For 15 years, the San Francisco outpost of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) has operated out of a small storefront at 2969 Mission St. near the southern edge of the Mission. Inside, posters call for the liberation of Palestine and the end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The visage of Che Guevara peers over several tables selling stickers and paintings of other famous revolutionaries whose reputations might place its members on the edge of mainstream politics as well.
That’s no longer the case.
“There’s been very big changes,” said Richard Becker, PSL’s 72-year-old co-founder, as he joined some 25 members at 16th and Mission Street on a recent Friday. They were there to protest the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrants. “When we formed the PSL, it was just a small group of fewer than 40 people, now we have branches and checkers all over the country.”
That small group became the PSL in 2004 when they split from the Marxist-Leninist Workers World Party after deciding that its leadership was “no longer capable of fulfilling [their] mission.”
The PSL espouses a Marxist-Leninist ideology, one intent on “fighting the war program in the U.S., fighting imperialism, and fighting for Socialism,” said Gloria La Riva, a socialist presidential candidate since 1993 and a PSL founder.
Nowadays, they find, socialist ideals appear less radical, thanks to the success of the Democratic Socialists in attracting members like Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
While PSL does not give out membership numbers, they said outposts of the Marxist-Leninist group now exist in some 90 cities. The membership trends younger and attendance at their forums, such as one recent immigration symposium, have also grown to a steadier 50 or so, La Riva said.
And La Riva’s own showing in the presidential election, which she has entered every election cycle since 1993, has also grown. Most recently, La Riva’s numbers jumped nine-fold between 2012 and 2016 to 74,392.
“The fog of anti-communism is lifting,” said La Riva, from the “negativity and misunderstanding” of the past to “acceptance.”
Becker agreed. “Socialism has reentered the political discourse in the United States.” Although he acknowledged Sanders’ help, he was quick to add, “we don’t agree with him on everything.”
La Riva, now 63 and poised for another run, is straightforward about PSL’s differences with Sanders and other Democratic Socialists.
“We are Communists,” said La Riva, who also made it out to the 16th Street protest. “We believe in a society where capitalism does not exist in any way, where there is a socialist movement in the world, beginning with the U.S., the biggest purveyor of violence in the world.”
Sanders’ Democratic Socialism, in comparison, is not Marxist and does not involve abandoning capitalism or overturning the free market economy. And, both socialist parties share an antagonism for Trump’s harsh policies on immigration and his failure to address income disparity.
La Riva too sees the success of Sanders as a positive, “The response to him [shows that] people are really rejecting the idea that money rules and money should rule,” she said.
As for voting in 2020 election, PSL member Derek K. said that if a PSL candidate presents themselves in the 2020 election, he would vote for them, but if Biden gets nominated, he wouldn’t be too “enthusiastic” about voting.
When asked if she would support a candidate from one of the two main parties, La Riva said that would be taken up in August. “We’re going to have a great congress of our party in August in New York, and we’re going to discuss [it].”
Will she run again? That, too, will be decided at the New York congress in August.