A Socialist Oasis in Detroit in the 1970s?

Editor’s Note: Socialists in cities have imagined, formulated, and attempted to create a conception of urban space that revolved around their ideological principals and ideas. Urban socialist experiments took on many forms and have had a varying rate of success and failure. Each case demonstrates how crucial alternative conceptions to the political economy of capitalist driven urban space were to socialist organizing in cities around the world, and especially at the grassroots.
The “Socialism in the City” series invites scholars and activists to contribute blog posts on the urban history of socialism. Our first piece by Austin McCoy looks at socialist organizing in Detroit during the mid-1970s and provides an example of the alternative economies that socialist organizers envisioned for the city and their methods of contesting capitalist driven growth.

Also, with #UHA2020 coming up next year, Dr. McCoy’s piece reminds everyone to check out the CFP for the conference and consider submitting. You can check out the CFP here.

By Austin McCoy

“I say no to tax breaks for the millionaires—what do I do when capital goes on strike? What do I do when the investors say hey man, fuck you, as they told Dennis Kucinich? The central question is working people not exercising control over investment decisions nationally, regionally, and/or locally, and how does one address that programmatically?” – Kenneth V. Cockrel to Socialist Review (1980)

Socialist city councilman Kenneth V. Cockrel’s comments published in an interview with Socialist Review in 1980 illustrate the dilemmas surrounding issues pertaining to political and economic power that he and the organization, the Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy (DARE), confronted when working to develop a socialist program to address deindustrialization and fiscal crises in Detroit between 1977 and 1981. The cohort of activists who formed the organization cut their teeth in Detroit’s new left and black power movements and successfully elected two open Marxists to public office—Justin Ravitz as Recorder’s Court Judge in 1972 and Kenneth Cockrel to Detroit City Council in 1977. Cockrel and DARE not only emerged as the principle opposition to Mayor Coleman Young’s growth agenda, or the “renaissance,” but they aspired to institutionalize a grassroots democracy in urban and economic development. Advocating for economic democracy in this context entailed advocating for community and municipal control over industrial property and tax revenues. In the creation of a “public enterprise sector,” DARE called for a new social contract between municipalities, citizens, and workers to share property rights in industries and businesses, to control production and investment decisions, and to coordinate together the administration of education, social services, and even law enforcement.

Portrait of Attorney Kenneth Cockrel, taken after he was tried in contempt of court for an outburst against Judge Maher during the Alfred Hibbitt trial, June 6, 1966, Walter Reuther Library

However, the organization, as well as council member Cockrel, encountered serious political obstacles and had to contend with devastating transformations in the political economy. By the time Cockrel was elected and DARE was formed, the city of Detroit was two decades into its shift from a manufacturing-based, mass employment and consumption economy with a strong labor movement into what scholars often refer to as a post-Fordist, post-industrial economy that left the city and its citizens in dire financial and material straits.

The roots of Detroit’s economic crisis lay in the well-known story of its uneven metropolitan development after World War II. Between 1952 and 1980, the city lost 65% of its population while its surrounding suburbs gained over a million residents. Detroit also lost 33% of its jobs between 1968 and 1977. Recessions, the OPEC oil embargo, newly established fuel standards for automobiles, international penetration into the U.S. auto market, and the globalization of U.S.-based auto production shook the city’s economy. Economic turbulence and corporate mismanagement pushed Chrysler to appeal to the federal government for a loan guarantee in the summer of 1979. The city faced bankruptcy in 1981.

Tile Store Block, Detroit, Michigan, John Margolies, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

