September 24, 2018
Keeping the Red Flag Flying – Socialism 2018
The largest North American gathering of Marxist activists is the annual Socialism conference in Chicago by the International Socialist Organization. Up to 2000 comrades gathered to listen and participate in over 150 talks on some 30 topics over the course of four days.
Socialism 2018 is more than a collection of talks. It is focused on developing an analysis of the state of the American and, to some extent, the global class struggle. This focus is to arm activists in addressing the tasks of the moment with an eye to future opportunities to build the socialist movement.
For the first time in forty years there is a strike wave – red-state teachers who, from West Virginia to Arizona, spontaneously rebelled against decades of disinvestment in public education.
Rank and file teachers described how they took second jobs to afford to be teachers in a system that is increasingly segregated by race and class from America’s elites. Teachers described how they have won major victories to force better pay, conditions, and, where possible, to launch direct legislation initiatives to invest in public education, bypassing Republican state governments. And, in most cases, they had to bypass their own teacher associations, organizations that had adapted to right to work laws and the banning of strikes.
In other words, teachers struck illegally but in such massive numbers with a righteous message to win more money for public education and respect for educators, despite the apparent victory of neoliberalism.
The deepening polarization of America under Trump also led to discussions about Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, the disgraceful treatment of Puerto Rico in the wake of climate disaster, disability, trans liberation, refugee and immigrant rights, and the need for working class social rights to housing and medical insurance.
The domestic class struggle was complemented by an examination of international struggles for democracy, social justice, and national self-determination in places such as Greece, Quebec, and Syria – and in the major developing regions of the world from Africa, the Asia-Pacific (such as ‘Death Squad President Duterte of the Philippines or Russian socialist militants today), Latin America, to, especially, the Middle East.
ISO comrades such as Joel Geier focused on the growing polarization with China, the one regional superpower that has the potential to challenge American global leadership. The Middle East may demand American attention for crisis management purposes, but it is China’s growing economic power that threatens a relative decline in American power. As Geier stated, the United States has no intention to go peaceably. It will fight to maintain its dominance, even with the bizarre antics of the Trump administration.
This changing balance of power, a relative decline of American imperial power, explains much in the logic of disruption: turning on your allies from the 1945 liberal imperial imperialist order to lay the basis for a new, possibly more militarily aggressive, conservative imperialism. Such a turn can also have domestic consequences, fuelling right wing populism to deflect the growing class anger within America.
This analysis of the balance of class forces, domestically and internationally, possible outcomes, and socialist tasks rests on stressing Marxist theory and historical practice in the class struggle. So there were sessions such as ‘Marxism 101’, Marxist classics and economics, and Questions in Socialist Theory, branch building and writing for Socialist Worker; and examinations of past struggles like American Reconstruction, the militant syndicalism that fed into the founding of the American Communist Party, and international revolutionary moments – including a presentation by Colin Barker, author of the 1987 classic Revolutionary Rehearsals which explores crises such as France 1968, Portugal 1975, and Poland 1980.
To develop a perspective about present and future possibilities, therefore, we need the past – in ideas and activity – though as a creative resource, not a set of predictions.
But we develop that perspective modestly in recognition that the class struggle context can significantly change as in the periods before and after 1991.
A Canadian Reflection
We in Socialist Solidarity, who were members of the Canadian International Socialists, can’t help but see its difficult history in contrast to the ISO and the example of Socialism 2018.
In our opinion, the Canadian IS always wrestled with tendencies to abstention and adaptation in ways that blocked growth in analysis and organization. At the root of that difficulty lay our relation to the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the founding organization of the International Socialist Tendency – as stimulator and inhibitor – and our history as a student organization, with multiple career influences and trajectories, at the end of an upturn in Canadian class struggle (1965-76).
The appeal of the SWP lay in its democratic Marxist ideas in the period from 1945 to 1991: Russia as a bureaucratic state capitalism; the tendency for national revolutions to become authoritarian dictatorships as a result of deflected permanent revolution; and the threat of imperialism as expressed in the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, a form of de-stabilizing western state capitalism. Based on this application of Marxist ideas to anti-democratic regimes claiming to be socialist, a renewed and creative commitment to class struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression became possible.
After 1991, however, the space that opened for a major renewal of democratic Marxist politics proved to be challenging. Did class struggle still matter in the wake of the erosion of union organization and a radical decline in open conflict? Did Marx’s ideas matter to explain a world full of contradictions where neoliberals proclaimed the end of history? Did Leninist organization - democratic centralism as the principle to inform party building - still matter? Obviously many other currents such as anarchism and green populism compete in the search for transformative change in this more conservative environment.
The SWP’s answer to these questions was a super-optimism: to dissolve socialist political organization into relatively apolitical movement struggles, or to abstain from United Front work with highly political anti-austerity movements like that of Greece’s Syriza - while insisting that a great cataclysm, a new era ‘of the 1930s in slow motion’, would soon compensate for these radical swings. IS groups that questioned this perspective were expelled: Australia’s Socialist Alternative, Greek comrades of the Internationalist Workers’ Left, and the ISO in the United States.
A minority of the Canadian IS answered the challenge of a new period by splitting to create the New Socialists (NS) in 1994. In one sense this was a creative act. The NS published a magazine, giving voice to important critics like the Marxist metis writer Howard Adams, and wrote some useful books on the Canadian socialist project such as Alan Sears on the future Canadian left. The organizational split created space for more sustained reflection.
But, ultimately NS adaptation to movement politics, especially identity politics, and arguments for the ‘financialization’ of modern capitalism leading to a new period of stability led to a decline in energy, organizational coherence, and relevance as a group.
The majority remaining in the IS, of which we were part, refocused on engaging possibilities in the class struggle, such as the fight against the NDP Rae days (compulsory pay cuts) and Conservative Mike Harris’ ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in Ontario. The organization grew. But the IS couldn’t consolidate as a larger, more politically mature organization when the struggle declined.
Part of our failure to mature was due to conditions: demoralization with Harris’s cuts and the pull of electoral possibilities with the NDP; national communities (over 25% of the population) such as Quebec and First Nations who, understandably, prioritize their needs over unity with a demobilized English-Canadian worker majority; and the sheer size, and class struggle unevenness, of the country facing a small organization.
But part of the decline of the organization was, in our opinion, internally generated.
Those of us who questioned the recurrent arc of growth and retreat without maturation, premised on post-1991 SWP perspectives, were forced out – without debate. Ultimately, abuse of democratic centralism led to the exclusion and subsequent resignations of the Editor of Socialist Worker and the IS Secretary-Treasurer when even they, the original authors of a closed political culture (the legacy of a decade long faction fight with NS that the remaining leadership failed to transcend), finally questioned decline.
Socialism 2018 shows other possibilities. Every socialist organization in the United States is growing, though the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America is the most striking, going from 2000 to 40,000 members. But who will best grasp and act upon this possibility? Socialism 2018 shows how the Marxist minority is potentially situated to be the most relevant force – if it can maintain a modest openness to listen and adjust as it analyzes and acts in a new period of class struggle with a new, more basic set of questions. American teachers show class struggle still matters. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, Marx’s ideas are still relevant. But, as Colin Barker stated about post-1991 revolutionary situations, the need for Leninist party organization in measuring up to new possibilities remains ‘an experimental question’.
Building High Participation Unions: You Decide
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