Grappling With the Racism of the DSA’s Founders

A Necessary Exercise in Political Education

‘Sectarian’ Shall be the Cry!’Sectarian’ Shall be the Cry!

‘You’ve never been a member of DSA, what do you know about our racial politics?,’ they will plead.

OK, with a serious dose of honest humility and respect, I will admit readily that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) membership is doing some great stuff at the grassroots level and it would be a load of bullshit to paint the influx of new members, radicalized by Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign, with a broad brush. There are thousands of newcomers to DSA who have turned it into a mass-membership organization and are earnest about a serious liberation politics. We’re talking about a situation where the influx is creating a genuine identity crisis for an organization originally formulated as a liberal booster club for the Democrats (and little more). With caucuses for Communists, Anarchists, Trotskyists, and everything in between, this is a moment of anything but the internal homogeneity that is now being proffered by outlets like In These Timesand similar progressive-left publications (you can read my recent dismantling of the mythic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez candidacy over at Washington Babylon). Old guard membership, meaning those that pre-date the Sanders campaign, have been overwhelmed and offended by insurgent newcomers looking to rattle the Democrats seriously.


As a prefatory note, I would propose the readers consider this following mass media critique:

In venues like the aforementioned In These Times, Jacobin, Mother Jones, et. al. we are currently seeing a meta-narrative promoted. It can be roughly approximated with the following terms: After the Bernie Sanders campaign and more recently the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez election, DSA has seen the membership rolls explode. After decades of Greens, Socialist Workers Party (namely Peter Camejo’s 1976 presidential run), the Communist Party USA (in particular the Gus Hall/Angela Davis presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984), the Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and various other tendencies trying to develop a viable socialist current within American electoral politics, DSA, on their first run out of the gate, has finally broken this barrier and brought socialism into the mainstream electoral realm. Not only that, they have done something truly spectacular and actually gone farther up the ladder of elected office than all the others! They have one Senator in office (Sanders), a Congresswoman (Ocasio-Cortez), and, should Sanders try to run in the primaries again, they might even bring us a Democratic Socialist president before the end of this decade. By contrast, the Debs-era Socialist Party never ascended higher than state legislatures and the CPUSA never went further than New York City Council.

And with that, dear comrades, we shall now proceed to construct the Socialist order!

I am compelled to recall the great quote of Amilcar Cabral, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” (One of the major African populations in Providence is the historic Cape Verdean community, based in Fox Point until Brown University gentrified them out of their neighborhood.) Unfortunately, we are not on the verge of a great socialist electoral upsurge. A large membership does not equal a sweeping victory, particularly when the organization in question is beset by such identity debates.

If we comprehend that critique and that such a narrative in the media is false, which is the case, we can therefore begin undertaking an honest and thorough analysis of DSA’s organizational history as voters. This is not targeted towards the membership, who very well may be cognizant of all these issues. This is about voter education, which is a different kind of project.

So this polemic will be relegated entirely to the founding generation of Democratic Socialists of America and its early leaders/thinkers, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington (1), Bayard Rustin (2), Albert Shanker (3), and Max Shachtman (4), whose transition from follower of Trotsky to backer of the conservative George Meany faction in the postwar AFL-CIO would define generations of socialist Third Camp politics in America.

We need to be absolutely clear at the outset, this is not a sectarian pissing contestthat stems from Left-ish posturing. Instead, the simple fact is that the legacy of these men (and they all are cis men and, except for Rustin, white heterosexuals) continues to impact American politics to this very day. As just one example, Shanker’s white collar business unionism informs the composition and administration of our public school teacher unions despite the onslaught of neoliberalism. Only by acknowledging and working through these matters can their legacy be jettisoned.

This story starts in the 1960s and the early days of the New Left. When Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gathered at Port Huron, Michigan in June 1962 to compose their historic manifesto at a United Auto Workers retreat, lapsed Catholic Worker Michael Harrington, as a representative of the AFL-CIO-backed League for Industrial Democracy (LID), made a complete ass of himself, berating a bunch of barely-legal Baby Boomer radicals for writing a document that was not anti-Communist enough.

