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New Ground 51

March - April, 1997


  • National DSA Retreat: A Re-Examination Of DSA's Mission, Strategy And Organizational Structure by Bruce Bentley
  • Center for Democratic Values By Bob Roman
  • DSA National Director Addresses Chicago DSA Membership by Bruce Bentley
  • Peoples Culture: a Review by Stan Rosen

  • National DSA Retreat:

    A Re-Examination Of DSA's Mission, Strategy And Organizational Structure

    by Bruce Bentley

    On the weekend of January 24-26 approximately 60 DSA activists attended a retreat in Washington, DC. Among the participants were National Political Committee members, local activists and national staff. The purpose was to re-examine DSA's mission, strategy and structure in light of the post '96 presidential elections. The goal was to come to a common understanding on building the next Left.

    On a concrete level, the analysis of the present objective conditions traversed rather smoothly. However, on an abstract level, the analysis of DSA's organizational structure, specific strategy and tactics were more complex, diverse and strained. Nevertheless the atmosphere was one of camaraderie and a commitment of vision and mission.

    As a representative from Chicago DSA and as a Steering Committee member of Midwest DSA, I left for Washington with a consensus of concerns from the local. First, a lack of responsiveness from the National Office (e.g. communications). Second, inadequacies in information from the national data base (e.g. incorrect record keeping thus losing membership). These concerns will be addressed at the conclusion of this report.

    On Friday evening Joe Schwartz conducted a session on "Building Blocks for the Next Left." This initial session was intended to clearly identify the objective conditions in this political climate. Capital continues its hegemonic dominance via its globalization, decline in income, capital's abdication of the social contract, and mass media hegemony. DSA's vision is one of democracy, liberty and solidarity. DSA's program must consist of: global social justice and labor rights, economic democracy (i.e. democratic control over capital), social re-distribution, progressive taxation and demilitarization. DSA's strategy includes: building a solidaristic Left (labor and progressives), transcend false dichotomies such as global / national and promote a clear critique of the market.

    On Saturday morning the theme of the discussion centered on "What should be DSA's Mission at this particular time?" This session was led by Richard Healey. First, Political Director Chris Riddiough provided a synopsis of her paper on DSA's mission which stated "DSA's purpose is to establish socialism as a political force in the U.S. and around the world by training mobilizing socialist activists, building progressive coalitions and education people and public officials about democratic socialism." DSA goals by 2017 include: a U.S. President from the Progressive Caucus, a 50 member socialist caucus in Congress, successful programs of the likes of universal health care, progressive taxation, social provision and campaign finance reform. Riddiough proposed a program strategy which synthesizes the dichotomies of: National / local work, issue activism / ideological work, Coalition building / agency, Electoral focus / organizing.

    In order for DSA to accomplish the above mission and goals, Riddiough outlined DSA's new program, the Campaign for Economic Justice. The essence of CEJ is economic justice for all Americans (e.g. living wage and progressive taxation). The strategy is coalition building via the progressive caucus through legislative measures such as the Corporate Responsibility Act, Living Wage, Jobs for All Act, The Fair Play Act, The Stop the Sweatshops Act.

    Opinions in the following discussion varied from increased funding of activism, more focus on mass media, cadre training, to increased support to the Youth Section. However, one re-occurring theme emphasized the building a "Social Movement" with the groups that Michael Harrington coined as the "invisible socialists": religious / peace groups, environmentalists, citizen groups, labor etc.

    Suddenly the discussion shifted to the examination of DSA structural organization. Some participants thought it necessary for DSA to improve upon its internal structure before it can implement a viable political program. Comments ranged from the embellishment of DSA's political culture, development of Locals, recruitment, to a new membership database program. NPCer Julia Fitzgerald injected a dose reality when she stated that DSA has a $100,000 deficit; the staff spend 80% of their time on fundraising and membership duties while 20% of their time is devoted to program development.

    In the afternoon session participants were broken down into three small groups for discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of DSA. This was good decision because it enabled everyone to participate and was more intimate.

