At the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War era, the Socialist Party USA of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas split in two over the issue of whether or not to criticize the Soviet Union, its allies, and Communism: One faction rejected and denounced the USSR and its allies—including Castro‘s Cuba, the Sandinistas, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong—and supported Poland’s Solidarity Movement, etc. This anti-Communist faction took the name Social Democrats USA. (Many of its leaders—including Carl Gershman, who became Jeane Kirkpatrick’s counselor of embassy at the United Nations—eventually grew more conservative and became Reagan Democrats.) The other faction, however, refused to reject Marxism, refused to criticize or denounce the USSR and its allies, and continued to support Soviet-backed policies—including the nuclear-freeze program that sought to consolidate Soviet nuclear superiority in Europe. This faction, whose leading figure was Michael Harrington, in 1973 took the name Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC); its membership included many former Students for a Democratic Society activists.
DSOC operated not as a separate political party but as an explicitly socialist force within the Democratic Party and the labor movement. As such, it attracted many young activists who sought to push the Democratic Party further leftward politically. Among the notables who joined DSOC were Machinists’ Union leader William Winpisinger, feminist Gloria Steinem, gay rights activist Harry Britt, actor Ed Asner, and California Congressman (and avowed socialist) Ron Dellums.
By 1979 DSOC had made major inroads into the Democratic Party and claimed a national membership of some 3,000 people. In 1982, DSOC, under Michael Harrington’s leadership, merged with the New American Movement to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Harrington’s strategy was to force a “realignment” of the two major political parties by pulling the Democrats emphatically to the left and polarizing the parties along class lines. He expected that this would drive business interests away from the Democrats and into the Republican Party, but that those losses would be more than offset by an influx of newly energized minority and union voters to the Democratic Party, and that over time the Democrats would embrace socialism as their preferred ideology. Thus Harrington sought to establish DSA as a force that worked within, and not outside of, the existing American political system. Following Harrington’s lead, most DSAers were committed to electoral politics within the Democratic Party. They feared that if they were to openly move too far and too quickly to the left, they would run the risk of alienating moderate Democrats and thereby ensuring Ronald Reagan’s reelection in 1984.
Early in DSA’s history, political organizer Harry Boyte, convinced that even Michael Harrington’s non-revolutionary form of socialism would be rejected by most Americans, formed a “communitarian caucus” within DSA. As author Stanley Kurtz explains:
“The communitarians wanted to use the language and ethos of traditional American communities—including religious language—to promote a ‘populist’ version of socialism. Portraying heartless corporations as enemies of traditional communities, thought Boyte, was the only way to build a quasi-socialist mass movement in the United States. Socialists could quietly help direct such a movement, Boyte believed, but openly highlighting socialist ideology would only drive converts away. In effect, Boyte was calling on DSA to drop its public professions of socialism and start referring to itself as ‘communitarian’ instead.”
But DSA rejected this approach, worried that if it failed to publicly articulate its socialist ideals, genuine socialism itself would eventually wither and die. Boyte’s opponents stated: “We can call ourselves ‘communitarians,’ but the word will get out. Better to be out of the closet; humble, yet proud.”
DSA draws heavily from the ideas of the late Italian Communist Party theoretician Antonio Gramsci. As the Orange County (California) DSA stated in its February 1984 newsletter, Gramsci’s writings “have … formed a vital part of the ideas that brought about the formation of today’s DSA.”
In 1998, WorldNetDaily (WND) published a two-part series of articles titled “Congress’ Red Army Caucus,” which exposed the close association between DSA and CPC. At that time, DSA hosted the CPC website. Shortly after the WND revelations, CPC established its own website under the auspices of Congress. Meanwhile, DSA scrubbed its own website to remove evidence of its ties to CPC. Among the items removed from the site were the lyrics to such songs as the following:
In 2000, DSA endorsed Pay Equity Now!—a petition jointly issued in 2000 by the National Organization for Women, the Philadelphia Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Together these organizations charged that “the U.S. government opposes pay equity—equal pay for work of equal value—in national policy and international agreements”; that “women are often segregated in caring and service work for low pay, much like the housework they are expected to do for no pay at home”; and that “underpaying women is a massive subsidy to employers that is both sexist and racist.”
In 2001, DSA characterized the 9/11 terror attacks as acts of retaliation for transgressions and injustices that America had previously perpetrated across the globe. “We live in a world,” said DSA, “organized so that the greatest benefits go to a small fraction of the world’s population while the vast majority experiences injustice, poverty, and often hopelessness. Only by eliminating the political, social, and economic conditions that lead people to these small extremist groups can we be truly secure.”
