Seeing ahead from the high points of Socialism

July 11, 2018

Nicole Colson reports from the four-day Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago.

“I DON’T think I’ve seen a crowd this inspiring since we put 70,000 people on the governor’s lawn.”

That was the verdict of Noah Karvelis, a member of Arizona Educators United, as he spoke to the capacity crowd at the Friday evening plenary meeting at the Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago last weekend. Socialism is co-sponsored every year by and its publisher, the International Socialist Organization, working with the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.

Karvelis was one of the teachers who participated in Socialism this year, bringing their experiences of organizing “red state” teacher revolts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and far beyond. The Friday panel of educators, titled “Striking Back: Voices of the Teachers’ Rebellion,” was one of many high points of the conference.

With nearly 1,900 people in attendance over the weekend, this year’s Socialism was one of the largest ever. The total was down by around 150 from last year, when the largest-ever conference took place following the first shows of resistance against the orange menace in the White House.

Socialism 2018 participants send a photo message of solidarity to nurses in struggle at UVM Medical Center (SW)

This year, there was a greater depth and scope of experience after an intense year that has seesawed between vicious assaults by Trump and the right and inspiring expressions of dissent and struggle.

The urgency of this year’s conference theme — “Another world is necessary” — was graphically conveyed by the images of immigrant families ripped apart at the border. It could be felt at each meeting as socialists and activists from different organizations and backgrounds discussed and debated the immediate challenges facing today’s resistance, but also the future struggle for a totally different kind of world.

It was a serious and constructive dialogue throughout about the socialist alternative we need today to make the opposition to Trump bigger and struggle — and tomorrow as the struggles ahead give socialists a chance to work toward our vision of a new society.

THE “STRIKING Back” plenary where Karvelis spoke was a major highlight for everyone. “It’s a glimpse of what’s possible,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told the crowd in introducing the representatives from the teachers’ protests around the country.

West Virginia educator Nicole McCormick described the transformative experience of deciding to organize and strike:

We also realized that we had power — true power. Because we were using our anger and recognizing our leverage...

My husband and I were having a discussion during the strike and he said, “You know, Nicole, our labor belongs to us.” And I was like, “Oh my God, you’re right. Our labor is ours to withhold or to give.” That seems so simple, but I had never thought of that before.

After emphasizing the importance of teachers working together with bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others, McCormick finished her speech by singing a verse from “The West Virginia Hills.” She said her new favorite lines are those that describe a sense of solidarity with her “friends among the West Virginia hills.”

Again and again, these educators underscored the sense of pride and power in standing up for their rights. Gillian Russom, a teacher and activist in United Teachers Los Angeles, and member of the International Socialist Organization, spoke about the hope that the “red state teachers’ rebellion” will expand all the way to the bluest of blue states — California:

For the last 50 years, the politics of socialism have largely been severed from the working-class movement...Out of this strike wave and the outrage against all the horrors happening around us, there’s new generation of radicals and socialists being born — and we have an urgent need for more organized socialists.

Describing her experience at Socialism 2018, McCormick later said: “I’ve really enjoyed it. Just the power of being with other people who are like-minded, especially when you come from a very conservative place like I do...I went to a talk earlier today on [“What Do Socialists Say about White Privilege?”], and that was really great. Just the breadth of what’s been offered to listen to is great.”

Louisville, Kentucky, educator Michelle Randolph, who also spoke on the Friday panel wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, said:

I definitely feel like this is something I have never been a part of in my entire life. So often in the society we live in right now, there’s a lot of intimidation and a lot of bullying and a lot of really name-calling. You don’t see people rallying...You don’t see people being positive and trying to lift each other up.

I can’t articulate fully how much it means to a little Black girl from Louisville, Kentucky, to see so many people value her voice.

