I’m currently kickstarting my latest project, “Where We Stand: A History of the Democratic Socialists of America” (DSA). I’m very excited about this project, which is growing out of my PhD thesis on the 1960s New Left journal Studies on the Left. Rather than work through a commercial academic publisher, I want to work closely with activists to shed light on the process of historical research, and to ultimately deliver a high quality history of the DSA and its forerunner organisations the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM).
Studies on the Left, Corporate Liberalism and the DSA
In the 1960s, the journal Studies on the Left led in the effort to critique Cold War society and to propose strategies to create a socialist society in the United States. Its most successful mode of analysis was the corporate liberal thesis (developed by historian Martin J. Sklar) which proposed that since the Progressive Era, government and business had collaborated to shore up the nascent corporate capitalist system against socialism by offering a limited welfare system and increasing prosperity, secured through an expansionary and imperialistic foreign policy.
Corporate liberalism became a favoured term of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) particularly its President in 1965, Carl Oglesby (whose own take on the theory was outlined in Containment and Change and his own Yankee vs Cowboy theory). Corporate liberalism also influenced the editors critique of the cold war, particularly the client state engendered by the Great Society reforms introduced by Lyndon B. Johnson.
Where the editors differed was in their ideas of strategy. James Weinstein (later the founder of In These Times with Sklar) believed that a viable socialist movement had to be built around independent political action. To this end he stood for office in New York in 1966 on the Committee for Independent Political Action (CIPA) ticket. This sharply differed from the beliefs of socialists such as Michael Harrington, who emphasised that socialists could only succeed through successful co-optation of the Democratic Party.
Weinstein and Sklar came up against their fellow editors, including SDS leader Tom Hayden, who believed that an independent political party could not be founded by decree from the top. A new political party could only succeed, he felt, if it coalesced spontaneously from the activist base of the New Left. The disagreements between the two camps proved intractable, and Studies ceased publication in 1967.
NAM, DSOC and Socialist Revolution
Both the NAM and DSOC were formed out of factions of SDS that split from that organisation after its sectarian inspired disintegration after 1969. While a small number found a home in the far-left Weathermen faction, others sought to bring a sense of stability to the movement in order to focus on those elements that remained strong, particularly the emerging feminist movement. The New American Movement (NAM) was founded by a group of intellectuals and activists, including James Weinstein and Staughton Lynd, in 1971 as a conscious effort to succeed SDS. Like Weinstein’s new journal Socialist Revolution, NAM advocated independent political action. It’s first discussion pamphlet warned its members of the dangers of corporate liberalism.
The DSOC was founded two years later by Michael Harrington, a leader within the Socialist Party of America who had split over the decision made by that organisation to rename itself Social Democrats, USA. Moving away from union-based activity, Harrington instead focused on middle-class political activists, especially those drawn the George McGovern campaign for the Presidency in 1972. Developing a “realignment” strategy DSOC tried to help to build a “democratic left” movement within the Democratic Party.
The Wilderness Years and Resurgence
The election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and the growing strength of the New Right in the early eighties proved a distressing time for left activists. This led to an eventual merger of the two organisations. Coalescing around a small and dedicated membership, the DSA remained a minority voice for many decades. In the mid-1990s it warned that the collapse of the corporate liberal order in the early 1980s had led to the erosion of even the progressive politics upon which New Deal and Great Society had been constructed.
It is only since the election of Donald Trump that its period of revitalisation has begun. The DSA now has nearly 50,000 members. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, both DSA members are likely to be elected to office in November 2018. Though their election success has been patchy, it is an upward trend, and they are joined ideologically by Bernie Sanders endorsed candidates who aren’t members.
At this critical moment of upheaval within the Democratic Party, it is important to look back upon the history of the DSA, so that we can understand it better, tell its story in a non-partisan way, and so its activists can learn from the mistakes of the past.