Strongly opposed to the U.S. war on terror and America’s post-9/11 military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, DSA became a member organization of the United For Peace and Justice anti-war coalition.
DSA was a Co-Sponsoring Organization of the April 25, 2004 “March for Women’s Lives” held in Washington, D.C., a rally that drew more than a million demonstrators advocating for the right to unrestricted, taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand.
In 2007, DSA National Political Committee member David Green expressed support for the Employee Free Choice Act as a measure that could “limit the capitalist class’s prerogatives in the workplace”; “minimize the degree of exploitation of workers by capitalists”; and “provid[e] an excellent organizing tool (i.e., tactic) through which we can pursue our socialist strategy while simultaneously engaging the broader electorate on an issue of economic populism.”
In 2008, most DSA members actively supported Barack Obama for U.S. President. Said the organization: “DSA believes that the possible election of Senator Obama to the presidency in November represents a potential opening for social and labor movements to generate the critical political momentum necessary to implement a progressive political agenda.”
In October 2009, the Socialist Party of America announced that at least 70 Congressional Democrats were members of its Caucus at that time—i.e., members of DSA. Most of those individuals belonged to the Congressional Progressive Caucus and/or the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The Occupy Wall Street protests have invigorated the American Left in a way not seen in decades … So we have urged our members to take an active, supportive role in their local occupations, something many DSAers had already begun doing as individuals, because they believe that everyday people, the 99%, shouldn’t be made to pay for a crisis set off by an out-of-control financial sector and the ethically compromised politicians who have failed to rein it in.”
On October 8, 2011, DSA co-sponsored a Midwest Regional March for Peace and Justice, a protest demonstration commemorating the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
DSA members today seek to build “progressive movements for social change while establishing an openly socialist presence in American communities and politics.” “We are socialists,” reads the organization’s boilerplate, “because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.” “To achieve a more just society,” adds DSA, “many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed.” A major hallmark of such transformation would be an “equitable distribution of resources.”
DSA summarizes its philosophy as follows: “Today … [r]esources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them. Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives.”
True to its roots, DSA seeks to increase its political influence not by establishing its own political party but rather by working closely with the Democratic Party to promote leftist agendas. “Like our friends and allies in the feminist, labor, civil rights, religious, and community organizing movements, many of us have been active in the Democratic Party,” says DSA. “We work with those movements to strengthen the party’s left wing, represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus…. Maybe sometime in the future … an alternative national party will be viable. For now, we will continue to support progressives who have a real chance at winning elections, which usually means left-wing Democrats.”
In a document titled “Where We Stand: Building The Next Left,” DSA outlines in detail its political perspectives. Key excerpts from this document include the following:
DSA supports the Black Radical Congress‘ call for the U.S. government to pay reparations compensating present-day blacks for the evils and the lasting legacies of slavery. DSA also supports reparations to Mexicans, Native Americans, and other groups as well. Indeed, the organization enumerates a litany of historical American crimes against humanity:
“DSA, as a socialist organization, rejects the proposition that corporate wealth and individual property are the same. The wealth that we plan to re-distribute is corporate wealth not personal private property.
“The wealth of the U.S. corporate class was developed from the exploitation of vast numbers of Africans and a great many indigenous peoples by slavery and the theft of indigenous wealth and land by the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the English-speaking peoples. The current wealth of the ruling elite and the poverty in African-American and indigenous communities are direct consequences of this incorporation by force and terrorism of these and other dominated communities into the capitalist system.
“And we, along with the Latino Commission of DSA, further call for reparations for the assaults and despoliation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their descendants, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and others, for the loss of their lands and the attempted destruction of their cultures and institutions. This includes supporting the land claims and other treaty-related social justice cases of the Native American tribal nations….
“It is clear from a number of studies that the underdevelopment of communities of African Americans, indigenous people, and their descendants continues to this date. We recognize that this underdevelopment is a direct result of the crimes of the past, and the forced subjugation of these people and their incorporation into a White Supremacist society based upon the unfair and inequitable extraction of labor and capital from the work, and death, of these people.
“We therefore call for monetary reparations to be in the form of public ownership of utilities and means of production. And we call for the investment of compensatory funds into publicly owned institutions for the development of their communities. And public funds shall be used to promote the general welfare, education, health care, public transportation and infrastructure targeted on those communities historically denied lack of access to capital and education by prior governmental and corporate actions.”
DSA supports “single-payer health insurance as the most just, cost-effective and rational method for creating a universal health care system in the United States.”
