As Chicago DSA starts thinking through how we move Towards a Socialist Chicago, I wanted to take a minute to analyze the abolitionist era that we’re in and how it differs from the Sanders era. Understanding who was mobilized by each era, and why, can help us figure out how to move forward.
My sense is that the difference between the two eras has created two distinct waves of recruits to DSA, and that the uprising has mobilized a large section of the masses. This means that we need to rethink how we both open our organization up to the masses, as well as how we connect DSA with them in the spaces where they are organically organizing.
The Low-Hanging Fruit
A few years ago, I wondered out loud about the whiteness of DSA. Bernie Sanders had inadvertently tapped into both the collective frustration over the never-ending Great Recession of 2008, and the collective lessons from Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Sanders captured the imagination of socialists everywhere.
Politically, the electoral inspiration attracted people that:
- viewed the capitalist state as a positive
- wanted to fight for economic reforms through the state
- were eager to get themselves, or people they trusted, elected into the state
- wanted to build an organization that could capture and sustain this movement
- were eager to take action
This had the positive effect of rebuilding the socialist movement by providing a rallying point for all people who either already identified as socialists or were leaning in that direction. It also re-legitimized electoral politics after it was deliberately ignored by the radical Left for decades.
But this over-emphasis on electoralism has had unintended side effects.
It meant that the broader trend of recruits from the first wave of socialists were also:
- mainly white, many from well-to-do families
- focused on electoral struggle and its measurability
- managerial in their approach to election campaigns, habits of which they applied to all forms of organizing
- averse to protest politics
- averse to anti-racism as divisive, preferring “universalist” politics
- averse to revolution
While Sanders and electoralism rallied the socialists, the pandemic and the uprising mobilized the masses. The pandemic is a capitalist crisis that shook society to its core, leaving the ruling class unsure of how to lead. Desperation led people to begin mobilizing themselves in both right- and left-wing directions. The armed protests to re-open the economy on one hand, and the spontaneous establishment of mutual aid networks on the other.
This was the masses trying to solve a crisis when it was clear that the rulers either could not or would not. But even this was only the start.
The uprising mobilized millions of everyday people all across the US to engage in non-stop, anti-cop protests. Protests where they risked police violence and COVID infection. Millions were willing to face these dangers out of a determination to engage in anti-racist struggle.
Many of the people mobilized by the uprising went on to join DSA and brought its energy and politics with them. This second wave of recruits is:
- mainly BIPOC, many from working-class families
- committed to front-loading anti-racist politics
- interested in socialist politics, but not necessarily identifying as socialists
- revolutionary, interested in abolishing the state
- averse to respectability politics
- interested in various tactics, like mutual aid
- interested in various approaches to organizing
This is the world we’re navigating in 2021. A world where the masses have been mobilized externally, and the most radical elements from the uprising have joined DSA.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We’re dealing with an exciting moment. Socialists in DSA have always talked about connecting with working-class people, recruiting from the BIPOC community, and building mass struggle. Before, we were operating in a context where only self-identified socialists were interested in DSA. Now, we’ve become a beacon for all sorts of radicalizing workers, especially abolitionists, inspired by the uprising.
What lessons should we take away from the uprising?
Abolitionist demands with the Bernie demands.
The US is the only industrialized power without some form of Medicare for All. The US is also the jailer for 1 in 5 of all prisoners on Earth. These issues are connected. It is because our wealth goes to the carceral state that we lack a welfare state. In other words, we actually can’t have things like Medicare for All unless we defund the police, prisons, military, etc.
Even if we could have a robust welfare state without abolishing the carceral state, our mission would be incomplete.
The first wave of DSA recruits avoided discussing racism because it was viewed as divisive, especially in contrast to unity around economic demands that would benefit everyone. But unity based on unprincipled silence is fragile. It doesn’t raise working-class consciousness to identify and defend its most vulnerable sections.
The uprising, the largest movement in US history, was rooted in anti-racism. This shows that principled unity based on explicit anti-racism is actually the main way to mobilize the masses of everyday people beyond the socialist community.
Build outside of ourselves
The masses were mobilized by the pandemic and the uprising but only the most radical elements joined DSA. The rest of them, especially the BIPOC folks, are out there organizing with others, often locally. We need to strategize how we connect with folks that haven’t joined us but are newly engaged in their unions, neighborhood mutual aid, ward organizations, community defense networks, etc.
Part of this will involve mapping which of our members overlap with these organizations to reciprocally learn from, and influence, them. Our members should be helping build these organizations because these will be the places where newly mobilized people gravitate toward. These organizations can serve as reciprocal conveyor belts of recruitment: they recruit our members and we recruit theirs.
I have witnessed this sort of symbiotic relationship between 33rd Ward Working Families and Chicago DSA, via the Rossana Rodriguez aldermanic campaign.
Lower the barrier to entry
The multi-tendency, big tent is exactly what we need in a period of mass mobilization.
We should encourage all folks mobilized by the uprising to join us and share their perspectives, personal and organizing experience, while giving them space to learn from the older members and teach the older members. We should create spaces for political education and action that reflect the range of tendencies in order to arrive at conclusions that inspire and engage the most members and outsiders.
We should embrace the theory and practice of abolitionism, which seems to be the organic term for socialism that emerged from the BIPOC community and was mainstreamed by the uprising. Abolitionism is a contested term that embraces a wide range of politics: left-liberalism, socialism, and anarchism.
We should encourage recruits from the uprising to put on educational events, and implement their own initiatives. This will build up their own theory, leadership, and teach us their working-class lessons.
Implementing the ideas above will radically change DSA. For many of the people that guided it between 2016–2020, this will be scary. It means letting go of the wheel and trusting that new recruits won’t crash the car. The pandemic is not over which means that the masses are still in motion. This period offers us a chance to grow qualitatively and quantitatively, but only if we’re able to adapt to it and break with the perspectives and routines that emerged from the stable economy and electoral focus of 2016.
We can’t go back to 2016, but we can prepare for future crises and uprisings. If we navigate this correctly, we can help shape the next uprising into a revolution.