Friday, March 16, 2012

Interview with the Social Democrats, USA - Part 2

This is the second part of an interview conducted between myself and the newly reformed Social Democrats, USA and their spokesperson Glenn King. The first portion of this interview can be found here.  

Roland Dodds: The organization Penn Kemble ran had a significant influence within foreign policy circles. Joshua Muravchik wrote a glowing obituary to Penn in 2005 in Commentary magazine, and many of the organization’s members ended up in significant government positions. Does this new SDUSA feel they are following in Kemble’s footsteps?  

Glenn King: No. The simple fact is that the current SDUSA does not have the same level of strength that the organization had in the '80s and 90s. Therefore we can not continue that policy. However if we did have those resources that strategy would certainly be considered.  

Roland Dodds: “Neoconservative” is a dirty word in some political circles. Do you feel there is anything worth defending regarding the aforementioned persuasion, or does the new SDUSA reject the framework in its entirety?  

Glenn King: Neoconservatism developed in the '70s as an ideology of Cold War liberals who strongly resisted the rapprochement with Communism that became dominant within the Democratic party during the Vietnam era. Early Neoconservatives were liberal and progressive on domestic issues and strictly anti-communist in foreign policy. Those are the same values that have always motivated the SDUSA. Thus during the '70s and '80s many leaders of the SD moved into political positions that were very similar to that of the Neoconservative movement. The commitments of leaders such as Penn Kemble and others were to broadly social democratic goals in domestic policies and to a defense of democracy and free labor union movements on the international level. Kemble and company believed that the movement of international communism was inherently totalitarian in nature and thus was the primary enemy of both American liberal democracy and democracy around the world. Therefore the interests of the SDUSA and early forms of Neoconservatism tended to converge.

Unfortunately Neoconservativism has moved from the more realist positions of persons such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the '80s who argued that you can't build democracy in societies not prepared by their histories for it toward being an ideology that had the hubris to believe that the United States could export democracy by military means to nations such as Iraq which had little concrete experience of it. Unfortunately these neoconservatives dominated the thinking President George Bush after 9/11. It was also unfortunate that Penn Kemble who led a fossilized SD from the '90s to his death in 2005 also bought into the hubris of latter neoconservatism.

 I would say therefore that the modern SDUSA relates to the aspects of its Neocon-like past ambiguously. While some within the SD seem ready to reject that past entirely, many do not. We believe that people such as Carl Gershman and Penn Kemble were sincerely motivated by the ideal of supporting liberal democracy in a world which seemed to be moving toward a totalitarianism guised as communism. These people genuinely supported the cause of free labor movements and liberal democratic institutions. Thus they were willing cold warriors. Many of us do not believe that they were wrong in their general outlook this even if we believe that some of the details of their specific positions may have been flawed in the past.

We furthermore feel that the same passion for the defense of human rights and democracy in the world of the old SDUSA is still relevant in a world such as ours where genocide or extreme crimes against humanity are regularly practiced by regimes such as Assad's Syria and Bashir's Sudan. The SDUSA while recognizing that America does not have the financial means to engage in countless military interventions around the world, does believe in a vigorous American foreign policy that to a great degree is centered on opposing these kinds of brutality in the world. In this I think we honor that which was best in the old SD.  

Roland Dodds: Social Currents has published pieces spanning the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as Israeli foreign policy. What can this new organization add to debate on the left in America? Is there a specific voice that is not being aired that requires a new organization?  

Glenn King: Now regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement in particular, I do not think that we have anything unique to contribute to that movement beyond that of some other groups. One of the problems with the Occupy Movement was its early adaptation of anarchist and consensus forms of decision making. This has contributed to its failure to develop more specific and concrete positions beyond those attitudes that it expounds. The head of the Young Social Democrats the youth organization of the SDUSA, Michael Mottern has been deeply involved in a highly successful Occupy Buffalo Movement. However given the general situation of the SDUSA vis a vis the Occupy movement we do not see ourselves as being a major player in determining the future of that movement. But then of course I may be surprised.

Now regarding what role the "new" SDUSA might play within the left and what voice it might have? Part of the answer to that might be related to the question of what voice any specifically left ideological parties and organizations might have in 21st century America. The fact is that even the most numerous of significant socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialist of America are terribly weak and play only very limited roles in realist American politics. Many other organizations such as the small Marxist Leninist sects certainly will have no long term political influence.

So what of the SD? Well historically the SD has been the most pragmatic and least counter cultural organization of the Left. It has been the party that has been least affected by the cynicism about American society and policies that has infected the American left for decades. Furthermore, the SDUSA has historically been the one organization which continually has said No! to the totalitarianism and antisemitism that has often expressed itself in the Left through out the world. So in many ways the Social Democrats USA has been the organization that one would think would have had the best chance of appealing to constituencies such as the Reagan democrats and more realo / centrist forces within the Democratic Party and the American labor movement.

