One of the world’s oldest political parties is celebrating a milestone this year. The Social Democratic Party of Germany turns 150. An exhibition marking the historic event is being held tonight in Washington DC at the German Historical Institute. See the link here. I was invited to attend, but unfortunately, schedule conflicts in my own borough prevented me from making the drive to Washington. I spoke on the phone today with a representative from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and I committed to making a visit in the near future.
Social Democrats USA congratulates the SPD on its milestone. The entire social democratic movement owes a debt to SPD and their courageous struggles against Monarchs, Nazis, and Communists. Even today we can see the success of SPD in the fact that the former German Communist Party, now Die Linke, refers to itself as democratic socialists. The SPD’s unwavering commitment to democracy is something that we all can be proud of.
Under the above headline, the following was published today in the Boston Globe as a Letter to the Editor:
Jack Curtis’ Ideas article on the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom… was a useful reminder of the economic-equality side of the march and especially of the contributions of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, his longtime aide. It did not, I think, capture sufficiently one aspect of the unique genius of these two men: although they were both courageous leaders of the black struggle in America, their concern and vision extended to all Americans. While they certainly knew well the scourges of unemployment and poverty among black people, the policies they advocated- full employment and a war against poverty- were meant to raise up all the downtrodden, whatever the color of their skin. Sadly, the vision they gave us of decent living conditions and jobs for all is still unfulfilled.
Eldon R. Clingan
The writer was a participant in the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom.
Yesterday, the SD tabled at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. It was a beautiful day— bright sunshine, pleasant temperatures; God did not rain on our parade. Patty said that her angels were taking care of things for us. Patty flew in from LA and joined Michael and Peng in Buffalo. Together they drove down to Pittsburgh on Friday to pick me up and get some some rest before the early morning Saturday drive to Washington.
We got to RFK Stadium a little later than planned, but we were able to easily park and haul our goods out of Michael’s car. The trick was to schlep all this stuff (including card tables!) through the Metro station, onto the train, out at Smithsonian, and carry it all toward the WW2 monument where we set up. Michael was an incredible pack horse and I’m sure his back is feeling out of sorts today.
Many people came up to our table and engaged us in conversation. To name just a few of the many interesting encounters: two high school seniors who were studying government wanted to know all about Randolph and Rustin; two college kids from Oklahoma expressed dismay over the lack of progressive activity at their college; a women from Dominican Republic wanted to know if we were related to the Social Democrats in her country; members of the UAW and CWA stopped to thank us for our support of organized labor.
We had Bayard Rustin postcards to hand out, and people loved them. However, I was surprised how many people didn’t know who Bayard was, especially considering that this was a celebration of the march he organized! We have a lot of work to do in that regard. Furthermore, of those who did know who Bayard was, none of them knew that he was also Chair of the Social Democrats USA during the 1970’s. Still more education needed. The event gave us a great opportunity to connect with the African American community, something that has been lacking in all left groups. I am hopeful that some of the introductions we made today will flourish into fuller relationships.
While the day was a success for the SD, I have to say that the atmosphere was more like a picnic rather than protest rally. The ’63 march came at a time of great tension in civil rights. And with it came an expectation that something important would result from the march. The protesters in ’63 didn’t come all the way from Mississippi and New York just to have a picnic. Travel was not so easy in those days and certainly most blacks didn’t have the financial means to go to Washington on a whim. When Bayard spoke at the rally he listed demands, and he was serious. The protesters who came to Washington were letting Congress know that they expected action. Frankly, today’s rally felt like a commemoration of the past, even though it should have been much more. There is still a great tension in our nation regarding civil rights. Republicans are taking away voting rights because they know that’s the only way they can stay in office. The Trayvon Martin case still haunts us, not because “stand your ground” is an asinine law (which it is), but because if the race of the men involved were reversed the shooter would have been found guilty. Black unemployment is running at about 6% higher than white unemployment. Union jobs, which have elevated the living standards of both black and white, continue to be shipped overseas. There are many reasons for the African American community to be outraged, but I didn’t sense outrage or urgency. It would be nice to think that we have entered a new era where we get things done differently, but the fact is that things aren’t getting done. Since 2000, the standard of living for the average American is going down. One has to wonder when people will become enraged over that fact that billionaires are sucking the life out of our country and depositing it in a bank in Switzerland.
Photo credits belong to Peng Zhang, a university student in Buffalo. We are grateful for all the pictures he took and we enjoyed his company during the weekend. I have posted about 20 pictures and some additional comments.
The camapign by Massachusetts Social Democrats to secure Congressional support for H.R. 1000, the Conyers full employment bill, got a major boost on August 9th when State Representative Carl Sciortino, Jr., pledged his support for the bill. In answer to a letter asking him to become a co-sponsor of H.R. 1000, if elected, Mr. Sciortino made an emphatic statement: “… I would be proud to co-sponsor H.R. 1000 along with Rep. Jim McGovern if elected to Congress… I believe this bill is sound and just policy to level the playing field and create an economy that works for all Americans by investing in our communities and our citizens.”
Representative Sciortino has an outstanding progressive record in the legislature and is considered to have an excellent chance to win the Democratic nomination for the 5th District Congressional seat vacated by now-Senator Edward Markey.