Never mind that many of the kids (and they were kids, let’s not mince words) were ‘red diaper babies’, children of Communists who had seen their parents dragged through the mud in the McCarthy period over the previous 18 years.

Never mind that President Kennedy (whose father had gotten brother Bobby into McCarty’s left-hand seat) had tried to invade Communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, was getting filleted by Khrushchev at Vienna and in the United Nations, and was mere months away from nearly turning the entire world into a cinder with the Cuban missile crisis.

Never mind that Kennedy was in the midst of the genocidal effort to turn Vietnam into a parking lot.

And totally forget the fact that the civil rights movement was libeled and slandered as a ‘Communist plot’ by its racist opponents because, whoops, many of its activists and organizers had cut their teeth in the ’30s and ’40s with the old CPUSA (problematic as that organization was, borne out six years prior when Khrushchev’s Secret Speech had rocked its membership).

For Harrington, Shachtman’s particularly virulent anti-Communism was the major praxis of the day and those who failed to live up to that metric should be seriously held up to scrutiny about Soviet espionage. By 1970, Harrington’s position on the Vietnam war put him to the right of Noam Chomsky and Walter Cronkite!

As the years progressed, Irving Howe, another former Trotskyist with a high opinion of himself, spent his days being equally unbearable. Alexander Cockburn’s contrarian obituary offers a quite useful set of insights:

Howe’s prime function, politically speaking, in the last thirty years of his life was that of policing the Left on behalf of the powers that be… “He vigorously scolded the student Left for its intellectual laziness, authoritarian arrogance, and occasional barbarism” (Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune). Get the picture? In other words, Howe was an assiduous foot soldier in the ideological Cointelpro campaign to discredit vibrant political currents electrifying America and supporting liberation movements in the Third World, the only significant general mobilization of a Left in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century… In 1984 Howe successfully organized the denial of endorsement of Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the primaries by the Democratic Socialists of America. In 1988 he tried again but failed.

(Notably Harrington did support the Jackson ’88 effort, certainly an admirable moment.)

With a particular bravado, Howe’s contemporary Jack Newfield, a political reporter at the Village Voice, hounded Cockburn out of that publication over solidarity with Palestinians. The major modus operandi for Howe and other Zionists in DSA was to exclaim “I have seen the future and it works” while pointing to Israel as a shining beacon of their ideals, the Big Rock Candy Mountain with a kibbutz at the summit. (Of course the fact that the largest expansion of illegal Israeli settlements during that period happened under governments run by the Israeli Labor Party, the fraternal party of DSA, proved to shine brighter as an example of the Socialist International’s shaky imperial and colonial politics.) Cockburn’s retort to Newfield was pleading for him to “Have a sense of humor once in a while, just as I have a sense of humor when I read that you are a democratic socialist.” Even Harrington would join in the game. In a 1976 interview with Mitchell Cohen (5), he said the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 that declared Zionism a form of racism “drain[ed] the concept of racism of any serious meaning.”

In 1984, Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the presidency was publicly shamed over a series of comments made by the Reverend that quickly became a vehicle for a much larger, and quite often racist, discussion about Black-Jewish relations. Yes, Jackson’s use of the words ‘Hymie’ and ‘Hymie-town’ were clearly problematic. But very quickly, as the episode became an excuse for American Jews to repudiate viable criticisms of predatory landlord practices within the urban cores of Black America and pillorying Jackson’s outreach to Palestinian statesman Yasser Arafat, the conversation became a smokescreen for white supremacy. Suddenly, invocation of a prejudice that at one point in recent American history had structurally hindered Jewish social and political ascendancy (but which had been effectively and practically swept aside in terms of structural ascent and inhibition of Jewish socio-political aspirations with the advent of the Cold War and the foundation of Israel in 1948) was being used by right wing forces within the Democratic and Republican parties in order to stymie a progressive-left campaign for the presidency. Howe, whose major works of scholarship included the popular history of American Jewry World of Our Fathers, quite obviously has fingerprints on that one. In his classic polemic The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Dr. Norman Finkelstein wrote:

