Published Fall/Winter 2007
The New American Movement and the Los Angeles Socialist Community School
by Victor Cohen | ns 69
Two years after the break-up of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the birth of the Weather Underground, a small group of activists formed The New American Movement (NAM). They saw that the optimism for social change that made SDS a mass movement had not vanished in a puff of acrid smoke with the end of the 1960s, and they circulated a paper throughout the summer of 1971 entitled "New American Movement: A Way to Overcome the Errors of the Past." Over the next ten years, NAM blossomed into a nationwide organization noted for its activism, theoretical sophistication, and ambition to wed the Old Left to the New. NAM saw itself as a democratic, socialist-feminist, pre-party formation, working to create a political party worthy of the name.
This was a genuine grass-roots organization. It had barely a handful of national officers, and though NAM never rivaled the size or national presence of SDS, according to the Congressional Record, by 1975 NAM qualified as "an appropriate group for law enforcement monitoring to determine the extent of its threat to internal security" (98). By the beginning of the 1980s, it had attracted the attention of Michael Harrington's Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the most well-known socialist party of its time in the US. In 1983, after a few years of political courtship, the two groups officially merged and The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was formed. To this day, DSA remains the largest socialist party in the U.S.
Here I provide a short account of NAM's history and a description of a school it opened in Los Angeles in the 1970s, both of which form a unique link between the study of everyday life and the practice of socialism. Though cultural studies programs and practitioners often have had relationships of varying degrees with oppositional political movements, seldom do we imagine cultural studies to be an oppositional political movement per se. NAM shows an uncanny vision of cultural studies as it might have existed, if it eschewed the production of academic knowledge entirely and focused on the business of organizing for social change.
NAM's founders felt that in 1971, "the time was right...for a [socialist-feminist] mass membership organization...that would reach out to new sectors of the population untouched by the Sixties Left." They saw themselves not as a revolutionary party, but rather as an "interim institution" whose programs "would unify working people and catalyze a large mass movement" (MacLean 13). Its organizational structure provided local chapters with a great deal of autonomy, and though the issue of centralization became more pressing as the 1970s progressed, NAM always maintained the necessity of its chapters' freedom to determine their own courses for action. DSOC's focus on electoral politics did not appeal to all the NAM membership, and many left with the formation of the DSA.
The early moments of the NAM-DSOC relationship must have been interesting. NAM was critical of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a position not shared by some important DSOC members. The two groups also came out of quite different traditions which at times were famously antagonistic. DSOC was an organization whose roots could be traced back to the Debsian Socialist Party and the Second International. Although NAM was a new political organization founded by members associated with the New Left, part of the organization had been Communist Party activists since the 1930s and 1940s. No doubt people in both parties could recall the days when Communists and Socialists came to blows at rallies.
For NAM, this openness to ex-Communists was practical—it tapped Old Left organizational experience and community connections. For their part, those from the Old Left gravitated to NAM because it was the only organization in the 1970s advocating the formation of a non-sectarian mass movement towards socialism. There were profound differences between these generations of NAM members, and none was greater perhaps than the centrality socialist-feminism played in NAM's founding principles. Though the Communist Party had long championed the equality of women, seldom had its members been asked to unite so forcefully the personal and the political.
Like many radical movements, NAM valued internal education. However, it also saw the possibilities for outreach and organizing that a school which was open to the public could create. As a result, several chapters started schools that served members and non-members alike. Their overall educational program was in part based on the approach to community education taken by the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), a socialist-feminist organization loosely connected to NAM. The CWLU had (among other activities) opened a school in the early 1970s to provide courses to women on topics such as basic mechanics, the health care system, women's history, and silk screening.
NAM's interest in education also grew out of its members' engagement with the work of Antonio Gramsci. By the mid-1970s, several key figures had taken to heart his analysis of civil society and bourgeois hegemony. In turn, they not only led seminars for NAM members on his revolutionary strategy, but also incorporated his thinking into the organization's program for how to produce a social transformation in what they considered to be a non-revolutionary moment. This interest in Gramsci reflects NAM's approach to Marxism. The reader for its political education course, Basic Marxism: What It Is & How to Use It, clearly demonstrates the movement's critical engagement with this tradition of revolutionary thought. Following brief chapters on subjects such as class, the state, racism, and women's oppression, the authors of Basic Marxism provided reading lists that included works from Marx, Engels, and Lenin; to Luxembourg, Lukács, Marcuse, and Mandel; and further to Sheila Rowbotham, Harry Braverman, and Barbara and John Ehrenreich.
Though NAM has no place inside histories of cultural studies, it is not hard to draw parallels between the two. Its educational project was conceptualized along similar lines as the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and its intellectual work involved a similar re-evaluation of the Marxian tradition and a focus on an analysis of everyday life. However, NAM parts ways in joining theory to practice. As Harry Boyte, co-author of NAM's first mission statement for mass publication put it, the transition to socialism demanded more than organizing the industrial workforce. Their task, he wrote, was to fundamentally organize "new forms of culture and community" (25).
