January 2017History

The Salons of 2016 -- MDC DSA's Developing Role

To be a socialist means to commit to action to build a society that puts human needs and wants over the private accumulation of wealth -- a society in which means and ends are interconnected rather than divided in the manner that flows from the structure of capitalism.  Translation: people shouldn't have to choose between jobs and the environment, freedom of speech shouldn't end where the workplace begins, equality and freedom ought to be joined not set in opposition to each other.

DSA as a socialist organization is committed to changing our communities, changing our society in the belief that such an alternative is possible.  In the course of that our goals and values are often encapsulated in sound bites that speak to fundamental values -- Black Lives Matter, We are the 99%, Fight for 15 and similar slogans resonate because they articulate a lived injustice and a vision of genuine justice with concision.  But giving political reality to our aspirations is not simple; the contrast between rising tides of progressive activism and the election triumph of the Republican Party/Donald Trump provides ample evidence of how difficult a task it has been and will be.

Deciding between choices, critical reading of thinkers/activists like Marx & Engels, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, C.L.R. James. Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, Gandhi, Juliet Mitchell -- or W.E.B. DuBois, Eugene Debs, Dorothy Day, Michael Harrington, and others from various traditions is important, as is a reading of history with a critical eye.  But most people don't have time for deep study; moreover, most people don't come into social justice activism through an elaborate theoretical construct.  Rather experience, filtered through inherited or adopted values, helps us determine where we place ourselves.

Yet discussion that aids thinking through the ever-changing world around us is critical both to sustaining our activism and helping us engage most effectively.  Metro DC DSA's monthly Socialist Salon has sought to strike that middle ground by providing a pathway between gut responses and theoretical constructs.  Touching on a range of issues, sometimes led by outside speakers, other times by active local members, all were marked by full participation by those who attended.  A review, below, of those held last year shows what we attempted.

What We Discussed

We began in January with a talk by noted African-American labor activist Bill Fletcher, who evaluated the Sanders campaign, its strengths and weakness, within the wider framework of an examination of left electoral politics within the two-party system that retains political and ideological independence.  Fletcher noted that while Sanders was representing a genuine alternative to the neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton's campaign and -- unlike Jill Stein of the Greens and other third party candidates -- had a broad popular base including among working people, his Achilles heel was a lack of roots in the black and Latino communities.  Related to that was Sanders's lack of an organizational base prior to running which inhibited Sanders' movement from reaching its full potential.  As the Sanders campaign was to be the focal point of National and Metro DC DSA over the coming months, Fletcher's talk helped provide a critical framework for our subsequent work -- as reflected in the comments and discussion thereafter.  Class, race and gender are all aspects of building a movement capable of challenging the destructiveness and violence of capitalist society; the need to connect those dots is an ever-present challenge, distinct from but related to that of effective electoral engagement.

Our next two meetings took up the discussion of intersectionality (the connection between various forms of structural oppression).  Our February Salon was led by Carolyn Byerly -- Chair of the Department of Communications, Culture & Media Studies at Howard University, and an active member of the Metro DC DSA local -- who discussed the deep historical and structural roots of gender-based oppression and its linkages with all other forms of oppression.  She described the early development of feminism as a response to the rise of capitalism, and gave an account of Second Wave feminism that emerged in the 1960s/70s alongside the emergence of socialist feminism within it -- and within that the critical work of African-American feminists.  She stressed that women's liberation must be a central part of any movement to reform capitalism  while recognizing that women will never be fully liberated within a capitalist structure -- and thus the need to link up with other movements challenging other forms of oppression.

Underlying Byerly's talk was an exploration of how socialist feminism could shape our activism; the March Salon did just that with two speakers from Planned Parenthood Metropolitan of Washington.  Michelle Woods, PPMW public and legislative affairs manager, and Tucker O'Donnell, PPMW director of education, gave a talk on local organizing in support of reproductive rights.  That certainly means the right to an abortion, but they stressed that is also means access to the full range of women's health services, sexual education, to be free from sexual violence.  And they talked about reproductive justice -- organizing to ensure that poor women, in particular African American and Latino women, are included in that fight for those rights.  Woods pointed out that the phrase "reproductive justice," gets us away from "choice," which is individual, too narrow and not strong enough to convey the full meaning of what is at stake. By contrast, bringing justice into the equation can demonstrate how choice is integral to women's physical, mental, spiritual, social and economic rights. Carlson described what this looks like in practice when providing education aimed at girls/young women (and boys/young men).