These conditions led the city’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, to adopt a cocktail of municipal austerity, neoliberal downtown and riverfront development, and even literal creative destruction (the city destroyed the Poletown neighborhood to make room for a General Motors plant in 1981) to revitalize Detroit. This was a departure from Young’s working class and radical labor background. In 1943, Young joined the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the midst of the sit-down strikes in Flint. And like Cockrel and other black labor radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Young often clashed with UAW leadership. Walter Reuther, then President of the UAW, purged Young and other members of the union’s left-wing amid the Red Scare of the early 1950s. Young continued his labor organizing as a member of the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) and gained national notoriety in 1952 for standing up to Georgia congressman John Wood while testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Yet, as many scholars of black politics have contended, Young and other black mayors ascended at a moment when many of the U.S.’s major urban centers entered into fiscal crisis. Consequently, Young relied on tools such as federal development grants and tax abatement—policies that provided tax relief to business, corporations, and developers—in an effort to overcome the obstacles accompanying urban transformation (e.g. deindustrialization and the white and middle-class flight that depressed tax bases) and stimulate the city’s “renaissance.” To support this “renaissance” strategy, Young built a broad coalition that included local real estate developers, Henry Ford II, UAW president Doug Fraser, and private sector development organizations such as the Detroit Renaissance. Ultimately, Cockrel and DARE would serve as the city’s principled opposition to the “renaissance” embodied by Young’s urban political coalition.

Coleman Young, Woodward Ave. at Quick Lane, Detroit, Camilo Vergara, 2011, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Cockrel’s candidacy for city council in 1977 and the Detroit Alliance for a Rational Economy also emerged amid the city’s economic crisis. Cockrel faced considerable odds despite his campaign organization’s strength. None of the city’s major political players—Mayor Young, the UAW, and the local black political organization, the Black Slate—endorsed Cockrel’s candidacy. However, as a city councilman, Cockrel pointed to his willingness to challenge the city’s economic and political elite. He also developed name recognition and goodwill among Detroiters with his legal defenses of black Detroiters in prominent cases and by playing a leading role in the campaign to abolish the Detroit Police Department’s “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” (STRESS) Unit earlier in the decade. In fact, Cockrel’s prominent role in the anti-STRESS campaign led some to speculate whether he would run for mayor in 1973. Carrying this political capital and history of challenging the capitalist state into the campaign, Cockrel finished first in the primary election, garnering over 100,000 votes. He received over 160,000 votes to earn a seat on council. Members of Cockrel’s campaign team formed DARE soon after his election.

Cockrel and DARE used their platforms to criticize Young’s and the city’s corporate elite renaissance, especially the strategy of using federal grants and tax abatements for General Motors (GM) and developers Max Fisher and Al Taubman. DARE often maintained that Young’s use of those resources served the interests of private capital, not the city’s workers and residents. The organization argued in a report they prepared for their “City Life in the ‘80s” conference, “The costs of tax abatements and other incentives by city government are borne by all the citizens of Detroit and are clearly measurable. Tax incentives reduce city revenues at a time when city services are being cut to the bare bones. The allocation of federal and state funds to downtown development reduces allocation of those funds to the development of residential areas and neighborhood commercial strips.” Justin Ravitz echoed this sentiment, saying, “You’ve got politicians giving tax breaks to investors who don’t need them so they can build luxury apartments.” Ravitz underscored the classed nature of economic development when referencing the luxury apartments. The organization highlighted how the municipal government transferred resources to projects that would serve professionals instead of those residents living in the neighborhoods.

Cockrel and DARE fought against tax abatements for Max Fischer and Al Taubman’s riverfront luxury apartments. When Taubman and Fisher threatened not to proceed with constructing the Riverfront West apartments without tax abatement, Cockrel stated that the city already supported them with a $9.4 million Urban Mass Transit Grant for the people mover – a light rail system that operated downtown – and $14 million in Urban Development Action Grant program (UDAG) and federal resources for the project’s mortgage. In September 1979, DARE organized a petition drive to put pressure on the council to oppose any tax measures for Taubman’s and Fisher’s developments in response to the developer’s requests and threats. DARE succeeded in reaching their goal of 15,000 signatures, but they were unable to stop the Council from granting the developers their tax abatement. Cockrel and DARE lost the vote, 8-1. Mayor Young called Cockrel and the organization “crazy,” and said he would “ignore them.”

