More than a Name: Why DSA Should Embrace Democratic Socialism Over the Big Tent

Support for DSA’s big tent is one of the few hegemonic ideas in DSA, however it has gone woefully unanalyzed. Maine DSA’s Rose D. takes a look at some of the issues with how we understand the big tent, and argues for DSA being a firmly democratic socialist organization above all else.

Despite the fact that DSA is on paper a multi-tendency democratic socialist organization, and that our name is “Democratic Socialists of America,” this is not an accurate description of our organization. Rather, a more realistic characterization of DSA is a multi-tendency left-wing organization. While the differences may seem subtle, the dissonance between these two views of DSA cause significant problems for our organization. Democratic socialism is more than just a name, it’s our own unique political and ideological outlook, with our own history. However, this tradition has been increasingly sidelined within DSA, being treated as merely one position among many in a big tent, rather than the pole that our tent should center around.

In attempting to be an organization of everything for everyone on the so-called “left,” DSA has traded our own politics for incoherence and factionalism, opening ourselves to those who seek to subvert what makes it so attractive for so many people to begin with, and made it nearly impossible to focus our resources on any single project. While we largely cohered around the Bernie Sanders campaign in the 2020 presidential primary, in the subsequent two years DSA as a national organization has fallen into a state of disarray and internal infighting. We have buried our heads in the sand and pretended that having no unified plan was itself a strategy and that all “left-wing” positions were made equal. This kind of political agnosticism and naivety is not only anathema to anyone serious about democratic socialist politics but equally so our own constitution. It is crucial that in this critical moment for the socialist movement that we begin to identify some of our weaknesses that have led to this situation and attempt to resolve them.

Why Democratic Socialism?

There exists a view among some socialists that “democratic socialism” is indistinguishable from social democracy, akin to a moderate perversion of “real” socialist politics. Likewise, some DSA members do not identify with the label democratic socialist, viewing our name as simply a legacy of our Cold War inheritance. These perspectives are incorrect, as there is a unique democratic socialist politics that differs from both social democracy on the one hand, and sectarian interpretations of socialism on the other.

On the other side, attempts by advocates of democratic socialism to define the term frequently stress its democratic nature in opposition to more “authoritarian” or “top down” strains of socialism. Such arguments usually point out the undemocratic nature of capitalism, and describe how socialism will enable a more fully realized democratic society. A firm commitment to democracy is unquestionably a feature of democratic socialism, which can be seen in our internally democratic structures, where decisions are not made through decades-old dogma, or the opinions of an authoritarian leader, but by the membership and its elected representatives. In many ways, however, the “socialism but democratic” explanation is not especially satisfying. In large part, this is due to the fact that the socialist states of the 20th century it is contrasting with have not existed for over 30 years. While the ghost of the Soviet Union may still haunt the nightmares of our aging political elite, it isn’t a relevant reference point to many, if not most of the young people who make up DSA’s most committed supporters and our difference from it is not what drives people into our organization.

The democratic socialist theory of change interconnects struggles within the state to fights happening in other terrains, especially labor and tenant work.

Instead, what sets apart democratic socialism from other left wing ideologies today is its strategy for winning political power and achieving socialism. In contrast to the preceding decades, the post-2016 socialist resurgence has been defined by its engagement with politics as they exist, particularly in electoral politics. Carried within this understanding is a recognition that while the state is far from a neutral institution, it is contested terrain from which material gains can be won. While theorists such as Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas have outlined similar ideas before, DSA’s democratic socialism is heavily syncretic drawing from a wide variety of sources, allowing for multiple viewpoints. It is far less rooted in strict doctrine, than a pluralistic and pragmatic perspective that has emerged over the course of DSA’s actual practice of struggle. Not limited to electoral politics however, the democratic socialist theory of change interconnects struggles within the state to fights happening in other terrains, especially labor and tenant work. In short, democratic socialists recognize that to win socialism, we have to fight for it, but we have to do so in a way that actually engages within the existing contours of our material and political reality.

Central to the democratic socialist strategy is the necessity for a mass working class organization. The working class’s strength is ultimately in our numbers, and the mass party model enables us to unlock this potential by organizing our class towards our own emancipation. Such an organization will be, by necessity, a broad and pluralistic organization. Attempts to enforce a singular position are what create micro-sects, tiny groups of hundreds or even only dozens of members who dogmatically adhere to a specific line, usually amounting to little more than book groups. The natural result of wanting to avoid such a fate is for the seed of a mass party, such as DSA is, to be an open, multi-tendency organization with a “big tent.” However, while a broad, anti-sectarian organization is necessary for democratic socialist politics, its specific implementation within DSA has some issues.

A Big Tent or a Circus Tent?

