US Socialism conference meets amid environment threat, austerity

The Socialism 2013 conference took place in Chicago from over 27-30, organised by the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The conference has been going for more than two decades, bringing together activists to exchange and debate ideas.

A highlight was the session with investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been publishing the leaks of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The feature talk was the first detailed speech Greenwald had given on his Earth-shaking work with Snowden ― who remains on the run from US authorities.

Greenwald, who is outside the US, spoke to the gathering via skype. Within days, more than 100,000 people had watched the video of his talk.

The whole conference drew about 1200 participants, including activists from around the US, as well as India, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, England, Ireland and Canada.

There were more than 20 conference streams and about 100 sessions packed into two-and-a-half days. Streams included Black history and politics; capitalism and crisis; art, culture and sports; Marxism and ecology; women’s liberation; and immigrant rights.

Many talk or reemerging activism in the US, in particular around environmental issues, transgender oppression, disability rights, women's liberation and the intersection between black liberation and feminism.

The conference profiled the campaigns that are being fought across the US for public education, and against standardised testing and school closures. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), led by a progressive rank and file alliance including members of the ISO, is playing a leading role in this sector.

The CTU formed an alliance with parents and students against the closure of 50 schools in the Chicago district. It led a successful strike in September last year for a new contract for teachers.

Ahmed Shawki, editor of International Socialist Review, made the point in a session on left perspectives that the US left has been operating in the shadow of 30 years of reaction against the working class. “This has impacted and broken a continuity already tentative and weak between the organised forces of the left and the working class movement in the US,” he said.

The ISO's aim, said Shawki, was, “To create discussion among people with a common outlook on the aim but who may not share the same analysis. This means that the sectarianism which was inbuilt in the US left and the fractured, diverse, multi polar left, is not our task today …

“Making space available for discussion and debate, but also a common party, does not mean a common line on every question."

In this spirit, it was announced that the ISR would be relaunched as a quarterly magazine and website carrying broad debate and discussion.

Among the alliances the ISO has been involved in was the Ecosocialist Contingent, a united anti-capitalist bloc in the demonstration against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington on February 17. The contingent went on to organise an ecosocialist conference in New York in April.

The international political backdrop to the conference was the rebellions and resistance breaking out in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and the ongoing crisis in Europe. The conference closing session heard from Egyptian activists on the events which were rapidly unfolding in that country, and on the important developments in Greece with the rise of SYRIZA, and the challenges and opportunities it faces in the next period, including its moves towards becoming a more united political force.

One weakness of the conference was the small number of sessions on Latin America (only two workshops). This was especially notable given the close geographic proximity to the US, and the direct challenge posed by the popular movements and progressive governments to US imperialist domination.

However, a highlight were the sessions on Marxism and women's liberation. These involved a reexamination by the ISO of the relationship between Marxism and women's liberation and the interaction between racism and women's oppression. In the past, the ISO had tended to reject “feminism” out of hand ― caricaturing it as either “radical separatism” or “bourgeois feminism”. This stance was rejected.

The backdrop to the conference is a political scene in the US dominated by disillusionment with the Obama administration, the huge threat to the environment posed by tar sands extraction and the coal and coal seam gas industries, an economic crisis pushing austerity measures against the poor and workers, and a large scale attack on the gains of the women and the civil rights movements.

[Susan Price is a national coordinator of the Australian Socialist Alliance.]

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