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Against Cowardice: Palestine Charts the Path for DSA

“Progressive except for Palestine” carries a political cost, and DSA must exact it.

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In 2018, AOC and DSA appeared to be a match made in heaven. The upstart underdog shocked the world by defeating a powerful member of the Democratic establishment machine, starting a national wave of progressive primary candidates. Simultaneously, DSA experienced a meteoric rise, becoming the largest socialist organization in US history. As DSA exploded into over 200 chapters across the nation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly became the darling of the left as the standard-bearer of its young electoral project. DSA would be her base, laying the groundwork for an eventual, long-forecasted presidential run. AOC, DSA, and the dream of a socialist majority were ascendant.

Six years and two re-elections later, AOC finds herself out of step with the socialists who catapulted her to fame. She has been hounded by pro-Palestine activists through her district for her initial reluctance to call Israel’s campaign of mass murder in Gaza, with over 50,000 dead in 8 months, what it is: a genocide. As she rallies with Bernie and Jamaal Bowman, both enablers of Israel’s genocide, Palestinian organizations picket the rallies to protest her cowardice. They criticize her for statements supporting the Iron Dome and her vote for House Resolution 888, which advances a deadly narrative conflating anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. 

At the same time, DSA also finds itself with less wind in its sails. While many of its chapters have shown up in rallies, marches, campaigns, and direct actions for Palestine across the US, the National DSA body faces dwindling membership as it’s criticized by different Palestine solidarity organizations and activists who do not accept a soft line on Palestine. Members of DSA must wrestle with the fact that our National body has flinched on the question of Palestine at every opportunity over the past 3 years, and we have suffered for it. Palestine is central to our political crisis. 

DSA National’s failure to de-endorse Rep. Bowman for his diplomatic visits to Israel and votes in favor of funding the Iron Dome opened up the first tear at the seams of DSA’s electoral project, as we bled many of our most active organizers, particularly those from Arab and Muslim backgrounds, due to our National body’s unwillingness to hold the line on Palestine. The decisions to not de-endorse Bowman and to de-charter our BDS Working Group preceded two of the biggest weekly membership losses in DSA’s history. 

Prior to October, many leading Palestine organizations who now lead millions in the streets had spent years calling DSA in for its inability to hold the line on Palestine. DSA member AOC tearfully voted “present” on a bill funding genocide, carries water for Biden in his attempts to appeal to the left and youth, and denies Palestinians’ right to self-determination. No longer able to motivate the same level of grassroots socialist support, AOC now stakes out an America-first, chauvinist political line that pushes progressive domestic policies at the expense of the lives and dignity of the rest of the world. She, along with DSA members such as Jamaal Bowman, now embody today’s politics of cowardice: “progressive except for Palestine”. 

DSA was a first-choice partner for many in the Palestine solidarity movement in the US since it passed support for the BDS movement in 2017 (case-in-point: I joined DSA because of this resolution). The former elected leadership of DSA broke this fledgling alliance when they made an active choice to reject the Palestine solidarity movement in favor of aligning themselves with the left wing of the Democratic party and “progressive” NGOs. It has sought to purge its enemies, isolate and sideline its members from participation, and obstruct their political project wherever it grows within the organization. As the Palestine Solidarity Working Group (formerly known as the DSA BDS working group) has been vindicated on the necessity for stricter electoral standards across the organization, and as revolutionary politics gained majority support in DSA, the NGO wing of the organization has desperately clung onto the few levers they still have due to their long-term entrenchment in the organization. We are witnessing a reckoning years in the making.

DSA has a choice: cut off those members enabling genocide or bear the political cost with them.

It is past time to revise DSA’s analysis of power. Politicians don’t bend to favors, but to power. Our power cannot come from only helping candidates win: we must also hold the power to relieve them of their seats. AOC is no longer an upstart outsider, but a seasoned politician carefully balancing myriad lobbies and interests against the wellbeing of the people. For this new AOC, electability takes precedence above all else–the risk of a principled stance is weighed by the ounce against the backlash it might elicit from moderate Democratic institutions. The calculus for DSA and the left, once the core of AOC’s base, has also changed. 

