Barry Eidlin “What is exciting about DSA is that the key question on the table is how do we engage in mass socialist politics.”
August 12, 2019, New York
Interviewer: ALPKAN BİRELMA
A: Let’s begin with who you are.
B: My name is Barry Eidlin, and I am an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University at Montreal. But I spend my time between Montreal and Los Angeles. I am involved in DSA as a member of the Los Angeles Chapter of DSA and I was an elected delegate to the recent DSA convention in Atlanta. I have only been a DSA member fairly recently, I signed up just over a year ago. Because when I realized I was going to be in US for an extended period of time, just made sense that this was where the action was basically. This is the largest left group in the US and its where the dynamism is on the left right now. So that’s why I joined up. I have been on the left for many years, I have been a member of a group called Solidarity for over 20 years. Before I was a sociologist, I was an organizer staff with Teamsters for a Democratic Union which is a reform movement inside the Teamsters Union which is one of the largest unions in the US.
A: What was your job in the Teamsters?
B: My specific role was part organizing part fundraising. I was raising money, getting people sign up on the monthly pledges to keep the organization running. But then I was also doing some organizing particularly in Canada since I’m Canadian. There are Teamsters Union members also in Canada as well.
A: I am actually also close with a Turkish transportation union which got some support from Teamsters when they were organizing UPS.
A: So, you are in LA Chapter. I’m not particularly familiar with the internal workings of DSA. How can a normal member become a delegate? What is the process?
B: There was an election. You can self-nominee. I am also a member of DSA caucus called Bread and Roses. So, members of Bread and Roses work with other some allies within our chapter to put together a slate that ran together. The LA chapter had 47 delegates for our chapter so we ran a slate of 17. There was a chapter-wide election. 14 of 17 of our slate were elected.
A: What do you mean with allies? Other caucuses?
B: No, just independent people who are not affiliated with other caucuses. They endorsed our program basically.
A: If I am not wrong, DSA is by far the biggest socialist organization in the US, is that right?
B: Yes, there is nothing even remotely closer. DSA has close to 60,000 members and the next has probably fewer than a thousand.
A: We can mention several factors behind the rising interest towards the left in the US such as Great Recession, Occupy Wall street, Sanders Campaign, the reaction against Trump, and rising working class activism. All these factors help DSA to grow obviously. It is kind of interesting why all these factors do not help other socialist movements to grow. What does DSA do so good to accumulate this energy. Your story of becoming a DSA member is also parallel with trend.
B: Often times in these things there is a lot of luck involved. The fact that you have a candidate like Bernie Sanders calling himself the Democratic Socialist and then there is the organization Democratic Socialists of America, so there emerges some synergy. People hearing Bernie and getting excited about what he has to say and they google “democratic socialism” and DSA is the first thing they will see.
A: Did Sanders ever mentioned organization’s name?
B: No, not the organization. But he referred to Democratic Socialism. He always maintained his independence from the organization. So there is that part, the sheer luck of having a name that sounds like what Bernie Sanders is talking about.
A: I guess, DSA has a kind of a long relationship with Sanders, is that right? Because I saw that they supported him back in 2005, when he became Vermont independent senator. I saw that he once came convention of DSA.
B: He is not hostile to DSA, certainly he is sympathetic. He just doesn’t have a formal relation, he is not a member, surely not in a leader position. I wasn’t aware of that stuff, but it doesn’t surprise me he would come to DSA convention.
“OCCUPY SHOWED THE LIMIT OF HORIZONTALIST FORM OF ORGANIZATION AND PAVED THE WAY FOR MORE STRUCTURED FORMS.”
B: It is really important to understand the broader context you sort of referenced. For couple of years after the 2008 crisis there was discussions like “why people are not fighting back, where are the protests?” The first upsurge was the Occupy Movement. We can now see that it was sort of the last echoes of the Global Justice Movement that started with Seattle. It had that more anarchist inflected type of activism, which is decentralized, had flat organization or horizontal organization. So, you have that kind of organization with Occupy and I feel like Occupy pushed that to the limit. People think of occupy sort of a failure. In a basic sense, yes it has failed. It run away after a while and but I think it is important to understand the legacy of Occupy. It obviously changed the conversation about inequality. So, it is the first time in US that that kind of discourse gained -maybe not first time but- it really reasserted importance of paying attention to class issues. That whole idea of 99 percent versus 1 percent really crystallized this sort of class divided in America in a way that had not been seen so many years. So, it discursively shifted the political framework. It also got people involved in something, some sort of social mobilization. But the other thing that I don’t think many people thought about is that it showed the limit of that particular form of organization. I think that many people who got involved in Occupy and experienced the frustration of the limitations of that kind of horizontalist model. They learned the limits of that and became more open to more structured forms of organization. When you fast forward to 2016, with the Sanders campaign it makes sense that the push to fight inequality, reasserted class issues take some organized form in more traditional party organization form with more engagement with the regular political sphere. Idea of trying to engage with actual broader public. So I think that turn to organization is really what explains the growth of the DSA. You have this impulse to readdress class issues, this realization that the sort of forms of horizontalism are essentially a dead end. They have this limit, this hard limit. You actually need a national organization to build this kind of fight on the scale necessary. So that combined with the just sheer luck that the organization called Democratic Socialists and Bernie calls for Democratic Socialism leads to this growth.
