Last weekend, more than a thousand activists from across the country assembled in Atlanta for the largest deliberative gathering of the radical Left in generations.
Like many of my fellow delegates to the national convention of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I arrived in Atlanta full of hope for our organization. My optimism was tempered by my anxiety over whether we’d make it through the weekend in one piece. Everybody now acknowledges that socialism is resurgent in America—but it’s anybody’s guess whether our fledgling movement will be up to the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Fortunately, the convention ended up being a major step forward for DSA and, potentially for all people living and working in the United States today. Over three intense, often contentious, and occasionally exhilarating days, the organization debated and voted on its organizational and political priorities for the coming two years. Not only did we survive the weekend, but we came out energized, and with a strong battle plan.
Democracy is always messy, and this convention was no exception. Friday’s proceedings quickly devolved into debates over the convention’s agenda, rules, and voting methods. A barrage of procedural motions showed how far the US left’s political culture has to go before it is able to prioritize collective organization over individual opinions; it also suggested that a large minority of convention delegates were distrustful of national DSA structures and were intent on pushing hard for the organization’s decentralization.
More than a few frustrated delegates on Friday evening wondered aloud whether the convention might implode from these procedural disputes. But the next day, delegates began to learn, and own, the democratic process. As Detroit DSA co-chair Natasha Fernandez-Silber later opined: “it’s been exhausting—it’d be easier, of course, if we functioned from the top down like nonprofits or the Democratic Party. But we should be proud that DSA is committed to real democracy.”
By Sunday, the body had passed a range of significant political decisions that have the potential to help DSA meet its main immediate challenge: moving beyond a relatively narrow social composition by leading mass campaigns rooting the group in the multiracial working class. Until this type of deep organizing gets off the ground, DSA will primarily continue to recruit self-selecting individuals, who tend to be disproportionately white, male, and middle class.
The convention passed resolutions on a range of urgent issues, including deepening DSA’s fight for immigrant rights and housing justice, pushing for abortion access and decriminalizing sex work, recommitting to Medicare for All, and rolling out a national infrastructure for socialist political education. One of the rare unanimous votes was to make the struggle for a radical Green New Deal a national DSA priority. In the face of looming climate catastrophe, DSA pledged itself to fight to “decarbonize all sectors of the US economy by 2030; democratize control of major energy systems and resources through public ownership; [and] center the working class in a just transition to a caring economy with a job guarantee that expands the public sector.”
Delegates also deepened DSA’s orientation to workplace militancy and the labor movement. After decades of treating organized labor as, at best, one good movement among many, leftists are finally putting labor back at the center of anti-capitalist strategy.
In the wake of the first strike upsurge in generations—actions in which socialists often played a critical leadership role—plenary speakers included Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, as well as Cecily Myart-Cruz and Erika Alvarez of United Teachers Los Angeles. Resolutions calling for DSA members inside and outside of unions to help rebuild class power and organize the unorganized passed overwhelmingly.
A sharper debate, both before and during the conference, took place over the proposal for DSA to prioritize the rank-and-file strategy: a strategic focus on developing militant worker leaders to rebuild a powerful, left-wing, democratic union movement. The resolution, which among many other tactics encourages DSA members to get jobs in strategic industries, passed by 10 votes—the closest contest of the weekend.
Decisions over electoral work marked a definite shift to the left. In a further move away from the old DSA’s commitment to “lesser evilism,” the convention voted that DSA should refuse to endorse any presidential candidate other than Bernie Sanders on the Democratic Party ballot line in 2020. DSA similarly tightened its national endorsement policy to only support class-struggle candidates running as open socialists. For the first time, the organization also openly committed itself to a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party. As the organization’s new national electoral policy explains, “DSA is committed to building political organization independent of the Democratic Party and their capitalist donors.… In the longer term, our goal is to form an independent working-class party, but for now this does not rule out DSA-endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line.”
By far the deepest fault line at the convention concerned organizational structure. DSA membership has exploded in size over the past three years, which has put severe strain on its overstretched structure and staff. DSA currently functions in practice as a decentralized confederation of autonomous local chapters; small and rural chapters, in particular, have not received the support they need.
A significant number of delegates focused their energies on a series of radical restructuring proposals to crystallize and deepen DSA’s decentralized nature. In the end, though, a solid majority of the convention voted down each of these proposals and instead passed an alternative resolution on how to support small chapters written by members of caucuses oriented to building a stronger national DSA. The results of the National Political Committee elections likewise gave a solid majority to candidates committed to building a more robust DSA oriented to what Austin DSA organizer Dave Pinkham calls “outward-facing, transformative campaigns.”
Though the full potential of DSA remains as yet untapped, the Atlanta national convention signaled how high the stakes are: If we’re ever going to win a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, full equality for immigrants, and the other pressing transformative demands looming on the horizon, we’ll need the rebirth of a powerful radical Left rooted in a fighting working class.
When participants closed the proceedings on Sunday afternoon by spontaneously erupting into song—“Solidarity Forever,” followed by “The Internationale”—it struck me that DSA’s national convention could not have come at a better moment. For the first time in decades, Americans are actively looking for an alternative to the capitalist status quo. Workers are striking again. Socialism is no longer a dirty word in the minds of young Americans (and some older ones, too)—and Bernie’s presidential campaign over the coming months will provide an opportunity for DSA to recruit tens of thousands to fight for a democratic socialist future.
As Sara Nelson explained in her moving plenary speech, “We are in the midst of crisis, but this is also our moment to change the course of history—if we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t do.”