“Democratic Socialism Will Prevail”: An Interview with Ron Dellums in 1976

Dellums, a democratic socialist member of the House of Representatives, was interviewed in the first issue of In These Times, saying “if democracy means anything, it should mean a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”

John Judis July 30, 2018

"Basic human needs like food cannot be corporate questions"—Ron Dellums. (In These Times)

Ron Del­lums passed away on July 30, 2018. He was a life­long activist and served as an open demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist, first in the U.S. House rep­re­sent­ing Cal­i­for­nia and lat­er as the may­or of Oak­land. He would go on to serve as the co-chair of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). In the debut issue of In These Times in Novem­ber 1976, John Jud­is inter­viewed Del­lums and wrote about the grow­ing left move­ment in the East Bay. Here we present that inter­view in full.

"I think democratic socialism will ultimately prevail in this country because it makes an enormous amount of sense."

SAN FRAN­CIS­CO — By the fall of 1974, it looked as if the move­ment on the Berke­ley cam­pus and in the Oak­land ghet­to had its last gasp. The cam­pus was qui­et. The April Coali­tion, Berke­ley’s main com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion, had fall­en apart under pres­sure of defeat and fac­tion­al strife. After los­ing the Oak­land may­oral elec­tion, Bob­by Seale, a Black Pan­ther leader, had decid­ed to leave the par­ty. And Huey New­ton, the par­ty leader, had fled the coun­try to avoid prosecution.

Two years lat­er it looks as if the move­ment is com­ing back to life, large­ly under the lead­er­ship of Rep. Ronald V. Del­lums (D‑Calif.). Del­lums and oth­er East Bay activists have rebuilt the coali­tion into Berke­ley Cit­i­zen’s Action, which in the spring of 1975 cap­tured two seats on the Berke­ley City Coun­cil and the office of audi­tor. They have built an elec­toral coali­tion in the greater East Bay that includes BCA, the Pan­thers, the Oak­land Demo­c­ra­t­ic clubs, the city and coun­ty unions and Berke­ley and Oak­land neigh­bor­hood organizations.

This Novem­ber, the coali­tion-backed slate of Del­lums for Con­gress, Tom Bates for state assem­bly and John George for coun­ty super­vi­sor won by a 2‑to‑l margin.

Coali­tion mem­bers have a com­mon vocab­u­lary but stress dif­fer­ent terms in describ­ing their goals. If you sup­port us,” George said dur­ing the cam­paign, you are say­ing that you want to go on an adven­ture to restruc­ture Amer­i­can soci­ety.” Bates empha­sized pop­u­lar pow­er. I want to see the gov­ern­ment decen­tral­ized and pow­er returned to the com­mu­ni­ties,” he said.

Oth­er BCA mem­bers, includ­ing Del­lums, speak of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism as the goal. I would like to see an econ­o­my where all the basic deci­sions about basic indus­try and basic resources are made by the pub­lic,” Ilona Han­cock, a Berke­ley city coun­cil mem­ber and BCA activist said.

This out­look has been trans­lat­ed into sup­port local­ly for rent con­trol, pub­lic own­er­ship of util­i­ties, pub­licly con­trolled indus­tri­al devel­op­ment and the rights of women, minori­ties and labor.

Unlike much of the old move­ment, how­ev­er, coali­tion efforts are focused on elec­tions. One of the crit­i­cal things about elec­tions,” Lee Hal­ter­man, one of Del­lums’ aides, told In These Times, is that it gives you a forum in which to talk to peo­ple that just isn’t avail­able else­where. If you knock on some­one’s door dur­ing an elec­tion, you have legitimacy.”

While local elec­tions are non­par­ti­san, state and con­gres­sion­al ones are not. In 1970, Del­lums decid­ed to chal­lenge incum­bent Jef­frey Cohe­lan in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry rather than risk­ing defeat and a Repub­li­can vic­to­ry in a three-way con­test. Coali­tion mem­bers defend that strat­e­gy. At this point,” Han­cock said, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty is the vehi­cle for reach­ing most of the Amer­i­can peo­ple with a pro­gram for a bet­ter society.”

