The Mind of Paul Booth, 1943–2018

The Mind of Paul Booth, 1943–2018

Paul Booth speaking in 2011 (Jobs with Justice / Flickr)

In 1960, his freshman year at Swarthmore, a buoyant teenager named Paul Booth set out to organize a campus Political Action Club. Soon enough his intelligence and vigor brought him to the attention of Students for a Democratic Society founder Alan Haber, that master talent scout roaming the country from his base in Ann Arbor, Michigan. SDS was riding the civil-rights tide, looking for a way to fuse the distinct strands of student activism into a common organization, and Paul founded the Swarthmore chapter. At SDS’s first convention, at the United Auto Workers’ camp in Port Huron in June 1962, he enthusiastically supported the argument (first made by the New York proto-SDS FDR Four Freedoms Club) that the left would benefit from a “party realignment,” which would drive the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party, where they belonged, and free the Democrats to move left. Quickly Paul moved into the national leadership. When he died on January 17, he had behind him more than forty years of leadership in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Not so many veterans of the sixties radical student movement went on to careers in the unions and traced a more or less continuous line from the first into the second—a line that continued into the day he died, January 17.

Two quotations suggest the continuity.

The first comes from a 1965 paper coauthored by Paul and Lee Webb, “The Antiwar Movement: From Protest to Radical Politics,” circulated (via mimeograph) by Students for a Democratic Society:

To our assertion of the dignity of individuals, of the values of love, honesty, reason, and equality, America responds with war, manipulation, and the selfish concentration of wealth. The America which we face denies Democracy—it is a nation in which the crucial economic decisions which affect us all are made by corporate managers and bankers, in which millions of people are dependent on the indulgence of public welfare systems over which they have no control, in which the decisions of war and peace are made by a clique of advisers and experts. Can this be called democracy? We understand democracy to be that system of rule in which the people make the decisions that affect their lives.

Booth was SDS’s National Secretary, the organization’s top administrative officer. (Webb had served in that position two years previously.) Their title was a play on Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics,” published in Commentary earlier that year. Rustin argued that, as the civil rights movement was overturning Jim Crow, it should organize “a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States.” Somehow, Rustin neglected to mention that abomination known as the Vietnam War, which was in the process of destroying that potential coalition and the Democratic Party along with it.

Booth and Webb condemned what the United States was doing in Vietnam as a “dirty immoral war,” but they feared that the antiwar movement was directionless and snarled in “single-issue politics” that made the left a heap of fragments, no more than the sum of its parts. They maintained that the antiwar movement, while growing, remained politically isolated and vulnerable. This was not, they maintained, because the movement was insufficiently militant or insufficiently committed to the cause. They insisted that “the times demand that the movement against the war become a movement for domestic social change.” They urged “people in the movement [to] see themselves first and foremost as organizers.”

The second quotation comes from a piece by Paul just published by The American Prospect, in a time when “the selfish concentration of wealth” has achieved dominance to a degree no one could have imagined fifty-three years before. Paul Booth, recently retired from his position as executive assistant to the president of AFSCME), was ironing out his final wording when he died suddenly, having just begun undergoing chemotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Earlier that day, Heather, his dear wife of more than fifty years, was getting arrested at a demonstration of Jews in favor of DACA at the Capitol.

Here is Paul Booth in 2018, arguing that the left should hammer away at “wedge strategies” to blast open the Republican coalition, just as the Republicans had done (with attacks on affirmative action, for instance) to drive white workers away from people of color. Every couple of years you had to win elections and bring along uncommitted voters by any means possible. But to build an enduring majority you had to do more than make “temporary inroads . . . into the opposition.” You had to sustain commitment. You had to drum home common themes. You had to think long and seriously about what might federate, say, veterans, seniors, suburban moderates, small town and rural and exurban voters, and evangelical Christians along with the people of color, professionals, and traditional liberals who had become the Democrats’ base:

Money, organizers, coalitions and long-term plans are all necessary. Identifying a “persuasion universe” of potential swing voters for one election—as consequential as 2018 will certainly be—is not equivalent to the wedge strategies that brought the GOP to power. . .

A robust Democratic majority, big enough to win back power in a majority of states, will not appear without some success in attracting some voters who’ve been within the Republicans’ electoral coalition.

Will anyone step up to make this happen?

A remarkably straight line connects the student movement’s Paul Booth of 1965 to the labor movement’s Paul Booth of 2018. The quality of mind that joins them is strategic.

The idealism and militancy of the New Left are well known. But it wasn’t idealism alone that propelled the movement; it was that altogether remarkable, and rare, combination of two human capacities, of ideals and strategy—of heart and mind, if you will.

Whether or not you agree with the Booth-Webb conclusion, you have to admit that they grabbed the bull by the horns. Having begun with a restatement of SDS ideals, they followed the question, What do we want? with the equally necessary question, How can we get it?

They tallied up the strengths and weaknesses of the antiwar movement and gave reasons for their argument. They reasoned from where we were to where we needed to be. They filled in historical background, as in emphasizing what the left lost, as well as gained, in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the sweep of Old Left platforms yielded to the precision of single-issue movements. You could dispute their premises factually and evaluate the probabilities differently. But by writing in this fashion, they invited adversaries to argue with an equivalent degree of clarity. They refused to dismiss those who disagreed with them as moral derelicts or ultraleftists or idiots.

The same quality of mind shines from Paul’s last writing, in the Prospect. His argument for the importance of independent voters is strategic, not merely tactical. It’s historically grounded. He gives reasons. He computes. If you disagree, you have to do so scrupulously.

This combination of ideals and strategy all too often eludes the left. We are moralists, as we need to be. We insist on the good. But we must be equally devoted to finding the leverage that makes the good a practical prospect. This magic combination was amply on display at this year’s women’s march, especially in the brilliant slogan, “Grab him by the midterms.” The path to recovery from the devastation of Donald Trump’s election, however grounded in our combination of passion and disgust, has to lead through the discerning application of such energies.

There’s much to say, too, about Paul Booth’s generosity, his kindness, and his good humor, as emphasized by SDS’s founding president Alan Haber in the Washington Post obit: “Mr. Booth was described by Alan Haber, first president of SDS, as a rare ‘cheerful spirit’ in the organization, singing and telling stories to maintain morale during the contentious drafting process that resulted in the organization’s 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, under student leader Tom Hayden.” It’s also worth pausing to take note of his Bob Dylan imitations, which somehow succeeded in being tributes, parodies, and embellishments all at once.

Like Dylan, Paul added wryness to earnestness and stirred well. He made arguments but not enemies. Not everyone has his personality gifts, which are really gifts of character—the ability to persevere, to respect adversaries, to infuse the common enterprise with a spirit of overcoming. But everyone who feels and thinks can aspire to the clarity of his thinking about how, finding ourselves here, we can get there. He has left us, in his body, but he has left us his vivid example.


Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University. He has recently been active in the fossil fuel divestment movements at Columbia and among Harvard alumni, and sits on the board of Partners for Progressive Israel. He is the author of sixteen books. His next is a novel, The Opposition. He wishes to thank Lee Webb for providing a copy of the hard-to-find 1965 article.

Read Paul Booth’s two articles for
Dissent, from 1982 and 1993, here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that Paul Booth originated the “party realignment” strategy championed by SDS in the 1960s, when the strategy in fact dated back to an SDS predecessor, the FDR Four Freedoms Club. The text has been amended above.