The first time I heard Bogdan Denitch speak, he intimidated the hell out of me.
That wasn’t, I hasten to explain, his intent. Far from it. The occasion was a national board meeting of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1975—the first I’d ever attended and the first time I’d ever heard Bogdan speak. (Indeed, I don’t think we’d even been introduced yet.)
Early on in the meeting, some contentious issue came up, someone rose to advocate a position, and Bogdan then rose to counter it. He proceeded to respond to the advocate’s argument—one that had only just been advanced—with a perfectly formulated rebuttal. “I have five points,” he began (“How could he know he had five points?” I wondered—the other guy had just finished making his one.) He then rolled them off in order, each point building to the next, pausing only for the occasional inflective grunts with which he punctuated his arguments. A dash of sarcasm here, an allusion to some obscure left history there, a devastating finale, and then he sat down.
“That’s how people speak here?” I thought, vowing not to open my mouth for the rest of the meeting if that was the standard I was expected to meet. What I came to discover, however, was that Bogdan’s only peer in argumentation—though with a vastly different style and temperament—was Mike Harrington, Bogdan’s closest friend. What both Mike and Bogdan had apparently learned from their mentor, Max Shachtman, was to formulate their thoughts not in complete sentences but in complete paragraphs. Fully organized arguments tumbled effortlessly from their lips. As a Trotskyist faction that lacked all power save that of argumentation, the Shachtmanite elite became masters of debate, and some also internalized what I gather (never having heard Shachtman speak myself) was Shachtman’s own slashing, allusive style. And when it came to slashing and alluding, within DSOC and DSA, at least, Bogdan had no peer.
The subject matter on which Bogdan was also close to peerless was, of course, Eastern Europe. And the most memorable talk I ever heard him give was at the 1989 DSA Convention, which took place over the Veterans Day weekend—as events would have it, just a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bogdan was slated to speak in the opening plenary, and it was the sudden collapse of Soviet communism and the future trajectory of the Warsaw Pact nations (plus, needless to say, Yugoslavia) that he addressed.
His performance was at once sobering and dazzling. These were not nations that had the social, economic, cultural, or political base to evolve seamlessly, if at all, into liberal democracies. “These are not beloved communities,” Bogdan thundered, as he took us on a tour d’horizon around the Eastern bloc. Ethnic hatred, religious obscurantism, suppressed nationalism, raging xenophobia, kleptocratic regimes—these would all rise to the fore, at one time or another, in the Eastern European nations.
Among the several gazillion talks I’ve heard over the past forty years, Bogdan’s stands out as the most prescient prophecy I’ve encountered—delivered with his usual logic, sarcasm, allusions, and a deep understanding, a foreboding rooted in familiarity, that almost nobody—left, center, or right—could match. It was such an impressive performance that I asked Bogdan to author some pieces on Eastern Europe’s devolution for the L.A. Weekly, then a paper much like the Village Voice at its long-gone best, where I had recently gone to work as news and politics editor. Bogdan was normally an academic writer (like Shachtman, a great debater but fairly dull on the page) but, inspired by what he was seeing in Serbia and Croatia, and by my reminding him he was writing for a vaguely counter-cultural publication, he produced some stories that not only documented the rise of Miloševićian nationalism, but provided vivid pictures of the Mad Max-like thugs who had emerged as the storm troopers of the brave new Yugoslavia.
As the years went on, Bogdan became a friend and a mentor and someone I could argue back at, even without a degree from the Shachtman finishing school. Not that he still wasn’t a formidable disputant: most of my memories of this come from barrooms, where, after we both had a few drinks, he could grow increasingly emphatic—but also, always, wry, amusing, engaging. I don’t know what dreams he harbored as a young man of building a democratic socialist revolution, though some element of self-romanticization was, as is often the case, probably detectable. If you look closely at the photograph of the young Bogdan in Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington, he is smoking a pipe, reading a book and, at the bottom of the picture, holding a pistol. How much of this—the macho man of the left, the intellectual man of action—was inspired by Trotsky and how much by Hemingway, I couldn’t say.
But when it came to the more prosaic tasks of building a democratic left day by day, Bogdan was tireless. He founded and built the Socialists Scholars Conference—now Left Forum—into a major left institution (and if its presentations mixed the boring and silly with the occasionally brilliant, well, you go to war with the left you have). He would travel across the country to speak for DSA locals; he founded democratic socialist organizations in the former Yugoslavia and got Scandinavian socialist parties to fund them; he was not just DSOC and DSA’s representative to the Socialist International, but himself an internationalist in the deepest and best sense of the word. He was a rooted cosmopolitan—rooted in a deep commitment to democratic socialism, at home in the world and in the better world he strove to make, in his loud, logical, slashing, inimitable way.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect.