Four days with America’s socialist party

The Democratic Socialists of America are getting ambitious, and it’s about time.

Four days with America’s socialist party

The Democratic Socialists of America are getting ambitious, and it’s about time.

On Sunday, the 2017 convention of the Democratic Socialists of America came to a close in Chicago with the singing of the Internationale. The group of some thousand delegates and journalists and alternates and observers were not the same people who had arrived four nights earlier, hoping to meet and drink and “do socialism,” whatever that meant to them then.

I can confess that I came to the convention expecting to be disappointed. I’m not cynical, but I’m a pessimist, by impulse and by training. I expected at best to see a juvenile party, at worst a madhouse descending into bitter mutual recrimination. What I found instead was not perfect, but it was something that has broken, for the moment, my pessimism’s long winning streak. For a moment, the desire for a better world that has lately taken up residence in the ambitions of more and more of us, the impulse to act in service of that better world that has so far largely been a vague and often angry shout into the ether of an indifferent polity, the urgency with which these desires and impulses have been felt despite their existence in largely incorporeal formats, all of these things congealed, at least briefly, in a real room in a real city, where people could see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices and feel, perhaps for the first time, that their hopes were a solid, breathing thing in the world. If nothing else had come of this convention, that alone might be enough to keep us going for a while.

But more did come of the convention. The DSA has made its first substantial grasps toward a vision of itself that can win. Its politics, from the endorsement of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, to its electoral and labor and emancipation priorities, are far more radical than those the organization adopted just two years ago. The newly elected National Political Council is, in large part, the most ambitious that the DSA has ever seen. Despite several contentious votes, the convention saw its dues, its organizational structure, and its internal policy procedures begin to pivot toward the degree of seriousness required to build a movement that lasts longer than an election cycle or a fad. Even where the proceedings became tedious, or a vote came out contrary to what I thought would have been wiser, or the procedural machinations descended into the inevitably parody of any unruly body operating under Robert’s Rules of Order, the very fact of a real and at times contested display of political organizing will help transition what has for many been a largely online tendency into a real task worth dedicating a life to.

I can confess that I came to the convention expecting to be disappointed.

No matter what comes of the DSA, many of its members will join with the many unionists and activists and organizers who have already spent their lives working in thousand different groups and causes for the dignity and sustenance of all people. The convention was messy, as messy and fun as it should have been, but I am not kidding when I say that events began with the reading of a budget report. And there’s value in a little tedium. It’s cold water for how much thankless drudgery this fight is going to take.

Still, my pessimism creeps around the edges. There is the superficial worry, of course. Even a day out, how terribly silly it feels to have been rapturous about scarcely a thousand people attempting to conduct politics in a drafty room, how troubling it is that the desire not to feel silly and earnest still dominates so much of the culture that the DSA is growing in — in two years, will they come back, or was it just about the novelty of meeting some faces you follow on Twitter?

But I have deeper worries, too. I can imagine that the rapture is justified, that the commitment of the delegates in Chicago and their chapters back home is deep and total, that in the coming years the DSA will only grow, gaining millions of members and a real weight in American politics. But then — so what? How rapturous did Eugene Debs feel in 1912 when he got one million votes for president from prison? Did his supporters believe that 1916 would bring them victory? That year, Debs ran for a lowly Congressional seat in his native Indiana and he lost.

In the late 19th century, W.E.B Dubois believed that some kind of socialism was inevitable if the United States was to persist. But the socialism never came, and the empire only grew without it. The history of this country and the history of the world is littered with crises and possibilities for the left far more profound than what occurred this weekend in Chicago, moments filled, no doubt, by those who believed that the moment of transcendence had finally begun. But it had not yet begun, and it is difficult to convince myself that this time is any different. The only choice is to believe that it might be possible this time. But maintaining that belief will be harder than it feels at the height of a delirious convention, harder still through the years and decades of difficulty and work that are ahead, even in the best scenarios. How many people in how many times have felt all of the ecstatic certainty that the human heart can muster and still died begging wages from the same old masters?

The only choice is to believe that change might be possible this time.

Somewhere, buried down in the naïve remains of the early thought of every socialist is the belief that the struggle ought to be easy. How could the vast majority of people refuse the call to this cause, to the material and social dignity of all living people? The question isn’t even moral, not really. How could the vast majority of people refuse the possibility of a better life, of consistent access to food and medicine and housing? There are answers to these questions — capitalist ideology and cultural hegemony are a hell of a drug — but it is difficult to abandon the belief that people, at bottom, would rather feed each other than kill each other, despite all evidence to the contrary. I wonder if this faith is what makes it so difficult to see how difficult the task is.

Real victory for socialism, particularly here in the heart of the greatest empire in the history of the world, is not just the already immense task of growing a small party to a position where it can win political power. Real victory will require the abolition of an economic and social order than has ruled this planet for some 400 years, and to do so at the precise moment when that ruling order has at its disposal the most powerful messaging and military technology in the history of the world. Real victory will require overthrowing that order from a left that is weaker, even today, than it was fifty years ago, or one hundred years ago, that has weathered the Cold War and the post-Cold War consensus, that has seen labor destroyed and the carceral state develop and that has hanging over it the damoclesian sword of imminent ecological catastrophe. Real victory will require a revolution that will succeed even when capital abandons the pretense of civil democracy and begins to fight out in the open for its power. What we are proposing is the most difficult task in the history of the world. Nothing will ever be harder.

The DSA is only taking the first steps of the first part of that road. They do not need to worry about those final stages yet, but even in these early days, it’s all so terribly precarious. We will make mistakes in our messaging and our organizing and our elections and our structure, and any one of those mistakes might doom us. But we can also do everything right and lose. You can perfect your outreach strategy and lose. You can set up the greatest communications operation in the history of the world and lose. You can win elections and lose. You can do all of this without sacrificing your values, do it democratically and transparently and get further than any previous effort has gotten ever before in the history of this sad planet, and after all that you can still lose. What I saw this weekend in Chicago looks like the beginning of how socialism finally wins. But there was such a moment in the history of every cause that wound up losing, too.

But what emerged from the contention and the joy and shouting and sleeplessness and endless procedural motions was an urgency I have never felt before. It was in everyone there, I think. There was a commitment to a cause that was deepened no matter how strongly it was felt before. There was a spirit, as we say on the left, of comradery. In every room I stood in and in every face I saw there was, I believe, a genuine desire to do whatever it might take to win the future. But among all but the most deluded, there was also the subterranean suspicion, acute and ineradicable, that we do not know quite yet what that will take. Nobody does. Nobody has ever done it before.

The great struggle of all political ambitions is the discovery, over time, of the gaps between what we want and what you are willing to be; between what you are able to be and what you are. Whole movements find their course along the fissures that open up within these diverging futures. They create history by living and dying in the cracks between them.

The DSA can choose to look into the chasm that may form between the organization that does what it wants to do and the organization that does whatever it winds up doing, it can try and it can, perhaps, even succeed in keeping that chasm shut. But in any case its legacy will be determined by where, and if, it falls inside. I do not know how to navigate the landscape between this boiling, violent planet and a better world. But despite my impulse toward despair, I’ll say that what I say this past week in Chicago allows me to believe it’s possible, and if this time isn’t the time that we win, then there may not be another chance to try.


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Emmett Rensin is a contributing editor at the L.A. Review of Books.