Democratic Socialists of America - History
DSA was the latest incarnation of the historic U.S. Socialist Party/Social Democratic Federation. The SP’s perennial Presidential candidate was E.V. Debs, who was thrown into prison by Democrat Woodrow Wilson for his opposition to the U.S. entry into WWI (in 1920 Debs garnered a million votes from his cell in Leavenworth). The SP was decimated by the post-WWI Red scare and later was pushed aside by the more radical Communist Party. The post-WWII Red scare reduced both parties to mere shells.
In 1958 a Trotskyist splinter-group, the International Socialist League, whose leading theoretician was Max Schachtman, dissolved into the SP/SDF, whose leading lights were Michael Harrington and Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. This merger dynamized the old SP through activity in the Civil Rights struggle and the growth of its youth wing, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), which foreshadowed the “new left” and educated a whole new radical generation, many of them still active a half-century later, in the fundamentals of socialism.
However, under Schachtman’s influence, the new SP strategy, “political realignment,” called for working within the Democratic Party to eliminate the Southern Dixiecrats and turn the Dems into a “labor-liberal party” – a strategy which eerily prefigured Nixon’s successful 1968 “Southern strategy,” winning the racist Dixiecrats over to the Republicans. In the 60s, the SP, loyal to the Dems, refused to condemn JFK’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and LBJ’s escalating Vietnam War, and it also opposed community control of NYC’s de-factor segregated public schools, as well as the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention. The SP thus lost the support of the student movement, the Black movement, and the antiwar movement. However, the SP retained its influence in the establishment labor bureaucracy, where its members held leading positions which they used for despicable ends, doing their best to squash the antiwar movement and the burgeoning labor rank-and-file movement of the later 1960s.
The SP soon lost the support of YPSL’s anti-racist, anti-imperialist youth, whom the SP leadership expelled. YPSL members dispersed into SDS, the International Socialists, the Young Socialist Alliance, News and Letters, and other radical groups. Disgraced and isolated, the SP shrank to a marginalized splinter group called the Social Democratic Federation and spun off a more leftwing group led by Michael Harrington called initially the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which later fused with an SDS remnant, the New American Movement, to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) which persisted as a tiny group for many years until 2016, when they were rapidly revitalized by a new generation activated by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and #NoDAPL, inspired by Bernie Sanders, and outraged by Donald Trump, who were seeking a socialist home. DSA rapidly became “the only game in town” for socialist youth.
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