    On Sunday National Director Alan Charney led a concluding discussion on "Next Steps for DSA." The attempt was to synthesize the discussions and themes of the weekend. Due to fatigue and volume of ideas this session suddenly became more heated and strained. NPCer Karen Marie Gibson made note that next time a third party mediator needs to be obtained to facilitate and focus discussion.

    On a personal level the Retreat was a beneficial experience. I now have a deeper understanding of DSA's strengths and weaknesses. The exchange of ideas and experiences with other activists was worthwhile. From the stand point of Chicago DSA, our concerns were validated since other locals, notably Boston DSA, had the same concerns.

    Center for Democratic Values

    By Bob Roman

    The Center for Democratic Values (CDV) was launched at DSA's 1995 National Convention as a means of contesting the current hegemony of capitalist ideas. Two years ago, it was only an idea and a lot of hand waving. Since then, the project has begun to take material form.

    CDV's first pamphlet is in press: The Devil Words: "Debt" and "Deficit" by Robert Heilbroner. We'll have copies available from the Chicago DSA office soon.

    The current issue of DSA's "internal discussion bulletin", Socialist Forum, focuses on the role of government. The articles by David Belkin, Ron Baiman, Chris Lowe, and replies by David Belkin, grew out of discussions on the CDV listserve, CDVnet, in 1996. Copies of the current issue of Socialist Forum are available from the Chicago DSA office. $2 for postage would be appreciated.

    CDV network members Ronald Aronson, Nelson Lichtenstein, Harry Brod, Maxine Phillips, Rick Perlstein, Anna Marie Smith and Skip Oliver all published op-ed pieces in the past five months. Several of these were sent to the Progressive Media Network, which accepted tow of them. Others were sent directly to local newspapers. Topics include arts funding in schools, the Teamsters election, the meaning of Clinton's reelection for women, and the use of polls in elections. These will be posted on the CDV web page.

    Democratic Values, a series to be published by Guilford Press, has sent out its first contract for a book tentatively entitled The Case for Labor, to be published in 1998. Discussions are underway for books on "The Media Scene", "The Black Left", and "Whatever Happened to Feminism?"

    CDV's next pamphlet will be a discussion of the health-care crisis. It is being worked on by a number of people, and support and cooperation are being sought from PNHCP, UHCAN, and APHA.

    The CDV website is up and running. Some of the material discussed above is already posted. Some of it is still under construction. The website also makes it easy to subscribe to CDVnet. The address is http://www.igc.apc.org/cdv/

    Ron Aronson, CDV's chief organizer, will be making a tour of the country to recruit academic participants and to raise money for CDV. He will be in Chicago toward the end of April, dates, time and venue to be announced.

    DSA National Director Addresses Chicago DSA Membership

    by Bruce Bentley

    On Saturday evening of January 18th, about 30 DSAers attended a membership meeting and fundraiser for Midwest DSA at the University of Chicago. This event was one stop in a tour of Midwest DSA locals by National Director Alan Charney and Midwest Organizer Michael Heffron. Chicago DSA members contributed $400 at this fundraiser. In addition to fundraising Charney also wanted to inform locals of National DSA's new Campaign for Economic Justice Project.

    Alan Charney gave an inspirational presentation on the current assessment and direction for the progressive Left. First, Charney insisted that the progressive base is brewing with activity. Recently at Columbia University a labor teach in was organized by labor academics. For the past 30 years these academics have been very critical of Labor particularly with the leadership of Lane Kirkland at the AFL-CIO. Surprisingly the new president John Sweeney came to Columbia and emphasized that the future of labor is directly linked to the progressive Left. DSAer Cornel West noted that likewise the progressive Left's vitality is implicitly tied to labor. Feminist were represented by Betty Friedan who stressed the importance of "class" issues. Hence the overwhelming theme of the affair was the class must be the core unifying issue for trade unionist and social justice groups.

