Lessons From a Long-Haul Socialist

David Duhalde’s Democratic Left article “ Socialists Across Generations: We Need to Talk,” which urged more communications among activists from different eras, forced me to reflect on what I have learned as a democratic socialist long-distance runner. I asked myself the following questions: How did I stay committed as an activist for more than 50 years? What sources of energy did I draw upon? Where did I find hope and inspiration? How did I avoid burnout? Six strategies helped me.

Feed the Democratic Socialist Core

Find a moral center, an ethical compass. In my case, as a son of a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe, I knew about their  persecution and discrimination. Feelings of marginalization and alienation were ever present. So, identifying with real-life  heroic figures in my youth such as Jackie Robinson and mythical ones like Robin Hood and supporting all those cast aside by society came naturally. I nourished the core by seeking social justice themes in literature, music, and the arts. Participating in solidarity actions with comrades–protest actions, marches, and rallies–especially sustained me.

Swim in Movement Waters

I have witnessed and participated in the powerful movements of the 1960s—labor, peace, civil rights and women’s liberation—that generated major change in our capitalist society. Coalitions served as the building blocks for these movements. In this century, the range of movements has grown and includes coalitions addressing health care, criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, economic inequality, climate change, affordable housing and voter protections. By supporting these coalitions, DSA helps  build a broad Left committed to democratic decision making and a multi-issue system perspective. I gained much satisfaction in coalition work as points of unity were found and concrete goals were set.

Be Mentored and Mentor Others

After I became active in the labor movement, I was fortunate to find as a mentor the former head of the Michigan Communist Party and a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Saul Wellman helped me sort out what it meant to be a socialist trade unionist. In my retirement, I have been privileged to act as a mentor to DSA comrades in their twenties and thirties. I have also learned from them new styles of organizing through the use of social media. I know now  that my activist history and organizing experiences, as well as Saul’s, will outlive me.

Keep a Record

Movement work is valuable and deserves to be recorded and memorialized. Our memories fade and offer no staying power. However, journal and digital accounts remain. Writing and reviewing my notes gave my work a sense of direction. What actions were most meaningful and purposeful? How was my time and energy best utilized? I saved organizational material—meeting minutes, flyers, newsletters and brochures—because they provided the context for much of my work. Those records, housed in collections at Emory University and at Detroit’s Walter Reuther Library, are accessible to students and researchers.

Pace and Balance Yourself

Fighting for peace, justice, and democracy is a demanding and continuing challenge. Activism

involves walking on union picket lines, protesting tenant evictions, canvassing door-to-door in electoral

campaigns, or taking on other community organizing work. DSA chapters may also initiate projects requiring open-ended time commitments. Carrying out these actions can drain one’s physical and mental energies. This activism must also be balanced against family and work obligations. To cope with these pressures, pacing oneself is crucial to avoid burnout. Timeouts may be necessary to provide for rest and relaxation. I have used such breaks for travel, reading, and recreation, allowing me to build back up the stamina needed for the long haul.

Study  History

Labor’s Untold Story,  by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morain, published by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), introduced me to labor’s watershed victories and its epic defeats. That history came alive when I heard accounts from UAW retirees about the unionization in 1937 of the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. In the face of assaults from Ford security guards, workers shut down the plant and won union representation. Labor’s darkest hour came with the expulsion of eleven CIO unions for being Communist-led. The UE union survived and has  joined with DSA to form the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.  I learned that the future of labor and the Left are inextricably linked and that any successful mass movement requires labor-Left unity.

When I first met new DSA members, I wanted them to tell me why they joined DSA.  Now I want to know what support they may need to pursue the socialist project long term. That kind of dialogue across generations could be most productive.