Reflections from 1984: Dorothy Healey's Reflections On a Period of Transition for DSA

Beginning with the current issue, the Socialist will feature past newsletter articles – from as far as the 1980s – that highlight the activists, actions and perspectives of DC-area locals. A greater knowledge of DSA’s past successes and challenges can contribute to more effective activism today. In the famous formulation of George Santayana, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  We hope readers of the Socialist enjoy and learn from these vintage articles.  

After decades as a leader of the Communist Party in California, Dorothy Ray Healey entered the 1980s as a grandmother, a DC resident and a national vice-chair of DSA. Although she changed organizations, her commitment to radical social change never wavered, and she remained a political activist – as an active member of DSA and the host of a popular talk show on WPFW-FM – until she passed away in 2006 at the age of 91. Her legacy of political commitment was carried on by her son Richard Healey and her daughter-in-law Debbie Goldman, both DSA members and leaders in progressive movements. She chronicled her life of political commitment in her 1990 autobiography Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party, written with Maurice Isserman.

Healey was one of the former Communists featured in the 1983 documentary film “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists,” described by Variety magazine as “an absorbing and enlightening docu on American citizens who chose Karl Marx over capitalism.”  The DC/MD DSA local (as it was styled then) hosted the Washington premiere of the film on Sept. 24, 1984 at the Takoma Theater.  After the showing Dorothy was joined by the film’s co-director Julia Reichert and Howard “Stretch” Johnson – another ex-Communist featured in the film – for a public discussion.

In this interview in the September/October 1984 issue, Healey spoke of the film, her activist life and her guidance for a younger generation of socialists.

-- Bill Mosley


Has Seeing Red been a success? Have the filmmakers accomplished what they set out to do?

Oh, yea, so far their showings have been extraordinarily successful. I guess they’re helped a great deal by almost all of the reviews in the major media, which have been very favorable on the whole. That has built up some degree of response from people who wouldn’t necessarily go see this kind of picture. But in every city where it’s shown so far, the response has been quite amazing.

And I think by and large they have been able to do what they wanted to do, which was to demystify the question of the individual communists and to present some degree of social history in the process.

At the Los Angeles premier of Seeing Red, Alice Walker praised the film for helping us discover our “real [or] parallel history.” Do you think people – in both the mainstream and the left – are gaining a better perspective on this history?

I can’t answer that with any accuracy. We live in a country that is almost unique in one respect – there is very little consciousness of collective history. If you were to ask a hundred French people “what was the Paris Commune,” probably 90 out of 100 could tell you what date it was on and what happened. But if you were to ask a hundred Americans “How did Mayday start?” there’s probably one in a hundred – if that – who could tell you it started in Chicago in 1886. In other words, there isn’t a continuity of history and tradition.

I’d be pleased if even just a part of the young radical activists knew that there has been a history that is important to understand – in order that they can learn from it. I’m never totally convinced that anybody learns from history. Maybe Hegel was right that the only thing we know from history is that no one learns from history. But I keep being hopeful about it, that the same mistakes don’t have to be made over again – that there are new things to learn from – that a new generation can stand on our shoulders and reach new plateaus and make their own mistakes.

Is there a danger with the film that it might lead toward “papal infallibility” toward you? – is there a danger of [left viewers] trying to emulate your dramatic history? And in the process repeat your mistakes?

I suppose there is. But I would think that young people won’t fall into that trap if they reflect on the whole picture, and not only the exciting and inspiring parts of it, and listen with an inner ear to our re-examination of what those things represented. Most of us are not people who regret or reject or spit on our past.

But—part of the thing that is important, I think, is that we who had been in the Communist Party are almost alone in doing critical self-examination of our past. On the one hand we reject the approach that simply condemns the past and says “Oh, I have sinned, mea culpa.” (And there are certainly ex-communists who have done that). But also rejecting the idea that what was good always remains good and therefore you can’t be critical of that because if you’re being critical you’re being critical of your own life. Well, one should learn to be critical.

You know I was pretty angry at an article that was in the [June 17, 1984] New York Times, a dialogue between Irving Howe and Michael Harrington, where Harrington makes some remark that the people in DSA who’d been communists had “broken with their past.” I haven’t broken with my past – that’s ridiculous. I’m a product of that past. If you can’t learn from your own life, what’re you going to learn from?

Why did you initially join DSA?

