Everything was coming up roses on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Red rose symbols were emblazoned on scarlet T-shirts, branded on pinback buttons affixed to messenger bags and backpacks, printed on brochures and pamphlets, and projected onto the walls of a lecture hall in the student center on the east side of the school’s grounds. One would’ve been forgiven for mistaking the gathering for a conference of professional florists.
All of the floral iconography was in fact political in nature. During the first weekend of August, UIC played host to the national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America. The image of the rose, which has served as a symbol employed by leftist movements for more than a century, is a central emblem of the DSA. Two “red scares” and the cold war have chilled much legitimate talk about socialism over the course of the last century, but the ubiquity of rose-bedecked swag was just the most visible sign that the anti-capitalist movement is blossoming.
The size of the DSA’s proverbial rose garden that weekend was larger than any in the nonprofit organization’s 35-year history. The convention drew 1,000 attendees from 49 states, including 697 delegates and about 300 observers. One DSA official called it a “historic moment,” noting that a single room was packed with more people than had attended the previous three conventions combined. The sight of the rose-filled student center prompted Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the progressive political magazine the American Prospect and a DSA member since 1975, to marvel to a fellow longtime member, “Look at all these new faces. I can’t believe it!”
The most prominent of those new faces was a man whose last name—fittingly enough—is Spanish for the word “rose”: Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who joined the DSA in March. On the eve of the convention’s first day, the 28-year-old councilman, a red rose pinned to the lapel of his dark suit jacket, delivered a rousing welcome speech that made it clear he wasn’t there simply to serve as a city ambassador. “I address you tonight not as an emissary of the mayor of the 1 percent or the class of City Hall,” he said, “but as your comrade. As a proud Democratic Socialist, I welcome you.” Amid cheers and applause, the alderman paused briefly to smile.
The three days that followed were rarely so exhilarating. “The trouble with socialism,” Oscar Wilde is often quoted as saying, “is that it takes up too many evenings.” He was talking about all the meetings, and indeed the DSA convention’s days and nights were overstuffed with lengthy, frequently heated, sometimes hiss-filled debates on administrative rules about dues collection and formal votes governed by tedious parliamentary procedure. But ultimately the DSA collectively agreed to leave the Socialist International—a loose confederation of worldwide member parties—and expressed support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. It also advocated for a socialized national health care system devoid of the profit motive, endorsed Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures, and elected to create a national Afro-socialist caucus.
By the close of the weekend, the DSA had managed to push its political priorities further to the left than ever before. For recent converts like Ramirez-Rosa—many of them young, female, queer, and people of color—it was one hell of a coming out party, and a glimpse of the promise of the new wave of socialism.
Eight years ago, a segment of the right responded to the election of Barack Obama by jump-starting the Tea Party to block the Democratic majority’s agenda. Now that the electoral pendulum has swung hard to the right—and possibly completely off its pivot with the coronation of Donald Trump—a growing number of people, whether emboldened by the Bernie Sanders campaign or put off by the ineffectuality of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, are swerving left and becoming card-carrying members of socialist organizations. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those people, having joined the Chicago DSA in May.) The International Socialist Organization has grown nearly 50 percent over the last couple years to about 1,000 members nationwide (including 125 in Chicago); the ISO’s Socialism Conference, held in Chicago in early July, hosted more than 2,000 people, a third larger than the previous year’s event.
But it’s the DSA, officially formed in 1982 during a convention in Detroit, that’s experienced the most marked growth. Membership has more than tripled since 2015, from 8,000 to 25,000. Today it’s the largest Marxist organization in the U.S. since World War II. Locally there are more than 1,300 members among the chapters on the north side, south side, and Oak Park, with a west-suburban addition in the offing.
Chief among the factors drawing new members to the DSA is the ecosystem of collective DIY activism, from mass marches on the national level to small local committees and chapter-specific working groups focused on mobilizing action on issues such as anti-racism and feminism.
Whereas the Tea Party was a GOP movement masquerading as populism, one intended to gum up the works of the Obama administration, the new breed of lefties joining the DSA wants to fight the worst excesses of the Trump agenda while also raging against the Democratic Party machine. They view the Democrats as stuck in passive #Resistance mode, a weak-kneed party trading Russian conspiracy theories while failing to offer a compelling alternative vision to the hellish Trumpian present.
It was telling that the segment of Ramirez-Rosa’s speech at the DSA conference that garnered the most enthusiastic reaction was when he threw jabs at the Democrats. He lambasted the administration of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for neglecting public education in favor of overpolicing black and brown neighborhoods. Democrats, he said, are too often “corporate shills who [wear] blue ties instead of red,” politicians whose agenda too often resembles something like Trump’s.
“As Democratic Socialists, we know that just as rigorously as we resist the right wing and their mouthpiece president, so too must we resist the neoliberal Democrats,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “If it’s barbarism or socialism, I choose the latter.”
A socialist Chicago alderman who calls out Democrats for being Republicans in disguise? Until the most recent presidential election, the emergence of such a figure seemed unlikely if not impossible. Even among progressives, socialism through much of 2015 remained relatively taboo, a dirty word confined to the margins. When conservatives labeled Obama a socialist early in his presidency, they meant it as an epithet.
That’s a dramatic shift from a century ago, when socialist movements surged throughout the world—most strikingly in the Russian Revolution of 100 years ago. Chicago was the center of the radical left in America during its heyday prior to World War I, says Alan Maass, author of The Case for Socialism. “Chicago was a hub for transportation, industry, and for waves of immigrants who were some of the most radical of the early labor movement,” Maass says. By the 1910s, a dozen socialist newspapers were published in Chicago, and the city elected several aldermen who belonged to the Socialist Party founded by Eugene V. Debs. The union leader from Terre Haute, Indiana, was sent to prison for his role in the violent 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago and became radicalized by reading Karl Marx’s Capital. Debs helped form the Socialist Party and ran as his party’s presidential candidate five times, including a 1912 campaign in which he earned 6 percent of the popular vote.
As post-WWI interest in the left grew, the Bolsheviks’ rise to power together with domestic labor unrest spooked U.S. officials and prompted a counterattack in the form of a red scare. On New Year’s Day 1920, Chicago police raided union halls and bookstores and apprehended about 150 socialists, communists, and anarchists, many of whom were deported. Socialism was positioned as positively un-American. A second McCarthy-era red scare in the 40s and 50s broke the back of the movement. Socialist ideas have since had fleeting moments of relevance, including the New Left movement of the 60s, but over the last four decades there has been a slow erosion of significant radical movements—especially as the Republican Party began dismantling labor—and Democrats, lured by the siren call of Wall Street and “market-based solutions,” looked away.
It was in high school, after reading Noam Chomsky’s seminal critique of Western capitalism Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, that Ramirez-Rosa began identifying as a socialist. Even as he came out as gay at age 16 while in the midst of his very first political campaign, for junior class president, Ramirez-Rosa felt compelled to remain closeted about his Marxist politics.
In a culturally tolerant city such as Chicago, where even Republicans have been known to march in the Pride Parade, plenty of rainbow flags fly in public—but none that are socialist red. It made sense, then, that when Ramirez-Rosa launched his insurgent campaign against incumbent 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon in September 2014, he didn’t shy away from his sexual or racial identity (“openly gay 26-year-old Latino” was reflexively affixed to his name in the local media), but still opted to stay mum about the S-word.
“People that helped run campaigns told me, ‘Look, we have these same values. We also identify as socialist or leftist, but we don’t think you should run as one because you’ll lose,” Ramirez-Rosa says.
Then came Bernie.
“Bernie Sanders opened up that door for me,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “I said, if someone could run for president of the United States and say ‘I’m a democratic socialist,’ then, hell, I can come out of the closet. I’ve come out of the closet before.”
Improbably, it is a septuagenarian who deserves more credit than any other figure for socialism’s current vogue among millennials. The wizened Vermont senator—who embraced leftist politics and joined the Young People’s Socialist League while a student at the University of Chicago in the early 60s—got within spitting distance of the Democratic Party’s nomination for president with a grassroots campaign built on a platform infused with socialist ideology: free college and health care, economic redistribution in the form of higher taxes on the rich, and a “political revolution” against corporate power and oligarchy.
