By Paul Goodspeed
As the only member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New Hampshire, I recently attended YDSinATL, the Young Democratic Socialists’ recent conference in Atlanta. How all of this came to be bears some explanation.
I was politicized in junior high, in the midst of the Bush administration, when I was attending a fundamentalist Christian school in Dover. For reasons that I won’t get into, I came into conflict with the administration. I became a generic “progressive” mostly because I knew what I was not. I wasn’t a fundamentalist Protestant Christian; ergo, I must be a liberal Democrat. About two years later, at summer school, I took a class called “Dissent in American History” that introduced me to, well, almost every significant American social movement except socialism. I learned about feminism, gay rights, (mainstream) civil rights history, the antiwar movement in the 1970s, and so on. For maybe a week I called myself a “socialist” briefly, but without any knowledge of actual socialism; nevertheless, by the time I entered high school, I was definitely to the left of the Democratic Party, despite lacking the terms to express this opinion. Without concepts like “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” and “capitalism”, I was left with vague rants—some of which I published in school essays—against “the elite” or “the Establishment.”
What fundamentally changed my perspective was reading online. After Obama was elected, I started reading generic “progressive” blogs, the kind that regularly attacked Obama—but without ever doubting the Democratic Party. It got to be mentally exhausting after a while. All these bloggers were beating their heads against the wall, wondering why the “good guys” kept up with the neoliberalism, wars, spying, and other policies we all love to hate. I started reading about socialism on Wikipedia. Believe it or not, The Free Encyclopedia is relatively unbiased! It told me that, for example, George Orwell was a socialist. It told me that there was a whole family of leftist thought, called socialism, and it told me that socialists were always at the forefront of positive social change. I couldn’t help but notice how socialists were the ones pushing the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement—all those movements I learned about in “Dissent”—to push harder, always forward.
Then, via some route or other in circa 2011, I started reading Jacobin regularly. I found that its articles—a mix of analysis and news—explained the world a lot better than any of the prog blogs. In effect, I read socialist analysis before I read basic socialist theory. So I was reading about, say, how socialists should approach the 2012 elections—before I had ever read Marx.
Once I realized I was a socialist, I had a problem. Socialism is all about the organized efforts of the working class. Plus, it’s impossible to effect social change on your own. I knew I wanted to get involved somehow.
As the Communique Collective knows, there are very few socialists in New Hampshire. I met with a comrade from Socialist Alternative. Meanwhile, I desperately read up on nationwide socialist organizations. I emailed Solidarity. I emailed the IWW. I emailed the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. I emailed just about everybody, asking “Do you have anybody north of the Massachusetts state line?”
Around the same time, I started poking around the DSA website. To be honest, I had my doubts at first. Their official materials can sometimes downplay their genuine commitment to socialism. But I got in contact with their national organizer. We established that I could become involved with the national organization, and I could organize a chapter. With some doubts, I agreed to become a chapter organizer, and participated in Google Hangouts with other chapter leaders.
I was, and remain, a leader with no chapter. Nevertheless, by then, it made sense to join DSA. I just filled out the online form, paid a fee, and boom! I was in the DSA.
I kept hearing about YDS conferences. I had to miss a conference in New York City because I was in school and I seriously doubted I could make it to NYC on my own. I didn’t even consider asking my parents for help.
Speaking of my parents, somewhere around the line, I came out to them as a socialist. Although they’re conservative Catholics (like pretty much everyone else in my part of New Hampshire), they didn’t throw me out or anything. My dad learned about the conferences, and suggested I seriously try to attend one—not because he agrees with me, but because he thought it would be good for me. We worked together on the details, figuring out how to get me to Atlanta, Georgia. The fact that YDSinATL was in the summer made it even easier to decide. I flew out on Thursday, August 6th.
* * *
Decatur Recreation Center is a nice building in a nice suburb of Atlanta. The first day’s events were held in a smallish room off to one side. Walking in, I saw people wearing DSA t-shirts, a registration table, and a scattering of chairs. After some chitchat, people gathered for the first of two talks, half an hour each. Neither gave the speech I was expecting. The first was by Ian Fletcher, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. Prof. Fletcher talked about the many “Souths”, and specifically, the forgotten radical tradition in the South. Personally, I enjoyed the talk (although Prof. Fletcher’s presentation style was dry, and I got the impression that others were bored). The second talk was by La’die Mansfield, a local activist with Occupy Atlanta and the Georgia Student Justice Alliance. Mansfield’s talk was also very interesting. The connections she drew between her family history, her journey to socialism, and her interactions with other activists in Occupy was excellent. Mansfield comes from a residentially segregated town where they had a devastating flood in the 90s. As a high school student, Mansfield noticed how her part of town—the black part of town—was the most flood-vulnerable and the most damaged, but all the attention and money went to the least-flooded, whiter part of town. She didn’t say just when she became a socialist, but she did say she was a socialist by the time she was in college. By then, she got involved with Occupy Atlanta. She talked about how, even there, she experienced sexism and racism among her fellow activists. Both talks could have been improved by a microphone and either a PowerPoint slide or a handout — I’m worried that I’m going to forget the excellent things they said in a few weeks’ time.
