In the Ruins of the Old Left and the New Left 

DSOC, NAM, DSA, and Cultural Left Politics

Photo: Chris Wooton

Gary Dorrien

Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned in 1926 for leading the Italian Communist Party, famously asked himself why the Right is better at politics than the Left. He answered that the Right speaks to people where they live, exercising “hegemony” over their ideas at the cultural level. Orthodox Marxists dismissed the cultural realm as epiphenomenal, the superstructure, never mind that capitalism lives in schools, communications media, religious communities, political parties, and civic organizations. Gramsci said these institutions permeate the society with bourgeois values, augmenting the power of capitalism. Hegemony is the process by which a ruling class makes its domination appear natural by grafting its worldview onto society. 

Gramsci warned that if socialists continued to fix on seizing political power, they would keep failing. The capitalist state is an integral constellation of political, economic, and civic forces. Its power includes all the cultural institutions through which power relations are mediated. Gramsci made a key distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals legitimize the structures, myths, and norms of the dominant order even as they affect a certain inter-class aura in the interstices of society. Organic intellectuals are radical thinkers who identify with the working class, know what working people feel and think, and criticize the bourgeois conventions of capitalist culture. In the better Left that Gramsci imagined, organic intellectuals worked at various professions while shaping the ideas of the class to which they organically belonged, and the Left stopped allowing the Right to dominate political discourse at the cultural level.  

This argument swept much of the U.S. American socialist Left in the 1980s, lifting Gramsci into the top rank of Marxian thinkers. He died in prison in 1937, his notebooks were published after World War II, his thought seeped into Marxist theory, and English editions of his work appeared in the 1970s. Gramsci died a true-believing Communist who argued that Communism and Fascism operate by the same method—totalitarianism. On his view, Communism and Fascism differed only in their objective impact on history. Soviet Communist leaders had a right to use the same methods as the Fascists because Communists used them to create a liberating socialist society. No American democratic socialist believed that; by the time Gramsci became the icon of cultural Leftism, even Euro-Communists and former Communists didn’t believe it. The Gramscian turn got an outsized boost from a tiny, scrappy, strongly feminist, post-New Left group founded and soon forsaken by Michael Lerner, the New American Movement (NAM). It was a blend of former leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Euro-Communists, and former Communists, many of whom turned to Gramsci for clues about what went wrong in the Left. NAM won its place in the history of the political Left by touting Gramsci, advocating socialist feminism, and co-founding an organization that lasted, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It touted Gramscian Marxism and Cultural Studies at the very moment that the American Left cratered everywhere except one place, the academy—a new home for the Left. 

NAM was one of two organizations founded in the early 1970s that tried to resurrect something from the ruins of the 1960s Left. It arose from the spectacular implosion of SDS, while the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) arose from the dissolution of the Socialist Party. Michael Harrington founded DSOC in October 1973, recruiting union leaders, academics, journalists, social workers, and students to a social-democratic organization committed to ideological diversity. He built up DSOC by touring on campuses, stressing that its pragmatic multiplicity embraced feminists, Fabians, Marxists, religious socialists, gay-rights activists, Zionists, non-Zionists, pacifists, non-pacifists, former Communists, and environmentalists. Harrington said he was definitely some of these things and not others, but DSOC was emphatically all of them. This was the old united front strategy rebooted, with Communists left out. Many of us who joined DSOC came from colleges where the Old Left was unknown and the New Left of the 1960s never happened. Right-wing Socialists had recently dissolved the Socialist Party, and we puzzled at learning that the party had been dominated by “Shachtmanites” who supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern. Even more puzzling was the information that Harrington had been one of these Shachtmanites, until they founded the neoconservative movement, which he named. Some DSOC stalwarts radiated the Cold War militarism and anti-feminism of their Old Left backgrounds, but not Harrington. He seemed nothing like the neocons who assailed McGovern liberalism as an atrocity. We heard Harrington’s recruiting speech as a left-of-McGovern call to work in the left wing of the Democratic Party. 

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His stump speech during this period was titled “Liberalism is Not Enough.” It called the McGovern youth to battle for the soul of the Democratic Party in the “left-wing of possibility.” On occasion, Harrington made a Marxian point (“Here’s a note for Marxologists”), but he was careful to confine Marxian debates to his books and keep his sectarian past in the past. DSOC would not have succeeded had Harrington felt compelled to rehash either thing. I first heard his recruiting speech in 1974 at Harvard, where I co-founded a DSOC chapter, and first heard the introduction that always made him cringe. Harrington was introduced as the author of The Other America, “the book that launched the war on poverty.” He gently reintroduced himself: “I’ve written several other books that might interest you.” His other books were more important to him, and he hoped they were better than The Other America, a puffed-up version of a journalistic article he had written during his vagabond activist years.

