Socialist Sectarianism

By Paul Goodspeed

One of the biggest appeals of DSA is that it’s a big tent, it doesn’t have a “mass line”, and it’s quite open about its internal workings. While all three things are important, I want to focus on the “big tent” aspect here. Before I joined DSA, I considered joining Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SA), and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). I also briefly glanced at Political Affairs (associated with the Communist Party USA) and occasionally read articles in Socialist Worker (associated with the International Socialist Organization). All of these organizations raised the subject of left unity: uniting the organized far left into a single group, almost always as a coalition (as opposed to a merger).

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m trying to reestablish contact with the one other socialist group in my area, which is Socialist Alternative’s NH branch. Via SA NH’s Facebook page, I found a group called Communique New England, which is a coalition made up of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire SAs, the Massachusetts Greens, and the Massachusetts ISO. 

Given that I’m one of very few socialists in NH, and given that I’m technically the only active member of DSA in NH [ed. note: Paul was mistaken], it would be foolish not to acknowledge the existence of non-DSA socialists in NH, especially given the Bernie campaign raising interest in socialism. I read a fascinating point/counterpoint pair of articles on Communique New England’s website, one arguing for a coalition of both pro- and anti-Bernie socialists in the area, the other arguing against coalition-building (Part I, Part II). I’m personally in favor of gathering all socialists in the area, even if they don’t support Bernie, even if they think DSA is a "sellout" organization for supporting a Democrat. 

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to get solid information about the other socialists in the area because they’re sectarian. I’m not sure if the other socialists in the area are okay with DSA at all. It just sucks not knowing any other self-identified socialists in my area. I feel like a “front” or formal coalition of all these tiny groups across the US is badly needed. There’s no inherent reason why we couldn’t have such a “front” in the US. 

The idea of a “front” or coalition of leftists is quite common internationally. SYRIZA, for example, is literally “the Coalition of the Radical Left” and one of its constituent groups, Synapsismos, is itself a coalition. France has the Front de Gauche, or “Front of the Left.” Germany’s Die Linke has distinct internal “platforms”, reflecting its origin as a merger between the former West German WASG and the former East German Party of Democratic Socialism (which was the renamed Socialist Unity Party, a.k.a. the former Communist ruling party).

Lately, I’ve been listening to a series of podcasts at We Are Many. We Are Many collects audio and video recordings from socialist conferences (specifically, the conferences organized by the International Socialist Organization and the conferences of the magazine Historical Materialism). Not everyone at those conferences is a member of the ISO. For example, DSA member Bhaskar Sunkara spoke at Socialism 2013, 2014, and 2015. Green Party of New York State (GPNYS) member Gloria Mattera spoke at Socialism 2013 and 2015. Syriza member Antonis Davanellos spoke at Socialism 2015. Other very similar conferences exist, such as Left Forum and Left Elect, both of which are explicitly organized to provide a broad forum for US leftists regardless of organization. The point is, there are gigantic annual conferences with thousands of socialists from multiple organizations and tendencies across the US. 

My thought is, if thousands of socialists (and some anarchists) from many different organizations can gather at a giant conference every year, why can’t American socialists get together on more a permanent basis? If a long-term commitment is too much, perhaps American socialists should coalesce into temporary campaigns with sunset clauses: after a given date, a campaign would dissolve. That would imply reinventing the wheel, with multiple alliances re-forming over every seperate issue, but it would give the organizations involved some flexibility. In any event, there should be much greater cross-organizational coperation than presently exists.

I understand that many other socialist organizations are tiny and cliqueish—or “sectarian.” I understand that other socialist groups do not agree with DSA’s positions in many issues. I understand that many people are deeply attached to their own organizations. But for god’s sake, DSA itself was formed from two different groups with different traditions. The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee was a group originating from the splinters of the old Socialist Party, while the New American Movement arose from the New Left. I’m not suggesting that the whole American socialist left merge into one super-party. What I am suggesting is that the American socialist left badly needs to cooperate, or at minimum to acknowledge others’ existence. Other than the amazing, excellent “A (Necessarily Incomplete) Guide to the Organized Left in the United States” handout, DSA official materials rarely if ever mention other socialist groups. 