“ELECTORAL POLITICS IS PLAYING THE EXACT OPPOSITE ROLE THAT IT USUALLY PLAYS.”
B: The other part of it that is really fascinating for somebody like me studying left politics in the US for many years is -that I don’t really figured it out yet- the role of electoral politics is playing the exact opposite role that it usually plays. In the traditional critique of social democracy, these left parties basically by having to appeal to broader electorates, they are put up in a position where they have to moderate their platform and they want to temp down protest, because they say, “let us handle, we need to pursue to proper channels”. So, the general effect of left involvement in the electoral sphere has been demobilization of social movements. And this especially true in the US with the Democratic Party which is famously known as the graveyard of social movements because it is a capitalist party not even a labor party. There is a history over decades of social movements rising up and getting absorbed in the Democratic Party and sort of getting muffled basically. Whereas this time around starting 2016 or 2015 with Sanders campaign and then with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and then now this whole Squad situation. They are basically helping to fire up social mobilization. Rather than temping it down they are building it up. One of the symptoms of that is the growth of DSA but it is also the conversation around whole bunch of policies has completely shifted. Around minimum wage, around health care, around labor union’s strikes and these candidates landing their supports to strikes not just by saying “I support workers’ rights,” but actually also going to picket lines. Bernie Sanders is actually using his campaign infrastructure to mobilize his supporters to go to the picket lines. Which is something we have never seen to my knowledge in the US political context.
A: How does he mobilizes his election organization, in what sense? So that more people can visit picket lines?
B: He uses his lists, text banks. I don’t know if I can find any on my phone. He keeps sending text messages on his supporters’ phones which informs about strikes and invite to support.
A: Does he often visit picket lines?
B: Yes. It is quite common actually for democratic politicians to visit the picket lines. That’s not unusual. But what they usually would do when they will go to picket lines is they will show up, say hi, say something how they support collective bargaining rights, they support to workers, whatever and then they just to go their stump speech, their standard political speech about campaign, what they are doing. But when Bernie shows up in these picket lines he actually talks about the workers’ issues. He doesn’t just say that he supports to the workers but he attacks the bosses. So, I saw him speaking in UCLA in Los Angeles. Workers were going on a day long strike. He showed up and almost the entire speech was about the workers’ issues in UCLA. He knew what the issues were. Even more, he said “I wish that I could stand here and tell you that UCLA is the exception but they’re not. There are bosses all over the country who are treating the workers like this. So, he was generalizing the problem. It is not about just a few bad apples, but structural problems, about capitalism. That kind of behavior you cannot see in American mainstream politics since Roosevelt.
“DSA IS A MORE PERMEABLE, MULTI-TENDENCY ORGANIZATION, WHICH IS ANOTHER IMPORTANT FACTOR BEHIND ITS GROWTH.”
A: I think I heard about the Solidarity, I am not sure about its politics, Trotskyist probably?
B: Post-Trotskyist, comes out of a 3rd Camp tradition. It is one of the few left organizations which comes out of merger instead of a split. Are you familiar with Hal Draper? He has a book called Two Souls of Socialism. He was the founder of the Independent Socialist Clubs in 1960s in Berkeley, they later became the International Socialists in the late 60s and early 70s. So that was one part of the group. There was a group that have left in 1977 called Workers’ Power that then rejoined in 1986 with the merger. And there was a 3rd group that had been expelled through a series of splits from the Socialist Workers Party. They got together in 1986 to found this group in Solidarity.
A: Did you dissolved Solidarity or did you break up?
B: No, I am still a member. It is very small, but it still exists. There are discussions at the most recent convention about turning it into an educational center more than an actual membership organization. Just because of our limited capacity. It allows for dual membership to DSA. Many Solidarity members are involved in DSA.
A: So DSA pulls the attention and activism from experienced organizers like yourself.
B: Absolutely. Yes, there are a lot of such groups. Socialist Alternative had a split part of their group joined the DSA. ISO (International Socialist Organization) dissolved this year and then a lot of their members have drifted into DSA or oriented themselves to DSA.
A: Then not just young, kind of inexperienced people are joining to DSA, also these older members of more traditional, more experienced activists are also joining.
