Bern Notice: Responses to Comments on Bern After Reading

I recently wrote an essay for New Politics about the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Bernie Sanders campaign, Bern After Reading: Sanders and Socialist Strategy. At its core, Bern After Reading (BAR) was asking questions: what is different about a socialist approach to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and is DSA following the perspectives laid out at the 2019 Convention for how to relate to election campaigns? I cast my doubts but ultimately, I left it open. I described what I saw as a shifting orientation among DSA members towards left populism and gave a political argument for why I thought this would be problematic. The central thrust of BAR was not whether to get involved with the Sanders campaign, but to argue that how socialists choose to support Sanders matters.

In the weeks since publishing, there have been at least four[1] long form responses and numerous comments on social media. The replies to BAR focused mostly on my assessment of DSA’s Bernie Sanders work, essentially rejecting my contention that there is reason to be concerned about how DSA is campaigning for Sanders. Some of this has to do with a mischaracterization of what I was saying in the original piece, but response essays by both Emma Caterine and Alan Maas object to the way I approached the investigation.

I decided to wait to respond because I could see that there were starting to be two positions that were hardening, essentially pro- and anti- electoral politics, which I didn’t want to play into. I’m responding now to clarify points I made that I think didn’t come across as I intended, but also because the pieces raise interesting questions about the type of organization DSA is (Caterine), and the relationship between politics and organizing (Maas).

Bern, Redux

Let’s start by revisiting Bern After Reading to make sure we’re all on the same page. In the article I wrote, I reviewed the resolutions passed at the August 2019 DSA Convention, specifically “class struggle elections”, which stipulated that DSA would have an approach to elections that would emphasize the working class as the agents of change and that our activity would be independent of candidates’ campaigns and the capitalist parties. This wasn’t my idea; it was a perspective that was developed and argued by other DSA members and ultimately passed by majority vote at the Convention.

BAR asks, is DSA following this perspective? Many readers seemed to think I was writing off Sanders or condemning the work being done. I did not say conclusively that we are not following it — I expressed my doubt, but I left this open knowing that there was no way to answer that question once and for all.

Anticipating the criticism that my concerns were unfounded, I spent much of the piece building the case for why this was an actual issue from what was publicly available (we’ll return in the next section): the DSA for Bernie campaign closely resembles the official Sanders campaign; many DSA members have taken staff positions in the Sanders campaign and used socialist contacts in their staff work[2]; and the socialist representation of Bernie Sanders has shifted in a way that I argued was very problematic. I specifically named out how articles written or shared were showing a pattern of avoiding tricky issues like the primaries and the Democratic Party and representing Sanders as the answer to problems instead of “…popular[izing] a class struggle perspective, one that sees the working class as the agents of change…” (Resolution #31, Class Struggle Elections). I sketched out a narrative that DSA members were deploying, which is silent on important parts of the electoral process that are stacked against us and explained why I thought this inherited the problems of left populism; as far as I’ve seen, there hasn’t been a response to the narrative I mapped.

The last part of the article goes through the politics at stake. The reason to raise the politics is because I want the Sanders project to succeed, not because I’m consigned to failure — theory is a collection of experiences and reflections, which we can have as a guide going forward. The issues I raised were:

1. If DSA follows the Sanders campaign on how to deploy its efforts (phone banking, canvassing out of state and focusing on battleground states), what is the difference between DSA for Bernie and the Bernie Sanders campaign? What is it that socialists do, besides be the most dedicated supporters of a candidate? How does DSA practice critical support?

2. If our practice so closely resembles regular electoral tactics, how does this move from elections to grassroots organizing? There are decades of experience that tell us that the gravity of elections pulls organizing into it, and it is only with a concerted effort that we move that energy back to labor and social movements.

3. In the United States in particular, the Democratic Party nomination is not a democratic election and it has been incredibly effective in suppressing candidates who are undesirable to the party’s capitalist elite. In effect, the main struggle in the election will be against the Democrats because of how they will oppose and sabotage any left challengers. In the bigger picture, left electoral campaigns are successful in periods of high struggle with strong class organization, which does not line up well with conditions in 2020.

