsylvania or the mid-South. Global behemoths like Amazon have endless resources to combat workplace organization, but if there’s going to be a new breakthrough for labor in this country then this is where it will have to be made.
Target big tech: Building workplace organization in warehousing and logistics dovetails nicely with a broader confrontation with the power of big tech. Today’s big tech companies are, in many ways, the modern equivalent of the trusts and monopolies the original Populist movement fought in the late 19th century. They dominate not just the stock market, but many of the most intimate aspects of our life as well. They’ve become central players in the global political economy, and the more they grow the more they generate a political backlash. Unfortunately, much of this energy has so far been captured by the Right, which casts the social media companies in particular as a threat to free speech.
It would be a major problem if opposition to big tech gets assimilated into the already-existing patterns of partisan culture war. By making a special target of big tech, the Left could potentially bring together a broad array of demands and struggles: the fight to organize Amazon warehouse workers; defense of free speech against corporate interference; protection of online small business owners who get ripped off by enormous fees in Amazon’s marketplace or Apple’s App Store. The ultimate goal should be converting these de facto public utilities to public ownership and control. Targeting big tech could be a key way to construct the kinds of political alliances the Left needs to appeal beyond its already existing areas of strength.
Anti-militarism and police defunding: The US military and law enforcement agencies rob money from programs of social uplift. At the same time, the military and law enforcement are often the most attractive career paths for working-class youth in urban and rural areas alike. The militarization of police departments, one of the many awful legacies of the Iraq war and the global war on terror, makes police violence worse by encouraging cops to think of themselves as “warriors” and giving them the weapons to act accordingly. A campaign against US militarism wouldn’t just be a necessary act of international solidarity. It could potentially provide a vehicle for linking working-class people across geographic and racial lines, redirecting public spending toward social reconstruction, and disrupting the dangerous divide between civilians and those who wield state-sanctioned violence.
Popular media: This is a huge and socially atomized country. One of the most effective ways we have to reach people beyond our current ranks is media, particularly digital media. We tend to laugh at the idea of socialists hawking newspapers today, but Lenin was on to something when he stressed the importance of media outlets in organizing a vast and sparsely populated country like Russia. The Right is much better at this than we are right now. Of course, one major reason why is that producing quality media costs money, and they have a lot more money than we do. But if we want to reach people we can’t right now, developing a fuller range of popular media outlets is crucial. This doesn’t mean just more podcasts or magazines, either. Above all else, we desperately need more punchy, non-academic, well-produced videos that can easily be shared across platforms.
Democratic reconstruction: Disillusionment with the political system runs very deep in this country. Most people know the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected, but they rarely make the connection between the miseries of daily life and the constitutional system of minority rule that does so much to enable them in the first place. The Left has grown unaccustomed to addressing these kinds of political and constitutional tasks, partially out of a reasonable concern that they only appeal to intellectuals, and partially out of fear that only the Right will benefit from it. But if we want to make Bernie Sanders’ call to political revolution a reality, these are the kinds of questions we need to start asking and giving answers to.
Democratic socialists, progressives, and labor activists should work to initiate a national debate over our constitutional order and how we might change it for the better. Electoral College abolition should be at the top of this agenda, as well as the need to challenge the growth of reactionary judicial power. Since the formal constitutional avenues to fundamental change are effectively closed off, any movement along these lines will necessarily entail creative attempts to impose a greater degree of both legislative and popular sovereignty over an anti-democratic political system.
This is a very ambitious agenda, and despite our gains the Left will not be able to make significant progress in every single one of these areas in the near term. But how refreshing is it to know that this seems very ambitious rather than completely impossible? Of all the measurements of the Left’s growth and development, this one might be the most meaningful. Whatever our flaws and limitations, and they are many, we now have a Left that matters in this country. What a precious and hopeful thing!
This piece is an adapted/expanded version of “A Left That Matters” from Jacobin Issue 40.