DSA’s membership rolls grew with remarkable rapidity beginning in 2016, when the organization claimed some 8,000 members across the United States, and late 2017, by which time that figure had risen to more than 25,000, making DSA the largest organized socialist group in the nation. Those DSA members, wrote historian Ronald Radosh in November 2017, “play a large role within the Democratic Party, where they work with others from Bernie Sanders’ [failed 2016] presidential campaign to push the party further to the left.” A major cause of DSA’s growth in 2016 and thereafter was the political ascendancy of Republican Donald Trump, which DSA sought to aggressively combat.
DSA publishes a quarterly journal titled Democratic Left, which promotes the political and social ideology of the organization. The founding editor of this publication was Michael Harrington. From 2001 through 2016, the paid circulation of Democratic Left ranged between approximately 4,500 and 6,800 subscribers. Following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the figure skyrocketed to more than 28,000 in 2017, and more than 45,000 in 2018.
DSA also publishes a blog called Religious Socialism.
DSA has a youth section known as the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS). Composed of high-school and college students as well as young people in the work force, YDS “works on economic justice and democracy and prison justice projects.” It is a member of the International Union of Socialist Youth, an affiliate of the Socialist International.
At DSA’s national convention in August 2017, its members voted by a large majority to pass a resolution “fully supporting” the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Hamas-inspired initiative designed to financially cripple and politically delegitimize Israel. The resolution explicitly affirmed DSA’s “solidarity with Palestinian civil society’s nonviolent struggle against apartheid, colonialism, [and] military occupation[,] and for equality, human rights and self-determination.”
Prior to that national convention in August 2017, DSA had described itself as “the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International,” the worldwide organization of social democratic, socialist, and labor parties. But at the convention, DSA voted to withdraw from membership in the Socialist International, on grounds that the latter had allegedly become too connected to imperialist and colonialist powers.
In November 2017, historian Ronald Radosh noted: “[R]ecent documents from DSA’s large Los Angeles chapter reveal that it has moved closer to the kind of membership rites familiar to those who study totalitarian movements. Rites such as those practiced by the Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution and by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, which continually charged dissenting members with betraying the party. They often expelled them from their ranks, or forced them to grovel in public demonstrations of obedience to the party line.” To offer an illustration of this mindset, Radosh noted that DSA’s Los Angeles chapter had recently found fault with a Twitter post that featured two principal elements: (1) a photograph in which a member of that chapter’s Steering Committee, a professional standup comedian named Josh Androsky, was smiling and pointing at the Hollywood Walk of Fame star dedicated to Bill Cosby, who had allegedly raped many women; and (2) a caption (above the photo) that read: “hey libs try taking THIS statue down.”
Charging that the tweet’s “ironic caption …. minimized the experience and mistreatment of rape survivors,” the Steering Committee demanded that Androsky: (a) publicly declare [that] “I caused people pain and suffering, and for that I am truly sorry”; (b) praise the “heroic efforts” by which his DSA comrades had advanced the cause of socialism; and (c) pledge to make “meaningful reparations and amends” by resigning from the Steering Committee, suspending all of his DSA-related work, and announcing that “I’ll be voluntarily undergoing sensitive/anti-oppression training offered by an external third party before I consider returning to DSA organizing.” “With these actions,” wrote Radosh, “it has become clear that DSA is replicating the ‘self-criticism’ sessions of Marxist-Leninist Old Left groups,” and he then proceeded to offer some examples. “With their castigation of an activist stand-up comedian as politically incorrect,” Radosh added, “and his being cast out until his ‘oppression training’ is complete and the Steering Committee assured that he is fully reformed, Democratic Socialists of America has proved that it risks being indistinguishable from the old American Communist Party and its Stalinist practices.”
Over the years, DSA’s more notable vice chairs and honorary chairs have included such individuals as Barbara Ehrenreich, Dolores Huerta, Steve Max, Eliseo Medina, Eugene “Gus” Newport, Frances Fox Piven, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West.
Other prominent DSA members have been: Neil Abercrombie, Stanley Aronowitz, Ed Asner, Ron Bloom, Paul Booth, Harry Boyte, Paul Buhle, Noam Chomsky, John Conyers, Danny Davis, David Dinkins, Michael Eric Dyson, Manning Marable, Jerrold Nadler, Major Owens, Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky, John Sweeney, and Quentin Young.
In 2018, 28-year-old DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose to prominence when, with no prior political experience, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Another newcomer to Congress in 2018 was DSA member Rashida Tlaib. That same year, DSA member Julia Salazar won a seat in the New York State Senate.