Spiraling anti-Marxism in the DSA

The ease with which the NYCDSA steering committee sabotaged a political education event with Adolph Reed Jr. shows that open debate is in grave danger in DSA. How will Marxists respond?

In a disturbing and somewhat baffling turn of events, a DSA political education session featuring one of the nation’s most prominent Marxist intellectuals has been cancelled after coming under fire for “class reductionism” by internal critics. Class Unity condemns in the strongest terms the successful deplatforming of a lifelong socialist by unprincipled and anti-Marxist elements within the organization. We hope that this fiasco makes clear to all Marxists and to all individuals committed to open and honest debate within DSA that if we do not work together to uphold shared norms of free ideological struggle the organization will lose all capacity for it.

The cancelled event, jointly organized by the Philadelphia DSA political education committee and the Lower Manhattan DSA political education working group, was to have been held on May 30th and was titled “Covid-19 and the dangers of disparity ideology.” The main attraction was the presence of Adolph Reed, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime socialist and labor activist going back many decades, including as a Bernie campaign surrogate in both 2016 and 2020 and as one of the founders of the Labor Party in the 1990s. Reed has recently written several articles on the same theme as the cancelled event. Both the Facebook and Action Network pages for the event have been taken down, but the event had drawn several hundred interested people. It goes without saying that the DSA has a desperate need for a culture of internal discussion and debate, and that the event would have been useful for the many curious attendees, the Philly and NYC chapters, and the entire organization. So what happened?

Reed is a frequent commentator on American politics and has been published in nonsite.org, the Progressive Magazine, Jacobin, Common Dreams, and The New Republic among many others. He is currently an organizer for Medicare For All South Carolina.

Anti-Marxist elements, principally within New York City DSA, engaged in a coordinated campaign to portray the event as racially insensitive and ultimately to force its cancellation. This campaign took place both publicly on social media and behind the scenes as NYCDSA chapter leadership maneuvered to undercut and sabotage the event. The fact that this campaign succeeded despite the absurdity of the allegations against Reed, who is black, and the organizers of the event, who are predominantly non-white, is the clearest warning possible that DSA needs a vibrant and principled Marxist faction. The strategy of keeping our heads down and “doing the work” is insufficient. Our failure to organize against liberals in DSA has left us weak and incapable of defending basic principles of free speech, let alone Marxism. If DSA liberals can cancel a scholar of Reed’s stature with baseless allegations amplified over social media, whom can’t they cancel?

A daft statement

To the outside observer, the principal instigators of the campaign to cancel the Reed event were the AFROSOCialist [sic] and Socialists of Color Caucus of the DSA. In reality, however, it was the NYCDSA chapter leadership that played the larger role, with the Afrosocialist Caucus serving as the cat’s paw for well-connected members of the chapter steering committee who wanted to disassociate the DSA from Reed while maintaining plausible deniability about their own involvement, as we will show.

Originally a happy hour-cum-networking event for NYCDSA members, the Afrosocialist Caucus now claims to speak on behalf of all “people of color” within the organization. This “caucus” is a stark example of the liberal race relations framework that Reed himself has described, according to which individuals appoint themselves “racial voices” and ventriloquize “the black community” in spite of the fact that their “claims to speak for black concerns. . .do not depend on demonstration of accountability to any specific constituencies of black people.” In reality the active membership of this caucus is minuscule, unrepresentative both compared to the organization as a whole and to the broader public, and largely confined to New York City.

Early in the morning on what was to be the day of the event, the Afrosocialist Caucus issued a statement titled “Response to the Philly DSA, NYC Lower Manhattan branch and Adolph Reed,” in which they demanded the cancellation of the event and its replacement by “a debate of Adolph Reed’s class reductionist analysis versus our intersectional socialist analysis.” Whether or not the caucus is sincere in its demand for a debate on some unspecified date between Reed and some unspecified interlocutor—and there is ample reason to question their sincerity—the effect of their actions was to chill debate and to silence their ideological opponents.