Over the past 6 years, the movement for Palestinian liberation has taken many strides into the mainstream of US politics and now dominates a large segment of the left. Where Palestine solidarity rally attendance once averaged in the dozens, our rallies now swell into the millions across multiple cities in the US. The Student Intifada, ignited in Harlem, has been commended by the global Palestine solidarity movement, and nearly all major parties within Palestine have issued statements of support. The consistent mass mobilizations and escalations across US cities have been noticed widely across the world. AOC was nowhere to be found in this historic moment, as it has quickly become apparent to the rest of the world that AOC had been toeing the old imperialist lines. 

When AOC attempted to meet with the Columbia encampment, she received sharp criticism from local and immigrant student-leaders for her weak positions on Palestine and was lambasted on social media by groups like Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition. As the movement for Palestinian solidarity ascends, AOC declines. We must examine the material conditions and circumstances before we reach for yesterday’s tools. AOC + DSA is a love story gone awry and we must end relationships that no longer serve our ability to build power for the working class.

We must remember that working class power is not rooted in the halls of the state. From Occupy to Ferguson to the George Floyd uprising to the current movement for Palestine, the shifts in political consciousness we have seen across the US are born from quiet communal gatherings and mass uprisings in the streets. To mistake these for spontaneous, disconnected moments of momentary public attention is to signal one’s detachment from the streets. These deeply-connected movements compose a “coalition of the streets”, and they have led us all to today’s mobilization for Palestine. Our comrades from the Arab Spring, Ferguson, Standing Rock, and Occupy employed their experiences to help organize the George Floyd uprising. Our comrades who have marshaled, protested, and fought against the state in Stop Cop City, abolitionist coalitions across the country, and the George Floyd uprising are now helping to advance the Palestine solidarity movement to stop the genocide in Gaza. 

DSA’s own membership in this coalition of the streets comes from years of deep base-building work across abolitionist coalitions, mutual aid organizing, tenant and labor organizing, anti-imperialism, and Palestine. For years, we’ve organized deeply in mosques, churches, synagogues, community centers, homes, and workplaces in coalitions for Palestine across states and countries. By October 8th, the global Palestinian solidarity movement knew exactly who to call on from our past struggles. The coalition of the streets is neither foreign to DSA spaces nor entirely enmeshed with them. We have often been forced outside of the “big tent” to organize in alternative spaces and coalitions when DSA’s NGO wing has restricted and curtailed our organizing within DSA in an infight for political resources and power. 

Beginning in 2022, the old guard of DSA lashed out against the radical, bottom-up mobilization for Palestine and sought to suppress a burgeoning refusal amongst DSA members to condemn Palestine and its resistance to a third rail issue. The old regime hangs onto its old modes: electoral programs, policy campaigns, and the phone bank. It resorts to Jacobin and other in-the-know left publications to launder its image and project strength. This conservative wing committed months of work to ‘No Money for Massacres’ congressional phone-banks as a largely internal development project, but which amounted to nothing in terms of results. All the while, it doubled down on DSA’s history of inhibiting collaboration with Palestine solidarity organizations and deprioritized chapters, coalitions, messaging, and events that don’t fit within the narrow framework of electoralism, which is, frustratingly, the end-all-be-all of “building power” for DSA’s NGO wing. I do not reject electoral politics as a tactic–I worked on the Uncommitted campaigns myself. There is some value in phone banking and door knocking, but we must recognize this brand of tense, atomized, 2-minute conversation as one small tactic among a diversity of tactics we use to shift the consciousness of the masses.

It has been proven time and again that a rigidly narrow focus on phone banks and electoral politics is not an end in itself, nor is it even a good means to shift mass political consciousness. This brand of electoral politics has long exemplified within DSA a maximal attempt at capturing shifts in mass political consciousness to secure electoral representation, but we must not mistake the electoral project in itself as the tool that is shifting mass political consciousness in the US. It is not through phone banks and canvasses that we shift mass political consciousness. The groundwork must be laid earlier via other means–namely, mass direct action in the street and base-building across communal life. 

DSA electoral projects tail and draft off years of diligent street-bound base-building only to burn it for candidates and elected apparatus that aren’t beholden to DSA but to a consortium of the left wing of the Democrats and progressive non-profits. This cheap imitation of actual power is a present danger to our project. Our slogans, credibility, and material gains are reduced to campaign mailers from politicians who sell us out and reinforce despair in our hard-won base. We must reject cheap imitations and demand the real thing: actual electoral power beholden to DSA.

