by Vincent Lima
What follows is a personal reflection on the DSA National Convention, held August 4–6, 2023, in Chicago.
Having a thousand socialists together in one space was a moving experience. The solidarity was felt perhaps most deeply when we sang together at the very end. I am grateful to my comrades in Rochester DSA for trusting me to represent our voices there, in Chicago, as one of our five delegates.
Attendance was lower than the 1,234 delegates who participated in the remote 2021 convention, in part because of the expenses associated with attendance. (Our chapter, however, had its full complement of voting delegates.) The opportunity to socialize with comrades outside formal deliberations was, as you’d expect, invaluable; it is not a given that a remote or hybrid convention would be more desirable in future.
The convention had two types of sessions: (1) invited panels to discuss various aspects of our work and (2) deliberations around previously submitted resolutions and constitution/bylaw changes.
The convention did not review the organization’s finances and did not consider or approve a budget.
True, each proposed resolution and constitution/bylaw change had a carefully calculated price tag attached. However, at no point did the convention add up old and new price tags and compare them to revenue projections.
As a result, the decisions of the convention have the aspect of my children’s Christmas or birthday wish lists: I find it helpful to know what they want, and I try to make them happy, but it’s still a wish list, not a set of firm decisions. This approach, for better or worse, gives a great deal of leeway to the National Political Committee (NPC) as to which decisions to implement.
It’s admittedly hard to make financial decisions with a thousand people, and that is one reason many of us in the Rochester chapter supported the proposed constitution/bylaw change instituting a National Delegates Council—a smaller assembly that would convene more often than every other year. It’s fair to say, however, that the proposal wasn’t fully developed (in terms of proportional representation) and another structural proposal made it to the floor in its stead. That proposal would have enlarged the NPC. While it garnered 60 percent of the vote, it did not meet the 2/3 threshold required for constitutional changes.
Instead, the convention voted for a commission to recommend structural improvements next time around.
The Rochester delegates sat together, and were pleased to have Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes fame sit with us for a while. One topic of deliberation was whether DSA should move from an exclusive focus on a rank-and-file strategy to also working with establishment union leaders. Comrade Jane’s aura prevailed, and our delegation (and, indeed, two-thirds of all delegates) voted against the change. (Footnote 1)
The most contentious political deliberations of the convention centered on electoral policy.
While there were a couple of other controversies I will touch upon later—around anti-Zionism and around trans rights—they were essentially proxy fights over electoral policy and factional politics.
The central questions were (as they often are) about the relationship between DSA and the Democratic Party and the relationship between DSA and its endorsed candidates.
Though DSA is not a political party, many of us would like it to become the new socialist party of the United States, winning races on every level from school boards to the presidency. We’d like to run only committed socialists for office, and would like for them to hew to our platform, as that is what their voters would expect of them. (We’d also like to do that under a better U.S. Constitution, but that’s another matter.)
The key political question at the convention was whether to declaratively—and prematurely—move to that ideal and to end cooperation with Democrats against the far right. The convention, wisely, refused to do so.
It limited itself to deciding to develop the capacity to work more independently—by building our own lists of voters and volunteers, our independent fundraising capacity, and so on.
This approach is one I know the Rochester chapter supports: Earlier this year, we unanimously endorsed candidates who are not members and do not identify as socialists, and we e ndorsed a member-candidate who once or twice voted in a way that is not consistent with our platform. We did so knowingly and wisely because we understand that we are building power step by step.
In fact, our actual approach—in Rochester and beyond—is to coordinate two fights that may seem at odds with each other: a life-and-death struggle against the far right, in which the Democrats are our necessary ally; and a similarly vital struggle against a Democratic establishment that is an agent of capital and empire and gives lip service to fighting racism and patriarchy while reinforcing them.
The Virtues of Consistency
A keynote address by New York State Representative Zohran Mamdani was one of the highlights of the convention. Comrade Zohran said it is easy for elected officials to lose sight of the commitments they made while campaigning and argued that “socialists in office” committees are the best way to keep officials like himself in check. This was good to hear. It is akin to the Co-Governance Body our chapter helps lead in connection with Rochester City Council and has proved effective. (Footnote 2)
The internal caucuses that advocate for DSA’s current approach to electoral politics, described above, are the Socialist Majority Caucus and Groundwork. While the approach belongs to DSA, not any caucus, it is one of the major differentiating factors between groups vying for leadership on the national level.