ONE HIGHLIGHT for Randolph and many other attendees was hearing the voice of Dr. John Carlos, one of the Olympic athletes who raised his fist in a Black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of that year of struggle and change was a key component of this year’s Socialism conference — with the aim of being a bridge to the movements for justice today. Hearing Carlos speak “was beyond anything I could have imagined,” Randolph wrote after the conference.

Other highlights included revolutionary musician and now film director Boots Riley in a conversation about art and politics — and later, a screening of his new film Sorry to Bother You.

Anyone who managed to squeeze into the meeting was awed by the conversation between war resisters Rory Fanning and Spenser Rapone — who resigned from the military less than a year after he posted photos of himself at his 2016 graduation, making a raised-fist salute to underline the message written in his cap: “Communism will win.”

“I didn’t want to grovel to the empire,” Rapone told the crowd at Socialism. In the audience were several veterans as well as military family members, who spoke about feeling less alone because of the actions of Rapone and other war resisters.

Other meetings took up debates and challenges facing the left today.

In several sessions — including some co-sponsored by Jacobin and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — the topic was how socialists from different organizations can link arms in struggle, what position the left should have toward working with and within the Democratic Party; and what kind of party we need to transform society.

“The Future of the Socialist Left” session, featuring Ella Mahony of DSA and Jen Roesch of the ISO, was packed out, with an audience of members from both organizations who were hopeful, yet honest and sober, said attendee Julien Ball.

Talks by Todd Chretien on “Vanguard Party, Democratic Centralism and Workers’ Revolution” and Eric Ruder on “Marxists, Elections and the State” had a serious but comradely tone about key questions where the left has different views.

Other sessions, like Pranav Jani’s “Marxism, Colonialism and Revolution” and Jessie Muldoon’s “Your Free Time Isn’t Free: Social Reproduction, Social Isolation and the Marxist Theory of Alienation,” made Marxist theory accessible to a new audience without oversimplifying it.

Danyell Mayen, an ISO member from Los Angeles who was attending Socialism for the first time, said: “The weekend has been amazing for me...I’m excited because as a young woman and a Latina, fighting so many things, it feels really good and amazing to know that I’m not alone in this fight, and that there are people who are able to fight alongside me."

One notable feature of the conference was the vast array of international guests who both attended and spoke.

Meetings on the global fight against the war on women, featuring activists from multiple countries; the struggle of teachers and other activists in Puerto Rico to oppose “disaster capitalism”; and the recent elections in Mexico; to name just a few of many; were a reflection of the internationalism at the heart of the genuine socialist tradition.

IN HER meeting on “The Importance of Being Unruly,” author and activist Frances Fox Piven was asked how activists can keep going in dark times. Her advice? “Have good friends. And go to ISO meetings.”

Donna Stern, a nurse and union militant in Massachusetts, explained: “I have found Socialism to be a weekend of inspiration, a weekend of solidarity. A weekend of feeling at times overwhelmed, like the work ahead of us is so immense, but feeling an incredible amount of hope.”

Socialism speaker Pranav Jani commented on some of aspects of the conference that give him hope:

The collaborative spirit between ISO and DSA comrades, who came to the conference in larger numbers than last year. The absolutely visible and welcome presence of queer and trans comrades. The leadership of women comrades everywhere you looked. The number of Brown and Black comrades I spoke with at sessions on race and immigration and colonialism who said to me: ‘Now I’m confident of being a proud socialist.’

We all want to do more, and make change all at once. But behind the scenes and between the actions is the methodical work of building a political core that can last over the years and respond quickly to events in the world. There is no substitute for that — none at all.

As SW contributor Khury Petersen-Smith summed up at the final rally of the conference:

If this year has taught us anything, it is what this ruling class is capable of and willing to do. There is no depth to their cruelty. But it has also given us a taste of what we’re capable of — not just that we can fight, but that we can win...

What we are fighting for is the good life, for all of humanity. Until then, a life in struggle is a life worth living. So let’s go. Let’s fight. Let’s talk. Let’s learn. Let’s win.

Further Reading

From the archives