Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2018

The DSA and the Democratic Party

Filed under: socialism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

On April 20th, the N.Y. Times ran a 2000 word article titled “‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018” that was a remarkably savvy take on the close ties between the DSA and the Democratic Party. In keeping with the Gray Lady’s need to have reporters covering this angle that are “in the know”, the story was assigned to Farah Stockman who won the coveted William Brewster Styles Award “for identifying U.S. corporations that were covertly using international relationships and offshore operations to avoid taxes, side-step U.S. laws and deny workers’ rights.” If you are in the business of keeping the one percent alert about developments on the left, it is best to have reporters with a ninety-nine percent mentality even if the editors make sure to keep them safely within the liberal democratic consensus.

The article is a survey of various candidates who are running as socialists in Democratic Party primaries this year, including Franklin Bynum who won an unchallenged nomination to become a criminal court judge in Houston. I am not sure how serving as criminal court judge advances the cause of socialism even though Bynum described himself as a “far left candidate”. Since he followed that up with “What I’m trying to do is be a Democrat who actually stands for something”, you wonder how far to the left he is. In fact, Stockman was sharp enough to summarize such candidates this way:

Many socialist candidates sound less like revolutionaries and more like traditional Democrats who seek a return to policies in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They want single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions. But others advocate more extreme changes, such as abolishing the prison system. In the case of Mr. Bynum, he wants an end to a cash bail system that requires people accused of crimes, even minor offenses, to pay money to be released from jail before trial.

Well, of course. These DSA’ers are basically New Deal Democrats. But in a period of economic crisis and a general collapse of the labor movement, the prospects of a new New Deal are rather utopian.

If Stockman’s article had taken the trouble to dig a bit deeper into the background of some of these candidates, the reader might have noticed that one of them was a keynote speaker at a conference on Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States that I attended in November, 2015. That is Gayle McLaughlin, a former mayor of Richmond, Calif., who is running to be the state’s lieutenant governor but not as a Democrat. If you go to her website, you will see that she is an independent (NPP) Bernie Sanders supporter. NPP stands for No-Party Preference. I do have trouble with her support for Sanders, one that other people at the conference were beginning to manifest.

McLaughlin was also a member of the North Star Network that Peter Camejo formed in the early 80s. Also, like me, she was a member at the time of CISPES, the group that organized solidarity on behalf of the revolution in El Salvador. When she was running for mayor in Richmond, she ran as a Green. I am not sure whether she is still involved with the Greens since her switch to NPP in order to be able to vote for Bernie Sanders in 2016 might be permanent. At least she is not a Democrat.

Furthermore, I have seen no evidence that McLaughlin is a DSA member, Stockman notwithstanding. In a surprisingly useful interview with Platypus, there is a discussion of the relationship between her organization—the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and the DSA:

Platypus: I noticed that you reached out to the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for an endorsement.[i] I am wondering why did you want their endorsement for your lieutenant governor campaign? What kind alliance do you envision with that organization which seems to be different demographically than the RPA, where it is more so younger activists in their early 30s while the RPA is more seasoned older activists?

GM: The RPA steering committee is very young. We have a 28-person steering committee: It has a majority of people of color, a majority of women, and a majority of people under forty. The progressive mindset of diversity was always a very much a part of our agenda. But still we can use more millennials.

DSA is very youth-driven. They have grown especially since the Bernie campaign. Bernie made the term “socialist” much more common and much more acceptable throughout our nation. I have always had the socialist mindset and I think the whole anti-corporate struggle is a struggle against capitalism and the harm that it causes. So reaching out to DSA was important. They are a part, a very strong part, of our movement for change. I was very excited to get the endorsement of East Bay DSA, San Francisco DSA, and Peninsula DSA. I hope to receive the Los Angles DSA endorsement as well.

Labor Notes provides the background on her decision to run for Lieutenant Governor:

Last year, McLaughlin stepped down as a Richmond city councilor so she could pursue a long-shot campaign for lieutenant governor of California. Her stated goal was less about becoming the next Gavin Newsom (Governor Jerry Brown’s longtime understudy and would-be successor) and more about “encouraging others to build local political power in their own cities” and a “powerful, independent network of progressive forces across the state.”

Despite her working class background and her long record of mayoral activism on behalf of labor causes, only the United Electrical Workers (UE), a small national union with just a handful of California members, has endorsed her. Most big unions have gotten behind state senator Ed Hernandez, a wealthy southern California doctor and corporate Democrat who does favor single-payer health care. Even the California Nurses Association, a reliable past supporter of the RPA and Ralph Nader’s biggest union backer when he ran for president in 2000, fell in line behind Hernandez because of his single-payer stance. Much to the chagrin of rank-and-file nurses who favored McLaughlin, the CNA officials wouldn’t even grant the progressive independent from Richmond a candidate interview.

