The following is an edited and reformatted version of Nora Belrose’s resignation letter from Socialist Alternative, delivered 26 December 2017.
I will always be grateful for my time in Socialist Alternative, an organization filled with amazing activists who fight every day for a socialist world. SA was where I first learned the fundamentals of Marxism, and gained valuable experience in socialist organizing. And for a while, I was convinced that organizing with Socialist Alternative was the most effective way to build the socialist movement.
But the unprecedented growth of the Democratic Socialists of America over the course of the last year has fundamentally changed the objective situation for socialists in the United States. DSA is a broad, dynamic, multi-tendency socialist organization with over 32,000 members in nearly 200 chapters across the country. New socialist activists who might have joined SA in the past are now overwhelmingly joining DSA due to its size, ascendancy, and low barriers to entry. While this is undoubtedly a very positive development, it has had the effect that Socialist Alternative’s membership has more or less stagnated. It has become very difficult for SA members to convince new activists to join SA, rather than DSA.
The recruitment problem is not new. For the first 27 years of its existence, Socialist Alternative (and its predecessor, Labor Militant) experienced very slow growth in membership, interspersed between periods of stagnation and decline. Socialist Alternative only began to grow in earnest after the 2013 victory of Kshama Sawant’s Seattle city council campaign. SA branches across the country were able to point to Kshama’s victory as proof that their methods were effective, and hundreds of new members joined the organization as a result. However, it’s clear that the allure of the Seattle victory is fading: Socialist Alternative is no longer the only socialist organization “winning” things. Just last November, fifteen DSA members were elected to public office across the country. That same month, Socialist Alternative’s campaign to elect Ginger Jentzen to the Minneapolis city council ended in defeat.
The Ginger Jentzen campaign was a critically important opportunity for Socialist Alternative to demonstrate that its organizing model is effective not just in Seattle, but across the country. If Ginger had won, it would have gone a long way toward restoring SA’s influence and future prospects for movement building. Unfortunately, despite tremendous popular anger at establishment politics, this did not happen. Ginger won 34.4% of first choice votes. To give some context: Ginger ran in a district-based election, which had a voter turnout 19 times smaller than that of Kshama’s 2013 at-large race. Ginger also raised more money than Kshama did, while enjoying the undivided support of a revolutionary organization which had grown to five times the size of the one Kshama relied on in 2013. The key difference between these campaigns seems to be that Kshama 2013 was built on a mass model of organizing, while Ginger’s campaign was not. Socialist Alternative effectively was Ginger’s entire campaign: the vast majority of campaign staff and volunteers were SA members, most of whom had to be flown in from out of state. If Socialist Alternative is unable to replicate the mass organizing model that has served it so well in Seattle, its future will be bleak.
Moving forward, it seems likely that Socialist Alternative will continue to lose influence. In the last few years, the primary source of growth for SA has been its electoral and legislative victories. But there are no opportunities for electoral campaigns during the 2018 midterms in any of the regions where SA enjoys a substantial presence. And in 2019, Socialist Alternative’s national resources will be dedicated to maintaining Kshama’s seat on the Seattle city council. To make things worse, it’s quite possible that Kshama could lose her re-election in 2019. Gentrification is pushing Kshama’s voter base out of her district, and many of the remaining supporters are losing enthusiasm given her inability to halt the inexorable rise in rents and cost of living in Seattle. If Kshama is defeated in 2019, this will represent a massive blow to Socialist Alternative and we can expect that hundreds of members will become demoralized and leave the organization. It’s unlikely that SA could ever recover from such a defeat.
DSA, however, offers very promising opportunities for Marxists to organize. Members of Socialist Alternative often like to point out that many DSA members are new, inexperienced activists who lack a well-developed political perspective of their own. But this is no argument against working within DSA. In fact, the inexperience of many DSA members is a strong argument for Marxists to join DSA, build it, and advocate for Marxist ideas within it. This should not be done with a view toward breaking DSA members away from their organization into smaller “cadre” groups like SA. Rather, Marxists should see DSA as the embryo of a mass, multi-tendency socialist party whose growth is enormously important in its own right. In a sense, DSA is the American socialist movement today.
One serious barrier to the growth of Socialist Alternative generally is its insistence on maintaining ideological homogeneity within its membership. This means that new members need to be “consolidated” into the very specific form of Trotskyism espoused by the organization before they can advance to any position of leadership or influence. This model is incompatible with the kind of rapid and sustained membership growth DSA has experienced in the last year. It also turns off countless promising activists who may have political differences with SA, or who simply value their intellectual autonomy. This insistence on narrow ideological uniformity hugely diminishes SA’s internal democracy as well. Elections for leadership bodies are never competitive, and the right of recall is never exercised, meaning that the leadership de facto appoints its own successors. Members are also generally prohibited from publicly disagreeing with or criticizing the party line.
Socialist Alternative places a strong emphasis on correct ideas, and it believes that the right ideas need to be inculcated into the next generation of socialists, one-by-one. But this model is at odds with a Marxist understanding of effective strategy and tactics, which teaches that correct political ideas emerge from the experience of working people in struggle. This means that the first priority of Marxists should be to strengthen the mass organizations of the working class (political parties, labor unions, etc.) or to create them where they do not yet exist, with a view toward building a revolutionary leadership within these organizations. This is exactly how the only successful working class revolution in history, the Russian Revolution of 1917, was accomplished.
Socialist Alternative often argues that the Russian Revolution proved that a small cadre organization, little known to the mass of working people, can grow exponentially in the course of a revolutionary period and lead the working class to taking power. But this claim is based on a highly selective reading of history. We should recall that up until 1912, the Bolsheviks were not a separate party, but rather a faction in the broader Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. When the Bolshevik faction split from the Mensheviks in 1912, the new Bolshevik Party was already the dominant political party of the Russian working class. This was demonstrated by the results of the elections to the Duma that year, in which the Bolsheviks received a decisive majority of working class votes. The only reason the Bolsheviks were unable to retain a very large membership at the beginning of 1917 was the severe tsarist repression during World War I. As soon as this repression was lifted after the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks rapidly began to regain their previous status as the dominant party of the working class. The Bolsheviks were able to lead a revolution because they had patiently worked to build the mass organizations of the working class while winning them over to a revolutionary perspective. Socialists would do well to follow their example.
Because the American working class doesn’t yet have a mass political party of its own, Marxists should work toward creating one. I think the growth of DSA could catalyze the formation of just such a party. That’s why I’ve decided to resign from Socialist Alternative, and join the San Francisco chapter of DSA. I hope that, after careful consideration of my arguments, other comrades might come to similar conclusions.