DSOC compensated for its tiny membership by attracting high achievers in the unions, the academy, social activism, and the Democratic Party. Two things enabled DSOC to play an outsized role in Democratic Party politics: Harrington and DSOC were better than liberals at defending the welfare state, and DSOC had powerful union allies, especially AFSCME national president Jerry Wurf, AFSCME New York president Victor Gotbaum, UAW president Doug Fraser, and Machinists president William Winpisinger. These unions generously financed a DSOC program in the Democratic Party called Democratic Agenda. It confirmed that progressive unionism was a real thing and growing, and that Socialist unionism was the heart of DSOC, no matter how many higher-educated children of the 1960s joined our ranks. 

In December 1980, I co-founded a DSOC chapter in Albany, New York, and two months later I co-founded a highly active chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). I served as president of Albany DSOC while our chief founder, historian Larry Wittner, served as secretary and newsletter editor. Within a year we had a bustling local of 165 members consisting mostly of professors, students, social workers, and state government workers. The ethos of Albany DSOC was middle-class, bookish, deeply civil, and policy-oriented, fostering strong personal and political connections to AFSCME, ACTWU, and the Public Employees Federation. CISPES was completely different, consisting of young radicals fresh out of college, way-left-of-DSOC academics, and religious activists. 

I failed to persuade almost anyone in either organization to join the other one. A cultural chasm divided DSOC from the Central American solidarity organizations of the 1980s, notwithstanding that DSOC actively opposed Reagan Administration policies in Central America and Harrington was the U.S. American member of the Socialist International’s Committee to Defend the Nicaraguan Revolution. Albany CISPES began as a response to the mass murdering rampages of Salvadoran death squads, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 and the rape and murder of four Catholic female missionaries in December 1980. I spoke every week for CISPES, raising medical aid money and contending against the Reagan Administration’s policies toward El Salvador and Nicaragua. Albany CISPES had an emergency mentality; Salvadorans were being killed and we felt compelled to stop it. Albany DSOC met once per month and averaged three major events per year. We endorsed the activities of other groups and supported striking unions, but made no attempt to match the intensity of CISPES. My friends in CISPES, the Nicaraguan Solidarity Network, the Sanctuary movement, the Anti-Apartheid Coalition, the Socialist Workers Party, and even a local middle-class antinuclear organization did not regard DSOC as a radical organization. I was reduced almost to begging when we founded a social justice center in downtown Albany and my friends balked at allowing DSOC to join it. In DSOC we believed that being socialists made us radical and the U.S. government should keep its imperial hands-off Central America. The solidarity organizations judged that we were no more radical than the Nuclear Freeze movement. 

No one said that about NAM. Former SDS leader Michael Lerner called it into existence in 1971. He had grown up in a non-religious Zionist family in Newark, New Jersey, met Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at a Hebrew-speaking Conservative religious camp, and at the age of twelve became a religious non-Zionist. Later he studied under Heschel at Jewish Theological Seminary during his college days at Columbia University. In the 1960s Lerner earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Berkeley, turned radical, and chaired its SDS chapter from 1966 to 1968. He lurched to the ‘action faction’ of SDS, which spurned theory in the name of “super-democracy.” Lerner organized sit-ins against CIA and ROTC recruiters on campus and felt no allegiance to the national SDS organization, believing it was irrelevant. 

Then SDS exploded in June 1969 and Lerner was devastated, “a heartbreaking experience for me and many others.” In September he began teaching philosophy at the University of Washington at Seattle, where he founded the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) and puzzled over what went wrong in SDS. Lerner pointed to three things—the cult of Third World revolution, the cult of violence in the Black Power movement, and the contempt of SDS for working-class whites. He vowed to create a liberationist organization that didn’t make these mistakes, modeling what sane radical socialism looked like. Lerner organized a statewide ballot initiative to lower the tax burden on working-class people and require the State of Washington to withhold all federal tax payments from the federal government until it stopped the war in Vietnam. The interest on what was withheld would provide critical services to lower-income individuals and communities across the lines of racial identity. His SLF comrades countered that tax reforms are bourgeois and working with working-class whites is counterrevolutionary. Lerner also organized a major antiwar demonstration and was indicted for it. In 1971 he co-organized the biggest of the Washington DC antiwar demonstrations and was still under indictment when he founded NAM and wrote its declaration of principles. 