B: Yes. The other thing about DSA that it is important to understand, aside from the luck of having that name, is that it has this more open structure. It is not a cadre organization. It is a more permeable organization, easier to get in, it is more open to variety of ideas. It is built as a multi-tendency organization. So, doesn’t have a hardline on every single question. So, it is much more welcoming to people of a variety of political orientations. That’s a strength in this case. This allows it to grow. You don’t have to have some deep background in leftist theory or something like that.
“WHAT IS EXCITING ABOUT DSA IS THAT THE KEY QUESTION ON THE TABLE IS HOW DO WE ENGAGE IN MASS SOCIALIST POLITICS.”
A: It kind of struck me that you can become a DSA member just by paying dues. From a Turkish socialist point of view, it seems a little weird. But maybe it is also cool.
B: Yeah, some people complain about it. That there is a very low barrier to entry. Just sign up and pay your dues and that’s it. But it is also a part of it what makes it welcoming. There is not some litmus test, some secret handshake you have to learn, these is no rituals you have to learn. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read like Value, Price and Profit. You don’t have to proper take on the Grundrisse.
A: But it is also a huge risk. This kind of a membership base can turn the organization towards where who knows?
B: Yes. But what is exciting about DSA right now is that the key question on the table is how do we engage in mass socialist politics. Which is something that the US left never grappled with in fifty years. So, the question how do you engage in mass politics is fraught with all sorts of risks. Because there is a risk of being coopted, being deluded, heading towards a weird direction you didn’t anticipate. But Lenin has that line about politics, which says that politics starts not in the thousands but in the millions. So, we actually have the chance to engage in real politics. The most exciting thing about the DSA convention last week was that it was the first time for me, as someone who has been a part of socialist left for now almost a quarter century, that I thought like the decisions we were making in that room will actually have some effect on the outside world. The New York Times wrote a whole story about the DSA convention that dug into internal factions. I don’t know when the last time, maybe the 1960s that the New York Times wrote such an in-depth story about a socialist political convention.
A: I am wandering about those caucuses. In Turkish socialist left Leninism is more or less still valid especially in terms of the tightness, the unity of the internal organization. The idea of open caucuses within a socialist organization competing within a democratic framework is kind of interesting. You said that DSA is not a cadre organization. Can we say that those caucuses are like cadre organizations?
B: Kind of. It depends on the caucus and the organization. So, the one that I am in, “Bread and Roses” has a whole basis of political agreement and there is an application process and not everybody get accepted. It has a very different purpose than the mass organization. Because it is an organization that is trying to advance a political program within the broader organization, but not to work as like a puppet master behind the scene but openly advocate for a political program. Given that there is a specific political program that we are fighting for, it makes no sense for people to join, if they are not understanding what the political program is and aren’t going to be people who are going to advocate for it. Because I think with DSA, we just want a mass organization. If you think you are a socialist and you want to help with that, it’s great, welcome abroad. But then in terms of having a tool, a vehicle to advance a political program within a political organization, then the criteria are a bit stricter. You don’t want just anybody to be in that organization, it doesn’t make sense, it’s not that we don’t want to work with those people. The work of the caucuses oriented towards helping the organization to become a mass organization.
“THE MAIN CLEAVAGE IS BETWEEN THOSE WHO WANT TO FOCUS ON DSA’S INTERNAL STRUCTURE AND THOSE WHO WANT TO ORIENT DSA TOWARDS TO MASSES.”
B: Our caucus is oriented towards pursuing the organization to focus on outwards. Because this is really one of the main cleavages within the organization right now: the division between those want to focus on DSA’s internal life and internal structure, and those who want to orient DSA towards to masses essentially, who wants to turn to outwards. At the convention, the proposals that we, as Bread and Roses were advancing, were about class struggle elections. About how we will get engaged in the electoral sphere. They were about labor, how do we reimbed the left in the labor movement. After decades of being on the outside looking in. It was about political education, how do we spread a set of political ideas. Another of our proposals was about building a Medicare for all campaign, to bring the US into the 20th century when it comes to the healthcare. These are all things that push DSA outwards, to push DSA to engage with the broader public who are not necessarily socialists, they may never come to consider themselves as socialist but are people that we have to win over for a left political program.
A: If this is not something confidential, can I ask how many members does caucuses have? Are they open in terms of membership numbers?
B: It depends on the caucus, but none of them more than few hundred members. So, they are small groups within a larger organization. The vast majority of DSA members are not in the caucuses. And that’s fine and I think that’s probably healthy. Each caucus operates differently. So one of the other main caucuses within DSA at the convention, what we consider as our opposition within the DSA is the group called Build. And Build does not even acknowledge itself as caucus. They call themselves as “uncaucus”.
A: They are probably more anarchist minded.
B: Yeah. They don’t acknowledge of their caucus. They basically say that they defend very broad kind of base building and decentralization. But then at the convention, it was these people who were really using legal procedural motions using Robert’s Rule. I don’t know if Turkish groups use Robert’s Rule of Order.
