Bogdan Denitch: “a tireless organiser”

Submitted by Matthew on 8 June, 2016 - 11:39 Author: Ed Strauss

Bogdan Denitch was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1929. His father was a Serbian diplomat.

In 1940 Bogdan went to London when his father moved to the Yugoslav embassy there. Eventually Bogdan came to New York in 1946. He enrolled at City College New York and soon joined the Young People’s Socialist League, YPSL, the youth group of the Socialist Party.

Maurice Isserman, in his biography of Michael Harrington, who by the 1960s and 70s would become the USA’s best-known socialist, describes how Bogdan Denitch recruited Harrington to the YPSL. He met Harrington, then a devout Catholic, a member of the Catholic Worker group, in March 1952, by going to a small protest for trade unionists jailed by the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

“Bogdan… was a tireless organiser with a bluff, enthusiastic style… On the picket line… he ‘immediately noticed this smart guy who didn’t look as flaky as the rest of the Catholic Workers or as nutty as the anarchists’.

“Bogdan, in his own words, attached himself ‘like a limpet mine’ to Michael… bombarded him with books, magazines, and the works of anti-Stalinist novelists like Victor Serge… Within a few weeks [Harrington] had signed up with the YPSL”. And by the end of 1952 Harrington had broken from the Catholic Church.

A couple of years later, in 1954, Denitch, Harrington, and others managed to merge the YPSL into the Young Socialist League, the youth group linked to the Independent Socialist League of Max Shachtman.

Bogdan Denitch would write later: “I was won to socialism by the Shachtmanites, a group which made up in intellectual vitality what it unfortunately lacked in numbers”.

I was in the YSL at that time, and I met Bogdan Denitch a couple of times when I visited New York. He was one of the leading people in the YSL, and an exceptionally good speaker. Under the leadership of Denitch, Harrington, and others like Debbie Meier, the YSL was much more dynamic than the ISL. When I asked about joining the ISL at that time, the reply I’d get was: why do you want to bother with that? The ISL is a bunch of old men just sitting around. The YSL is the cutting edge. As happens in some youth movements in Europe, the YSL included people in their early 30s.
Denitch had no sympathy for Titoism, but he did see Yugoslavia as “the best of a bad lot”: it was a police state, but there was some latitude in the press.

Denitch went to night school, trained as a machinist, and then got apprenticed to Herman Benson and Julius Jacobson, older ISLers who owned a small machine shop. He became active in the machinists’ union.

In 1958 Denitch wasn’t happy with Shachtman’s successful proposal for the ISL to dissolve into the Socialist Party, but only Hal Draper and a few others spoke out against the move. Denitch moved to San Francisco and became a union activist there, as well as being very active in the civil rights movement on the West Coast.

He went to Yugoslavia to work on a research project for a US academic in 1964-8, and then came back to New York and studied at Columbia University. He taught at Queen’s College in New York and got other academic posts. He also bought a cottage on the Croatian coast, in Dalmatia.

Meanwhile the Socialist Party in the USA had more or less collapsed. In 1973 Denitch joined with Michael Harrington to found the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee, which after a merger with a smaller group became the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982. In the early 1980s he also initiated the Socialist Scholars’ Conferences, which brought together people around Julius Jacobson’s magazine New Politics and some around the magazine Dissent, which was more DSA-oriented.

He published a whole series of books, several on Yugoslavia, more or less predicting what would happen in the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Titoist regime brought wars between Yugoslavia’s component nationalities. He retired from academic work in 1994, and in that year he published his book The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia, an excellent description, analysis and attack on the theories and practices of ethnic nationalism. He started living in Croatia part of the year, and then all the time.

He founded an NGO called Transition to Democracy, which had groups functioning across all the fragments of ex-Yugoslavia. The Croatian branch of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia mutated into the Croatian Social Democratic Party, which really was a left social-democratic party; but Denitch was suspicious of it, and founded some rival social-democratic groups. He was hostile to Croatian nationalism as well as to Serbian nationalism, and always defined himself as “Yugoslav”, not Serbian or Croatian.

How did he become all that? His family was still well-placed in Yugoslavia’s ruling circle, and Denitch could, if he wished, have become an important figure in Titoist politics. In Yugoslavia, family trumps everything. But he had discovered socialism with the Shachtmanites, and that defined everything. His ISL background clearly nurtured the rich contribution to socialism he made, not just politically, but also organisationally.

Last year I contacted him again, writing to him in Croatia. He remembered me and responded positively. He was pleased that I had retained “our Third Camp neo-Draperite politics”, and wrote that he’d love to see some publications of the AWL, which I sent him. He invited me to go to visit him in the summer.

But he also told me that he was in bad health, not really able to walk, and not likely to return to the USA again. And then his replies to my emails stopped; and then I heard that he had died.

He had been working on a book called Changing Identities: a Story of Democratic Leftism, a sort of autobiography, and I hope it will be possible for it to be published

Comments

Submitted by Jason Schulman on Wed, 06/08/2016 - 22:30

My obituary/memorial for Bogdan will appear in the next issue of New Politics, out this summer. I'm very pleased to see this piece by Ed.