Among those the Sanders campaign lit a fire under was 22-year-old Jacquelyn Smith, who’d traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the DSA conference. She came to socialism after struggling to connect with the culture of one-upsmanship among activists on her university campus. “College activism often turns into this battle of who’s the most woke, and I couldn’t get engaged in it,” Smith says. In the wake of the presidential election, she decided that sitting on the sidelines and simply holding progressive values wasn’t enough. “I knew I needed to fight for my values,” she says. A Google search for “democratic socialism”—a term she’d heard Sanders use repeatedly on the campaign trail—pointed her toward the DSA. Days later she joined the Metro D.C. chapter and attended a meeting in a library basement so crowded that it “wasn’t just standing room [only],” she recalls, “it was hallway room only.”
When Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, it didn’t do much to dampen enthusiasm for him. According to the findings of a Harvard-Harris survey published in April, the senator still ranked as the most popular politician in America. The devotion was certainly on display at the People’s Summit, the Berniecrats’ second annual conference, held in June at McCormick Place. The line to see Sanders’s keynote speech at the summit snaked out the door as thousands—including left-leaning celebrities John Cusack and Danny Glover—packed the Arie Crown Theater. He delivered a kind of state of the political revolution address. “We may not have won the campaign in 2016,” Sanders said, “but there is no question that we have won the battle of ideas.”
Across the pond in the U.K., democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn won the battle of ideas—and nearly the campaign. Though British conservatives and centrists alike dismissed him as a left-wing extremist, he earned enough votes in June’s special election to deprive prime minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May of a majority in Parliament. The American left has embraced Corbyn as a hero. The DSA convention crowd twice broke into a chant popular in the U.K.: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn! Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” set to the melody of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, DSA members and enlistees in “Bernie’s Army,” the affectionate nickname for Sanders’s political action committee, are starting to win smaller municipal elections. DSA member Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the 34-year-old who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, in June, told attendees at the People’s Summit that he wants to make the southern capital “the most radical city on the planet.” Another DSA member, Black Lives Matter activist Khalid Kamau, 40, won a seat on the city council of South Fulton, Georgia, in April, the same month that 28-year-old DSA member Dylan Parker was elected to the city council in Rock Island, Illinois.
A number of new DSA members who gathered at the national conference spoke of joining the day after the presidential election or soon after. Sixty percent of the Chicago DSA’s 1,300 members joined since November 9. Delegate Ashwin Ravikumar, 30, an environmental social scientist at the Field Museum, described something of a postelection come-to-Marx moment while on assignment in the middle of rural Peru.
“I wake up on November 9 assuming Hillary is the president. But I call my mom just to check in, and she told me Trump won,” he recalled. “My heart just starts beating—boom! boom! boom!—in my chest and I hang up and go into a daze. I spent that entire day with a machete weeding a coffee farmer’s field in the Peruvian Amazon. There I was just hacking away at vegetation, and in my head raging against the Democratic Party for allowing Trump to happen and the failures of liberalism.”
Lucie Macías became a member of the Chicago DSA a couple days after Trump’s win. “The night of the election, I didn’t get any sleep. I watched it and I realized I didn’t want to just give up and say, ‘This is what it will be the next four years.’ I wanted to join something that would make a difference locally,” the 31-year-old said. “I’ve been doing lots of work so far. I work in environmental justice in Chicago, and here [at the DSA convention] I connected to other people and created a coalition focused on water issues in the Great Lakes in the midwest.”
—Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Chicago alderman and new Democratic Socialists for America member
Since the election the new left has also been strengthened by a vibrant independent media. Radical publisher Haymarket Books, which recently won approval to open a community center in a mansion in Buena Park despite protests from NIMBYs, scored big with its release of the latest book by social activist Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Klein’s anti-capitalist polemic—which she calls a “movement book”—charted at number two on the New York Times best-seller list immediately after it was published in June. The progressive magazine In These Times—founded in Chicago in 1976 by historian James Weinstein and modeled on a socialist newspaper from the turn of the century—has seen subscriptions jump to 50,000 from just 10,000 in 2011. The magazine’s editors are in the midst of redesigning and expanding the publication to respond to the influx of readers, both in print and online.