Lerner was determined to recover the humanistic revolutionary SDS that was lost. The terrorist Weathermen had taken over the SDS national office, dissolved SDS, and destroyed its records, ostensibly to thwart the FBI. That eliminated the information needed to reconstruct SDS, an organization of nearly 100,000 members. The Weathermen construed their terrorism and hooliganism as anti-racist solidarity, accusing Lerner of betraying the revolution with a frivolous tax reform. He later recalled: “I was increasingly thinking that we needed to understand the psychological dynamics that led people to self-destroy their own movement, that manifested both in the way that SDS self-destroyed at its national convention in Chicago and in the way that the Seattle Liberation Front was being torn apart by people who claimed they wanted a revolution but simultaneously were characterizing working people as irredeemably reactionary because of their white skin privilege.”

Lerner, SLF leader Chip Marshall, and Lerner’s partner Theirrie Evelyn Cook founded NAM in Davenport, Iowa in November 1971, eschewing the usual university towns. Lerner’s call letter said the new organization should reach out to working people and reject all forms of Communist dictatorship: “I wanted this organization to overcome the anti-intellectualism that had come into fashion in SDS around 1968 and cease romanticizing the anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles that led to a fawning acceptance of anything that came from nonwhite sources no matter how immoral or self-destructive.” He thought the call would draw perhaps a hundred like-minded people. Instead, 400 came to Davenport, sorting into four groups. One was a mixture of anarchists and self-styled Maoists averse to all leaders. Another consisted of refugees from the Communist Party who chafed at criticism of ‘real existing socialism’ in Russia, China, and East Europe. A group of radical feminists wanted NAM to emphasize woman-identified feminism and contest the leadership of Lerner and Cook. The fourth group was more or less what Lerner wanted, eager to base a new organization on a campaign for tax justice. Lerner despaired at his invention: “I was shocked and profoundly disappointed.” He also felt hijacked: “We imagined that their disagreements with us would lead them to ignore and denounce our efforts rather than cause them to show up and take over what we started.” 

It seemed to him, justly, that the majority of people who showed up were chiefly interested in creating a home for displaced ex-New Leftists. Building a mass movement on a tax initiative that refuted the Right-wing message that the Left doesn’t care about working-class people did not interest them. Some founders wanted to form a cadre organization, some wanted to reinvent SDS anarchy, and some didn’t like Lerner. He won a few arguments. The convention resolved that NAM would be a democratic socialist mass organization that worked in multiple ways and incorporated the liberation of women and non-whites into every NAM program. But Lerner knew he couldn’t play a leadership role in this group, since most of the founders did not share his passion to reach out to white working-class communities, and too many still did not recognize what went wrong in SDS. He doubted that he could stay in NAM: “In front of our eyes, the anti leadership and superdemocracy tendencies reemerged in precisely the ways that would guarantee endless debate and no serious unified strategy.”

Lerner believed that the Left was filled with a self-defeating sense of powerlessness, being too alienated from ordinary middle-class and working-class people to work with them. So he returned to graduate school, earned a second doctorate in psychology, attained grants from the National Institute for Mental Health, and founded the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, which led to the founding of Tikkun in 1986. Meanwhile, NAM churned through non-leading leaders in its early years until SDS veterans Richard Healey and Roberta Lynch filled the vacuum. 

Healey was a gifted Chicago organizer and mathematician with a legendary mother, longtime California Communist leader Dorothy Healey, and Lynch was a Chicago organizer with a strong leadership style. Healey’s geniality enabled the organization to finesse its faction that wanted no leaders. Then he judged that NAM had a bigger problem with perfectionist Leftism. NAM had the intensity and ethos of a cadre organization, but could not agree on a political program. Every reform proposal elicited the objection that reformism strengthens the system by acknowledging bourgeois legality. Lerner and his original ten organizers, including Staughton Lynd and James Weinstein, drifted away, and NAM lost its three biggest chapters when the Maoists walked out. By 1975, NAM was down to 350 members. In 1974 Healey slowed the downward spiral by persuading his mother to join. Dorothy Healey had joined the Communist Party in 1928, led its Los Angeles district for over twenty years, spread its message as a radio commentator, denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, tried to bend the party to her anti-authoritarian beliefs, and resigned in 1973. She brought her friends into NAM, which bolstered its Euro-Communist wing.  

