Monday Hot Take, April 19th, 2021

One day late, but with a reading supplement.

After Amazon Reports

Here are a bunch of articles and some audio content about the union loss at Amazon in Bessmer, Alabama. You should also check out “Lessons from Bessemer,” a series featuring some of these articles with brief commentary at Working Mass, the blog of Boston DSA’s labor working group. 

Podcast (The Nation, Behind the News) and TV interviews with Jane McAlevey

An interview with an RWDSU’s lead organizer for Labor Notes

Mike Gecan in The Nation

Daniel Lazare in Weekly Worker

Luis Feliz Leon in In These Times

Kim Kelly in Strikewave

Joe Allen in Tempest

Hannah Ehrlinspiel in The Call

Michael Goldfield in the Marxist Sociology Blog

Chris Townsend in Marxism-Leninism Today

Rebecca Green in Socialist Alternative

Dave Kamper in The Forge

Nelson Lichtenstein in Dissent

Rich Yeselson in Jacobin

John Logan in Against the Current

Toni Gilpin in Labor Notes

The Myth of the Big Tent — Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia

“DSA is a big tent organization.”  

We hear it often enough, likely at most chapter meetings (it turns out it doesn’t feature prominently on the website). But what does “big tent” mean? 

On one hand, “big tent” is a statement of practical fact, with some historical explanation. DSA does include anarchists, all sorts of lower- and upper-case communists, social democrats, and progressives. This has some basis in the founding of DSA, which was a merger of the social democratic Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement, a product of the New Communist Movement. Members back then probably didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything either.

On the other hand, “big tent” is aspirational, and this noble wish also has some historical justification. People in DSA aren’t kicked out for disagreeing with each other. After a democratic vote, the “losers” aren’t shown the door. 

This is an important point because it is regrettably unlike most socialist organizations in the past. 100 years ago, at the encouragement of the Communist International, the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America merged to form what became CPUSA. This pattern of orders from Moscow continued, frequently with less productive consequences, in effect eventually exchanging internal democracy for directives based on the Soviet Union’s foreign policy considerations. Along the way, various leaders and factions on the left and right wings were kicked out, and for a brief time the whole party was even dissolved.

The mirror image of this phenomenon affected CPUSA’s revolutionary critics, who themselves adopted a similar model and internal culture based upon a distorted understanding of “democratic centralism” and pre-war Bolshevism. These critics, who like the CPUSA sometimes contributed to titanic workers’ struggles, were prone to split over theoretical issues (occasionally the disguised rationale for personalized faction fights). Hence all the acronyms: CLA, AWP, WPA, SWP, ISL, etc.

But the social democrats were litigious too. Remember, a young Michael Harrington opposed the Port Huron Statement as insufficiently anti-Communist and the parent organization League for Industrial Democracy decided to set the youth Students for a Democratic Society loose. Of course, revolutionaries soon took root in SDS and tore it apart. The rest is history, albeit much less impactful and with more sects than has been ideal.

We seem to be better off: five years now without a split and no political basis for one in the near future.

Still, the tent isn’t infinitely big. Anyone can join, but many people won’t because they don’t consider themselves socialists. And while socialists can justify a variety of opposing opinions, there are many opinions that socialists would never hold.

The fact that DSA hasn’t suffered a split might be the result of its amorphous structure and its relatively undefined politics. According to DSA’s constitution, we do retain the right to expel members “if they are found to be in substantial disagreement with the principles or policies of the organization.” So what are those principles and policies? I’ll address this in a future column.

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