Originally published in New Ground 127, November — December, 2009.
by Bob Roman
“Why Evanston?” the reporter for a student newspaper wanted to know. “Because we got a great deal on a union hotel!” I answered with just a bit of asperity. But to answer the spirit of her question, DSA‘s biennial National Convention rotates through the regions of the country. The Midwest was next on the rotation. Chicago is a transportation hub: accessible and cheap to get to. It was Chicago’s turn.
Not that the Chicago Local’s Executive Committee had any great enthusiasm for the idea when it was proposed in 2008. The first answer was no. The last time the Convention was held in Chicago, 1991, we were able to subsidize all 9 of our delegates. In addition to a significant registration fee, each delegate is expected to pay into a travel fund that subsidizes the travel of delegates who journey a great distance. The 1991 subsidy from the Chicago Local amounted to a few thousand dollars. It was already clear in 2008 that we would not be in a position to offer any subsidy to our delegation. If Chicago area members were priced out of attendance, having the Convention here would not do us much good. In the end, the formula was modified somewhat for delegates travelling by public transit.
If 2009 found Chicago DSA in penurious condition, time has not been kind to the national organization, either. In 1991, there were several staff available to work on the event. Today, DSA employs a full time National Director, a part time clerk, and a full time Youth Organizer. (Frank Llewellyn deserves congratulations for juggling the various pieces as well as he did, but inevitably some dishes hit the floor.) Membership is roughly half of what it was shortly after that 1991 convention. And it is hard to say if the political environment is better today or simply very different.
For all that gloom and ambiguity, the 2009 DSA National Convention turned out to be a much better, more optimistic event than the 1991 Convention. Some of this spirit of optimism comes from some long overdue changes to the Convention itself. The typical DSA Convention had been something of an exercise in “resolutionary socialism.” While the delegates would some time on discussing and setting the organization’s priorities, much of the rest of their time would be spent on discussing and amending various organizational statements that, no matter how relevant to the events of the time, would be forgotten sooner than later. This was a considerable amount of work, often shouldered by just a few delegates mostly, and usually not terribly rewarding for the individuals or for the organization.
This Convention marbled decision and discussion with education and skills building. While this practice is not unheard of at DSA Conventions, this particular instance was imported from recent Young Democratic Socialists conferences, and it seemed to work very well.
This Convention included some resolutions: in particular three brief statements on the economy (see sidebar) and a brief statement in condemning the witch-hunt against ACORN. Most of the other resolutionary work was devoted to setting organizational priorities. The drafts of these resolutions are on the DSA web site (www.dsausa.org) and the final versions will be posted soon.
The Thursday evening “pre-convention” sessions were free, open to the public, and brought some attendees from Evanston. The first session was a showing of Never Turning Back , a documentary about a remarkable political artist and resident of Evanston, Peggy Lipschutz. The documentary was shown by its Producer and Director, Jerri Zbiral, and was followed by a question and answer session. The second was a presentation by Northern Illinois University labor historian Rosemary Feurer, who took the opportunity to show a documentary she had co-produced, Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Woman .
The Friday evening outreach forum (a DSA Convention tradition) brought together Interfaith Worker Justice’s Kim Bobo, Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher, and Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson. All three of these speakers have appeared for DSA in Chicago before, but this was the first time for all three together. The topic was “The Politics of the Economic Crisis: Right Wing Populism or Left Wing Resurgence?” People who make a point of attending DSA events might have considered this line up to be predictable. But each speaker brought a unique perspective and style to a particular aspect of the topic; however different the speeches, they were also complimentary. I couldn’t help but think of Neapolitan ice cream. I can’t do their presentations justice but this was one of the more powerful and informative panels I’ve witnessed at a DSA event. It should be available online soon.
The Saturday evening banquet is also a DSA Convention tradition. This time the speakers were to be Harvard University’s Elaine Bernard and In These Times’ Joel Bleifuss. Unfortunately, Elaine Bernard was suffering an allergenic reaction to medication and was unable to come to Chicago. Much of Joel Bleifuss’ speech was based on an article by William Domhoff that will be appearing in the In These Times January issue. DSA should have the speech online before then.
Delegates also elected a new National Political Committee (NPC). This body functions as DSA’s board of directors and is evenly split between males and females with seats reserved for minorities. Also traditional at DSA Conventions: only the male seats had more candidates (by one) than seats. Only one female seat remains unfilled. No co-chairs were nominated or elected. Five of the fifteen NPC members are from the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS). This pretty much reflects the demographics of DSA membership with a majority of members being either over 55 years old or under 30.
The delegates also elected the honorary chairs and vice chairs of the organization (see sidebar). These are roughly equivalent to the “advisory boards” that many other organizations have, except that the positions are somewhat less anonymous (more a part of the individual’s public biography) than most advisory board memberships. Like the NPC, these positions must be balanced between male and female and have positions reserved for minorities. There are vacancies to be filled by the NPC.
As an experiment, selected sessions of the DSA Convention were streamed live over the web. No one was hoping for a large audience so much as learning how to do it. And the small audience did report problems, so it was very much an exercise in learning.
What I saw of the 2009 DSA National Convention was very positive. The delegates were serious about both their politics and their organization. They were serious about cultivating new and young leadership. And YDS is showing signs of organizational strength, with several of its stronger chapters surviving changes in leadership. Finally, for the first time that I can recall, the majority of delegates also regarded DSA’s finances as a serious political issue. These are seriously good signs for DSA.
But good signs for DSA is not the same thing as good signs for socialism in the U.S.A. Various Trotskyist and communist organizations would have their own reasons for agreeing, but what I mean is this: DSA’s “market penetration” among the population of lefties is shallow enough that we could quadruple our 6,000 members while only somewhat increasing the broader left.
That population of lefties is not huge. As a political movement, socialism (democratic or otherwise) in the U.S. has been dead for many decades, despite sparks and occasional flashes that last a few years before dwindling. As Joel Bleifuss pointed out, the combined circulation of left publications in the U.S. amounts to somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000, making socialism very much a particular interest though larger than miniscule. But the conflicts that fueled the growth of socialism as a political movement in the 19th Century have not gone away.
People have devoted entire careers to investigating American exceptionalism with respect to socialism. (See, for example, New Ground 74: “Lord, Lord, It’s a Bourgeois Town” ) The task for DSA in the short term is not to solve that conundrum but to provide political activists with a means of making sense of the current crisis and the proposed solutions, and to grow with respect to the larger left. This Convention gave me confidence that DSA can reasonably do this.
In the longer term, DSA needs to be able to do the above and to bring home the bacon on national projects. This is an issue for small organizations on a national stage. Doing that, DSA can begin to grow the left and not just itself.