In Europe, Euro-Communism was a major movement of parties and organizations founded by Communist Party leaders. It adopted reformist and parliamentary methods for adjusted pro-Communist ends. NAM became the closest thing to an American equivalent. The name New American Movement was literal for the New Leftists and symbolically loaded for the former Communists, allowing both to affirm their Americanism. Richard Healey had joined in the first place when he read Lerner’s call for a New American Movement; the name seemed exactly right to him. By 1975 he was deeply chastened, realizing that coming of age in the 1960s had not prepared him or his friends for the crushing neoliberal turn in capitalism. They were children of the greatest mass mobilization since the 1930s, but the mass movements were dying and trade unions were under assault. NAM renewed itself by running socialist schools in church basements, emphasizing its socialist feminism, conducting grassroots direct action and anti-corporate organizing, and adopting Gramsci-style cultural Marxism. It built strong chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Dayton, and fifty percent of its leaders were female. 

Socialist feminism was fundamental to NAM, where feminism did not escalate into more-radical-than-thou attacks on other women. NAM leaders Lynch, Barbara Ehrenreich, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Holly Graff, Torie Osborn, and Chris Riddiough combined gender criticism with an emphasis on the necessity of political struggle. Ehrenreich got her start as a writer by writing about it. She grew up in Butte, Montana, graduated in 1963 from Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology in 1968 from Rockefeller University, but never pursued a career in science. In 1970 she gave birth to a daughter at a public clinic in New York and instantly became a feminist in reaction to a physician who induced labor so the staff could go home. Ehrenreich taught and wrote in the 1970s about women’s health, teaming with feminist journalist Diedre English. She joined New York NAM and wrote its signature statement on socialist feminism, calling for “a socialist feminist kind of feminism and a socialist feminist kind of socialism.” Radical feminism that failed to struggle for political justice was not very radical, she argued; at the same time, mechanical Marxism wholly misconstrued what feminism is about by consigning the so-called “woman question” to a compartmentalized superstructure. Ehrenreich said Marxism and feminism hold a crucial thing in common—both are critical ways of interpreting the world that shred social conventions, construing the world in terms of antagonisms. You can’t be a Marxist or a feminist, she said, and remain a spectator; to grasp the reality exposed by Marxism and feminism is “to move into action to change it.”

Marxism is a theory of economic exploitation, showing that inequality arises from social processes that are intrinsic to capitalism as an economic system; the system of class rule rests directly on forcible exploitation. Feminism is a theory about the universality of sexual oppression, showing that male rule rests on the fact of male violence; the threat of male assault coerces rebellious women to conform and drives compliant women into complicity with male rule. Ehrenreich said it was fine to combine Marxism and feminism as a hybrid, but better to aim for a synthesis. The hybrid pairing always raises the question of which form of oppression cuts deeper, and it gets in the way of understanding sexism within the historical context of capitalism. Integrated socialist feminism construes monopoly capitalism as a political-economic-cultural totality. It has room for feminist issues having nothing to do with modes of production, and the room is not a superstructure. Ehrenreich said the promise of socialist feminism, yet to be realized, was to be the common ground between Marxism and feminism, synthesizing class and sex, and capitalism and male domination. 

NAM contributed mightily to the Gramsci boon of the 1970s and ‘80s. Stanley Aronowitz taught in the early 1970s at Deborah Meier’s public high school in East Harlem, published a noted book in 1973 on the American working class, and joined NAM in 1976 upon moving to the University of California-Irvine. He and Carl Boggs, a NAM stalwart and prolific social theorist, also taught at the Los Angeles Socialist School, housed in a Unitarian Universalist church. NAM did its most influential work in the schools, where Aronowitz, Healey, and Boggs grafted Gramsci into the organization and built relationships with activists. Aronowitz and Healey taught a weeklong school on Gramsci each year before the national meeting, fixing on Gramsci’s distinction between wars of maneuver and position. Wars of maneuver are revolutionary struggles for power, as occurred between 1917 and 1920. Wars of position are party-building struggles featuring united fronts, reform programs, and battles on the cultural level against bourgeois conventions. NAM identified with Gramsci’s signature prescription, “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will,” and embraced his distinct emphasis on the importance of culture war. Gramsci taught that radical intellectuals have a crucial role to play in wars of position—building counter-hegemonic institutions such as schools, newspapers, journals, and other media.  