Method, or, I don’t know anything about Gossip Girl[3]

The first major rebuttal to the points I laid out in Bern After Reading was an essay by New York DSA member Emma Caterine, Auditing Campaigns: Bernie 2020 and the Future of DSA. In her piece, Emma objects to the methodology used to assess DSA for Bernie, arguing that 1) Bern After Reading lacks concrete evidence to support the claim that there is cause for concern, and 2) that a media analysis, particularly of Jacobin magazine, is “a poor per se lens through which to analyze campaigns”.

Emma raises good points about how we evaluate any activity in DSA, so it makes sense that we start by talking about method. The problems she raises are considerable because as a voluntary organization there are no mandated activity reports (hell, there are real no activity reports at all), nor are there staff who do this accounting for members, so access to the information you’d use to evaluate activity becomes a major problem. Emma discards social media as unreliable; I agree, and this is largely why I did not use tweets or other social media communications as evidence[4].

That leaves us with only a handful of sources we can consider — official DSA communications, first-hand accounts[5], and media. Emma cites four chapter-level communications as evidence that DSA members are doing more than standard campaign activity: three tweets[6] from chapters and one Google Doc from New Orleans. Her point is well taken that there is certainly intention to use the campaign to discuss more than just Bernie Sanders among some chapters, but we have no way to gauge the significance of the evidence. Looking at the DSA for Bernie webpage sheds no light: there are again no reports, and the direction given is limited to canvassing, phone banking and tabling; the “DSA For Bernie: Getting in the Field” presentation includes one slide of out of sixty-one that mentions “how to combine Bernie work with Existing Campaigns”, but gives no examples or direction. This is precisely why I left the evaluation as an open question, one that I could not answer conclusively and that needed to be taken up by rank and file members among themselves.

“Jacobin isn’t DSA”

The method question ultimately comes down to my media analysis, especially through Jacobin magazine. I’m open to this criticism, but I find it unconvincing. First, Emma reduces my argument about the magnitude of Jacobin’s investment in Sanders (the number of articles) by saying that headlines do not constitute a useful measure. I offered the quantity to show that this is happening frequently, and while she is of course correct that a headline alone doesn’t say enough, any reader looking through a survey of these articles will find that the title is a fair representation of the content.

Emma argues that Jacobin is not useful as a barometer because it is not a DSA publication — it would be another thing if DSA officially argued these points, but she suggests that because DSA’s publications don’t reflect this thesis my argument falls flat. For one, there actually is the outright direction to Jacobin from DSA for Bernie. The Bernie Starter Kit, an official manual from DSA for Bernie[7], lists articles for members to read to get oriented to Sanders: of the fifty-five articles listed, forty are from Jacobin (73%). Jacobin may not be DSA, but DSA is apparently Jacobin.

The more obvious problem with Emma’s argument is that Jacobin is clearly the intellectual leader for DSA. DSA inherits a political model very similar to Debs’ Socialist Party of America (SPA), which has a very limited ideological profile because of its multi-tendency nature. It becomes politically problematic for the organization to represent a singular approach given the mixed nature of the membership, so the official publications are necessarily conservative and unable to weigh in heavily in the life of the organization.

Like the SPA, that means the intellectual heavy lifting is done outside of the official structure as a complex, but that hardly means independent publications do not reflect the membership. Scholars today still look at the role of independent socialist publications and printers like Appeal to Reason, The Call, and the Kerr Company to understand the attitudes of activists in that period. Media is not a perfect representation, but a useful one. The claim that Jacobin, the largest and most influential publication of this generation of socialists, doesn’t reflect the attitudes of DSA members towards Bernie Sanders, for me, doesn’t hold water.

“We’re Already Doing That”

Alan Maas’s article, Politics Isn’t Poker, takes up the activity of Chicago DSA in light of my use of CDSA’s strategy document as a frame in Bern After Reading. There are many things I could nitpick about Maas’s piece, especially when he confuses the “all-in” metaphor[8] that I criticize, but I’ll focus on Alan’s main arguments, which boil down to: 1) the DSA for Bernie campaign is activating DSA members who were paper members, and 2) Chicago members are doing more than simply advocating for Bernie. If the thrust of my article is “let’s make sure what we’re doing builds beyond November”, Maas says, “we’re already doing that.”

