History of the Democratic Socialists of America (1971-2017)
Bringing socialism from the margins to the mainstream
By Joseph M. Schwartz, DSA National Political Committee, July 2017
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—and its two predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM)—had their origins in the early 1970s, at the beginning of a long-term rightward shift of U.S. and global politics. This shift to the right—symbolized by the triumph in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—somewhat overshadowed the central role these organizations played in the movements of resistance to corporate domination, as well as in today’s ongoing project: organizing an ideological and organizational socialist presence among trade union, community, feminist and people of color and other activists.
DSA made an ethical contribution to the broader American Left by being one of the few radical organizations born out of a merger rather than a split. DSA also helped popularize the vision of an ecumenical, multi-tendency socialist organization, an ethos that enabled it to recently incorporate recently many thousands of new members, mostly out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. If you are committed to a pluralist, democratic conception of a just society then you can join DSA’s collective project, regardless of your position (or lack thereof) on some arcane split in socialist history, or even whether you believe in the possibility of independent electoral work inside or outside the Democratic Party ballot line.
The Founding of DSA Through the Merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM)
We were 6,000 strong at the time of merger in spring 1982. Before the merger, both DSOC and NAM had made modest but significant contributions to the trade union, community organizing and feminist movements, as well as to rebuilding a left-labor coalition within and without the Democratic Party. Though shaped by distinct cultural and historical experiences, most members of both organizations had come to the same political conclusions: an American socialist movement must be committed to democracy as an end in itself and work as an open, independent socialist organization in anti-corporate, racial justice and feminist coalitions with non-socialist progressives.
DSOC, founded in 1973 when a defeated anti-Vietnam War wing split from the remnants of the Debsian Socialist Party, grew in less than a decade from a small cadre of a few hundred to an organization of nearly 5,000. It had a significant network among trade union and left Democratic Party activists as well as a rapidly growing, predominantly campus-based Youth Section.
Unlike DSOC, the New American Movement, founded in 1971, had its origins not in a wing of the Old Left but in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the socialist-feminist women’s unions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Founded by a talented core of New Left veterans fleeing the sectarian excesses of late SDS and graduating from campus to community politics, NAM focused on building a grassroots “revolutionary democratic socialist-feminist” presence in local struggles around issues such as affordable housing, reproductive freedom and utility rate reform. NAM not only played an important role in the reproductive rights movement, but also helped the Left reconceptualize the relationship between race, gender and class.
DSOC’s greatest political contribution undoubtedly lay in making real Michael Harrington’s vision of building a strong coalition among progressive trade unionists, civil rights and feminist activists and the “new politics” left-liberals in the McGovern wing of the Democrats.
The history of the 1960s and early 1970s had made the concept suspect: how could a labor movement led by pro-war, socially conservative George Meany, which had implicitly supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race, unite with middle-class, anti-war and “new politics” activists who often dismissed the entire labor movement as bureaucratic, anti-democratic, sexist and racist? And how could activists of color and feminists trust labor leaders or mainstream Democrats who urged these social movements not to rock the boat by militantly demanding an equal voice at the table? Harrington envisioned uniting the constituencies of the three Georges (Meany, McGovern and Wallace) and getting feminists, trade unionists and black, Latino and socialist activists in the same room talking politics. It seemed utopian, if not naive, in 1973. But by the late 1970s, partly because of the success of the DSOC-inspired Democratic Agenda, coalition politics had become a mantra among trade unionists, activists in communities of color, feminists and the LGBTQ community.
Democratic Agenda began as the Democracy ’76 project. DSOC put together a labor-left coalition to fight for a real commitment to full employment at the 1976 Democratic Convention. The project, which gave headaches to Carter operatives at the nominating convention, foreshadowed the political divisions of Carter’s presidency. After the election of 1976, Democracy ’76 evolved into Democratic Agenda, which picked up active support from the leadership of such unions as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Auto Workers and the Machinists, as well as from feminists, activists in communities of color and left activists in and around the Democratic Party.
The height of Democratic Agenda’s influence came in the spring of 1978 when, at the Democratic Party mid-term convention, it got 40 percent of the conference vote for resolutions rejecting the Carter administration’s abandonment of the fight for full employment and for efforts to curtail the power of Big Oil. In the spring of 1979, Machinists Union President (and DSOC Vice-Chair) William Winpisinger announced a “Draft [Senator Ted] Kennedy” movement. The coalition brought together by Democratic Agenda reached its fullest political expression in that campaign, although it was ultimately unsuccessful.
