DSA After The Bowman Controversy: Is It Time To Rethink Our Strategy?

DSA After The Bowman Controversy: Is It Time To Rethink Our Strategy?

It appears that DSA is in a rut. The signs are all around us. Nationally, we have stopped growing. There is a palpable sense of frustration as we struggle to find projects that can re-engage our members. And the controversy surrounding DSA-backed congressman Jamaal Bowman has given rise to significant turmoil. What should we do?

I think that first, it’s important to keep in mind that ups and downs have always been part of life on the left. I still remember the elation I felt going to mass demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq, and then the disappointment that followed as the anti-war movement gradually withered away. Similarly, in 2011, thousands of people came together to illegally occupy different spaces in the US as part of a nationwide movement against income inequality, but within a few months the movement collapsed amid a series of police raids and frustrating meetings about what to do next. So it should not come as a surprise that, in DSA, we have experienced cycles of growth and stagnation. 

But here’s the good news: since the nadir of the 1990s, after each period of decline, the US left rebuilt itself into something better than before, because people learned from their past successes and failures. So, since we appear to be in a new period of stagnation, it is critical for us to reflect on our work, and have an open discussion about how to build a bigger, better and stronger DSA. In that spirit, in what follows I want to look at some of the political questions raised by the recent controversy that has enveloped DSA, and propose some ideas for a way forward. 

My focus here is going to be on electoral politics, which has been a key part of how we’ve grown so far. But my aim is to tie this into the bigger questions, like: How do we want to build power? What should we do with that power? And who gets to decide? These questions touch on every facet of our work, and now more than ever, I think it’s crucial to have open discussions in DSA about how to answer them. 

The recent Bowman controversy

The so-called Bowman Affair goes back to September, when DSA-backed congressman Jamaal Bowman voted for a standalone bill that provided $1 billion in funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile system. This vote was a clear violation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign endorsed at DSA’s 2017 national convention. More fundamentally, in giving military support to a brutal apartheid state, Bowman violated the basic principle of working-class internationalism. As a result, at least 28 DSA chapters passed resolutions calling for Bowman to be censured or expelled, while other DSA members circulated a statement defending Bowman. 

Ultimately, DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) declined to discipline Bowman, but the controversy did not end there. After the NPC announced its decision, DSA’s BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group began a campaign of public criticism against both Bowman and the NPC. And on March 9, Bowman publicly announced he supported more money for Iron Dome. Things reached a boiling point when the NPC moved to de-charter the BDS working group, but then reversed the decision as outraged members circulated petitions and chapters passed resolutions in protest.  

This controversy raised a lot of different issues, and DSA members can learn more by reading our online discussion forums. But to my mind, one of the most important questions we need to confront is: what is the relationship between DSA’s democratically decided positions and the actions of the politicians we help to elect? There is clearly a tension between DSA’s support for BDS, on the one hand, and on the other hand its endorsement of a politician who votes to give missiles to Israel. In fact, far from being an isolated incident, I think this controversy reflects a key weakness in DSA’s electoral strategy. It is part of a pattern. 

Bigger than Bowman 

To understand how Bowman’s Iron Dome vote is reflective of a larger problem, it’s useful here to consider the ideas behind DSA’s current electoral strategy. These ideas are laid out particularly well in the Toward a Mass Party in the United States resolution, which we passed at our 2021 national convention. 

The resolution includes a few key points that I want to highlight here. First, DSA-backed candidates will largely run as Democrats. Second, we see electoral politics as a key way to win reforms that advance the interests of the working class. And third, DSA’s elected officials will win these reforms in a specific way: using “a strategy of class-struggle elections that polarize the working-class majority against the ruling-class elite,” DSA-backed politicians will “act as organizers in office and use their offices to grow our movement, contest for state power, and develop working class self-organization and activity”. 

What should all this look like in practice? I think one of the best answers to this question was provided by Neal Meyer in a Jacobin article published two months ago, which argued that AOC and other members of the Squad could help pass President Biden’s “Build Back Better” (BBB) plan using class-struggle tactics: 

With their resources and support, Bernie and the Squad could begin a relentless campaign of speeches, ads, petitions, rallies, marches, and demonstrations calling on Democrats to put the agenda they claim to support to a vote and to apply pressure against right-wing Democrats. They could rally unions and community organizations, or mobilize the tens of thousands of Democratic Socialists of America members ready to jump into a new national campaign, or link up with the 1.3 million workers whose union contracts expire this year and who might go on strike.  

