Bogdan Denitch : A Life Well Lived


Bogdan Denitch was active in democratic left politics throughout his life, joining the Young People's Socialist League at age 18, and later co-founding the Democratic Socialists of America. He served in a variety of leadership positions in DSA including as a member of the National Political Committee and an Honorary Chair. He was DSA’s principal representative to the Socialist International. From 1983 through 2004 he organized the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. 

By Harold Meyerson

The first time I heard Bogdan Denitch speak, he intimidated the hell out of me.

That wasn’t, I hasten to explain, his intent. Far from it. The occasion was a national board meeting of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1975—the first I’d ever attended and the first time I’d ever heard Bogdan speak. (Indeed, I don’t think we’d even been introduced yet.)

Early on in the meeting, some contentious issue came up, someone rose to advocate a position, and Bogdan then rose to counter it. He proceeded to respond to the advocate’s argument—one that had only just been advanced—with a perfectly formulated rebuttal. “I have five points,” he began (“How could he know he had five points?” I wondered—the other guy had just finished making his one.) He then rolled them off in order, each point building to the next, pausing only for the occasional inflective grunts with which he punctuated his arguments. A dash of sarcasm here, an allusion to some obscure left history there, a devastating finale, and then he sat down.

“That’s how people speak here?” I thought, vowing not to open my mouth for the rest of the meeting if that was the standard I was expected to meet. What I came to discover, however, was that Bogdan’s only peer in argumentation—though with a vastly different style and temperament—was Mike Harrington, Bogdan’s closest friend. What both Mike and Bogdan had apparently learned from their mentor, Max Shachtman, was to formulate their thoughts not in complete sentences but in complete paragraphs. Fully organized arguments tumbled effortlessly from their lips. As a Trotskyist faction that lacked all power save that of argumentation, the Shachtmanite elite became masters of debate, and some also internalized what I gather (never having heard Shachtman speak myself) was Shachtman’s own slashing, allusive style. And when it came to slashing and alluding, within DSOC and DSA, at least, Bogdan had no peer.

The subject matter on which Bogdan was also close to peerless was, of course, Eastern Europe. And the most memorable talk I ever heard him give was at the 1989 DSA Convention, which took place over the Veterans Day weekend—as events would have it, just a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bogdan was slated to speak in the opening plenary, and it was the sudden collapse of Soviet communism and the future trajectory of the Warsaw Pact nations (plus, needless to say, Yugoslavia) that he addressed.

His performance was at once sobering and dazzling. These were not nations that had the social, economic, cultural, or political base to evolve seamlessly, if at all, into liberal democracies. “These are not beloved communities,” Bogdan thundered, as he took us on a tour d’horizon around the Eastern bloc. Ethnic hatred, religious obscurantism, suppressed nationalism, raging xenophobia, kleptocratic regimes—these would all rise to the fore, at one time or another, in the Eastern European nations.

Among the several gazillion talks I’ve heard over the past forty years, Bogdan’s stands out as the most prescient prophecy I’ve encountered—delivered with his usual logic, sarcasm, allusions, and a deep understanding, a foreboding rooted in familiarity, that almost nobody—left, center, or right—could match. It was such an impressive performance that I asked Bogdan to author some pieces on Eastern Europe’s devolution for the L.A. Weekly, then a paper much like the Village Voice at its long-gone best, where I had recently gone to work as news and politics editor. Bogdan was normally an academic writer (like Shachtman, a great debater but fairly dull on the page) but, inspired by what he was seeing in Serbia and Croatia, and by my reminding him he was writing for a vaguely counter-cultural publication, he produced some stories that not only documented the rise of Miloševićian nationalism, but provided vivid pictures of the Mad Max-like thugs who had emerged as the storm troopers of the brave new Yugoslavia.

As the years went on, Bogdan became a friend and a mentor and someone I could argue back at, even without a degree from the Shachtman finishing school. Not that he still wasn’t a formidable disputant: most of my memories of this come from barrooms, where, after we both had a few drinks, he could grow increasingly emphatic—but also, always, wry, amusing, engaging. I don’t know what dreams he harbored as a young man of building a democratic socialist revolution, though some element of self-romanticization was, as is often the case, probably detectable. If you look closely at the photograph of the young Bogdan in Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington, he is smoking a pipe, reading a book and, at the bottom of the picture, holding a pistol. How much of this—the macho man of the left, the intellectual man of action—was inspired by Trotsky and how much by Hemingway, I couldn’t say.

But when it came to the more prosaic tasks of building a democratic left day by day, Bogdan was tireless. He founded and built the Socialists Scholars Conference—now Left Forum—into a major left institution (and if its presentations mixed the boring and silly with the occasionally brilliant, well, you go to war with the left you have). He would travel across the country to speak for DSA locals; he founded democratic socialist organizations in the former Yugoslavia and got Scandinavian socialist parties to fund them; he was not just DSOC and DSA’s representative to the Socialist International, but himself an internationalist in the deepest and best sense of the word. He was a rooted cosmopolitan—rooted in a deep commitment to democratic socialism, at home in the world and in the better world he strove to make, in his loud, logical, slashing, inimitable way.  

Bogdan Denitch. 1929- 2016.  RIP. 

Reposted with permission from Dissent

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect and an Honorary  Vice Chair of DSA.



Film Discussion: When Abortion Was Illegal

March 26, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Directed by Dorothy Fadiman, When Abortion Was Illegal (1992, nominated for an Academy Award, Best Documentary Short Subject) reveals through first-person accounts the experiences of women seeking abortion before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973. We are one Supreme Court nominee away from a return in many states to back-alley abortions. Join Amanda Williams, Executive Director of the Lilith Fund, to discuss challenges to reproductive justice and abortion access. (Lilith Fund funds abortions for women in need in the Central and South Texas area.) Learn about how to participate in April Bowl-A-Thons to raise funds for low-income women. View the film here for free before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

March 30, 2017
· 36 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 50 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 30 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

April 04, 2017
· 53 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
· 14 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
· 6 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.