Is socialism what most Americans want today?
They do exist: socialists in the USA
They really do exist: American socialists. More precisely, 25,000 of them. What they mean by socialism may be diffuse, controversial and confused, but it is clear that after Bernie Sanders' inspiring election campaign, a small but steadily growing socialist pole in US politics is emerging again - in the form of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which held their first federal convention in Chicago last weekend since Donald Trump was elected. Almost 700 delegates from over 30 US states and over 70 local chapters, most of them newly founded, came together to evaluate the organizational successes of the last two years, to discuss the political priorities of the next and to elect a new leadership.
The number of delegates - almost 600 more than at the last congress in 2015 - highlighted not only the growth of the organization, but also the increasing political sensitivity in the USA. Here, the unexpected political successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have fueled political radicalization on both sides of the political spectrum.
With the leftist organization nearly quadrupling in size since the Sanders campaign, there was much discussion in Chicago. On the first day there were questions that every growing movement is confronted with: Should membership fees be debited monthly in the future? Should there be minimum contributions? How big should the federal executive be and what is its political task? These questions were perhaps superficially apolitical, but they highlighted the growth of the organization, whose congresses have hardly been controversial in recent years. Board elections, for example, were often held without opposing candidates.
This time there was a heated discussion about questions of strategic direction and what exactly should be done with the thousands of new members. With a close result, the delegates passed a plan to offer nationwide seminars on issues such as community organizing, campaigning and activism. Many delegates stressed the need for political and activist training for all of the young people who have joined in the past few months. And then some serious political decisions were made that are likely to spark further debates - for example, the support of the BDS campaign, which was decided by a large majority, which supports the call by Palestinian civil society for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel, or the one with just as much Majority passed resolution to leave the Socialist International. Both motions came from the organization's younger milieus and reflect the shift in the balance of power at the congress.
The new dynamic was particularly evident in the form of two currents that ran for the board elections, under the names "Momentum" and "Practice". Both groups consist mainly of young activists who want to lead the DSA in a new direction. While "Momentum" is personally and politically close to the US magazine "Jacobin" and promoted nationwide political campaigns, "Praxis" advocated a local orientation, inspired by the strategy of Saul Alinsky, the great US community organizer of the 20th century. Since none of the currents was able to win an absolute majority, representatives from several groups will have to work together in the new board to formulate common plans and strategies for the next two years.
The result of a series of divisions and mergers in the Socialist Party of America, the historic party of US socialism, and its environment, the DSA, founded in 1982, has been a relatively marginal existence over the past few decades as a rallying point for activists somewhere between the Democratic Party and the many small parties of the radical left. It pursues a so-called "inside / outside" strategy with regard to the democrats and tried to create a basis for left-wing social democratic politics in and around the party by supporting left-wing democrats - with mixed results.
The 1990s and 2000s were not particularly easy for the DSA. Their membership numbers stagnated as the average age increased year on year. But the situation changed radically with Bernie Sanders 'presidential candidacy in 2015, which the DSA supported from the start - because it recognized early on that Sanders' campaign as an avowed socialist within the Democratic Party had the potential to support large parts of the population with a left-wing populist platform Reaching the population in a way that the US had not seen in decades. This positioning already paid off during the election campaign, when the organization grew from around 5,000 to 8,000 members. But with the election of Trump, the dam broke. Thousands of new members have been added month after month since then. The DSA is now the third largest socialist organization in US history.
Despite all the differences, there was still broad consensus among the delegates as to what their first big fight should be: a nationwide campaign for the introduction of the "single-payer system", a uniform health insurance (see article below). This is a popular demand even among Trump voters. With this, the DSA hopes to have found a starting point for building a socialist mass movement in the United States through popular, left-wing reforms in the long term.
The congress showed a forming movement, not yet a party. It is a pluralistic organization in which very different ideological views coexist. Many of the new members are only now really getting to know left-wing politics. But in such unpredictable times, it's probably exactly what the young American left needs: spaces to get to know each other, exchange ideas, and try out different approaches. And (hopefully) to start together to make socialism a real political alternative again in a country that hardly knows it, but needs it so badly in view of the massive social and ecological crisis.
Loren Balhorn is a translator and author of the left-wing US magazine »Jacobin«, founded in 2010.
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