So little care was invested in the creation of the released statement that it is impossible to take it seriously as an intellectual exercise. It evinces little engagement with any of Reed’s stances or arguments and cites him precisely twice over the course of four pages of nonsense. Many passages are simply very odd. For instance, the Afrosocialist Caucus makes the claim that only racism needs to be destroyed and not the category of race itself: 

What Reed and other class reductionists continue to misunderstand or overlook is that race isn’t bad in and of itself. Racism is bad and needs to be destroyed. That’s an important distinction that class reductionists are continually intent on denying.

To the contrary, it is impossible to conceive of a category of race without racism, as Barbara and Karen Fields explain in their seminal work Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life:

‘Race’ too often recommends itself as a guiltless word, a neutral term for an empirical fact. It is not. Race appears to be a neutral description of reality because of the race-racism evasion, through which immoral acts of discrimination disappear, and then reappear camouflaged as the victim’s alleged difference. (P. 95)

Attempts to naturalize modern racial ideology by projecting it backwards in time, or by treating it as an intrinsic part of human nature, are ahistorical and essentialist. It was the introduction of racism as an ideology to maintain a diabolical set of labor practices that ultimately created the social category of race.

One particularly egregious passage, sadly representative of the slapdash nature of the Afrosocialist Caucus statement as a whole, follows:

The greatest flaw in Reed’s logic is the idea that racism is a byproduct of capitalism. Global capitalism has historically relied on the dehumanization of black and indigenous peoples for cheap, expendable, precarious labor. The capitalist economy is not an equalizer, it needs racism to exploit, dominate, and oppress the working class. Capitalism needs racism to break ties of solidarity among workers and those who depend on workers.

The Afrosocialist Caucus statement levels against Reed the charge that he errs in believing that racism is a byproduct of capitalism, and then immediately recapitulates and adopts the very same stance that it had just accused Reed himself of holding. It appears that the Afrosocialist Caucus not only has no idea what Reed believes, it also doesn’t know what the Afrosocialist Caucus itself believes.

The statement also gets basic facts wrong about the articles that it does refer to. In one paragraph, the Afrosocialist Caucus makes the point that

Denying COVID 19 has had disproportionate impacts on BIPOC communities in the US obscures and obfuscates the problems making it impossible to solve which means it will only kill more of us.

Nowhere in the work that they cite does Reed—or anyone else—make such a claim. In fact, that this disproportion exists is the starting point of the article that they link, and other pieces in a larger body of work on this topic. Rather than deny reality, Reed’s work seeks to complicate how we understand these statistical phenomena. The Afrosocialist Caucus isn’t asking us to correct faulty assumptions or take up some piece of data that is being ignored; they are asking us to stop thinking.

What is actually going on here? If we are to read between the lines, the source of the Afrosocialist Caucus’s seemingly arbitrary dislike of Reed comes into clearer view. After a first paragraph based on nothing more than a close reading of the event title itself, the caucus makes its true argument:

More importantly, events like these undermine the organizing work DSA is doing in Black, Indigenous and people of color communities. DSA already gets smeared for being too white (which it is) as if it’s irredeemably white and that only communicates to BIPOC folks [sic] that they shouldn’t join DSA. What do these DSA organizers think they’re saying to their BIPOC comrades by hosting this kind of event? How do they think this event is going to help in our efforts at recruiting a more diverse DSA?

Simply put: the Afrosocialist Caucus is worried about optics. They think that Marxism, and the standard of rigorous critique that comes with it, makes the DSA less attractive to individuals who refrain from joining DSA because it’s too white. Who are these individuals? The Afrosocialist Caucus insists they are speaking on behalf of “communities,” but they have not demonstrated standing with any actual communities. Rather, they are speaking on behalf of their personal and professional networks – largely comprised of middle-class college graduates, as are the personal and professional networks of most DSA members. In a chapter like NYCDSA in particular, these college graduates will tend to disproportionately find employment (or be desperately seeking employment) in media, nonprofits, universities, political campaigns and offices, union bureaucracies, and so forth. As we have argued elsewhere, the demand that we cut Marxism with liberal identitarianism is the self-serving reflex of aspirants to the professional-managerial class as they attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable demands of knowledge-industry careerism and working class politics.