Other groups make some good arguments in favor of accelerating toward building an independent socialist party. (There are fine distinctions between the prescriptions, but their advocates are best positioned to unpack those.) The argument that, in my view, had the most merit was surrounding credibility.
Here’s my version of it: If we allow DSA-endorsed elected officials to get away with “centrist” positions, we forsake our credibility. Yes, Bernie showed that we can win power in state after state by running in Democratic primaries. But Bernie had the credibility to inspire so many of us because he was consistent over decades spent in the political wilderness. You could pull up clips from before you were born that had him calling for all the good things he was calling for in his presidential campaigns. He was credible because he had been consistent. If we seem to condone bad positions taken by candidates we’ve endorsed, we lose credibility.
While I find the argument compelling, it is also true that Bernie took positions many of us would criticize. He worked on a kibbutz in occupied Palestine, he supports increased funding for police reform, and so on. He also endorsed Biden. He inspired us and we rallied around him anyway. In short, yes, it’s essential to guard our credibility but it’s also essential to keep building power and reduce harm as we do so.
The party/electoral question was a close one because it had served as the focus of an intense internal organizing campaign for much of the last two years. Back in 2021, our comrade Jamaal Bowman, a Black socialist endorsed by DSA, had just defeated the incumbent Eliot Engel, a big supporter of the Zionist state, for a seat in Congress. Having previously committed to cut U.S. military aid and arms sales to countries carrying out systematic human rights violations, he voted to increase funding for the Zionist entity’s military. (He also participated in a propaganda trip to that state.)
A Rochester comrade and I spoke during the convention to Comrade Ahmed H. of Denver DSA, a member of DSA’s anti-Zionist Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) Working Group, about that moment. Ahmed told us that Palestinians had been following the Congressional vote closely and were enraged by Bowman’s vote.
You may find that hard to believe. Who focuses on one vote when the tally is 420 to 9? But I know from personal experience that it is credible.
For years, the Armenian-American lobby had pressed Congress to condemn the Armenian Genocide of 1915–17, and under intense pressure from the State Department, Congress had refused. In late 2019, however, Turkey pissed off the State Department so much that they encouraged Congress to vote for the Armenian resolution, and it passed 405 to 11. Many Armenians focused on the fact that Rep. Ilhan Omar had voted “Present,” not “Yes.” Why would anyone but her constituents care about one “Present” vote in the face of 405 “Yes” votes? In Omar’s case, it was mostly because she’s a hijabi Muslim woman of color and the right loves to attack her. (Footnote 3) In Bowman’s case, I do not believe his race was at issue. The point is that it is credible that some Palestinians took note of his vote because Bowman was meant to be an ally.
I asked Ahmed if Bowman’s vote made the BDS Working Group realize they—and DSA as a whole—had our work cut out for us. Did they not react by thinking, “We must redouble our efforts to build a mass movement in support of Palestinian lives so that no member of Congress would ever again think to vote to fund weapons to attack them”? Our allies would never even imagine voting to restrict abortion—thanks to decades of work by feminists, including socialist feminists. Clearly, the working group and DSA as a whole needed to organize and build power in Bowman’s district and beyond.
What the group focused on was a demand to expel Bowman from the DSA. (Footnote 4) Groups that oppose our—still current—electoral policy used the Palestinian cause (and Twitter) to mobilize support for a leadership change in DSA.
The mobilization was effective. Going into the convention, there were many Palestinian flags and a good number of keffiyehs. There was also a proposed resolution that would not only reaffirm the commitment of DSA to the Palestinian cause, but also make the BDS Working Group autonomous and reverse and denounce decisions of the outgoing NPC. (Note that no working group is autonomous and it is not clear what autonomy for a working group means.)
In a pre-convention poll, the resolution (like our chapter-endorsed proposal to form a National Delegates’ Council) did not meet the support criteria to be included in the agenda. Various groups put together a proposal that would add three resolutions, including the BDS Working Group’s resolution and a trans rights resolution, to the agenda.
Ironically, the trans rights resolution had originally been offered up by the governing Socialist Majority Caucus. Relying in large part on the appeal of this resolution to delegates, that group’s antagonists succeeded in having the agenda change narrowly passed—and the BDS WG resolution was added to the very end of the agenda.
