Class and Gender in Democratic Socialist Activism

Maria Svart, National Director of Democratic Socialists of America, talks about how she got involved with DSA and how feminism and democratic socialism intersect

Class and Gender in Democratic Socialist Activism

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KATIE HALPER: Hello. Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Katie Halper. I’m really excited to be interviewing Maria Svart, who is the national director of the Democratic Socialist of America. You may know them as DSA. Maria, welcome.

MARIA SVART: Thanks for having me.

KATIE HALPER: Thank you so much for coming and speaking to us. And I just want to put it out there, everyone, her name is pronounced ‘Swart.’ It is spelled with a V, but that’s apparently silent in the Danish from which it comes. So, tell us about how you became involved in the DSA.

MARIA SVART: So, I actually came out of DSA’s campus wing. I was a national cochair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. I became a socialist when I was a college student, and I was a feminist activist. And I saw an event about socialist feminism, which resonated with me because I felt that the mainstream feminist movement didn’t speak to the experience of my mother, and my grandmothers. So I had an epiphany at this event about socialist feminism I realized capitalism was a system, and I had a language to explain all this unfairness that I had seen in the world.

KATIE HALPER: So before that, did you identify as a feminist? Did you feel like you were compatible with some elements of feminism? What was your relationship to feminism?

MARIA SVART: Yes. So, growing up my parents were liberal activists. I’m biracial. And my father was in a union. Much of my extended family were in a union. So the idea of collective action was not foreign to me. And the reflection of that was becoming a feminist activist, and certainly many things about feminism resonated. But I became more and more dissatisfied as I–again, as I realized that it was a limited form of feminism. I didn’t understand why until later.

KATIE HALPER: So what is it about socialism that you find makes feminism the fuller feminism that you identify with, and that represents more women and people?

MARIA SVART: Women are half the population, and yet the mainstream feminist movement really reflects the interests of white, middle class and upper class women, among other characteristics. And it’s just a limited understanding. Further, being a socialist feminist, you understand that there are collective solutions to collective problems, and individual solutions will not work, because you just have all this pressure on you as an individual, and you’re in, you’re inside a system that tries to tell you that you have an individual solution, but it’s inherently impossible to actually solve your problem. So it’s both understanding that we’re in a system, understanding the interests of working class women are different than upper class women, and also realizing the solution is only collective action.

KATIE HALPER: So it’s not in Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, it’s more in–in other words, which is more important? Here’s a quiz. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, or the women of Honduras and Libya. Right? So I get it now, I think.

MARIA SVART: I’m not going to go with the pantsuit.

KATIE HALPER: Not going to go with the pantsuit, right. How do you see identity politics weaponized against the left, and socialism in general?

MARIA SVART: Well, you look at Bernie Sanders, the most popular politician in the country. And yet people that support Bernie are called for Bernie bros. You look at DSA. I am a Latina. I’m leading the organization. And there are many women of color in leadership, and yet we are characterized as a bunch of Bernie bros.

KATIE HALPER: I reappropriated the term, by the way. I identify as a feminist Bernie bro.

MARIA SVART: That’s great. That’s great. It’s just that a whole narrative may be rooted in some critiques that are valid, but it is used, weaponized, to completely sweep everything else away, all of the economic analysis away. So it really erases my work, and other women and people of color in leadership. So we constantly have to push back against that.

KATIE HALPER: And the irony, of course, is that the things that the people who weaponized identity politics are against the left claim to care about is erasure. And what they’re doing, of course, is erasing the very people of color and women who are to the left of-

MARIA SVART: Anything to avoid a class analysis.

KATIE HALPER: Right. Anything to avoid a class analysis. So what can we do to push back on that?

MARIA SVART: Well, it’s really important to point out you can’t understand class without understanding gender, and race, and all of these things, and vice versa. So you know, how can you possibly understand, for example, the life experience of my grandmother, who was an undocumented Mexican immigrant, without understanding the much bigger picture, the whole systems of our society, whether it’s white supremacy or xenophobia or capitalism? They all intersect. And we need to talk about the complexity of that reality all the time, and we have to push back against lean-in feminism, mainstream feminism, all the time. It’s just a constant struggle.

KATIE HALPER: And what do you think the relationship between, let’s say, Bernie Sanders and DSA and the left at large is?

MARIA SVART: Well, during his campaign, which we will forever owe him a debt of gratitude–we as in the collective all of us. He reintroduced democratic socialism to mainstream American political discourse. He opened the door to millions of people finding out about Democratic socialism, realizing their feeling the world was not fair was, actually, there was a reason for that. They were not imagining things. So in his campaign he talked about how we needed a mass politically-aware grassroots organized movement. And so what we think of ourselves in as DSA is the democratic socialist part of that movement, and really trying to not just continue spreading these ideas, but also giving people a place where they can go and organize collectively around these ideas and continue spreading them and supporting him when he runs for office.

KATIE HALPER: Is that the DSA officially calling on him to run for office?

MARIA SVART: We would love it if Bernie ran again. But also, you know, really building institutions and communities, because one of the things that we don’t see enough of in our society today are institutions rooted in communities. And capitalism really pulls us apart from each other. It undermines community institutions and our social ties. And we see our chapters as one place to not only go into a community but through that community have the strength to fight and be building collective struggle.

KATIE HALPER: I find myself personally, I’m always protecting–I’m just going to be honest–Sanders, because there are so many disingenuous attacks against him by people who are fine with the neoliberal, and often overtly racist and sexist, statements or positions of the people they defend. Look at what Hillary said the other day about how Europe needs to curb immigration. And those same people celebrate her as woke, you know, YAS QUEEN, and Sanders is the alleged bigot. So I’m always defending him. But then from a position of support what do you think Sanders needs to do to make it clearer that race gender and class are connected and that his policies are about racial justice and about gender justice. Do you have any, like, tips? Friendly tips.

MARIA SVART: I would say learn to speak the language more, and just be more comfortable talking about these things, because I think Bernie definitely has learned how to communicate with so many people in this country that are deliberately ignored by the ruling class. But at the same time, he just needs to be able to articulate it much more clearly, because his policies are really good policies. There’s a reason he’s the most popular politician in the country. But at the same time, he does continue to make mistakes that are immediately pounced upon, obviously. So in order to defend himself he has to become more comfortable with that. And the only way to do that is to talk with folks that are on the front lines of the struggles.

KATIE HALPER: Right. And make it more explicit. Right? Because I think the argument is–I mean, what I think you and I agree on is that his policies are the anti-racist, the anti-sexist, the progressive policies. But yes, sometimes the translating of that is a challenge, right. And so especially like you said, given how much the media pounces on him–and someone said the other day it’s almost a miracle how few mistakes he makes, given that everyone is always covering him.

So any other words of advice for for the movement, for DSA, for feminism, for people out there watching this?

MARIA SVART: I’d say, you know, I think that most of us have the right instincts, which is in this moment we really need to be building a mass movement, whether that’s building our unions, building community organizations. We can’t rely on the courts to defend us. We haven’t for a very long time. But it’s particularly bad now. We can’t rely on Congress to save us. We can’t rely on legalistic solutions. We can’t rely on the Democratic Party. So we need to be organizing in ways where we can really interrupt the way society functions. That’s our only source of power right now. The Democrats are going to pursue these legalistic avenues, talking about corruption. And we all know that Trump is super corrupt, but that’s not going to inspire a mass movement. They’ve won by running on material issues, things like Medicare for all. And they need to continue fighting. I mean, Democrats need to pass a bunch of things in the House and then send them to the Senate for the Republicans to vote against. And meanwhile, all of us need to be organizing in the streets.

KATIE HALPER: So what will the official role be of the DSA? How do you manage–because you guys have kind of a parallel structure, right? You work with the campaigns, you work outside of campaigns. So what would it be with Sanders if and when if he runs?

MARIA SVART: We are very bottom-up organization, and our members decide what we’re going to do in 2019 and 2020. So our members will have an organization-wide conversation about what that should look like, and depending on what happens in current events, the members will decide. It’s a truly democratic organization, which is wonderful, because we can actually respond to current events and develop people’s critical thinking skills. And, because we’re run by members and were funded by members, members really decide the direction, and therefore are very invested in carrying it out.

KATIE HALPER: Great. Well, I I heard Bernie talking with Paul from The Real News. He said something had chutzpah, which is Yiddish for, like, nerviness. And so there’s shonda, which is a shame. And I would say you guys are a mitzvah, a good deed for the world and for the left, and for all the disenfranchised people. So thank you so much, Maria.

MARIA SVART: Thank you for that.

KATIE HALPER: I’m Katie helper for The Real News Network, and this is Maria Svart of the DSA, Democratic Socialists of America.