MSD has also called on some 20 progressive organizations that belong to Mass Alliance, a coalition, to include support for full employment and the Conyers bill as criteria for candidates in their endorsement processes. MSD followed up this request by sending the Sciortino statement of support and asking that other candidates for the Democratic nomination make a similar commitment.
On Saturday July 13th delegates from the Massachusetts Democratic Party gathered in the old mill city of Lowell to approve a platform. Massachusetts Social Democrats was there to raise the SD torch and to kick off a campaign to bring back the issue of full employment to the consciousness of the progressive community.
Massachusetts Democrats hold a platform convention biannually in the off-years, when there are no presidential or gubernatorial contests. The conventions bring together over 4,000 activists from throughout the Commonwealth, and they fine-tune a platform that is already mostly complete.
I was elected as a delegate to the convention on a snowy day in last February by a caucus of registered Democrats in the town of Dedham, where I live. It was not the hardest-fought election I have ever seen, in part because of the overshadowing presence of the Markey-Lynch camapign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate but mostly because many people don’t care a great deal about the platform. In the event, there were just enough candidates to fill the delegate slots, sparing us the anxiety of a contest.
In the months before the convention, I considered how Massachusetts Social Democrats could best make its organizational debut on the state’s political stage. Clearly it was necessary to bring a Social Democratic issue to the convention in a Social Democratic manner. This meant finding a “next step” that would be acceptable to many delegates but that would be a definite advance in the dialogue. An increase in the minimum wage, with a probable petition campaign in the offing, is the current major issue in the Bay State progressive community, and, as follow-up on MSD testimony to the legislature on this subject, full employment at living wages seemed a logical next measure.
Research on the website of the National Jobs for All Coalition led to H.R. 1000, a bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr., in the Congress last March. This bill would establish full employment as a national policy and would establish an entity to provide job creation. More research led to fact sheets and statements on the bill, suitable for reproduction as leaflets. Only one Massachusetts Member of Congress has joined Representative Conyers as a co-sponsor of the bill, so it was decided to ask convention delegates to sign a petition requesting that other members of the Massachusetts delegation join Representative James McGovern as a co-sponsor. A final touch was a leaflet with quotes on full employment from President Franklin Roosevelt, Senator Edward Kennedy and the draft platform of this very convention. The leaflet’s headline was: “It’s time to keep the promise: full employment and living wages for all.” An inquiry at the state Democratic office yielded the information that an organization could, for a fee, get a table in the convention hall. MSD was ready to go!
The day of the convention was somewhat anticlimactic. Like any Democratic convention, it was noisy, chaotic and full of people who were eager to talk, usually while some bombastic oratory was being served from the stage. Most delegates were idealistic folk who were genuinely concerned about the problems of poverty and joblessness. This being Massachusetts, there was also an air of moral superiority (the city on the hill), although such an attitude suits me better than its cynical opposite. Some 20 “cause” organizations, including Massachusetts Social Democrats, lined a corridor with their tables.
I cannot report that the debut was a world-beating success; I didn’t expect that it would be. I collected about 50 signatures in the full employment petition in 3 hours, but it should be remembered that I was working alone. Nobody signed an SDUSA application, but I didn’t have the impression that other organizations were making many converts, either. I wasn’t making a “hard sell” for memberships; rather, the emphasis was on the issue. If we do a good job on the issues, I reasoned, the memberships will come.
The venture was most valuable as a kind of learning experience. The other “cause” organizations learned about the continued existence of SDUSA, perhaps a not entirely happy experience for DSA comrades, who also had a table. A few delegates were curious about MSD and wanted to talk about its exact position among “left” groups. Perhaps most important were the acquaintances gained and renewed among the “cause” activists with whom we will work in the future. On the whole, the experience should be evaluated as useful and worth the resources expended.
One analytical insight was sharpened by the convention experience and may prove useful to SDUSA in our efforts to frame a productive political strategy: at least in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party is social democratic in its aspirations and even in many of its legislative proposals. Its platform is comparable, allowing for local differences, to those of Canada’s New Democrats and the British Labour Party. Like those parties, the Democratic Party is full of people who are really social democrats, although they may never have heard of the upper-case variety. Our basic strategy of working within the Democratic Party (or local variants such as the Working Families Party) makes sense, just as it makes sense for Social Democrats, in other national contexts, to work in the New Democrats and in the Labour Party.
Apart from rhetoric, however, the reality is different, and that is the real challenge. In Massachusetts, which appears to be so progressive, most of those holding public office have only a remote relationship to the principles proclaimed by the Democratic Party in convention assembled. At best most of them follow the lead of the national administration and at worst some are quiet “blue dogs.” An egregious example of this disconnect is the current minimum wage controversy in the state: the convention endorsed a living wage for all workers, which it has done before and which everyone understood would be higher than anything currently proposed as the minimum wage in the state; in the meantime, an inadequate minimum wage bill languishes in a legislature that has a 75% Democratic membership (and despite support of the minimum wage increase by the Democratic Governor and the Democratic Senate President).
Clearly the grand strategic task in the immediate future for progressives and their Social Democatic allies is to eliminate this gap between announced principles and policies and the actual practice of Democratic politicians. We can do this by putting into public office persons who are committed to the social change advocated by the Democratic Party and by holding them to their promises.