2020 elections and organizational questions dominate Democratic Socialists of America convention

ATLANTA—Over 1,000 members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the fastest growing and largest socialist organization in the United States, convened their 2019 National Convention here over the weekend. Their goal: To forge a path forward for 2020 and beyond.

DSA has seen dramatic growth since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, growing from a few thousand members then to over 56,000 now.

“DSA is an entirely new organization today,” Eric Robertson, 45, a Teamster from Atlanta, told People’s World during a break in the deliberations. “It now consists of people who have come to the idea of socialism in a new way, in a new set of circumstances. They are completely new to politics. It’s good and bad,” he concluded, as growth oftentimes presents its own set of challenges.

“Unity is hard to build,” he added. “It’s messy. There will be bumps in the road. It can be frustrating, but it’s something we have to deal with.”

DSA aspires to be a mass organization. Coupled with this aspiration, however, are competing “tendencies” within the organization, or “factions,” that campaign for this or that policy platform. The divisions between them were evident during the proceedings.

The convention largely dealt with internal resolutions and constitutional amendments. Debate and discussion were lively and, at times, heated as different chapters and locals, equipped with Robert’s Rules of Order, brought forward point after point in an attempt to sway delegate votes. Different tendencies lobbied and passed out position papers.

Preferred pronouns were used; debates were non-gendered. At times, emotions ran high.

It was all very exciting and tedious.

Delegates and guests were mostly young. For many, this was their first DSA convention—or large deliberative gathering of any kind.

One resolution, which passed, stated that if Sen. Bernie Sanders does not get the Democratic nomination in 2020, DSA would not endorse any other candidate.

A few key undercurrents ran throughout the convention: Is DSA a loose network of local chapter affiliates or a more centralized national organization? Will dues and other funds filter up to the national organization or down to the chapters? Is DSA a horizontal or vertical organization? What is the right balance between the two perspectives?

According to Robertson: “The debate has centered on what kind of organization we want to have structurally. There are loud tendencies advocating for a horizontal organization, which would dramatically weaken the national. We need a national organization that is strong, that can function and drive a political program.”

Despite what was sometimes a cantankerous debate, Meg Reilly, a union organizer from Maine, was optimistic. She told People’s World she joined DSA because “a better world is possible, and we know it.”

To Reilly, 26, socialism doesn’t carry the same “negative connotations” as it did for older generations. “I have a different lived experience,” she continued. “I didn’t grow up during the Cold War.”

In her view, we’ve already entered “late-stage capitalism.” She said that “human beings have a breaking point, and this is it.” The looming climate catastrophe is also a motivating factor for Reilly. “The climate clock is ticking, faster and faster.”

She noted the huge mix of members, some focused on ideology, others focused on pragmatic grassroots organizing, and said, “I can quote [Marx’s] Capital, like others. It’s an asset. But I’m also focused on organizing a union.”

“For many people, Trump’s election was a lightbulb moment,” Chi Anunwa told the World, though her focus was largely on the failures within the Democratic Party.

Anunwa, the African-American co-chair of DSA’s New York chapter, which has about 5,000 members, said, “The Democratic Party isn’t pushing forward a positive message. It’s leaving millions of un-activated potential voters on the table,” which has resulted in millions who are “alienated by a political system beholden to rich donors and corporate lobbyists.”

She said, “Socialism has a lot to offer Black people and Black women in particular. Neoliberalism has failed us. We can’t achieve racial justice,” she continued, “without dismantling capitalism.”

DSA has been criticized for being a predominantly white-male organization, a critique Anunwa acknowledged. “Unfortunately, it is majority white,” she said, “but people are trying to cultivate more women and people of color in the leadership of the organization. We’re trying to figure out how to make DSA truly multiracial and build trust. It’s very much a long-term project, but it has to happen for socialism to succeed.”

Like Reilly, Anunwa noted that “the younger generation, 25 and younger, were much more willing to have an open mind about socialism. They didn’t grow up during the Cold War. Some may not even know what it is, the stigma associated with it.”

“There is no longer a socialist superpower,” she added. “The dominant force is capitalism, and capitalism has not been good to us.”

Barry Eidlin, a delegate from Los Angeles, agreed, and added, “We’re past the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. A lot of people here weren’t even born then. This is our alternative.”

Delegates vote on a resolution at the Democratic Socialists of America convention in Atlanta. | NYC-DSA

Interestingly, discussion of the dangers posed by a possible second Trump presidency was largely absent from the overall convention deliberations, though People’s World did discuss this with individual participants.

“My electoral focus is on un-electing 45 and supporting candidates at all levels of government,” Gabriel Acevero, a member of the Maryland legislature, told People’s World.

To him, the “obvious function of capitalism is to keep people poor, busy, and fighting to make ends meet,” which means “we don’t have time to disrupt and organize” against the ravages associated with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.

According to Robertson, “The majority of DSA members are committed to defeating Trump. They want to go through the primary process, fight, and hopefully, Bernie [Sanders] wins. If not,” he concluded, “we’re still going to help build the resistance to Trump.”

DSA is undoubtedly going through growing pains, and as such, it is still trying to figure out its direction, to forge a unique path forward. “DSA is such a young organization,” Robertson concluded.

As Maria Svart, DSA’s national director, noted in her closing remarks, “Democracy is amazing and beautiful to watch. And it’s exciting to think about all of the organizing we’re going to do,” a sentiment that captures the overall feel of the convention and its youthful participants.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.