It bears repeating here the oft-made point that the DSA’s skewed racial demographics are a direct result of its skewed class composition. The DSA is a middle class organization, and the middle class is disproportionately white and Asian. A recent article in The Bellows indicates that nearly a third of DSA members make over $100,000 per year, compared to about 9% of the national population. It is not at all unusual to attend a DSA meeting where 80% or more of the attendees have a Bachelor’s degree (if they are not current college students), compared to about 35% of the adult population of the country. In major cities in particular, it can be difficult to escape the sensation that everyone in the room is a lawyer, computer programmer, architect, college professor, graduate student, journalist, aspiring podcaster, trust-fund artist, “community organizer,” HR rep, union staffer, political operative, or some combination thereof. DSA liberals’ propensity to self-flagellate over the organization’s “whiteness” is their way of displacing analysis of the organization’s severe class imbalance. Indeed, if pressed many of them will admit that they don’t even believe that a professional-managerial stratum with interests different from that of the broader working class even exists. This is, in effect, a refusal to view politics through a Marxist perspective and a rejection of a politics oriented towards the working class.

The liberal tendency to justify anti-Marxism with appeals to racial sensitivity is likewise not a new phenomenon within the DSA. This is the same fundamental argument as the infamous Miguel Salazar hitpiece in The New Republic, “Do America’s socialists have a race problem?” This early attempt by DSA liberals to weaponize the support of the liberal media and nonprofit worlds against Marxist competitors within the organization adopted a straightforward approach: it simply insisted that Marxism, or indeed class politics, was racist. The Reed cancellation is the fruit of the same ideology, one that holds that the DSA should subordinate itself ideologically to liberal activist groups in the orbit of the nonprofit sector and refrain from offending their sensibilities (read: the sensibilities of their funders) at all costs – in other words, an ideology that holds that the DSA should simply liquidate any trace of Marxism and adopt wholesale the liberalism of its movement “allies.” This ideology has become hegemonic within DSA leadership structures as liberal careerists have consolidated their control over the organization and begun to transform it into a machine for elevating their own careers within adjacent sectors of the professional-managerial labor market.

Careerism and triangulation behind the scenes

While the Afrosocialist Caucus was the public face of the campaign to cancel the Reed event, they were actually latecomers to it. Their statement, obviously slapped together at the last minute and released well after midnight on the day of the event itself, constituted public-facing legitimation for a decision that had already been made in private within the NYCDSA steering committee days earlier. In this way, the steering committee could pretend that it was bowing to pressure from the Afrosocialist Caucus as stand-in for all DSA “people of color.” The reality was that the steering committee itself had spent the better part of the week leading up to the event trying to find some pretext to cancel it.

The first sign of NYCDSA chapter leadership’s hostility towards the event occurred on May 23rd, when a member of the steering committee deleted posts promoting the event, without warning to the organizers, from the chapter’s Facebook and Instagram pages. This individual, a member of the Bread & Roses caucus and a campaign manager for one of NYCDSA’s local Democratic political candidates, cited as justification the fact that they had been receiving criticism of the alleged racism of the event description from undisclosed individuals.  

On May 26th, the NYCDSA steering committee’s mounting displeasure with the Reed event was evident when they met to discuss the implementation of new procedures for working group events deemed controversial – it’s clear from what transpired later which one they had in mind. By this time, the Reed event had been public knowledge and had been placed on the chapter’s events calendar for a week. A concern raised was that the political line of this event did not comport with the DSA’s  “line” – a nonsensical development, since the DSA is a big tent organization. There is no “line.” Not much came of this meeting: the steering committee requested that the event description be updated to make clear that this was a working group event and not an event explicitly sanctioned by the chapter, and the event’s organizers complied.

