Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is not the only organization out there fighting for meaningful improvements in the lives of workers and the poor. The Poor People’s Campaign is also dedicated to this struggle and may actually be doing more to advance it at the present time than DSA itself. Although not socialist, the PPC’s advocacy of a “Third Reconstruction” aims at a fundamental transformation of our moral, political, economic, and social life. The PPC is currently organizing for a “Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and the Polls” in Washington, DC on June 18 in order to build momentum toward that goal. I think DSA should join this effort.
My reasons for making this proposal were outlined in a general way in an article in the Fall 2021 issue of Socialist Forum, “The Second Founding and Democratic Strategy.” That article concluded with the statement that “there are really only two parties in the US, a newly forming Democratic Constitution party and the party of the old Constitution. DSA should take a leading role in making this Democratic Constitution party a political and organizational reality.” Joining with the PPC on June 18 can contribute to this emerging movement for democracy.
Let me explain where I think our movement is right now. Because the political topography of the US is shaped by the structure of the Constitution, any political movement that seeks to change public policy will inevitably run into obstacles formed by the Constitution. This permanent political structure remains in place regardless of the short-term fluctuations in political rhetoric during election campaigns or proposals for reform routinely promised by every incoming administration. When I submitted my article for Socialist Forum last October, there was still some hope that the Build Back Better (BBB) bill might pass. But those hopes were soon dashed, along with any prospect for reform of gerrymandering and expansion of voting rights. This failure has moved the discussion of the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Constitution from a threat looming on the horizon to an immediate problem for current political activity. Specifically, the electoral strategy that DSA has followed since the 2016 Sanders campaign suffered a significant setback with the defeat and isolation of the Progressive Caucus in the recent confrontation over BBB. On the other hand, this electoral strategy has always been accompanied by a verbal commitment to “democratize” the United States’ “extremely undemocratic political system.” Now that verbal commitment needs to be backed up by some serious political reflection about where we go from here.
I picked on the electoral strategy because that is currently the majority trend in DSA, but even trends farther to the left in DSA have not yet made the Constitution the center of their political work. This is true even of Cosmonaut and the Marxist Unity Group, who, while they were instrumental in getting the DSA Platform to declare that the US is “no democracy at all,” are more focused on forming a socialist party at the present time than engaging immediately in direct activity to transform the constitutional order. Though the PPC does not meet the constitutional question head on, it does place protecting and expanding voting rights at the center of its moral and political agenda. We should take the PPC’s defense of fundamental democratic rights and expand it to encompass the demand for a new constitution.
On the relationship between democratic rights and socialism, I want to quote a few lines from Lars Lih’s book, Lenin Rediscovered. After listing all of Lenin’s agitational articles in Iskra and giving capsule summaries of several, Lih concludes that:
The goal of all this activity is the overthrow of the autocracy or, in positive terms, the achievement of political freedom. The imperative necessity of political freedom is the central theme of Lenin’s political agitation, so much so that often it is difficult to remember that the author is a Marxist socialist. Of the twenty-seven articles in the series, only two contribute to the reader’s strictly Marxist education. One of these two articles analyzes statistics on Russian savings banks in order to refute revisionist claims about the diffusion of wealth…. In another article, Lenin gave Marxist reasons for seeing Russia’s present economic crisis as inevitable and bound to recur.
The odd feature in Lih’s characterization of Lenin’s writings that I want to draw attention to is his equation of Marxism with economic analysis in contradistinction to the struggle for political freedom, which apparently belongs in some other non-Marxist political universe. I don’t think this way of conceptualizing Marxism is just a personal quirk of Lih’s, but is an expression of how the content of Marxism has been understood for many decades by both Marxists and non-Marxists alike. Because I came to my understanding of Marxism by reading Lenin’s articles in Iskra in the early 1970s, I think Lih’s characterization of Marxism gets things backward and substitutes an economics-centered definition of Marxism for Lenin’s political Marxism (which I believe closely followed Marx’s and Engels’ own views). Unfortunately, it is the narrow economics-centered version that is still dominant within DSA, as expressed in the concept of “class struggle elections,” in an overemphasis on trade union struggles, and in dismissive put-downs of “movementism.” All of these formulations slight the universal struggle for freedom and full democratic rights. Of course, the majority electoral trend is not the only economistic tendency in DSA. From the standpoint of Lenin’s theory of democratic political consciousness developed in Chapter III of What Is to Be Done? and the Iskra article, “Political Agitation and ‘The Class Point of View,’” any political strategy in a non-democratic country that doesn’t place the struggle for democracy as its highest priority is by default economist and tailist.
The PPC doesn’t use the language of economistic Marxism. It roots its moral and political program in the language of universal human and democratic rights found in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Because the PPC believes in universal rights, it isn’t troubled by the debates over class versus other forms of oppression that seem to tie socialists in conceptual knots. Guided by the universal democratic ethic that all have an equal right to society’s resources and to equal participation in public decision-making, the PPC opposes oppressions of any kind that restrict those rights, whether that oppression is economic, political, national, ethnic, racial, religious, sex, or gender based. Nor is the PPC hobbled by calculations of what might be politically acceptable in the electoral arena in the short run and consequently does not endorse candidates. It does not believe that “using elections to win reforms that materially advance the interests of the working class” is the road to real change. Real change in an undemocratic society only occurs when a mass moral and political revival forces the political system to respond to the demands of the people, the primary demand being that the political system itself cease being undemocratic.
Although I think the PPC’s grounding in the moral and political language of universal democratic rights is the most important factor distinguishing it from the DSA’s interpretation of the meaning of socialism, it’s also important to emphasize that this democratic language is tied to an uncompromising political agenda demanding an end to racism, militarism, poverty, ecological devastation, mass incarceration, religious nationalism, and the suppression of labor rights. On many of these issues, their condemnations and protests are significantly stronger than those generally coming from DSA. To get a sense of the spirit and moral tenor of the PPC, just visit their website or the multiple YouTube recordings of their speeches, demonstrations, interviews, and public seminars.
That’s the positive side of the PPC. Their one shortcoming from my point of view is that their criticism of the US political system does not go far enough. They defend and seek to expand voting rights and condemn the filibuster and Manchin’s and Sinema’s stonewalling, but they don’t criticize the institution of the Senate itself or other undemocratic features of the Constitution. In joining with the PPC on June 18, I don’t advocate going against their wishes regarding the Constitution. I do think, however, that there is a way to work within the parameters they set and still expand the demand for democracy. One possible avenue is for the DSA National Political Committee to meet with the PPC over the coming months and discuss how we might work together in order to make the June 18 Assembly as big as possible. Another possibility, if the PPC is not comfortable with challenges to the Constitution itself, is to come up with other slogans about expanding democracy. For example, I recently saw a picture of a demonstration with someone holding a sign that read, “I want an actual democracy.” Just beginning to get the idea out there and getting DSA behind the demand for a democratic constitution would be a big step forward.