Democratic Left

Occupy Davis to Democratic Socialism

Davis Democratic Socialists

 By Melody Yee

In 2011, millions of people saw the footage of police officer John Pike pepper-spraying seated, unarmed protesters at the University of California-Davis, and many followed subsequent investigations, demonstrations, and court cases. But an under-reported story from Occupy Davis is that the movement brought together five activists, including one of those who were attacked, to form the Davis Democratic Socialists (DDS), which is affiliated with the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS). It now has about 20 active members and is one of the most politically active groups on the UC Davis campus. 

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The Activist’s Guide to 
Using DSA Literature


By Elizabeth Henderson

Now that the weather is warmer and the days longer, it’s time to set up a DSA table in a high-traffic site. Whether you’re collecting signatures for the Drop Student Debt! petition, running a get-out-the-vote campaign, or spreading the word about the need to increase the minimum wage, the DSA website has something you can use. Here’s a quick rundown of how to find literature, adapt it to a specific campaign, and arrange it on your table in a way that makes folks want to stop and learn more about what your local chapter is doing.

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Classics of Class: Spot-on, After All These Years

By Michael Hirsch
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
By Robert Tressell


We don’t think of philanthropists as ragged: louche, maybe even a tad shabby, as with trust-fund hipsters or Palo Alto billionaires, but never ragged. In writing his early-twentieth-century British classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (the pen name of Robert Noonan) wanted to drive home his point. The biggest benefactors of the rich are workers. His is a portrait of hard-pressed working people and their counterintuitive respect and political and economic support for their rulers.

Tressell’s figures, drawn from his own experiences as a house painter and sign writer, not only accept the social order and its extremes as natural and inevitable, but think that only slackers complain about the pitiless hard work and early deaths.

A hundred years after publication, the central message of the book rings true. It was an instant success in 1914 and remains the pre-eminent novel of the British working-class left. The full manuscript was first published in the United States in 1962 and was re-issued in the United Kingdom with new material in 2010. Largely autobiographical—the subtitle reads, “Being the Story of Twelve Months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down, by Robert Tressell”—it’s a curious and successful amalgam of art and socialist propaganda.

The descriptions of working-class life, including everyday interactions and the physical conditions of workers’ homes, show an eye for detail that rivals Henry James and the best ethnographies. The book centers on a group of house painters, skilled workers who are underpaid, poorly educated, and always in debt—for necessities, not luxuries. Beaten down as they are, they still vote for their bosses’ two parties—in their day the Tories and Liberals (the newly emerging Labour Party was still a minor player).

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Rosa Luxemburg for Today

By Nicole Shippen

Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy
Edited by Jason Schulman
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 214 pp.

The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg: 
Volume I: Economic Writings 1
Edited by Peter Hudis
Verso, 2013, 596 pp.

Red Rosa
Conceived and illustrated by Kate Evans 
and edited by Paul Buhle
Forthcoming, Verso, 2015


Rosa Luxemburg, a heroic and principled figure of the left, died in 1919 at the hands of the right-wing German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership’s militarist Freikorps (Volunteer Corps) allies. When they murdered her and her comrade Karl Leibknecht and threw their bodies into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, they made Luxemburg a martyr for the socialist workers’ movement. A Polish-German secular Jew, a Marxist political economist and theorist, Luxemburg was a prominent leader of the left wing of the SPD, founder of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, and, later, of the Spartacus League and the German Communist Party.

Luxemburg lived and wrote during the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution and was witness to historical conditions ripe for actively rethinking socialist theory and practice. The episodic resurrection of Luxemburg’s political thought continues to inflame the political imagination of socialists committed to belief in the democratic possibilities of mass resistance and faith in the long-run capacity of the working class to rebel against capitalism, as demonstrated in her theory of spontaneity. Today, the protests in Tahrir Square, of the indignados in Spain, of Turkish activists in Gezi Park, the piqueteros in Argentina, the SYRIZA Party in Greece, Occupy Wall Street, and many other forms of popular resistance indicate that Luxemburg could appeal to yet another generation. She, too, grappled with what socialist parties and activists should and could do in relation to such protests.

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Changing the Conversation: Making Poverty Visible


By Maurice Isserman

Frederick Douglass famously said that without struggle there is no progress. Our activist forebears changed political climates and conversations. In this occasional column, Democratic Left looks at the work of those earlier generations of radicals in the hope that these analyses will spark discussions of how the conversation can be changed again. – Ed.


Fifty years ago, in January of 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union address. Eight months later, Congress passed antipoverty legislation launching that effort. Four years earlier, in the presidential election, poverty had not been mentioned as an issue by either John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon. Many Americans assumed that there were no poor people in America, outside, perhaps, of isolated “pockets of poverty” like Appalachia. What changed the conversation?

