Growth of Democratic Socialists of America reflects growing rejection of capitalism
DSA delegates vote on a resolution. Photo by @People4Bernie on Twitter

CHICAGO – It was shoulder to shoulder on the third floor of Student Center East Thursday on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago. Hundreds of members of Democratic Socialists of America filed into a meeting room where a generous assortment of antipasti was laid out.

About 1,000 DSA members were here this weekend for the 2017 DSA convention. Almost 800 of them are voting delegates or alternates who were elected by some 25,000 DSA members across the country. Thousands joined DSA this year confirming that “socialism” is not the dirty word it once was in America. With a boost from the Bernie Sanders campaign, a campaign by a self-described “democratic socialist,” young people in droves have been declaring for socialism as the solution to the nation’s ills.

A male voice, shouted from within the maelstrom of hungry socialists, asks attendees to form an orderly line.

“As always, socialism will provide,” said the voice, evoking laughter, “however, because this is socialism, the room is very small.”

The joke lands and the attendees form up. DSA’s last convention was held in Bolivar, Pa., and was attended by less than half the number gathered this weekend.

The crowd was mostly young, 20 to 30-somethings, peppered with retirees. Chicago DSA president Bill Barkley, 73, confirmed that the gap of fewer folks in the middle age group is an issue the organization must face. Barkley himself went through a 35-year period of “inactivity.”

“We had a kid, we bought a house, we got jobs and so we drifted away,” he said. “How do we build an organization in which people can be active through all those changes in their lives?

We can’t be an organization of under-35 and over-65, we need to build an organization that reflects the whole population.”

Just last year, “Chicago DSA” only existed in the suburb of Oak Park. Since then, Chicago DSA formed a North Side chapter and a South Side chapter, in addition to a chapter in the western suburbs. The North Side meetings have gotten so large that the chapter has considered splitting itself into Northwest and Northeast chapters. All in all, there are nine chapters of DSA active in Illinois.

Vaughn Goodwin, 44, of Boston DSA is one of the few attendees who land outside of the bimodal age distribution. He is an organizer in the healthcare sector and has been involved in the DSA since the 1980s.

Originally from Philadelphia, his grandfather was an organizer for A. Philip Randolph and his grandmother was a popular educator.

“We always talked about working class values and the dialectic. At the time, I didn’t know what he was referring to, but once I read the Communist Manifesto it was an epiphany. It brought everything I believed to bear: the history of the world is a history of class struggle.

“Our goal as working class people is to eradicate economic inequality. DSA has a practical way of putting that into praxis,” or putting theory into practice.

“A lot of members here are members of the democratic left with a small-d and a capital-D,” says Goodwin.

The idea of working within the Democratic Party and moving it left is a goal that the DSA has been working toward since it’s founding, and it’s one of the many policies open to debate this weekend by hundreds of new members.

“The growth within DSA is a sign of where the future is headed,” said Goodwin. “I felt the need to be here now because of young people. If people want to be a true revolutionary, you have to be with the young.”

Most of the members of the Boston DSA are new to the organization, and Goodwin described them as “youthful, thoughtful and energetic.” Over the last few weeks, Boston DSA has rallied to support striking nurses, marched in the pride parade, and formed working groups to focus on issues ranging from coalition building to “eco-socialism.”

Chris Hicks, 29, of the Metro D.C. chapter of DSA recently rejoined the DSA after a few years of inactivity. Metro D.C. has over 700 members, and has recently expanded to have two additional branches in Northern Virginia and Maryland. The chapter had “roughly 50 people prior to November 2016.”

“There has been tremendous excitement over the influx of new members,” Hicks told People’s World, “but also natural growing pains as we’ve had to grow the organizational structure to meet the growing membership.”

Metro D.C. DSA is currently running an anti-eviction campaign.

“We have built a program where our members talk to tenants currently being sued for eviction, with the aim of organizing them to challenge their evictions and enforce their rights,” said Hicks.

The campaign is a focused one, tracking people’s cases and making a difference, participants say.

“There is a noticeable difference in the eviction rates of who we’re able to talk to and who we aren’t,” said Hicks. “There are a lot of possibilities of expanding this work in the future, but we’re still very much in the phase of building up a base of tenants that we’ve engaged.”

Describing itself as the largest socialist organization in the United States since World War II, the DSA has taken on self-described socialists of varying ideological stripes. In Hicks, this inspires both hope and anxiety.

“The Left has been fractured for most of my life,” he said, “and [the convention] provides a real opportunity for people with largely similar values to come together and try to build a big tent agenda.

“There are a lot of avenues to disrupt capitalism and the oppression it forces upon those living under it, and we are having vivid conversations about what that looks like in practice and how these ideas can co-exist with one another.”

During a panel called “Socialism Across Generations,” a dozen panelists talked about what brought them to socialism and the DSA. All of them come to DSA by way of struggle and study, and a plurality reported having experience in different socialist organizations and parties.

Maxine Phillips, 70, was involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests that effectively ended the war in Vietnam.

Jack, 23 and from St. Louis, found DSA while studying for a Master’s in labor studies.

Joanna Misnik, 73, comes from a family of steelworkers and learned about socialism from schoolmates of hers whose parents were in the Communist Party USA.

Leslie Driscoll, 32, of Oklahoma City discovered the inequities of capitalism after discovering that not all clinics were free like the ones she visited on her tribe’s reservation.

Harold Myerson, 67, described himself as a “third generation Menshevik,” which drew a single “boo” from the back of the room, followed by a burst of genial laughter.

At DSA’s convention, it appeared that a lot of people under the “big tent” would like to heal some of the left’s old rifts and they are hoping the influx of new members can help achieve that goal. In the era of Trump, that sort of unity couldn’t come a second too soon.


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.