Chicago has a proud working-class history and this year elected six socialists to its city council. At a time when social movements are on the rise and interest in socialist ideas in the United States is at an all time high, the Windy City was the perfect venue for the annual Socialism conference over July 4–7.
Socialism 2019 was profoundly shaped by three particular and interrelated developments.
First, the dramatic growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) following Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primaries campaign, secondly, the polarisation generated by US President Donald Trump’s election and thirdly, the 2018 election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress.
Reference publisher Merriam-Webster reports that searches for the word "socialism" spiked by 1,500% after Ocasio-Cortez's victory. While Sanders has not joined the DSA (as Ocasio-Cortez has) his self-description as a "democratic socialist" has similarly encouraged a surge of interest in socialist politics.
Since 2016, DSA’s membership has increased tenfold to more than 65,000 people, making it far and away the largest socialist group in the US today.
This year however, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) which had been the chief organiser of previous Socialism conferences completely collapsed. This dramatic turn of events was preceded by a concerted effort to change the course of the ISO, a tight-knit organisation coming from the revolutionary socialist tradition, to better relate to the burgeoning interest in socialist ideas and the growth of the DSA.
However, news emerged that one of the central leaders of this process was implicated in a sexual assault in 2013 and others in covering it up.
In this context the general demoralistion, suspicion and break-down of trust that followed, submerged the organisation and it voted to dissolve in early 2019.
It was perhaps a minor miracle that the conference took place at all, and yet it attracted more than 1600 participants, equal to the number of registrations last year.
The DSA, which had participated in and sponsored previous conferences stepped into the leading role, aided by a number of former ISO members, of whom about 150 attended the conference.
The conference was quite heterogeneous and reflected the diversity of movement activists and socialists of all stripes who attended. Nevertheless, it was the DSA that set the tone, including by virtue of the fact that it is itself a diverse organisation, embracing multiple conceptions of socialism.
The DSA’s imprint was embodied in the big rousing Friday evening plenary, whose theme was "Welcome to Red Chicago".
The speakers included three of the six recently elected (or re-elected) DSA Chicago City councillors.
Black, queer and feminist activist Alyxandra Goodwin, from the Black Youth Project 100, put the focus on the scourge of police violence: "Nobody is safe in a city that spends US$1.5 billion on police … capitalism cannot stand without violence.”
Chicago spends half its budget on policing, and re-elected councillor Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — the city’s first queer Latinx councillor when first elected in 2015 — added that the city has paid out a staggering $600 million in compensation and settlements related to police brutality in just 10 years.
President of the Chicago Teachers Union Jesse Sharkey raised the roof with his call to Chicago activists to build on the city's fighting working-class traditions and plant a flag "for the many" all over the country.
Sharkey recounted the bitter struggle the union and wider community fought against former right-wing Democrat mayor Rahm Emanuel and his attempt to close 50 schools across the city. The militancy of the teachers union, including four strikes in 2019, received widespread community support.
Newly-elected councillor and Black community activist Jeanette Taylor wryly observed: "I'm not supposed to be here, I'm a single mother and clerk," explaining how the fight to retain schools in Black working-class neighbourhoods drew her into politics.
Fellow councillor Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez was an experienced community campaigner in her native Puerto Rico before moving to Chicago, but said running for public office didn't come easily: "Being from a colony where we can't even vote for the President, electoral work was at the bottom of my priorities."
Almost every conference session saw expressions of outrage at the imprisonment, in appalling conditions, of undocumented migrant and asylum seeker children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This was the centrepiece of Democracy Now! host and investigative journalist Amy Goodman’s conference presentation.
The diversity of opinion within and beyond the DSA was particularly reflected in debate over the following intertwined issues: how to relate to Bernie Sanders' 2019/20 campaign for the Democratic primaries and potential presidential campaign; socialists running on the Democratic Party ticket; and the nature of the state in capitalist society.
This was revealed in workshops such as "What happens if Bernie wins? Learning from history and looking forward" and "Marxism and the capitalist state: Socialist theory and strategy".
The dynamic unleashed by the Sanders campaign is particularly interesting. While the politics of the DSA and the conference are decisively to the left of Sanders, he cannot be characterised as a typical social-democratic or "liberal" establishment puppet — in the mould of so many Democrat or Australian Labor Party politicians, whose main function is to dampen down popular expectations.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Sanders (and Ocasio-Cortez) — whatever their limitations and the valid criticisms that could be made of them — have helped unleash a wave of enthusiasm for socialist ideas that is pushing US politics to the left.
This has posed tactical questions for activists on the far left, who in the past have insisted on the necessity of building an electoral project that is entirely independent of the Democrats, unlike Sanders — who seeks Democratic Party endorsement while not joining the party itself.
Some socialists outside the DSA are sticking with this course, primarily through support for the Green Party presidential campaign. This includes Howie Hawkins, a member of the socialist group Solidarity and candidate in the Green Party primaries. Hawkins also attended the conference
The dissolution of the ISO also raises the possibility of a regroupment of the revolutionary left, potentially inside the DSA, outside or both.
The DSA seems destined to remain quite diverse. Within it are identifiable currents of thought and tendencies that can be described as traditional left social-democratic and revolutionary, while a section of its leadership and thinkers seem to be defining a position somewhere between the two.
It would be reasonable to assume that the Socialism 2020 conference will be bigger than and unlike the 2019 event, which was shaped by very specific circumstances. By that time the Democratic Party primaries will have just been determined and socialists in the US will be faced with a new array of tactical challenges.
[Sam Wainwright is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia and attended the conference on behalf of the organisation]