I plead no contest to descriptions of another chapter. The issue I take with Maas’s piece is his political evaluations. There are some mischaracterizations (he suggests that I don’t think that the Sanders campaign is historic), but when he says that inactive members are now involved with canvassing and they’re doing more than just canvass for Bernie, he misses that the point was, as a local comrade said to me, to organize through Bernie beyond elections. What he describes is canvassing for other politicians (Anthony Clark) and large policy changes (Medicare for All), but doesn’t give us any examples of non-electoral components of this work.

Let me take a moment to correct a problem with Bern After Reading, which I think had the unintended effect of depicting CDSA negatively. Chicago DSA has done incredible work in the “Lift the Ban” campaign, Take Back the Grid, Chicago Teachers’ Union strike support and numerous other measures, and since that wasn’t the subject of Bern After Reading they weren’t recognized outright[9], but the Chicago strategy document depicted the tendency described in BAR. Alan confirms this when he says that canvassing for Sanders is also canvassing for another politician (a Chicago DSA member), and so the problem of how to use an election to support non-electoral organizing is not resolved in what he presents.

The question for BAR is not whether DSA should do Sanders work (I voted to endorse, supported the IE and “Class Struggle Elections”), but how we do it. Maas is right to say that its easier said than done but doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said. The “How” is emphasized because the way the work is done will produce a type of organization and leadership in DSA[10] — if the training and experience is primarily electoral, it follows that those trained will be suited for electoral purposes. Maas provides no response to this, collapsing everything into a category of not-Sanders canvassing, which makes no distinctions between elections and grassroots organizing.

[1] Emma Caterine, Auditing Campaigns: Bernie 2020 and the Future of DSA; Alan Maas, Politics Isn’t Poker; Chris Maisano, The Bernie Sanders Campaign Can Inspire the US Working Class to Fight For Itself; Stephen Mahood Strategy After Reading — From Bernie to Movement Building From Below

[2] To be explicitly clear, at no point have the Democratic Socialists of America or the DSA for Bernie campaign ever broadcast official Sanders events or activities, nor coordinated with the Bernie Sanders campaign.

[3] This is in reference to Emma’s analogies that reference the character Horatio from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. Neither analogy really landed for me, so I’m not sure what Emma was getting at.

[4] There are thousands of tweets from DSA members that could have been used to bold the points I was making about why there is reason to worry, but this also gets into a privacy concern that I did not want to wade into.

[5] Most of these currently exist through social media, which circles back to problems already discussed.

[6] I find this selection of evidence ironic after Emma’s explanation that social media is not a reliable source.

[7] This manual includes recommendations to download the official Bern app, and campaign along similar lines.

[8] Alan’s article suggests that I am saying DSA is all-in, which I am not. I explained that for those who are advocating Sanders campaigning, this is a troublesome metaphor because it suggests “win big or go home”. His article suggests that I deploy it to say that all DSA activity is eclipsed by Sanders work, which is incorrect. But what’s curious is that he then uses the gambler’s fallacy: “As long as we’re using gambling metaphors, maybe another poker term is worth considering: pot-committed. When you’ve already bet a significant number of your chips, it doesn’t make sense to fold your hand or make a weak bet to save what you have left since the odds may be worse later on.” This suggests that DSA has made a bad bet, but we should throw good money after bad in hopes that we get a return since we’ve already committed significantly. To my mind, that’s even worse than “all-in” because it recognizes that there’s already a problem, instead of saying that you think you have a good hand. He then cheapens the value of the metaphor further by stating that Chicago has already gone already a couple of times, so that phrase is really just an embellishment.

[9] Every piece of writing has to make decisions of what to showcase and what to leave out. As much as I would have liked to add a disclaimer list, as a writer I thought this would be a chore to read. No disrespect was intended to Chicago DSA.

[10]Chris Maisano, Electoral Politics, Class Formation and Socialist Strategy. “Instead of becoming organic intellectuals for the ruling class, they’ve flooded the ranks of DSA, essentially refounding an organization built for a different political period.”

Socialist and labor activist in Wisconsin.

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