Tom Condit at 2009 reunion of former members of the Young Peoples Socialist League
In December 1957, Dave Van Ronk, Dan Curran and I went over the Socialist Party office in New York to join the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL). The Hungarian revolution, the Suez invasion and the civil rights mobilization touched off by the Montgomery bus boycott created an atmosphere of growth for the socialist movement and there was widespread talk of "regroupment" of previously separate socialist tendencies. The SP office (properly "SP-SDF", because the full name of the organization was "Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, reflecting a reunification a year earlier with a group of social democrats who had left the party in 1935 rather than be associated with "Bolsheviks" like Norman Thomas and Dan Hoan) was a large, open office of the old style, with a wooden thigh-high fence at the entrance and a swinging gate. It was filled with desks and file cabinets for the party's various functions -- the Socialist Call, the education committee, the New York State organization, the New York City local, etc., as well as (probably) entities which no longer existed.
On a weekday afternoon, however, the only person present was the party national secretary, Irwin Suall, working alone at a desk by a far window. Suall was immediately suspicious. It had been years since a group as large as three people had walked in spontaneously to join the SP or the YPSL, and he assumed it was a "raid." In a sense, he was right. We knew that in all likelihood the Independent Socialist League and the Young Socialist League, groups with which we were on friendly terms, would merge with the SP in the coming year. Bogdan Denitch had tried to recruit us into the YSL, but we figured if there was a merger coming, we might as well merge first. In any case, we were a little of leery of what appeared to be a Lasallean equation of socialism with "nationalization" by the capitalist state in the YSL's statement of principles. The YPSL at that time had fewer than 100 members nationally, and only a handful of chapters which were active in any way (New York City, Philadelphia, Kenyon, I think maybe Oberlin, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago) and all were pretty small. Probably a majority of the "members" were on paper only. Many of the members of the YSL were former YPSLs who had left in the early 1950s. YPSL did grow steadily through the early months of 1958 and into the time when we formally merged with the YSL. (The SP-SDF and ISL did not "merge." The ISL dissolved and its members applied individually for SP membership. I don't think any were refused, but it was a gesture to the right wing of the SP-SDF to show that the ISL was dissolving its politics as well as its organization.)
At the YPSL-YSL unity convention, the YSL insisted on parity between the two organizations even though they were far larger and far more of their membership was real. They also voted in Eldon Clingan of the YPSL as national chair. The majority of YPSLs voted against the proposal, but the YSL delegates were bound as a disciplined bloc to vote against themselves and carried the day with a handful of YPSLs supporting them. In early 1958, David McReynolds reorganized the Lower Manhattan branch of the SP, and I joined the party. At about the same time, I joined the Industrial Workers of the World. The SP-SDF and the YPSL had a steady growth in the late 1950s (as did the I.W.W.). I remained in the SP until 1964.
I stopped paying dues after the "styles committee" at the national office dropped several floor amendments from the 1964 platform on the grounds that they didn't know where to put them (although in all but one case the convention had specifically voted on where to put them). I wasn't so much shocked that this had happened, with Irwin Suall as national secretary, but the lack of any outraged response in the party convinced me that I was in the wrong place. Saul Mendelson had warned the convention that nothing they voted for would make any difference unless they moved the national office out of New York. He was more right than he thought. I remained in New York City until late 1962, except for a few field trips hitch-hiking to California, Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Texas and Arizona. We called them "organizing tours", but not much got organized except in Texas. I discovered that I was good at exhortation and recruiting people to socialism, as well as a few types of shit work. What I lacked was the essential patience which lets real organizers draw out the talents of others so that solid organization is left behind. In my own defense, I'd say that was true of most "organizers" of that time and now. The successful ones tend to function much more like the autocratic preachers of southern protestant churches, manipulating the "organized" through various forms of "consensus" politics to produce a pseudo-democratic process which comes out with the program and authority of the organizer on top, and any dissidents marginalized.
My Texas tour in the spring of 1961 was the exception. I can honestly say that I strengthened the Houston chapter, created the Austin chapter, and turned isolated members into small "organizing committees" in Dallas and Waco. One outcome of this was the ABC-Paramount sit-in later that year, which others have noted in their bios. Lucy Komissar has scanned her scrapbook pages from that demonstration into the photo section of this reunion website [photos now offline. YPSLs Lyndon Henry and Bob Speck went on to be key organizers of SDS in the Texas region, after Speck organized the first anti-war demonstration of uniformed servicemen at Pearl Harbor and got his enlistment shortened as a consequence.
Since I left the SP and the YPSL dissolved, I have been active in Students for a Democratic Society (national membership secretary in 1966), the I.W.W. (San Francisco GRU secretary for three years and briefly on the General Executive Board), the Berkeley Independent Socialist Club, the International Socialists, the Peace and Freedom Party and a number of anti-war, labor, tenants' rights and civil rights groups.
Since 1968, I have lived in Berkeley, California. This still feels very strange to me, since I never before in my life had lived longer than five years in one place. In the mid-1980s I met my life's companion Marsha Feinland through our joint work on the annual Western Socialist Conference (nee "Western Socialist Social Sciences Conference") in the Sierra foothills. Sometime in the early '90s the IRS made us get legally married. Marsha is also a socialist activist and until her retirement after 30 years of teaching was active in the teachers' union (originally AFT, but NEA most of the time).
My main organizational affiliation over the past quarter century has been with the Peace and Freedom Party, California's ballot-qualified broad socialist party. Marsha and I have both been on the production committee of the party's newspaper The Partisan, and have written many articles for it, some of which are available online. Many of the articles signed "by Partisan staff" are also our work. In the 2006 election, I was the PFP candidate for Insurance Commissioner in California. My campaign website is at www.tomcondit.org.
In the past 50 years, I have seen the socialist movement decline on a world-wide scale. At the same time, the need for one has never been greater. The capitalist class is greedier, more violent, and more destructive of both humanity and the earth than ever before, and shows no sign of improving despite all the "greenwashing" corporations are rushing to give themselves. We need more than ever to build a movement capable of putting an end to capitalism and building a new society based on cooperation, democracy and sharing.
[Note: This memoir was originally published online at http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/2659. A special thanks to Solidarity for making this available.]