Public Comment

The Socialist Alternative

Harry Brill
Friday March 02, 2018 - 11:11:00 AM

Many socialists were enthusiastic during the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign for claiming he is a socialist. Among the outcomes is that his associating his progressive political programs with a socialist perspective played an important role in boosting the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In fact, this 75 year old presidential candidate can take considerable credit for inspiring particularly young people to join the organization. Since 2015 the average age of members declined from a median average of about 68 to 33 years. Also, DSA, now the largest socialist organization in the nation, has increased phenomenally from about 6700 members in 2016 to over 32,000 dues paying members. The East Bay chapter, which is among the largest, has a paid up membership of over 900. 

Although Bernie certainly supports progressive programs, he is really a social democrat rather than a socialist. In other words, he favors state regulation rather than state ownership. Building a socialist society is mainly about replacing capitalism. Keep in mind that to define socialism too broadly would make this concept virtually meaningless. 

Bernie's hero is FDR. He is particularly impressed with Roosevelt's proposed economic bill of rights. FDR's rights included guaranteed health care, the right to a good education, adequate earnings on the job, and the regulation of big business. These are very important economic goals. But like FDR, Bernie is not advocating socialism. 

The character of DSA is quite different and more complex than the FDR new deal perspective. DSA has chapters throughout the country, including about 20 in California. The concept of socialism for the majority of DSA's members is replacing capitalism with a democratic, worker controlled economic system. As the DSA handbook for new members claims, the exploitation and abuse working people and the public at large experience are not just the occasional side effects of capitalism. They are endemic to the system. 

However, there are members who prefer to regulate rather than replace capitalism. And there are others who are relatively new to politics, and are trying to think through just what the ideology of socialism signifies. 

One might assume that these differences would result in considerable and ongoing tension. But for a very important reason, this is unlikely to happen. DSA is a multi-tendency organization, which offers political room to all who want to join because they are dissatisfied with the nation's political and economic inequities and the oppressive role of big business. Issues are discussed and debated. But attempts to achieve any objective undemocratically or to exclude any caucus within a chapter that is unpopular is not acceptable. 

The one issue that is potentially divisive is the relations of DSA to the Democratic Party. This issue is not, of course, unusual in the progressive community. Michael Harrington, who was among the founders of DSA, insisted that "the Democratic Party must be our main political arena". He claimed that this route offers the "left wing of the possible". The Eugene Debs Caucus of the East Bay DSA, on the other hand, complains that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social justice movements. However, a perusal of the many chapters of DSA indicates that most members are willing to work both within and outside the Democratic Party, whatever best serves DSA's political objectives. 

DSA is an organization rather than being registered as political party. so it cannot be listed on the ballot. However, the DSA played an important role last year in electing about 35 DSA members. One outstanding victory elected Democrat Lee Carter who defeated a Republican in Virginia's lower house. Also, at least 17 DSA members in Texas are seeking office. 

Working on electoral issues is one of the three priorities that DSA delegates voted on at the last Chicago convention. 

Medicare for all is another DSA priority. For example, the East Bay DSA chapter along with California Nurses Associations mobilized over 150 volunteers for door to door canvassing to educate voters about the benefits of single payer health care. The campaign has been very successful in persuading residents. If and when DSA along with other progressive organizations achieve a single payer system, the next goal would be to work toward replacing the private insurance companies with a public sector organization. 

The third priority is working with the labor movement. Only a strong labor movement could successfully struggle to improve the standard of living of working people and their families. Partnering with labor is an essential component of a democratic socialist program. 

But what are the implications of the differences between Bernie's and DSA's perspectives? In the long run the differences are significant. Regulating or replacing capitalism take very different paths. But with regard to the day to day struggles, they have much in common. Progressives of all stripes, socialists and non-socialists, support Medicare For All, creating good paying jobs, reducing income inequality, addressing racial, ethnic, and gender inequality, and challenging the nation's horrendous environmental problems. 

Generally speaking, progressives agree that it is necessary to democratize all areas of life, including but not limited to the economy. 

About working together, DSA and the California Nurses Association, for example, have different ideologies. Yet they have jointly advocated single payer health care. That progressives of different stripes must respect each other is absolutely essential to building a just and humane society