Yet NAM did not compare to DSOC as a player in electoral politics or even as a vehicle of movement intellectualism. NAM said it was the real thing because it was democratic socialist, whereas DSOC was social democratic. But the two organizations gingerly drew closer to each in the mid-1970s, cooperating on a few projects. In 1977 Lynch attended the DSOC convention as an invited guest, still with her guard up. She said DSOC was misguided because aligning with Democrats and labor bosses doesn’t build socialism. Healey decided to the contrary that NAM needed to imagine a merger; NAM organizer Harry Boyte agreed; DSOC insider Jim Chapin encouraged Harrington to consider it; and Lynch began to waver. Healey envied the success of Democratic Agenda. He pressed the case for a merger, never mind that his mother led the opposition to it. Lynch rued that NAM played no role—unlike DSOC—in the Progressive Chicago Action Network that bridged the racial divide in Chicago politics and later helped to elect Harold Washington as mayor. DSOC had impressive youth leaders that NAM could not dismiss as Old Left knock-offs: Joe Schwartz, Mark Levinson, Penny Schantz, and Jeremy Karpatkin. Many NAM activists relinquished their romanticism about Third World revolutions after Pol Pot conducted a horrible genocide in Cambodia and the Communist takeover in Vietnam was as brutal as the social democrats had warned. A certain grudging respect for social democratic circumspection took hold. In 1980 NAM voted by 2-to-1 to negotiate with DSOC. New Left academics, searching for a usable past, were seizing on Popular Front Communism, which strengthened Healey’s hand as he negotiated with DSOC. Harrington was no help with the usable past problem; he was trying to overcome his past. But he had built the united front of the 1970s. 

Eminent DSOC intellectuals Irving Howe and Michael Walzer joined its Committee Against the NAM Merger, which charged that NAM was bad on Israel and incompatible with DSOC. Why should DSOC bond with SDS exiles and pro-Communists who trashed Socialists for years, indulged Communists, turned Maoist, and destroyed their own movement? Exaggerated things were said at the 1981 DSOC convention in Philadelphia about the supposed anti-Israel stance of NAM. A tone of anger I never heard previously in DSOC raged in factional caucuses that were also new to DSOC. NAM called for recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but so did most of the SI parties. NAM had only a handful of pro-Palestinian activists, a group outnumbered by its Jewish Zionist former Communist flank in the orbit of Jewish Currents, edited by Zionist NAM stalwart Morris Schappes. In the end the two organizations agreed to support negotiations with the PLO and U.S. military aid to Israel. This was the only issue on which DSOC demanded a specific commitment. NAM accepted the DSOC position that Communist parties are not socialist and DSOC agreed that the merged organization would establish regional offices in Chicago and San Francisco. 

The unity convention of March 20-21, 1982 founded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Harrington chaired the new organization, NAM members Lynch, Ehrenreich, Richard Healey, and Black historian Manning Marable were named to the national board, as were DSOC members Meier, Howe, Winpisinger, and gay rights activist Harry Britt. The word “synergy” was invoked several times, registering the conviction that the merger would attract new members. DSOC had 4,000 members, NAM had 1,300, and the following year DSA counted 7,000 members. Cornel West was one of the newcomers, lured chiefly by his friendship with Aronowitz and the prospect of synergy. DSA boasted that it was the nation’s largest democratic socialist organization since 1935, but it melted as fast as it grew, shrinking to 5,000 by 1987. The offices in Chicago and San Francisco were lost, leaving chagrined former NAM members in a New York-based organization. Healey and Boyte fell away from the organization, pursuing independent grassroots organizing projects; Harrington and Ehrenreich disliked each other, co-convening awkward meetings; and it became hard not to notice that synergy had not happened. 

DSA was a better organization than DSOC had been, but DSA accentuated the old DSOC problem of uniting activists primarily devoted to feminism, anti-racism, gay and lesbian rights, anti-militarism, labor, Third World solidarity, religious socialism, environmentalism, and other causes. It featured even less of a distinct socialist perspective than DSOC had managed, with a higher quotient of identity politics. DSA became a significant player in Central American solidarity activism, launched Lynch and Jo Ann Mort into prominent union careers, boosted the writing careers of Ehrenreich, Marable, Kate Ellis, John Judis, Harold Meyerson, and Adolph Reed Jr., and stressed the interconnectedness of economic, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-war, anti-heteronormative, postcolonial, and ecological issues. West explained that he joined DSA and stayed in it because he needed to belong to some organization that cared about everything he cared about. That was the best argument for DSA, but there were never enough people who felt that way.