The founding leaders of NAM and DSOC could not have constructed a merger on their own. NAM’s New Left veterans, nurtured by the “anti-anti-Communist politics” of the anti-Vietnam War movement, could not accept the left-wing anti-Communism of DSOC’s founding leadership (an anti-communism formed in anti-Stalinist struggles). Conversely, many of DSOC’s leaders could not understand the refusal of some NAM leaders to recognize opposition to authoritarian communism as a central moral obligation of democratic socialists. Not surprisingly, the two most sticky issues in the merger talks focused on the organization’s ideological positions on communism and the Middle East. Interestingly enough, few members have since questioned the organization’s principled opposition to authoritarian regimes of all stripes nor the need for a viable, independent Palestinian state and a cutoff of U.S. military aid to Israel to promote complete and unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
The infusion of newer members in both camps spurred the merger process. DSOC’s younger activists, many of them students, some veterans of the Gene McCarthy and McGovern campaigns, found NAM’s emphasis on grassroots activism and socialist-feminism inspiring. In NAM, former communists, many of whom had joined in the mid-1970s, agreed with DSOC’s emphasis on coalition work with non-socialists and valued DSOC’s greater national visibility.
Joint work on Democratic Agenda and on mobilizing for an anti-draft march in Washington (where 40,000 people called for an end to both the military draft and the economic draft based on mass inner-city unemployment) led to a decrease in mutual suspicions. In December of 1980, DSOC put the accomplishments of European social democracy on display in Washington, D.C., at a 3,000-person conference on “Eurosocialism and America: An International Exchange” featuring Olof Palme, François Mitterrand, Michel Rocard, Michael Manley and Willy Brandt, among scores of others. The conference’s emphasis on the struggle for greater worker control over investment and production decisions convinced many in NAM that the distance between themselves and DSOC had dwindled.
DSA in the 1980s: Linking Struggles for Social Justice Abroad and at Home
When delegates from DSOC and NAM met in Detroit in March 1982 to form Democratic Socialists of America, they shared Michael Harrington’s perpetual optimism that corporate irresponsibility would give rise to popular demands for democratic control over the economy. Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric and his assaults on the women’s, civil rights and labor movements temporarily served to coalesce the American Left.
Across the globe, a new ecumenical spirit of unity and optimism pervaded the Left, centering upon a rejection of statist and authoritarian conceptions of socialism. In Europe, the French Left gained the presidency for the first time. Numerous socialist parties adopted workers’ control as a programmatic focus and developed relations with Eurocommunist parties whose members concurred that democracy and civil liberties must be central to the socialist project. In the Third World, revolutionary movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Zimbabwe and elsewhere searched for a third way between inegalitarian capitalist development and authoritarian communist modernization.
Little did we know that the militarist, Keynesian, indebted “economic recovery” begun in early 1983 would provide the material basis for the following decade of right-wing dominance across the world. The unequally distributed benefits of the recovery in the United States were not the only reason for a conservative presidential majority. The right successfully displaced the economic anxieties of many working- and middle-class whites into hostility toward “liberal” means-tested social welfare programs, seen as disproportionately benefiting people of color. In the United States, but also in Europe (to a lesser extent), the Right convinced a majority of the public that the causes of economic stagnation were strong unions and over-expanded public provision.
It was on this terrain—the most conservative decade in Western politics since the 1950s—that DSA would be built. At its founding, DSA consisted of almost 5,000 members from DSOC and 1,000 members from NAM. By 1983 DSA reached 8,000 members, which it would not surpass till the early 1990s. The 1980s were not easy on DSA or on the broader Left; there were many defensive battles. As the liberal coalition decomposed, DSA continued to argue that only democratic industrial, labor and trade and investment policy could restore global growth with equity.
And, we managed to help build an alternative, affirmative, democratic left program and vision. Although DSA’s refusal to endorse a Democratic Party candidate in the 1984 primary reflected the electoral Left’s split among presidential primary candidates Alan Cranston (nuclear freeze), Walter Mondale (the AFL-CIO and the National Organization for Women) and Jesse Jackson (African-Americans, some left trade unionists and independent Leftists), our work in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary built ties among labor, feminist and anti-militarist progressives that made a modest, but real, contribution to broader left unity four years later behind the stronger, second “Rainbow Coalition” Democratic primary bid in 1988 by Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom DSA endorsed early, in November 1987. Many of DSA’s policy goals—progressive taxation, cuts to wasteful “defense” spending and the need for universal social provision of quality health care, child care, education and housing—found a more powerful expression in this primary campaign, the first truly multiracial, (implicitly) social democratic one in U.S. history.