A year later in 1975, Elayne Rapping developed this point in a short piece entitled "Some Thoughts on Politics and Culture," indicating how and why people within the movement saw the necessity for cultural work. She explains that NAM itself grew from the tension between the ways the New Left of the 1960s provided them with cultural and personal politics, but not "a socialist analysis that would tie personal and political issues together" (67). She goes on to say their dilemma is that:
it has always been easier [for the left] to formulate concrete, winnable goals in terms of the existing power structure, which under capitalism means the economic, governmental and legal systems. Domestic, sexual and especially cultural issues simply do not lend themselves into traditional political action, except insofar as they can be translated into financial or legal terms....There are lots of possibilities between extremes of electoral activity and liberated communities...[and] from my understanding of how consciousness and commitment to struggle develop...[it is vitally important] to understand how and to what extent, culture, in both the aesthetic and personal senses, informs and affects political thought and action. (66-7)
Rapping was one of a group of people within NAM who often debated the value of an "economistic" strategy advocated by other members, but as a whole the organization generally understood the implications for political practice that socialist-feminism and Gramscian thinking implied. Creating a movement towards socialism involved not only building the organization, but an alternate culture that could sustain and empower it. This did not mean teaching people simply to be critical of mass culture; NAM's goal was to produce a critical awareness of culture along the lines Raymond Williams famously drew, as a whole way of life. NAM was emphatic that socialism would not automatically follow from the transfer of ownership of the means of production, though they were clear throughout their literature on the need to establish "working class control of the enormous productive capacity of American industry" (Basic Marxism 44). In contrast to other socialist groups, however, they viewed the majority of Americans as working class, including non-salaried labor such as housewives and the unemployed (MacLean 2-5).
Reading through this literature never fails to leave me disoriented. This is partly because I graduated from a cultural studies program and see many of my field's key debates being staged more than thirty years ago in the pages of a political organization's internal bulletin. This feeling also kicks in when I see familiar names in today's cultural studies on NAM's school schedules. I first heard about this history over a beer with a professor after my coursework and dissertation were complete. Why had I not heard about it before? There are many people, academics and activists alike, who are interested in talking about their experiences in NAM, but it seems nobody knows enough to ask them about the topic. And unless they're asked, the topic does not come up.
Of course, its rarely getting discussed is a generational phenomenon. The development of NAM predates the global ascendancy of neoliberalism as well as the collapse of the USSR. Although the Soviet state was never held up as a model, NAM implicitly relied on its existence as evidence that capitalism could be opposed by an alternate social order. It's been sixteen years since the Berlin Wall fell, and in the absence of "actually existing socialism" NAM appears anachronistic, destined for failure before it began. Yet its members say they felt the opposite was true. Many had taken part in the mass movements of their day, fighting for the civil rights of minorities and women and an end to the war in Viet Nam. NAM was simply an extension of that longer history, as well as the radical revolutionary tradition going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. But unlike the narrative arc of those earlier struggles, NAM's story does not end on a high note. In retrospect, the 1980 presidential election that brought Ronald Reagan to power marks the beginning of NAM's end.
Paradoxically, the history of NAM is well known in certain academic circles, but only among those who participated in the movement or who were politically active on the left in the 1970s. According to Stanley Aronowitz, who became a NAM member after he moved to the University of California at Irvine in the mid-1970s and taught at the Socialist Community School in Los Angeles:
NAM [represented the] possibility of building a political formation which had the potential of really being influential in American life. There were two reasons that I got attracted to NAM finally. One was that they took the work of Gramsci seriously...one of the two great Marxist theorists of the possibility of what revolutionary socialists do in a non-revolutionary period. We had no illusions in NAM. And we came to the conclusion that [the moment called for] education, [and the centrality of] cultural activity; activities for kids, a whole variety of possible activities: forums, symposia, conferences. These things were an integral part of what this practice would be to building a movement. The other side of it, of course, were interventions in unions, universities, and other community activities of various kinds. And the second reason, was because they not only took theory seriously, they took education seriously. And that was exemplified by the LA school and [the] one in the Bay area as well.
The Oakland, California, and Chicago, Illinois, NAM chapters were the first to open schools, and the Los Angeles NAM group started the Socialist Community School shortly after in the fall of 1975. The Los Angeles school seems to have been the most successful in terms of attracting students and sustaining itself. The Los Angeles school was also a fairly autonomous institution—non-NAM members could sit on its governing board, non-NAM teachers could lead courses, and the school was open to anyone interested, in keeping with the ideal of forming a non-cadre mass movement. The school never planned to be accredited, give degrees, or pay wages; it was supported by donated labor, a significant percentage of which was non-NAM in orientation.
According to NAM archives, the school had its own budget apart from the chapter and ran in the black for the majority of its existence. The school's funding came primarily from tuition, which was five to ten dollars for a ten-week course, and three dollars for every additional course per session. A typical session offered anywhere from nine to fifteen courses, including "core" courses such as an introduction to Marxism, Socialist-Feminism, Third World peoples and movements, and local conditions and power structure.
