Socialists Across Generations: We Need To Talk

Gay Pride parade in Chicago circa 1992 [Photograph by Jay Hughes]

I joined DSA at age 19 (full disclosure: I’m 36 now) because of Eugene Debs’s alleged quip that “an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms.” I felt it as a moral obligation, not a strategic decision. The organization was down to about 5,000 members and had no visible national presence.

As a member, and then a staffer of Young Democratic Socialists (now YDSA) in the final years of George W. Bush’s second term, I found it demoralizing to attempt to recruit students to an organization that seemed to have no one under 40 in its off-campus chapters. How could one not consider leaving to join a larger organization? Luckily, some of us did stay to maintain a structure that would welcome a flood of new comrades energized by Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s election. Overnight, it seemed, I and my small cohort went from being the “future generation” of our socialist project to being in the almost-oldtimer category.

This new energy has given DSA a capacity and influence we had not experienced in decades. From having our Political Action Committee contributions returned by candidates afraid of being labeled as socialists, we have become an organization whose endorsements are sought. From providing a handful of people to show up at picket lines, DSA now mentors and trains rank-and-file leaders, shaping the future of democratic unionism.

The U.S. Left went through a similar demographic transition more than 50 years ago, and it did not end well with regard to intergenerational work. (See various histories of Students for a Democratic Society and the New Left.)

From what might be called “the ashes of the old,” our organization was founded by a 1982 merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). Both formations were youth-dominated and changed the way socialists mobilized in this country.

DSOC broke with the strategy of building an independent party, seeking to build instead a nexus between labor, social movements, and the left wing of the Democratic Party. Younger activists came to DSOC in the early 1970s, as the former Socialist Party split into three different groups. DSOC helped elect socialists on the Democratic Party line, introduced young people to the socialist tradition in the labor movement, and drove international solidarity with the South African democracy movement and the Latin American Left.

Youth was even more central for the New American Movement, which emerged in the 1970s from the shattered Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). NAM was made up primarily of graduates—literally and figuratively—from the New Left. They pushed for campus chapters that included faculty and workers, rather than narrow “student” groups. Baby Boomer NAM members were some of the earliest fighters for a socialist feminism that challenged male dominance in the organization. This task is certainly incomplete, but their efforts are a lasting legacy and important foundation for addressing institutionalized racism, sexism, and heteronormativity in socialist spaces.

Recently, as part of a study for the DSA Fund, I spoke with former members of the youth wing of DSA. In the hundreds of interviews and surveys of 1970s and 1980s DSOC and DSA youth section members, as well as NAM activists, I was struck by how often they cited mentorship as one of their fondest memories of that time. Old Left and New Left learned from the mistakes made by SDS. There was a real desire to avoid these mistakes and build a collective space for collaboration and learning. One alumnus recalled speaking with Dissent magazine cofounder Irving Howe as an equal, not so many years after receiving Howe’s World of Our Fathers as a bar mitzvah gift.

But after the 1990s, as DSA members grew older, membership stalled, and by 2013 the average age of members was 67. Veteran members at the time were so happy to have younger members in the organization that students and youth had multiple mentors to choose from. Mentorship provided a constant source of historical information, organizing experience, and personal wisdom. After Donald Trump’s election, the average age of DSA members dropped to 33. Longtime members today lack the capacity to nurture and guide newcomers, who now vastly outnumber the older cadre.

Absent such collaboration, DSA runs the risk of repeating past mistakes. It’s not hard to find executive committees of DSA chapters with no one who is over 35 or who was a member before 2016. Our National Political Committee has almost no one on it from the DSA that existed before Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run. Without a generational balance in leadership, within but not limited to the NPC, institutional memory cannot be shared. Such concentrations of age are inadvisable—whether within the old DSA when it was just old or the new DSA, which is the opposite.

People with different entry points into socialism should have the opportunity to meet, discuss, and learn from one another. For instance, some chapters have started running tech workshops for members. During the pandemic, online study groups have allowed people to meet virtually when they might never have traveled to another town for an in-person event. But we need more planned exchanges among comrades who are not age peers.

One of the most successful programs in my time as YDSA organizer was our biennial summer intergenerational leadership retreat. YDSA and DSA leaders came together to read historical socialist texts, share stories, and break bread. Many of the YDSA leaders who came stayed on to build DSA. These conferences showed them that a lifetime commitment to socialism was a real option. The older members learned about new styles of organizing. DSA conventions featured panels with socialists from each decade talking about their commitments.

Sharing knowledge and experience is a two-way street. Our newer members can learn from those who play the long game, and the older ones can both remember their own youthful enthusiasms and mistakes and stretch themselves to learn about organizing in the 21st century. DSA will be stronger for it.