To Sustain the Socialist Movement, We Need Socialist Culture: Report from ROOD Summer Camp

The author attended a Dutch Socialist Youth summer camp as an international representative for YDSA. In their reportback, they make the case for the necessity of Socialist cultural events for a vital socialist movement.

From the 24th to the 28th of July 2023, Dutch Socialist Youth organization ROOD held their annual summer camp, celebrating 20 years of the organization’s existence. I was able to attend as a DSA member alongside 9 other international guests from Norway, Poland and Germany. Over 5 days, we joined around 50 members of ROOD in political education, cultural activities, exchange of ideas and perspectives, and a great deal of socializing as we stayed together in the Dutch countryside. The site of the camp originated from the Friends of Nature movement, which has its origins in the social democratic movement in Europe and aims to make nature more accessible to working class people.

This year, ROOD leadership have sought to further emphasize the cultural elements of the socialist summer camp tradition, with the hopes of building stronger connections between attendees. These cultural traditions have roots in many European socialist organizations, and were originally adapted from Christian scout traditions.

An overhead view of the campgrounds. A building with a central courtyard and solar panels on the roof surrounded by forest.

Introductory Activities

The first day served as an introduction to the camp and ROOD. Camp attendees arrived at mid day Monday, with some traveling directly from as far as Norway and Poland.  We were given an overview of the camp rules, which included division into “brigades” for political discussion and division of camp chores. Each brigade was named after a historical socialist figure, with the international guests being placed in the Lenin brigade. 

The camp chores chart showing when each brigade had to report for chores. Brigades listed from top to bottom: Bebel, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Zetkin, Kautsky, Lenin.

The first political activity was a discussion on the state of ROOD, which traditionally is led by the outgoing chair of the organization. Members discussed ROOD’s recovery from being kicked out by the Socialist Party (SP) and their plans for participation in the upcoming Dutch elections.

This conversation and most others at the camp occurred in Dutch, with one or two ROOD members seated in the back of the room translating to English for the international guests. Everyone present understood English, so we were easily able to engage in discussion during and outside of these political activities despite the language barrier.

After dinner, it was time for an introduction by each of the international guests. This included six comrades from Red Youth, the youth wing of the Red party in Norway; a comrade from Socialist Action in Poland; two comrades from the youth wing of the Left Party in Germany representing the North Rhine Westphalia region; and myself. I prepared this presentation on the history of DSA and other international guests also presented on their organization’s history and current situation. This served as a way to introduce everyone to the organizations and members present outside of ROOD.

Norwegian attendees from Red Youth present on their organization.

Political Education and Discussion

Each of the full days at the camp had a particular theme for the political education and activities that would take place. This began with Tuesday, which had the theme “Marxism and Ideology”, and began with a lecture from Alex de Jong on the Introduction to Marxism. De Jong is a member of ROOD’s parent organization De Socialisten (The Socialists) and co-director of the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam. His lecture discussed some basic terms in Marxism as well as Marx’s philosophical background. After this lecture, as for each political segment, brigades met to discuss. The Lenin brigade, which comprised the international guests, was encouraged to discuss with other brigades of ROOD to ensure we had political discussion with our Dutch comrades as well. This practice helped us learn more from wider perspectives rather than just stay focused on fellow international guests.

The next presentation was on racism and ideology, and was presented by a member of Red Youth in Norway. She presented on the ideas of the base and superstructure and discussed how ideology is shaped in our society, and how to apply that to race. The presentation did a good job of explaining the topic at a level understandable to anyone. It also provided a solid framework to launch the subsequent brigade discussions, which covered topics such as the role of intersectionality and the place of socialists in social movements.

After free time and dinner, the final political activity of the day was a presentation from Jouke Huijzer, the editor for Jacobin’s Dutch-language publication which was launched in early 2023. He presented on different ideas surrounding socialist electoral strategy, outlining a more traditional political science perspective as well as a radical theoretical perspective. This included different conceptions of the political spectrum and contesting views of voter behavior, with the aim of applying the valuable elements of these ideas to socialist electoral organizing.

Jouke Huijzer stands in front of his final slide which is entirely red aside from a quote from Lenin reading “One must always strive to be as radical as reality itself.”

Wednesday’s theme was culture, sport and socialism, which included one political education event, and several cultural activities which I will discuss in the next section. ROOD had invited the host of Left Laser, who had recently gone viral within the online Dutch political space for his videos interviewing politicians with agitational questioning. He discussed the need for the left to have a modern media strategy for the digital era, arguing that we should be taking advantage of the privileges we have in liberal capitalist nations like the Netherlands to push openly for a socialist message.

The fourth day was themed around the history of the worker’s movement, with a focus on Dutch socialist organizations. The first lecture, by University of Leiden Professor Bart van der Steen, was about the history of the worker’s movement in the Netherlands. This began with early opposition to Dutch capitalism within the early 1800s, then the first mass socialist and worker organizations of the late 19th and early 20th century, and finally through the changing landscape from the second world war until today.

