The Centrality of Class Struggle
Capitalism is a system built on exploitation, one in which people are divided into classes that determine what they get and what they have to do to survive. On top, the capitalist class — a tiny minority made up of owners of major corporations and powerful managers — dominates society. The profit and rent they live off of comes from the vast majority of the population on the bottom: the working class.
But in this exploitative relationship, those on top also depend on the labor of working people. As a result, capitalism endows us with enormous potential power. As workers, we have the power to stop production and the flow of profits, or to create a political crisis when public employees strike. And as the overwhelming majority of society we have the capacity to overturn the political system that protects capitalist power.
Ending capitalism will require mobilizing this immense power, and this puts the question of organizing the working class as workers at the center of questions of strategy. This key point — what we call the centrality of class struggle — is at the heart of our perspective on what it will take to change the world.
Capitalism stokes racial, national, and gender oppression to keep working people divided and to justify exploitation. And by creating an intense competition for jobs, housing, and decent schools, the capitalist system pits workers against each other and makes prejudiced ideas seem plausible.
As part of our vision of winning a truly free society, socialists are committed to ending all forms of oppression. To reach this goal, we strive to build a united multiracial working-class movement. Our strategy for fighting oppression and building unity has three components.
First, we prioritize the fight for broad classwide demands — such as healthcare, education, jobs, and housing — that benefit all working-class people and that can therefore galvanize the largest numbers of people to fight in their own self-interest. Demands such as Medicare for All would also disproportionately benefit oppressed groups and reduce the competition for resources that gives rise to prejudice among working people. Such demands, when achieved, would curtail the power of oppressors, including abusive bosses, despotic immigration agencies, profit-seeking insurance companies, and racist landlords.
Second, socialists must tackle specific forms of domination and division head on. Today in the United States key battles against oppression include, but by no means are limited to, the fight against mass incarceration and police brutality; campaigns to defend and expand reproductive rights; fights to eliminate gender violence; the struggle by queer people, disabled people, women, and people of color to stop job and housing discrimination; and the movement to end deportations of undocumented immigrants. Socialists should build these struggles — particularly when they can mobilize large numbers of people — and find ways to incorporate these demands in union struggles and electoral campaigns.
Finally, the importance of class unity also leads us to oppose a perspective common in some radical circles and rampant among liberals. These groups treat oppression as principally a consequence of bad ideas rather than of the structures of capitalism, and as a result they prioritize shaming working people to get them to change their behavior. These activists also often claim to speak on behalf of whole groups of people whom they do not represent, and refuse to build unity with workers who they deem to be “privileged”. These anti-solidaristic practices undermine struggles against exploitation and oppression by dividing our forces. It’s necessary to defeat racism and sexism inside the working class — but this can’t be done effectively without positive appeals to shared class interests. If we want to defeat the capitalist class, we need to unite the working-class majority.
Democratic Road to Socialism
Socialist organizing should be oriented toward the working-class majority who are not yet politically active. We need to bring people into open conflict with capitalists and their politicians around immediate grievances, while making connections between each specific issue and the underlying problem: capitalism. Our goal is to create a mass movement that can force elites to make concessions — and eventually remove them from power.
To do this, we need to work openly in movement struggles and electoral politics as socialists. And we have to fight for a viable path to socialism — what we call the democratic road to socialism — that takes seriously the particular opportunities and challenges of organizing in the United States.
We know that winning elections in a capitalist society is not the same as taking power. Without an organized working class, primarily organized in the workplace where workers have the most power, socialist electoral victories will mean little. The essential task of the democratic road to socialism is rebuilding the organized power of the working class.
But this working-class movement will ultimately have to contend with state power. Toward this end, we seek to build a mass party of the working class with a socialist program. Such a party will fight to win structural reforms that increase the power of the working class and use elections and mobilizations to convince more and more people of the need for socialism.