“The most popular politician in the country identifies as a socialist,” Miles Kampf-Lassin, In These Times‘s community editor, says of Sanders. “The ideas of socialism are popular, so we’re trying to reach this new, young, excited audience.”
In These Times shares part of its Logan Square office space with the local outpost of Jacobin, the New York-based quarterly magazine “offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” The Baffler, the quarterly magazine of political and cultural analysis launched in 1988 by onetime Reader contributor Thomas Frank, moved operations to New York City last year. Today especially the publication’s website reads like a socialist rag, with features such as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe’s Interviews for Resistance series. These days, rose emojis spring up like weeds on social media. The stars of Weird Twitter and Left Twitter, amorphous but overlapping subcultures, have become known for posting absurd, subversive, and incisive non sequiturs.
The common voice of the new-left media balances self-serious activism with an anarchic sense of ironic humor. “We need socialism because only socialism can guarantee that Ringo gets the best healthcare in the world, and Paul gets the worst,” Australian cartoonist and Left Twitter luminary Ben Ward recently tweeted from his account @pixelatedboat, which has 112,000 followers.
Like many of his peers at the DSA conference, Zach Maril, 26, said he discovered the organization’s Metro D.C. outpost through Left Twitter and Chapo Trap House, a caustic and hilarious left-wing comedy podcast that ranks among the top 200 on the Internet. “It gives me hope, I can’t express how much it means to me,” said Maril, now the head of his chapter’s events and logistics committee, during a DSA conference panel introducing old and new members.
While in town for the convention, the three original Chapo Trap House cohosts, including Chicago native Felix Biederman, did a pair of postconvention live shows at the Hideout. During the summit, Biederman says, he was approached by several DSA delegates for whom Chapo was their gateway to socialism. “If they listened to us and thought the realm of political possibility was way further than they thought it was and it got them mad and they took action—that’s fucking amazing,” Biederman says. Stand-up comedian and Catastrophe star Rob Delaney, who made a guest appearance on Chapo Trap House in April, is a proud DSA member and actively promotes the organization on social media: “My web-page’s sole purpose now is to lure teens & millennials into the #ripped arms of feminist socialism,” he tweeted in January to his 1.4 million followers alongside a link to the DSA’s website.
The outreach appears to be working, though socialism’s momentum among millennials could be due as much to changing political attitudes as to cultural cachet. According to a 2015 YouGov poll, while positive views of socialism remain a minority opinion, 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds hold a favorable opinion of socialism compared to just 26 percent who have an unfavorable opinion of it. Much of that can be attributed to this generation’s coming of age after the specter of the cold war had faded. Its defining anxieties stemmed not from the threat of communist totalitarianism but economic inequality and a bleak job market.
When R.L. Stephens, 30, graduated from George Washington University Law School in 2014, the Minnesota native found a dearth of employment prospects. “I realized I didn’t want to be an attorney, but I’m black and I had no job experience, so I found myself working at the Gap,” he says. After helping rally his coworkers to change the Gap’s scheduling policy, namely the use of “on-call shifts,” he began a job in Chicago as an organizer for the Unite Here labor union. But even unions weren’t influential enough to address the suffering Stephens saw—especially on the part of young black people in neighborhoods with disproportionate levels of violence and unemployment.
“I was like, yeah, this union is mostly people of color and this is tight,” Stephens says, “but how am I building a politics that builds a more socially transformative process? That’s when I really started thinking seriously about socialist politics.” He now cohosts the Jacobin podcast Stockton to Malone. He joined the Northside Chicago DSA in February and was swiftly elected to the National Political Committee, the organization’s board of directors. “How do you take the particularities of people’s suffering and subjugation and subordination and oppression and attach them to the fight for universal emancipation?” he asks. “That’s what this convention’s about—it’s about figuring out what that means.”
The DSA is trying, with some success, to diversify its membership in terms of gender and race. During the convention, half the spots on its 16-member National Political Committee were slotted for women, and four went to people of color. Nationally, the organization as a whole is still disproportionately white and male, but among the delegates in attendance in Chicago, 40 percent were women and about 20 percent were people of color, according to the DSA. Of Chicago’s three DSA chapters, 39 percent of the members are male, 60 percent are female, and 25 percent are people of color.