But as the convention proceeded, here’s what happened:
An alternative resolution put forward by the outgoing NPC was narrowly adopted. It borrowed the language of the BDS WG’s own resolution in terms of reaffirming the commitment of DSA to the Palestinian cause. But far from giving the working group autonomy, it put it where it belongs: under the International Committee, alongside the rest of DSA’s anti-imperialist and anticolonial work. And, of course, it did not denounce or reverse the NPC’s decisions. The adoption of this resolution was a pivotal emotional moment at the convention. While all the politicking around BDS had aimed to build support for a new electoral policy, the defeat of that policy proposal didn’t cause much heartbreak; even a member of our delegation who voted “Yes” on the electoral resolution told me they were relieved it didn’t pass. But the adoption of a BDS resolution that refused to vindicate the working group did cause heartbreak as well as concerns that DSA would lose a contingent of dedicated anti-imperialist comrades.
As the last minutes of the convention approached, there was a possibility that the last item on the agenda, the BDS WG’s resolution, would still make it to the floor. By this time, though, the groups that had used the Palestinian cause to organize for the convention found out they had won a working majority on the new NPC. Reasoning, perhaps, that the BDS WG’s resolution was likely to fail, they preferred to drop the fight and let the convention adjourn without considering it.
Rochester Delegate Interventions
Two Rochester delegates took the floor during the convention.
Comrade Remi addressed a proposal by the Green New Deal Campaign Commission. While they didn’t object to the proposal itself, they argued forcefully that the commission should not have something new approved without first providing accountability on its past campaigns. One of the awkward things about a big, three-day gathering like the convention is that the commission couldn’t respond, “Fair enough; give us a few days.” Remi is right: it’s essential that we have reflections and “lessons learned” built into our campaign work. The proposal passed (with all of our delegates, except me, voting “No”).
Elected, Paid Co-Chairs
I spoke against a proposal for the convention to elect the co-chairs of the NPC directly and pay them to work full time. I argued that full-time co-chairs elected directly by the convention would sideline the elected NPC; that anyone hired full time should be interviewed and vetted, not elected; and that the co-chairs would be able to perpetuate their power on the organization’s dime and time. The proposal did pass (with only one of our delegates, Carolyn D.H., voting Yes).
In an odd departure from the principle that the convention is over when it’s over, the resolution provides that the current delegates will soon vote for the co-chairs. It remains to be seen if a majority of the new NPC will favor those of its members who are willing to quit their day jobs, if any, to work at the pleasure of the DSA. If they don’t, they may discover that the organization cannot afford to hire full-time co-chairs and drop it.
A New NPC
As noted, the new NPC represents a shift in the national leadership of DSA. The SMC-Groundwork coalition is now in the minority, and a number of smaller groups led by a caucus called Bread & Roses are in the majority. The new NPC also includes Ahmed, discussed above, which allows the BDS WG to declare victory in the internal struggle and perhaps turn its attention to the less friendly terrain outside the Democratic Socialists of America. There is so much to do!
I began these reflections at the end: how we sang together in solidarity.
Deliberations necessarily highlight differences of opinion but as the convention wound up, I believe we saw that they also highlighted the fact that we have a common purpose, a common sense of the urgency of the moment, and a common dedication to working hand in hand to build the better world we know is ours to create.
(1) One of the editors of this blog asked for elaboration. My take is that the rank-and-file strategy is regarded as the cooler, more revolutionary strategy. And it works! The alternative is seen as more establishment-oriented. The proposed hybrid could be seen as watering down our commitment to the rank-and-file strategy. (Our local practice is hybrid: we have good relations with the Rochester Labor Council.)
In its essence, I think the amendment was unobjectionable. But the way it was written came across as dissing Labor Notes and the “troublemaker” strategy, so I voted against it.
This said, it was a minor debate
(2) The other keynote, delivered by Chicago Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, was another highlight and quite instructive.
(3) Her excuse was that the resolution wasn’t presented in good faith, as the State Department was using Armenians for its own purposes, which was true if irrelevant.
(4) Here’s an excerpt from what the National Political Committee had to say on the topic in its announcement declining to expel the comrade:
Bowman did not claim to publicly support BDS during his primary, but DSA endorsed him nevertheless. Bernie Sanders, who[m] DSA endorsed twice, has headlined high profile J Street conferences, and has not adopted DSA’s line on Palestine. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib did not publicly support BDS during their primary elections — articles were written pressuring DSA to discipline them. When AOC’s position on Palestine was rightfully criticized, people worked with her, and she shifted. Was it a mistake then for the left to commit to helping Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez to shift politically instead of splitting with them? Who would argue now that electing Rashida Tlaib to Congress did not build power for Palestine?