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Socialism 2004: Ideas that can change the world

June 25, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

NICOLE COLSON reports on Socialism 2004--a weekend of political discussion that drew more than 1,000 people to Chicago to discuss and decide how to change the world.

"HOW CAN we stop the war in Iraq?" "What can teachers do to organize against school cuts?" "What will it take to stop the racist death penalty?" Those were just a few of the questions asked at Socialism 2004, the annual conference co-sponsored by Socialist Worker June 17-20--and answered by the more than 1,000 activists and socialists who came from across the U.S. and around the world for the conference.

Socialism 2004 was the largest gathering of revolutionary socialists in the U.S. in many years. During the more than 100 workshops throughout the weekend, people were able not only to take up questions, but debate and discuss the ideas that can change the world.

"I think it's important, because, for one thing, it reminds us all that there is a network of people who are involved in these ideas and organizing and agitating for real change," said Ben Kwoba, a student from Ithaca, N.Y. "In that sense, it's very inspirational and stimulating just as a forum to remember that our struggle is collective one, and that we're not on our own.

Activists from a range of movements across the U.S. were represented--from former death row inmates fighting against executions, to members of military families and student groups organizing to end the U.S. war and occupation on Iraq. "I thought it was really powerful to think of all those people in those unions, and what that represents--the power that represents for social change," said Barbara Pose, a Chicago teacher who attended a workshop on teachers' struggles against budget cuts.

Socialism 2004 was also a place to learn the lessons of past struggles, from the history of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in the 1960s, to the struggle against the Vietnam War. It also provided a forum for the discussion of larger theoretical questions--like the meaning of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party.

"I'm really glad I was able to come out here," said Max Eisenburger, an antiwar and human rights activist from New York. "Just to see so many people headed towards revolutionary ideas and change is very refreshing, given the context of what we live in our normal lives. It's great to see all of these people, when normally I think we feel like we're sort of in the minority with our ideas."

The highlight for many people was the presence well-known left activists and authors, such as anti-apartheid and global justice activist Dennis Brutus, Alternative Radio host David Barsamian, Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman and former California death row prisoner and anti-death penalty activist Shujaa Graham. "There's such optimism, energy and enthusiasm," said Jeffrey St. Clair, the coeditor of CounterPunch and a featured speaker at Socialism along with fellow CounterPuncher Alexander Cockburn.

"Imagine walking into a DNC session at the Democratic convention. It would be like walking into a morgue. So this is great, particularly considering all of the pressure and the media hype about the election. It's wonderful to find this kind of enthusiasm outside the accepted bounds of the duopoly.

"I speak at a lot of places, and this is not always the kind of crowd that I'm confronted with. It also strikes me that it's very young, and that's great, because there is a sort of conventional wisdom that the younger generation has become apolitical, if not shifted back to the right. I think it's bogus, and this helps prove the lie."

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MORE THAN 100 meetings took place over the Socialism 2004 weekend, on topics ranging from today's struggles for justice and freedom, to the ideas of the socialist tradition, to debates on political theory. Here, SW prints excerpts from a few of the presentations.

Military Families Speak Out Against the War in Iraq

LOU PLUMMER is on the national coordinating committee of the Bring Them Home Now! campaign and works with Military Families Speak Out. He is a veteran and the father of an active-duty U.S. sailor.

MY DAD is a Vietnam veteran, and I grew up in a military family, in a military town and lived in lots of different military bases across the country. One of the strongest memories that I have is from the period of 1971-1972, when my father was spending his second year in Vietnam.

We lived at Fort Bragg. Military bases aren't a bad place to live--there are lots of playgrounds in the center of the housing areas. As a 7-year-old kid, that's where I spent a lot of time, until those days when we would see the car that we all knew meant that we should go home--because it carried the casualty identification two-person team that would go to houses to tell people that the man at that house who was in Vietnam was either dead or missing.

That's one of the earliest memories that I have from my childhood, and that sucks. Think of the men that you know--and especially think of your own father--and you're running home and praying that that car's not going to your house because you know what it means. That's a hell of a burden to put on 7-year-old kids.

