Why Socialism was a big deal

July 12, 2017

Alan Maass reports from Chicago on the record-breaking turnout at Socialism 2017.

SOME 2,000 people packed into a convention center on Chicago's Near South Side last weekend for the four days of Socialism 2017, an annual gathering for political discussion, debate and entertainment.

This was by far the biggest Socialism conference ever, one-third larger than last year, and one of the biggest national gatherings of the radical left in the new Trump era.

As usual, there were a dozen sessions or more to choose from in each time slot--around 160 in all--covering a dizzying range of topics: from building emergency response networks for defending immigrant workers, to the latest developments in struggles in Europe, to the history of the Marxist tradition, to celebrations of artistic and cultural figures.

It was a super-sized version of past conferences, but that wasn't the only difference. This year, there was a greater sense of urgency and purpose than ever before.

Damian Smith of Washington, D.C., said he had missed the previous two or three Socialism conferences. "But then something happened on November 8 at around 11:45 at night," he said, "and I realized that I had to go this year. It matters a lot what happens here."

A plenary session crowd at Socialism 2017
A plenary session crowd at Socialism 2017 (John Snowden)

How to take the ideas discussed at Socialism and make them relevant back home in the local resistance struggles of the Trump era--that was on the minds of people throughout the four days.

"This was my first time being here, and it was absolutely incredible," said Lindsay Caesar of Greensboro, North Carolina. "I feel like I came in full of ideas I couldn't quite articulate, and now I feel way better equipped. I feel inspired to talk to other people and groups in the area and convey our politics to them, so we can come together more."

Socialism 2017 was host to some truly special events. Comedian Hari Kondabolu brought down the house late Friday night with a set that went on three times longer than expected. Nation columnist Dave Zirin moderated a generations-spanning discussion on athletes and activism. Author and actor Wallace Shawn introduced his new book Night Thoughts in a conversation with Haymarket Books' Anthony Arnove.

But there were special ideas and insights coming out of all the discussions. "I was watching someone talk about a political question that they had been working through over a period of years, about their understanding of postmodernism," Damian Smith remembered. "And right there, they were able to come to a conclusion about it in this discussion. I realized I was seeing someone's whole political trajectory in a few minutes--that's something that happens at this conference."

AT A packed plenary session on the first night of the conference, author and Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor spoke on racism and the resistance to Trump. It was a speech she was supposed to give Seattle a month before, but had to cancel after receiving dozens of death threats after a Fox News slander campaign.

"We will not win just because we believe that our side is right," Taylor told the rapt crowd. "We have to know what it is we are fighting for, and we have to openly debate and strategize our way forward. And most of all, we have to be involved in protests and demonstrations and building social movements to win concessions from the political and economic establishment."

Taylor was a participant in another highlight for many Socialism attendees--two sessions honoring the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of Black women that broke new ground in the struggle against oppression.

Two members of the collective, Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier, gave their own accounts of the experience, and authors such as Sharon Smith and Barbara Ransby, who have been inspired by the Combahee collective, joined them onstage.

Of course, there was one revolutionary anniversary that was at the forefront of everyone's minds--this is the centennial year of the Russian Revolution of 1917. There were close to a dozen sessions specifically devoted to the revolution, though its history ran through many more.

That's a fitting tribute to the continuing relevance of the revolution, as Elizabeth Terzakis explained in an inspiring presentation at the final plenary session of the conference.

"The Russian Revolution is crucial for us to study because it shows us the working class in movement," Terzakis said, "so that we can see what it is, what it is capable of and why it is the only force with both the desire and the positioning to not only achieve self-emancipation but to liberate all of humanity in the process."

Socialism couldn't forget another lesser-known anniversary: This year, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a co-sponsor of Socialism, turned 40 years young. Paul D'Amato, editor of the International Socialist Review, packed his session on the history and politics of the ISO full of insights on how socialists organize.

In fact, Socialism 2017 was the latest in a series of summer educational events that the ISO has been sponsoring since the very first of those 40 years, as Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, remembered:

In the early days, our summer schools were at church camps. For the first one in 1977--in Germantown, Ohio, at a Methodist camp--we had maybe 100 or 150 people. From then on, through the 1980s, we might get up to 300 people.

But when you get 2,000 people this year, it's a different feeling. In the earlier days, we were hanging onto the ideas with small groups of people. We had great events, and they kept people going. But I think this gives you an idea that there's something else bigger than us.

More than a few attendees this year were coming back to the annual conference for the first time in some years.

Keith Danner, from Southern California, had the same reaction as pretty much everyone who attended a previous Socialism: "It's so much bigger."

But Danner also reflected on some of the qualitative differences--for example, the participation of more people of color and an intense focus on the anti-racist struggle. "And," he said, "you can see the reflection of the struggle for trans rights in a way that was never here before."

ONE REASON for the larger size of the Socialism conference was expanding participation from around the U.S. left. Jacobin magazine was a co-sponsor this year, coordinating a series of meetings. A number of Democratic Socialists of America members made the trip to Chicago for the four days.

As always, there was an impressive array of international speakers to bring a global perspective to the discussions. Author Neil Davidson communicated the excitement of left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's triumphant showing in the June election in the UK. Two members of Greece's Internationalist Workers Left provided updates on the struggle that rattled Europe's bosses a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Haymarket Books--a project of Socialism sponsor, the Center for Economic Research and Social Change--brought a semi trailer's worth of books for conference participants to covet and take home. The top seller this year was one of Haymarket's first titles to crack the New York Times best-seller list: Naomi Klein's No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

Every aspect of the project of building a bigger, broader and better left was on display at Socialism. The socialist left in the U.S. has made advances in the past year and a half, but we need to make more, and we need more people to do it. "You say you're not a joiner?" said ISR associate editor Ahmed Shawki at one plenary session. "Too bad--become one."

That session on "Build the Left, Fight the Right: Why We Need a Socialist Alternative"--with a huge audience packed into a room the size of a football field--set out the high stakes of the struggle in the Trump era, but also the hope for an alternative. Jen Roesch of the ISO brought the electrifying meeting to a close with a call to take action:

Let's be clear: We need a real alternative. We need fights over any number of pressing issues...We need to fight anywhere and everywhere that our side faces attacks. But Naomi Klein is right: No is not enough...

Such an alternative is not measured in election cycles, and neither is the social devastation, the economic immiseration, the attempt to strip ordinary people of their basic dignity. This long pre-dates Trump--it even predates the latest round of crisis that began in 2008. These are built into the system of capitalism itself and any alternative has to address itself to that fact.

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