This, in my opinion, is a problem. This is especially a problem given that different socialist groups in the US have strong opinions for or against Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In my opinion, DSA should not lump anti-Sanders socialists with conservatives as “the enemy”, and therefore ignore their contributions. Perhaps I believe this because I myself am unsure whether or not I should support Bernie Sanders. Perhaps I believe this because, prior to joining DSA, I read the publications of other socialist groups (although not in depth). Perhaps I think this because my favorite socialist publication, Jacobin Magazine, is not affiliated with a party and has no party line. Maybe my line of thinking is suspect.

However, I still have the strong sense that socialists in the US should spend less time talking past each other and more time talking to one another. There are serious disagreements among socialists, to be sure. Socialists strongly disagree on the legacy and merits of Leninism, over the role of the Democratic Party, over the merits of today’s union leadership, and—importantly for DSA members—they disagree vehemently about Bernie Sanders. Nevertheless, socialists will only ever acquire the support of the plurality of Americans if they support one another on issues of mutual concern, agree to disagree, and stop spending so much time ignoring one another.

P.S. For further reading on “sectarianism,” I recommend this 49-page-long PDF by a former member of Socialist Alternative on what sectarianism is, why it’s a problem, and how to work against it. 

Paul Goodspeed is the Deputy Managing Editor of The Activist and a student at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, studying History with a minor in Politics.

Showing 12 reactions

commented 2016-07-02 16:40:01 -0400 · Flag
sectarianism in an age of diversity, has to be so archaic; The only concern I have is who side one is on (binary concept I know) the 1% of the majority!
commented 2016-01-01 20:06:11 -0500 · Flag
The Iron Front was a German Democratic Socialist and Anti-Fascist organization during the 1930s. We need a new Iron Front.
commented 2015-10-19 09:20:01 -0400 · Flag
The problem isn’t what socialists WANT. The problem is how many of them ACT.
commented 2015-10-19 06:03:19 -0400 · Flag
thats why socialism wont work as a movement in the usa b/c you either want just alittle of it or you go full utopian communism.
commented 2015-09-06 02:17:16 -0400 · Flag
It’s not either/or. It’s a question of the political reality in your particular location (are there mass left-liberal coalitions in your area or not, what are other socialist groups in your area actually doing, etc.) and whether or not other socialist groups can work with DSA — or just DSA members — in good faith. Sometimes they can, sometimes not.
commented 2015-09-05 22:33:46 -0400 · Flag
@jason: Thanks for the link… It’s a good summary and a good statement of the problem. Also, I was wrong — I’m not the only DSA member in NH. Lastly: most of them probably ahve a grude against us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reach out to them — even if we’re certain they’ll say no, it’s still a good idea (in my opinion).
@jack: But can’t we do both? Talk to people to our right and talk to people on our left? I understand the value of talking to “liberals” — I used to be one myself — but why can’t we talk to people who already call themselves socialists as well? I don’t see it as either/or.
followed this page 2015-09-02 10:43:16 -0400
followed this page 2015-09-02 10:43:02 -0400
commented 2015-09-02 09:19:28 -0400 · Flag
commented 2015-09-02 00:41:29 -0400 · Flag
I agree with what Jason said. I’d be great to work with other groups in good faith that do not “poach” DSA members. Our goal is to provide political education about socialism and through this organize toward issues that impact humanity. I don’t think that focusing on those “farther to the left” than us will help. If anything, our focus should be on organizing those on our right (the so called liberals and liberal left… the social democrats… and those who have lost hope on the political establishments… )
to begin to see themselves in a socialist movement free of explicit definitions of how we will win.
commented 2015-09-02 00:30:33 -0400 · Flag
I am literally the only DSA member in NH according to Betsy Avila. I asked before I joined, trust me.

I understand that “most of [the other far left groups] have a grudge against us for one reason or another.” There are real, inherent challenges to cooperation. But we need to reach out to everybody, even the ones we can probaby rule out—even the tiniest Marxist-Leninist splinter groups—simply because the left is so weak.
commented 2015-09-01 18:06:11 -0400 · Flag
You can’t possibly be the only DSA member in New Hampshire! Have you contacted the national office about this?

Anyway, DSA rarely discusses other socialist groups in Democratic Left or our pamphlets because most of them have a grudge against us for one reason or another.

I’m all for working in coalition with whomever we can provided the other group(s) work in good faith and don’t try to “poach” DSA members.