Figure 1: LA Socialist Community School Schedule, Spring 1977
(Click on images for full-size PDF)
One of the best example of the school's openness to non-NAM members is Mike Davis's participation in the school. While he never belonged to NAM, he was an active member of the school committee and a frequent teacher for the school as well. The Spring 1977 course schedule (Figure 1) shows they offered two classes led by Davis—"Marx and the Working Class," and "Ireland, the Longest Revolution." Along with these courses, the school offered a class entitled "The Revolutionary Party: Theory and Practice," taught by Dorothy Healey. Healey was one of the Los Angeles chapter leaders and a guiding light for the movement as a whole, in no small part because of the skills she developed over decades as an activist and chairwoman of the Communist Party. "A Class on Class" was led by Stanley Aronowitz, and a course entitled "Women of Africa, Asia and Latin America" was taught by Peg Strobel and others. Davis also offered a "Red Trails" course which took students on a series of bi-weekly hikes exploring Southern California, with special emphasis on areas of radical historical interest. There were course offerings on "Sex and Class in Literature," "Proletarian Literature," and a course on the politics of food.
The Spring 1978 schedule offered similar courses, along with a class on the Energy Crisis and its Origins, "Basic Concepts of Marxism" led by Larry Ceplair, and "Marxist Analysis of Current Events" led by Ben Dobbs, a comrade of Healey's and a source of organizational leadership for the Los Angeles chapter. The school and NAM together would also present symposia, such as "Action Against Apartheid-Racism," featuring Dennis Brutus (Figure 2), "Marxism and the Contemporary World," featuring Herbert Marcuse with Healey as discussant (Figure 3), or a screening of Testimony, a movie about women on strike in the 1970s, followed by a woman organizer speaking about her work in the 1930s steel industry (Figure 4). Beginning in 1980, attendance began to decline, and though the school was operated by the DSA into the 1990s, it never attracted the numbers it did during its first decade in operation.
Figure 2: NAM / Socialist Community School Flyer
(Click on image for full-size PDF)
Figure 3: NAM / Socialist Community School Flyer
(Click on image for full-size PDF)
Figure 4: NAM / Socialist Community School Flyer
(Click on image for full-size PDF)
In 1984, Henry Giroux, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski co-authored "The Need for Cultural Studies." They asserted that as a counter-disciplinary practice with social-transformative aims, cultural studies "cannot be housed in universities...Hence the need for counter-institutions...various sorts of collectives...study groups...even societies and institutes" (para. 36). What NAM and the Los Angeles Socialist Community School provide us with today is a glimpse of what a non-vocationalized form of cultural studies looked like, as well as a useful indication of the extent to which academics are organized against this impulse. This illustrates the power of our disciplines and their myriad institutions to organize our labor, and it shows us one way to do it differently. The history of the Los Angeles school also suggests that NAM members were not the only people who saw the proximity between the school's concept of adult education and transformative mass politics. The energy and commitment of the school's teachers and organizers was for a time equaled by the wider community who supported it through their attendance. This is both inspiring and a testament to that era's differences from our own. It is not easy to imagine either NAM or its schools today, yet if there is a lesson to draw here for the future of cultural studies or for the practice of oppositional left politics, it lies in the peculiar status of NAM in our memory. Those who know this story don't necessarily feel its relevance to the present, and those who might be interested have little means to learn about it.
I want to thank Jon Klancher, Kathy Sheldon, Peg Strobel, Judith Gardiner, John Shannon, Joni Rabinowitz, John Haer, Stanley Aronowitz, John Beverley, and Holly Graff for being kind enough to share their experiences and thoughts on NAM. Special thanks goes to Jon Klancher for propelling me into this project and for helping me sort through the history of the Socialist Community School in particular.
Aronowitz, Stanley. Personal interview. 20 April 2005.
Boyte, Harry. "The Struggle Against Idealism and Some Thoughts on the Cultural Struggle." Discussion Bulletin 8 (July-Sept. 1974): 23-6.
Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski. "The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres." Dalhousie Review 64 (1984): 472-86.
Healey, Richard. "Gramsci, Bank Robbers, and Electoral Politics." Discussion Bulletin 25 (Winter 1978-9): 51-3.
Macdonald, Larry. "The New American Movement." Cong. Rec. 5 Sept. 1975: 97-8.
MacLean, Judy, et al. New American Movement: An Introductory Course. Chicago: New American Movement, 1976.
NIC Political Education and Publications Committee. Basic Marxism: What It Is & How to Use It. Chicago: New American Movement. [no date available]
Rapping, Elayne. "Some Thoughts on Politics and Culture." Discussion Bulletin 9 (March 1975): 64-9.
Socialist Community School. Committee Minutes. 6 Nov. 1977.
---. Course Schedule. Spring 1977.
---. Course Schedule. Winter 1978.