Finally, on May 30th, the day of the event, both the Lower Manhattan branch organizing committee and the NYCDSA steering committee voted to condemn and disassociate themselves from the event, citing as justification the Afrosocialist Caucus’s statement. The Lower Manhattan branch organizing committee statement is a marvel of socialism with human resources department characteristics, concluding ominously that “we are deeply sorry for the harm that this event has caused and are working to establish systems of accountability that prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.”

The NYCDSA steering committee’s reaction was considerably more disruptive. On the very day of the event, with hours to go before it was to have started, the steering committee voted by 14-1 to rescind the chapter’s endorsement of the event (an endorsement that had been neither sought nor given, since working group events do not require endorsement of the chapter), to remove its event listing from the chapter’s website, and to cancel the event on its social media platforms. One of the reasons cited for removing the sponsorship of the event was because the event was not endorsed by the chapter body. It is important to note here that in NYCDSA, as in many chapters around the country, working groups have wide latitude to set their own agendas and generally do not need explicit permission from chapter leadership to host events or place them on the events calendar.

Let us be clear that a decision to take down an event’s Facebook listing hours before it was to start, thereby sending a message to all the attendees that the event had been cancelled, and requiring that the organizers create a new event and invite all of the old attendees to it is pure sabotage, and it was this decision that dealt the final blow to the event and caused its cancellation, not the self-indulgent bloviations of the Afrosocialist Caucus.

We would like to underline two more general points here. The first is the pernicious effect of leadership structures in which almost everyone has a job directly related to their DSA activities. For these individuals, the temptation to prioritize their own career advancement in the activist, movement, and nonprofit milieux will always come at the cost of ideological rigor and political honesty.

The second is the fictional self-presentation of the DSA’s existing caucuses. Far from being principled ideological formations, these are by and large branding exercises to facilitate competition between the squabbling cliques of middle-class careerists and social climbers who constitute their leadership strata, with rank-and-file caucus members largely excluded from a meaningful role in decision-making. It should come as a rude shock to members of Socialist Majority who believed its leadership’s claims to be strong proponents of open debate, or to members of Bread & Roses who believed its leadership’s claims to be committed Marxists, to find that when it came time to put those beliefs into practice those same leaders chose instead to sabotage and stifle debate and to throw a prominent Marxist scholar, not to mention their own comrades, under the bus in order to safeguard their own personal activist brands.

Invisible Marxists

The ease with which the NYCDSA steering committee sabotaged the Reed event shows the weakness and disorganization of DSA’s Marxist tendency. By failing to win power within the organization and focusing almost exclusively on outward-facing politics, the DSA’s Marxists have left themselves helpless in the face of their liberal rivals, who now control the national organization and almost all major chapter steering committees. It is telling that Philadelphia DSA, which co-sponsored the event, never considered withdrawing its support: Philadelphia is the lone major chapter in the country to host a thriving Marxist caucus, which keeps its political culture honest and serves to stiffen its spine in the face of liberal histrionics. The prognosis for other major chapters is much grimmer. Now that the anarcho-lifestylists in Build appear to be flouncing out of the organization’s political bodies, the liberal-careerist elements within the Socialist Majority and Bread & Roses leadership will have little need for Marxists, who have led the efforts to combat ultra-leftist and anarchist tendencies within DSA. With their common enemy weakened, these unprincipled actors may feel less constrained about cracking down on anything that might make them look bad to their bosses and colleagues in the media outlets, nonprofits, and progressive Democratic political campaigns where they work (or aspire to work).

The cancellation of this event should concern not only Marxists, but all DSA members who believe in the organization’s stated commitment to free debate and ideological pluralism. Benjamin Fong argues in a recent article that “cultural liberalism inhibits the kind of strategic thinking and action needed to gain power on a national scale, and specifically outside of liberal, urban centers.” In this case, of course, the DSA’s co-optation by liberal elements has inhibited any form of thinking at all.