Although the speakers addressed the never-ending threats to women's rights and reproductive health, the discussion was underscored by the sense that progress was possible, that the potential existed for progressive change -- with the goal of finally passing legislation to eliminate the Hyde Amendment which bars federal dollars for Medicaid to cover abortion. No one in the reproductive justice movement underestimated the depth of right-wing hostility to women's rights and women's health, nonetheless the assumption was that a Democratic victory in either the White House or Senate or both would make progress possible, quite contrary to the reality we are facing after the Nov. 8 elections.  Such optimism did not exist for those opposing US militarism as was made clear in a Salon on US Labor Against War held shortly after its Convention featuring two of the USLAW co-conveners: Brooks Sunkett, senior vice president for public workers, health and education for CWA (Communications Workers of America) -- and Bob Muhlenkamp, former executive vice president and director of organizing for SEIU-1199, and director of organizing for the Teamsters during its brief period under reform leadership.  Sunkett began by reviewing labor opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, which was instrumental in getting the AFL-CIO to pass, for the first time in its history, a resolution condemning an on-going war.  Sunkett put that in the context of his own experience as a soldier in Vietnam, taking from that a lesson that militarism serves only the rich which led him -- alongside a whole generation of unionists -- to opposition to US support for apartheid South Africa and to oppose US military intervention in Central America.

Muhlenkamp added that this anti-war sentiment reached its greatest pitch in the Nuclear Freeze movement  as a reaction and response to the increased war danger posed by Ronald Reagan's election -- and emphasized that peace is a union issue for the straightforward (but often forgotten) reason that war can, in an instant, destroy all that working people have created.  The problem we now face, however, is that young people have grown up in a time of on-going war such that has normalized US military action abroad.  This has been reflected by the fact that in the choice between Clinton and Trump, what voters were offered were two different versions of militarism to uphold US global supremacy. Although Sanders did not speak of foreign policy as much as he should have, he offered the only alternative vision on this as on other issues.  By bringing socialism back into public discourse, he gave space for peace to re-enter the public sphere as well.

But looming was the problem of what might happen if Sanders did not get the nomination, a question Sunkett posed to all with a wide variety of responses.  That question, however, was soon pertinent and addressed by posing the question of how we understand our engagement as socialists.  Democratic Socialism: What Does it Mean was the subject of our May Salon.  Local DSA members Jessie Mannisto, Jose Gutierrez, and Kurt Stand began a roundtable discussion as they each described how they became socialists and how they understood building the socialist movement.  Thereafter, we went around the room with participants reflecting on individual experiences as well as distinct world views on how it might be possible to build a better future.  Though necessarily abstract -- no one had the illusion that socialism was imminent or somehow on our immediate political agenda -- animating the discussion was the mixture of the hope the Sanders campaign inspired, disappointment at his defeat, and an open-minded questioning and search for how best to realize in on-going action the potential for genuine left politics made evident during the primary campaign.

The following month's discussion was more concrete with a report on the People's Summit.  Held in Chicago June 17-19, the Summit brought together a wide array of individuals and organizations -- including DSA -- looking to see how to sustain the momentum of the campaign beyond the elections.  Merrill Miller, who was co-coordinator of Metro DC DSA's work for Bernie, began the discussion by presenting her observations of the gathering.  Miller's chief take away from the workshops and plenary sessions at the Summit was a profound optimism that the left will find a path to unity and growth around the values central to Sanders' campaign:  economic justice, racial equity, environmental sustainability and other concerns needed to transform the United States into a country that works for all of us, not just the wealthy.  The Summit was initiated by the National Nurses Union and co-sponsored by a wide array of left and progressive organizations including Citizen Action, Labor for Bernie, People's Action, Progressive Democrats of America, United Working Families and DSA -- which had a considerable presence.

