* Socialist activist who has promoted the teachings of Saul Alinsky and other radicals
* Advocates using the language and ethos of traditional American communities—including religious language—to promote a “populist” version of socialism
* Was among the conveners of the first national conference of the New American Movement
* Served as an advisor to the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama
Born in 1945, Harry Chatten Boyte is a political organizer who has written extensively on the subject of socialist theory and organization. He holds a PhD in political and social thought from the Union Institute.
In 1963 Boyte took a job as an assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Also as a young man, he worked for such organizations as the American Friends Service Committee, the National Youth Administration, and the Red Cross. Further, Boyte served as a volunteer for the Council for Human Relations and the National Urban League.
In 1971 Boyte was among the conveners of the first national conference of the New American Movement, and he eventually became a member of that organization’s Margaret Sanger chapter, named after the famous feminist, eugenicist, and Marxist.
In November 1979 in Washington, DC, Boyte helped lead a workshop at the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee’s “Democratic Agenda Conference,” which condemned “corporate power” as the principal barrier to the development of “economic and political democracy”—concepts that many of the Conference’s organizers and attendees equated directly with “socialism.”
In 1980 Boyte published his best-known work, The Backyard Revolution, which examined and promoted the teachings of Saul Alinsky and other radicals of an earlier day. The book was dedicated to Heather Booth, Ernie Cortes, Si Kahn, and Steve Max.
In October 1983, Boyte served as a Minneapolis, Minnesota delegate to the annual Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) conference in New York City. In his 2010 book, Radical in Chief, author Stanley Kurtz writes the following about Boyte’s efforts to influence the fledgling DSA in the 1980s:
“Over time, Boyte seems to have decided that even Michael Harrington’s non-revolutionary form of socialism would be rejected by the vast majority of Americans. So Boyte formed a ‘communitarian caucus’ within Harrington’s [DSA]. The communitarians wanted to use the language and ethos of traditional American communities—including religious language—to promote a ‘populist’ version of socialism. Portraying heartless corporations as enemies of traditional communities, thought Boyte, was the only way to build a quasi-socialist mass movement in the United States. Socialists could quietly help direct such a movement, Boyte believed, but openly highlighting socialist ideology would only drive converts away.”
Fearing that such a course of action—i.e., shunning the “socialist” label entirely—might eventually cause socialism itself to fade into irrelevance, DSA leaders retorted: “We can call ourselves communitarians, but the word will get out. Better to be out of the closet; humble, yet proud.” Nonetheless, Boyte’s stealthy tactics became the preferred modus operandi among most community organizers across the United States. One highly influential group that adopted his recommended approach was the Midwest Academy, with whose leaders Boyte developed a close association.
In the summer of 1984, Boyte helped organize the founding meeting (in St. Paul, Minnesota) of the U.S. Greens. Eventually, this group became part of the Green Party USA.
In 1985 Boyte participated in a debate at a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City, where he also met a young, aspiring community organizer named Barack Obama.
In 1986 Boyte partnered with Heather Booth and Steve Max to author Citizen Action and the New American Populism, a book that framed socialist ideas in populist-communitarian language. For example, one excerpt reads: “Populism revives the central view of economics articulated by our nation’s founders … that all forms of economic enterprise and private property … are charges over which we are stewards for the broader community.”
In 1990 Boyte founded Public Achievement, a model of “citizen organizing” that is used in schools, universities, and communities across the U.S. and in more than a dozen countries around the world.
From 1993-95, Boyte served as the national coordinator of New Citizenship, which describes itself as “a broad nonpartisan effort to bridge the citizen-government gap.” Boyte presented the findings of this project to President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and other Administration leaders at a January 1995 Camp David seminar on the “Future of Democracy”—a presentation that helped shape the “New Covenant” theme which Clinton would emphasize in his State of the Union speech the following month.
In 2008 Boyte served as an adviser to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Today Boyte serves on the board of Imagining America, a consortium of colleges and universities whose mission is “to strengthen the public role and democratic purposes of the humanities, arts, and design.” He also heads the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (at Augsburg College), which “collaborates with a variety of partners to promote active citizenship and public work by people of all ages.” And he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on organizing theory and practice at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
Moreover, for several months each year Boyte resides in South Africa, where he works with colleagues to analyze models of citizen democracy across the African continent. In conjunction with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Boyte co-directed “Lessons from the Field,” a project examining what has happened to South African democracy since the election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.
In addition to the activities and pursuits cited above, Boyte has also served as a senior adviser to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, and as a national associate of the Kettering Foundation. He has authored nine books on citizenship, democracy, and community organizing, and his writings have appeared in more than 100 publications.
Further Reading: “Harry Boyte” (Keywiki.org, UMN.edu, Augsburg.edu).