Unfortunately these potentials were not realized during past decades. In fact the SD's potential strengths helped isolate it from the mainstream of the Left. However in spite of its past problems I believe that there can still be a dynamic role for the SDUSA within American politics. The current organization is certainly more vital than the fossilized organization of the "90s and the early years of this century. We still have all the advantages that we have always had, what we need to do is to learn how to develop them to their full potential.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Interview with the Social Democrats, USA - Part 1

The Social Democrats, USA was a small but influential organization in American politics. They were one of the many offshoots of the Socialist Party split, but found an important niche for themselves between the totalitarian apologists on the left and the more conservative elements on their right. They stood for labour rights, a social welfare state, and international solidarity. The group disintegrated after its leading member and organizer, Penn Kemble, died in 2005.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Glenn King, spokesperson for the newly reformed SD-USA via email. The following questions are unabridged.

Roland Dodds - What is the SDUSA, and how do you define the organization’s legacy?

Glenn King- The Social Democrats USA is the remnant of the 110 year organization founded by Eugene Debs and others in 1901 as the Socialist Party of America. The party in the first decades of the 20th Century represented the high point of Socialist organizational strength in America electing hundreds of candidates to local, city, state, and even national offices. Prominent members of the party have been such persons as J Philip Randolph, Helen Keller, Norman Thomas, and Max Shachtman. At the party's National Convention in December 1972 the party after years of debate over the issues of the Vietnam War and participation within the Democratic Party changed its name to the Social Democrats USA.

As far the heritage of the SDUSA goes I hope that we are able to continue creating it. However as of this time the heritage has still been significant. The SDUSA has been one of the few organizations of the American left which simultaneously has supported a broadly social democratic domestic agenda while simultaneously opposing totalitarianism often in the form of communism internationally. SD leaders such as Penn Kemble and Tom Kahn, were able to through their roles in government and organized labor to contribute mightily to those struggles. The SD has also had significant role in the civil rights and gay rights movement particularly through one of its first co-chairs Bayard Rustin who was the dominant figure in organizing the historical March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963.


Roland Dodds - "In short, how would you describe the new SDUSA’s outlook towards domestic and foreign policy?"

Glenn King - On the issue of domestic policy I believe that the practical changes in the basic direction of SD politics have been modest. We still follow the realignment policy of working within the Democratic Party to support broad social democratic tendencies that was adopted in 1972. We still believe that a growing and healthy organized labor movement is central to the movement toward social democracy and democratic socialism in the United States. We still tend toward a pragmatic politics which supports realistic political goals as opposed to rejecting the good for the sake of the impossibly better as is often done in progressive political circles. The SDUSA is not the kind of organization to go off on tangents and support left insurgencies to against President Obama within the DP nor third party candidates during important election years.

Furthermore, we have continued the more moderate polices of the old SDUSA on what are normally termed "social issues." Thus while we support the human rights of gays and lesbians to civil unions we have not yet moved in the direction of support for gay marriage. Neither does the organization have any position opposing it. Of course individual members of the SD are free to take more radical stands on this and other issues. We support the full rights of women to to broad political, social, and economic equality, but have refused to take a stand on the issue of abortion. We believe that these "social issues" tend to divide people when what needs to be done is to unite them. Thus we would rather work to develop a full social democratic agenda to unite people as opposed to support measures that divide. This is very much in line with the old SD Thinking.

The current SDUSA direction on issues of foreign policy is both a continuation and rejection of the policies of the old SD. Thus while there may be much to criticize in some of the foreign policy positions of the old SD, there is much to admire as well. So yes there is probably a consensus in the current SD that the old SD support of the anti-Sandinista Contra movement in the early '80s and the support given to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 by Penn Kemble were mistaken. Conversely, our strong political support for Polish Solidarity was a shining moment for the SD and demonstrated a convergence of labor rights and anti-communism. However We think that the broad anti-communist and pro-democracy stance of the SD during past decades was often sound.

For the most part, the current SDUSA follows many of the same policies as the old. Thus we continue to support the right of Israel to exist as a nation state while at the same time reserving the right to criticize the polices of its government. The SDUSA also supports the right of the Palestinian people to have a nation state of their own. That may be a change. The SD is also one of the few left organizations that whole heartedly supported the NATO no fly zone in Libya and to support President Obama's undeclared policy of regime change. To summarize the SDUSA attempts to support US foreign policies that it feel reflects the legitimate interests of this nation and which are both humane and moral. The SDUSA does not generally share the attitude of many that the United States is some sort of evil empire (the center of world imperialism) that is the major enemy of the world's peoples.

Read Part 2 here.