Saturday morning, we met at a larger room in the Rec Center, the size of two classrooms put together. I met some new people, although I don’t remember their names, and I won an issue of Dissent playing socialist bingo. Then the agenda started.
Once again, there were two talks at the beginning. The first was by a professor of political science at Temple University, Joe Schwartz. Schwartz was brilliant, explaining democratic socialism (and socialism generally) in a way that I never could – explaining how socialism is about getting rid of all forms of domination, not just socioeconomic exploitation by itself, but all other forms of oppression, including the worker/boss relationship. Socialism, in other words, is not about dull grey conformity from on high, but it’s about establishing a system of genuine democracy over all aspects of life.
After Schwartz and the next speaker, Natalie Midiri of DSA Philly, I enjoyed the Q&A – using progressive stack – after they were done speaking.
The national office of DSA sometimes downplays the radicalism of its members, making us sound almost like the Progressive Democrats of America, but I didn’t see that kind of Bernie-obsessed, generically “progressive” talk at the conference. Instead, I saw genuinely left-wing socialists talking about the pros and cons of working with Bernie’s campaign. I saw people ask about coalition-building, building international solidarity, difficult members, difficulties with recruitment, strategic cooperation with left-anarchists, and Bernie’s foreign policy (specifically, his support of Israeli apartheid).
Then there were workshops. I went to the “Socialism Abroad” workshop. Expecting things already somewhat familiar to me – socialist and social-democratic political parties, mostly in Europe and Latin America – we instead talked about international solidarity, human rights rhetoric, the UN, and about the banal “progressive” rhetoric which often serves as a cover for Western interests. There was a long digression about China; specifically, how China uses Marxist-Leninist rhetoric to justify capitalist exploitation. This was contrasted with ordinary Chinese people’s attitude towards the Party; apparently, for most people, joining the Party is purely a business decision. People have an individualist, capitalist mentality, where you don’t make a fuss and you work to make as much money for yourself as possible. As the workshop leaders, Dillon and Brandon explained, some Chinese people think the CCP can be reformed into a social democratic party, while others want bourgeois democracy, and even fewer others seem to want democratic socialism. Dillon and Brandon had done quite a lot of research about modern China, and we continued discussing China after the workshop had technically ended, before ultimately running out of time. My only criticism would be that there had been a bit too much analysis, not quite enough practical advice.
As a result of a late lunch, I was ten minutes late to the next set of workshops. I went to one titled “Developing Strong Chapters” hosted by Maria Svart (our national organizer) and David Littman (IIRC, the chair of UGA YDS). Dave shared his experiences building a broad campaign to force the University of Georgia to transition away from the coal-burning power plant on the UGA campus. Sadly, the workshops and discussions continued to be too short. I wanted to hear about specific problems at particular campuses, the situations of particular leaders, or how to incorporate context into one’s organizing strategy. I was looking forward to comparing/contrasting my organizing situation in New Hampshire with other people’s experiences, but didn’t get the opportunity. Despite this, I found Littman’s recollection of his own campaigning at the University of Georgia very useful, while Svart had equally useful general pieces of advice.
Later that day was the National Conferencing. We all got together in front of a projector screen which had a conference video chat with several other YDS members who weren’t able to attend. (Frankly, I wish I’d known about that option beforehand, but they didn’t announce it until Thursday.) We, as a group, talked about changes to the YDS constitution. Among these: (1) possibly dissolving YDS and integrating it into the larger DSA organization, (2) possibly renaming YDS while keeping it a separate organization, (3) possibly changing the governance structure from a “conference” model to a “delegate” model, and (4) changing the voting system used in YDS elections to e-voting.
All of the changes were given to subcommittee for further discussion, since we weren’t able to reach consensus on any of those issues. Despite the lack of unanimous agreement, it wasn’t like there was violent debate so much as consistently polite disagreement. (Although it isn’t formally required, YDS “prefers” consensus decision-making.) We eventually voted for next year’s Coordinating Committee and for the 2016 Co-Chairs, which took a while. There was a lot of waiting around when the final voting was done, since it was pencil-and-paper voting together with voting by text for those members not present in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the National Conferencing was plagued by technical problems.
