My Life as a Socialist

Remembering the Birth of the DSA
Michael Harrington speaking at the Congress of the Socialist International in Eastbourne, England, on June 18, 1969 (By Rolls Press / Popperfoto via Getty Images)

One day in my third year of college, my French teacher asked me to speak with her after class. I was surprised. My performance in her course had not seemed so wanting as to warrant a consultation. My surprise was even greater at her concern. “Peter,” she asked, “are you a socialist?”

“Well, I suppose I am,” I replied. Her disappointment was obvious. She was on a faculty group that nominated students for an honor society, and Dean X had blackballed me because of rumors that I was (can you imagine?) a socialist. Perhaps he had not yet recovered from the McCarthyism of a decade earlier. I assured her that I couldn’t care less about the honor society and that my socialism was entirely peaceful and no obstacle to an appreciation of Molière and Jean Anouilh.

I was not officially a socialist, of course. That came in the 1970s, a decade later, when I was an early recruit to Michael Harrington’s newly founded Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which in 1982 evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, a group then of modest size and influence, to put it generously, but currently resurgent behind the attractive persona, active Twitter presence, and disruptive politics of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I don’t recall quitting DSA—maybe I’m listed somewhere as a non-dues paying laggard—but sometime well before Harrington’s premature death in 1989, I simply faded away.

Socialism was not in my genes. It is true that in 1932, the struggling art student who would, about a decade later, become my father cast his first presidential vote for the Socialist Norman Thomas. But his father, a generally unsuccessful Jewish businessman, voted for Herbert Hoover. And my future maternal grandfather, a generally successful Irish-American businessman, voted for FDR. My future mother was too young to vote, although in Chicago that would not necessarily have stopped her.

By the time I reached the age of political reason, our family were basically New Deal Democrats. We were anti-Communist, fully sensible of Stalinism and the persecution of religion in the Soviet bloc, but at the same time very opposed to the redbaiting and blacklisting of the McCarthy years. Personally, I was a fierce defender of my private property, and John D. Rockefeller would have approved of the way I squirreled away the dimes from my weekly allowance and the few bills that came tucked in birthday cards from relatives. My favorite comic book hero was old Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s miserly uncle, pictured gleefully diving and swimming in his mighty pool of moola. Any feelings of solidarity with the world’s downtrodden did not extend much beyond vociferous protests against orders to vacuum the living room, rake the lawn, or dry the dishes.

My latent socialism awaited a growing awareness, at around age ten, that my self-employed father, who had dedicated his artistic talent to work in Catholic churches, was in economic and aesthetic competition with the plaster statues, conventional crucifixes, and other off-the-rack products of religious-goods houses. Suddenly I became a neo-medieval defender of the individual craftsman against capitalist mass production. My inner William Morris told me that work should be individual expression, not rote drudgery; it should be driven not by profit but by a calling. Such notions were in time nurtured by absorbing the family intake of the Catholic Worker and Commonweal (whose very name, I later learned, harkened back to Morris). Those pages also reported labor conflicts more serious than ones surrounding my household chores, and portrayed hungry families who would be only too happy to eat the food I didn’t like.

At some point I even took an adolescent delight in subscribing to the Weekly People, the Socialist Labor Party newspaper filled with pictures of full-bellied, cigar-smoking tycoons stomping on muscular but shackled workingmen. The illustrations were much more rousing than the Marxist ideology, which echoed the thought of an American socialist original, Daniel De Leon (1852–1914), and strove to remain simultaneously anti-capitalist, anti-Soviet, and revolutionary rather than reformist.

Marxist theory was of course unavoidable as the Sixties arrived. I drank in more than a little of it and have no regrets. Activists in the civil-rights and anti-war movements were searching for radical alternatives to what was then dismissed as “Cold War liberalism.” During the highly fraught twelve months that I spent in Paris researching a doctoral dissertation and participating in anti-war demonstrations, I joined the weekly gatherings of a Marxist discussion group at the reborn Shakespeare & Company bookstore near the Seine. We were a curious mix of diehard believers, intellectual explorers like myself, and members of Trotskyist sects (or so it seemed) who had noms de guerre and sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time. We conducted a long march through volumes one and two of Capital before the barricades of May 1968 gave us other priorities. I am not sure whether it was our discussion group or the events of May ’68 that explain why an American graduate student in history would later find an entry on me in French police files.