The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s earlier outburst in 1979 that he was “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust” was not so quickly forgiven or forgotten, however. Indeed, the attacks by American Jewish elites on Jackson never let up, although not for his “anti-Semitic remarks” but rather for his “espousal of the Palestinian position” (Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab). In Jackson’s case, an additional factor was at work: he represented domestic constituencies with which organized American Jewry had been at loggerheads since the late 1960s. In these conflicts, too, The Holocaust proved to be a potent ideological weapon.

In his 1986 volume Socialism and America, Howe laid out the practical program that first Bernie Sanders and now DSA’s wider membership are embracing, run socialist candidates as Democrats to push that party towards Scandinavian Labor Party politics. In a chapter written as an ode to Earl Browder, head of the CPUSA during the Popular Front years, Howe emphasized that DSA should use the CPUSA’s Popular Front aesthetics, which embraced Washington and Lincoln while proclaiming “Communism is Americanism of the 20thcentury.”

Howe’s proposal about the Popular Front aesthetic admittedly does ring true, though one should understand that this proposal was not unique or even novel. Two years before Howe published his book, another former Trotskyist, Peter Camejo, pointed out in A Comment on the North American Revolution very similar notions:

Symbols and terms borrowed from other revolutionary experiences are often completely misunderstood by the people, and socialists have often used them in ways that are counterproductive. An obvious example is the famous Russian symbol of the hammer and sickle. In 1917 they symbolized workers and peasants and their need to unite to fight for their common interests. However, to wave a flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle in the United States does not bring to mind thoughts of workers and peasants. To most it evokes the Soviet Union and is equated, as a byproduct of anticommunist propaganda, with dictatorship and governmental abuse. Yet some of our truly infantile ultralefts love to bring the hammer and sickle to demonstrations. Such “radical” acts usually serve the ruling class by confusing the issues and undermining the actual struggles that the ultralefts allegedly want to support.

The key difference between Howe and Camejo (among other things) was their view on electoral politics and the complimentary mass membership movement. Howe clearly was trying to rekindle the final sparks of the old New Deal/Great Society Keynesian liberals and the AFL-CIO coalition, presenting in his writings a notion called “democratic socialism” which would be at home in Hyde Park on Hudson. By contrast, Camejo was looking to the real working class as opposed to the middle class and saw them as agents of genuine revolution. Howe wanted to build vanguard that would maintain the Constitutional order of American government while Camejo wanted to do away with the Constitution. Howe dove head-first into the machinations of the Democratic Party and focused on the praxis of Manhattan cocktail parties. By contrast, Camejo became active in the Green movement and ran for multiple elected seats on its ticket, including as Ralph Nader’s vice president in the hotly-contested and ultimately divisive 2004 race where David Cobb and other “Demo-Greens” (quoth Louis Proyect) effectively and practically deflated all the gains made four years prior by the Nader campaign against Bush and Gore.

Aesthetics themselves oftentimes can and do have a political neutrality, hence why the folks at Reason magazine and Jacobin both have very similar styles of presentation. Howe’s inability to grasp this, contra Camejo, directly impacts our contemporary political landscape. For instance, Socialist Worker is currently hosting a series of columns about this tactic and a so-called “dirty break” from the party of Wall Street and war.

Furthermore, the sad fact was that Harrington and Howe were actually the left-leaning members of the group!

