The building blocks of Socialism

May 30, 2017

This year's Socialism conference in Chicago offers an opportunity to distill the lessons of today's struggles and to build socialist organization to transmit them in the future.

THE CONTRAST couldn't be more stark--at the same time that Donald Trump's war on immigrants, workers and democracy grinds on, the audience for socialist ideas continues to grow.

It seems like a lot longer than a year ago when Bernie Sanders's socialist campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was shocking pundits with its popularity and outperforming all expectations.

Now, more than four months into the Trump presidency, it would be easy to pronounce that time some strange aberration. Did that even happen?

Instead, Trump's amped-up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is sowing fear across the U.S., and despite the steady stream of scandals hammering its credibility, his administration is still trying to ram through its agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, increases in defense spending and budget cuts for social services.

But there are actually plenty of signs that the opening for rebuilding socialist politics and organization in the United States persists.

One measure is the large turnouts for left-wing events and meetings, such as the 3,000-plus who packed into Chicago's famous Auditorium Theater in May to hear global justice campaigner Naomi Klein and mass incarceration critic Michelle Alexander in a discussion moderated by author and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

The crowd at the Socialism conference
The crowd at the Socialism conference

Another measure is the marked increase in attendance at meetings of socialist organization such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Socialist Worker's publisher.

Yet another is the record number of registrations for the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago. Already, more than 1,100 people are registered to attend the event, which SW co-sponsors along with the ISO, Haymarket Books, the International Socialist Review and Jacobin magazine.

This year, there will be no shortage of presentations and performances by famous figures such as actor John Cusack, NFL defensive end Michael Bennett, comedian Hari Kondabolu, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.

But the heart of the Socialism conference is the dozens of sessions that focus on the theory, history and politics of socialism from below--with introductions given by people engaged in the day-to-day work of building activist campaigns and struggles for justice in the U.S. and around the world.

HISTORY DOESN'T remember all the many organizers and activists who made the most important social changes possible. Even when our side wins victories, they are skipped over in favor of the media focus on the words and actions of the powerful.

The Socialism conference puts the focus where we think it belongs--on the people who spend so many hours discussing, strategizing and organizing in order to change the world.

Consider some of the recent struggles you've read about at The mobilization to defend Carimer Andujar from the threat of deportation. Or Jose Charles--false charges of felony assault of a police officer were dropped by Greensboro, North Carolina, prosecutors after a long struggle organized by his family and supporters. Or the victory won by parents and teachers who came together to protest an abusive principal at a New York City elementary school.

The names of the people who organized these struggles--who made the plans, who wrote the leaflets and posted on social media, who put out press releases, who told their neighbors and friends and anyone who would listen why it was important to take a side--may not be known far and wide.

But they are at the center of the Socialism conference, and they run through everything we write at SW.

We focus on these stories not only because they deserve to be better known, but to learn and generalize the lessons they hold for other people who want to stand up against injustice--most of all, the idea that persistent efforts to mobilize masses of people to demand change can win, even against powerful institutions and stubborn administrators.

Right now, many people--us included--have been focused a lot of the time on the rapid-fire revelations driving the Trump White House's spectacular meltdown.

Of course, the Trump administration is trying to stay on the attack--for example, by pushing through a disastrous health care bill with potentially devastating consequences for people with pre-existing conditions. And by elevating perhaps the most reactionary cop in America--and that's saying something--to a key role at the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump's right-wing agenda is all too real in all our lives. But the building blocks to resist that agenda are real, too, as the local victories reported on at SW demonstrate.

THE CHALLENGE facing the left is how to assemble these building blocks--now and in the long run--into a bridge that can reach between the different struggles, large and small, in Trump's America, and into the future to the bigger uprisings needed to transform the economic and political structures that uphold inequality and injustice.

We need a revolutionary left that combines urgency and patience--in the right proportions and at the right times--in order to move beyond capitalism.

Socialism 2017 aims to bring together radicals and activists from around the country to engage in discussions about both the past and the present in order to advance a new socialist movement in the U.S.

This process has already begun, but the question of what ideas will serve as the foundation of a new left has yet to be answered. But one thing is certain--there are many different ideas seeking an audience in this moment.

With the rise of the alt-right under Trump, the left faces urgent challenges, including about tactics and strategies, that it must meet. This means, for example, addressing the counterproductive tactics of the Black Bloc on display in Portland on May Day.

With each struggle, it's essential to draw out lessons for the future--and to contribute toward building left organization that can be the bearer of those lessons in the future.

The reason that the Bolshevik Party in Russia was able to win leadership during the 1917 revolution 100 years ago was the years of long and patient organizing before 1917 to build up an organization made up of leaders with the capacity to understand what was at stake in any struggle, explain those stakes to others and put forward a lead for the working-class movement.

No social struggle that aims to achieve lasting success can do so without knowing its history and refining and clarifying its ideas. Socialism 2017 looks like it will be the biggest conference ever--and hopefully, it will be able to contribute that much more to a new era of resistance.

Further Reading

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