West shook his head that the author of The Other America devoted his subsequent books to economic analysis, social theory, and political strategy. Harrington lived too far above the everyday, grasping, vacuous, nihilistic, television-watching, sometimes violent culture of ordinary consumers to write about it. He was eloquent about the structural injustices of capitalism, but passed over its equally devastating operations on the cultural level. That was never true of West, who wrote about popular music, television, sexuality, identity politics, Black culture, white supremacy, the culture of nihilism, and the cultural whiteness of ostensibly radical organizations. He wrote a signature pamphlet for DSA, “Toward a Socialist Theory of Racism,” which delineated four types of American socialist thinking about racism. West regretted that all four were blinkered by Marxian bias: (1) Racism is an epiphenomenon of the class struggle. (2) Workplace exploitation compounds class exploitation. (3) Cultural denigration is a primary site of oppression and liberation. (4) Racism is a product of class exploitation and of xenophobic attitudes not reducible to it. W. E. B. Du Bois and Oliver Cox, the historic theorists of number four, conceived racism as having a life of its own driven by psychological and cultural factors not always related to economic structures. 

But even Du Bois and Cox operated on the macrostructural level, focusing on dynamics of racism within and between social institutions. A full-orbed theory of racism, West argued, must grapple with genealogy, ideology, and micro-institutional factors, taking the Gramscian option beyond Gramsci’s formulations. West stressed that cultural practices of racism have a reality of their own that does not reduce to class exploitation. Cultural practices are the medium through which selves are produced. They are shaped and bounded by civilizations, including the modes of production of civilizations. A socialist theory of racism must feature a genealogy of the ideology of racism, examining the modes of European domination of non-European peoples, analyzing the micro-institutional mechanisms that sustain white supremacy, highlighting the various forms of Euro-centric dominance. It must provide a macro-structural analysis of the exploitation and oppression of non-European peoples, tracking the variety and relationships between the various types of oppression. 

That was the gold standard agenda for academic theorists of a scholarly bent. West described himself as an intellectual freedom fighter, not a writer of scholarly tomes geared to disciplinary conversations. He became famous for his scintillating lectures and media appearances on a broad range of topics. To activists he stressed that Left politics is balefully dominated by white males. DSA was the primary case in point, boasting a gallery of Black intellectual stars and precious few Black or Brown rank-and-file members. The organization looked White and sounded White to the Black Americans it tried to recruit. West observed that this cycle of trying and failing ensnared progressive organizations like DSA in a vicious circle. Even when white progressives made serious attempts to diversify, they were too remote from the everyday lives of people of color to succeed. The remoteness was geographical and cultural, and the failure it caused discouraged white organizations from struggling against white supremacy, which further widened the cultural gap between people of color and white activists. 

The only way to break this vicious circle, he said, was for progressive organizations to privilege the issues of people of color, taking the liberationist option of siding with the excluded and oppressed. Strategies based on white guilt are paralyzing, both psychologically and politically, while strategies based on making white organizations more attractive to racial minorities don’t work. The answer is for organizations to make a commitment of will to the specific struggles of people of color. It is pointless to pursue diversity campaigns that do not make the struggle against white supremacy their highest priority. There must be a transformation of consciousness that is practical, convinced that anti-racism trumps other causes, and is not overburdened with useless guilt: “What is needed is more widespread participation by predominantly white democratic socialist organizations in antiracist struggles—whether those struggles be for the political, economic, and cultural empowerment of Latinos, blacks, Asians, and North Americans or anti-imperialist struggles against U.S. support for oppressive regimes in South Africa, Chile, the Philippines, and the occupied West Bank.” 

He invoked the term used in liberation theology, “conscientization”—a transformation of consciousness that occurs through an act of commitment, creating a new awareness of marginalization, exclusion, and oppression. Only by taking the liberationist option would white activists comprehend why they should privilege the struggle against racism. Bonds of trust across racial lines must be forged within contexts of struggle. West cautioned: “This interracial interaction guarantees neither love nor friendship. Yet it can yield more understanding and the realization of two overlapping goals—democratic socialism and antiracism. While engaging in antiracist struggles, democratic socialists can also enter into a dialogue on the power relationships and misconceptions that often emerge in multiracial movements for social justice in a racist society. Honest and trusting coalition work can help socialists unlearn Eurocentrism in a self-critical manner and can also demystify the motivations of white progressives in the movement for social justice.” 

Forty years later, that is still what DSA and the broader democratic Left need to do and have failed to achieve. West refuses to say that this failure invalidates democratic socialism, because there has to be some group that struggles against all the intersecting sites of oppression, denigration, and exclusion. Only democratic socialism is geared, theoretically and in its historic ambition, even to try. 


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