libcom interviews the DSA Communist Caucus.
libcom: First of all thanks for talking to us. The main DSA twitter account once said of libcom.org "they get mad at us all the time on here lol", which let's face it is not wrong.
Generally as libertarian communists, and with most of our collective based in the UK, we've mostly ignored the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) up until recently. We host a pamphlet written by US anarcho-syndicalists in the 1980s which boils down to 'ignore them, they're the left wing of the Democratic party', and during the presidential campaign there seemed to be pretty much unanimous and often uncritical support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, both from the DSA nationally and Jacobin magazine.
However, with the election over, and a massive influx of new members into the DSA things have started to get a bit more complicated. The impression from over here is that this influx represents the rapid politicisation of a new generation of activists, and with lots of large local chapters the DSA can be an obvious organisation to join when looking for something to get involved. However it also seems like a lot of the new members don't necessarily have entrenched Democratic Socialist politics, which is where your statement enters the fray. The reaction to the election of (ex-police union organiser) Danny Fetonte to the National Policy Committee both showed some of the limitations of the DSA's politics at a national and structural level, but also the determination of the membership to fight against both the conditions and lack of information during the election process and to take direct action internally when the NPC failed to remove Fetonte procedurally.
We bring this up because the DSA Communist Caucus statement came out just a few days after Danny Fetonte stepped down after significant public pressure.
Onto the questions:
How/why did you (personally) get involved in the DSA? How typical is that among others in the Communist Caucus?
It is hard to generalize as people have joined the DSA for a variety of reasons. Some were recently politicized thanks to the total implosion of the US Democratic Party. These members tend to like the organizing that we are doing, and are largely focused on practice. Others come from a more ideological standpoint, many of which are left-communists, syndicalists, class struggle anarchists, post-trotskyist-ish, etc. Regardless of ideological commitments, we see today’s DSA as a place with considerable potential for the developing of new kinds of working class organization. This is particularly true because of the large influx of new members since the US presidential election. We want to help newly politicized members get involved in organizing efforts that may lead to actual disruptions of capital, as it exists on an everyday level. Doing this type of organizing means moving away from a liberal model that makes reformist demands on the state by way of organizing potential “voters.”
Were you already a communist when you joined? If not, how did you come to the conclusions in your statement and what convinced you to stay within the DSA to fight for them?
It depends on who you ask, as the Communist Caucus has grown since its inception. However, we are convinced that the DSA is fertile ground to begin organizing towards communist ends.
There is a great number of energized people throughout the US who are interested and open-minded on the question of political work. Almost half of registered voters (to say nothing of those not registered in the first place) sat out the 2016 election. Of course, the common narrative is one of individualized apathy and laziness on the part of non-voters. This view totally discounts the possibility that—just maybe—people stayed home because they do not see electoralism as a viable path for meaningful change. We want to make use of today’s pessimism around bourgeois politics. The DSA does provide an opportunity to do so.
However, our participation in the DSA does not mean that our presence within the organization is without its issues. From the moment we went public, there was tremendous tension between our stated goals and other groupings that are, in our view, social democratic. We’ve detected a tendency to cloak social democratic praxis in various radical discourses. But, history has a funny way of ferreting out true intentions, and we look forward to having debates around these viewpoints as they are forced to appear in daylight.
When you describe yourselves as 'communists', which traditions do you take inspiration from?
The initial group that authored our statement is of the left communist tradition. It was informed by 70’s Italian Marxisms, and current left-communist formations like Endnotes. However, this does not represent the composition of the entire caucus today.
What is your activity as a caucus, both within the DSA and wider society?
At this point, the bulk of our work has been dedicated to housing organizing in Northern California. We are experimenting with what we’ve been calling tenant councils. The idea is to organize tenants in ways that allow them to directly confront their landlords, who, for tenants, personify capital. This is a departure from other tenant organizing that focuses on building electoral pressure sufficient for policy change at the municipal and state levels.
We have successfully organized one tenant’s council in the Bay Area. The landlord in question has a holding of over 40 apartment buildings. We have been working on getting the tenants in these buildings to self-organize, and to push the landlord on various issues. Even though our organizing is in its early stages, other DSA locals have expressed interest in the work we’re doing. We are currently assisting them in organizing tenant’s councils in their areas. It’s clear that there is a desire among new members for an engagement with our moment that can’t be satisfied by simply canvassing for “progressive” candidates, or pressuring existing officials to make social-democratic concessions.
In terms of the DSA, we’ve been engaged in various disputes with the leadership in some locals. This, to us, is much less interesting. It consists of advocating for horizontal forms of local organization, generated organic centralism where it can persist, and pushing against what is ostensibly the Jacobin Magazine-sponsored reformist agenda of working within the Democratic Party (see Seth Ackerman for an example).
It’s likely that we will be putting out more information on national communist caucus activities in the coming months.
What kinds of activities would you like to see the DSA take up?
We want to see DSA organize real working class power. We define this as organizing working class communities in ways that may actually culminate in the interruption of capital flows. This is what underlies our tenant organizing efforts. We feel strongly that the DSA can and should experiment with new working class forms that can actually interfere, block, or strain the flow of capital in some capacity.