What our country is doing right now is putting that burden on another generation of children, and it's up to people like us in this room to lift that burden off of them. Because nobody deserves to grow up that way--not in the Untied States, not in Great Britain, not in Palestine and not in Iraq.

This being an election year, people will ask those of us who are in the antiwar movement, and particularly in the Military Families Speak Out, "Isn't this just part of an anti-Bush agenda?" Yes, it is. But here are a couple of quotes:

"We owe it to our soldiers and marines to use absolutely every tool we can muster to help them succeed in their mission without exposing them to unnecessary risk. That is not a partisan proposal, it is a matter of national honor and trust." That's from John Kerry.

"If our military commanders requested more troops, we should deploy them." That's from John Kerry. So it's part of an anti-Bush agenda, but it's certainly not a pro-Kerry agenda by any stretch of the imagination.

The other argument that we get is one that should be very familiar to those of you who have studied history--that if we bring our troops home now, won't they all have died in vain because we didn't finish the mission? That's what people were saying during the 1968 election, and Richard Nixon got elected with a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam--and elected not to bring our troops home. And 30,000 more died in vain. If we don't bring our troops home now, every single one of them that dies from this day forward will have died in vain, and we have got to stop that.

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Women and Islam

SHARON SMITH writes the "Which Side Are You On?" column in Socialist Worker and is a frequent contributor to International Socialist Review.

THE ASSUMPTION that the Muslim tradition of covering women--and also, for the record, of covering men--is somehow inherently more oppressive to women than the coercive uncovering that exists in the West fails to get at the crux of the problem. The freedom to uncover can bring women no closer to women's liberation as long as we live in a sexist society.

We all do live in a sexist society. In societies the world over, uncovering just leads to greater sexual objectification. Anyone who sat through the last Super Bowl--and, of course, I'm not talking about Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction," I'm talking about the Budweiser ads--is well aware of the demeaning and misogynist images of women that the "right to uncover" has led to in our own society.

What is interesting, however, is that Western feminists, with very few exceptions going back to the era of colonialism, have historically supported their own imperialist powers when they tend to ban the veiling of women. The Egyptian feminist Leila Ahmed summarizes the role of Western feminism this way: "Feminism on the home front, invented and directed against white men, was to be resisted and suppressed. But taken abroad and directed against the culture of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served the project of the dominance of the white man."

The issue of women and Islam, therefore, cannot be viewed merely as a "women's issue." It cannot be separated from the racism that is inherent to, and a justification for, imperialism.

It's no wonder that in today's world--in which everything Muslim is vilified by the West, as the West wages war on the entire Muslim world--millions of Muslim women are making the choice to wear a headscarf as a symbol of cultural and religious pride in Islam. That decision must be respected by everybody who believes in women's rights and who opposes imperialism the world over.

No matter where they live, women should be free to dress in any way that they choose. Without that right, women's liberation is meaningless.

Furthermore, to view Muslim women as helpless victims--which is what this ideology does--who need to be forced by imperialist law to stop wearing the veil so that they will stop "colluding" in their own oppression does not allow Muslim women the right to determine their own destiny. In reality, women in the Muslim world have a long history of struggle in their own right and will play a decisive role in the struggle for their future rights.

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The Fight for Labor's Future

GREGG SHOTWELL is a longtime activist in United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2151. He publishes the rank-and-file newsletter Live Bait & Ammo.

THE UAW was originally organized by communists and socialists. The Reuther brothers--the founding fathers, so to speak--saw the world from a socialist perspective. After World War Two, some compromises were made. Perhaps in the context of the time, those decisions were pragmatic, but as a result, we do not today have a union with an independent world view.

We have instead a union entirely dependent on the dog-eat-dog paradigm of capitalism. The UAW does not rely on solidarity and direct action. The new UAW relies on corporate benevolence.

Last year, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger described a negotiated pay cut at American Axle as an opportunity for UAW members to "share in the abundance." He said this with a perfectly straight face because he believes it. That is his world view--that workers' must sacrifice for the good of the corporation.