A: Never heard of it.
B: Maybe it’s a very Anglo thing. It’s a set of rules used to run formal meetings. You make motion like a proposal, you got a second, you can debate on it. I make a motion to pass a financial report about the treasure of the organization and they discuss the finances of the organization. This is not only for socialists, this is like city councils. It goes back to old English Parliament’s procedure I think. It is like, I make a motion to except the treasures report. Then someone seconds it and I have a second. And then you take a vote. But if you have a resolution which proposes “DSA is gonna engage in class struggle elections,” it’s more complicated.
A: A resolution is then I guess is more broader proposal.
B: A resolution is a proposal about what the organization should do.
A: Like broader political strategies.
B: Yes. But it can also be more symbolic. There are resolutions about supporting the Irish republic in struggle and something like that. So, I make a motion and I second a motion. Is there any debate? And then comes speakers for and against. And if the debates going on for certain amount of time. People are tired and you can call the question, there is a vote to call the question to stop debate. And then you go to a vote.
A: I see, a structured way to decide democratically as a larger group.
B: It can be good and democratic and people can abuse the procedure. First thing you do at the convention is to approve the rules for the convention. There is a set of rules that the convention planning committee drafts and they present that. And it took us for hours of debate to agree on the rules.
A: That doesn’t sound good, I see.
B: So, it can really mess things up. So, they were using these arcane parts of Robert’s Rules to basically to throw sand in the gears, to slow things down. So, there was this fight on the first day of the convention.
A: Can we say that DSA turned a little more to the radical left in the last convention? Because there was a resolution for a more centralized organization. There was a resolution with criticism towards to the Democratic Party, which was kind of new for DSA.
B: Yeah. DSA has traditionally been the left wing of the Democratic Party basically.
“THE DEBATE IN ATLANTA WAS ABOUT CENTRALIZATION VS. DECENTRALIZATION.”
A: But now, it goes towards somewhere else. Is this why those people are kind of feeling threatened?
B: Well no because the people who defend DSA to be the left wing of Democratic Party, those people are basically gone. Or they are not gone but they are completely outnumbered, very few them around. The debate in Atlanta was about centralization vs. decentralization. Or not even about centralization, about the importance of having a strong national organization. I would not call centralization, because a lot of the reason for a strong national organization is that it is necessary to help local organizations. Supporting chapters and allowing them to cater to address their local needs requires a strong national organization. So, the goal is not actually centralization in the sense that you have this national organization sort of decreeing from on high what the program is and everybody else just needs to follow. Rather it is that given the DSA’s growth and that you have all these chapters, who need all these resources, the best way to do that is to have a strong national organization that provide resources. So, it is really about strong national organization versus decentralization. But what I was saying earlier is that the real debate behind that was about inward focus versus outward focus. Is DSA going to focus on reforming itself internally or is it gonna engage in broad public campaigns that are outward focused.
A: Why those people are arguing for a more inward focus?
B: I don’t think if they say this outright, but I think the characterization of that position will be something like this: “DSA can’t be a force for social change, for social justice unless it addresses social injustice inside the organization. So, it needs to become the organization that we want society to be.”
A: Prefigurative approach.
B: Yes, exactly.
A: But do you guys have serious problems within organization?
B: It depends on who you talk to. There are some problems of course. In Los Angeles, we had this huge problem earlier this year with sexual harassment and the chapter’s steering committee sort of protecting the abuser. So, there were issues about that chapter really went through this crisis and it bounces back. I think, yes there are all these problems, inter-personal difficulties and political frictions. But the issue is how to address them? To address them by focusing all your energy internally on addressing them and neglecting any kind of external work, or do you try to engage in broad campaigns that can help actually move past these problems.
A: How can chapter members criticize each other? How does the internal criticism work? How do you sustain the discipline? Because it looks like you don’t have such mechanisms, but still you can do lots of things. I can see that you guys are quite activist and there are lots of things going on. But how can you motivate people? How can you criticize, when they don’t do the job they take as a responsibility.
B: There are accountability mechanisms. It is a volunteer organization and it is not like you can punish or expel someone just for not doing. What would probably happen is just someone else will just takeover.
A: For example, would the steering committee criticize that person in the next meeting?
B: Well, not really. Probably it would be just handled internally, someone else will takeover. It is not a confrontational thing. Obviously for the issues such as sexual assault, we have an internal grievance procedure. We have that. But in terms of work load, someone not doing the work, there is no formal procedure. Obviously when someone isn’t doing the work, letting down their comrades, there is peer-pressure but that’s all.
 The Squad is a group of four congresswomen elected in the 2018 United States House of Representatives elections, made up of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are women of color under 50 and have been placed by news outlets such as Reuters and Politico on the left wing of the Democratic Party. Source: Wikipedia.