We cannot overstate this: the ability to engage directly with the flow of capital is critical. We find ourselves in a crisis today, as the weapons of yesterday’s workers movements are not functional in the way they were before the 1970s. Since then, the American left has exhibited an over-reliance on—and in many cases a fetishization of—electoral forms of struggle. Even groups that technically denounce electoralism engage almost exclusively within it. It is possible, perhaps, to do both—reform in the name of harm reduction, while also working toward a future rupture of capital—but the particulars of this view are always left ambiguous at best. Instead, more and more, we see reforms, such as the effort for single payer healthcare, re-branded as potential “ruptures” in-themselves. It is clear to us that these reforms could fit nicely within today’s global capitalist paradigm, and especially in the most powerful capitalist state of the all—the US.
This is a problem of practice, and it requires our collective attention. It is not only problematic to disregard the problem of non-electoral struggle; in today’s US context, it is dangerous. We aren’t fighting to become better custodians of capitalism than the existing ones—we want to do away with the whole thing.
You mentioned doing a workers inquiry in your statement, can you expand on that?
Our interest in inquiry has a few origins. First, we are concerned with fetishizing past forms, even those from our own traditions. Today’s capitalism, and particularly capitalism in the United States, is of a new order. One way to make clear the historically specific contours of our current situation is for the working class to map out their own conditions in detail. Doing this can give us insights into the antinomies inherent to today’s capitalist life. Second, we are inspired by the role that inquiry played in Italian Marxism. Inquiry was not merely a process of figuring out what to do—it allowed for working class subjects to reconstitute their own conscious position in the system, up and against bourgeois ideologies that act to negate exactly this kind of consciousness. So in today’s world—a world where bourgeois ideological hegemony is as strong as ever—inquiries seem deeply needed.
While people have often described the DSA as the 'left-wing of the Democrats', more recently I've seen people argue it has more similarity to the old SDS. To what extent would you agree with that?
In short, DSA at times traffics in both. There are active partisans that want to make DSA the left-wing of the Democrats, and they perhaps envision themselves as a ruling faction within the Democratic party in some future. Their enthusiasm for this potential is bolstered by the demolition of legitimacy of Democratic Party insiders, and in particular these insiders’ inability to offer any sort of alternative. Yet the Democratic Party’s lack of hegemony puts a distinctive limit on the DSA-as-left-Democrats aspiration. The Trump moment has made for an acute level of heterogeneity within the DSA’s rank and file. In other words, the rank and file has become so mixed that it is difficult to imagine disciplining it into a coherent Democratic Party satellite. Here we arrive at the SDS view, which is also at least somewhat true.
In comparing DSA and SDS, what is missing tells us more about the DSA than what is shared. There is no adjacent revolutionary grouping organized around race—like the Black Panther Party—in today’s DSA. Nor is there a war like Vietnam that establishes a straightforward anti-imperialist politic (with the possible exception of the Kurdish movement in Syria). As such, today’s DSA has a weak position on imperialism. It also has a very weak understanding, perhaps worse than SDS, of the complex problem of race and class in the US. These are deeply significant differences, and the DSA must therefore be understood as something different than the old SDS.
When you say the change we want can't be achieved at the ballot box, does this mean you'd push for the DSA to stop getting involved with elections?
We don’t believe that we can force DSA chapters to stop caring about elections. To think this would be to underestimate the near-total dominance of today’s liberal ideological apparatuses. However, we do believe that we can begin to de-center electoral engagements as the core, if not the only, practice available to DSA members.
We have been very careful to show that our view of elections is not born of principal, but of the concrete situation under which elections unfold in the US. Here we are in agreement with mainstream political scientists, who largely understand the US electoral system as undemocratic.
What sort of jobs do you do yourselves?
This can’t be generalized, as we are of many backgrounds. There are now too many in the caucus to give an accounting, but those who worked on the statement were of the following occupations: bartender, paralegal, contingent office worker, construction worker, teaching assistant, social worker, etc.
Have you read Where we stand and what did you think of it?
Most of us have looked at it. We don’t have much to say about it, though.
What's the reaction been like from the rest of the DSA and your own chapter?
Mixed. The present leadership in our own chapter seems to get very defensive when alternatives are proposed that don’t involve tactics one might take up as a volunteer for a Democratic candidate, such as canvassing to get people to engage with the state in a particular way. They keep us—and all caucuses for that matter—at arm's-length, mandating that we append the following to any statement or event we make known to the public: This event is being organized by the Communist Caucus, and is not an official East Bay DSA event. So there’s that kind of bureaucratic distancing. But this shying away also manifests in more concrete ways. For example, some comrades were arrested demonstrating against an alt-right gathering in Berkeley, CA. Calls on leadership for jail and court support were, to a large degree, ignored. Or, in another case, an outspoken member was suspended for three months in the face of mounting contention around electoral endorsements.
In talking with rank and file members in our chapter, however, there is great interest in the kind of work we want to do. This is also true nationally, as DSA members from chapters across the country have contacted us about tenant organizing.
Most of these conversations affirm our decision to join the DSA in the first place.
To close with a modest claim, we live at a time, due to a number of factors, where fewer and fewer people can take their labor to market and find the means of sustenance. As rises in productivity remainder more people from work, we don’t see full employment as possible or, frankly, desirable, in an ideal future. We do not want to spread around capitalist labor. We must abolish it.
While we are of the novel perspective that some secret to the revolution has yet to make itself legible, engaging in struggles that directly interrupt capital as it functions today reveal the present conditions plainly and clearly—and that’s always a good place to start.