Taking the socialist moment forward

May 25, 2016

Neil Loehlein and Nico Judd report on the Socialism in the Air conference in Portland, Oregon, and the discussion about the questions facing the left today.

SOME 75 people from across Oregon and Washington came to the Socialism in the Air Conference at Portland State University (PSU) on April 30 to discuss what it will take to move socialism "from a moment to a movement."

Hosted at by the PSU International Socialist Organization, the event provided a venue to talk about key political questions raised by the Bernie Sanders campaign, such as how to win Sanders' campaign promises of free health care for all, free higher education, taxing the rich, reinvesting in public schools and a $15 minimum wage.

Sessions included everything from "What is Socialism and can it be achieved?" to "Black Liberation and the Struggle for Socialism."

Acknowledging the spirit behind support for the Sanders campaign, conference speakers argued for the need to build an independent alternative to the Democratic Party as well as movements to create the organization and political cohesion necessary to realize the reforms that Sanders discusses.

While Sanders' campaign has raised the level of interest and excitement around the idea of socialism, a clear concept of what socialism is and how to achieve it doesn't exist among a broad swath of people searching for alternatives to the status quo.

Paul D'Amato (right) speaks at the Socialism in the Air conference in Portland
Paul D'Amato (right) speaks at the Socialism in the Air conference in Portland (Wael Elasady | SW)

Paul D'Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, put forward the case that socialism, as Karl Marx saw it, is a society where working people make decisions on how society should be run, not the owners of big business, bankers and politicians. This is different from the social democracy of Sanders, which seeks to improve some of the most vicious elements of capitalism, while still maintaining a system where the bosses make the decisions.

D'Amato asserted that true socialism can only come about by the self-activity of the working class. It cannot merely be handed down by elected officials, however benevolent their intentions.

"It is really the mass struggle of ordinary working-class and oppressed people that...makes the potential for a different society," he explained, noting that these instances of mass struggle "are necessary to confront the powers in society and create the conditions in which society can be reorganized."

Long-time Bay Area activist and socialist Ragina Johnson emphasized the necessity to build movements against racism as part of the broader fight for a better society. She went on to explain how the #BlackLivesMatter Movement was instrumental at influencing Sanders and Hillary Clinton to take up issues of racism in society, as well as taking Clinton to task on her racist demonization of Black youth as "superpredators" and her role in supporting legislation that expanded mass incarceration in the 1990s.

Far from Barack Obama's election as president ushering in a "post-racial" society, Johnson noted that racism is "embedded into the heart of capitalism." Because of this, she argued:

The Black struggle is central to fight for the working class as a whole. Fighting racism in the here and now is key to breaking down the divisions and truly realizing our collective power. So, fighting for Black liberation and socialism is what will enable all of our struggles to move forward and gain strength toward our end goal of true human liberation.

DANNY KATCH, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, spoke on the role that lesser evilism plays in limiting the options of people seeking real change in the U.S. to two corporate parties, as well as the Democrats' historic role in co-opting and destroying social movements. He said:

Trying to build a left that's independent of the Democratic Party means many different things. Partly it means, in November, fighting for there to be options that people can vote for, like Jill Stein and the Green Party. But it also means fighting inside our movements for independence from the Democratic Party. And it means building groups like the ISO--revolutionary groups that are trying to spread a fundamental analysis of why we need this kind of independence.

He added that the left needs to understand and acknowledge the sentiment of people who want real change but are still going to vote Democrat because they hate and fear the idea of a Donald Trump presidency, but that we need to strive for the political space to bring up wider questions about the nature of the Democrats and their relationship to social movements.

History provides many examples in which the Democrats absorbed or destroyed movements for social change, including the late 19th century populist movement, the major labor struggles of the 1930s and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s. By providing a venue to discuss that history, the conference was able to offer a crucial perspective on the nature of social change.

The current political moment is far bigger than Bernie. As New York socialist Jen Roesch put it:

We have a fight that goes on beyond an election cycle. We have a fight that's not going to be won in the next year, by November, or even by 2020. It's actually a bigger fight, and we have to be able to create independent political alternatives, socialist alternatives and organization that helps answer the questions that emerge through struggle and also provides some continuity between struggles.

The conference attracted new, self-identified socialists who liked what they heard and are eager to learn more. Angela, a conference participant, said, "Their aim to is take the energy from what Bernie has instilled and turn it into something realistic, instead of being swallowed inside the machine. People here want to change the world for the benefit of all."

Roesch explained, "Ordinary people have the capacity to transform this world, and we need to build politics and organization that are up to that task. And, I think that's the first step from getting to a moment, which can feel very ephemeral, to a movement that can actually begin to leverage the capacity of ordinary people to transform their world."

The Socialism in the Air Conference was a small, but important step toward this goal.

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