I undertook this project in the fall of 2019 at the suggestion of one or more members of the Metro-DC Democratic Socialists of America’s Socialist Heritage Caucus, of which I am the self-appointed convener. The suggestion I most remember came from Woody Woodruff, so I shift partial blame to him.
I thought it useful to compile a past history of the local for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Socialist Heritage Caucus, which formed in early 2019, was created for the very reasons of helping to document the history of DSA in the Washington area. Secondly, since the 2016 election – approximately the place where this history ends – DSA, not only in the Washington area but around the country, has seen a rapid influx of new members both inspired by Bernie Sanders’ injecting socialism into the national conversation in a way not seen since the early 20th century and frightened by the election of an openly racist, xenophobic, nativist, Islamophobic, misogynistic president. The great majority of these new members were under 30 and had no immediate knowledge of the history of the organization they were joining.
The growth of DSA over the past four years – from about 5,000 to some 60,000 members nationally, and 200 to 2,000 locally – laid to rest a complaint of the old-time members heard at least since the 1980s: Recruiting and retaining young members is difficult. In the early 2000s DSA was an organization top-heavy with baby boomers, people who had joined while Michael Harrington was the preeminent leader. There was a bump in younger members who joined after Obama was elected president in 2008. But after 2016 we could say of our desire for a more youthful membership. “Problem solved.” But it was largely a membership with less of a historical perspective than those members who had lived through much of that history, and the organization was lacking a vehicle for recording and passing on that history.
Thus the Socialist Heritage Caucus and thus this document were created. I decided I was as qualified as anyone to get the ball rolling, because (1) I was present for most of the significant local DSA activities of the period under study; (2) as a pack rat for documents, I was in possession of nearly all the printed issues of the Washington Socialist (for a time re-dubbed the Democratic Socialist) from 1983 until the cessation of publication in 2000, as well as various other documents and records produced by the DC local; and (3) I had extensive private notes from much of that time as an additional resource.
This history comes in three parts, the first being this preface. The bulk of the document is an almost day-by-day recounting of activities of the local over 35 years: meetings, public forums, participation in protests, notable activities of specific members connected to promoting DSA. I largely restricted that timeline to an objective recording of the facts, avoiding analysis or opinion, since I was personally involved in much of what happened and didn’t want my biases to make the information less factual or useful. But I did and do have a larger perspective on those 35 years in the local’s history, including what worked, what didn’t work and why; trends in activism and participation; and how this history might inform the future. For that I wrote a brief introductory essay that precedes the timeline, a sort of editorial, if you will, separate from the news pages.
As for my bio, for those of you who don’t know me as well as others: I first joined the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1979 and became a charter member of DSA when DSOC merged with the New American Movement (NAM) in 1982. I moved to the Washington area from Richmond, Virginia in 1981 and became active in the DC/MD local almost immediately, first organizing a campus chapter at the University of Maryland, where I was a graduate student, and then helping establish a Prince George’s County branch. Shortly thereafter I began working with the Washington Socialist. My activity since then with DSA is too complicated to fully lay out here, but suffice to say I was an active member of the local leadership the entire time, serving several non-consecutive terms as chair. I also had stints as treasurer, secretary and membership secretary as well as taking on other responsibilities. I attended my first DSA convention in 1981 and then each semiannual affair from 1985 to 2011, except 2003. All this is to show that I have a history of involvement with the organization which enables me to regurgitate some of that history.
The lengthy timeline incorporates all of the significant and semi-significant (and even some slightly significant) events for which I had records. Any number of events or details might be missing due to gaps in my collection of issues of the Socialist or in my notes or memory. But the gaps are few, and I thank Woody Woodruff for supplying issues of the Socialist from 1982-1984 which I didn’t have. In short, I have made this as complete as I can, and perhaps in the future readers can help me make it more encyclopedic.
I hope this history will be useful to current and future leaders of the Socialist. As George Santayana so famously wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I hope that DSA going forward avoids some of the mistakes of its past, but even more so, that it finds some past ideas, projects or perspectives valuable and possibly worth reviving. And I am sure my longtime friends and comrades will enjoy reliving the events of our collective past, as well as looking for their names – if you were an active member of the local for any length of time, your name probably will pop up here, perhaps numerous times.
So please enjoy, and I look forward to everyone’s reaction.