    Charney then provided a brief historical synopsis of this synergy between labor, the progressive left and the identity politics groups such as feminism and civil rights. In the 1930's the CP and SP built unions where 2/3 of the workers (mostly white males) benefited with increased wages and income. Meanwhile 1/3 of the workers (minorities and women) who did not benefit from unionism shifted toward civil rights and identity politics with the assistance of the New Left in the 1960's. Both of these social movements were necessary because of their particular objective conditions.

    Since the 1980's the present objective conditions are those of globalization of capital, decline in income and the dismantling of the Welfare State. The potential social movement of the 1990's is a synthesis of the 30's and 60's. Thus "class" issues are now dominate!

    There is a class struggle in process in the Congress with the Progressive Caucus around such issues as the Welfare Bill, NAFTA and Single Payer Health Care. As a result, DSA's Political Director Chris Riddiough organized a meeting with the Progressive Caucus with the purpose and cogent task as to: "How can we unite our forces on a common agenda?" In attendance were the likes of Richard Trumpka, Noam Chomsky, Patricia Ireland, William Grieder and Jesse Jackson. Charney argued that there are signs of a shift in this historical moment. The Republicans consist of three distinct groups: capitalists (anti-communists), the reactionary right (anti-government) and the libertarians. Social issues will split the Republicans and if the progressive Left unites around social policy issues we will have more strength than the right.

    In conclusion, Charney argued that DSA must engage in coalition building around the theme of economic justice through legislation such as the Living Wage Bill. Secondly, it is necessary to combine local and National DSA efforts such as occurred with the hearings on economic insecurity.

    Peoples Culture: a Review

    by Stan Rosen

    Peoples Culture, PO Box 5224, Kansas City, KS 66119. Edited by Fred Whitehead. Single issue $2.50; Subscription (6 issues) $15.

    The tradition of labor includes Jimmie and Jane Higgins, the individuals who quietly persist in doing the behind the scenes work of education, organizing and small arrangements. Our local comrade Carl Shier is one such person. Self motivated, always and in retirement, he sees the need to communicate, agitate and inform all those people on his legendary and appreciated mailing list. As an individual, he makes a difference.

    In this spirit, I would like to bring your attention to another friend and socialist, Fred Whitehead. Fred, whose occupation is a medical researcher, publishes two inexpensive publications chock full of cultural information invaluable to radical social activists. He collects the information; he writes the reviews; he typesets the publications and mails them out. He is a one man cultural dynamo, but he needs help. He needs more subscribers; he only has about 175. He needs people to talk up his newsletters. Most of all, as a laborer of love, he needs recognition and support.

    One publication is Peoples Culture. New Series #34 1996, for example, focuses attention on "The Sibyl of Socialism: Meridel Lesueur- 1900 - 1996". Fred writes with a passion and empathy for the importance of and values of people who appreciate and create socialist and radical culture. His sincerity, combined with the practice of sometimes electric and engaging language, moves the reader beyond normal understanding.

    In describing Meridel, proletarian writer, he notes:

    "A conversation with Meridel rarely moved in a straight line; indeed one of the most important ideas I heard her talk about was the notion that history moves in circular forms, rather than straight lines. Not dry mechanical circles, nor the Newtonian orbits, endlessly repeating themselves, but circles of change and growth. Actions have consequences. A capitalist outlook on the world, she said, is incapable of conceiving the consequences of exploiting workers, exploiting the earth, because it allows only for straight lines; it fails to perceive circles that may come back on us in the future."

    Poems, book reviews and graphics present information impossible to collect on your own. Recently he published a special labor edition chock full of information.

    Fred often despairs that labor and political movements have no real appreciation of the power of culture. About two years ago, he was ready to throw in the towel, commenting that less committed, slicker magazines' efforts of a more popular nature succeed while he has such a hard time getting support. Would that he could have 500 - 1000 subscribers.

    In recent years a significant number of left publications have failed because they did not get support in a world of capitalistic cultural hegemony and left activist indifference. We don't have a chance unless we nurture our own. In this spirit, give Fred Whitehead your support. You will be doing yourself and our left movements an important favor.

     Add yourself to the Chicago DSA mailing list (snail mail and email).

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