Iowans Reforming Iowan Reformism: The Status of the Iowa DSA (and Elsewhere)
One of the issues DSA’s national organization faces is a lack of centrality. Each state, each region, each city, becomes an independent organ that tasks itself with addressing particular, localized struggles. In some cases, that can be a beneficial arrangement. Obviously, not all locales are going to be affected by identical conflicts. Geographical volition, however, can also lead to ideological disconnections and deviations that ultimately strengthen reactionary power.
DSA’s “big tent” has definitely emboldened more people to join and start chapters, but it has decidedly not prompted a consensus regarding socialist praxis. This problematizes the internal workings of chapters and their accord with neighboring organizations. DSA is nominally driven by pragmatic reformism, utilizing existing institutions to achieve socialistic goals, but this theoretical basis is vague and not necessarily adhered to by the democratic socialists/social democrats (demsoc/socdem) that mainly compose the organization. DSA is a national democratic socialist assembly that presently is not pursuing the cultivation of demsoc candidates as its primary objective. Aside from a select few races across the nation since 2016, DSA has not operated as a political party. One would think this would be the principal motivation of an electorally oriented, non-orthodox, socialist movement, but since DSA’s post-Sanders boom, it does not appear to be the foundational strategy. I find this strange and unproductive.
This ideological inconsistency urges me to scrutinize the theoretical contentions of some individuals in the larger Iowa DSA. There are many within our ranks, and at our periphery, that continue to advocate for intertwinement with the Democrats, a pragmatic pretense that would only relegate the Iowa DSA to a minor, informal leftwing caucus of the state’s Democratic Party. Disregarding the unassailable fact that partnering with Democrats only hinders the development of an autonomous socialist party, a sizable faction of Iowa DSA members cling to the capitalist realism of “now is now the right time.” This isn’t progressive politics, this is the territorialization of left-leaning political bodies by the overclass.
Frankly, this exhorted allyship is in actuality a resigning to defeat and a line of thought that any self-described socialist should adamantly reject. There is a distinctly nihilistic quality to a socialist organization abandoning the instruction of socialists in favor of election cycle campaigning. This is an unsettling degradation of an already degraded reformism, deserting electoral socialism for outright liberalism.
Fortunately, Iowa’s chapters have not unilaterally embraced Democratic campaigns. Some have mistakenly offered cosigns to left-leaning liberals, technically contravening DSA national’s criteria for endorsement, but so far, no organization has officially meshed with a Democrat, although plenty of Iowa DSA members have regrettably suggested that stratagem within the online spaces.
An important political distinction needs to be stressed. I am not concerned by DSA members individually supporting and voting for, say, a politician like Cathy Glasson. Casting a vote for a socdem, or a populistic liberal, is one’s personal prerogative and mostly harmless. I am troubled, however, by any plan that would functionalize a whole DSA chapter into a Democratic instrument. Implanting socialist organizers into the decaying American electoral system would be a futile effort, yet, still I come into contact with ostensible socialists who maintain that deliberate conjunction with Democratic party politics is absolutely necessary. Furthermore, some are boldly ignorant enough to claim that eschewing the Democratic machinery is a sign of class privilege as Democrats, supposedly, lessen the oppression of marginalized identities. These takes are ahistorical, chauvinistic, exhausting and display one’s unfamiliarity with Marxist theory. In the past decades, the Democrats have been the major force behind welfare dissolution, immigrant deportation, and imperial interventionism, among other mass global violences. To claim the Democrats are, or could become, representatives of the oppressed in America and abroad is untenable and neglects the political reality of the Democrats as a capitalist party.
If DSA chapters in Iowa, and across the USA, want to seriously attempt electoral socialism, candidates have to be fostered. The DSA of Michael Harrington spent the end of the 20th Century desperately trying to usher the Democrats to the left. He was an idealist that failed conclusively. DSA has to pivot from its Harringtonian legacy and reapproach the electoral domain.
American third parties are generally useless groups, but that’s largely because the platforms of the Greens, the Libertarians, etc are included to some degree into the party lines of the Democrats and Republicans. Also, it should be noted they don’t do anything outside of election years. If the DSA wants to revive the Debs-esque ardor of the early 20th Century, it will have to evolve into an explicitly socialist third party and offer an alternative perception of American political economy. Considering the vastness of contemporary wealth inequality, a disparity proportionally greater than that of America a century ago, now is the time for an enthusiastic proaction that is not tethered to the Democrats. DSA candidates have been elected in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New York, and even here in Iowa. We are living through a moment in which resolute electoral socialists can win races, but this will depend on whether or not chapters will utilize their energies and resources to restructure themselves as parties separate from the networks of local Democrats.
Of course, there is also the option of decisively renouncing reformist praxis in favor of economic struggle.
To be transparent, I am not a demsoc. I am a Marxist, and therefore, I support measures that have been validated by historical successes. Gravitating towards the Democratic Party has not behooved the DSA. Many socialists across the Hawkeye state repeat the tired maxim, “we need a diversity of tactics,” a statement that when deconstructed means, “we must capitulate to the Democrat’s incrementalism.” A robust diversity of tactics would consider Luxemburg’s assessment; “The activity of the party organization, the growth of the proletarians’ awareness of the objectives of the struggle and the struggle itself, are not different things.” The electoral order can be sometimes useful in staving off conservative policies, yes, but the chief objective of a socialist party should be to agitate and organize the working class, not to elect somewhat more benign bourgeois rulers.
I understand that I actively participate in a reformist organization. That is the circumstance of living in a state with a marginal number of socialists, however, I am encouraged by my local chapter’s historical knowledge, theoretical understanding, and commitment to proletarian empowerment. Central Iowa DSA’s leadership, with the unanimous support of its members, has instituted a rigid criteria for officially endorsing demsocs, an ideological firmness that I deeply appreciate. Moreover, my comrades and I have been dedicated to local housing and union struggles within the city. Even when the recent primary campaigns tried to convince Central Iowa DSA to champion demurely progressive politicians, the chapter did not forego its principles and withdraw from Des Moines’s more pressing injustices. Several members, including myself, did periodically volunteer with the copacetic Glasson campaign, but this was acknowledged by all to be involvements outside of the organization, ancillary to our main collective goals.
I do not intend to condemn allies in fellow Iowa DSA chapters. I know we are all thoroughly concerned for those affronted by the horrors of capital, but sentimental verve does not justify reactionary beliefs. The mobilization of Iowa’s DSA cannot be encumbered by bourgeois political apparatuses. Perhaps democratic socialism can be entertained. It has produced modest victories. Liberalism, most assuredly, cannot be viewed as viable.
While an audible number of DSA members in Iowa have defended Democratic politics as a primary praxis, the state’s chapters have been otherwise busy with many commendable projects. Tenant’s unions have been founded, anti-ICE protests have been rallied, and socialist educational materials have been disseminated into communities. Frequently I hear from the pragmatist camp that while these are laudable affairs, they don’t directly form policy, and therefore aren’t as advantageous for working people. It’s clear that some find it acutely difficult to expunge their tendency to settle back into the comforts of ballots and caucuses. To counter this opinion, another analysis asserted by Luxemburg should be remembered; “the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places.” In America, the political space has been subjugated by the austere authority of two violent capitalist parties. This control prevails, resisting any leftward push. Knowing this clear historical precedent, it is crucial for socialists to engage the economic sphere, where workers are the integral element, and even when repressed, possess transformative potential.
I hope Iowa’s DSA chapters will repudiate the reactionary allegiances of the past and eagerly continue to inspirit our fellow proletariat.