We believe that building the Democratic Socialists of America is key to the future of the socialist movement in the United States. We’re publishing The Call in order to build support for our perspective in debates about the future of DSA and socialism. In this Where We Stand statement we lay out the key elements of that perspective.
We stand for a democratic socialist world, one that breaks with the exploitation and oppression that define capitalism. People’s right to live free, creative, and rich lives will be guaranteed in a new society that provides for everyone’s needs. A democratically-managed economy will empower us to fully tackle the challenges of climate change and build a sustainable future. And for the first time, real democracy — in which people, not money, rule — will define politics and extend to our workplaces and communities.
Today in the United States key battles against the oppression of the working class include the struggle against mass incarceration and police brutality; campaigns to defend and expand reproductive rights; fights to end gender violence; the struggle by queer people, disabled people, women, and people of color to stop job and housing discrimination; and the movement to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Our movement must champion all of these fights against oppression because it is the right thing to do and because it is essential to building the class unity necessary to win.
Centrality of Class
The division of capitalist societies into classes determines what people get and what they have to do to survive. On top, the capitalist class — a tiny minority made up of owners of major corporations and powerful managers — dominates society. The profit and rent they live off of comes from the vast majority of the population on the bottom: the working class.
Capitalism is therefore a system that exploits working people. But it also is one that depends on working people. As a result it endows us with the potential power to stop production and overturn the political system. Ending capitalism will require mobilizing this immense power, and this puts the question of organizing the working class as workers at the center of questions of strategy.
Class is also at the center of fights against oppression. Capitalists use racial, national, gender, and other prejudices to justify oppression and discrimination and to sow divisions among workers. And intense competition over resources perpetuates oppression and prejudice within the working class itself. Winning material demands — demands that roll back the repressive state, the power of the capitalist class, and intra-class competition — is crucial to ending this oppression. Unionization, universal healthcare, ending mass incarceration, immigrant rights, and rent control are all demands that benefit the whole working class in direct and indirect ways. But they also strike blows against the otherwise unchecked power of oppressors, including abusive bosses, despotic immigration agencies, and racist landlords.
Our commitment to the centrality of class therefore flows from this understanding as well. Only a working class united across racial, national, gender, and other differences and around a platform of redistribution, ending state repression, and eventually expropriation can eliminate oppression.
The central importance of class unity for socialist strategy also leads us to oppose a perspective common in some radical circles and rampant among liberals. These groups treat oppression as principally a consequence of people’s bad ideas rather than their material circumstances, and as a result they prioritize shame and guilt as tactics to change these bad ideas. But rather than advancing the struggle, these tactics undermine it by dividing our forces. The best path forward for defeating prejudice in the working class lies in building solidarity through positive appeals to shared interests and common struggle.
The most critical task for socialists today is to help develop a labor movement that is militant, left-wing, and democratic. Working-class people’s greatest strength is in the workplace because capitalists depend on the exploitation of labor to make their profits. And the workplace brings workers of all backgrounds together and generates shared interests that can be the basis for powerful movements.
With this in mind, socialists should organize as rank-and-file workers and rebuild the connection between the socialist movement and the militant minority of workers already organizing in the labor movement. Together, our goal must be to transform unions as we know them today into democratic forces ready to confront the employers, organize the unorganized, and lead wider working-class political fights.
Given our limited resources, such attention should be primarily focused for now on strategic industries — those in which workers have the best opportunities to organize and leverage to make demands on employers. Where possible, we should work with union officials who share our perspectives, while recognizing that in many unions existing officials stand in the way of this vision.
Democratic Road to Socialism
Socialist organizing should be oriented toward the working-class majority who are not yet politically active. We need to bring people into open conflict with capitalists and their politicians around immediate grievances, while making connections between each specific issue and the underlying problem: capitalism. Our goal is to create a mass movement that can force elites to make concessions — and eventually remove them from power.
To do this, we need to work openly in movement struggles and electoral politics as socialists. And we have to fight for a viable path to socialism — what we call the democratic road to socialism — that takes the particular opportunities and challenges of liberal democracies like our own seriously.
