Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Today’s Democratic Socialists: Not So Big on Democracy

Turning a blind eye to the anti-democratic regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
July 26, 2021
Today’s Democratic Socialists: Not So Big on Democracy
People gather for a Cuba protest as people wave signs and Cuban flags in Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington DC, on July 26, 2021. - Right-leaning Latin American governments and other US allies joined Washington on Monday in urging Cuba to respect rights and free people detained in unprecedented mass protests. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Recent comments about Cuba and Venezuela from individuals associated with the Democratic Socialists of America make clear that today’s democratic socialist movement bears little resemblance to its forebears.

As Michael Harrington—the founder of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), which merged with the New American Movement to create the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—told me when I met with him in one of the famous Greenwich Village artist-hangout bars in 1973, his organization held two principles that would never be changed. Those immutable convictions were, first, a strong opposition to totalitarian communism and the Soviet Union, and second, a commitment to defend Israel against its enemies. Today, the latter commitment is long-gone: DSA supports the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement and the Palestinian cause exclusively. And instead of standing in opposition to repressive regimes—including the world’s last remaining Communist regimes—it calls them “socialist.”

Harrington would never recognize today’s DSA as the group he created. He worked with his organization to support European democratic socialist leaders whom he viewed as an alternative to Europe’s Communists. In 1980, DSOC held a conference in Washington, D.C. featuring the major European socialist leaders, including Willy Brandt of West Germany, Olof Palme of Sweden, and François Mitterrand of France. Harrington hoped that those men would win in their country’s elections, providing an alternative to the Soviet Union’s totalitarian bloc.

Harrington also had great hopes for the new democratic socialist government in Jamaica, headed by the country’s prime minister, Michael Manley. Harrington led a mission in the late 1970s of members of his own group to meet Manley and tour Jamaica, a delegation of which I was a part. (I was a member of the national board of DSOC at the time, and in the 1980s became a member of DSA.)

Fidel Castro told Manley he should cancel elections and become the permanent socialist leader of the country, as Castro had done in Communist Cuba. Manley said to our delegation that he told Castro off, and emphasized his own commitment to free elections, even if it meant that he and his party lost power to the opposition. Harrington would not even consider sending a delegation to Cuba that would engage with Fidel Castro—as some people urged him to do.

(It should be said that by 1980, Harrington and Irving Howe developed illusions about the Sandinistas who had taken over Nicaragua in 1979. Not listening to those who argued that the goal of these revolutionaries was to create a Castro-like Communist regime, Harrington and Howe persuaded themselves that the Sandinistas were an independent indigenous group of democratic rebels who simply sought an end to the authoritarian rule of their country by Anastasio Somoza.)

Now the group that Harrington created is overtly supporting the Castro-created Communist regime in Cuba. As protests swept the streets of Cuba over the past few weeks, DSA immediately and reflexively came to the Communist regime’s defense. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel cracked down on the protesters with police, scores of mobs trucked in by the hundreds holding extremely large sharp poles, and armed agents of the notorious security service—yet DSA has said nothing about that. Its leaders have remained silent about the interference with free speech, the mass arrests of protesters, and the depiction of those on the streets as traitors to socialism and as, using a word from the past, gusanos (worms), a term used by Fidel Castro for any Cubans who tried to flee to the United States.

Instead, DSA sent out (via a tweet from DSA’s International Political Committee and the Facebook pages of various DSA chapters) the message “DSA stands with the Cuban people and their Revolution in this moment of unrest.” DSA members have participated in various rallies in support of the Cuban regime, including a July 15 rally in New York City sponsored by the New York Young Communist League. Yesterday, the San Francisco DSA organized a car and bike caravan to “End the U.S. blockade of Cuba” and demand “Hands Off Cuba!”

For younger readers unfamiliar with the jargon of the Cold War, the “Revolution” that DSA is standing with is not the protests now taking place throughout the island but rather Castro’s Communist revolution and regime, maintained through antidemocratic repression, the jailing and extrajudicial killing of dissidents, and massacres of innocents attempting to flee. The question of whether the United States should continue its six-decade-old embargo of Cuba is worth discussing—but it is striking that DSA avoided criticizing, or even acknowledging, the regime’s actions clamping down on protesters; arresting hundreds, including minors; and sentencing them to prison without trials.