Our base was undeniably grown via the ascendance of Bernie and AOC as celebrity politicians, which represents a significant, though singular, moment of radicalization for some of the working class. It must be analyzed in a historical context filled with such moments, but too much of DSA clings to that one moment as the end-all-be-all of consciousness-raising. The Bernie-AOC moment has passed. We must look elsewhere for our organization’s future. We must look to Palestine. Where our chapters have engaged deeply and seriously in mass politicization moments and base building work, they have developed real power across their locales to fight for their communities, and it is reflected electorally where those chapters are able to hold their elected officials tightly accountable. Deep, street-level organizing grows our base. Any growth in our electoral projects simply reflects that.

Our base is built and its consciousness shifts when we work to heighten contradictions all year long, not just during election seasons and legislative sessions. This work lives in escalatory actions that inflict legal, political, and economic damage to the state and breaks through its facade of inevitability to lay bare the fragility of the capitalist order. This system and order that the working class suffer in is surmountable, and we hold the power to change it. These revelations are made clear when we create political crises through direct confrontation with the state such as the current moment for Palestine. When we penetrate the veneer of the state’s invulnerability; we teach one another about liberation just as we demonstrate it. 

Contradictions are inherently uncomfortable, and therefore it is often unpopular to point them out. If the state committing genocide is simultaneously powerful and surmountable, we are duty-bound to overcome it no matter the cost. Direct actions revered by future generations are unpopular in their time. This is why Palestinian resistance has long been so uncomfortable for swaths of the western left. They were successful in piercing through the veneer of the empire’s inevitability and permanently changing the calculus. The Zionist entity is not invulnerable and it can be defeated militarily. 

We must recognize our foremost battle is not against discomfort or unpopularity, but against despair. It’s unpopular and uncomfortable to even acknowledge the widespread despair that permeates our society, let alone to attempt to heal it. Defeatism, the false cure to despair, is a comforting belief. It allows us to exist more easily in a crushing reality without demanding our rebellion. Revealing capitalism’s inherent contradictions and exercising our power to actually change this world is the uncomfortable antidote to this belief. When we shatter defeatism, we remove false comfort and should expect sharp, angry reactions. 

Yet, overcoming despair is truly our primary task in our pursuit of building a better world. Once the barrier of despair is torn down, there’s no return to standing still. We are forever afflicted with the pursuit of liberation, deadly as it might be. Our very survival depends on building the tools with our communities to overcome despair forced upon us by the violence of the capitalist state in every aspect of our lives. Our mass organization must be built on a solid foundation and unshakeable principles or it will always be blown away under pressure. It’s imperative we do not undermine our own ability to build these working class antidotes in the pursuit of the sort of shallow, momentary popularity that is the bread-and-butter of politicians.

Unlike politicians seeking fleeting popularity over moral clarity, the working class continues to reject the politics of the two-party state. We must therefore align ourselves with oppositional and agitational electoral platforms rather than attempting to quietly “sneak” our way into “socialist” majorities with weighted electoral calculus. Politicians such as AOC who embody “progressives except for Palestine” must expect us to inflict a political cost for failing the political litmus test of our time. Electoral calculus is not a new or foreign refrain of the “progressive” electoral left. Opposition to the war machine and support for minority rights have always been weighed against this calculus by progressives, for decades. 

It was Bernie’s ability in 2016 to stake out strong, oppositional, often initially unpopular positions against the ruling class that excited thousands of people and pushed them left. In 2016, Bernie chose unpopular opinions and made them popular. Today, AOC campaigns for genocidal Joe in his re-election bid amidst historically low approval rates. It’s neither Bernie nor AOC but Rashida Tlaib who carries the baton of Bernie’s political legacy. The mass movement for Palestinian liberation has raised the banner and rapidly shifted the popular consciousness of America through dogged, committed, and principled work across the country. Rashida knows to rally to that banner in solidarity and that history will vindicate her. 