Though I was disappointed that all four proposals were put off to subcommittee, that’s not the fault of the national organization, and frankly, I’m glad I could vote at all. One thing I like about DSA is its internal democracy.
All that done, we went as a group to a large bar/pub/brewery called Twain’s. (There was no apparent connection to Mark Twain.) I thought that this was just for relaxing, but it quickly became apparent that there was one last part of the conference: caucus meetings. There are four caucuses: the LGBTQ Caucus, the Minority Caucus, the Women’s Caucus, and the Disability Caucus. In practice, that meant splitting up into small groups, each at a different table. All the people who fell into a particular category had their own table. Everyone else went to the other three tables, which were “ally caucuses.” At each caucus, the moderator (an ordinary YDS member) led an informal discussion based around, but not exclusively following, three questions for discussion. By my count, there were more LGBTQ people than straight people, and there was an equal number of women and men. The majority of members seemed to be white, although I could be misremembering.
The caucuses ended after probably an hour. Then there was a lot of sitting around and talking (with beer and snacks; I had an Angry Orchard). We talked of mental illness, about Salvador Dalí’s over-the-top romance with Federico Garcia Lorca, and about Cuba. I found out that, like myself two fellow conference-goers have also been to Cuba—one of whomfor four months during a study abroad trip in 2009. These were excellent informal discussions. There was a benefit to the informality.
The last day, Sunday, was a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. This is a massive museum, on the grounds of a public park, next to the Coca Cola museum. (Coca Cola contributed to the Center, and there’s a whole mini-exhibit dedicated to the “progressive” actions of Coca Cola’s CEO during the civil rights era.) Incidentally, while waiting around for people to arrive, we saw a helicopter drone flying around. We speculated that it was owned by an artist (or by CNN, which has its HQ in Atlanta), and joked that we’d been found out.
The museum is constructed in a linear path with exhibits going in chronological order, from urban life in segregated Atlanta during the 1950s through to international human rights activism in the early 1990s. The visit was powerful and moving, especially the early part containing, among other things, a simulation of a sit-in: you sit at a lunch counter, put on headphones; you listen to an “inner monologue” saying “OK, this is quiet so far…” and normal restaurant sounds in the background—and then somebody shouts racist abuse at you, threatens to stick a fork in your ear, on and on. There’s a timer on the wall. Most people, including myself, didn’t last half a minute of this.
In the music section, protest songs and video play on a giant screen. There are headphones with a selection of different protest songs you can listen to as well. Another moving part centered on King’s death and funeral, with a video of King’s “Drum Major Speech” playing over a video of his funeral. It was a very visual and aural experience, hard to effectively convey in mere words.
After about two hours, we gathered in a small group to talk about what the exhibits missed out – how the museum deemphasized the economic context of segregation, did not mention King’s socialism, and barely mentioned Black Power or Malcolm X at all. Everyone was unanimous about this; we all said variations of the same thing. And then we got our YDS pins, and YDSinATL was concluded. I could tell you more about my personal experience getting home, but that might be less interesting to Communique readers.
I attended the conference to learn more about socialism in general and socialist organizing in particular, and I’d say I met both goals, although I felt like there was always more to discuss. In terms of having a forum for DSA outreach and building a community of DSA members, the event was successful on both counts. We were brought together, as DSA members, doing organizational work. We built group cohesion, or what a sociologist might call “collective effervescence.” On the other hand, we didn’t have time to work on building the activist and political skills of individual leaders. Nor did we talk much at all about individual chapters. Overall, there wasn’t a lot of prescription given, just general tips—still useful, but not always easy to connect to one’s specific situation.
I was pleasantly surprised by the socialists I met. I had worried, based on a selective misreading of the DSA’s blog, that they would be single-minded reformist Bernie fanatics. As I indicated earlier, I instead found a group of clear-eyed socialists of many different tendencies and backgrounds, none of whom were deluded or naïve (about reform in general or Bernie in particular). If perhaps I learned little in the way of specific advice that could apply to New Hampshire, I learned a lot about organizing in general.
Overall, it made me glad to be a member of this particular socialist organization, although I’m adamantly against sectarianism and I’m not against other socialist organizations like ISO and SA.
If you want to read more from me, a short piece by me (about sectarianism, and specifically what I think DSA should do about it) will be posted on the YDS blog this Friday. In the meantime, solidarity.
Paul can be reached at pgoodspeed [at] anselm [dot] edu.