Jackson lost the nomination to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Following their defeat by Reagan in 1988, the mass media pronounced the “L” word— liberalism—dead. It was left to socialists to speak up against the gutting of public provision through liberal social welfare programs, despite our criticisms that the liberal welfare state failed to democratize power relations and treated its beneficiaries more as “clients” than as citizens.
The Youth Section, in part thanks to the punishing speaking schedule of Michael Harrington, its indefatigable staff and the visibility of then Co-Chair Barbara Ehrenreich and many others, showed the most “counter-cyclical” growth in the organization through much of the 1980s. The Youth Section played a significant role in both the anti-apartheid and anti-intervention in Central America movements, linking the struggles for social justice abroad with the struggle for social justice at home. And it helped introduce scores of student activists to trade union struggles, with our campus-labor institutes enabling many of our Youth Section alums to go on to make impressive contributions as labor organizers and union staffers.
DSA’s presence among progressive trade unionists and the movements for a democratic U.S. foreign policy allowed us to play an initiating role in the large labor-led, anti-apartheid/anti-intervention marches held in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in 1987. By linking these struggles with the fight for democratic trade union rights at home and abroad, DSA contributed to the growth in awareness on the Left of the importance of international labor solidarity.
In the fall of 1987, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a DSA-inspired coalition, Justice for All, held rallies, teach-ins and press conferences in more than a hundred cities across the nation. Protesting cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and federal aid to housing, the events also reminded the public of many of the successes of the Great Society (for example, Head Start, Medicaid, public health centers and a radical decrease in poverty among the elderly because of the expansion of Social Security). The DSA office hummed with the sound of organizing.
DSA in the 1990s: Support for Medicare for All; Opposition to Austerity, Welfare “Reform,” and Neoliberal Globalization
Our argument that democratic public provision increases social justice and efficiency took on a new level of public visibility in the early 1990s when DSA made the struggle for a universal health care system (modeled on the Canadian “single-payer” system) its major national priority. We helped build the “single-payer” or “Medicare for All” movement as an alternative to the Clintons’ failed plan to expand coverage by the private insurance system. The high moment of our campaign was a multi-city tour by Canadian health care providers, trade unionists and health care advocates who explained the Canadian system to U.S. audiences.
The collapse of communism in 1989 proved less of an immediate boon to democratic socialists than many of us had hoped. Those who had suffered in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not embrace socialism with a human face, but rushed headlong into the embrace of a mythic, free market capitalism. And the failures of capitalist reforms did not revitalize the Left so much as increase support for xenophobic nationalism.
In the short run, however, the mass media’s trumpeting of the end of history and the final triumph of capitalism may have driven many unaffiliated socialists to stand up and be counted. Our direct mail campaigns in the early to mid-1990s boosted membership from 7,000 to 10,000. Thousands responded to DSA’s argument that the collapse of communism (a critical gain for democracy) in no way justifies the blatant injustices of capitalism nor ends the struggle against them. And perhaps more would have joined if Michael Harrington had lived beyond the collapse of the Berlin Wall to be able to articulate, in accessible language, why the collapse of an authoritarian system that democratic socialists had always opposed did not refute the socialist project.
Harrington never wanted DSA to be overly reliant on him, but we all understand our debt to him as his generation’s most effective voice for socialism in the United States. DSA continued to grow without him, but a new nationally recognized spokesperson for democratic socialism would later appear—Bernie Sanders.
The Clinton administration’s commitment to balanced-budget austerity, plus its support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for the gutting of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) foreshadowed the move of center-left governments to what British Prime Minister Tony Blair would term “third way” social democracy. This neoliberal program of economic deregulation (particularly of finance), decrease in taxes on the rich and corporations, decimation of union power and defunding of public goods (particularly means-tested anti-poverty programs), became the dominant policy of social democratic parties in the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
While many liberal organizations tepidly opposed Clinton’s welfare reform (which yielded a radical increase in child poverty over the next 20 years), DSA organized strongly against it. In addition, the Youth Section (which changed its name to Young Democratic Socialists in 1997) founded the “Prison Moratorium Project,” one of the earliest anti-mass incarceration efforts in the age of the New Jim Crow. In the late 1990s many YDS and DSA chapters participated actively in the “global justice” movement to build transnational solidarity, as well as institutions, that would democratize the benefits of a global economy.