Why not organize a march on Washington? Or organize mass occupations of the offices of recalcitrant Democrats? Or launch a vigorous bird-dogging campaign against Manchin and Sinema, on a scale we haven’t seen yet? Both Sinema and Manchin will be up for reelection in 2024. Start recruiting now, in a big and public manner, for primary challenges. Set up pickets outside the offices of Manchin and Sinema’s major donors. After all, they’re the ones who seem to call the shots. 

This is a clear vision that includes all the ideas I highlighted above as being key to DSA’s democratically decided electoral strategy: politicians run as Democrats, but act as “organizers in office”, and win key reforms in the process. 

Unfortunately, few (if any) of Meyer’s suggestions were taken up; we’ll never know if his proposed class-struggle tactics could have passed BBB, because members of The Squad largely did not try them. As with Bowman’s Iron Dome vote, this highlights a basic limitation of DSA’s approach: we can have debates, formulate ideas, and democratically decide our positions, but this will not necessarily have much effect on the things that DSA-backed politicians ultimately decide to do. We’ve seen these issues come up at the local level as well, such as when three members of Chicago’s Socialist Caucus voted for a city budget that increased the police budget by 11%, despite our chapter’s commitment to defunding CPD. In short, I think we have to see Bowman’s Iron Dome vote as part of a pattern, in which DSA-backed elected officials consistently take positions that are significantly to the right of the perspectives democratically decided by DSA itself. 

The source of the problem

To understand what’s happening, I think it’s important to keep in mind that elected socialists are operating within a space that is largely controlled by the capitalist class, and this puts powerful constraints on what they can do. One recent study, for example, found that campaign donations alone can explain over 90% of Congressional voting patterns, and other studies have similarly highlighted the enormous power rich people have in shaping politics. Of course the capitalist-owned media also plays a huge role by attacking any politician who challenges the status quo. This means elected socialists face a difficult choice between either isolating themselves from their colleagues in office, or compromising with the capitalist-controlled political establishment. 

Within the Democratic Party, additional mechanisms exist to pressure politicians as well. Congressional committee seats are determined by who can get the most campaign donations, and the House Progressive Caucus (which includes everyone in the Squad) has its own internal rules constricting how members vote. And discipline within the Democratic Party, as measured by the percentage of floor votes that fall along party lines, is actually very rigid and has increased over time. So, any elected socialist is going to face important pressures in office, and it will be difficult for them to resist those pressures on their own, no matter how much personal integrity or fortitude they have. When we see AOC failing to take on the Democratic establishment, and even going so far as to dismiss Biden’s critics as “privileged”, we need to keep these pressures in mind. 

Some historical perspective

What should we do about this? Fortunately, we are not the first people to ever face these issues, and we can learn from the experiences of socialists who came before us. In my opinion, one particularly useful resource is August H. Nimtz’s book The Ballot, the Streets—or Both, which gives a detailed history of Marxist approaches to electoral politics. Interestingly, in the first chapter, Nimtz describes how early socialists actually relied on an electoral strategy similar to DSA’s current one; they supported politicians from established capitalist/liberal parties, and sought to form broad coalitions. But after seeing how the candidates they elected betrayed them in office, Marxists pushed for a radically different direction. They insisted on building independent workers’ parties in which everyone—including elected officials—should have to abide by the democratic decisions made by the party membership. This principle is called democratic centralism. In his book, Nimtz describes the development and successes of the Marxist approach.

Could we apply these ideas in DSA? At our 2021 convention, two resolutions—Tribunes of the People and Democratic Discipline, and A Socialist Slate for the House—proposed some tentative steps in this direction, and would have had DSA adopt certain elements of democratic centralism. Those resolutions did not pass, and, if I remember correctly, I did not vote for either of them myself. But I think the events of the past several months should prompt us to revisit those ideas and take them more seriously now. More generally, we need to look carefully at the experiences of different worker parties in the past, and think about any lessons we can draw.