Albert Shanker, the longtime leader of the national UFT and AFT teacher unions as well as the New York City local, was a hardcore anti-Communist. In the days following World War II, the early stirrings of what became known as the Civil Rights movement included the support and activism of many Communist school teachers who began to agitate against racist textbooks, segregated facilities, and poor behavior on the part of their fellow workers. Through a series of bureaucratic moves, Shanker collaborated with the McCarthyite witch hunters and hounded them out of the profession. In 1968, with malice and egomania that took on world historic proportions, he led the New York teachers out on strike, the episode seen by many as the moment that broke Gotham’s historic coalition of Jews and Blacks. Michael Meeropol (who would know a few things about metropolitan anti-Communism and the systemic rot it fosters) wrote recently on Louis Proyect’s Marxism email list:

[I] watched the 1968 Ocean-Hill-Brownsville fight in real time in NYC… The behavior of Shanker was outrageous- and Harrington’s effort to “gently support” Shanker fooled no one- It’s the SAME ATTITUDE that led the so called “socialists” of LID to attempt to “control” SDS in the early 1960s…

So to leave no confusion, let’s take a quote from Stanley Aronowitz’s The Death and Life of American Labor that explains what happened:

One of Shanker’s major actions as local president had been to call teachers out on strike in 1968 to oppose three community-controlled school boards, in Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and the Lower East Side, that had attempted to exercise jurisdiction over the assignment of teachers. Shanker and his colleagues preferred to deal with the central Board of Education rather than with the black and Latino leaders of these newly created local boards. The union succeeded in crippling community control over education for the next forty-five years.

“And so Shankerism, hammered out against a background of both middle class yearnings and ghetto rage,” writes Paul Buhle, “became the oddest possible American-style parody of ‘democratic socialism.’ The debates raged from New Politics and Dissent to the New York Times, with curious undertones which formal politics alone cannot fully encompass.”

In a 1984 essay by Howe titled “Reaganism: This Too Shall Pass” (could he have been more tone deaf?), we read “During the early 1960s, the country experienced a moment of good feeling. Sentiments of racial fraternity were in the air. By the late 1960s, blacks felt outraged. Searing conflicts broke out between black groups (a few committed to an extremism of imagery) and some of their allies of yesterday. The idea of ‘going it alone’ took hold among black youth and intellectuals. Meanwhile, an ugly sentiment spread through white America.” Obviously playing in the background when those lines were composed were his memories of 1968.

Indeed, this is illustrative of the truly scandalous nature of DSA at its start. Rather than being beneficial as a counterforce to Reaganism and the Democratic embrace of neoliberal political economy, its founding leaders instead broke apart old community alliances that favored the Keynesian paradigm, such as between Blacks and Jews, which in turn created the opening for neoliberalism to go full-throttle with its pillage of the American welfare state. By holding steadfast to anticommunist doggerels in the name of a delusion of grandeur about their (then nonexistent) political power, they alienated potential allies, most notably Howe’s hijinks with Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, and provided coverage for the reactionary elements in both the Democratic Party, such as Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, and labor, namely the pro-war George Meany.

While Howe was schilling hasbara to his set, Bayard Rustin, the Black gay former Young Communist-turned-Musteite who had been the major organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, was performing a similar task as the Civil Rights period of Freedom Riders and sit-ins transformed into the era of Black Power and groups like the Black Panthers Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. With a trajectory that alternated at different times between tragic and bizarre, he red-baited the opponents of the Vietnam war and denigrated the artistic renaissance of the period. “Black power means so many things to so many different people, that rather than defining it, I would like to define from what it springs. In a situation where in housing, schools and jobs you cannot get victories, the more extreme elements in the Negro community turn in on themselves to find victories in Negritude, in cursing whites, in saying that they don’t need them, in talking about setting up Black states,” he said. “Now the problem with Black Power is that it is purely a psychological purgative.”

