On paper, Spencer Brown ’18 has the signs of being a liberal Massachusetts Democrat. He grew up admiring Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He campaigned for President Barack Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren, and he interned for Representative Joe Kennedy. But Brown has stopped identifying with Democratic politics and aligned himself with socialist principles instead.
“I slowly realized that to have real, meaningful change, we need to move beyond that one model and to really talk about changing economic systems and not just about electoral politics,” Brown said.
At the beginning of this semester, he and Deren Ertas ’16 (who was unavailable for comment) co-founded the Wesleyan Socialists. That group has morphed into the Wesleyan Democratic Socialists, which is a youth group affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Brown hopes the group will offer a space for students to discuss socialism as a viable alternative to liberal policy.
“We [Brown and Ertas] realized that even though Wesleyan is stereotypically seen as a very liberal place, in our eyes, liberalism is actually a very closed system in that it doesn’t get to the real diversity of political thought that there can be,” Brown said. “We wanted to create a space for people who considered themselves farther to the left than liberal to have a space where they could come together and talk about issues from a more radical perspective.”
These perspectives, members feel, are not easy to talk about elsewhere, because there is a stigma surrounding the word “socialism”—one that has many of its origins in the Cold War. This stigma prevented Seamus Edson ’18 from viewing himself as a socialist prior to his freshman year at the University.
“I think my parents stigmatized the word,” Edson said. “But it’s a word that shouldn’t be stigmatized. So I think socialist thought was always where I was thinking since high school. And then, I finally identified as it here [at the University], after working for the [Wesleyan Hermes magazine].”
Matthew Catron ’16, who is a co-leader of the group along with Brown and Ertas, compared the stigma to that associated with being gay.
“It’s such a negative word in American culture,” Catron said. “Even in a place as liberal as Wesleyan, to say you’re a socialist or to almost ‘come out’ as a socialist is a big deal.”
The Wesleyan Democratic Socialists and, at a more national level, the DSA, Catron said, can bring together people who believe in or are thinking about socialism.
“I think it’s important to have these groups, important to have an organization like the DSA…because socialists are so persecuted in our society and discouraged from even using that word or thinking that way,” Catron said. “So I think it’s important to have a group that’s willing to stand up and say that they are socialists—kind of like a support group in a lot of ways.”
Members of the group said they found socialism attractive because of its utopian aspects and its promises of equality.
“I think that socialism should be a good word, just a word that’s like, ‘It could be better for everyone,’” Edson said. “Why shouldn’t we believe in that and work hard to make that happen?”
Catron said he became interested initially in socialism as a young, gay person living in the small town of Roanoke, Virginia.
“I was like, the only gay person I knew,” Catron said. “And I think I was kind of taken by this bright utopian vision where everyone’s more equal and [where] people are respected for being people. Because that’s something I didn’t see in my everyday life.”
The group does not just discuss economic issues. I attended its second official meeting, during which as much time was spent discussing ableism as was spent discussing the history of American socialism. Pins had been set out on a table declaring that each wearer was a “proud socialist feminist.”
Brown believes that discussions of other subjects, such as ableism and feminism, are not tangential or unrelated to the goals of socialism. He connected the activism of the United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), WesDivest, and the Black Lives Matter movement together under the guise of a “socialist project.” Brown is involved in both USLAC, along with Catron, and WesDivest. He believes the role of the Wesleyan Democratic Socialists is to bring the aims of these separate activist campaigns together.
“We have to not just isolate ourselves into specific campaigns, despite the importance of those campaigns,” Brown said. “To show that there is this broader project that can happen only by bringing people together under a common project, which is what I fundamentally believe socialism is.”
Because of the nature of the project, Brown said, the group will not focus on activism, but will instead limit itself to having discussions and organizing events. Its members are, for instance, sponsoring the screening of the documentary “The American Dream” today at 6:30 p.m.
Brown admitted that, in a two-party system, the plausibility of a socialist economy forming is currently slim. He mentioned cases where members of the DSA have run for office and won, but they all ran as Democrats, not socialists.
“Margaret Thatcher—who was very much not a left-wing person—her campaign slogan back in the ’80s was, ‘There is no alternative,’” Brown said. “And I feel like that has become the slogan of politics today.”
Thatcher spoke her line in order to defend capitalism against its critics in Parliament. Since then, it has become so famous that it is known in the United Kingdom under an acronym, TINA. When current Prime Minister David Cameron used the line in defense of his deficit reduction policy, it created a media sensation.
But Brown doesn’t support the acquiescent approval Thatcher and many other politicians lend to capitalism. Grim as the current prospects of socialism are, he has hope that in the future, the stigma behind socialist politics and talking about socialism will fade.
“There are alternatives,” he said. “There are many alternatives, and [only] through a more radical politics can we reach those alternatives.”