The core of the problem is not with the “big tent” itself, but with how many understand the concept. The big tent as it currently functions within DSA is far less about what makes an open, ideologically broad organization important for building a mass socialist movement—free debate, easy entry to membership, pluralism rather than dogma—and far more about factionalism and giving a tiny minority an outsized sway over DSA and its direction. For democracy to function, a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere where people feel free to express and debate a plurality of ideas is a basic necessity. That DSA fosters these kinds of debates is a key difference between us and the various sects. However, a tent becoming so broad that every decision for every issue cannot be made without some group becoming profoundly aggrieved is not a functional way to run an organization.

Some would argue that the generalized “anti-capitalism” that defines DSA’s big tent at the moment provides enough common ground to unite us, but closer examination does not support this claim. We act like the why of abstract principles are more important for people’s politics than the how, but this isn’t the case. If the core of someone’s politics is that they don’t believe in engaging in state institutions, that is the starting point from which all of their strategic decisions will be made, not whatever their long term goal is. It shouldn’t be shocking then, that an organization that stretches from moderate social democrats to hardcore anarchists isn’t able to agree on much of anything. As a result, no matter what the question is, internal debate within DSA devolves into the same existential struggles with the same hardened sides because we’re not actually disagreeing on what strategy or tactic to use in a given moment, but rather the foundations of our members’ world views and by proxy DSA’s world view as an organization.

In attempting to be an organization of everything for everyone on the so-called “left,” DSA has traded our own politics for incoherence and factionalism.

The only reason that such contrasting perspectives co-exist in one organization is the spurious notion of “left unity.” The “left” as a category isn’t especially descriptive and is largely devoid of content. Indeed, defining the “left” is itself an extremely partisan act with sectarians frequently denying many socialists inclusion. Efforts to bridge these substantive divides, which are so deeply rooted they go back to the origins of socialist politics, may on the surface appear commendable, but in actuality, do little but waste our energy.

Working with others that one doesn’t fully agree with is a necessary part of politics, but it is something done for a reason towards a specific purpose. Coalitions for the sake of coalitions don’t provide much and aren’t an especially materialist approach to politics, reducing socialism from something rooted in the world of class relations to merely an ideal to be united around. In the past 200 years, there has not been a socialist organization in the US with an ideological tent as large as DSA’s. Given the challenges we have faced as an organization, it is not difficult to imagine why.

The claim that “if the left simply united we could achieve more” rests on questionable reasoning; abstracting lessons from other times and places that have little bearing on our own conditions. How left unity plays out in practice is that the vast majority of DSA, who are committed to democratic socialist principles, are constantly made to make room for a tiny group of ultraleftists, Trotskyists and other sectarians, who have to this point, failed to demonstrate the material gains to be made by acquiescing to their specific viewpoint. The reason a broad coalition, such as the recent NUPES coalition in France for example, can be worthwhile, is when each constituent group brings something to the table, such as their own base, voters or resources. Given that, due to their marginality, sectarians and ultraleftists provide none of these, what is to actually be gained by their inclusion in the tent? The goal of socialist politics is to build a mass movement of the billions of working class people across the world, not gain the support of a few thousand members of sects and random online “left” accounts.

Unlike sectarians, who have their own organizations, democratic socialists only have DSA.

A principle difficulty that arises from this model of the “big tent” is that it heightens the importance of factions. Questions are increasingly viewed through a pointless game of coalitional politics among different breeds of anti-capitalists, rather than what will best grow the socialist movement. Bread and Roses’ argument that NPC replacements mirror the ideologies of those they replaced is a perfect example of this, where what is beneficial for the democratic socialist project on the whole is discounted entirely in favor of what is good for each bloc. The mistake in this kind of logic is even more obvious when one considers the fact that DSA has 90,000 members, most of whom are not connected in any way to any faction, and are almost without a doubt to the “right” of the majority of the active cadre involved in caucuses.

However, not even a majority is good enough for some, as is evidenced by the troubling pattern of chapter general meetings, the NPC and even Convention being denied authority when minority factions do not like a particular outcome. Attempting to overturn results, or viewing them as invalid if they go against your preference is the height of individualism, and combined with DSA’s obsession with consensus and accommodation—itself an anti-democratic impulse—this becomes dangerous. It’s impossible to form a consensus that can appease both sides of mutually exclusive positions, especially when one side does not believe in democracy at all. Sectarianism and ultraleftism are authoritarian positions, rooted in moralism and idealism, where subservience to dogma is the beginning of political ethics. What a majority think does not matter, all that matters is the “correct” line. As the history of the left shows, treating this kind of opposition as innocuous is a recipe for disaster, and that we welcome them into DSA openly is incredibly dangerous for our internal health.