There are two things that kind of coincided. My son had been a member of the New American Movement from its inception and was pressing that I should join, after I left the Communist Party.

The other is that there were a group of 39 young people in L.A. whom I knew very well who were [at that time] not part of anything – had been either in the Communist Party or in other organizations or had never been in anything. And we started to get together, to meet and talk – mainly because I just couldn’t bear to see them just bobbing along like corks on a stream, without any feeling of identification or responsibility. And we formed something called “Forty Socialists in Search of a Party.” And ultimately as a group we joined the New American Movement. And then when NAM and DSOC merged into DSA, I became part of DSA.

Why do you think DSA is the best place to be organizing right now?

I don’t know of any other place to do it. It’s a tough period for radical organizations to find answers of how you participate in the movements of whatever there is today and yet maintain an identity for a socialist alternative, when to advance even mildly democratic demands becomes a radical thing.

I’m sure that there’ll be more organizations in the future, but DSA is the only one that I know of that doesn’t try to have that “papal infallibility,” that doesn’t try to say we have the only line – we have the monopoly on wisdom – if you’re not with us, you’re automatically in the wilderness. So that potentially, what DSA represents, if ever realized, can be enormously exciting and important in the country. The difficulty is of course jumping that gap between what we are and what we want to be.

Do you see a lot of socialists in search of a party?

I think there are a great number. I get the feeling of it from my radio program here in Washington – the calls I get from people who recognize that there’s something more that’s needed in their lives. And I think it’s far more widespread than we have any idea. The problem is to find the time, the ability, the talent to go out and organize it.

So you don’t agree with Howe and Harrington, who said in their New York Times article that there are only 20,000 to 30,000 in the left community around the country?

I thought it was preposterous. The participants alone in the Rainbow Coalition certainly are people who are surging and changing in their thinking. You know it was exciting to watch on television young black people who had never been part of any political movement, whose lives were transformed because they became part of the Jackson campaign – they got a whole new way of identifying themselves.

I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how many are out there. But I am convinced that there are many – in the environmental movement and the feminist movement and the movement against racism and movements against intervention in Central America. If nothing else, just what’s going on in the churches – it’s so amazing, so incredible. The dedication the people have toward day-in, day-out work, fighting against intervention in Central America. And the churches are really a central factor in that. That was never true when I was young. There were always church people who felt a part of the struggle – but never to the degree there is now.

Do you think the great number of single-issue groups detract from analysis of society as a whole? Are there links between these groups?

I think there are links between the groups. The problem is to find a way to identify those links without doing it in a mechanical way, saying, well your issue is related to another issue which is related to another issue. It has to be done in a far more skillful way than any mechanical treatment of it.

I think the single-issue groups are important because for the first time they move people into action around an issue which those individuals relate to. It’s a terribly important thing to have that happen. But the equally important thing is that unless those single-issue movements find a way to relate to one another – to coalesce, to make alliances – the single issue can’t go very far.

What is DSA’s role in pulling these groups together?

DSA can provide an important role because the one thing DSA should be able to do is first of all be disinterested in the sense of kudos, of plaudits, of getting credit for what one does. We’re interested in the movements – in their credibility. Secondly, we should have the capacity to pull people together because we see the totality of society – that’s why we’re socialists, not single issue people – we do see the necessary linkages, to find the way to overcome the narrow territorial imperatives – “this is mine, and don’t anybody else come sniffing around or I’m going to do it alone or it’s going to be under my leadership.”

I just read an article about Chile that I found so saddening – about the disarray in the left [there]. The fact that with this horrible dictatorship, and with the massive discontent, that even in the face of that discontent, the old kinds of competitiveness and ideological jealousies and sectarianisms continue. And therefore Pinochet is untouched in terms of any significant challenge. You’d think that after all they’d gone through, that that elementary lesson that unity represents a multiplication of forces, and that sectarianism is simply a division of the forces – that that arithmetical lesson doesn’t get taught. As to how you overcome that, I don’t know.

What have your years in the Communist Party brought you in your work today?

Well, I would say the first thing is to not be content with momentary enthusiasms; one must realize that it’s a very long range struggle.