We know that winning elections in a capitalist society is not the same as taking power. Without an organized working class, primarily organized in the workplace where workers have the most power, socialist electoral victories will mean very little. A primary task of the democratic road to socialism is rebuilding the organized power of the working class.
But working-class organizations will ultimately have to contend with state power. Towards this end, we seek to build a mass party of the working-class with a socialist program. Such a party will fight to win structural reforms that increase the power of the working class, build class consciousness through its ideological and campaign work, and eventually elect a socialist government. We believe that under the right conditions such a government paired with powerful social movements would together be able to initiate a period of rupture with the capitalist system and a transition to socialism.
Of course, no ruling class has ever peacefully ceded power. In a transitional period, a socialist government will have to do everything necessary to defend the mandate it has won to carry out a program of redistribution, expropriation, decommodification, and democratic reform of state institutions. And social movements will play an important role in building the social pressure needed to break capital strikes and push such a socialist government further.
Our perspective differs from alternative socialist strategies. We reject a strategy of gradually winning reforms which never seeks to break with the capitalist system. Often this strategy also embraces liberal tactics for winning reforms that prioritize electing and winning the ear of benevolent elites rather than challenging capital’s right to rule or building the working class’s ability to fight. We also reject a strategy of insurrection which mistakenly seeks to adopt a model from vastly different historical conditions and apply it to our situation today. We oppose ultra-left tactics that substitute adventures organized by a small cadre of activists for a mass, organized working-class movement. And finally we oppose politics defined by radical posturing that only appeals to the already convinced.
Independent Political Action
We believe in the need for a mass working-class party that contests elections. To legitimately represent the working class, such a party must be born out of a level of class struggle and class unity far greater than exists today. Until such a time arrives, we see DSA as a pre-party organization, one (among many groups) whose goal is to help develop the forces necessary to build such an independent party in the future. To do so, we must continue to pursue an oppositional electoral strategy that remains completely independent from the Democratic Party apparatus while embracing tactical flexibility on the question of what ballot line socialists run on. In certain cases it also makes sense for DSA to endorse candidates who are not members but whose campaigns advance key parts of our platform. Such campaigns can help build class consciousness and polarize (and eventually split) the Democratic Party coalition.
In both the short and long term, candidates running as socialists should serve the movement, never the other way around. In the short term, socialist politicians should act as organizers for the socialist movement first and as legislators second. They should use their office to advance socialist ideas and the resources at their disposal to help build our organizations.
Winning socialism will require a protracted struggle against the ruling class in the United States. But the struggle for socialism is also international. The power of the world’s ruling classes is protected by the imperialist policies of our government, among others. As socialists in the U.S., therefore, we have a heightened responsibility to fight against all forms of military intervention.
We also stand in solidarity with socialist and popular movements around the world against capitalism and authoritarianism. For this reason we reject the false logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” (what is sometimes called “campism”), a policy that in the name of anti-imperialism leads to the defense of brutal dictatorships.
Our goal is a socialist movement that wins all across the world. Building strong relationships with socialist parties and organizations in other countries — including sending and hosting delegations, participating in international debates about socialist strategy, and ultimately coordinating strategy — is a key step towards realizing that goal.
Democracy, Not Horizontalism
We want to build a movement that empowers everyone to have control over the decisions that affect their lives and to participate in building a better society. In our projects today therefore — and in a future socialist society — democracy is essential.
A democratic organization is one in which members are empowered through collective political deliberation and voting. Where direct decision-making by a membership body is not possible, members should be able to elect accountable representatives to act on their behalf. In these elections, candidates for leadership should run on clearly stated sets of politics that allow members to vote for or against them on political grounds. Members should also be free to organize together on political grounds to promote their vision for the organization.
We oppose horizontalist practices that distort democracy into a series of endless meetings, replace accountable leadership with the tyranny of structurelessness, and drain decisions of consequences. We must make strategic decisions about priorities and then commit to carrying them out.