The recent suc­cess of the BCA and of Del­lums, Bates and George has led Repub­li­cans and mod­er­ate Democ­rats to charge that Del­lums is build­ing an East Bay machine.”

Del­lums denies the charge. I have always main­tained that it is a move­ment, a direc­tion in pol­i­tics,” he told In These Times, but the estab­lish­ment finds it dif­fi­cult to deal with ideas, so they have to find a way of putting their won cor­rupt label on it.” Han­cock also rejects the charge. I find the whole busi­ness amus­ing,” she said. A machine by any oth­er name might be a move­ment or a polit­i­cal community.” 

ITT: An arti­cle in the Nation a while ago said you are the clos­est thing to a social­ist elect­ed to Con­gress in 20 years. Your approach seems like the social­ist ide­al of unit­ing work­ing peo­ple against cor­po­rate pow­er to estab­lish pop­u­lar own­er­ship and demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol of soci­ety’s basic wealth. Is that your view?

RD: I think demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism will ulti­mate­ly pre­vail in this coun­try because it makes an enor­mous amount of sense. We have to ask if the prob­lems in soci­ety can be solved while we are prop­ping up the major cor­po­ra­tions. Right now the politi­cian’s code­word is the trade­off of unem­ploy­ment for infla­tion,” but that’s sim­ply a way to ask if one is com­mit­ted to the 10 or 12,000,000 unem­ployed or to the top 50 cor­po­ra­tions in the U.S. Obvi­ous­ly, the Ford admin­is­tra­tion, and per­haps Pres­i­dent-elect Jim­my Carter, are com­mit­ted to fight­ing infla­tion, to prop­ping up the cor­po­ra­tions as opposed to deal­ing with the human mis­ery of unem­ploy­ment. But if democ­ra­cy means any­thing, it should mean a gov­ern­ment of all the peo­ple, by all the peo­ple, for all the people….

Peo­ple have asked, does that mean you are a social­ist? Because I advo­cate soci­ety and the gov­ern­ment deal­ing with the basic human ser­vices I guess my answer is yes. The gov­ern­ment ought to be in the busi­ness of deliv­er­ing health, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing and basic ser­vices to peo­ple with­out a lot of game play­ing. There ought to be com­pre­hen­sive child­care, a com­pre­hen­sive approach to hous­ing, a sane, ratio­nal way to finance edu­ca­tion. But I also strong­ly believe in the notion of fun­da­men­tal indi­vid­ual free­dom. The gov­ern­ment should not do every­thing for every­body all the time, but it should pro­vide basic ser­vices to every­one who needs them. Edu­ca­tion ought not be con­tin­gent on income or where you live. Nei­ther should health.

ITT: What about ener­gy and food?

RD: Basic human needs like food can­not be cor­po­rate ques­tions. It fright­ens me that the food busi­ness, from the grow­ers to the dis­trib­u­tors, is rapid­ly becom­ing dom­i­nat­ed and con­troled by a few cor­po­ra­tions, some of whose names give no notion that they grow, process or dis­trib­ute food. That’s dan­ger­ous because if there is one thing peo­ple ought to be able to do unen­cum­bered by the com­plex­i­ties of eco­nom­ics, it’s eat­ing — a sim­ple propo­si­tion. When you com­pli­cate eat­ing with eco­nom­ics, you have missed what life ought to be about.

Sim­i­lar­ly with ener­gy. We are now mov­ing away from fos­sil fuel, but why should these cor­po­ra­tions own the sun if you have solar ener­gy or own the wind if you have wind­mill gen­er­a­tors or con­trol the earth if we have geot­her­mal ener­gy. And why should pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions build nuclear pow­er plants with­out first solv­ing the tech­ni­cal health prob­lems that are inher­ent in nuclear reac­tors? Those things ought to be owned and con­troled by the public.

