“There are basic questions of democratic norms here, including the setting of a precedent of expelling members for political disagreements without due process. But there are broader political challenges for a growing socialist movement to grapple with. We need to keep politicians accountable — particularly those that we’ve endorsed — through democratic debate and engagement rather than immediate expulsion.”
This is the thesis of Hadas Thier’s recent article on Jacobin, thrown into the ring of the ever-developing DSA saga concerning what we are to do when our elected representatives betray our principles. It is, frankly, a dishonest representation to the less invested public or de-politicized membership of DSA about what is happening. Far from the Enragés clearing house of the Girondins, far from bureaucratic cliques purging personalities whom they find inconvenient, what has transpired is in fact the strengthening of democracy in DSA through the building of new norms which should be inspiring to all comrades in the organization. Rather than an obstacle, DSA’s rank and file is setting a new and exciting precedent. One where we are, indeed, free to do exactly what Thier suggests: engage in “democratic debate and engagement”. We are seeing what I can only assume is a rather new development in DSA: a significant minority of our rank and file membership has organically coalesced around a problem they take very seriously and have expressed frustration with our inaction. Comrades from all over the country have released statements, participated in internal debates, and proposed in open letters to the national leadership their visions of how we should consider responding when our electeds betray our established positions and platform.
What Thier’s article does is act as though the proposal of expulsion has somehow already made it happen and works backward from there. DSA’s right flank is subtly revealing, in their continued efforts to suppress calls for severing ties with one of our national representatives who voted to fund an occupying military, that their belief in democracy stops short at consequences. While there are certainly ‘moral’ arguments to be made on the grounds of horse-trading around Palestine’s continued subjugation by a settler-colonial project, we would do better to look at this in the way of strategy, and what is being proposed by the DSA right is simply bad strategy. I’d like to propose a few questions for those who make these sorts of arguments around compromising with our (loosely-defined) ‘allies’: What message do we send to the ruling class when we refuse to take our own stated principles seriously? Furthermore, what message do we send to ourselves? If we continue to cede ground under the guise that we’re rejecting “purity politics”, where do we draw the line on how far we’re willing to have our positions bent? What does it mean to be in an organization that stands in solidarity with Palestine but allows one of its national representatives (a position which Thier disregards as a ‘loose affiliation’) to agree to the funding of their extermination?
Thier argues that much of Bowman’s political action is a mere reflection of his constituency and that he has ‘real material pressures affecting his positions’. One has to ask, if his affiliation with DSA is so loose and his positions so malleable that they are not reflective of his membership in the largest socialist organization in the US, why the hell do we need him so badly? Thier might argue, as she does in her article, that he has “helped to popularize previously marginal ideas and emboldened the Left to fight for more aggressive demands”. This is well and good if we were to ignore how selling out our principles for someone who does not share the commitments of our base affects our work. To accept this, we would have to pretend that our hard work and struggle is not being subsumed by the left caucus of the Democratic Party under this strategy, and that socialists are expected to be incredibly flexible on matters of grave importance once they are in office rather than acting as a principled opposition bloc. We must ignore that our movement has a responsibility to popularize the pro-Palestine position which DSA has time and again voted to adopt in line with our socialist internationalism. By being incredibly flexible on that matter, we make it apparent that this issue – and internationalism more broadly – is of secondary importance to us. Worse, our political opponents will see us as willing to capitulate to their demands. They will observe our lesser-principled representatives being defended tooth-and-nail by our more publicly-known membership against those amongst us who define the organization, those working on the ground in their communities to build socialism directly. These are the very comrades who our friend Thier characterizes as people “who would rather engage in endless Twitter wars than practical political work, and who take haughty, self-righteous, and impatient approaches with people who “don’t get it”.
Despite the slander, Thier nonetheless comes to suggest exactly what we on the left flank of DSA have already been doing. “We need to hold political allies accountable through open criticism and education, and at times withholding endorsement or even censure or expulsion.” Have we not been engaging in open criticism? Have we not been merely arguing for the withholding of endorsement, for censure and/or expulsion? Have we not been debating this, something that Thier is literally actively doing in writing this? She frames us as having jumped the gun, as having already expelled Bowman without having any membership engagement (while glossing over the fact that expulsions can be appealed within the constitutional framework of DSA), and acts as though we are ‘canceling’ a serious comrade (who is, in the same breath, loosely affiliated with us) over a minor disagreement, while somehow censoring DSA’s right in this expedited crusade against him.
The problem with Thier’s position is that she wants it both ways. She cannot be against debate but she wants the debate on her own terms. Democratic norms’ or ‘democratic procedure’ have been used in the left for too long to silence internal critiques- especially in “democratic centralist” organizations such as the defunct International Socialist Organization, which Thier used to belong to. This playbook is also the normal procedure of the right wing of established parties: after slandering their relatively powerless opponents, they walk back and retreat while saying that they stand for debate. Sure, but what sort of debate? The form debate takes is given by the power imbalance of the DSA rank and file, which is upset and does not have access to media with a wide platform (such as Jacobin like Thier has). They are only left with the power of the local letter and the “Twitter war”, which Thier actively derides. In older sect forms, debate could be controlled, and comrades could be disciplined. But DSA’s horizontalism means that leadership figures cannot rely on rigid norms to punish rank and file comrades and debate is unbridled.
It is not the best format, but it is the only one rank and file comrades without institutional connections have to make clear – to ourselves, to our opponents, and to those political opportunists who seek to waste our time, resources, and energy in getting them elected and then completely disregarding our platform- that we are not going to sell ourselves short for the prospect of some tepid reforms we may get eventually from the very people who apparently don’t even take their relationship to the socialist movement seriously at all.
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