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The Socialist Horizon: Building a New Party

The DSA has become the largest socialist party since World War II.

The Democratic Socialists of America is a mix of centralization and decentralization, its democratic ethos within a larger structure, its flexibility and yet its consistency speak to both the needs as well as the disaggregated shape and culture of today's millennial working class. (Photo: Northside Chicago DSA)

As the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention wound to its close at the beginning of August, I was struck with the historical strangeness of what I witnessed. Decades after proclamations of the “end of history” and critiques of institutional hierarchies and vertical structures of power, here were nearly 1,000 mostly young activists gathered in a giant lecture hall doing the work of building a radical political party: taking votes, making motions, electing a national leadership, making speeches for and against, observing the strange Anglo-Saxon strictures of Robert’s Rules of Order.

The convention in Chicago has rightly garnered an enormous amount of attention, both for the unprecedented size of the organization, as well as for its increasingly red hue. The surge in membership makes DSA the largest socialist organization in the US since World War II, and its growth in strength and popularity is equally marked by its radical turn to the left: delegates voted to endorse the boycott, sanction and divest (BDS) movement against Israeli violations of human rights; they voted to embrace the creation of an Afro-Socialism Caucus that includes a platform for abolishing prisons and police; and they reaffirmed their distance from the Democratic Party and their role in creating an independent socialist movement. They did all this while strengthening the centralization and structure of the DSA by introducing monthly dues payments for members.

As Chilean activist and writer Marta Harnecker notes, the rise of globalization, neoliberalism and the end of the Cold War has also led to what she refers to as the “social disorientation” of both the working class and the left. The organization of workers into giant Fordist factories in urban centers, the growth of social and cultural institutions, such as massive schools and state colleges, also did the work of organizing the people into shared sites of social production and reproduction.

While on the one hand this modernist reorganization of life produced greater social alienation, it also produced the physical infrastructure for mass-based, centralized social movements. One can think of the rise of early-mid 20th century radical parties such as the Socialist and later Communist Party USA, which exercised wide influence through six-figure membership bases, affiliated labor and civil rights groups, and high-profile political campaigns as a kind of structural analogy to the mass production/mass consumption modernist society Fordism produced. Perhaps the largest mass-based working-class organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), was a direct outgrowth of the giant factories that comprised the major sites of its organization.

An increasingly shared mass culture also helped produce new political movements at mid-century. Small ethnic enclaves and segregated neighborhoods could join in a dominant, increasingly plebeian mass culture industry that featured, for the first time, ethnic accents and working-class, urban heroes, such as James Cagney, Duke Ellington and Barbara Stanwyck. During CIO drives, one organizer recounted white and Black members listening to a Joe Louis fight on the radio before going to recruit members for its integrated locals, and Richard Wright famously wrote of the Louis-Baer match as leading to a jubilant, spontaneous uprising among working class African Americans on Chicago’s South Side.

Within the mid-century cultural and material matrix of Fordism, the Communist Party, unlike the Democrats or Republicans, built an entire way of life, vertically and horizontally integrated, with softball leagues, newspapers, dances and activity groups like the Friends of the Earth (camping) and the John Reed Clubs (writing) that provided not only for the political needs of its members, but also for their social and even romantic needs. “You could live an entire life within that world,” one former Communist related in Vivian Gornick’s oral history of the movement. The Communist Party, like the centralized and Taylorized mass culture of the period, was constituted by a sense of totality and organization that marked both work and leisure. As capitalism’s “other,” Communism organized much like Fordist corporations it opposed.

Flash forward a half century, and the landscape of both capitalism and left radically changed. Globalization and neoliberalism have not only widened the gap between the rich and the poor within and between nations, they have dramatically reorganized the economy away from large-scale urban manufacturing to decentralized and increasingly mobile just-in-time production. While this shattered what was left of the large AFL-CIO unions, it also disrupted the material basis for social, even socialist organizing. White flight, suburban sprawl, strip malls, the spread of automobile culture and online micro-communities have not only changed the way social life is organized, they have also disrupted the forms of organization on which the “old left” was built. If the culture of modernism was based on the chance encounter on the city street and collective anonymity of the factory and rail car, suburban sprawl and the post-modern cubicle entered a new form of fragmented alienation, one that is isolated as it is as often subcultural.