Discussion at the Salon, however, kept returning to the lack of any specific program or organizational framework emerging from the Summit, but Miller and others who attended made it clear that this was not the purpose.  Rather they affirmed that it was conceived as a preliminary step toward continuation of the "Political Revolution" central to Sanders' campaign.  More substantive unity around a more specific program will have to emerge organically, growing out of shared work.  As Miller explained, the People's Summit brought activists together across regions and perspectives, and by so doing allowed for connections and relationships that will sustain the left and Sanders' "Political Revolution," long after this year's primary season.

We live in the here and now, and engaging in political and social justice movements tends to a focus on domestic issues that have a most direct and obvious impact upon us.  Yet global realities are also ever-present, both because of the outsized and often negative role the US government plays abroad, and because the socialist movement at its core sees itself as part of a world-wide struggle for peace and justice.  Reflecting such concerns, our July Salon featured a presentation by social justice activist Pam Bailey under the heading, "Gaza is Not Black or White: The Reality on the Ground Today."  Based on her travel to the region, she was able to give a firsthand account of the constricted lives faced by Palestinians in Gaze and the devastating consequences of lack of work, lack of future prospects, for young people.  A founder and international director of We Are Not Numbers, Bailey described that program which gives voice to the voiceless through a platform that enables young "word artists" to speak of the full dimensions of life under Israeli military occupation.  Shelley Fudge, Washington DC coordinator of Jewish Voices for Peace, also gave a presentation on the importance of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) as a tool of international solidarity to help bring justice to the Palestinians.

This was followed in August -- traditionally a month dedicated to peace to honor the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- by a Salon led by Jean Athey of Montgomery Peace Action and the Maryland Chapter of Fund Our Communities.  An advocate of the transfer of military spending to human needs, her talk was entitled "Changing Our Priorities from a Militarized Foreign Policy Toward Jobs and Public Needs."  She presented a Powerpoint that began with visual evidence of the horror and human cost of war and then went into a detailed account of the extent to which spending on war is draining federal and state budgets and leads to underfunding of social needs within communities across the country.  A key point of the discussion that followed Athey's presentation was the question of economic conversion and how skilled employment could be found for those who would lose their jobs if military bases are closed.

Appropriately then, and in acknowledgement of September's Labor Day holiday, the following Salon featured Carlos Jimenez, executive director of the DC labor council.  He described the Council's functions and growth in the past -- then discussed the existential threat organized labor faces.  A steady decline in union density due to employer attacks alongside the changing nature of work means that several thousand new members have to be organized in the DC Metro area each year just to maintain what exists.  And the problem is even greater when we look at the United States as a whole. Therefore the political and social dimensions of the assault on working people as intrinsic to defense of workers' wages, benefits and rights on the job.  Jimenez asked those present what the elements of a broad labor/social agenda might look like.  Concerns raised included climate change, war abroad, student debt, mass incarceration, education, discrimination, transportation, gentrification and housing.  To confront this array of problem requires action based on a level of analysis that looks beyond surface issues.  For example, workers need jobs, yet in a capitalist society jobs are dependent on an irrational imperative to growth which is destroying our environment.  Or, in other words, labor needs to move from transactional (deal-making) to transformative politics -- the point made earlier in the year by Fletcher and by Byerly, and the goal of the People's Summit.

A look at how social movements confronted this need in the past was the subject of October's Salon: A History of DC's Left in the 1960s.  Presentations were given by longtime activists John and Debbie Hanrahan, who are part of an oral history project designed to capture the voices of that era -- ignored in official accounts -- who did the day-to-day organizing that made possible whatever progress we have achieved.  Howard Croft, a longtime DSA member, active in community and labor struggles in DC for decades, added his memory and perspectives on the radical ferment that characterized DC in our recent past, how it languished, and how it might be revitalized.  The speakers talked of the life and legacy of Julius Hobson, Jo Butler, Hilda Mason (who was also a DSA member) -- black activists, socialists, statehood advocates -- who were principled in their commitment to community power and to the vision of an interracial movement for justice and activism rooted in community central to the Civil Rights movement.  So too did Sam Abbott -- who helped establish the progressive politics still in evidence in Takoma Park -- one of the leaders (along with Hobson) of a successful movement to prevent construction of an inner-city freeway that would have displaced thousands of families.