Returning to Stockman’s article, there is an interesting reference to the budding frictions in the DSA over the Democratic Party:

But others, especially among the influx of new members, want to keep their distance from the Democratic Party, which they see as hopelessly compromised by corporate donations.

“The new, younger people are much more willing to say ‘We’re not going to tie ourselves to the Democratic Party,’” said Frances Reade, 37, an education researcher who joined the East Bay D.S.A. chapter in California on Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Day. “At the same time, we’re nowhere near being able to launch a third party.”

Ms. Reade, who made campaign calls for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said she joined D.S.A. after experiencing a “profound disillusionment with the Democratic Party” in the wake of Mr. Trump’s victory. The organization gave her an outlet to pour her energy into: door-knocking in a “Medicare for All” campaign, and discussing political texts in free evening classes put on by members of the group. The classes, known as socialist school, included readings by Karl Marx and articles in Jacobin, a popular new socialist magazine. Ms. Reade has become a class instructor and vice chairwoman at the East Bay chapter, which has about 1,000 members.

“If, after the election, I had tried to join the Democratic Party, what would I have done?” she asked. “There’s no night school to learn more about ideas. The Democratic Party is essentially a fund-raising apparatus.”

In my view, if the DSA at least projected a path toward launching a third party, I would be much more enthusiastic about its prospects. It appears that Gayle McLaughlin’s campaign is much more about raising issues than getting elected, which is much more in line with Franklin Bynum’s campaign and that of Kaniela Ing, a state representative in Hawaii who is running for Congress. In Ing’s campaign website, there is nothing about capitalism or socialism. For all practical purposes, it could be the website of a liberal Democrat in the Sanders wing of the party that is obviously DSA’s orientation. Unfortunately, despite McLaughlin’s political background, there is not a single word on her website about the need for fundamental social change.

Last Friday night, I went to the opening night of Yale Strom’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs. Among the people he interviewed was Rick Hertzberg of the New Yorker Magazine, whose father was a life-long member of the Socialist Party. He mused about the emergence of a new Debs today. How would he fit into today’s political environment? He answered his own question. Debs would likely be a Roosevelt Democrat and have a show on MSNBC. This was the only false note in a totally winning film about the kind of socialism that Debs stood for and that is worlds away from today’s DSA as this speech indicates:

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

With either of those parties in power one thing is always certain and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.

Under the administration of both these parties the means of production are private property, production is carried forward for capitalist profit purely, markets are glutted and industry paralyzed, workingmen become tramps and criminals while injunctions, soldiers and riot guns are brought into action to preserve “law and order” in the chaotic carnival of capitalistic anarchy.

Will we be able to build such a party? I can only say that since the ruling class is bent on returning us to the days of McKinley, we will likely see a restive working class open to the kind of radical ideas that won Debs 897,000 votes in 1912, which amounted to 6 percent of the voting population prior to woman’s suffrage.

Just take a look at the public school teachers on the march in West Virginia and Arizona. These “fly over” states were bastions of support for the SP when Debs was the party’s leader. One can only hope that more and more people like Francis Reade will pour into the DSA because she is the party’s future and the future of this much aggrieved nation.



  1. I’m honestly not out to change your mind re: how to do electoral politics in the U.S. I do think it’s worthwhile to understand *why* many DSA members take the position they take re: the Dems. This is the best, or at least the most recent example, that I can find:


    BTW, every DSA member I’ve ever met understands socialism as a post-capitalist society, with common ownership and democratic planning, etc., not as social-democratic capitalism. Many started as “Berniecrats” and then became more radical.

    And I’m sure you’d have no problem supporting independent non-Dem candidates whose immediate platform consisted of “single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions,” right?

    Comment by jschulman — April 30, 2018 @ 8:44 pm

  2. And I’m sure you’d have no problem supporting independent non-Dem candidates whose immediate platform consisted of “single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions,” right?

    Of course, I not only would have voted for Henry Wallace in 1948 but Robert La Follette in 1924, who actually got Debs’s endorsement as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 30, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

  3. The American political parties (at least–not sure about parties in other “liberal democracies”) are what you might call Augustinian parties–designed to ensure that the optimates retain control of the Republic by drawing off the vile energies of the evil known to the Floundering Bothers as “party” in much the same way as marriage in the view of St. Augustine safely channels the sex urge.

    “Party” is vile, but given the immoral stupidity of the masses, our masters think it better for us to have these hollow charades than to burn.

    Membership in–belonging to–the Democratic Party is an illusion: you can sign up to be spammed for money until your pips pop, but you can’t actually join the party. It doesn’t accept dues and actually has no membership as such. If you self-identify as a Democrat because you vote for Democratic candidates, you are in reality no more a party member than a New England Patriots fan is a New England Patriot. Political candidates are another matter–without the nomination of the Republicans or Democrats, your chances of being elected to any office is vanishingly slim.

