The Democratic Socialists of America has seen a surge in membership and attention following the failed campaign of Bernie Sanders. It is, without a doubt, the largest socialist organization in American politics (sorry Social Democrats USA). Last week, they held their largest conference to date in Chicago, debating and passing their current manifesto.
During my radical days, the DSA always seemed like a marginal afterthought in political organizing; most of its members were boomers from the Michael Harrington era and not young activists. That has changed with a massive insertion of youth into its ranks.
I fancy myself a type of social democrat, so I decided to reassess the group in recent months and reached out to local branches of the organization. Many of its organizers were young, idealistic and green: not necessarily a bad thing, but not the grouping I was looking to participate in. With health care as their main policy focus, I supported their efforts to help bring a more equitable and just system to the United States.
Unfortunately, the DSA’s youthful cadres have brought with them some of the worst elements of the current left. It seemed too common to find local branches using communist iconography. Perhaps this is done ironically; young activists may lack the context for totalitarian Bolshevism. I tried to be generous in my assessment of the organization based on what local branches post to Twitter, even when it troubled me to see a “democratic” organization use authoritarian images so frivolously.
— DSA North Bay (@dsanorthbay) July 9, 2017
Then came the DSA’s official endorsement of the BDS movement and its aims at their convention.
— Chicago DSA (@ChicagoCityDSA) August 5, 2017
Paul Berman reflects on this unfortunate turn of events for the Democratic Socialists.
The DSA resolution strikes me as a modestly sad event, not because of the part about Saturday voting. It is because of DSA itself and its meaning, faint but real, for the American Jews. DSA does have a political lineage, after all, which is ancient and noble. The original socialist party in the United States was the Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1876, a quarter century after the Republican Party. The Socialist Labor Party was committed from the start, however, to being a narrow and insignificant political sect—which perhaps reflected a fatal and dominant gene, destined to be passed down through the ages. Still, some of the party’s more serious members split away to organize, in a series of steps, the Socialist Party of America, with Eugene V. Debs as principal leader. The Socialist Party was sincerely opposed to superstitious and medieval bigotries of every kind. Therefore it became the first American party truly to open its arms to the Jewish immigrant masses, circa 1900. The first two Jewish members of the United States Congress were Socialists—Meyer London from the Lower East Side and Victor Berger from Milwaukee. The big Jewish trade unions, which improved life for a significant percentage of the American Jewish population and for a great many other people, as well, were products in one fashion or another of the Socialist Party of America. This was true also of the Jewish Daily Forward, which so deeply and positively influenced the American Jewish world, and it was true of the housing cooperatives that arose in New York.
The vote led to longtime members like Eric Lee to leave the organization. He wrote:
I cannot in good conscience be a member of an organization which promotes a boycott of the Jewish state. I consider the BDS campaign to be antisemitic and racist. I oppose it as a socialist and as a Jew. I am appalled that DSA would take such a position.
It is terribly unfortunate that the largest socialist organization in US has taken this path. As long as the left makes its hatred of Israel a driving position, I find it hard to be an active member in its ranks. We need a competent and broad liberal/social democratic alliance more than ever, but the largest left wing organization has made such a union less likely with this vote.