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Democratic Socialists Survive on Left in Era of Right

January 15, 1989|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Suppose you're engaged in a never-ending tug of war in which you're pulling to the left while just about everyone else is pulling to the right.

That's how Steve Tarzynski feels sometimes. Tarzynski heads the Los Angeles area chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a tiny Democratic Party splinter group that stands vigorously behind an array of ultra-liberal social causes.

As its own party drifts closer to the right, the DSA champions such left-wing ideas as national health care and corporate restructuring. Unlike Mohammed, DSA members seem to believe the mountain will come to them if they work hard enough.

"It's frustrating sometimes," said Tarzynski, 36, a Westside pediatrician who often holds meetings in his Santa Monica home. "All progressive groups have suffered. But look at the positive side. At least we're still around."

Back on Their Feet

Though their numbers are small--perhaps 6,000 nationwide and 400 locally, organization officials say--DSA members are known for their perseverance.

The overwhelming Bush victory in November may have hit them like a sucker punch. But days later, they were back on their feet, playing host to a national board meeting that drew more than 700 DSA faithful to a hotel in Santa Monica.

Tarzynski says the group--co-chaired nationally by Michael Harrington, the charismatic author of "The Other America," an examination of American poverty--can build on the momentum created at the convention if they hone a clearer message and bolster their puny numbers.

As the new year begins, plans are under way for a youth leadership seminar in the Pacific Palisades and a membership drive. The group has also recruited a UCLA graduate student, Paul Schimek, to build support on college campuses.

Although today's college students are better known for ambition than idealism, most schools still have their share of student activists, Schimek said.

Schimek said he hopes to have the UCLA chapter organized this year. Other DSA members are starting chapters at USC and Cal State Northridge. There is even an effort under way to get a group started in staunchly conservative Orange County.

"I'm hopeful," Schimek said. "It can happen. It's just a question of getting two or three or even four people committed to making it happen."

People in the local Democratic Party mainstream say it is doubtful the DSA will broaden its influence soon, especially in the current political climate. One Democratic leader, who asked not to be identified, said it is naive to think any form of socialism can be sold to the American people.

Tarzynski, however, said people usually find something appealing in the Democratic Socialists' message once they take the time to listen to it, even though the group has been hampered throughout its history by its name.

"There's no question some people have a hang-up about the 'S' word," Tarzynski said. "We have to make people understand what socialism means."

The DSA's brand of socialism means stronger protections for workers and the restructuring of corporate boards to include laborers. DSA members also favor redistribution of the nation's wealth and a lesser role for American troops abroad. And they are strong advocates of a national health care plan.

The DSA is not allied with the Socialist Party, which fields its own candidates. DSA members supported the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the Democratic primaries and worked for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the general election.

Locally, the DSA stands behind a stronger labor movement (members recently wrote letters on behalf of striking Catholic cemetery workers), better opportunities and stronger governmental support for disadvantaged communities, such as South-Central Los Angeles, and improved air quality, Tarzynski said.

The DSA has also been supportive of local rent-control movements.

Uncommon Workers

Leo Whitaker, the organization's Glendale-based secretary, says the Democratic Socialists are a "proletariat group without a proletariat."

About one-third of the DSA's membership is concentrated on the Westside, where people tend to be wealthier, better educated, more liberal and more activist. There's a severe shortage of minorities. And the common workers the DSA claims to represent continue to resist their overtures.

Schimek said that although some people fear socialism, others are turned off by the DSA's commitment to working within the Democratic Party system.

"We're caught between people who feel the DSA is bourgeois and others who are liberals and agree with what we stand for but are turned off by the 'S' word," said Schimek, 23. "That's the dilemma we're in. If we use the 'S' word, we have to convince people that we are at least somewhat sane."

Tarzynski, a Chicago native who spent two years of his medical career treating war victims in Mozambique, said the DSA obviously "took it on the chin" during the Reagan years, when there was a decline in activism. By contrast, he contends that the coming decade is ripe for renewed liberalism.

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