They all confronted harsh conditions in an era which began when segregation was still legal and when DC didn't have even the small measure of self-governance it now has.  Yet much was won -- even though, as Croft explained, inequities in education, housing, transportation and employment stand as a reminder that victories can be undone.  But the lesson from that past remains relevant -- radical politics can be made meaningful, can win, no matter the obstacles, as long as it remains rooted in the everyday life of people, as long as the politics is truly from the bottom-up.  That legacy remains visible in the statehood movement, in Black Lives Matter, in Occupy, and countless other arenas where people refuse to give up or give in.  It was a lesson all the more important to hold close in light of subsequent events.

For many of us, everything seemed to come to a halt on November 8.  Although most DSA members were sharply critical of Hillary Clinton for her embrace of neoliberal economics domestically and her aggressive militarism in foreign policy, we nonetheless thought she would be president and we could challenge the contradictions between her professions of progressive politics whenever they retreated into conservative action.  Moreover, on any number of issues addressed by Salons over the course of the past year -- from reproductive rights to labor rights -- to those not directly addressed by part of our agenda -- from gay marriage to respect for transgendered people, from environmental protection to safety and health laws -- her record and acknowledgement of the issues gave rise to the hope that political pressure could move public policy in a more progressive direction in those arenas.  And finally, the inclusiveness and diversity of her campaign spoke to the potential of creating the social solidarity needed if any struggle against the real inequalities and injustices of our society are ever to be addressed.

Instead, we have a president elected to office speaking in the language of hate and disrespect.  And Trump was elected alongside Republican majorities in the Senate, House and most state governments, posing an enormous danger for civil liberties, for the tattered remnants of our social safety net.  The assumption that we would be pushing forward a social justice program has now turned into the reality that everything we stand for will be under assault for the next few years at the very least.  So it was that two days after the close of the polls we had a further roundtable discussion to discuss what next, what is to be done.  Reflective of the level of concern that followed the close of the polls, attendance at the Salon was outsized and reflective of deep concern.  National DSA Deputy Director David Duhalde began the discussion by noting the dire circumstances created by the election results.  The combination of Clinton's weak message, Trump's appeal to white nationalist racism and misogyny together with Republican voter suppression are largely responsible for the results.  The key, however, is to remember that the majority do not support Trump, and that rather than give into despair, we need to act.

And the fact that so many are willing to act is itself cause for hope.  This Salon had more than double the usual attendance, with many new faces.  Going around the room everyone spoke up, identifying their concerns and their thoughts on what next.  In total, these reflected Duhalde's key point -- we must play defense by protecting threatened communities, threatened rights, threatened programs and we must play offense -- affirmatively pushing a social justice agenda.  It is a core of a socialist program as this past year's Salon indicate.


What We Will Discuss

The wide range of issues and themes reflect the broad scope of the socialist movement and speak to the nature of the complexities of trying to address the issues and challenges posed by capitalism as a system, posed by the structure of US politics of the moment, and posed to ourselves in consideration of the society we seek to build.  Thus, although broad ground was covered much was left out -- although election concerns dominated, relatively little attention was paid to the extreme right or to Trump's candidacy.  And even though climate change is a central issue facing our society and the world, it was not a topic of our 2016 Salons.  So too, immigration issues, criminal justice system and the incarceration state, the nature of racism, were all only indirectly touched upon.  Going further afield we did not look at culture, did not examine the role of religion in society, spoke relatively little about Maryland and hardly at all of Virginia.  And an oddity for a socialist organization, no Salon was devoted to a discussion of economic issues or considerations of what an alternative system could look like (that had, however, been visited several times in 2015's Salons).

Even recognizing what was missing, however, we could just as easily say that there is a need to revisit and discuss in greater depth areas and topics that were discussed.  Choices will have to be made, as we try to widen and deepen the range of Salons in the year to come.  Like the entire socialist project it is challenging, rewarding and needed as we try to make our path from society as it is to the society we envision.

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