Democratic Socialists of America members canvass for Bernie Sanders on February 8.  (Photo credit: Kristin Porter)


Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign coincided with explosive growth in the American Left. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) surged from 6,500 members in 2012 to 24,000 members in 2017. The trend is continuing in the run up to the 2020 election. DSA had 56,794 members in November 2019, Democratic Left reported.

The Columbus DSA chapter is showing the same trend. “We’ve been doing weekly canvasses to door knock for Bernie,” said organizer Kristin Porter. “We’ve been setting records in turnout for canvasses, regularly getting between 30 and 50 people. Previously we would have struggled to get 15 people to turn out.”

Porter said that attendance at Columbus chapter meetings has also increased from people who are interested in DSA’s other work in organizing tenants and transit riders, defending reproductive rights, etc.

Porter joined DSA the day after the 2016 presidential election. Her husband had been involved with DSA for years, “but I didn’t think of myself as an organizer,” she said. “After the 2016 election, having been inspired by Bernie over the primary period, I felt like I couldn’t justify not being active and trying to build the movement. So I just jumped in.”

Kyle Landis joined DSA in 2018. He is involved with Reform & Revolution, a Marxist caucus in DSA that has chapters in several cities. A caucus is an ideological grouping that tries to influence the rest of DSA.

“I joined DSA because I’ve always wanted to see a socialist party,” Landis said. “While DSA isn’t that yet, if a socialist party is going to happen in the United States, I think the most likely place it’s going to take form is either as DSA, or something that happens from DSA. DSA will at least be the catalyst for it. So that’s where I want to be.

“For the longest time we’ve had two capitalist parties,” Landis said. “They’re not the same, but in the question of economics and capitalism they don't differ drastically. And they don’t represent the interests of workers exclusively. The ordinary person doesn’t have anyone really standing up for them. They might have individuals like Bernie or Ocasio-Cortez standing up for them now, but they certainly don’t have a party. Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez are examples of what’s possible. Imagine a whole party doing that for them, and how different the world would be.”

Landis defines democratic socialism as “a system that extends democracy to the workplace and the economy. So that instead of billionaires making decisions about what’s going to happen, ordinary people have a say in what will happen to them and their lives.”

Before moving to Columbus in May, Dylan Edward lived in Athens, Ohio where he was involved in a revolutionary socialist group and worked on Ellie Hamrick’s campaign for Athens city council. After moving to Columbus, he got involved in Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists (CORS) during its foundational period.

“I wanted to participate in creating an organization that’s founded in revolutionary socialist politics here in Columbus and help bring together a revolutionary socialist tendency in the U.S. and internationally,” Edward said.

CORS has had an increase in membership, but it’s not directly related to Bernie’s popularity, Edward said. “Sanders is only one among many causes that have re popularized socialist politics in recent years. Over the past decade, there have been many struggles that had a tremendous impact on workers’ class consciousness.”

Edward cited the Arab Spring; anti-austerity movements in Greece and Spain; Occupy Wall Street; popular uprisings in Puerto Rico, Chile, France, Lebanon, Catalonia, and other countries; Black Lives Matter; resurgence of the feminist movement; and an increase in labor strikes.

“This past decade reminds me of Karl Marx talking about the ‘spectre’ haunting Europe in the mid-19th century,” Edward said. “I think the spectre has returned. This is what is re-popularizing socialist politics and causing people to self-identify as socialists.”

The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement radicalized Coco Smyth, a founding member of CORS. “John Crawford was murdered by police in my hometown of Dayton,” he said. “Though I had identified as a socialist since high school, this explosion of struggle convinced me that I needed to get organized.”

After moving to Columbus, Smyth joined the International Socialist Organization. “For four years I poured countless hours into learning the history and theory of Marxism, organizing in social movements, and working to build a solid organization with comrades in the ISO,” he said. “Unfortunately, the national organization dissolved in mid-2019. Many of us from ISO decided to form Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists to continue our work locally, while learning from past errors and experimenting with a different approach and model of organizing.”

Smyth sees revolutionary socialism as distinct from social-democratic politics, which promotes liberal reforms within the framework of capitalism. “Ultimately our aim is to help bring the working class to power in the United States and throughout the world,” he said. “We call ourselves revolutionary socialists because we believe the only means of taking power for the vast majority is to seize it along with the vast majority. We seek to establish a world without classes, where society is controlled in a genuinely democratic fashion, without oppression, poverty, starvation, and inequality.”

In the near term, the practical work of CORS involves fighting for tenants’ rights and “combating the reign of police terror in Columbus,” Smyth said. “We believe the key task of socialists today is to get rooted in our workplaces and communities, acting as an organized radical element within every struggle which breaks out. We need to do long-term work to establish ourselves as the people our communities go to discuss how to fight the injustices and oppression we experience in our daily lives. This difficult work is absolutely necessary to organize our class and build a new mass communist party worthy of the name. Without such a party we will never be able to channel the masses disillusionment, despair, and anger into the weapon needed to vanquish the dictatorship of capital.

“We don’t think we can destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools,” Smyth said. “Consequently, we reject supporting the Democratic and Republican parties and their representatives,” Smyth said. “The progressive energy, particularly around Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has to be broken out of the shackles of the Democratic Party and the limitations of Bernie’s politics if it is to become part of an effective force for socialism.”

Sean Brown was involved with the Boston branch of Socialist Alternative (SA) In the 1980s. He was a founding member of the Columbus SA branch in 2014. The year before, SA member Kshama Sawant had been elected to Seattle city council on a platform that included raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Seeing the number of people who signed our petition for a $15 an hour minimum wage inspired me to get involved,” Brown said. “It was a concrete demand that had broad support.”

Brown wants to see Medicare for All in the U.S. “That would be a huge accomplishment, but it won’t be achieved by itself,” he said. “It will probably be achieved through large movements, and maybe even the formation of a third political party that represents working class people.

“Bernie’s vision of socialism is like the Scandinavian model,” Brown said. “But if we tried to go that far in the United States, it would be thwarted. If the billionaire class remains in power, we’re never going to get to accomplish things like national healthcare, affordable housing, and ending the climate crisis. There’s too much money to be made by keeping things the way they are. Instead of being in the hands of the capitalist class, the economy needs to be democratically controlled by the working class.”

Phoenix Sanderell joined Socialist Alternative in December. They use the gender pronouns they and them. “I joined SA because I was finally in a position to spend my time and money to join the fight to help myself, my family, and other people,” they said. “For years I’ve wanted to be more active politically, and now that I’m more financially stable, I’m finally able to do that. And I think SA is the best organization to get stuff done.”

Sanderell and their family were homeless for a long time. “Homelessness is like a crucible,” they said. “It changes everything you are. It changes everything about your life. It made me see a lot of things really clearly — made me see how much suffering there is in the world.

“All the despair I felt during that time has turned to rage,” they said. “I am righteously furious that my family had to go through that. Tens of thousands of other people have been through the same thing. Something has to be done about it! I want to be a part of the solution so that no one else has to go through what my family and I went through.”

The change that Sanderell wants to see the most is rent control. “I also want to see a living wage and drastic action on climate change,” they said. “I think a lot of that can be started at the local level.

“Socialism is about taking care of each other as a species,” Sanderell said. “The most basic biological function we have is friendship and community. We are lacking that in today’s society, especially here in the United States. Socialism seeks to change that so that we can lift one another up, and all of us can live better lives.”

Steve Palm-Houser is a member of Socialist Alternative. The Free Press was unable to reach the Columbus Club of Communist Party USA for an interview.

Socialist Alternative members canvass for Bernie Sanders on February 23; Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists protest U.S. immigration policy.

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