We have not done that because the gov­ern­ment has not con­trolled the cor­po­ra­tions, but has been con­trolled by them. That is why our democ­ra­cy is more sym­bol­ic than real.

ITT: Over the past few years, a num­ber of can­di­dates who share your views have been elect­ed to office in the East Bay. Do you see this as the begin­ning of a movement?

RD: Yes, peo­ple in this com­mu­ni­ty are try­ing to devel­op a con­ti­nu­ity of crit­i­cal ideas, so that a per­son who car­ries the ban­ner of new pol­i­tics” into the elec­toral are­na is no more than that — some­one who car­ries a banner….It’s not a machine; it’s the begin­ning of a movement.

ITT: What prin­ci­ples define this movement?

RD: Our pol­i­tics are based on four things: a val­ue base, a per­cep­tu­al frame of ref­er­ence, a set of goals and objec­tives and a strat­e­gy by which to seek these. First, we oper­ate from the human­is­tic val­ue that life is the most pre­cious thing on earth. Not bul­lets and bombs, or prop­er­ty and mon­ey, or pres­tige sta­tus. But life. If you accept that val­ue, there are enor­mous ram­i­fi­ca­tions, because then you log­i­cal­ly oppose war, pol­lu­tion, racism and sex­ism — all things that endan­ger or inhib­it life.

Anoth­er val­ue is the right of every human being to real­ize his or her fullest poten­tial. What inhibits human beings from real­iz­ing their full human poten­tial? If you are a woman, sex­ism; if you are black, brown or yel­low, racism; if you are a senior cit­i­zen, age chau­vin­ism; if you are work­ing class or poor, classism.

ITT: Is clas­sism anoth­er word for capitalism?

RD: Yes. We live in a class soci­ety, one with Rock­e­fellers and pau­pers. There is some­thing inher­ent­ly wrong with that. It is in direct vio­la­tion of the con­cept of democ­ra­cy for a hand­ful of peo­ple to con­trol the wealth and to have influ­ence that goes far beyond even the actu­al dol­lars. So we start with a human­is­tic val­ue sys­tem and ask: What inhibits life and growth? The answer is war, pol­lu­tion, elit­ism, cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion, cor­po­rate pow­er that con­trols over 90 per­cent of the wealth and dom­i­nates peo­ple’s lives.

Third, our objec­tives are to erad­i­cate the con­di­tions that keep some peo­ple in abject pover­ty, hunger and dis­ease, while the soci­ety pro­tects the extra­or­di­nary wealth of oth­ers. We oppose a pol­i­tics that makes a pri­or­i­ty of build­ing Bl bombers and not of build­ing for peo­ple in our communities.

Fourth, strat­e­gy? Coali­tion pol­i­tics that brings peo­ple togeth­er around mutu­al self-inter­est. We bring black, brown and yel­low peo­ple togeth­er, women, stu­dents, senior cit­i­zens, work­ing-class peo­ple, poor peo­ple around their com­mon oppres­sion. The degree to which you are able to attract a broad range of peo­ple all com­mit­ted to the erad­i­ca­tion of their oppres­sion is the degree to which you can devel­op a broad polit­i­cal move­ment. My run­ning for Con­gress was sim­ply a test of the idea that in one of the most diverse con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts in the U.S. it was pos­si­ble to cre­ate an effec­tive peo­ple’s coali­tion. And for three terms this dis­trict — 71 per­cent white — has elect­ed a black per­son, which means that we are capa­ble of going beyond the dimen­sion of race and come togeth­er around oth­er kinds of con­cerns. … Sta­tus quo pol­i­tics per­pet­u­ates the mis­ery of most peo­ple and ben­e­fits only a very small group. Our pol­i­tics have to be for change. The Amer­i­can real­i­ty is that mon­ey is con­cen­trat­ed in the hands of very few peo­ple, with the rest of us forced to fight each oth­er for a share of what’s left.

John Jud­is is a found­ing edi­tor of In These Times.
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