DSA turned much of its attention in the late 1990s to working closely with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and local global justice groups to oppose the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This proposed international treaty, which would have stripped national governments of the right to legislate democratic controls over the behavior of foreign investment capital, foreshadowed President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. By 1999 a new global Left appeared to be forming, with progressive unions and socialists joining with younger more anarchist-oriented protesters to take on the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
DSA 2000-2015: Opposition to War; Support for the Economic Justice Agenda, Occupy and Racial and Gender Justice
But 9/11/2001 would change all that, as the Bush administration deployed the “war on terror” as a means to quash any forms of anti-imperialist or anti-corporate protests. DSA actively participated in the anti-Iraq and Afghanistan war movement, with Young Democratic Socialists playing a significant role within it. But once ground troops (recruited for a volunteer army in a class- and racially-biased manner) were committed to Afghanistan and Iraq, the movement found it hard to convince the public that you cannot fight decentralized terrorist threats by massive military means.
DSA can take some solace from the role it played in the Bush II era in building massive opposition to the bipartisan efforts of the Bush administration and the Wall Street wing of the Democrats to forge a “Grand Compromise.” The compromise aimed to use long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare to secure lower taxes on corporations and to achieve “fiscally responsible” budget deficit reduction. DSA brought into this work an alternative vision of an “Economic Justice Agenda” (EJA), which chapters popularized through local Congressional and state legislative hearings. In retrospect, the EJA prefigured the program of the 2016 Sanders campaign. The agenda called for creating a truly progressive tax system so as to redistribute from the 1% to the 99%, expanding universal social welfare programs and engaging in large-scale public investment in alternative energy and mass transit. But the Bush II era saw the left and DSA playing defense to prevent attacks on existing universal social welfare programs. Bipartisan elites dominated the mainstream media with obsessive calls for “fiscal discipline” and public spending cuts.
DSA After the Great Recession
The bipartisan elite consensus around budgetary austerity crashed and burned with the Great Recession of 2008, a direct product of the neoliberal model of growth through financial and real estate speculation. Just as DSA grew through its opposition to the neoliberal Democratic Clinton agenda in the 1990s, by 2010, frustration with the Obama administration’s moderate program gave rise to the first significant growth in DSA chapter activity in over a decade. This growth was in part aided by a revival in YDS activity from 2006 onwards and the graduation of some of this cohort into DSA chapter leadership. The Occupy Movement of fall 2011 resulted, in part, from the failure of the administration’s recovery program to redress the rampant growth in inequality and the bleak employment prospects for even college-educated youth. Many DSA and YDS chapters joined Occupy from Day One. In a few major cities, the predominant “horizontalist” and “anti-statist” youthful leadership of the encampments meant DSAers (young and old) had to operate with considerable skill to appeal to the newly politicized participants (as DSA does take the question of who holds state power seriously). But DSA grew among activists who realized that the occupation itself was a tactic, while building a mass movement for economic democracy involved long-term movement and institution building. At the same time, DSA groups became heavily involved in movements for a living wage and for a path to citizenship for undocumented peoples.
But while DSA and YDS did win to their ranks a stratum among this renewed radical cohort, the organization still stood at 6500 members in 2012, with DSA having ten or so moderately strong locals and a similar number of campus groups. The New Left veterans who had built DSA were now aging into their 60s, and often DSA gatherings would have very few people present between the ages of 25 and 60. But we were able to mount a national student debt campaign that helped bring the issue into mainstream electoral politics. At the 2013 and 2015 conventions the organization also reiterated the centrality of racial justice struggles to socialist organizing, with a good number of chapters supporting #Black Lives Matter and fighting against mass incarceration and for equitable urban public education. In addition, our Socialist-Feminist Working Group helped numerous locals raise tens of thousands of dollars for the National Network of Abortion Funds through participation in their annual bowl-a-thon fundraisers (with DSA teams taking such names as “Bowlsheviks,” “Jacopins” and “The General Strike”).
DSA: Bernie and Beyond
But the levelling off of organizational growth in the 2000s would all change with DSA’s decision in late 2014 to make its number one priority the movement to support Bernie Sanders running for president. DSA took the position that for maximum exposure and effectiveness, Sanders should not only run, but should run in the Democratic primaries—and that advice proved to be spot-on. We started out with a coordinated “We Need Bernie” campaign that had DSA urging Bernie to run, and then shifted to “People’s Revolution 101” DSA-sponsored teach-ins that introduced Bernie activists to basic democratic socialist principles. As a result, DSA grew healthily through the Sanders campaign, going from 6,500 members in fall 2014 to 8,500 by election day 2016.
DSA made clear that Bernie’s New Deal or social democratic program did not fulfill the socialist aim of establishing worker and social ownership of the economy. But in the context of 40 years of oligarchic rule, Sanders’ program proved sufficiently radical and inspiring. (Sanders made clear that he opposed state ownership of corporations, but no mainstream reporter was astute enough to know that the particular socialist tradition that Sanders came out of favored worker, not state ownership, of most firms.) DSA also worked in the campaign to reach out to organizations rooted in communities of color and to feminists, as those were the two constituencies most needed to broaden out Bernie’s base among millennials and white working-class Democratic primary voters.