But then, overlooking the crimes of the Cuban regime is par for the course for DSA, which last year praised Communist Cuba as “a beacon for socialism and liberation.” In the eyes of DSA’s leaders, solidarity exists not for the people seeking liberation and freedom, but for the repressive Stalinist regime that has been ruling the island since 1959. And it’s not just Cuba: In the past few weeks, DSA’s statements and actions have shown that the group supports other left-wing authoritarian rulers who hold power by using repressive tactics of control learned from KGB and Stasi advisers. When, through the years, dissidents have managed to make public their calls for democracy, these regimes use the most repressive measures to try and defeat them.

DSA’s representation in our nation’s political life is not numerically large. Only four sitting members of Congress are DSA members: two members of “the Squad” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib) and two freshman representatives (Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri). But across the country, DSA’s membership is growing, especially among young people. In the past three years, dozens of DSA members have been elected to state and local offices. And this March, DSA members took over the leadership of the Democratic party in Nevada.

DSA is seeking to pull the Democratic party to the far left, including adoption of a neo-isolationist foreign policy. It should not come as a surprise that the group supports Cuba. As the editor of a Venezuelan socialist web magazine, Orinoco Tribune, recently noted, DSA contains a diversity of different ideological tendencies including “Marxist-Leninists, who play a significant role within the organization.” That was his (correct) observation after meeting with the DSA group. There is even a DSA “Communist Caucus,” whose website prominently displays the hammer and sickle. Its members believe that the group “is at a crossroads,” and that the Biden administration “is characterized by the same politics that have brutally eroded working class power for decades.” Hence, they condemn what they call a “centrist strategy” that removes the “leverage” of the left wing. Of course, they roundly favor advancing the call of “police abolition.”

Let me be clear. No truly democratic socialist group would countenance the active participation of and allow membership to any Communist or Marxist-Leninist chapter. This alone reveals that by calling themselves “Democratic Socialists of America,” the group is engaging in a misleading falsehood.

DSA also offered its support to Nicolás Maduro and his repressive regime in Venezuela. It ignored the human rights crisis created by the regime and, like other apologists, blamed the country’s plight and economic collapse on the United States. In March, DSA’s International Committee released a statement calling the lawful leader of the country, Juan Guaidó, a “CIA backed-operative.” Again, for the younger readers: This is Cold War-era language that was used by Soviet and Cuban rulers against the United States. A DSA statement in January 2019 called Guaidó part of “the right-wing Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party”—actually a centrist party affiliated with the Socialist International—who used a “legitimacy crisis” to proclaim himself Venezuela’s president. It accused the Trump administration of using the country as a “boogeyman to show the dangers of socialism,” and called instead for a “constructive” policy to end the crisis, explaining all of Venezuela’s problems as the result of “the US government’s sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector.”

In the March statement, DSA’s International Committee condemned what it called the “wanton, reckless, and antidemocratic interventions [by the United States] in Venezuela,” arguing that in the illegitimate and farcical December 2020 elections, the Venezuelan people overwhelmingly voted for Maduro, and that the result was, as Maduro’s supporters claimed, “a massive victory” for the regime.

Earlier this month, DSA sent a delegation, including the chair of its National Political Committee, to meet with Maduro. The group ignored the reports by Amnesty International and the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights documenting the Chavez/Maduro regime’s many violations of human rights, including torture of the regime’s opponents, extrajudicial executions, and murder of opponents. Indeed, just a few days before DSA’s leaders were in Venezuela taking a Potemkin village tour of the country arranged by Maduro, the regime had arrested and indicted on obviously bogus charges the director of an independent nongovernmental human rights organization. The visiting group made no protest of this action.

It is now clear that these self-proclaimed “democratic socialists” eschew democracy. Perhaps they should make it clear that DSA supports totalitarian and repressive governments in the name of protecting socialism—just as the Old Left did throughout the Cold War with the Soviet bloc. As the old Pete Seeger song goes, “When will they ever learn?”

Ron Radosh

Ronald Radosh is a professor emeritus of history at CUNY, and the author and co-author of many books, including A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (with Allis Radosh) and Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Twitter: @RonRadosh.