The DSA has its roots in the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose most prominent leaders included Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. In 1973, Harrington, the leader of a minority faction that had opposed the SPA’s rightward shift and transformation into the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) during the party’s 1972 national convention, formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC). In 1982, it merged with the New American Movement (NAM), a coalition of intellectuals with roots in the “New Left” movements of the 1960s and former members of socialist and communist parties of the Old Left, to form the DSA. Over the next 35 years, national DSA membership stayed at about 6,000-8,000 until the election of Donald Trump in 2016, which saw membership explode to 32,000 by the end of 2017. As of February 2019 membership is at over 55,000 with no sign of slowing down.
What Kind of Organization is DSA?
DSA is a nonprofit political organization, not a party. We are also a “big tent” organization, which means we are multi-tendency, have no litmus tests and are open to people from all corners of the socialist left who share our anti-capitalist vision for the liberation of all people from the systems of oppression empowered by the status quo. For the first time in over a generation, socialist ideas and movements are once again gaining ground and legitimacy in mainstream political discourse and setting the stage for real and meaningful change to take place in our society. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, DSA has grown exponentially from this shift of so many people away from the neo-liberal political center and towards the more radical socialist and progressive left.
What are DSA’s Goals?
We seek to build local, national, and international progressive mass movements for social justice and transformative change while also establishing an openly socialist presence in the Portland metro region. Our chapter is made up of both longtime organizers and people completely new to socialism and political engagement. As socialists we share a vision of a collective, sustainable and just society beyond the exploitation of the capitalist system; one based on radical democracy, public control of resources and production, economic planning to meet human needs, racial and gender equality, and the free development of all people.
Here in Portland, we work toward those goals through a variety of labor, electoral, direct action, and mutual aid campaigns. We also organize educational events like panel discussions and book clubs, as well as happy hours and other social activities that help us connect and grow with other like-minded individuals. You can get a snapshot of what we’re up to right now by looking through our calendar. For a more complete picture, check out the first two issues of our print newsletter and its 2017 precursor:
OK, But What Exactly is Socialism?
Glad you asked. Despite socialism’s re-emergent and growing popularity in U.S. politics and culture, many people still struggle with a consistent answer to this question. This shouldn’t be too surprising though, since in the wake of decades of anti-communist cold war rhetoric most of the information floating around the mainstream media about what defines “socialism” spans from misinformed to flat out wrong.
It is often ignored or disregarded that the broad ideas of socialism – ideas promoting a mutually collective and egalitarian society – have actually been with humanity in different forms since its earliest beginnings. They are not a contemporary concept. The modern incarnation of what we call socialism today is the evolution of long existing historical ideas and concepts.
While there are lots of different tendencies under the broad tent that is “socialism” there is a common understanding among all of them that socialism is a system based on:
- A society structured around inherent human equality and dignity which promotes and supports the prosperity and free development of all people
- Democratic worker control of a collective economy designed to meet human needs
- Radical democracy where power is evenly and justly distributed and which grants everyone an equal voice in the decisions that affect their lives
Understanding why socialism is opposed to capitalism, a privatized economic system driven by profit, is about understanding the relationship between power and class, and how political power is connected with economic power. Economics is how a society produces and distributes the things it wants and needs, so that means there is a lot of power in being able to determine how economic decisions are made and how wealth and resources are distributed.
The economic power dynamics of a capitalist society is that the ruling class, the capitalist class, profits from the wealth produced by the physical, mental and emotional labor of the less powerful class doing all the work, the working class. This is because capitalists privately own the economic resources needed to produce things, also called the means of production, while the workers only own their labor and whatever they are able to buy with the wages made from selling that labor.
Socialism’s opposition to capitalism is not simply about greed being bad and sharing being good, nor is it just about everyone paying taxes to publicly fund services and programs or the government owning everything. It’s about how the unequal and oppressive division of labor and wealth in our society relies on one class having economic and political dominance over the other.
The rich 1% don’t take the majority share of the wealth because they are doing the majority of the work that produces it. It’s the thousands and millions of exploited workers who actually produce the output which generates their profits. No, the rich who make up the ruling class take the majority of the wealth generated by the workers merely because they privately owns the resources the workers need to use to produce the output, i.e. they undemocratically control the means of production and use that control to enrich themselves on the backs of the workers.
Much of the unnecessary suffering that exists in the world today in the form of systemic poverty, racism, patriarchy, LGBTQ bigotry, imperialism and climate change is rooted in the exploitation and oppression that is inherent to the capitalist system. But a better world is possible.
Socialism isn’t just concerned with the redistribution of wealth, but also the redistribution of political and economic power through the democratic ownership and control of the means of production used to generate economic wealth. Socialists believe that through an equal distribution of both economic and political power we can build a society that collectively meets the needs of all people in a way that is free of exploitation and oppression and that is sustainable for both people and planet alike. A world built for and by the many, not the few.
“What is Democratic Socialism?” / July 2018 Jacobin article by Neal Meyer
“The ABCs of Socialism” / Jacobin article edited by Bhaskar Sunkara