My socialism was not a replacement but an extension of my very American political beliefs: checks and balances, fundamental rights, rule by deliberation and consent, and an egalitarian, democratic, and communal ethos.

All this exposure to Marxism and revolutionary socialism had been preceded by several forms of vaccination. One was religious. On the one hand, I didn’t need Marx to challenge the creed of capitalism; I had the prophets, the Beatitudes, Matthew 25, papal social encyclicals, and the activities of the Young Christian Students. On the other hand, not only had Marxist socialism often tended to present itself as a rival to religious faith, it had also tended to mimic many of the worst elements of religious dogmatism. Most frightfully, its Communist mutation had imprisoned and murdered millions of believers.

Then there was the light-hearted vaccination that my best undergraduate professor, a radical himself, had administered by assigning Dwight Macdonald’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist. This was a collection of “essays in political criticism” by the anti-Stalinist and erstwhile Trotskyist intellectual gadfly who was an editor at the Partisan Review before publishing Politics, his own post-Marxist, anti-totalitarian journal, which counted Albert Camus and Simone Weil among its contributors.

Macdonald’s “Introduction: Politics Past” sketched an unforgettable picture of left-wing sectarianism with groups incessantly splitting to maintain ideological purity. One could derive a kind of Macdonald’s Law: as the groups grew smaller and smaller, their titles “generally made up in scope for any restriction of numbers.” One group that he described did not actually bear so grandiose a name as the International Revolutionary Labor League and Worldwide Socialist Workers Party, but it might as well have. Finally, he noted, it consisted only of its leader and his wife. “Then there was a divorce, and the advance-guard of the revolution was concentrated, like a bouillon cube, in the small person of [the leader], who sat for years at his secondhand desk…writing his party organ and cranking it out on the mimeograph machine.” Mimeograph machines, Macdonald observed, “played the same part in the American revolutionary movement that machine guns did in the Russian.… and many a faction-fight was decided by who seized control of them first.”

What Macdonald skewered as child’s play in the United States pointed to a darker story in Europe, where utopian visions and revolutionary zealotry had indeed been armed with guns and not mimeograph machines. It was a story dramatized by Orwell and Koestler and Victor Serge and many others, but also recounted in dry histories of socialist struggles over democracy, parliamentarianism, reform versus revolution, stages of history, and modern economics.

If my socialist sympathies survived my ever-deeper immersion in this tragic history (I was researching a dissertation on French left-wing intellectuals), it was also because my socialism was not a replacement but an extension of my very American political beliefs: checks and balances, fundamental rights, rule by deliberation and consent, and an egalitarian, democratic, and communal ethos. Workers should have a significant degree of shared control over their enterprises, working conditions, remuneration, output, and the necessary government decisions regarding the economy. They should feel a stake in the quality of their work and its social purpose. Necessary hierarchies of expertise and authority should not be reinforced by sharp differences of wealth, class, caste, ethnicity, gender, or culture. Like many other people, I had observed or experienced this kind of environment on a micro-level, whether in my father’s self-employment or on the staff of Commonweal or, to a lesser but meaningful degree, in other intellectual and journalistic enterprises. The problem of course was how such environments could be “scaled up” to become the norms for a modern economy of huge corporations, assembly-line manufacturing, far-flung trade, split-second finance, and complex planning.

The next chapter in my life as a socialist, and no doubt the one most relevant today, began at the Hotel McAlpin at the corner of Broadway and 34th Street, right across from Macy’s in Manhattan. In October 1973, about 250 delegates and an equal number of observers gathered there to mend what the late Sixties and early Seventies had shattered. Youthful New Leftism had descended into countercultural exhibitionism, ideological extremism, and episodic violence. The hard-earned anti-Communism of the majority within Norman Thomas’s venerable Socialist Party had curdled into die-hard support for the war in Vietnam. Middle-class idealism had foundered on George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 presidential campaign. Led by Michael Harrington, the new group, modestly titled the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, committed itself both to looking beyond capitalism and to working within the Democratic Party. The assumption was that incremental measures to address fairly obvious economic and social injustices could lay the groundwork for a serious socialist movement.

