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.


TrueSDUSA said...

Will this interview address the actual TWO SDUSA offshoots?

Markus said...

Great interview. The SDUSA is the needed voice in the American political system.

TNC said...

Is there a little revisionism going on here? Nothing wrong with that when it is historically accurate but King notes:

“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.”

Often in the form of communism or almost always in the form of communism? In other words, how many right-wing governments was SDUSA actively involved in opposing during the Cold War?

It is my understanding that activists in SDUSA worked with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) and the organization supported AIFLD’s activities. For example, Bayard Rustin expressed his support during his tenure as head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

It is fairly widely acknowledged that at best, AIFLD worked more in the service of US foreign policy goals than towards the development of free, democratic, and independent unions in what used to be called the Third World. At worst, it was an arm of the CIA front that collaborated with some pretty horrible right-wing regimes (for example, Pincohet). I am one of the rare people in my field who actually supports what AIFLD did, but I think we need to recognize what they were up to. The organization was actively involved in undermining unions associated with left-wing political parties.

Another thing, was Jeane Kirkpatrick still affiliated with SDUSA in 1979 when she wrote “Dictatorships and Double-Standards”? The article’s primary thesis is the US could (and should) work with authoritarian regimes like Franco’s and Pinochet’s and confront totalitarian ones like Cuba and the USSR.