Where socialism was in the air

July 6, 2011

Nicole Colson reports from Chicago on the Socialism 2011 conference--a gathering of important left voices and activists from both the U.S. and around the globe.

MORE THAN 1,300 socialists and activists from across the U.S. and around the globe turned out in Chicago July 1-4 for "Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air," sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and cosponsored by the International Socialist Organization.

The conference is the largest annual gathering of socialists in the U.S.--this year's was the largest single conference in the more than two decades that it has been held. Multiracial and multi-generational, participants expressed new optimism about fighting for a better world, especially after the inspiring revolutions and rebellions in the Middle East, and the mass workers' protests in Madison, Wis.

As he began his discussion of "Civil Liberties Under Obama," Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald told the crowd:

I speak at a lot of events these days, a lot of college campuses and conferences and the like, and this is definitely the most--what's the word?...energetic gathering that I've ever been at.

It's interesting, a lot of times, that if people gather for the purpose of engaging in systemic critiques of political systems and political power and the like, this sort of gloominess sets in--I'm sure you're familiar with it and have encountered it--that's grounded in this defeatism...

The exact opposite energy has been really palpable at this conference. Not just this commitment to talking about the need for change, but a real belief in the possibility for it. It's really encouraging and inspiring to be around a gathering of so many people from so many different age groups and backgrounds who really are committed to that vision.

Socialism 2011 participants join in a final rally to cheer the struggles unfolding around the world
Socialism 2011 participants join in a final rally to cheer the struggles unfolding around the world (Jeff Boyette | SW)

Phil Smith, an ISO member in Denton, Texas, was at his first Socialism conference. "I thought it was excellent," he said, "I live in a very conservative state and, by necessity, [left-wing activists are] very close in Texas. It's really great to come up to Chicago and have people from all over the country. You don't even know these people, and you're instantly just as close-knit. I've never experienced anything like this."

Smith said one of the best meetings he attended was SocialistWorker.org columnist Sherry Wolf speaking on "The Myths of Zionism." "The energy in the room was really fantastic," he said. "Everyone in the room was for [Palestinian liberation], and it was interesting being in a room with 80 people totally down for Palestine. A room of atheists, Jews, Muslims."

THERE WERE more than 120 talks throughout the weekend on topics ranging from the Marxist theory of the state, to the need for a new abortion rights movement, to the uprisings in the Middle East.

Talks by Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, were packed with Palestinian rights activists talking about their attempts to promote the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Meanwhile, at a meeting on "Abortion Without Apology: The Case for a New Movement," a packed room of activists from across the U.S. spoke not just of the need for a new women's rights movement, but of what they are doing now to make it happen.

Lindie Ngobeni, a member of the ISO from Boston who also was attending the conference for the first time, said, "It was awesome to see just how many people there were attending. I've been at UMass-Boston organizing, and to actually see this on a bigger scale puts things in perspective--what you're building for when you're doing something on your campus, and what it's part of in the larger sense."

Mark Clements, an organizer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and former prisoner who served 28 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, said, "It was an exciting opportunity to allow people to grow." He spoke along with Leela Yellesetty on "Challenging the New Jim Crow."

Clements added: "That's what activism is all about, teaching people about what needs to be confronted. We're dealing with so many different issues--from housing, to discrimination of rights, down to juveniles being mistreated by our criminal justice system. I think that [the conference] was dynamite. I'm waiting on next year already."

Dr. John Carlos--the 1968 Olympic medalist who, along with Tommy Smith, raised the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Games--also spoke at Socialism. "To come back to the Socialism conference is fantastic--to see so many young, enthusiastic people trying to make it a better society for all people and have no fear for who the enemy may be," he said. "They are trying to make what's wrong right."

Carlos spoke alongside Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, on "Sports and Resistance," and he also premiered his book The John Carlos Story, cowritten with Zirin. As Carlos said, "For me to come back and have an opportunity to convey some of my thoughts and feelings, and some of my history and my experiences, it's a wonderful feeling."

SOME OF the most inspiring moments of the weekend came from activists from the Middle East who have witnessed firsthand the power of ordinary people to change the world.

"We are at a moment now where we see the utter bankruptcy of the political system in this country as a vehicle for progressive change on any issue," Ali Abunimah told a packed plenary session of more than 1,000 people. "If we want this change to happen, we're going to have to go out and do it ourselves, just like they're doing it in Egypt."

Mostafa Omar, an activist living in Cairo, spoke of the importance of bringing together activists from various struggles not only around the U.S., but across the globe:

The thing that I really got from the conference is that there are so many socialists and activists involved in a wide variety of struggles--many, many struggles all around this country. If you look at them from the inside, they might look small. But if you look at the bigger picture, these struggles are incredibly important, whether they win or lose. Every single struggle in the United States really is a stepping stone towards developing consciousness and organization.

The other thing that I noticed is the tremendous amount of commitment from those socialists and activists on a daily basis. A commitment, not only to fight those small struggles, but to prepare for a bigger battle to change the whole system. We've also had many, many small struggles in Egypt--and sometimes, people didn't know where these struggles would go. But ultimately, every single struggle they fought over the years made a difference in January and February 2011.

These are lessons that activists in the U.S. are learning as well. At the weekend's final plenary session, Sam Jordan, a long-time member of the ISO in Madison, Wis., spoke about the battle over workers' rights in Wisconsin:

We're at a point where we can see the day when...we can cast aside the parasites who exploit us every day. There's a real possibility to build a socialist movement in the United States, capable of ushering in a society that is organized to meet human need, not corporate greed.

Recordings from many of the conference talks will be available at WeAreMany.org.

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