Next, there were two different political topics to choose from: The Dutch Student Movement and the Communes in Venezuela. I chose the latter, which was presented by a member of De Socialisten. He gave an overview of the importance of internationalism and the role of Communes in Venezuela as a part of their socialist project. This provided an interesting opportunity to learn more about this element of Venezuelan politics, as the speaker emphasized the importance of unity between different elements of society against capitalism and US imperialism.

After this, the final political event of the camp was held, which was a panel consisting of two experienced socialist organizers who had come from different organizations but now both organize with De Socialisten. They both talked about the organizing experiences of their youth and how they first began to take political action, which included participating in squatting movements and going door-to-door selling party newspapers. They also discussed the future of the socialist movement, and emphasized the fact that there will always be ups and downs over time.

Communes of Venezuela presenter, wearing a MST shirt, delivers his lecture seated in the front of the room.

Cultural Activities and Socialist Socializing

Between each of these political events, there was plenty of time for breaks and socializing, as well as some planned cultural activities. These breaks were important opportunities to meet with new people and have more casual discussions. All the food was prepared by a kitchen team of ROOD members, and was vegetarian with accommodation also included for allergies and vegan options. Dinner items included chickpea curry and rice, vegetarian hot dogs and fries,  traditional Dutch stamppot, and burritos. However, most often breakfast and lunch would consist of bread accompanied by various sweet and savory spreads and cheese, as well as any leftovers that remained. This practice was noted as common by Dutch, Germany and Norwegian attendees, although opinions varied over which country had the best bread.

The camp dining hall. Attendees are seated at a series of tables and take turns getting food.

The cultural activities of the camp were incorporated into the camp schedule, with songs sung before the beginning of each political event and the lowering of the red flag together throughout the camp. On Wednesday, there were additional events planned, with several cultural segments for attendees to choose from, including football (soccer) training, poetry, singing and a nature walk. I participated in the football training segment, which included some basic drills and a short scrimmage. After some free time and the conclusion of each cultural segment, we gathered in the gym for a mini football tournament, with teams based on regions of the Netherlands. It was a great deal of fun for all those who played and spectated. After the football match, the regular evening activities began.

Football match in the small gymnasium at the camp complex.

The beginning of each evening was marked by the opening of the camp bar. From this point, camp attendees had free time to socialize. Sometimes this was unstructured time where everyone was left to their own devices, but some days also had specific events planned. Following the lectures on Tuesday we had a cantus, which is a Dutch tradition which includes singing and drinking. For this one, a selection of socialist songs were sung, most of which were from ROOD’s recently published songbook. These ranged from important historical and political songs such as The Internationale to satirical songs and formulaic drinking songs. Most were in Dutch, but the evening also included German songs and a rendition of Solidarity Forever in English.

On the last evening, we held an event called a “bonte avond.” There isn’t a great translation into English, but essentially it’s a night where camp attendees are asked to submit an act of some sort (musical, theatrical, comedy, etc.) which they would all perform, and the hosts of the evening come up with a theme and try to tie all the acts together. This was a great time, filled with many fun acts which allowed for political humor and a healthy bit of parody and self criticism. After the performances concluded there was some time for a final bit of socialization and discussion before the last evening concluded.

The final day at the camp was brief, and began as all others did with breakfast. After cleaning up and getting ready to leave the camp,  we all met up in front of the camp for the final goodbye. We took a group photo, lowered the flag for the final time, and sang The Internationale. This was one song camp attendees were all able to sing in their own language, although I will admit that since I don’t know all the words in English I sang the Dutch version from a comrade’s lyric sheet. After this, we all left the camp and headed home.

What does this mean for DSA?

Many comrades at the summer camp were eager to speak with me about DSA, which they larged viewed as the most relevant organization of the US left. I was able to discuss a range of topics with comrades from each of the countries participating, including DSA’s electoral work, international organizing, and internal democracy, as well as the broader state of the US Left. Along with discussing the US and DSA, much of our conversations focused on the state of politics in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Norway, with comrades from each country able to share their insights.

Attending the camp was an amazing experience. I learned a great deal from the camp’s political programming and the many discussions with comrades there. I also very much enjoyed the cultural elements of the camp, including the music and singing, evening events, and programming on the cultural and sport day. Along with being a great opportunity to build connections with other socialist organizations, this camp provides a solid example of what socialist culture and community building can look like, and there is lots we can learn from that in DSA. Among European socialist organizations, summer camps like these are very common, and I believe with proper planning it is something DSA could do as well.

Attending this camp cemented the feeling I get from being part of DSA – we are not in this struggle alone. All across the US, all across Europe, and all over the world, working class people are organizing and fighting for socialism. To me, this summer camp provided an opportunity to celebrate that fact, and motivated me to keep working to build socialist organization and international solidarity within DSA. If you’re a DSA member and want to help that work expand and continue, consider joining the International Committee.

Sticker from ROOD, reading “Workers of the world, unite!” with a picture of Marx and Engels.