TALKING SOCIALISM | Back to the Beginning: DSA at 40

Jack Clark and Richard Healey Talk to Democratic Left

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In February of 1982, members of the New American Movement (NAM) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) met in Detroit to join together as DSA. Democratic Left spoke with two of the key players in effecting the merger: Richard Healey (RH) of NAM and Jack Clark (JC) of DSOC.

What was the impetus for the merger? What were the initial steps?

RH: In 1975 or 1976 I was national secretary for the New American Movement. I realized that NAM’s growth and, even more, its ability to act as a socialist organization, was declining. The energy and excitement of the sixties was dying. NAM’s prospects for serious growth or serious impact on the world, particularly in leadership in the women’s movement, looked very grim. We had to ask, “what would it take to survive as a socialist feminist organization, who are our friends in the world, who is sort of like us but not quite the same?” In ’76, or ’77, I called Jack and we had a pleasant conversation.

That led me to want to start to have this bigger discussion.

JC: I remember talking about the organizations having a lot in common in terms of where DSOC was coming from. In a meeting around 1977,

Jim Chapin made a motion that we should start merger talks with NAM— that was the immediate impetus. Jim played the “Man from Mars” kind of thing about why are these two organi- zations in different realms? They have so much in common. I had been in the Young People’s Socialist League and part of the leadership of the opposition caucus that was anti-war and aligned with Mike [Harrington] and his coalition. Because of the faction fighting in the Socialist Party (SP) in the early 1970s, we decided to form DSOC.

NAM was viewed at least by some people in NAM as being to the left of DSOC. And there were people in NAM who thought the merger would move everybody to the right. Can you tell me more about what kinds of debates there were?

RH: In 1969, after the explosive SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] convention, which broke it apart, Socialist Revolution carried an article by Michael Lerner titled “Towards a New American Movement.” I and many people read it and thought,

“Ah, yes, this, this is roughly right. It’s the best of the Old and the New Left. It’s feminist. It’s about race and class.” And so, I, like many, said, “Let’s form something.” It was an in-gathering of people who’d been active in the sixties.

The merger process started sometime around 1977. And in NAM it met with opposition from various groupings. Most were younger people. They argued that we were to the left of the DSOC and we differed on feminism and other major issues. Michael (Harrington) and DSOC follow the Democratic Party too closely. Others said it sounded kind of sensible. You’re influencing a mass party, and we don’t do that. But that was also seen as a sign of too much compromise. So, the caucus against the merger formed. And ultimately, they quit the organization. NAM lost up to a third of our activists. One of the things about NAM that was valuable was the activism. We had very few people who were only paper members.

Now, some of the oldest people who joined NAM were from the old Communist Party. They opposed it. My mother [Dorothy Healey, who had been a major Communist leader in California until she left the party] spoke against the merger, while I spoke for it. Nonetheless, when the merger happened, she and others like her remained: all the old lefties stayed. The process took about two-and-a-half years with a merger committee from both sides discussing each issue. If we look back to 1972 as a milestone when NAM was fully formed, two things were happening: the decline of the mass mood of the sixties and the advent of neoliberalism. But we didn’t see that at the time.

JC: [Richard] Nixon actually gave a major speech after the ’72 election talking about a new era in American politics of scaling back government. Because of Watergate, that moment of a right-wing ascendancy collapsed. [Jimmy] Carter picked up some of the Nixon themes with policies like deregulation.

RH: Right. Those two things are going on. I still thought revolution was in the cards in 1972. I mean, I’m not sure how much I believed that, but I certainly talked about it. And so, we didn’t understand the bigger things going on in society, which makes the merger, frankly, even more important in being able to withstand the assault of neoliberalism.

JC: DSOC flourished in that period because of Nixon’s collapse. We were accused in the faction fights in the SP of being enemies of the working class, essentially, because we did not follow George Meany’s [head of the AFL-CIO] line on everything, including the Vietnam War. We were very, very aware of needing to relate to the labor movement, so, we paid a lot of attention to an anti-Meany tendency within the AFL-CIO. The Machinists union saw defeating Nixon as a high priority. And they were really furious that Meany didn’t. Other unions and union officials joined in. We were particularly attuned to being against neoliberalism, because a lot of our leadership lived in New York City.

And the New York City fiscal crisis was sort of a staging for carrying out neoliberal policies.

In the first Democratic Left published after the merger, Jim Chapin wrote about how unique an event this was in U.S. history (See p. 5). He also mentioned the merger  that  formed a socialist party in 1901. They grew to 100,000 members by the end of the first decade. DSA was formed 40 years ago, and only now has close to 100,000 members. Do you see any parallels? Does DSA’s formation have any bearing on where we are today?

RH: Was the merger worth it? Yes, I think it was. Look, could things have been better after the merger? Could those of us in NAM have had a more coherent way of trying to

ensure that there was more political education in the joint organization, more recruitment of activists? Sure, but the impulse behind it was right: that the dangers to the Left were our own internal dangers. Our internal demons are sectarianism, marginality, fear of liberals, fear of the center, fear of losing our identity in some larger, some less revolutionary place. Those demons have constantly, constantly, since 1870, bedeviled the Left. We were taking on those demons on

both sides of the merger, and we were right to do so. Did it pay off immediately? Well, we survived. So, in one sense, it absolutely did pay off immediately, when almost nothing survived of much of the Left of the 1970s. DSA is the only thing that has emerged as a mass entity. And why did it take so long? Because isolation breeds isolation. If you’re not part of ongoing struggles, showing that you have a distinctive role to play, a leadership role to play, then why pay the extra price of being a socialist? It took the Bernie campaign and Bernie’s leadership and DSA’s capacity to respond, to be part of something larger, which is critical for socialists. Otherwise, the gap between socialists and others in our society is too big.

JC: For DSA, the equivalent to the 1900 convention was a merger of the existing DSA formation with large elements of the Bernie campaign. One of the reasons DSA has thrived is that the approach to Bernie’s campaign was not, “We’re going to set up shop and lecture people about how wrong they are and how they have to move further to the left.” The approach was, “This is a great initiative. Let’s join in and figure out how we can contribute to it and be a positive part again of something larger.” And that positive nonsectarian tone is exactly why DSA thrived.

Any final thoughts about the merger itself, what we can learn from it now? What direction DSA should be going in at this point?

JC: I’d go back to what Richard said about how it’s imperative that we connect ourselves to larger forces. If you want to cite Marx, you can take the chapter in Capital about the fight for the ten-hour day, which Marx called the essential political economy of the working class. It is an imperative that with the working class in motion, any victory is liberating, and every defeat is going to isolate us. We need people who really understand that this is a long struggle. There are going to be some serious defeats, and we need to position ourselves to be there for the victories.