I was drawn by Harrington’s ties to Commonweal and the Catholic Worker.  Harrington’s 1963 book on poverty, The Other America, was widely credited with inspiring President Kennedy’s war on poverty, thanks to a forty-page review in the New Yorker by Dwight Macdonald (just to complete the circle of associations). The book’s title had actually been used for an earlier, somewhat different article that Harrington had published in Commonweal. I found Michael’s exposition of a non-utopian, non-deterministic, democratic socialism persuasive, even if I never felt his need to demonstrate that it represented the “authentic” view of Marx. (I already had a Scripture, thank you, which had enough problems of its own.) I signed on to this “new combination of socialist theory and common-sense strategy,” as I put in my October 26, 1973, Commonweal report on the founding meeting. But I also wondered how easily outsiders could find their way into this subculture of socialist and labor radicalism.

Despite my unfamiliarity with “red-diaper babies” and all manner of ex-Trotskyist sects and their summer camps, or perhaps because of my unfamiliarity, I soon found myself a member of DSOC’s governing committee, a small circle of remarkably dedicated, intelligent people. A budding Eugene Debs I was not. I have recently happened upon some of my notes from our meetings. A few cryptic phrases amid pages of doodles.

My recollection is that for every five minutes we spent on economics, politics, and socialist dialectics, we spent an hour discussing fundraising—and the not-unrelated politics, internal and external, of the labor movement. DSOC found friendly supporters in the upper echelons of the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers (AFSCME), the Service Employees, the Machinists, and several other unions. Our most successful project was uniting unions and middle-class liberal reformers into a coalition called Democratic Agenda. It had a major impact on the Democrats’ 1976 party platform—which Jimmy Carter largely ignored once he was in office.

DSOC’s priorities were to defend the anti-poverty, racial-equality, and Great Society programs then feeling the backlash from the Sixties, and to promote new initiatives in health care, housing, energy policy, and above all, labor rights and full employment. The first step toward workers’ control, after all, was jobs.

DSOC’s anti-Stalinist background left it with no sympathy for dictatorships of any sort, whether of the proletariat, national-liberation fronts, or anti-imperialist strongmen, each promising a new socialist variant. There was similar consensus on the failure of central-command economies. A democratically controlled economy had to be a decentralized one.

My own participation was not entirely limited to doodling. During the 1970s I made the case for democratic socialism on a number of campuses. I debated Michael Novak on democratic socialism versus democratic capitalism at Trinity Church in Washington’s Georgetown. As someone then working in the emerging field of medical ethics, I did my best to broaden the field’s focus from quandaries about the rights of individual patients and research subjects to “structural” questions about health-care funding and accessibility. My 1979 book on neoconservatism was informed by democratic-socialist and left-liberal responses to the critiques of government programs mounted by former left-wing intellectuals.

It would take a Five Year Plan to find and excavate the texts of my talks during those years. I wonder whether their retrieval would please or embarrass me. As far as I can recall, my point of departure was Harrington’s—a conviction that crucial decisions about investment, production, employment, research, and financing were determined less and less by direct market competition and more and more by the self-interest and class predilections of the managers in boardrooms and executive suites. (At the time I did not recognize the pedigree of Harrington’s theory in left-wing debates about Soviet bureaucratic collectivism that had ultimately filtered into works like The Managerial Revolution by ex-Communist, ex-Trotskyist James Burnham. I was simply persuaded by what I saw happening in the United States.) In sector after sector, oligopolies evaded price competition. Government officials, willingly or under pressure, provided corporate welfare in the form of subsidies and tax breaks and corporate safety nets in the form of bailouts and guarantees. Advertising created rather than responded to popular tastes and cultural values. Thanks to technology and economic interdependence, the important decisions were collective, and the important question was no longer whether they would be made by the “free” market but whether the decision-makers would or would not be democratically accountable.

That may have been an effective rebuttal to textbook free-market ideology, but did it really offer an alternative? If central planning, investment, and allocation were rejected, even democratically accountable decision-makers would still be working within markets of some sort, whether for consumer goods or capital expenditures. They would be responding to the price signals those markets provided and trying to survive in the competition for market shares.

While the United States in particular has set new marks in approaching full employment, ever more sophisticated automation and the ambiguous powers of artificial intelligence have raised profound uncertainties about the future of work and compensation.