Amiri Baraka, disgusted with this performance, denounced Rustin by writing in an open letter “Bayard, when you denounce us nationalists for teaching hate, based on your white folks’ analysis, you are actually functioning as the big gun of white oppression. We are trying to teach ourselves our identity as African people, and to liberate ourselves, by any means necessary. Bayard, you are a slaveship profiteer, a paid pervert for the racist unions, and I feel it necessary to expose you.” The ugliness of this episode must be understood as something that Rustin instigated. At the sunset of his life, he found himself being praised by Ronald Reagan and opposing the Soviet-backed guerrilla forces fighting in the Southern African Border War and the Rhodesian Bush War. He was more interested in solidarity with Soviet Jews than Palestinians and would author a New York Times article in 1970 urging a shipment of military aircraft to Golda Meir’s government. However, this was not a new development. Four years earlier in 1966, he, Allard Lowenstein, and perpetual Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas had worked alongside the CIA-backed Committee on Free Elections in the Dominican Republic, which had rigged the vote that kept Juan Bosch from being re-elected to the presidency (the ironic fact that Bosch and his party were also democratic socialists bears mentioning).

There are two queries which arise now from this discussion:

a) What does this mean for DSA?


b) Why does this matter?

Sources who are more savvy to DSA’s internal mechanics inform me that the organization was split in 2016 between a vote for the Green Party and Clinton. This bespeaks a wider generational gap and ideological spectrum the width of a Grand Canyon. Everyone is creating a caucus inside the organization (where the boutique hipsters from Jacobin magazine fit in is not hard to guess).

Simultaneously, along with the debate over praxis, the question of race and racism resurfaces every once in a while. Most often it presents itself in the terms of protest from intersectional feminists who voice concern that certain members of DSA try to subsume white supremacy or prioritize class over identity politics. (In the latter case, there is some merit in that “neoliberal identity politics,” personified by Hillary Clinton, has effectively and completely co-opted the language, vocabulary, and grammar of liberation politics, but that does not mean that racism and white supremacy should be ignored.)

Ultimately, this sort of discussion concludes with the inquiry about what alternative one suggests. Having gone through enough sectarian dog-and-pony shows with political cults to steer clear of these productions, I will be the first to admit that I have very little interest in proposing an alternative political tendency that is demarcated and headlined by the praxis of northern European cis men and women (sorry Emma Goldman!)

Slavoj Zizek, in his own analysis of our current political times, has emphasized that Left politics and activists need to be premised upon the following three admissions:

1) European social democratic parties, from the British Labour to Scandinavian Socialists, have run their course and their embrace of neoliberalism is ultimately unable to be broken.

2) The worldwide Marxist-Leninist Communist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ model is only an augury of what awaits the parliamentary democratic world, a time when democracy and capitalism are completely divorced from each other.

3) In the face of trans-national phenomena (climate change, biogenetics, globalized capitalist firms, etc.), ‘direct democracy’ and other left communist/anarcho-syndicalist formulations premised on local assemblies are woefully unprepared to accommodate the political and social questions on the horizon. Instead, the task at hand requires forces of international and multi-state dimensions, particularly in terms of relocating whole populations from one country to another (for example, the migration of refugees from Fukushima or Syria) or coordinating participation in and adherence to global project (for example, treaties and laws regarding greenhouse gas emissions).

No, what I instead would argue is that all radicals of all political tendencies, Socialists to Communists to Greens, would be well-served by studying and embracing the Black Radical Tradition, a kind of praxis first defined by Cedric J. Robinson in his classic Black Marxism. Robinson used the Hegelian triad of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright to develop an analysis and critique of racial capitalism’s political economy. This is the framework that one can work from to develop a really democratic socialism, one that scrapes away the onerous legacy of DSA’s problematic founders. This is a praxis that is centered on the everyday struggles and triumphs of working people, a framework that jettisons the typical notions of vanguard and revolutionary party while avoiding the more utopian over-emphases on spontaneity.

Michael Meeropol writes “Right now – it is absolutely essential that the insurgents, whether within or outside of the Democratic Party, force the ‘old guard’ to at least make room for the energy of the people who are at the front lines of resistance against Trump’s fascism.”

Without speaking ill of the dead nor being too presumptuous, I can imagine his parents would agree with that sentiment.







Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.