CHICAGO- At least 2,000 activists converged at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago for the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) annual Socialism Conference from July 6-9. The four-day conference consists of talks, debates, discussions, and entertainment for dedicated socialists, people interested in socialism or those just hoping to learn more about revolutionary theory.
This year’s conference featured talks ranging from “privilege” theory, the politics of food sovereignty, why we need a revolutionary left, the history of the Combahee River Collective, and the lessons from the Russian Revolution.
(The Russian Revolution featured prominently in this year’s conference, as 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of the 1917 workers’ uprising.)
Notable speakers included actor, John Cusack; comedian, Hari Kondabolu; actor/playwright, Wallace Shawn; and “Socialism” regular, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now! Additionally, Jacobin magazine sponsored a series of talks, including a debate on the efficacy of the left “using” the Democratic Party to get socialists elected to office.
“Socialism 2017” also boasted the largest attendance in the conference’s history. Attendees were no doubt motivated by Donald Trump’s nightmarish presidency as so many Americans have been since his election last fall.
Feminist activist, Angela Davis, perhaps best summed up the urgent need to resist Trump and the racist, sexist, capitalist system that spawned him at the history-making Women’s March on Washington, back in January.
“The next fourteen hundred and fifty-nine days of the Trump administration,” said Davis, “will be fourteen hundred and fifty-nine days of resistance. Resistance on the ground. Resistance in the classrooms. Resistance on the job. Resistance in our art and in our music. This is just the beginning.”
And, judging from the record turnout at this year’s Socialism Conference, Americans—particularly young ones—are heeding Davis’s words.
Indeed, a fierce atmosphere of urgency permeated the conference compared to last year’s. Last year at this time, speakers and attendees had more or less resigned themselves to four more years of neoliberal Clintonism. How wrong we all were…
Trump’s election has emboldened far-right white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Islamophobes. Incidents of hate crimes against immigrants, Muslims, and people of color rose precipitously since 2016, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Much of this spike in violence occurred in the ten days following Trump’s election.
Thus, this year’s conference theme: “Fight the Right. Build the Left.”
This was my second year attending Socialism Conference. I joined 15 other comrades from the Portland, Maine branch of the ISO.
Author and Princeton University professor of African American Studies, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, gave the opening address—a speech the right prevented her from delivering earlier this year. Taylor was forced to cut short the book tour for her best-selling, From Black Lives Matter, to Black Liberation back in May, after a Fox News hit-piece inspired an onslaught of vicious, racist, and downright frightening death-threats from right-wing bigots.
“Hey nigger,” one such punctuation-less email opened, “keep talking down the President of the United States we will try you in federal court for hate crimes and have you lynched” [sic]. Another was more direct: “If Trump is what you say, you are a dirty ass coon dyke cunt. Just saying … Cunt.”
(Yet “liberal” media outlets, including the New York Times, insist it is the left in general–and Sen. Bernie Sanders, in particular–that is responsible for spreading the hateful, violent rhetoric that pervades contemporary political discourse. The Times flat out blamed Sanders for Republican Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting, last month.)
Taylor’s talk drew on the inherent, though often overlooked, interrelation of racism and capitalism—how one form of oppression necessitates the other.
“Racism is the central divide between ordinary people in this country,” she said, “and without a struggle against it, it will be impossible to organize any coherent movement for anything.
… It is no mystery why socialism is no longer a dirty word in the United States. It is no mystery why thirteen million people voted for an open socialist—Bernie Sanders—in this country. Not only is this an indictment of capitalism’s failures, but it is also an expressed desire for a better way. We want real democracy, where the people who create the wealth in this society are entitled to have a say in how it is distributed. We want real freedom—freedom from racism, imprisonment, borders, detention, and second-class personhood.
Taylor later joined fellow ISO-er, Sharon Smith and Professor Barbara Ransby for a panel discussion with Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier—founding members of the Combahee River Collective. The panel reflected on the 40-year anniversary of the Collective’s founding, which presented a radical understanding of the intersectional relationship between the struggles against sexism, racism, and homophobia.
The Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement reads:
We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.
The authors went on:
“As Black women, we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”
Other talks examined the best strategies for fighting the resurgent white-supremacist, “alt-right,” which has brazenly mounted marches and rallies in even in the “bluest” of states in recent weeks.
College campuses, likewise, have seen an influx of high-profile right-wing figures invited to speak since Trump’s election. College presidents and administrators bend over backwards to allow provocative right-wing celebrities like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos to spew their hate-filled diatribes on campus because of “free speech” … or something… (But remember: Conservative college students are a persecuted minority at “liberal” universities, with no outlet whatsoever for their right-wing views.)
When confronted with protesting these campus speakers or right-wing rallies, those on the left are typically presented with two disparate options:
The liberal-left and Democratic Party’s position is to do nothing at all, claiming counter-protests only grant these conservative groups the attention they seek. They urge progressives, instead, to simply ignore the KKK marches in hopes, presumably, that they will just go away.
The approach of far-left groups like the anarchist, Black Bloc and “Antifa” (short for “Anti-fascist”) meanwhile, is the complete opposite. They seek to fight the right by literally beating the crap out of them in physical confrontations.
But both of these strategies have proven ineffective at counteracting the far-right.
Ignoring these groups does not cause them to go away. Quite the reverse, the lack of a visible opposition to their racist, xenophobic views tends to leave the right further emboldened, convincing them their views are more widely accepted than they actually are.
And, while I am all for punching fascists in the face, Captain America-style, this is often precisely what these right-wing demonstrators want. It inadvertently feeds into their public image as “persecuted” by the mean, free-speech-hating liberals. Additionally, these far-right groups traditionally have the backing–whether tacit, or explicit–of the police, the National Guard, and ex-military contractor thugs (like the kind deployed in Standing Rock, last winter).
In other words, these people–many of whom have recently returned from military deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan–are trained fighters. They can crush scrawny, unarmed leftists like you and me with little effort.
Thus, leftists need to devise an effective middle-ground strategy that peacefully (yet forcefully) confronts the far-right by drowning out their repugnant message with our own–one that is delivered in far greater numbers. Our goal should be to hold up socialism as a viable alternative for dispossessed workers who may find the right’s convenient immigrant and minority scapegoating an attractive narrative for why their own living standards have gone down.
“The left must seek … to educate a new generation about the need to challenge the far right through mass mobilization,” writes Socialist Worker‘s Eric Ruder. “This has to include education about struggles of the past, such as fighting fascism in Germany, as well as debates and discussions about strategy and tactics in the here and now.”
“And of course,” Ruder adds, “it means attempting to mobilize the largest possible response anywhere and everywhere” the right rears its ugly head.
Our branch members left conference feeling rejuvenated after a particularly difficult six months. We returned to Maine recommitted to the fight for building a broad, all-inclusive working-class left to overthrow capitalism and build a more just, egalitarian, and sustainable society.
As Karl Marx famously wrote:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
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