The common depiction of socialism as being full of “Bernie bros” is a frustrating one, Macías says. “I’m not a white dude. I’m a Latino woman, and there are a lot of women and people of color here,” she said at the DSA conference. “The thing we’re doing is normalizing socialism to some degree and saying, ‘This isn’t just for white dudes. Socialism is for everyone.’ ”
Lately Ramirez-Rosa says he’s been trying to reclaim the term “Bernie bro” from its pejorative use in the same way the LGBTQ community came to embrace the word “queer.” “I’m like, ‘Yes, this 28-year-old queer Latinx son of working-class immigrants is a Bernie Bro,’ ” he says. “It’s cool when the left uses the term, but when you have neoliberal political operatives using that term to divide people and demonize people who are fighting for social and economic justice, it’s disgusting.”
As the DSA’s big convention weekend in Chicago neared its end, there seemed little doubt that the current iteration of socialism is a far cry from the stereotype of pointy-headed old white men muttering about Marx in the dusty corners of an academic library. Further confirmation came during an afterparty on Saturday, August 5, at the shared office of In These Times and Jacobin on Milwaukee Avenue.
“Oh my god, this party is lit!” Stephens exclaimed, walking off the dance floor drenched in sweat. His voice was hoarse from straining to be heard above the hip-hop being blasted by a laptop DJ. Poster-size covers of old In These Times issues adorned the walls of the second-floor office as reminders of socialism’s past. But the hardwood floors were filled with the future of the movement—Ramirez-Rosa, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, the cohosts of Chapo Trap House, and hundreds of youngish DSA delegates, many wearing rose-covered T-shirts representing local chapters. While some swayed to the music or took shots of Malort, others engaged in conversations about the practical value of third parties and whether socialism should be a reform movement that embraces Scandinavian-style social democracy (as Sanders believes) or a full-fledged revolutionary movement with the objectives of redistributing wealth, transferring ownership of the means of production, and abolishing police and prisons. The affair was even crashed by a gaggle of Lollapalooza attendees who’d heard through the grapevine about a rager off the Blue Line.
A handmade sign taped to a column in the middle of the room carried a message for Chicago’s mayor: i hope everyone has a great night, except rahm emanuel. fuck rahm emanuel.
That’s not to say socialist organizations such as the DSA currently pose a significant threat to corporate Democrats such as Emanuel, much less President Donald Trump’s right-wing agenda. (Trump recently applied the term “alt-left” to anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that included some socialists.) Despite the recent spike in popularity, socialist organizations remain a relative blip on the nation’s political radar. The Chicago Teachers Union, for instance, has about 30,000 members as compared to the Chicago DSA’s 1,300. That’s why members like Ramirez-Rosa are careful not to rush into talk of socialists presenting a third-party challenge to the Democrats from the left. The numbers just aren’t there.
The movement’s modest stature, however, isn’t stopping Ramirez-Rosa from marshaling the DSA and other ally organizations such as Reclaim Chicago and the CTU to help build up a progressive caucus in the city. In the next two years, he intends to help slate aldermanic candidates that he hopes will remake the City Council into “a real disciplined force for leftist policies that will uplift working Chicagoans.” By 2019, he says, he expects this caucus to put forward “alternative policies to those that favor the 1 percent. And hopefully we have a progressive mayor and we are then delivering to him the votes to push forward progressive policies.”
It’s an ambitious agenda for an alderman who hasn’t even completed his first term in office. But there are indications that socialism is at least helping to nudge the political needle left in Chicago and beyond—even if smashing capitalism remains far from reach.
Ramirez-Rosa has found Chicagoans remarkably receptive to socialist ideas—particularly if he has a chance to explain. “When we break through the false narrative put forward by the corporate media and actually go out and knock on doors and talk to people one on one, they’re actually with us. I don’t think there’s this big divide between rank-and-file regular Democrats and the members of the DSA. They’re actually with us on the policies, and so our job is to go out and present them a candidate and win those elections,” he says. “That idea frightens the neoliberal establishment.”
Something else that might frighten their foes is the chant delegates broke into as the convention was adjourned: “DSA ain’t nothin’ to fuck with!” v