A Turning Point on the Left? Libertarian Caucus Debuts at Democratic Socialist Conference

Roughly 100 anti-Trump protesters demonstrate peacefully in Market Square on February 19, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)Roughly 100 anti-Trump protesters demonstrate peacefully in Market Square on February 19, 2017, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

The Democratic Socialists of America, a traditionally progressive socialist organization founded in 1982, has seen it’s membership increase multiply from roughly 5,000 to 25,000 members in the past year following the Bernie Sanders campaign and the subsequent election of Trump. Now, many on the left are looking at the organization as a barometer of sorts for the fate of the larger left. In addition, many are viewing the DSA convention this week in Chicago as a key turning point within the organization. Coming out of the DSA is a new caucus called the Libertarian Socialist Caucus. The LSC promotes a vision of “libertarian socialism” — a traditional name for anarchism — that goes beyond the confines of traditional social democratic politics. I asked John Michael Colόn, a member of the group’s provisional organizing committee, to talk about its vision and goals.

Adam Weaver: The DSA has a range of tendencies and is sort of a “big tent” of socialist politics. What made you want to form a Libertarian Socialist Caucus (DSA-LSC)? Tell us about yourself and what you see as the political influences of the group.

John Michael Colόn: I’ve been a member of DSA for over a year; some of us involved have been members before the “Bernie and Trump bump.” So it’s not a matter of anarchists infiltrating and joining DSA … but anarchists who have been members of DSA all along. We want to organize them as we believe that libertarian socialism is democratic socialism.

Once upon a time, before Trump and Bernie Sanders, there had been a thing called the Left Caucus which aimed to organize all the DSA members who wanted to push the organization to the left. It was good, I was part of it, but it’s now basically defunct because with so many new members joining DSA, many are already to the left of the DSA. But what the existence of the Left Caucus proved was that caucuses based on ideological interests had a place in DSA. We want to be the first caucus within the DSA that had a more specific vision, that openly talks about a specific political direction that they would move towards. Rather than say we want to move the DSA to the left, we [are saying we] want to move to the left with specific positions and a specific manner. And not everyone who identifies with the left is going to agree.

Speaking for myself here, I believe that the LSC has an especially important role not just in promoting its own ideas, but also in setting an example for others for how to do caucuses right in being internally democratic, in co-existing, cooperating with and having cross-membership with other caucuses. Caucuses can be hubs of organizing activity, hubs of political education, hosting reading groups, etc. There’s a dimension of caucuses that are akin to being political parties within the larger DSA.

It’s important to note that you can’t be in the LSC unless you are a dues-paying member of DSA. Most of our members were people who were already members of the DSA. There are some people who, because we announced our existence, joined DSA, and that’s a consequence of the libertarian socialists already in DSA who were getting organized.

At the end of the day, the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, or any other caucus for that matter, is not an alien entity within DSA; rather it’s a caucus of DSA members united around a shared interest.

What do you see as the commonalities and differences between the politics that you are looking to put forward and DSA’s current politics and organizing? What are you looking to change?

I would contest the framing of the question a little bit. It’s important to note that beyond the idea of big-tent socialism, the DSA doesn’t actually have a party line. Outside observers, though, act as if DSA does, but the reality is it doesn’t have a set of positions that you have to accept. Rather, the DSA is an internally democratic organization of socialists that adjudicate their disputes through liberal parliamentary norms of conflict resolution. In other words, if we disagree, like on the convention floor, it will be argued out on the floor between delegates. It’s not a centralist organization where there’s a party line and if you disagree you have to leave.

The problem is that, at this point, it’s difficult to say exactly what LSC stands for because we don’t have official positions. We just finalized our membership, and because we are democratic we haven’t reached positions yet. There are probably shared values that we have that people in DSA don’t have, and we want to promote those values and make them more popular.

These [values include] skepticism of the state, a critique of the state and seeing the state as going hand-in-hand with capitalism. A second component is a belief in radical democracy with a higher standard of democracy, one which is more rigorous. A lot of people believe that democracy is just elections. But we believe democracy means more than elections…that it is participatory.

We want to advocate and convince people by the strength of our ideas that there are things DSA should be doing and should be promoting. We want to see more things like directly democratic neighborhood assemblies, worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, radical syndicalism and municipalism that DSA is currently not promoting, as well as the things DSA is already doing, like organizing workplaces and fighting bosses and landlords. We see these as the fullest embodiment of the values that unite the different kinds of socialism within the DSA under its banner.

The DSA’s convention is happening in Chicago this weekend. With over 40 proposals and with the huge influx of new members who have entered the organization, many observers see this convention as a turning point. Can you tell us what you see as the key issues at stake that will be debated at the coming convention? How is DSA-LSC leaning on these issues?

I do want to answer this one by saying, like I said before, LSC doesn’t have an official position yet. The very first event that we are organizing [Friday] morning is our first general assembly where members of LSC will follow a procedure presented to our membership to make decisions about convention debates. We are going to go one-by-one through all of the floor debate questions that will happen at the convention. If our assembly can arrive at a consensus, we are going to ask the delegates present to vote in accordance with that.

We don’t know how many will show up exactly, but we are expecting, based on our listserve, something like 20 confirmed delegates, and we are allowing any DSA member to attend.

A major decision at the convention will be elections for the 16-member National Political Committee of DSA, which acts as a sort of national level policy and steering committee for the organization. Right now there’s the competing Momentum/Spring Platform and Praxis slates, individuals drafted and signed onto a “Unity Platform” document, and now members of DSA-LSC are putting forward their candidates as well, called DSA Friends and Comrades. What do you see as the competing visions represented?

I can’t say anything on our official position on them. Speaking only for myself, I think that Momentum and Praxis both have some pros and they both have some cons. They are all good organizers and comrades that have done good work. But I personally disagree very strongly with what I would see as the centralizing tendencies in Momentum’s positions. But I’m only speaking for myself, and I know for a fact that other LSC members have different opinions.

What I would say about both Momentum and Praxis is that the way they came about is that [their candidates] only represent themselves. My hope is that in the future LSC sets an example where candidates are selected by caucuses and are accountable to them rather than self-selecting. And I think that’s important because the platforms of the slates have shaped the convention as a whole, and it’s more democratic if those conversations arise from larger groups of members within the DSA.

The DSA Friends and Comrades coalition is something that came out of LSC members and was organized by LSC members informally and hasn’t been approved by the group. We wish them well, and some of us will vote for them and promote them on our social media, but they don’t represent the LSC. Next convention we aim to organize a primary and democratic process to put forward a slate.