On-Again/Off-Again: The Relationship between Socialism and U.S. Labor
Democratic socialists want to achieve, as the late British Labour Party leader Tony Benn often put it, a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favor of working people and their families. To that end, we want the abolition of class rule; the maximum possible extension of democracy and political freedoms; an end to every form of oppression on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, national origin, or religion; an end to war, militarism, and imperialism; and an economy that respects, not destroys, the planet.1 These are the animating principles of the new democratic socialist movement in the United States and the primary organizational expression of that movement is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). (I am a longstanding member of DSA.) Since 2016, DSA’s membership has increased nearly tenfold, to roughly 60,000 members organized in local chapters in cities and states across the country. As other socialist organizations have dissolved or become little more than small publishing operations, DSA has increased in size, political influence, and media attention. Unlike many other socialist organizations, it does not demand adherence to any given “line,” but is a big-tent activist organization driven by the energy of its rank-and-file members, many of whom are young and getting involved in organized political activity for the first time. DSA’s low barrier to entry positioned it to attract newly minted socialists, many of whom came to their current politics through social media and publications like Jacobin magazine, looking for a political home in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking election to the presidency.
One of DSA’s main organizational commitments is supporting and helping to rebuild the U.S. labor movement. This is because, like the generations of socialists who came before us, we see the working class as the only social group with the potential power to fundamentally transform society. The working class is not, however, simply a pre-existing social category waiting to be mobilized by socialists or anyone else. Class identities do not necessarily flow from the objective structures of the class system—they must be created.2 Unions play an indispensable role in organizing individuals as workers, and in inculcating an identity as a union member. But that sense of identity does not necessarily extend to an entire working class fighting not for the best possible deal from a particular employer, but to take charge of the whole society.