A People of Color’s History of DSA, Part 1: Socialism, Race, and the Formation of DSA

August 14, 2019 01:54

By David Roddy and Alyssa De La Rosa

(All images from Democratic Left Vol. 10 N. 3)


One of the most serious and divisive issues facing DSA since its membership explosion is how socialists should approach the issue of race and racism. Numerous pages of online left-wing periodicals, Medium posts, and Facebook threads have poured over the issue, with political positions varying widely from accepting the liberal framework of class and race as separate issues or the old “class struggle first” tendency of leftists to sideline anti-racist struggles. What most of the articles fail to articulate, however, is that DSA did not form after Trump was elected. In fact, this debate has raged within the organization since its founding in 1982.


When Miguel Salazar wrote “Do American Socialists Have a Race Problem?” in In These Times last December, we realized that a stack of old papers entitled “Our Struggle/Nuestra Lucha”--the quarterly publication of the Democratic Socialists of America Anti-Racism, Latino and Afro-American Commissions--might hold the answers. They were stacked away in the home office of Duane Campbell--a retired professor of Multicultural Education at California State University Sacramento, and almost certainly the only continuously active DSA member in Sacramento since its founding. Using these as our initial guides, we interviewed multiple current and former DSA Commissions leaders to flesh out the history of people of color within the organization and to contextualize the current controversy within a broader historical framework.


The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Michael Harrington

The Democratic Socialists of America was formed by the merger of two organizations: The Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). DSOC was formed under the leadership of Michael Harrington during the splintering of the old Socialist Party of America in 1971. NAM was formed in 1972 by a younger generation after the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society. DSOC was largely a paper-membership organization aimed at realigning the Democratic Party along social democratic lines, whereas NAM was more rooted in local, grassroots education and agitation. However, the organizations were united by their disavowal of the dominant Marxist-Leninist trends in the U.S. at the time as well as a mostly white membership. Former DSA National Political Committee member José La Luz recalls, “The question of building a greater presence of comrades of color was critical even before the foundation of the merger of the New American Movements and DSOC to form DSA.”


DSOC emerged from a three-way fracture of the Socialist Party of America (SPA). At their 1972 convention, the leadership of the Party voted to rename themselves “Social Democrats USA” in a move to avoid any potential confusion with Communism. Additionally, in a bid to keep close to George Meaney, the pro-war president of the AFL-CIO, the Party leadership refused to mobilize within the mass movement against the war on Vietnam and opposed George McGovern’s anti-war run for the Democratic Presidential Primary.


Among those leading the Party’s rightward turn were Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph. Both played key roles in the early Civil Rights movement, but as the 1960’s progressed became increasingly right-wing. Their moderate approach to the civil rights movement--based around their support of George Meaney--was eclipsed by the Black Power movement, whose leftward current was personified by the Black Panther Party. Nonetheless, DSOC did attract some prominent organizers from the labor movement. William Lucy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and chairman of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists wrote about Black labor issues in DSOC’s official publication, the Democratic Left. In 1977, In These Times noted that “the insurgencies of the '60s have permanently altered American socialism and made all sections of the movement far more responsive to the demands of women and minorities--a reality recently reflected in the fact that men and women like [Black U.S. congressman Ron] Dellums, [Gloria] Steinem and [Black Georgia State Senator] Julian Bond have joined the DSOC.” Latino socialists, including organizers from the United Farm Workers like Dolores Huerta and former members of the Puerto Rico Socialist Party like José La Luz, formed a Latino Commission within DSOC. La Luz told us,


“I was the chairperson. We paid a lot of attention to the struggles of Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos. The support for struggles of national liberations in Central and South America and the Carribean was critical as was solidarity with the people in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico...that became part of the debate about the critical importance of building a multiracial democratic socialist movement in the country.“ He continued, “We had numerous events and activities that we insisted were critical to recruit and build closer ties to African Americans and Latinos who had their own political organizations. We conceived it was of strategic importance to build these alliances and recruit some cadres from other organizations. We had some success because the organization began to pay more attention to the need to transform itself.”


