Letter from America – Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: April 15, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Bernie Sanders’ star is rising, and even if some recent Labour leaders would have spurned him, Jeremy Corbyn recognises a kindred spirit, as do untold numbers of American voters. Sadly, one comrade of Bernie’s in the Democratic Socialists of America will not be around to cheer.

Bogdan Denitch, who died in Split, Croatia on March 28, founded the Democratic Socialists of America with his colleague Michael Harrington and represented it on the Socialist International where he had an influence that far outweighed the influence of the DSA in the United States.

Denitch’s internationalism was not the reflexive “my country is always wrong” of many leftists about his adopted US, nor “my country right or wrong” of many Serbs. A Serb whose family came from Kosovo and were finally resident in Croatia, he supported foreign intervention after the ethnic cleansing. He did not cheer for demagogues who feigned socialism and anti-imperialism to cover their autocracy. In particular, while supportive of Tito’s experiments in Yugoslavia, he was critical of the authoritarian aspects of the regime and was hostile to the “national communism” and kleptocracy of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic in ­Serbia.

When the Second World War broke out, Denitch’s father was Ambassador to Egypt, and he went to Victoria College, an English-style public school there, and that was enough to get him a British commission as a subaltern at the age of 15 in a Yugoslav unit attached to the ANZAC brigade in the British Eighth Army.

Wounded in Italy, he was later with the British occupying forces in Vienna. His encounters with the Red Army there helped to encourage his scepticism about Soviet socialism. He told of a Red Armyman who asked for his watch at gunpoint, who was so affected when Bogdan told him he did not have one, was so drunkenly and sentimentally sympathetic, that he offered one of the many previously confiscated and strapped all the way up his arm.

On demobilisation, the British offered Denitch promotion if he went to fight insurgents in Malaya, or a job in the coalmines in the UK, neither of which he found attractive career options. However, he was also entitled to a first-class passage to anywhere in the British Empire. He chose Canada, and moved thence illegally into the US, where he became the original college dropout, a socialist party member and pretty much full-time agitator, as well as a skilled machinist, a trade union member and organiser.

With Michael Harrington, one of the US’s most original socialist thinkers, he founded the Young People’s Socialist League, a tiny group which made a noise disproportionate to its membership, not least by having Harrington and Denitch write articles under a wide variety of pseudonyms. Bogdan recalled that when his immigration status was finally legalised, the judge indulgently read all those names into the record.

As an activist, he worked on the ­Freedom Rides to the South. Typically robust in his life and politics, he told of smuggling weaponry to the Deacons, a more militant group that vowed to defend the Freedom Riders.

Awarded a PhD by Columbia University, he became tenured professor at the City University of New York. He became a department chair, and the main mover of the New York Socialist Scholars’ Conference from 1983 to 2004 which in its heyday gathered everyone from the young Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky, and Tony Benn, Clare Short and Tariq Ali – not to mention then Tribune editor Mark Seddon.

Working with the Swedes and other member parties, Bogdan had tried to squeeze corrupt and oligarchic member parties from Latin America out of the Socialist International and replace them with more genuinely socialist organisations. In an era before New Labour mistook neoliberal solidarity with the Clintons and global trade pacts as internationalism, Bogdan supported the genuine thing.

At some point, with little debate, Labour’s National Executive Committee seems to have relegated the party’s membership of the Socialist International to observer status – which is even sadder when one considers that the modern version was pretty much reconstituted by none other than Denis Healy. The NEC said the aim was “to develop international co-operation through new networks”, which the then Blairite apparatus seems to have interpreted as alignment with the so-called the Progressive Alliance – which appears to be a Bill Clinton-Tony Blair Third Way confection with the support of German Socialists fittingly later in coalition with Angela Merkel.

The German excuse was understandable revulsion at the antics of the Sandinistas and others. But the Progressive ­Alliance seems to have assembled an ­equally dubious “participant” category.

Fittingly, Jeremy Corbyn has also ­always had an internationalist view beyond support for influential domestic lobbies on behalf of foreign interests. Perhaps it is time to open the debate on the SI, re-join it and help purge the members while extending a fraternal hand to a Bernie Sanders-led Democratic Party.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent