Move Forward Or Pack It Up

by David Duhalde on June 21, 2013

First published by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

In 1989, N.W.A was the world’s most dangerous group, there were 14 Democratic U.S. Senators in the states that made up the Confederacy, union density was nearly 18%, and the Soviet Union looked like it was on the way to political liberalization.

None of this is true today.


1989 was also the year that Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) co-founder Michael Harrington died. DSA, Harrington’s family, and the rest of the world have moved on and changed. Well, that is with the great exception of Joe Allen and the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

Bhaskar Sunkara, former editor of The Activist (blog of the Young Democratic Socialists) and founder of Jacobin Magazine, wrote a rather innocuous but thought-provoking piece for In These Times. The piece, “Lean Socialist,” challenged the anti-capitalist left to question some the strategies of our projects, such as our relationships with the liberals to our right. The democratic socialist Sunkara mentioned Harrington in passing in reference to both the man’s stature as the most visible American socialist in his lifetime and his relationships with the liberal-left establishment.

Rather than addressing any of the major critical questions that Sunkara presented, Socialist Worker (the ISO website) via Joe Allen dedicated several articles to criticizing Harrington, DSA, and Sunkara. One of the major critiques had to do with DSA’s position of building the left-wing of the possible and our strategy of supporting progressives and socialists under the Democratic Party line.

As in my open letter to comrade Dan LaBotz, I have contended that these caricatures of DSA are outdated and unhelpful. The vast majority of DSA and the Young Democratic Socialists’ work, even in election season, is not around electing anyone — Democrat or not. Yes, this type of electoral activity was a priority for Harrington and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations), but that was in the 1980s!

While Allen points out the obvious hard rightward drift of the Democratic Party, which makes it increasingly problematic as a venue for progressive energy, he doesn’t conduct any honest assessment of the type of third-party politics that the ISO conducts. If the Democratic Party is a dead end, then we should also admit that supporting non-major party candidates has not exactly yielded anything substantial for organized socialists. Even today, there are most likely more DSA members holding office than members of any other socialist collective.

As Committees of Correspondence member Will Emmons and I argued in Jacobin, we need to have a real assessment of the democratic left’s orientation towards electoral politics. Both strategies of building the left-wing of the Democratic Party or independent politics have their limitations and have largely failed. I contend that a new strategy could be to run in areas where there is no strong Republican candidate, as in New York City or Boston.

For example, Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant ran for a seat in the Washington State House, and garnered 20,000 votes against her Democratic challenger and State House Speaker Frank Chopp. Without a GOP candidate, Sawant did not play a divisive role; instead, she presented people with a left-wing option against an incumbent and powerful Democrat.

In my home state of Massachusetts, there are numerous races with no Republican contestants. If the left focused on those races, they could avoid the “spoiler” label and give many voters an option to vote against stale and machine Democrats.

The Left should be having a serious discussion of whether or not this is a valid strategy. We should not be dwelling on whether or not Michael Harrington was right on Vietnam. Focusing on arcane debates is a clear sign that a movement is in a possibly irrevocable decline. Personally, I prefer to hope that socialists can show outsiders how to grow a relevant and strategic opposition during this jobless recovery. Dwelling on personalities and mischaracterizations might build your cadre organization, but it doesn’t build the mass anti-capitalist movement that we need.

I hope the Socialist Worker will consider moving forward, or else we should all pack up.

David Duhalde is the Treasurer of Boston DSA and a student at Brandeis University.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Hoch June 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Small world. I met this guy! He wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper supporting my protest against my employer:


Arthur June 22, 2013 at 2:21 am

Your movement has been in irreversible decline for deadcades. Both social democrats and sects should all pack up.

Bury the undead!


Aaron Aarons June 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Arthur Dent writes, “Both social democrats and sects should all pack up.”

I guess that doesn’t apply to the social-democratic sect that calls itself “thelastsuperpower”. They don’t have to “pack up” because nobody knows they exist, despite their having been second-string cheerleaders for Team Imperialism for over 22 years now.


Pham Binh June 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

Duhalde deserves credit for calling a spade a spade. How often does anyone from any left tendency admit that their strategy has failed and call for open discussion of this fact among all trends?

Pieces like this make me think that DSA, whatever its faults, has a future because it is not so sectarian. For example, DSA (unlike ISO) has endorsed Socialist Alternative’s Ty Moore:

I was pleased to see Duhalde’s positive reference to Sawant and to see him practically beg for socialists to unite and run against Democrats in local races where there is no Republican to worry about.

All of this flies in the face of Allen’s critique of DSA’s politics which is way past its expiration date. If you want to diss them, brush up on what they’re doing now rather than pretend that they remain frozen in the Berlin Wall Era.

Another thing that stuck out to me was the passing reference to Sunaka’s editorship of YDS’s blog, The Activist. He was what, 22 at that time? Putting someone young, ambitious, and creative in charge of something like that is unheard of in “Leninist” groups and is to be commended. The future of the socialist movement depends on the actions of his generation.


David Duhalde June 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Bhaskar was probably 20 or 21 when he was the editor. He was a college student while I was DSA’s youth organizer in the early 2000s.


Tim Horras June 25, 2013 at 10:31 am

David, I’m glad to see there are forward-thinking people in the DSA. I hope more folks, especially older comrades, adopt your attitude. Your contributions to the debate are most welcome.


Tim Horras
Chair, Philly Socialists


David Duhalde June 26, 2013 at 8:21 am

Thanks Tim!


Aaron Aarons June 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

To fail to run against ‘Democrats’ when there is a strong ‘Republican’ in the race for fear of playing a “divisive” role presumes that we want to be seen as, in some way, part of the same political milieu as the Democrat Party. It is an attitude that perhaps would make sense, say, in Venezuela, where the hard left might not want to run against the Chavista socialist party when it might help an imperialist stooge to win. But such an attitude in the U.S. in relation to the blatantly imperialist and capitalist Democrat Party is a total cop-out.

It does make sense, however, to concentrate one’s resources in one-on-one confrontations with the Democrats. In places with blanket primaries (or non-partisan races with run-offs), such as Chicago, Washington or California, one gets into such a head-to-head by first coming in first or second in the primary. Such situations are, for better or worse, usually ideal for those who are afraid of being seen as “spoilers”.

The case of Kshama Sawant in the 2012 Legislative elections in Seattle, Washington, is rather unusual. She ran in two blanket primaries for the two seats in one legislative district, and came in second in both. In one case, the only other candidate was a Democrat, and in the other, there was a third candidate who was apparently unaffiliated. In that latter case, she won second place through a write-in vote and chose to run in that run-off against the more prominent and important Democrat opponent. Two sources for this info are:


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