The New American Movement and Manning Marable

NAM came from the revolutionary milieu of a New Left radicalized by Third World Liberation movements at home and abroad, the formation of socialist feminist unions, and the ideals of grassroots participatory democracy. La Luz told us, “The New American Movement had some comrades of color. They had been engaged in the ongoing debate to be more diverse, to be a truly multiracial and multicultural socialist movement.” Mel Pritchard, who gave a speech on the importance of anti-racism at NAM’s tenth convention said, “I gravitated to the New American Movement because they were doing the best work. They were active in doing all kinds of stuff, union organizing, getting history professors to join the AFL. They were willing to work with people and weren’t ideologically crazy,” referring to the rabid sectarianism that engulfed much of the revolutionary left in the 1970s.


In 1977, Manning Marable joined NAM. A year prior, Marable began his career as a leading Black scholar with the publication of “From the Grassroots,” an internationally syndicated column on political questions facing Black people around the world. In 1976, he also was involved with the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA), which derived from the 1972 National Black Political Convention aimed at bringing various forces of the Black liberation movement--from elected officials to Marxists to cultural nationalists--together to form a united program independent of the two-party system toward the goal of a transformation of American society. Marable recounted that he saw NAM and the NBPA as “complementary, based on my whole approach to politics being grounded in race and class. At the same time, I had concluded that a racial analysis by itself was insufficient in understanding the contradictions at the heart of a capitalist society.”

Contributing to the white-dominated nature of NAM and DSOC was a skepticism of people of color radicalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s toward multi-racial organizing. The premise of self-determination of oppressed people led to the formation of organizations like the Black Panther Party. However, by the mid to late 1970s, a combination of the accommodation of a growing Black elite into the halls of power and bitter infighting within organizations like the NBPA demobilized the Black radical mass base that had shaken the establishment a decade earlier.


Drifting toward a more specifically Marxist frame of understanding Black politics, Marable was a proponent of merging NAM and DSOC, later stating that “the basic reason was that I felt that building a broader-based organization that ranged from social democracy to Marxism had a much greater likelihood of galvanizing popular support for the ideas of socialism.” Michael Harrington agreed, and after a prolonged and heated debate, NAM and DSOC merged in 1982 to form the Democratic Socialists of America.


While both Marable and Harrington championed the merger, they had significantly different views of the question of class and race. Writing in the Democratic Left in 1974, Harrington argued, “The overwhelming majority of the society, black and white, is dispossessed; the blacks are the most dispossessed of all (three times as much as the whites). If the political connections can be made, there is a majority of the society, black and white, which has a vital self-interest in the redistribution of wealth. That is the key to changing the relative position of blacks in the American economy.” In contrast, Marable argued in 1980, “A grassroots alternative to the ideology and politics of liberalism must be rooted within the historical reality of blackness, within the perspective of the black working class, the unemployed and the oppressed.” He later recounted, “I understood Black nationalism to mean a politics that advocated community institution-building and the construction of an independent, all-Black party or political formation.”


While both agreed that ending the oppression of Blacks would involve a transformation of America that dethroned the capitalist class, they also offered different solutions. Marable saw the formation of an independent Black political party necessary to address the problems facing the Black working class, where Harrington saw a program uniting the economic demands of all workers toward a common program.


The Debate

In These Times covered the debate over the merger between DSOC and NAM extensively.

In 1977, NAM National Secretary Roberta Lynch criticized DSOC’s approach to foreign policy, arguing that “DSOC comes out of a tradition of socialist anti-communism. It is an international tradition that has tended to be fearful of revolutionary upheaval, to identify the advanced welfare state with socialism, and to tolerate the global ravage of American imperialism.” In particular, she was concerned with DSOC’s alignment with the Socialist International (SI), which she noted “includes the ruling parties of Israel, Portugal, and West Germany...there can be little doubt that any socialist movement that develops in the major imperial power in the world must have an understanding of and opposition to American imperialism as a key aspect of its politics. The demonstrated leanings of DSOC on such questions as Portugal and Israel raise real doubts about how it would approach international issues if it does grow to be a major force.”


Opposing DSOC merging with NAM was In These Times foreign editor John Judis, who had previously left NAM over what he viewed as overly revolutionary rhetoric. In 1979, John Judis criticized that year’s NAM convention as delegates discussed an offer to merge with DSOC. Judis found NAM to be mired in the sectarianism of the New Left, obsessed with opposing reformism, and holding onto revolutionary purity in the face of a growing disillusionment with radical politics in the United States left -- a view maintained by much of DSOC’s more conservative members. 