Something I acquired very early in my life, as a member of the Young Communist League, was an understanding and an appreciation of carrying out assignments – of fulfilling activities that you could undertake to do. I guess you could call that a feeling of a need for a disciplined response. But I think it was probably the single most important influence in my whole life. Because it equipped me to face things that were unpleasant and difficult, to not get discouraged and fall into the depths of despair whenever there was a lull in the struggle or when there were attacks and we were in jail or anything, but to always have a longer range perspective and be able to maintain a capacity to continue to fight.

Another gift that I got from my activity was an appreciation of the potentials of each human being. People have incredible talents that are buried – and we must have a feeling for each individual who’s in an organization – a responsiveness to that individual’s needs, both political and personal – to seek for the way to have each individual integrated and a part of the organization.

And there’s one other thing, that I really feel very uncomfortable with as far as what I find lacking in DSA. And that is the sensitivity that I learned in the Party on all questions of racial oppression – of making that question a central question in one’s life. We never had parties that were not integrated parties.

When somebody new came into your meeting, and particularly if that person was a person of color, you felt an immediate reason to be responsive, and to welcome that new person. You responded in the city to any issues that affected people of color. You provided new approaches, new thinking to how to raise the issues in the organizations your belonged to or the community that you lived in or the church you went to.

And I think that issue should be like a burr under our saddle, always making us uncomfortable until we’ve learned how to handle it, to deal with it, to respond to it, to make sure that the organization represents, not just figuratively but literally, people of color of this country. Because you’re never going to have social progress in the United States until that happens. No way can any organization have any significant influence if it is not an organization that includes within its ranks people of color. And that will not happen until we have people who are absolutely intransigent against any questions of racist behavior in one’s own organization.

Do you see DSA as having been successful in any particular movements over the past few years?

I’m particularly impressed by what DSA is doing with this American Solidarity Movement. This is a movement DSA initiated in which they put forth the need to develop in this country a movement in solidarity with American labor. And I thought it was very encouraging that an American Solidarity Caucus was held at the Democratic Convention with over 400 people participating. [Machinists union President] William Winpisinger was one of the speakers and identified himself as a national vice-chair of DSA. I think the movement has great potential. The attack on the postal workers is only one example of what is needed in terms of building up a non-labor support movement that is able to counteract the propaganda of the employers.

It is a preposterous situation that the labor movement can be defined as a “special interest.” The whole logic of it – the illogic of it – is patent: a movement that is supposed to represent the working people of the United States is relegated to “special interest status.”

How did we get to this point – where labor is a “special interest”?

It’s been a gradual development. I think it’s due to two things. One thing, of course, is the attitude of the Reagan Administration where, just as a general matter of form, the demands put forward by working people are downgraded and attacked as representing narrow interests. They place on the working people the blame for the fact that people buy Japanese- or German-made cars because American workers are too highly paid – but nobody says that American bosses are too highly paid, and that the bosses are too stupid to be able to take care of the needs of the industry.

And one also has to say, in all honesty, that certainly the labor movement has made its own share of mistakes – in not publicly being seen as the movement that fights not only for the immediate economic rights of the workers – but is also the movement that is looking to and responsive to all the broad issues, whether it’s ecology, whether it is the issues of war and peace, of sexism, of racism – the labor movement should be seen as the foremost protagonist of all those issues. And then that kind of anti-labor propaganda would not have the same effect.

Let me add a comment here about solidarity. The strike going right now in Arizona – the Steelworkers against the copper companies – over a year old, that strike. If there was real recognition of the old slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all,” they would win that strike. The Greyhound strike is a strike that should have been won. Of course when you’ve got this kind of attack politically on the part of the [Reagan] Administration and then the economic pressure that your job could be threatened, it is far more difficult than it was in the 1930s and1940s.

But if that fear isn’t overcome, and if the labor movement doesn’t take the minimal steps of solidarity, then simply one at a time they will be picked off. They can protect so long, and then that job, that union, that local will be in trouble.

Should DSA endorse Mondale and Ferraro?

I think so. I would take the same position toward Mondale that Karl Marx took in 1848 toward the bourgeois parties of his time when he said “We support you today. On the morrow of your victory we become your opponents.” And that should be our position toward Mondale and Ferraro.

We support you today but we do it critically; we do it with an awareness that you’re not really going to be the representatives of what we’re fighting for. Tomorrow, when you’re in office, we will oppose you.

Do you think they have a good chance?

Well, I’m more hopeful on that than most people, but that may just be my eternal optimism. I have to watch that.

Related Entries