The impetus of the ongoing Eugene Debs Comics project prompted a young activist, new to socialist ideas through the Bernie Campaign and DSA, to ask about my own small saga, now well past a half century in duration. I am happy to comply.
In the gap between Civil Rights and the campus peace movement, I joined the Socialist Labor Party, on my nineteenth birthday. We SLPers were a mostly elderly bunch, with deep roots in the early twentieth century. We believed reform of capitalism impossible, State Socialism unacceptable, and we passed out a million leaflets with this message every year. It was a great introduction to socialist history, and when I resigned, around the 1964 election, the National Secretary, who had held his post more than fifty years, sent me a sharp note: I had been expelled.
I was an SDS member within months, at the onset of a four year political adventure that remains the best in my life. Thanks to SDS, I launched the journal RADICAL AMERICA and came into contact with young and old lefties from the US and Canada to the UK and the Caribbean. We SDSers were such a young bunch, I was a senior figure in my 20s.Then it ended in disaster in 1969, and we had no emerging, global socialist movement, as we had imagined, to dedicate our still-young lives to. Mobilizations, demonstrations and publications filled the void over the decades ahead, and for me, the documentation of American Left history by every research method (and several languages) available.
Then it’s 1984, and the Reagan Era consolidates our defeat. I’d heard Norman Thomas lecture in 1964 and even with his many political faults, he remained a great moral force. I thought of this when I joined DSA, after a good lecture by Michael Harrington, the next “Mr. Socialism,” burdened or perhaps empowered with the mistaken impression of a Democratic Party potentially shifting Leftward. Me, too: I campaigned for George McGovern’s nomination and failing that, became a local labor liaison for the colorless and hopeless Walter Mondale. We DSAers were mostly Sixties survivors: a middle aged bunch. In a few years, the local Rhode Island DSA chapter folded, and along with most others my age, I drifted out by the simple non-action of ending my dues payments.
After a year in Solidarity, a fine organization with which I had only a few political disagreements, I resigned: I never found a place or task for myself, despite feeling comfortable with my age cohorts, now older than ever. And by this time it’s the new century with new wars and multiple social crises ahead, but also new moments of mobilization and even, however mistakenly, some great electoral illusions (i.e., 2008).
And now it’s 2016, the Bernie Campaign is underway and I am back in DSA, perhaps to my surprise, but a very pleasant surprise. It’s a crowd that seems to get younger with each passing month. Here comes the planning and work on the Bernie Sanders Comics (on line) and then on the Eugene Debs Comic, to be published by Verso and sponsored in part by DSA. It will be dedicated to the next generations of socialists.
Editor’s note: Paul Buhle is a member of Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America. Pages from the Bernie Sanders comic he wrote can be found here