Socialism in the air

July 3, 2013

From a transcontinental speech by Glenn Greenwald to the discussions at dozens of workshops, the Socialism 2013 conference inspired and educated, reports Alan Maass.

THE ANNUAL Socialism conference brought more than 1,300 people to Chicago on June 27-30 for a long weekend of education, discussion and debate about radical politics and the struggle for social change.

All told, there were close to 150 sessions between Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, on subjects ranging from the history of the struggle against racism, to the roots of the democracy protests in Turkey, to Marxist theories of economic crisis, to working-class literature in the U.S. in the 1930s. Attendance figures were several dozen shy of last year's conference, but the energy of those who attended Socialism 2013--sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) and cosponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO)--was no less intense.

One highlight was a late-evening plenary session featuring left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald. He was scheduled to speak in person at Socialism, but has been busy over the last month panicking the American political establishment with exposés revealing the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying.

Leaders of struggles for education justice nationwide spoke out at Socialism 2013
Leaders of struggles for education justice nationwide spoke out at Socialism 2013

Unable to come back to the U.S. for the conference--in part for fear of a vindictive prosecution by the Obama administration--Greenwald asked to speak via a live Internet hookup for his first public address since the NSA revelations broke. His words were heard by a cheering crowd of more than 1,000--and the video of his speech, posted at, has since been watched by more than 100,000 people.

Greenwald was introduced by author and filmmaker Jeremy Scahill, whose new movie Dirty Wars casts a spotlight on the crimes committed by the U.S. in the name of the "war on terror." "What Glenn Greenwald has done with his reporting over these last weeks," Scahill said, "is to shake the foundations of power in Washington and in the national security state."

Greenwald paid tribute to the whistle-blower who was the source for his articles on the NSA's mass surveillance programs: Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee. Greenwald described Snowden's reasons for taking an action that could land him in prison for the rest of his life, or worse:

What he ultimately said is that he simply didn't want to live in a world where the U.S. government was permitted to engage in these extraordinary invasions--to build a system that had as its goal the destruction of all individual privacy. He said that he didn't want to live in a world like that, and he could not in conscience stand by and allow that to happen, knowing that he had the power to help stop it.

Snowden's "contagious" courage, Greenwald said, holds a lesson for all of us:

If you take a courageous step as an individual, you will literally change the world, because you will affect all sorts of people in your immediate vicinity, who will then affect others, who will then affect others. You should never doubt your ability to change the world.

ANOTHER PLENARY session the following night brought together teachers, students and parents involved in struggles across the country against the assault on public education.

Educators from New York City to Chicago to Seattle described how the offensive by corporate school deformers is affecting them, from the standardized testing frenzy that has twisted school curriculums to the escalating pressure for layoffs and concessions. Two parents from Chicago who helped lead the fight against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's drive to close more than 50 elementary schools gave an emotional account of the impact on their communities.

Several Chicago Public Schools students were among the speakers, too--including 9-year-old Asean Johnson, now famous for his fiery rally speech in May against school closings. At Socialism, Asean pointed out the unfairness of Rahm Emanuel's kids attending a high-quality private school while public schools close for lack of funding. "That is not fair to us and to the people of the city of Chicago and all over the country," he said.

The panel discussion also gave a sense of the growing resistance to the attack on our schools, with Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Vice President Jesse Sharkey and teacher activist Jen Johnson drawing lessons from the CTU strike last September for the struggles ahead.

And those were just the big meetings. There dozens and dozens of other sessions, and whether there were 20 people or 200 in the crowd, they were inspiring and stimulating. Dave Courtenay-Quirk of Atlanta attended his first Socialism conference 19 years ago, but was all the more impressed this time by:

the level of intellectual intensity--how willing people are to revisit old certainties and investigate new things and open ourselves up to the experiences of different movements. It really shows that the ISO and Haymarket are really at the core of new radical awakening. It's clear that we have a long way to go, but it's also clear that we're a part of that.

Hani Shukrallah, one of Egypt's most respected radical journalists and a featured speaker at several sessions at Socialism, had a similar reaction: "There's a freshness and energy that's really inspiring. It's been rather a lonely world for revolutionary Marxists for most of our lives, and to feel that you're part of something much bigger is really very inspiring."

SOCIALISM ORGANIZERS put a special emphasis this year on a series of meetings about the oppression of women, gender and sexuality, and the struggle for liberation. Presenters and audience members alike discussed how Marxists and other theorists have confronted these questions, theoretically and practically.

Jesse Muldoon, a teacher from Oakland, Calif., who led a discussion on "Engels, the family and social reproduction," said the discussions were:

able to balance theory and history with strategies for struggle. Every discussion brought up debates and new ideas, with tremendous enthusiasm and insight. Discussions around women's oppression need to address the day-to-day experiences of oppression that women face, as well as grapple with complex theories about the role of women's oppression and sexism in our society.

To continue their education and engagement after Socialism, many attendees walked away with books--lots and lots of them. Haymarket Books, a project of conference sponsor CERSC, had a room half the size of a football field to lay out literally thousands of books from Haymarket and other publishers.

"It's hard to find such a concentrated collection of radical titles," said Rory Fanning, who works for Haymarket. "If you go to the bookstore, you might see one or two, but we bring them all together. People think the Haymarket book room is a highlight of the Socialism conference. Some sign up for the conference just to browse the book room.

But as important as education and discussion is, Socialism attendees were also thinking about how to put the ideas they talked about over the weekend to use. It was a point Glenn Greenwald brought up in his speech:

I really do love this conference. There's no conference quite like it in terms of the vibrancy and diversity and electricity and energy of the people who attend. I genuinely leave inspired each time that I've attended...

[U]nlike a lot of conferences that I attend and political events I speak at, this conference is really focused not only on identifying political grievances, which is an extremely important thing to do, but also thinking about how to construct activism designed to find solutions to those grievances...

It's really the predominant theme--this idea that there's really no point in talking about political problems and systemic injustices if you're not simultaneously grappling with the question of what I, as an individual, can do about it.

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