Within DSOC, there was no agreement on exactly how this might work. Mondragon, the Catholic-inspired Basque federation of cooperatives, was mentioned frequently. Then there was Sweden’s Meidner Plan. By annually transferring a proportion of major corporations’ profits into shares collectively held by employees, workers would eventually control the management of leading firms in every sector, but these firms would nonetheless continue to compete with one another. “Yardstick” corporations were another alternative to nationalizing whole industries. Not unlike the public option in health insurance, a publicly owned auto company or pharmaceutical manufacturer or a major bank would measure what the market really required and keep other firms from oligarchic mischief. Union pension funds, it was also argued, should leverage their considerable stock holdings for broader public purposes. There was interest in Germany’s “co-determination,” requiring elected representatives of workers on the boards of sizeable corporations, an idea recently embraced by Elizabeth Warren. All the ups and downs of European social-democratic parties and proposals were followed intently.

I collected a shelf of books on workers’ control and market socialism and even managed to deface some of them with underlining. I repeatedly suggested to Harrington that DSOC needed an organized discussion of democratic socialism and markets. In fact, he took up the question more than I realized at the time. But DSOC did not.

Four decades later the growth in oligopoly and inequality confirms much of Harrington’s analysis. The Great Recession revealed how integral government power was to the economy. The world is entwined in incredibly complex, computer-programed, split-second financial transactions and interdependent obligations—a turbocharged capitalism of international financial flows and balance sheets.

On the other hand, market forces must be credited with lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty in developing nations—most dramatically, however, under China’s centralized authoritarian regime. Of course climate change is a planetary background to everything else. And while the United States in particular has set new marks in approaching full employment, ever more sophisticated automation and the ambiguous powers of artificial intelligence have raised profound uncertainties about the future of work and compensation.

Currently the Democratic Socialists of America promotes “a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.” I hope they have made more progress in figuring out how that might work. 

Over time my appreciation of the power of markets, for both good and ill, has grown. So has my appreciation of entrepreneurship, if only because I discovered how little of it I possess. Both still seem compatible with democratic socialism, but making the case requires more than condemning capitalism’s manifest failures.  There is a middle ground of a well-regulated capitalism and a generous welfare state, which is where in practice Bernie Sanders, calling himself a democratic socialist, and Elizabeth Warren, declaring herself “capitalist to her bones,” seem to converge—as do, in varying degrees, most leading Democrats. Socialists argue this middle ground is ultimately unstable and precarious, doomed to be pushed right if not left. Perhaps.


Horrible things have been done in socialism’s name by its totalitarian mutations.

My participation in DSOC was curtailed by my return to editorial responsibilities at Commonweal at the end of the 1970s. My loss of ardor was also abetted not by something specifically socialist but liberal—the hardening battle lines over abortion. Moral qualms on this subject had best be kept to oneself.

I can’t speak with any authority about today’s democratic socialists. DSA now claims 50,000 members. The reason is simple: Bernie. “Bernie popularized the concept of democratic socialism,” the editors of DSA’s Socialist Forum explain, “and his call for a ‘political revolution’ against the billionaire class resonated with millions of Americans. Bernie, however, tended to employ these concepts as floating signifiers and neglected to fill them with much in the way of specific political content.”

“Floating signifiers” lacking “much in the way of specific political content.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. To what extent Bernie’s air of self-righteous certitude and one-answer-fits-all-questions characterizes DSA today I can’t say. Skimming DSA’s website leaves the impression that promoting the Sanders version of Medicare for All has a much higher priority than defeating Donald Trump. DSA’s August convention overwhelmingly voted to support Sanders for president and no one else if he failed to be nominated, although leaving the decision in that case to individual members. “More often than not,” Harrington lamented in 1974, “American socialism saw liberalism as its immediate enemy, as the program for crumbs that kept people from demanding the whole lunch.” Although Sanders himself has sometimes gallantly shunned personal attacks on rivals, his overall stance may have revived the socialist reflex to treat liberals as sellouts rather than allies.

If my French professor of long ago asked me for a thumbnail description of my current political stance, I would probably quote what Daniel Bell said of himself in the Preface to The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” That’s why in 2016 I welcomed Bernie’s democratic-socialist challenge, not anticipating that it would become one of the many factors contributing to Hillary’s defeat and Trump’s election. I thought and still think that the United States needs a vibrant, thoughtful democratic-socialist presence. One able to define its socialism by what it is for and not simply what it is against. And one with a tragic sense of history, especially of socialism’s history. Horrible things have been done in socialism’s name by its totalitarian mutations. Even democratic socialism has chalked up tragically stupid errors. Risking the reelection of Donald Trump would add to that list.

Published in the March 2020 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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