Building a militant workers’ party in the US

So far, I have not been very concrete. Yes, worker parties in other places, or in different times, organized themselves according to Marxist principles like democratic centralism. But is there a viable path to doing that in the US today? And what would that look like in practice? 

Fortunately, there is an example of a party like this which already exists in the US. That party is Socialist Alternative (SA). Kshama Sawant, a member of the party, has been on Seattle’s city council since 2014, despite the fact that some of the world’s largest corporations have spent millions of dollars trying to unseat her. To get a sense of the contrast between DSA and SA, consider this: a few months before Bowman’s vote to give $1 billion in military aid to Israel, Sawant joined a protest to physically block the unloading of Israeli cargo in Seattle. And this is just one small example of how Sawant has used her position in office to promote a fighting approach. So I believe DSA members should look carefully at SA’s strategy and think about what they can learn from it. 

One particularly useful case study in SA’s strategy is the Amazon tax that passed in Seattle. Although the local Democratic Party initially did everything they could to stop the tax, Sawant and SA mobilized the working class in the city to support it. At explosive rallies and action conferences, SA explained the way that Democratic officials betrayed working people, and quickly collected over 20,000 signatures for a ballot initiative to pass the tax. Faced with the embarrassing prospect of being overruled in a popular vote, the rest of the city council eventually caved and passed a $200 million per year tax on Seattle’s largest corporations. 

From my perspective, the key thing here is that Sawant did not have to pull any punches or water down her politics, because rather than building power on the basis of relationships with the political establishment, she relied on a fighting movement of workers and oppressed people. And because Sawant is completely accountable to a socialist organization, this imposes a powerful check on the conservatizing forces that politicians face in office. Socialist Alternative identified their democratic centralist structure as being a key part of this, and even offered some suggestions for how DSA could help to scale up their approach:

In the framework of democratic centralism, Socialist Alternative candidates and elected officials are accountable to the politics, program, and structures of Socialist Alternative and take only the average worker’s wage within their constituency… As AOC herself has raised, all elected officials who seek to represent working people will come under ferocious pressure from the capitalist class. Therefore it is imperative that left-wing elected officials be democratically accountable to the workers movement. This is one of the reasons we advocate forming a new broad party representing workers interests, a process which DSA could help catalyze. To withstand the pressures of the capitalist political system, a strong counterweight is necessary – no matter how principled an individual socialist may be.

I find all this especially intriguing because it raises the possibility of eventually electing DSA members to congress who, like Sawant, adopt the type of class-struggle tactics advocated by Neal Meyer in the Jacobin article I discussed earlier. I think this will be crucial if we are going to win big demands like a Green New Deal. 

To be clear, I don’t think it would be practical for DSA to try to replicate every feature of SA. Given DSA’s “big tent” nature, we cannot expect unity on all issues. But I am increasingly convinced that at least a mild form of democratic centralism, similar to the type of party discipline that is common outside the US–in which elected representatives must uphold key party decisions–is something we could start working to implement in DSA right now.

Of course, not all politicians will be willing to accept this, and so this new approach would likely mean making fewer endorsements at first. But we should consider the advantages of emphasizing quality over quantity in our electoral campaigns. If we want to elect politicians who can help lead the charge for a better world, then it’s critical that they be willing to follow through on the democratic decisions of class-conscious working people. Workers in the US are sick of politicians who break their promises and talk out both sides of their mouth; it’s critical for us to draw on the lessons from history to build an alternative that puts ordinary people, and not the political establishment, in the driver’s seat. 

Politics is too important to leave up to the politicians

There is no doubt that DSA-backed politicians can wield real power in office. The question is: what should they do with that power, and who gets to decide? In the past, we’ve often left these questions up to the politicians themselves. But over the past year—in Bowman’s Iron Dome vote, the Build Back Better debacle, and the budget vote in Chicago—we have seen the limitations of this approach. Democratic centralism, together with other Marxist ideas about party building, provide an alternative model that we should experiment with in DSA. 

The issue at stake here is not political purity. Rather, the point is that, if we want to adopt the type of fighting approach that is necessary for winning our demands, then we can’t leave key decisions to the whims of individual politicians. Instead, we need to elect people who agree to carry out the democratic will of DSA’s members. Above all, this means electing politicians who depend on organized workers and oppressed people—not relationships with the political establishment—as the basis of their power.