Reflections from 1997: Musings on meetings

During a time of declining participation and activism in the DSA local, Woody Woodruff—a longtime editor of the Washington Socialist—wrote this piece for the Labor Day 1997 issue about local meetings. What value do they hold for members and for moving the socialist project forward? What content and structure would make them more useful? A little over two decades later the Metro DC local, like DSA locals and other organizations around the country and even the world, had to rethink their meetings under the duress of the COVID-19 pandemic, only with much more advanced technology at their disposal. We rerun this piece to illustrate that the question of what to do about meetings transcends time, the size of the organization and the social and political context.

-- Bill Mosley

Musings on Meetings

By Woody Woodruff

Most of us who have been around DSA for more than a year can confess to an inconsistent relationship with the organization, both nationally and locally. To be blunt, we are sometimes quite unorganized socialists. A lot of this may have to do with “meetings” and how we in the DC/MD/NOVA local feel about them. I am about to propose that we meet to discuss meetings. Subdue your laughter and lend me your ears.

My guess is that all of us calibrate our participation in DSA, more or less closely, according to both political and personal contexts. We measure DSA’s specific, unique role in the political/cultural mix that we call our social participation. And we also measure the personal satisfaction we get from DSA compared to other organized activity (or no organized activity at all). And we measure our participation (in DSA and other political and cultural organizations) according to whether being active in the political and cultural sphere seems to us to be an avenue into—or instead, a barrier to—what we think of as “having a life.”

For the fortunate many of us on (admit it!) the bourgeois left, having a life appears to include DSA participation less than it used to. Many of us commit some resource—frequently, good ol’ personal capital—to the organization as to others. Though the level of national members who make the further commitment to DC/MD/NOVA local dues is only 12-15%, it stays remarkably stable.

What we don’t do—in part because we needn’t—is plug into the world of social participation to the extent we once did. “Going to a DSA meeting” was once a staple of the lives of many among us. Monthly, or less frequently, we reconnected with people we liked (sure, some we rather enjoyed disliking as well) and talked or heard about some theme or issue as viewed through the prism of our socialist politics.

I raise this because I, for one, miss it more than I would have expected and wonder how to refashion that experience in the new media context that allows us informedness without connectedness. Mind you, I do not see myself as making some apocalyptic observation or warning here. I think there is a loss involved, but it is not a loss of some whole dimension that we used to have. I do not preach nostalgia for some lost art of radical friendship—we still managed a good deal of that, just in a different way. Still, speaking not as an individual socialist but (without being invited) for an imagined substantial number of my comrades, I think that the difference between the “old days” and today is measurable, has value and is worth discussing.

There’s no doubt that the DSA local meetings of the past had a social aspect. Whether we had satisfying social lives without DSA or found those meetings a significant increment in our associations, the regularity of the get-togethers—sometimes the very banality, which we may have relished in that paradoxical way people have—was a part of our mental calendars.

And many of us enjoyed the practice of “talking radical.” For many of us, the wildly variant epochs we had experienced—the one-dimensionality of the ’50s, the emotional and sometimes physical riskiness of the ’60s and ’70s, the exiled feeling of the era of ’80s Reaganite triumphalism—sharpened our feeling that DSA was a place where one could really step out mentally and talk that talk. For some of us, it was a first-and-only corral in which we could securely try to ride the unruly ideas we had bridled. For some of us, it was (blush) a place we could shoot off our mouths when we knew almost nothing whereof we spoke, and not be cast out. Many of us learned enormous amounts without really giving away the cold fact that we didn’t actually know it already (blush again).

Best of all, the organization qua a local radical association also benefited from this haphazard, personally rooted process. The personal testimony of the reader, whatever her or his level of past participation, will doubtless bear this out.

The suggestion, then, is that this process was valuable to individuals and the organization, in some perverse variant of the invisible hand effect that we correctly expel from economic discussions. So we probably ought to talk seriously about how to refashion some of this process in our local.

Some discussions at the executive board level have focused on issues, because we are all people who are about issues—that’s why we are socialists. Which issues should we prioritize in order to increase participation; are we overlooking some issue areas that need to be included on our plate? That is one area that we should be talking about, no doubt. But we might also frankly just approach this as an issue of our social life as an organization, and discuss alternatives as outré as: Should we combine eating and politics? What would be a good menu, in both senses? Are we “going to school” with one another enough? When and where should “classes” be scheduled? Has the residential and ideological diaspora of our local membership created a need for new places to meet, new times and new formats?

All these things, I think, need to be part of the discussion. We would agree that socialism is still relevant—yup, “more than ever”—to our lives and those of our world neighbors. Everything else is probably on the table. This—or the preamble to this—discussion certainly belongs on our agenda. Then we have to figure out what kinds of “meetings” should be part of our lives as socialists or if there is something different to be done.

So, the discussion should start with a meeting, even if the upshot is the replacement of “meetings” with some different format that reconstitutes some of the dynamic we might currently feel is lacking in our local and national DSA life. Maybe we even (groan) need a committee/task force to talk about this. But we’d better decide that en bloc—that is, in a, uh, meeting. Most importantly, I think, the meeting should not be about anything else but meetings. Not Home Rule, not the labor movement—but meetings. So, how about a meeting?

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