I am taking on the challenge David Duhalde laid out in the Spring 2021 issue of the Democratic Left “Socialists Across Generations: We Need to Talk.” Duhalde contended that a vibrant DSA needed discussions and exchanges between younger and older comrades. In such a dialogue, newer members would learn from veteran comrades what it takes to be long-distance runners and older comrades could learn about new styles of organizing from younger activists.
In writing this piece, I have some reservations. As a comrade radicalized by the movements of the 1960s who joined the New American Movement (NAM) in the 70s, how would my activist experiences be seen as relevant to comrades under thirty who were galvanized by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns? To be clear, my thoughts and reflections are not intended to offer a guide that can sustain long-term activism. Such an approach would be seen as presumptuous and even patronizing. Rather, the attempt is to provide a personal account which explains how I maintained a continued commitment to fighting for democratic socialism.What sources of energy did I draw upon? Where did I find hope and inspiration? How did I avoid burnout? The steps undertaken below provided me with the strength over the years to take on the democratic socialist project.
Feeding the Democratic Socialist Core
I once attended a CWA workshop on economic inequality in which participants were asked the following questions: When have you stood up for yourself? When have you stood up for someone else? Those questions helped me locate my moral center and form an ethical compass which steered me to socialism and the fight for the common good. For me and DSAers I know, that core was planted by friends, teachers, and mentors and deepened by personal experience. Feelings of marginalization and alienation in my youth led me to identify with heroic figures like Jackie Robinson and Robin Hood. So, supporting those cast aside by society in their struggle against oppression and exploitation came naturally to me. I also understood that the core had to be nourished or else it could erode and wither away. Participating in solidarity actions—protests, marches and rallies—have provided me with this energy. Themes of social justice in literature, music, and the arts charge me up as well. Finally, the friendship and bonds I forged with my comrades over the years was especially sustaining.
Swimming in Movement Waters
For me, mass movements are the engines which create major social change in our capitalist society. In the last century, I have witnessed and participated in powerful movements of the 1960s—labor, peace, civil rights, and LGBT—that secured basic and important rights for working people. In this century, the range of movements have multiplied to include universal health care, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, living wage, economic inequality, the environment and climate change, voting rights, affordable housing, and labor rights. Coalitions serve as the building blocks for these movements. I see DSA as uniquely positioned to build and support coalition work. We bring a multi-issue and system perspective along with a commitment to democratic decision making and appealing to activists across organizations. I have derived much satisfaction in participating in coalitions where members found points of unity and set realistic and concrete goals.
Engaging in Mentorship
In Duhalde’s Democratic Left article, he draws upon his interviews with former members of the DSA youth section who cite mentorship as one of their fondest memories. In those exchanges, older and younger comrades discussed the mistakes made by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and reflected on how to avoid those same mistakes in the future. In my introduction to democratic socialism, I had the good fortune to find a mentor, former head of the Michigan Communist Party and member of the Spanish International Brigade, who supported me as I sorted out my role as a socialist trade unionist. I was also privileged by becoming a mentor to several DSAers in their twenties and thirties. Being chosen as a source of support and counsel has been most gratifying and deeply humbling. The gratification comes in knowing that my activist history and organizing experiences have meaning and will outlive me. At the same time, I understand that conditions facing this generation—student debt, a gig economy and protracted economic inequality—are especially difficult. An ongoing dialogue across generations where older and younger comrades learn from each other about new forms of organizing and how to make long-term commitments could be extremely valuable.
Keeping a Record
I considered movement work as valuable and deserving of being recorded and memorialized. Recollections of our actions can only take us so far since memories fade and offer no staying power. Journal or digital accounts, however, do stay. As founders of Metro Atlanta DSA, Norm Markel and I shared our story in a recording for StoryCorps. Reviewing that and other entries offered direction to my work. What kinds of actions were especially meaningful in providing a sense of purpose? How was my time and energy best utilized? Organizational material—meeting minutes, fliers, papers and brochures—described the context for much of my work. Those records are housed in collections at Emory University and Detroit’s Walter Reuther Library and are accessible to students and researchers.
Pacing and Balancing
As a long-distance runner, I did not train for sprints but for marathons. Fighting for peace, justice, and democracy is a demanding and continuing challenge. Activism entails walking on union picket lines, protesting tenant evictions, canvassing door-to-door for electoral campaigns, or engaging in other community organizing work. Carrying out these actions requires the expenditure of considerable physical and mental energy. DSA chapters may also take on projects requiring open-ended time commitments. At the same time, this activism has to be balanced with family and work obligations. To cope with these demands and pressures, the ability to pace oneself and avoid burnout is crucial. Time-outs may be needed along with personal space for rest and relaxation. I have used these breaks for travel, reading, writing and recreation, which has allowed me to build up stamina for the long haul.
I dove into labor history when I began work at American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) during the 60s. “Labor’s Untold Story” by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais and first published by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) provided me with a basic introduction to labor’s watershed victories as well as its epic defeats. That history would come alive to me through hearing accounts from UAW retirees about their unionizing efforts with River Rouge workers in Dearborn, Michigan in 1937 in which they faced assaults from Ford security guards, and managed to shut down the plant and win union representation. Labor’s darkest hour would come in 1949 with the expulsion of eleven CIO unions for being Communist-led. The UE was the one union that survived the expulsion. This, it’s fitting that DSA and UE have in recent years joined forces in forming he Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee to train workers in workplace organizing tactics and improve workplace conditions. From McCarthyism and the repression of the 1950s, I learned how the fates of labor and the left are inextricably linked,and felt sure that any successful mass movement would require labor-left unity. Finally, as a democratic socialist, I had to prepare for the ebbs and flows of movements and stay particularly strong during the downturns.
In getting to know young comrades, I would ask them why they joined DSA and when they first realized capitalism was unable to meet basic human needs. As an elder sharing my story, I would want to know from young comrades the kinds of support they might need in order to pursue the democratic socialist project long-term. Such a dialogue across generations could be most productive.