Groundwork Toward a Socialist Party (Spring/Summer 2019) Responses

A Democratic Socialist Caucus: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

In their article “Groundwork Toward a Socialist Party,” Alexander Kolokotronis and Sam Nakayama argue for a “democratized caucus within the Democratic Party.” Democratic socialist activists, including myself, actually did this in Michigan in 1977. The Human Rights Party, an avowed democratic socialist third party that elected local candidates in several communities, lost its ballot status in the 1976 general election. That itself was a lesson in strategy. A party had to receive a 2% of the vote statewide to retain ballot status. Normally we ran statewide candidates for positions like Wayne State University Board of Trustees knowing people would throw votes our way for such obscure offices. That year, the more radical elements in the party won the argument to endorse Benjamin Spock for President (I won more votes for Ingham County Clerk than he did statewide). The irony was our members captured the Ypsilanti City Council in that election and found themselves without a party.

We then went wholesale into the Michigan Democratic Party as the “Democratic Socialist Caucus” at the 1977 Michigan Democratic Convention. We had strong delegations in two Congressional Districts, simultaneously joined and organized several chapters of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations) and ran our chair Zolton Ferency, an open socialist, for governor in 1978 on a platform of public ownership of utilities, a state bank and a graduated income tax. At one press conference a Detroit reporter asked, “Zolton, isn’t that socialism?” He responded, “What the hell did you expect from me, vegetarianism?” (it was a different time). We won about a third of the vote in the Democratic primary and ran a very competitive race in the general election due to the existence of matching funds for state campaign financing.

We brought this strategy to DSOC nationally with the idea of running Michael Harrington in the 1980 Democratic Party primaries against President Jimmy Carter, an excellent ex-president but premature neoliberal who championed deregulation among other things in his lone term. We also had an eye on the federal matching funds. At that time, if you could raise a minimum of $5000 in twenty states the federal government would match your $100,000. We saw it as a great fundraiser for DSOC. The campaign could purchase printing equipment, for example, and then sell it back to DSOC for $1. Of course we would be putting “democratic socialism” out there to a broad audience and increase our recruitment potential. Harrington and DSOC leadership were initially game but then our progressive allies in the unions kind of pulled the plug. They wanted to run Ted Kennedy against Carter. You have to remember, we had a number of national union leaders active in DSOC from the Machinists, the United Autoworkers (UAW), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and others when those unions had much larger memberships and resources and were more engaged with us.

Of course, we were disappointed. While DSOC and later DSA engaged in “coalitions” with allies in the movement around projects like Democratic Agenda, the idea of a “democratic socialist caucus” within the Democratic Party founded by former third party members faded even in Michigan after a few years. Those of us engaged in that project were never “committed” to the Democrats. It’s simply a matter of strategy. In that vein, organizing a democratic socialist caucus made sense then and makes even more sense now. Only three things are important in politics: timing, timing and timing.

Dave Rathke, Northern Illinois DSA (formerly Lansing DSOC, St Louis DSA)