Allowing for Anything isn’t a Strategy

The big tent has put us in a situation where DSA as a national organization lacks a coherent vision, while our rank and file membership has the opposite—a seemingly infinite number of strategies, visions, and factions which lobby for their implementation. Another major problem lies in the disconnect between these—DSA’s norms and structures prevent decision making, and actively disallow us from strategizing in any serious way. The rhetoric around the so-called “majority bloc” of the NPC is a typical example of this. There is nothing insidious about votes getting a majority, that is after all, how democracy functions on a basic level. DSA’s decentralized nature contributes to this as well. Convention can vote on priorities all it wants, but every local is free to ignore these decisions and divert its resources and members to what it thinks is best, and given the weakness of democracy at the local level, and how easy it is for bad actors to hijack a chapter, this is not uncommon.

Since decisions cannot be made, we have instead opted for an “anything goes” approach that lets each piece of the organization do essentially whatever it wants. This causes a number of difficulties. One of these is that it is almost impossible to figure out what “DSA” is actually doing, or what we stand for at any given time, and makes members’ experiences extremely dependent on what area they live in. Our lack of direction makes it difficult to set goals and guidelines, or allow for any real common metric of success. The flipside is that chapters without strong development, particularly smaller and newer ones that lack veteran organizers, are more or less left to fend for themselves. Frequently they engage in work that has time and time again been shown to be ineffective, reinventing the wheel in both external organizing and methods of chapter administration. For these chapters “anything goes” is instead so often nothing happens. It’s no wonder then that so many of our chapters have fizzled out.

Convention can vote on priorities all it wants, but every local is free to ignore these decisions and divert its resources and members to what it thinks is best.

The strategy of “anything goes,” even if able to amount short term success, quickly faces a crisis of contradiction in which the projects, priorities, and tactics utilized by each constituent part of DSA come into conflict with one another, leading to further infighting. In many cases, these contradictions are not merely “different means to the same end,” but fundamentally mutually exclusive from one another, tugging the organization in multiple directions, weakening both approaches and the health of the DSA as a whole. Despite what some might want, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Socialism isn’t going to be simply handed to us on a silver platter, it’s something we have to fight for and win. In politics, winning requires strategy, and making decisions about what it is important to prioritize and devote resources to. Sometimes this means deciding to do some things, while excluding others. Allowing every member, chapter and committee to act as they please is a strategy, but it isn’t a coherent one. When combined with the issues with our big tent, the “anything goes” strategy has weakened DSA from the democratic socialist organization many of us believe it could be, into a free-for-all mess, in which anything is permitted, and there is no sense of direction or momentum. Without a clear vision or plan, our membership is only going to become increasingly disillusioned, a death sentence for an organization like DSA that cannot exist without volunteer labor.

For a Democratic Socialist DSA

The solution to the problems outlined above is not, as some have suggested, to restrict our membership, put in place ideological tests or require our members to uphold the platform in a specific way. These would harm DSA far more than it would help us. But we also need to be more thoughtful to the fact that being open doesn’t mean all positions are made equal, or that everyone is acting in good faith. By thinking so, we have allowed DSA to become vulnerable to entryism, given a platform to fringe views, and enabled individuals to become prominent whose political activity begins and ends with posting.

Unlike sectarians, who have their own organizations, democratic socialists only have DSA. Deliberately weakening it for the sake of inclusion of those who have no love for our project would be an unimaginable mistake. However, rather than adopting their methods for creating an ideologically pure organization, what we need to do is cohere DSA around democratic socialism and commit fully to this vision, ending the “anything goes” politics, even if a small subset of members don’t approve. This can be paired with some structural changes—such as dropping STV in favor of Borda, and actually start applying the democratic centralist clause of our bylaws.1 In practice, this means pursuing our politics in spite of any outrage, and following through on clear democratic mandates, and setting priorities which chapters are required to follow through on. If this causes a handful of individuals to leave, that’s their prerogative. We cannot continue to allow them to hold our organization and its potential hostage when they have no actual leverage.

Democratic socialists have a vision. Thousands and thousands of people didn’t join DSA so they could be forced to deal with people whose politics they have nothing in common with, they joined because they saw an organization that was doing something real—first with Bernie Sanders, and then with AOC and others—because they understood DSA could help them organize their workplaces and apartment buildings; or they saw how socialist politics could improve our lives, from more affordable rent, to combating climate change to stopping police violence. These are socialists we need, not the dogmatists. Socialism emerged as a force in American politics because people believed in this vision, and hoped for a better world. Given the critical period of history we are now entering, where abortion is being banned, the rights of queer people are under threat, and a permanent Republican hold on state power is increasingly likely, we can’t be holding ourselves back anymore.

Rose D. is a member of Maine DSA and Chief Editor of Mass.


1Article 1, Section III