The Denver chapter of Democratic Socialists of America started with three radical activists disappointed by the outcome of the 2016 election. Not quite two years later, 73 Denver residents packed into a church classroom on a hot Saturday afternoon to discuss socialist organizing tactics and political issues. With nearly 300 registered members, an endorsement of candidate Julie Gonzales that might have helped make her the Democratic nominee for a state Senate seat in District 34, and a hand in some of the most well-attended recent progressive rallies, Denver DSA is no longer on the fringe of local politics.
DSA's most recent chapter meeting was its biggest ever, says Secretary Chris Diehn. At least a dozen first-timers showed up to see if they might want to join “Denver’s friendliest socialist organization,” as DSA bills itself.
Diehn says the surge in interest is due to a primary upset in New York that caught national media attention. DSA member and unapologetic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a landslide victory to win the Democratic nomination for House District 14 in the Bronx. Merriam-Webster reported that after her win, searches for the word "socialism" spiked 1,500 percent.
Nationally, the tense political climate of the past two years has fueled DSA’s growth. A spokesman told CNN that the group now has more than 45,000 dues-paying members around the country — up from 6,000 members at the 2015 convention — making it the largest socialist organization in the U.S. in over a century. It's also added 141 new local chapters, including Denver's.
“The election definitely was the impetus,” Diehn says of the new Denver chapter. Although he wasn’t one of the original three members, he joined within a few months, after watching Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a Democratic socialist but is not a member of DSA, rise and fall, and then seeing the Clinton campaign crash in what Diehn calls “the collective failure of the Democratic party.” He and other budding socialists wanted to be a part of a different kind of politics.
“After the 2016 election, I was in shock; I was really upset. I wanted to get more involved, I wanted to do something, but I felt really disheartened with the establishment Democratic response to what was happening,” says DSA member Elizabeth Hauserman. But she didn’t call herself a socialist until she started attending DSA meetings in Denver last fall. She says DSA aligned with her moral values of "ensuring that everyone leads a life of dignity."
Some of Denver DSA's members had long been immersed in socialist literature and discussions. Others, like Hauserman, didn't know much about Marx or the Russian Revolution — which is fine; there are no political knowledge requirements for joining DSA. But there is one fairly common thread among members, according to DSA member Jake Douglas: Few of them had been heavily involved in politics or organizing before joining DSA.
Part of what makes DSA attractive to leftists new to actually participating in politics, says Diehn, is its approach to working both inside and outside of electoral politics. DSA is not a political party, but it does endorse candidates in Democratic and third-party races, and encourages its own members to run for office. It also organizes grassroots campaigns to fight for issues ranging from labor rights to immigration justice, and holds reading groups and issue-specific meetings to engage members on Democratic socialist values.
So what are those values, exactly?
“It boils down to democracy,” Diehn says. “Not just in the sense of electing politicians, but actually having democracy in every aspect in our lives, and having a meaningful, fulfilling life where people participate in decisions that affect them.” DSA’s goal, he adds, is to “bring democracy out of the electoral place and into the workplace and community so that we control democratic institutions that are supposed to serve us, so that we run the economy as the working class.”
For DSA, that means capitalism is out — but not in a “taking up arms to destroy the bourgeoisie” kind of way. DSA is a pluralist organization, so members have different conceptions of what an alternative to capitalism could look like and how to get there. Other socialist groups, like the International Socialist Organization (which also has a Denver chapter) tend to be dogmatic. DSA, by contrast, has no “party line,” and members are free to disagree about various actions and strategies. The one thing DSA should not be confused with, says Diehn, is “vanguardism,” the Soviet-style theory that a small group of people must overthrow the leadership and establish state socialism with a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
But DSA also wants to separate itself from what the rest of the world recognizes as “social Democratic” countries like Norway and Denmark — countries Sanders often pointed to in his campaign as examples of what the U.S. should emulate. DSA member Justin Morgan says that he identified with those beliefs as well, considering himself a progressive until he started coming to DSA meetings. That convinced him that capitalism had to go: “Social Democrats think that capitalism can exist with lots of safety nets,” he says. “Democratic socialists argue that capitalism will always wear down those safety nets.”
But as Diehn explains, “We can’t have a big reading group and decide we need socialism and expect everyone to go along.” So what does DSA actually do?
Some of the work involves trying to establish socialist-inspired safety-net systems on a national scale. DSA has a national “Medicare for All” campaign that members in Denver are heavily involved with, canvassing on a regular basis to garner support for a single-payer health-care bill at the federal level. (Democrats in the House just launched a Medicare for All caucus.)
But local DSA chapters have a lot of autonomy. “On a local level we’re not really taking cues or following anybody’s lead,” Diehn explains. “We learn about how leftists and opposition groups have behaved in electoral politics, but local politics is so different from what’s going on anywhere else. ... Everything we do is influenced by what’s going on locally, and what people are experiencing.”
Many of Denver DSA's grassroots efforts have happened in conjunction with existing organizations. For example, Douglas, who chairs the labor committee, coordinates DSA's efforts to support local rank-and-file unions at rallies and direct actions — though, he notes, not all unions are open to socialist solidarity. DSA also works with Centro Humanitario's wage-theft direct action team to pressure employers to give mostly undocumented construction laborers what they owe them. Committees organize public panels and discussions about racial justice, labor movement history and women's rights, and DSA helped organize the well-attended "Keep Families Together" rally on June 30, passing out more than 1000 "Abolish ICE" signs.
In March, fifteen Denver DSA members were elected as delegates to the Denver Democratic Party Assembly, where the party revised its platform. Seizing the opportunity for action, DSA drew on U.K. Labor Party language to craft an amendment to bring to the floor: "We believe the economy should be democratically owned and controlled in order to serve the needs of the many, not to make profits for the few." To DSA's surprise, an estimated 90 percent of delegates supported it, and as a result, the Denver Democratic Party Platform now includes a key anti-capitalist tenet. Although the amendment by itself won't do much, Diehn says it proved that DSA has the capacity to move the Democratic party to the left, even though that's not necessarily its primary goal.
The chapter recently decentralized its organizational structure, meaning that no one person is at the helm. Instead of having a chair or an executive component that oversees various efforts, the organization is composed of eight committees that work independently on issues. The chair of each committee joins an administrative steering committee.
At chapter meetings, committees share their recent actions. At the last meeting, they ranged from a socialist jargon-filled report on the political education committee’s efforts to organize a discussion about modern monetary theory, to talk about the mutual aid committee’s recent donation drive for hygienic products that they plan to distribute to people experiencing homelessness. And, of course, everyone was talking about Ocasio-Cortez’s win, wondering if socialists will suddenly flood into public office in Denver, or even pull off historic upsets for coveted congressional seats in the next few years.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
“I sure hope so,” Hauserman says. “There are a lot of people who seem really loyal to the Democratic Party here. I think that Ocasio-Cortez’s win makes us a little more legitimate and emphasizes the seriousness that we feel about the world that we want to see.”
"It makes us feel optimistic that in the future, people will feel comfortable enough to run as open socialists [in Denver]," Douglas adds.
Others are less optimistic. “Our city’s really progressive, but not quite as radical as others,” Morgan says. “I don’t know if we’re gonna have a similar victory here; I don’t know if we’re ready for that.”
Nonetheless, Denver DSA will continue reaching out, even to those who may never have heard of socialism before. And it will probably keep growing, at least as long as young, left-leaning people remain disillusioned with the political system. “People really want the kind of policies we’re talking about: mass movements mobilizing people, not money," Diehn says. "That energy is really strong right now everywhere in the organization.”