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Disgrace and the Democratic Socialists of America

With a vote for BDS, one part of the left heads for oblivion

Paul Berman
August 08, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

The national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America voted the other day in favor of the boycott-Israel movement, or BDS, and the success of the pro-BDS resolution caused the assembled delegates to break out into a rousing chant of “From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free!” And that’s not the half of it. Among the outraged responses to the DSA resolution, perhaps the most prominent was the indignant complaint that DSA held its vote on a Saturday, when a certain sort of highly fussy religiously-observant Jewish Socialist would not be able to participate. The complaint about Saturday voting has come up several times over the last few years, whenever a student council somewhere has likewise voted to boycott Israel. There are people who consider the complaint to be a serious one. Do you want to know what is anti-Semitism? It is Saturday voting. Here is the mind-set that has led to the vote to abolish Israel.

The DSA resolution strikes me as a modestly sad event, not because of the part about Saturday voting. It is because of DSA itself and its meaning, faint but real, for the American Jews. DSA does have a political lineage, after all, which is ancient and noble. The original socialist party in the United States was the Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1876, a quarter century after the Republican Party. The Socialist Labor Party was committed from the start, however, to being a narrow and insignificant political sect—which perhaps reflected a fatal and dominant gene, destined to be passed down through the ages. Still, some of the party’s more serious members split away to organize, in a series of steps, the Socialist Party of America, with Eugene V. Debs as principal leader. The Socialist Party was sincerely opposed to superstitious and medieval bigotries of every kind. Therefore it became the first American party truly to open its arms to the Jewish immigrant masses, circa 1900. The first two Jewish members of the United States Congress were Socialists—Meyer London from the Lower East Side and Victor Berger from Milwaukee. The big Jewish trade unions, which improved life for a significant percentage of the American Jewish population and for a great many other people, as well, were products in one fashion or another of the Socialist Party of America. This was true also of the Jewish Daily Forward, which so deeply and positively influenced the American Jewish world, and it was true of the housing cooperatives that arose in New York.

The Socialist Party went into decline after World War I, but those several offshoots and affiliates declined not at all. On the contrary, when the American Jews began to emerge as a politically significant sector of the national population, which was in the 1930s, it was in large part because of the unions and the Forward and some of the other old-time Socialist institutions. Over the course of the mid-20th century, those several institutions played a grand and inspiring role in American life—first among equals in fighting for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, on its left-wing side; first among equals in fighting to protect the American labor movement from Soviet influences; first among equals in the battle against fascism; first among equals in lining up to support the African-American cause and the civil rights movement.

By the 1950s and ’60s, the old party had adopted a hyphenated name, the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, with the hypen signaling a split in the 1930s, and a healing of the split in the 1950s—but it was no longer a party. It was a political club of sorts, more or less affiliated with the Democratic Party. Still, some of the members were admirable people, and influential, too. All too unfortunately, the SP-SDF underwent, in 1972, yet another split, which produced, on one side, something called the Social Democrats USA, and, on the other side, a faction that eventually took on the name Democratic Socialists of America, with perhaps another tinier faction or two. The Social Democrats USA were the harder-line anti-Communists, and they survived for a few years, and then expired. But DSA was sturdier. Its leading intellectual was Irving Howe, the literary critic and editor of Dissent, who was the author of the magisterial World of Our Fathers, the single greatest history of the Jewish immigration to the United States—which had the effect of maintaining a tie between the American Jews and the Socialist movement. And DSA’s leading political figure was Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America—Harrington, who came from a fine Catholic background in the Catholic Worker movement.

Harrington’s great role in American life was to keep abreast of theoretical and programmatic ideas among the social democrats of the United Kingdom and Sweden, and to explain these developments to us Americans. He was, for this reason, a valued participant in the Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party—an influence on John Kennedy himself, if only indirectly, and directly on Teddy Kennedy. There was a moment, circa 1978, when Harrington exercised a notable influence over the Democratic Party as a whole, which might have amounted to something, if only the Democrats had been able to defeat Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in the 1980 election. Harrington exercised an influence within the Socialist International, too. And Harrington was, all the while, a reliable friend of Jewish causes, and a proper comrade of his Israeli counterparts. He was a friend of Jewish causes for all the obvious and normal reasons, but also because he stood for the historic Socialist idea, which in the 20th century, was distinctly hostile to anti-Semitism and sympathetic to the Zionist cause. The British Labor Party in the early years of the century was the principal champion of Zionism in the United Kingdom, and those early fraternal sympathies lingered through the century. The French Socialist Party—the party of Leon Blum—was likewise a champion of Zionism. And American Socialism in Harrrington’s version breathed the same air of democratic and labor solidarities.

Only, Harrington died in 1989, and Irving Howe in 1993, and DSA has been adrift ever since—capable lately of attracting young people out of a nostalgia for the class struggles of yore, but no longer capable of generating a major leader. And now at last the organization has descended into anti-Zionism. Today the members of DSA chant about “from the river to the sea,” which is a rousing chant because it is a murderous chant, directed at any unhappy and terrified Jews who remain within those borders. A more pitiful development is hard to imagine.

Still, there is good news from DSA’s Chicago convention. The good news is that DSA has chosen to withdraw from the Socialist International. The Socialist International long ago ceased to be a principled organization. Still, it did use to represent, in some ghostly way, the old-time ideals of the Socialist movement from the 19th century—the ideals of democracy, social welfare, and general enlightenment. So it is good to see the DSA withdraw. The withdrawal will reduce any possibility that some anti-Zionist militant from DSA will be able to exercise an international influence in the way that Harrington used to do. And at DSA’s Chicago convention there has been a push to withdraw DSA from its traditional support for the Democratic Party. The push did not succeed, but I hope it succeeds in the future.

Let DSA follow the example of the ur-ancestor of the American Socialists, the Socialist Labor Party. Let it become a minor pest, along with the Green Party, in the dreamland zones of the college towns—one more marginal organization, dedicated to throwing away the political energies of its members. Earnestly I hope that, in 2020, DSA will run its own candidate for president, who will be this or that hero of the anti-Zionist cause, Linda Sarsour perhaps, or Cornel West, or Pat Buchanan, or Louis Farrakhan, or Angela Davis, or some guy with a sign board. Earnestly I hope that, in this fashion, DSA and its disgraced and chanting militants will float away ever more swiftly on the sea-waves of political failure—a not-unrealistic hope on my part.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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