Breathing in the socialism in the air

July 7, 2016

Nicole Colson reports from the Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago on July 1-4.

THE SOCIALISM 2016 conference in Chicago on July 1-4 drew together some 1,400 people on the front lines of the struggle for a better world.

This year's theme "Socialism in the air" was fitting in the aftermath of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that made the word "socialism" common once more to large numbers of people.

But Socialism 2016 wasn't about attendees listening to the various speakers and panelists at the over 140 sessions. Throughout, they engaged in discussion about radical politics, past and present, debating the work we're doing today and the arguments and implications for our movements, while forging links between activists in the U.S. and around the globe.

For many people, that meant filling their arms with publications from the massive Haymarket Books room, including titles like From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Socialism...Seriously, plus copies of the journal International Socialist Review. Plus there were the intense discussions that lasted beyond the meetings, spilling over into the hallways between sessions and lasting through parties late into the evening.

In line to contribute to the discussion at Socialism 2016
In line to contribute to the discussion at Socialism 2016 (Josh On | SW)

Student Kelsey Aaron from Burlington, Vermont, who attended her first Socialism conference, said: "I just want to learn about all of these issues and the socialist perspective, and meet all these amazing people and hear their perspectives. And that's what I've found."

ONE THEME running through the conference was the need to build solidarity--in our movements, and among activists and struggles.

That was something Leela Yellesetty, a Seattle ISO member and activist, took from the session on "Unite and Fight: The Politics of Solidarity in the Anti-Racist Struggle," presented by Anton Ford.

Ford's talk, Yellesetty said, "laid out one of the clearest, sharpest cases for interracial solidarity I've heard. It had a great use of metaphor, for example, challenging the formulation that racism is a byproduct of capitalism. That implies it serves no purpose. When you're sawing wood to make a house, sawdust is a byproduct. Racism isn't sawdust--it's the saw."

What unites various forms of oppression and the resistance to them was a theme throughout the weekend. On the first night of the conference, SW contributor and activist Khury Petersen-Smith and Detroit-based freelance writer Kristian Davis Bailey--both organizers of the Black Solidarity with Palestine statement---joined Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah and New York City activist Sofia Arias for a panel discussion on "Toward Justice: A Case for Black-Palestinian Solidarity."

Davis Bailey called the meeting "one of the most inspiring talks on Palestine many of us had experienced." In his presentation, he stated:

I have never seen Black solidarity with Palestine as a single-focused issue, but rather a gateway for us to both expand our own sense of the global nature of our struggle, and to connect with Africans, Arabs, [email protected], Asians, and indigenous peoples globally. Palestine can be a starting point for future engagement and cross-pollination with other global struggles.

Later in the weekend, Davis Bailey attended a roundtable discussion on "Black Politics After Obama," featuring University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Barbara Ransby, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author and Rutgers University Professor Donna Murch, and Johns Hopkins Professor Lester Spence.

NATURALLY, ELECTION 2016 was another theme of the weekend--along with the dangers posed by the growth of the right wing, whether in the form of Donald Trump's populist rhetoric or the more threatening growth of the far right in Europe.

Arguing against the politics of lesser-evilism, New York City activist and SW contributor Jen Roesch spoke at a meeting with Jacobin magazine founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara on "Anybody but Trump?" Roesch stated:

[T]his question is not just about what you do on the second Tuesday in November. This question is about what you commit your life to, and understanding that we have to build a process that goes beyond the ballot box and that's not dictated by the election cycle, but is dictated by confidence in our side and by the necessity of building an independent, working-class, socialist alternative to this system.

In a session on "Islamophobia in the Age of Demogogues," Palestinian rights activist and Electronic Intifada associate editor Rania Khalek likewise stressed the opportunities to build the left in the current moment.

I think there's a new sense of--I don't want to say "hope" is the right word--but a new sense of optimism about the ability to move forward...It does feel like the things that we're talking about used to be more abstract, and now it feels like there are concrete things we can do now.

As Ragina Johnson told the crowd at a final plenary session of Socialism:

The elections are a reflection of so many dynamics at play that can give rise to reaction: racism, hate, homophobia, sexism. But there's another side to this. The left can grow in this period, too. And importantly, as socialists, we think building the revolutionary left today is key.

The pervasiveness of racism--particularly in the form of police violence--but also the long history of anti-racist resistance were also main topics of discussion at Socialism 2016.

"It's always great to come to the Socialism conference," said University of Illinois at Chicago professor Barbara Ransby, who spoke on "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement" and as part of a panel discussion about "Black Politics After Obama." "I love the energy, the passion and the commitment of the people who come to this conference. It was a great conversation, and there's more work to be done."

IT WAS hard for many attendees to pick a single favorite session.

Activist Haley Pessin pointed to "Europe: Crisis, Refugees and Xenophobia--Devising a Left Response," featuring British trade unionist and revolutionary socialism in the 21st century member Charlotte Bence and leading Greek socialist Antonis Davanellos, for being "incredibly clear on the immediate tasks for socialists in a difficult period--not an easy thing to do!--and on the need to link anti-austerity to the fight for immigrant rights and open borders. Two sharp, insightful and hopeful presentations."

For her part, Bence said that a session featuring Gerry Carroll--a newly elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from the People Before Profit Alliance--on "The Fight Against Austerity in Ireland" was "super sharp" and provided "lots for us on the English left to learn from our comrades in Northern Ireland."

Danny Katch, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, picked educator Brian Jones' session on "The Making of Black Revolutionaries on Campus" for being an "amazing talk about the rich history of Black student struggles starting way before the 1960s, and how the contradiction that is always there between what students want to get out of their education and what capitalism wants them to get out of has always been that much sharper for Black students."

A number of sessions featured young activists talking about the new wave of struggles among radical students--both in the U.S. and abroad--fighting for justice on the campuses and far beyond.

Everett Pelzman, a student and ISO member from Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, singled out the session on "From Mexico to Quebec: The New Student Movements" as his favorite. "It was great to hear students in the room talking about the struggles they've been involved in on their campuses in the past year, and hearing how those confirmed my own experiences on campus last year," he said.

For many people, the Saturday evening plenary session--featuring brief remarks by Verizon worker Amy Muldoon and Chicago Teachers Union member Kirstin Roberts, followed by keynote addresses by From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capitalism author Sharon Smith--was the big highlight.

Smith and Taylor brought the whole history of the struggle of the exploited and oppressed to bear in talking about the challenges that face radicals today--challenges that will be aided by the return of an identification with socialism brought about by the Bernie Sanders campaign, but which will need deeper roots.

"Our strike contributed something really critical," Muldoon said. "Socialism is in the air. But you know what the heart of socialism is to me? It's solidarity, and it's class struggle...It's about the power that working-class people have to bring the system to its knees."

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