The new UAW strives to be a partner with business. The new UAW doesn't represent so much as they manage workers for the corporation. Whereas Walter Reuther once said we must take the labor out of the competition, the new UAW encourages speedups, unequal pay for equal work, profit sharing--and above all, that buzzword of all buzzwords, competition.

I don't believe it is possible to reform the bureaucracy of Solidarity House. Appealing to the conscience of the office rats of Solidarity House is like knocking on the door of a deaf man. He is not going to answer. It's not even a fair question.

I believe we need to go directly to the source of the opportunity, the heart of the struggle. The battle lines on the shop floor are clear. Bosses are breaking our bones and stealing bread from our tables.

The only humanly fulfilling alternative to the relentless triumph of profit at the expense of workers is unions. This will be effected by our success or failure to organize a labor union based on the values and principles of socialism.

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Karl Marx and the Meaning of Marxism

ALAN MAASS is the editor of Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism.

ONE OF the main knocks on Marxism is that it's deterministic--that we believe that what develops in the economic sphere has a direct and undistorted reflection in changes in the political and social sphere. But that's simply not the case.

Actually, Karl Marx's entire account of history is built around the idea that the potential for developments in the way that people produce is stifled by the existing organization of society, both at the economic base and in the political, legal and ideological structure of society.

Or as Marx put it more formally: "At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production...From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution."

All this can be illustrated by looking at capitalism today. Capitalism has produced technological and intellectual advances that would have been unimaginable under previous societies--and which created the possibility for the first time of eliminating scarcity and eliminating poverty forever. But like in all previous forms of society, a system that was once revolutionary has become the opposite.

The potential to make new advances in the way that people use resources and produce things to meet their needs has come into conflict with capitalism's social structure--dominated by a ruling class that puts its own wealth and power first. The expression of this can be seen in many ways.

HIV/AIDS, for example, was once a death sentence. But today, new drugs exist that have extended the lives of sufferers. So why aren't they available to every since person infected with HIV?

Because they're owned by pharmaceutical companies whose mission isn't to produce and distribute drugs where they're needed, but to make a profit. To put the matter in Marxist terms, the social relations of capitalism--the system of private property--are a fetter on the further development of the productive forces of society in improving the quality of all people's lives.

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Is There a White Skin Privilege?

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR is a contributor to the International Socialist Review and active in the International Socialist Organization and Equal Marriage Now in Chicago.

WE NEED a materialist understanding of what racism is. Marxists do not see racism as something that has always existed and is part of human nature. Nor do we see racism existing and being perpetuated purely within the realm of ideas.

Rather, it's systemic--it's part of the core of the capitalist system itself. The Marxist argument is that racism developed as a way to excuse and then explain slavery at a time when slavery was at its heyday, yet at the same time, there was a flowering of the ideas of the Enlightenment--when people were talking about freedom and equality.

The only way to explain how you can have freedom and equality while slavery exists is to say that the Africans were less than human--they were something less than men and that therefore they should not enjoy the same rights as white men. When slavery ended, however, there was still a need to oppress based on race, and that was used as a tool to divide poor Black and white farmers across the South, and poor Black and white wage earners across the North.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave, put it succinctly: "The hostility between the whites and the Blacks of the South is easily explained. Both are plundered by the same plunderers. And if hostility was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them, they divided both to conquer each."

Adherents to the idea of white skin privilege--even if they proclaim themselves to be radicals or revolutionaries--view racism as liberals do. That is, they see racism as purely about ideas and attitudes. Therefore, they see the primary way of overcoming racism as a matter of personal transformation instead of societal transformation.

Marxists argue that because racism is tied up in the foundations of capitalist society, it isn't enough for individuals just to declare themselves race traitors. While being an anti-racist is obviously critical, it isn't enough in itself to end the systematic racial oppression that afflicts this society.

The Marxist argument is that you have to fundamentally change society in order to get rid of racism, and you have to wage a fight against racism in every instance in order to foster unity and make such a change possible.

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