Huge Uniroyal tire heading into Detroit, Michigan, John Margolies, 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The organization devised a democratic alternative to the “renaissance” in the context of the Chrysler Corporation’s near failure and Detroit’s near bankruptcy between 1979 and 1981. “Rational reindustrialization,” as the organization named it, called for the development of a “public enterprise sector” grounded in community and municipal rights to industrial property. DARE activists, in the wake of the Chrysler controversy, called for corporations to turn over closing factories to the city and allow workers and the city to manage them. “We are from the working majority who have built this city, and we are committed to the most rational and cooperative use of the things our labor has created,” the organization stated in its critique of the Chrysler Corporation loan guarantee. DARE then developed these ideas further in a 63-page booklet, Rational Reindustrialization: An Economic Development Agenda for Detroit, that they published in March 1981. The authors of the document, DARE activists Jack Russell, a political advisor to Cockrel, and Dan Luria, an economist and researcher for the UAW, advocated for a mix of measures including worker ownership and special zones for communally-owned firms to operate with the hopes of fertilizing the ground for the development of a socialist economy in the city.

In regard to political power, the dilemmas facing DARE were embedded in Rational Reindustrialization. The organization’s call for the private sector to “transfer power,” or industrial property to the city and its communities relied upon a volunteerism that seemed unfeasible without a strong and militant organized labor movement. A voluntary transfer of industrial property would be a transfer of power that would threaten the private property rights of corporations and businesses. And, as the attempts by Youngstown steel workers and activists to even buy the Campbell Works plant during the late-1970s demonstrated, there was little guarantee that Detroiters could coax federal agencies like the Small Business Administration to help provide financial assistance to facilitate a transfer of industrial property to communities. What was needed, as leftist critics of Rational Reindustrialization argued at the time, was a commitment to rebuilding the labor movement from the bottom up. In other words, militant workers and unions were the only groups that could form the backbone of any plan for economic democracy in Detroit.


view-1While Cockrel and DARE’s ascendance paralleled Young’s austerity-driven “renaissance” regime, organized labor in the automobile sector was boxed in by fiscal crisis, deindustrialization, and political attacks from both conservatives and business leaders. In the local and national politics of rescuing Chrysler, UAW president Doug Fraser aligned himself with Coleman Young. The UAW worked with Coleman Young’s Budget Planning and Stabilization committee, which devised plans for tax increases and austerity to address the city’s fiscal crisis. The UAW also found itself caught in a cycle of concessionary bargaining with the Big 3 during the late-1970s and early-1980s. There is little evidence that Cockrel and the UAW leadership had any relationship when he was in office. The UAW never endorsed, or seemed to recognize, Cockrel. On the other hand, DARE seemed to deemphasize organizing at the point of production that organizations such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and later the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), advocated for during the late-1960s. But, as political scientist Michael Dawson recently remarked on a recent podcast with The Dig, this organizing opportunity had probably already passed as the Big 3 sought to suburbanize, southernize, and globalize production.

So, to return to a version of Cockrel’s question—what was he supposed to do in the face of a capitalist growth coalition? The organization’s opposition to Young’s “renaissance,” development of its own socialist plan for urban development, and even its attempts at community organizing offers a sketch of a socialist organizing strategy. DARE and Cockrel did not fail to devise alternatives to capitalist development, nor did the organization falter over questions regarding “identity politics.” The organization, however, encountered a political firewall that Coleman Young constructed comprising a coalition of private sector interests, local policymakers, and UAW leadership. He also enjoyed broad support from the city’s African American population. The organization also had to contend with the fact they would be trying to build an “oasis of socialism in a gigantic sea of capitalism,” as Cockrel told filmmakers in the documentary about DARE, Taking Back Detroit (1980). This challenge not only entailed dealing with a Mayor and private sector interests who either dismissed or were hostile to leftist opposition, they also had to contend with political and economic institutions and structures historically hostile to socialism and a political environment that was growing even more conservative.

acm0119Austin McCoy is an assistant professor in the department of history at Auburn University. His research interests focus on political economy, the Left, labor, social movements and activism, the carceral state, and hip hop culture. His current book project, entitled The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, New Left, and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest, analyzes movements against the criminal state and campaigns for participatory democracy in economics, foreign policy, and criminal justice after 1967.

Featured image (at top): Theodore Levin United States Courthouse, Detroit Federal Building, Detroit, Michigan, Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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