NAM, growing out of the 1960s New Left, was skeptical of the Democratic Party orientation of DSOC and its historical connection to anti-communism. The most contentious issue, however, was that of Israel and Palestine. The leadership of NAM singled this issue out in their response to Judis’s piece. They chastised him for failing to recognize NAM’s commitment to Third World Liberation movements. The authors argued, “At a time when the Middle East is daily exploding onto the front pages of newspapers, Judis fails to even mention that the convention endorsed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the representative of the Palestinians and must be recognized as such.” This position set them apart from DSOC, which included labor Zionists in its ranks. The question of Palestinian liberation and Zionism would remain an organizational fault line throughout the history of DSA.


However, by 1980 the NAM convention voted 2-to-1 to begin talks of a merger. Lynch ultimately supported the merger, arguing that “the right was rapidly growing in strength, as a grassroots conservative movement on social issues, as advocates of a new militarism...and as corporate opponents of regulation on health and environmental issues.” As NAM shifted toward a more moderate approach to national politics in the face of a growing reactionary movement, DSOC began to doubt its strategy of working entirely within the Democratic Party. The organization had a tremendous influence on the 1976 Democratic Party Platform, including demands for national health insurance, full employment, citizenship for undocumented workers, affirmative action “and full funding of programs to secure the implementation and enforcement of civil rights.” The ensuing Carter Presidency, however, ignored the platform in favor of the neoliberal policies we now associate with Ronald Reagan.


In These Times noted Marable’s support for a merger, reporting that at the 1980 NAM convention, “He pointed out that one could rail against participation in Democratic Party politics, but that some 90 percent of politically active blacks have found the Democratic Party to be the vehicle of political advancement for blacks, and that the Black Congressional Caucus, made up entirely of Democrats, was the only consistent left voice in national politics. To disdain an organization like DSOC because it worked primarily within the Democratic Party, Marable argued, would simply guarantee isolation from the most political blacks.”


NAM’s disapproval of DSOC’s membership in the Socialist International -- based on criticism of SI’s Eurocentrism -- was placated as Jamaican socialist Michael Manley pushed the Socialist International toward including leftist Third World parties, and the election of German Social Democrat Willy Brandt as SI’s president solidified this position. Brandt arranged meetings with Latin American parties in 1976 and African parties in 1978, creating alliances with Third World parties and brought SI inline with the popular support of Third World liberation movements. Harrington notes in his autobiography that “by the International’s congress in Vancouver in 1978...the SI had begun to become the target for the lobbying efforts of practically every revolutionary movement in the third world.”


The Merger

DSOC’s failure at realigning the Democratic Party, Brandt and Manley’s success at reforming the SI, and NAM’s drift away from explicitly revolutionary politics at the dawn of the Reagan era all contributed to the merger and the formation of DSA in 1982. A unity convention was held in Detroit, featuring a keynote address by Michael Harrington as well as speeches by Coalition of Black Trade Unionists leader William Lucy and George Crockett of the Congressional Black Caucus.


Keeping with the emphasis of self-determination that characterized national minority movements in the 1960s and 70s, the March 1982 issue of the Democratic Left noted talks of constituency branches for women, Blacks and Latinos. The introduction to the new issue stated that “The DSOC Hispanic Commission and the NAM Anti-racism Commission are discussing appropriate structure, along with national leadership, and how to take advantage of the merger to significantly increase the involvement of minorities in the new organization.”

DSA’s founding document declares, “We Are the New Socialists...living in a society fundamentally marred by a racism that has become ingrained in our institutions, social patterns, and consciousness...a racism that perpetuates divisions among us that undermine collective action...As socialists, respecting the goals of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities, we seek a socialist society that values cultural diversity, that places a high priority on economic justice in order to eradicate the sources of inequality and on social justice to change the behavior, attitudes, and ideas that foster racism.”


The realization of these goals and building an organization that could implement them would become a central debate within the organization for the next 37 years. In upcoming articles, we will explore how this debate has shaped critical moments in DSA’s organizational history and how it impacts our work today.