Two summers ago, during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the Democratic Socialists of America gathered at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City and took a look at their accounts.
Bernie Sanders had lost the nomination. That was bad. He was their candidate. Hillary Clinton was probably going to win the presidency. That was OK. Certainly better than letting the White House fall to Donald Trump. And as for the DSA, it had two years to capitalize on the Sanders momentum and organize a wave of left-wing Congressional midterm candidates who would challenge what they saw as the status quo embodied by Clinton: a Democratic Party hopelessly beholden to wealthy interests over those of the poor and working class.
Now that wave is very much cresting. Candidates endorsed by the DSA have begun to pick up high-profile primary wins, most notably that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic Socialist from the Bronx who beat the nearly 20-year incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in June. But Clinton is not the president, and the political environment looks starkly different than many imagined it would just two years prior.
“There’s a Revolution on the Left. Democrats are Bracing.” proclaimed the New York Times in a recent headline. But really, there’s a lot of revolutions on the left. And as the Democratic Socialists of America becomes a more prominent name in the fight for socialism, groups with even further-left politics are gearing up for a long-range struggle for political power.
Here at home, the Philly Socialists, a local group that rejects the Democratic Party outright – it has adopted a blanket moratorium on political endorsements of any kind, and embraces a mission of building a revolutionary socialist party in the United States over the course of several decades – is wrapping up an annual fundraiser that brought in nearly $25,000. The group also helped support a coalition of protestors who set up an “Occupy ICE” encampment outside of Philadelphia’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in July, which later moved to City Hall after a police raid.
To take full advantage of the wave's momentum, Philly Socialists is taking its show on the road at the end of the summer for a 10-city speaking tour with other socialist groups.
“There's a couple goals with it,” says Ariel Diliberto, co-chair of the Philly Socialists and the group’s delegate for the speaking tour. “Part of it is to get our politics out there, because we don't get a lot of media attention. To start to reach people directly in other cities around the country and to speak to people who are maybe a little further to the right than us on how we do what we do, and kind of seed this idea, and spread it, and get more people interested in following our model.”
Philly Socialists, which formed in 2011, has already done quite a bit of organizing in the city. They have offered free English as a Second Language and General Equivalency Development classes. They print a quarterly journal called The Philadelphia Partisan. They run a community garden near Norris Square. They helped launch the Philadelphia Tenants Union, which intervenes in tenant-landlord disputes and has pushed City Council to pass a bill requiring landlords to show “good cause” before evicting tenants. (The bill was introduced this spring, but hasn’t come up for a vote.) For a while, they even offered free internet, paying for business-grade Fios at a few members’ houses and broadcasting the connection to their neighbors under the banner of Free Socialist Internet.
They later dropped the internet project because, while it was providing a service that capitalism wasn’t, Diliberto says, it wasn’t helping them build their organization. And the group is focused on a strategy of “base-building” – helping to organize people around specific issues with the ultimate goal of bringing them into the socialist fold.
“The goal is to have an actual socialist party in the United States,” Diliberto says. “We say, kind of abstractly, but to give people a sense of the time range, 40 years is what we're building for. And I guess we're seven years in now. So every single thing we do, we decide whether we're going to do it based on, is this going to meet our goal? In order to build a new party, you have to build a mass base. So are we building a mass base? And are we demonstrating and putting our politics into action along the way?”
As of today, Philly Socialists has 130 dues-paying members and about 100 other people who volunteer regularly for its programs, according to Diliberto.
Tim Horras, one of the co-founders of Philly Socialists, says he’d been very active in anti-war movements during the George W. Bush administration before he considered himself a socialist. But during the financial crisis of 2008, he had a sense that “it was going to open up political space in a totally different way.” Socialism became the unifying worldview that could bring anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movements together. And while Philly Socialists works with groups like DSA – one of DSA’s members is joining the speaking tour – it doesn’t ultimately believe that socialism can take hold through the current electoral structure.
“Philly DSA and just the DSA, in general, have a longstanding orientation toward trying to elect more progressive Democrats as kind of its main focus,” Horras says. “And for us, that wasn't really sufficient. Our orientation was, firstly, we’re revolutionary socialists. Secondly, we think the center of gravity of politics has to do with mass action and with organized workers as well.”
It’s true that DSA is becoming more of a mainstream political institution, says Dustin Guastella, a member of DSA’s Philly Steering Committee. Locally, the group endorsed Elizabeth Fiedler, a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives, and it is backing State House candidates Summer Lee, Kristin Seale, and Sara Innamorato as well. DSA is becoming “something like a pre-party organization,” Guastella says.
“We’re a little bit too big to nimbly and quickly intervene in a lot of different protest activities ...” he continues. “I think (Philly Socialists) are more capable than we are of mobilizing in a quick way and doing militant activity and getting in the newspapers about that stuff, and I think that kind of moral clarion call is necessary.”
But while he views their mission as an important one, Guastella doesn’t necessarily see their rejection of electoral politics as a successful way of making concrete political gains in the short term.
Nevertheless, the groups are joining forces for this summer speaking tour. R.L. Stephens, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee who is joining the tour, says the goal is to build solidarity among socialist groups and talk about what it means to create socialist political power. Even when candidates can win elections running on socialist ideas, Stephens says, it doesn’t mean those ideas will take hold.
“How do you break that deadlock?” said Stephens. “That’s what this tour is about exploring. It’s about going to the people in any of these areas, the people that are active in trying to fight for a better future, and saying to have that better future, we have to establish people’s governance.”
Also joining the tour is Kali Akuno, a co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, a workers’ co-op in Jackson, Mississippi, whose mayor, supported by the group, has vowed to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” (Akuno was not available for an interview.) Stops include Austin, Houston and Dallas, Texas; Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; Richmond, Charlottesville and Blacksburg, Virginia; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans.
“I hope that people are inspired,” says Diliberto. “I've been thinking about this a lot lately: the fact that Philly Socialists started from dust – no national infrastructure to lean on, not even someone with a rich parent. It started as two people with an idea – it sounds like an ad for Microsoft or something – but two people with an idea, and it's been completely funded by our members’ dues and by the annual fundraiser we do. No grants, no government funding. And now we have an office. We are able to print a journal. We have 10,000 Facebook followers. It's crazy. And I want to tell that story.”