Bernie’s refusal to abandon his democratic socialist identity, and his clear position that only by building mass social movements could you change power relations, gave his campaign a clear class-struggle character. Polls indicated that the majority of people under 40 had a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. DSA’s visibility grew, amid the press noting the increasingly favorable attitude towards “socialism” (for some a vague desire for a more egalitarian society, akin to Sanders’ Denmark examples). Curious Sanders supporters Googling “democratic socialism” found DSA’s web page coming up first. Many in DSA had hoped that a Hillary Clinton victory would allow DSA to help lead an anti-neoliberal Democrat opposition pushing for Medicare for All, progressive taxation, stricter regulation of the financial sector, etc. Ironically, Trump’s victory drove thousands to join DSA.
DSA veterans and national staff were shocked to see that on the day after Trump’s victory one thousand people joined DSA (in our best past year maybe 1,200 new members joined over 12 months). From November 9, 2016, to July 1, 2017, over 13,000 people, mostly between the ages of 18 and 35, joined DSA. The creative use of social media and Twitter by DSA volunteers drove much of this growth. In addition, through a strong chapter mentoring program, our national leadership, volunteers and staff helped people in 48 states and D.C. create over 100 new DSA chapters and scores of new YDS chapters. In many red states, brand new DSA chapters have led the opposition to the Trump administration’s attempts to gut Medicaid, organizing an open socialist presence in March 2017 at the House of Representatives and local town hall meetings and sitting in at local Senate offices during the July 4th recess. In blue states such as New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and California, DSAers are at the forefront of the fight for state-level Medicare for All legislation.
While Sanders did not run an explicit socialist campaign, he did make clear that the global ruling class has been engaged in class warfare from above for the past 40 years. This elite project has consciously aimed to destroy union power and create an ideology of “TINA” (“there is no alternative” to the “free” market or unrestrained corporate power). The Great Recession of 2008, and the rise of unemployment or precarious employment for young people across the globe, have given rise to the growth of new left and socialist formations (see Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Mélenchon presidential candidacy in France, and, most parallel to Sanders, the revival of British Labour under socialist Jeremy Corbyn). All these movements, along with DSA, understand that only if working people gain control of the wealth we create in common can there be an equitable and sustainable future for people and the planet.
DSA at 24,000 members in July 2017 is the largest socialist organization in the United States since the Communist Party before its implosion in 1956 after the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin. Most young people joining the organization want to be active, and our new chapters across the country have already incorporated thousands of members into activist projects. These include working to elect open socialists such as khalid kamau (GA) and Dylan Parker (IL) to local city and county councils, as well as Mike Sylvester (ME) and Mike Connolly (MA) to state legislatures.
As democratic socialists, we enter coalition efforts with no preconditions that our allies embrace our socialist politics. But we engage in these politics as open socialists—we will be called socialists whether we choose the name or not. Anti-socialism remains the most profound anti-democratic ideology in the United States. Whatever the struggle—be it for a humane, efficient national health care system or for public investment in child care—the right red-baits the proposals as “socialist” and thus forbidden.
Our 2017 convention will determine a realistic set of national priorities and work to strengthen relations among our national staff, a new elected leadership (the National Political Committee) and the most crucial element of the organization—our local chapters and campus groups. We face the daunting task of joining the resistance to the ruling far Right’s attacks on working people, women, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ individuals. But we also know that neoliberal Democratic Party elites offer a tepid vision of “inclusiveness” that refuses to challenge the oligarchic nature of U.S. society. DSA, therefore, works to build its own organizational capacity and to legitimate socialism as a mainstream part of U.S. politics. We also are committed to working in coalition with forces that oppose both right-wing rule and the dominant national corporate wing of the Democrats. We want to continue Sanders’ “political revolution” by broadening out that political trend to include a stronger base within the labor movement and, most importantly, among progressive organizations rooted in communities of color. If we take up those challenges, DSA may be able to sustain the most important socialist presence in U.S. politics since the Debsian Socialist era of 1900 to 1920. That’s a huge responsibility, but one that the influx of talented organizers into DSA enables us to take on.
Joseph M. Schwartz has been active in DSA since he served as DSOC’s first campus organizer in 1979-1981. He teaches radical political theory at Temple University, is an active member of his faculty union (AFT) and serves on DSA’s National Political Committee.