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Valuing Women's Work

By Natalie K. Midiri

To say that poverty is a women’s issue is an understatement. Nearly 25% of full-time jobs in the U.S. do not pay well enough to lift a family out of poverty, and 66% of those jobs are done primarily by women. In addition, the changing nature of work and increased categorization of workers as temporary or independent contractors hits women hard. Women in low-wage work are disproportionately adult women of color who are caring for children without aid from a partner. Very few have paid sick days, any sort of retirement plan, or even consistent workplace safety regulation. 


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School ‘Reform’ Adds to Inequality

By Mike Rose

There is no joy at our school,” the teacher tells me, “only admonishment.” She’s taught for 30 years at a school in a lower-middle-class community north of Los Angeles, and she pours out her story with urgency and exasperation.

Her school’s standardized test scores were not adequate last year, so her principal, under immense pressure from the district, mandated a “scripted” curriculum, that is, a regimented course of study focused on basic math and literacy skills that must be followed by all teachers. The principal also directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum, so the teacher cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven, extend, or individualize instruction. The principal has directed his staff to increase the time spent on literacy and math and to trim back on science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely.

The readers of this article are aware of inequality in education, of unequal funding, of re-segregation, of the threats to social services that affect schooling. Here, I want to address another kind of educational inequality, one we hear less about but that matters immensely and is reflected in the opening vignette—inequality in the very experience of education, what it feels like to be in school.

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Reading the Employment Numbers: The Missing Workers

Hampton Roads Partnership/Flickr

By Bill Barclay

The July “Employment Situation” report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has stimulated a range of responses. On the plus side for workers, over 200,000 additional people were employed compared to June. This extended the string of positive job numbers for private sector employers to 52 months, among the longest on record. Over the past 12 months, the U.S. economy has generated a little over 2 million new jobs.

 So, what can we say about who is and who isn’t employed?  And, are there any concerns that remain about the recovery from the “Great Recession?”

The answer to the latter question is, unfortunately, yes. And that yes is connected to who has – and more to who has not – the jobs that have been created over the five plus years since the official end of the Great Recession. 

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The Left and Voter Turnout

Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

By Duane Campbell

In 2014 DSA should turn to electoral campaigns as one element of our political strategy.  As we know, the U.S. political system is overrun by money.  Economic power at the top is used to produce political results in Congress and in elections.  The rich get richer while the middle stagnates and the poor get screwed.

 Our response must be encouraging more voting, not less.  The lack of interest in electoral participation expressed in many places is not progress for the left, rather it reveals a lack of interest in defending democracy. Not voting is giving up on what democracy we have.  Yes, our democracy is truncated, exploited, and distorted by economic power, but we need to grow and expand democracy, not abandon it.

We can make a difference in the electoral arena.  We recognize that many working people have a general distrust of political parties – and often  the parties  deserve this distrust.  Working people do not have – in most cases – representatives in our government nor a party which fundamentally represents our  interests.  While the parties divide on some issues, both mainstream parties are dominated by corporate interests.

Both parties have failed working people, and our democracy is weaker for this.  In response, millions, about half of all the eligible voters, do not even vote. They do not believe that their participation matters. This is a frightening defeat for democracy.

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Civil Rights Needs Economic Rights

Jewish American Historical Society/Flickr

By Jack Rothman

It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and celebrations are under way. Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, has announced a national Civil Rights Summit “to show the seminal nature of the Civil Rights Act and its transformational nature.” 

But skeptics question what has been achieved. Professor Joseph Schwartz of DSA and Temple University notes that due to the decline of our cities and rising African American unemployment, “economic apartheid” has caused average black families to currently own one-tenth the assets of their white counterparts. Nation columnist Gary Younge says that once core civil rights were won we had a hard time making further progress, because racism is embedded “within the broader context of economic and social inequities.” It is clear that 50 years after this landmark legislation, the march for racial justice is far from over—as shown by the sharp debate on economic inequality and minimum wages.

Let us begin with a hard look at our economic deficiencies.  It stands to reason that any economic system emphasizing maximum profit accumulation—labeled “greed” by that early Wolf of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko—as its fundamental philosophical value will generate wide income disparities that contradict our proclaimed creed of human equality.  For CEOs and business owners, it’s prudent to keep wages low. That practice, they believe, maximizes profits and allows expansion, while at the same time enriching entrepreneurs and glorifying those who succeed at this game.  It also creates a stratum of diminished people at the bottom.

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Upcoming Events

Drop Student Debt Organizing Webinar

August 25, 2014 · 8 rsvps

Want to learn more about the Drop Student Debt campaign? On this call, we'll review the basics of the campaign and give you the skills you need to use the Drop Student Debt petition to educate the public about the student debt crisis. You'll also learn how to increase the visibility of your DSA chapter (or recruit people to help start a chapter) in the process. The webinar is also relevant to YDS chapters doing campus organizing.

This webinar takes places at 8pm Eastern Time, 7pm Central, 6pm Mountain, 5pm Pacific. RSVP to receive webinar sign-in instructions.