We do not pretend to know exactly how a transition from capitalism to socialism will ultimately play out, of course. But we want to build a socialist party that can take advantage of a crisis of legitimacy of capitalism, when it surely arrives. A party can even help foment a crisis, through helping to build powerful movements from below — millions of people acting on their own behalf in strikes, workplace takeovers, student occupations, and mass demonstrations — and by electing a socialist government. Such mobilizations and such a government would together be able to create a rupture with the capitalist system. And since no ruling class has ever peacefully ceded power, in a transitional period a socialist government backed by popular mobilizations will have to do everything necessary to defend the mandate they have won to carry out a program of redistribution, expropriation, and democratic reform of state institutions.
Our perspective differs from alternative socialist strategies. We reject a strategy of gradually winning reforms which never seeks to break with the capitalist system. Often this strategy also embraces liberal tactics for winning reforms that prioritize electing and winning the ear of benevolent elites rather than challenging capital’s right to rule or building the working class’s ability to fight. On the other hand, we also reject a strategy of insurrection which mistakenly seeks to adopt a model from vastly different historical conditions and apply it to our situation today. We oppose ultra-left tactics that substitute adventures organized by a small cadre of activists for a mass, organized working-class movement. And we oppose politics defined by radical posturing that appeals only to the already convinced.
Independent Political Action
We are for a mass working-class party that contests elections and builds movements. To legitimately represent the working class, such a party must be born out of a level of class struggle and unity far greater than exists today. Until such a time arrives, we see DSA as a pre-party organization, one of many groups working to develop the forces necessary to build such a party. To do so, we need an oppositional electoral strategy that remains completely independent from the Democratic Party apparatus. Such a strategy must reject the idea that socialists can capture the Democratic Party and instead seek to break unions and social movements from their current dependence on the Democratic Party establishment.
At the same time, we can maintain tactical flexibility on the question of what ballot line socialists run on. In certain cases it also makes sense for DSA to endorse class struggle candidates who are not socialists but whose campaigns advance key parts of our platform. Such campaigns can help build class consciousness and polarize (and eventually split) the Democratic Party coalition.
Candidates running as socialists should serve the movement, never the other way around. Socialist politicians should act as organizers for the socialist movement and as popularizers of our ideas first, and as legislators second.
The most critical task for socialists is to help develop a labor movement that is militant, left-wing, and democratic. Working-class people’s greatest strength is in the workplace because capitalists depend on the exploitation of labor to make their profits. And the workplace brings workers of all backgrounds together and generates common interests that can be the basis for powerful movements.
With this in mind, socialists should organize as rank-and-file workers and rebuild the connection between the socialist movement and the militant minority of workers already organizing in the labor movement. Together, we can work to build unions that are democratic forces ready to confront employers, organize the unorganized, and lead wider working-class political fights.
Given our limited resources, such attention should be focused for now on strategic industries — those in which workers have the best opportunities to organize and the most leverage to make demands on employers. Where possible, we should work with union officials who share our perspectives, while recognizing that in many unions existing officials stand in the way of this vision.
Winning socialism will require a protracted struggle against the ruling class in the United States. But the struggle for socialism is also international. The power of the world’s ruling classes is protected by the imperialist policies of our government, among others. As socialists in the U.S., we have a heightened responsibility to fight against all forms of military intervention.
We also stand in solidarity with socialist and popular movements around the world against capitalism and authoritarianism. For this reason we reject the false logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” (what is sometimes called “campism”), a policy that in the name of anti-imperialism has led to the defense of brutal dictatorships.
Our goal is a socialist movement that wins all across the world. Building strong relationships with socialist parties and organizations in other countries — including sending and hosting delegations, participating in international debates about socialist strategy, and ultimately coordinating strategy — is a step towards that goal.
Democracy, Not Horizontalism
We want to build a movement that empowers everyone to participate in building a better society. In our projects today therefore — and in a future socialist society — democracy is essential.
A democratic organization is one in which members have power through collective political deliberation and voting. Direct decision-making by a membership body is one part of this democracy, and members should also elect accountable representatives to act on their behalf. In these elections, candidates should run on platforms that allow members to vote for or against them on political grounds. Members should also be free to organize together on political grounds to promote their vision for the organization.
We oppose horizontalist practices that distort democracy into a series of endless meetings, replace accountable leadership with the tyranny of structurelessness, and drain decisions of consequences. We must make decisions about priorities and then commit to carrying them out.