With the loss of our 2018 standard bearers, it has never been clearer that the inside-outside pressure campaign is simply one organizing model and our membership is diverse enough to adopt more diverse tactics. Across 200 chapters, each a site of struggle and experimentation, we have seen many rapidly move away from the inefficacy of those strategies and build their own infrastructure for direct action, coalition building, base building, and mass mobilization. The revolutionary factions of DSA, built over the George Floyd uprising and Stop Cop City movements, have now grown powerful enough to chart a new path. This membership demands a revolutionary path, a presence on the ground, a deep rooting in our communities, and to hold those in charge (including electeds in our camp) to account, opposing a backchannel, backdoor progressive politics that feeds off the energy of the streets to beg for crumbs from a fascist ruling class that brutalizes our members on the streets and on campuses. 

From the deep roots in our communities, where we are held to account, we must strike at the ruling class. Across hundreds of chapters, with little National support, thousands of members have mobilized for the cause of Palestinian liberation. Chapters have shed elected officials unwilling to hold the line on Palestine. Chapters committed to the moral test of our era have already been enmeshed in the patient, coalitional labor to consolidate and organize the revolutionary movement that has coalesced around Palestine, rather than relying on national-scale campaigns built around celebrity activists and politicians. In doing so they have seen substantial growth across all organizing projects and built deep relationships with the movements in their localities. Our future lies in the grassroots and in our chapters.

DSA is a collective national project and must follow the will of its constituent chapters. There must be accountability for past mistakes. Each of DSA’s electoral failures in accountability is distributed across our chapters. The fallout from our failures with Jamaal Bowman in NY and Nithya Raman in LA created significant challenges in coalition work and recruitment across many DSA chapters thousands of miles away. As a result, over twenty DSA chapters have passed an Anti-Zionist resolution committing their locals to stricter electoral standards on the Palestine line and to distance themselves from National’s mistakes. While locals continue to defend their work with these resolutions, we must follow their lead. Our inability to align ourselves with our chapters is a political legitimacy crisis and the longer it remains unresolved, the more dangerous it becomes. We must pass the national Anti-Zionist resolution and begin making amends with the Palestine Solidarity movement.

Our service to the movement, what little we are able to offer, is to find our strength and voice to reject Bowman, AOC, and the politics of cowardice. There are many fronts in the war against imperialism, and we must dedicate our organization to pushing the levers within our grasp. While the brave resistance of Gaza breaks the will of the world’s most powerful armies on the frontlines, our own front in the heart of the empire demands we inflict as much political damage, economic damage, and legitimacy damage to the empire as possible. Despite our missteps, we do hold power in the national electoral realm, and it is our responsibility to wield it. We must strike at the fissures and open up fractures in the ruling class, namely the fracture between those progressives who market the genocidal Biden to the world and those who reject him.

The “lane” that DSA has carved out in the past 6 years can be employed to enforce the line on “progressives except for Palestine” and sink the campaigns of cowards who betray our movement. If Bowman or AOC find themselves isolated and lose their race, let it be known that their fatal mistake was funding the Iron Dome and alienating the left, pro-Palestine base that carried them to power. What few concessions, what little power the proximity to AOC, Bowman, and the Democratic party provide us are acceptable sacrifices, and will yield us a firmer, more militant base formed out of solidarity with our communities. Let it be known to every so-called “progressive” that failing Palestine carries a political cost and we will exact that cost on every coward. 

Re-endorsing AOC in 2024 does not carry the promise of another membership bump for DSA. It threatens the complete obsolescence of our collective project that has grown by bounds since 2018. It renders our platform and credibility moot. We must refuse to be implicated in genocide. We’ve outgrown Bernie. We’ve outgrown AOC. We must choose solidarity over obsolescence. Far more importantly, we must choose to fight for the liberation of Palestine and her people from the empire in whose heart we struggle.

Palestinians, generation after generation, remind us with their resistance that our socialism can only be a movement for humanity and liberation. They demand we overcome despair and fight back. Palestine does not cower in front of the world’s imperial armies. Her children assert dignity and strength by breaking the might of the world’s most technologically-advanced and well-resourced armies, defeating them militarily, politically, in resolve and in humanity. Palestine holds the greatest threat to the empire. The sacrifice asked of us is nothing compared to the monumental sacrifices Palestinians are forced to make. We must fulfill our duty in this global struggle of many fronts. We must strike the ruling class in the imperial core and stand proudly when they strike back. We must confidently meet the moment ahead. We must hold the line for Palestine.

From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.

Ahmed Husain is a member of the DSA National Political Committee, based in NYC.

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