    But the average voter can no more dream of being elected to high office than she can of going to the moon. She can’t be a Democrat any more than she can fly to the moon.

    We all know where a “socialist” party candidate’s platform will wind up if it isn’t backed by real, tough, organized power–indeed, where it’s likely to end up even if it is backed by some kind of union or civil rights organization.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 30, 2018 @ 10:18 pm

  4. Clarification: Last sentence refers to “socialists” fielded by the so-called “Democratic Party.”

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 30, 2018 @ 10:19 pm

  5. Farans is correct, there is no such thing as a Democratic Party accountable to anyone, it is an abstract creation given form by elite political figures, donors and consultants. With the decline of unions, it serves the purpose of presenting an illusory sense of political choice and participation.

    Unfortunately, I think that successful DSA candidates will be part of the Democratic Party establishment within 20 years. In other words, they will change to conform to the Democrats instead of changing the Democrats to conform to them (and us). I guess I’m just too much of a pessimist.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 30, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

  6. Are conditions just not ripe enough yet for someone to do what Upton Sinclair did in 1934 in CA? He was a socialist but registered for the gubernatorial race as a Democrat so there wasn’t much the DP could (or maybe would) do about it. He was defeated but it was alleged with some good evidence that there was widespread stuffing of the ballot boxes. It took that to defeat him because his campaign spoke to so many of the mainly poor white immigrants to the state. The major opposition to his campaign came from the Holywood moguls and, of all things, the professional dentists’ association. (I have never heard of a socialist dentist)

    Comment by uh...clem — May 1, 2018 @ 1:42 am

  7. There is a flip side to what Richard and Farans point to. The apparatus of the Democratic Party is to serve “the purpose of presenting an illusory sense of political choice and participation” (as Richard puts it). Exactly. So, they have a deep-structure weakness; that of being a make-believe.

    This means, we CAN show in practical electoral politics the emptiness of their charade. The fact that historically the American left has not garnered enough political *practical* imagination to address and defeat this ‘Democrat Effect’ does not mean that it cannot be engaged and overcome.

    A clear majority of the people know the scam of the elections, at a visceral level. They go along with it because they think their vote MAY, or could, change something; just like their praying MAY change something.

    BUT … The positive side of the current situation is that a REAL political party, with a platform that is built from bottom up, would actually be a practical political alternative for the 50% of the electorate that doesn’t vote on a regular basis: and that’s in the presidential cycles; non-paripicpation easily goes up to 75% in midterm elections, special elections, local elections that determine city councils, school boards, local judges or local district attorneys and on and on. These are all areas of power that can be contested.

    Additionally, a real third party — whose platform is built from bottom up, based on bringing together social activists and the communities they work with — would be a very attractive pole to *peel away* voters from Dems’ and DSA-types’ left wing – like those who join a DSA grouping in their youth, only to be sucked into the Democratic Party apparatus down the line, and made into political robots at the service of empire.

    We have a ‘Parkland Generation’ who has already seen the deep rot in the system. Who will provide them a political vehicle and put their political imagination to good use?

    A real third party would show *in real life practice* how the Democrats are the party of reaction, filled with back stabbers and enablers of empire; that real third party can draw clearer class lines, a necessary first step in the long struggle.

    Comment by Reza — May 1, 2018 @ 4:03 am

  8. Actually somewhere between fifty and sixty percent of eligible Murricans voted in the Prexyfest in 2016–leaving a huge and potentially decisive number who abstained. This high level of non-participation is usual. IMHO it constitutes a de facto rejection of the system as being of no particular consequence and not worth engaging with. When you add to this the many who vote frivolously or just for the hell of it (IMHO many Trump voters)–and those who see no alternative and vote in a condition of stoical resignation–you have a system teetering on the edge of legitimacy.

    The false-party system is key to manufacturing the despairing consent upon which the legitimacy of the system rests.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 1, 2018 @ 11:58 am

  9. Did I note a tiny bit of optimism here! Good! Well-done. I have no optimism about the DSA itself, but I have a lot of optimism about the generation now passing through its ranks, and a lot more optimism about the new working class now being formed in the United States.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — May 1, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

  10. Not to prolong this exchange beyond its natural lifespan, but to do what Reza is recommending might mean to field a very different kind of organization, one that is a living and, yes, helpful presence in the lives of its members. This would include mutual aid. I recall that someone on this blog once said that the Bolsheviks in Petrograd had pubs in 1917–not sure I’ve got that right, but that’s the level of involvement IMHO that a really radical political party might need to have.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 3, 2018 @ 5:06 pm

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