Bringing Marxism to a new generation

May 19, 2015

If you haven't already, it's time to make plans to be at Socialism 2015 in Chicago.

A RECENT poll found that socialism is as popular as capitalism among people under 30--which isn't surprising given that this group of people has spent its entire adulthood living in the shadow of the world economic crisis of 2008-09.

That crisis, triggered by the widespread thievery of the mega-banks and Wall Street, led in turn to a political crisis that has continued to this day, with political leaders across the world--liberals and conservatives, dictators and elected officials--all forcing their people to pay the price for bailing out the criminal bankers.

Seven years later, the economic crisis is over, and "our" economy has supposedly recovered, but the blatant injustice of the bank bailouts has persisted. The rich and powerful and their protectors don't even pretend they can't get away with whatever they want: Politicians buy elections, corporations don't pay taxes, and police murder unarmed people on camera in broad daylight.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are realizing that layoffs, pension cuts, multiple wars and increased surveillance that many hoped were temporary until things got back to normal aren't going anywhere--because this is the new normal.

THE SENSE that capitalism doesn't work has led to a resistance around the world over the past five years, from revolutions in the Middle East to powerful student movements in Chile and Quebec, to grassroots struggles like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in the U.S.

The radical character of these movements can be seen not only in their anger and defiance, but in the sense among many protesters that there is a fundamental problem with our entire political and economic system, a common enemy that connects different movements to one another and requires that we build solidarity with all those fighting for justice, from Palestinians to trans activists and much more.

But this radicalization is emerging after a 30-year period in which the left in the U.S. and around the world endured an overwhelming series of defeats: Strikes were broken and factories relocated; left-wing leaders were murdered or co-opted; mass organizations collapsed and were replaced by a sea of undemocratic and foundation-funded non-profit organizations.

Alongside these historic defeats developed corresponding defeatist theories on the left to explain--and sometimes justify--what was taking place. Many of them argued that mass movements against exploitation and oppression couldn't win and that activists could only hope to defeat them in their own daily lives and social networks.

As a result, many people who are becoming radical in response to a world that screams out for revolution are being schooled by the ideas of a previous generation, whose political ambitions were much lower, and so they often find themselves caught in contradictions.

They reach out for solidarity, but often using language and theories that put more emphasis on what divides oppressed people than on what can unite them. They see the need for revolutionary change, but they read the writings of leftists who claim that revolutions must end in tyranny and that those who call for revolution are tyrants in waiting.

Marxism, the revolutionary socialist philosophy based on working class self-emancipation, has been marginalized in the U.S. for several generations. But it can make a major contribution to today's movements.

The dialectical understanding of Marxism about how capitalism creates inside itself the forces that can blossom into the foundation of a more just and sustainable society addresses how we can envision revolution beyond abstract slogans. Socialist theories about the intersectional relationships between exploitation and various forms of oppression--and socialists long history of building movements that unite working people--offer many lessons about how real solidarity can be built.

But Marxism has also suffered from the long decades of defeats, which left socialists few in number and often isolated from working class resistance and other radical currents.

THE ANNUAL Socialism conference, sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and co-sponsored by the International Socialist Organization--which publishes Socialist Worker--is designed to address both of these needs: for new radicals to discover and explore Marxism, and for Marxism to renew itself in order to be capable of helping to lead a new radical historical moment.

This year's conference takes place over four days, from July 2 through July 5. (Yes, it takes place over the July 4 weekend--what better way to spend the holiday than by discussing with hundreds of other people how to finally make the rhetoric we hear about freedom and democracy become reality?)

The heart of the conference is a series of more than 100 meetings taking place from Thursday morning through Sunday afternoon.

Some sessions--like the ones called "Slavery and the origins of racism" and "The universal class: why workers can liberate humanity"--are introductions to fundamental concepts. Others--like "Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" and "William Z Foster's syndicalism: a forgotten bridge in labor history"--are meant to revive the ideas of important socialist thinkers and organizers who are not as widely known today as they should be.

There are also forums on international politics, from Mexico to Venezuela to Greece to Syria; panel discussions featuring activists from grassroots movements, such as those against police violence and corporate education reform; and sessions that take up key questions on the left today, from identity politics to the type of new left-wing parties that need to be built.

For people at their first Socialism conference, the combination of the breadth of meeting topics and the depth of each session into can make a powerful impression. "We all live in communities where you can feel a little bit like you're stuck in your own little region--where your problems, specific to your locale, are all you think about," one activist new to the conference told Socialist Worker after last year's conference. "To come to a conference like this really widens things up."

People leave most sessions feeling like they just scratched the surface of the various topics, which is why there will be throngs of people flowing through the enormous book room set up by Haymarket Books, which has hundreds of titles, ranging from the collected works of Vladimir Lenin to a great selection of radical kids' books.

The enthusiasm for the Haymarket room underscores one of the things that makes the Socialism conference unique--the incredible thirst for ideas that permeates every minute of the weekend, spilling out from meetings into animated discussions in the hallways and even extending into the parties and performances that run deep into the night.

There are other important left-wing conferences. Some bring together a wide variety politics, which is useful for networking, but less so for moving forward with a common plan. Others focus on practical skills and training for specific movements, but don't provide space for larger political questions.

What makes the Socialism conference unique is that it is organized by socialists with a clear vision of the future and analysis of those larger questions, but that draws on a wide range of speakers and attendees, making it a place of genuine debate and mutual exchange.

As Palestinian activist and spoken word artist Remi Kanazi said about last year's conference:

I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was dynamic. There was intense critical engagement, where people would present on stage, and people would come in and give alternative theses or critiques, and there wasn't a defensiveness. It was about movement-building.

The project of reviving socialist ideas and building a new left depends on bringing together a new generation of radicals--along with all those people who have been active in left-wing politics for years--to discover the powerful revolutionary socialist tradition, master it and make it their own.

We hope all of our readers at join us in Chicago over the July 4 weekend to keep that process moving forward.

Further Reading

From the archives