Theorists of left-wing social organization, such as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, as well as journalists such as Naomi Klein, celebrated these forms of disaggregated heterogeneity. Hardt and Negri described the “multitude” as the shape of the new working class. Decentralized and unorganized, this new class of knowledge and service workers would meet together in loose networks and horizontal associations, giving up neither their autonomy as subjects nor their heterotopian forms of difference. Klein described in The New Left Review the revival of “the commons,” both a public and social space held by all, as well as a vision of radical democracy without ideological or political center. Narrating the first uprising against neoliberalism after the end of the Cold War, Klein remarked that the affinity groups and spokescouncils of the “Battle of Seattle” resembled nothing more than the internet, as well as the new forms of capitalist organization in Silicon Valley. Flexible and just-in-time production had met its match with flexible and just-in-time organizing.

We are a class society, riven by fault lines of race, colonial status and gender. Capitalism is no longer hidden from view, and neither is its opposition.

Yet Klein made another comment after the exuberant fin-de-siecle explosion against the World Trade Organization and an increasingly bleak millennium. Speaking in 2001 in front of a roomful of activists at UCLA, she asked if the uprising in Seattle was a “movement” or a “collective hallucination.” This question is perhaps more telling than its answer. In the years following Seattle, the left witnessed uprising after uprising, the massive shutdown of the International Monetary Fund in 2001, the half-million protesters in New York City against the invasion of Iraq, the many millions that hit the streets in the immigrant rights movement, the protest camps of the Occupy movement, and most recently, the rebellions against racist state violence in Ferguson and Baltimore. These movements, much like contingent, unstable, rapid flows of financial capital around the globe, surge and then diminish, explode into the streets and then go quiet. Our movements are our collective hallucinations, in a global system that seems to be spinning from crisis to crisis.

So, what does it mean that young people, the children of neoliberalism, seem to be abandoning the horizontalism, disavowal and decentralization of my own generation X? As Jodi Dean suggests in her manifesto, The Communist Horizon, radicals have never taken the claims of horizontal democracy as seriously as they proclaim. All movements, she argues, are vanguard acts; they make claims of representation: “We are the 99%.” “The Movement for Black Lives.” They claim to represent “the people,” however they are defined, against an elite or a class or an institution. Yet the question Dean poses is not so much whether we will commit acts of representation, but rather whether we will build organizations that can contain difference and the multiple gaps, omissions and divisions within capitalism. Shall we have the vanguardism of the subculture, or the organization of the Party?

Young radicals are voting with their feet. After a generation of uprisings that have left us hanging in the air, it is safe to say activists are tired of phantasmagorical movements, of collective hallucinations. The crises of capitalism, from racialized state violence, to the “gig economy,” to environmental catastrophe, to rape culture, to privatization of our public schools and our privatized imaginaries cannot be solved within the same affective structures that produce them. Richard Wright wrote after witnessing that spontaneous uprising on Chicago’s South Side, “say comrade here’s the wild river that’s got to be harnessed and directed.” When I read that 20 years ago, I winced at what I thought was Wright’s incipient Stalinism. Two decades later, it now reads like common sense.

Or perhaps rather, we are returning merely to certain 19th-century verities — that we are a class society, riven by fault lines of race, colonial status and gender. Capitalism is no longer hidden from view, and neither is its opposition. Which is not to say DSA is a Stalinist or even Communist “cadre” organization. Its mix of centralization and decentralization, its democratic ethos within a larger structure, its flexibility and yet its consistency speak to both the needs as well as the disaggregated shape and culture of today’s millennial working class.

A party is more than just a collection of individuals; it is a claim on the future, a vision of another horizon.

As the convention wound down last week, one of the older comrades, someone I know from an earlier socialist formation, slowly led the delegates through the tune and phrases of “The Internationale,” before and after the crowd spontaneously erupted into the White-Stripes-turned-political-football-chant, “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” and then “Viva el Day-Ess-Eh” (“DSA, DSA, DSA” it was decided, sounded too much like “USA, USA, USA”). This mixing of political cultures — of spontaneity and tradition, of a polyglot US with a long tradition of democratic organizing — marks an epochal shift, away from spokescouncils and affinity groups, and toward the political party. We should not be shy about what a change this is. A party is more than just a collection of individuals; it is a claim on the future, a vision of another horizon. And it is one that we cannot wait another generation to witness.