Reimagining American Community
Jul
16

Raising consciousness–even if you’re in the bougie Hyatt Regency ballroom.

Around this blog we occasionally ask ourselves: what exactly are Solidarity Hall’s politics?

Especially as we are publishing again after a hiatus of some months, during which the U.S. apparently underwent self-inflicted, extreme regime change. Some dystopian transformation has turned us into a crazyhouse of mirrors with a siren wail growing in the distance.

Should this mean Solidarity Hall needs to become more engagé, more committed to political action? What might that mean?

One clue is in the loyalties of the writers we often cite here: Wendell Berry, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch, Simone Weil, Sergei Bulgakov, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.

What’s the common thread in this list? Something you could call Christian socialism.

The connection between socialism and a concern for society (or the social) seems pretty close, especially if you’re speaking in non-Marxist, Proudhonian terms. Certainly the recent book by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue, is largely focused on recovery of the social as the post-liberal path forward. (Stay tuned for a forthcoming review of the latter.)

So several of us Solidarians (that’s probably what we’ll call ourselves if we ever have an official T-shirt) have been chewing over exactly what our relation to socialism might be and which flavor suits us best.

After all, some of us have been fellow-travelling on this road for a while.

Among our colleagues here, I’m thinking of Mark Gordon (Catholic radical and non-violence trainer), Susannah Black (urban distributist and Plough magazine editor), Matt Cooper (blogging Orthodox-monarchist-socialist), Daniel Schwindt (Catholic radical), Grace Potts (podcasting community organizer), Pete Davis (podcast partner and civic idea machine), Paul Grenier (cultural activist), and Nathan Schneider (platform cooperativist) and Paul Bowman (designer and itinerant radical). We’ve definitely left a trail of crumbs.

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In hopes of additional field research, I contacted the Socialism 2018 conference organizers last week and somehow wangled a press pass to the July 5-8 event in Chicago, held at the definitely bougie Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

A conference of “revolutionary politics, debate and entertainment” sounded interesting. I drove up from Valparaiso, found the registration table, got my press pass, and plunged into a sea of many millennials (a few manbuns among them), along with a number of us older types (a few still sporting a ponytail–moi, non). The 800-900 attendees were international, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and a bit grim-faced, understandably enough in these times.

If I were to make a cheap snark about my first impressions, it felt like being among hundreds of angry former skateboarders. But then things quickly got more interesting.

A key sponsor of the event was the International Socialist Organization, with various workshops offered by Jacobin Magazine, the Socialist Worker newspaper, and the Democratic Socialists of America. The ISO describes itself as “a socialist organization in the United States that identifies with Trotskyism, Leninism and the Marxist political tradition of ‘socialism from below’.”

Not that everything was intended to be dour at the event: the “revolutionary drag show” was a surprise but was scheduled a bit late for me to attend, given my decision to commute to the event from a bit of a distance.

As I entered the opening plenary session, the crowd was already chanting “Shut down ICE, shut down ICE,” then followed by “free abortion on demand, we can do it, yes we can.”

A first panel included the Nation magazine’s radical sportswriter Dave Sirin, who exhorted the crowd to understand that “we are the resistance to the new normal.” He went on to define resistance as “teachers on the march–not GOP congressmen who don’t get invited to the White House!”

Another panelist, young immigration activist Denise Romero, spoke about her family’s awful history with ICE officials, after which she was diagnosed with a type of PTSD (“after all, we had been in a kind of war for years”).

Other speakers included Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, historian Ibram X. Kendi, filmmaker Boots Riley, and Middle East specialist Gilbert Achcar. The crowd hung on almost every word, chanting and cheering at times in the tone of a political rally.

Moving through the hall to my first of the 150 or so workshops offered over the four-day conference, I pondered which T-shirt to purchase from the vendors. “Tax the Rich a Lot” appealed to me but I also liked “We Hate Your Boss Too”, “Robots for a Higher Minimum Wage,” “Make Orwell Fiction Again,” and the clever “Good Intentions Paving Company”.

With such an abbondanza of workshop choices, it was difficult to pick one. A small sampling:

Marxism and Intersectionality; Was Gramsci a Reformist?; Fallacies of “Scientific” Racism; Empire and Resistance: Korea’s Hidden History; Chile 1973 and the Parliamentary Road to Socialism; Loaded: a Disarming History of the 2nd Amendment; Prelude to Revolution: 1968 in France; Housing Struggles and the Working Class; Iran’s Unfinished Revolution; Revolutionary Ideas of Leon Trotsky; Digital Security for Activists 101; Israel: Colonial-Settler State; Socialist Solutions to Climate Change Disaster; Sports and Resistance; Socialism and Queer Liberation; and the Politics of Pregnancy.

Somehow I went for “The Portuguese Revolution of 1974”, possibly because I’d never heard of it. Here’s the description of the topic:

On April 25, 1974, a group of left-wing military officers conducted a successful coup against the Portuguese military dictatorship which had ruled Portugal with an iron-fist for over four decades and had waged a brutal colonial war against its African colonies in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The coup opened a revolutionary process which for two brief years put socialism and working-class rule on the immediate agenda.

“Though largely forgotten, even in socialist circles, the experience of the Portuguese Revolution offers deep insights into the nature of socialist revolution, workers’ power, and the struggle against imperialism. This talk will analyze the rise and fall of the revolutionary upsurge in Portugal in tandem with the struggle against imperialism in the Portuguese colonies. The study of these concurrent revolutionary processes demonstrates both the real potentials of working people to run society, and the complexities of the struggle for socialism in a national and international system bent on destroying any such challenge.

About 30 attendees packed a smallish room with a dais in front, at which an ISO member moderated the presentation by Coco Smyth, a grad student and organizer at Ohio State. The moderator began by explaining the Occupy-style rules: for a comment, raise your hand; for a question, raised a clenched fist.

Presentations lasted no more than 30 to 40 minutes, with almost that much time then devoted to questions, responses and commentary. I immediately noted that attendees referred to each other unfailingly as “comrade” (as in, “the next question will be from the comrade with the pink hair”).

The workshop was representative of several others during the conference, all of them focused on analyzing prior revolutions in search of lessons learned from these upheavals. I learned that this Portuguese example was considered the last truly proletarian revolution, i.e., led by the working class. (Interestingly, the U.S.S.R. criticized the workers’ militancy in these events at the time as too destabilizing.) Near the end of the session, we were all slightly stunned by the elderly gentleman who arose to offer his opinions of the 1974 revolution, of which he revealed he was an eyewitness.

I next attended a workshop on the Egyptian revolution of 2011, led by a journalist, Wael Gamal. Unfortunately his quiet voice and difficult accent made him hard to follow but I did get his point about the Muslim Brotherhood being perfectly cozy with neoliberal arrangements—one example among several of how the revolution keeps being “stolen” in Egypt, according to the speaker.

The biggest workshop crowd I joined was for an interesting session on “the German Revolution of 1918-1923”, offered by Axel Fair-Schulz of SUNY Potsdam:

The German Revolution, often eclipsed by the Russian October Revolution of 1917 or the French Revolution of 1789-1799, was one of the most pivotal developments in 20th-century history.  Starting with the disintegration of Imperial Germany at the end WWI, the German Revolution lasted from 1918 to 1923.  Alternatively referred to as a “Lost,” “Betrayed,” “Still-Born,” or “Forgotten” Revolution, it was one major chapter in a sequence of revolutions that broke out in Europe during and after the First World War.  Its potential was not only to relieve the beleaguered Bolsheviks in Russia but to move the center of world revolution to a developed industrial society — and thus access the material preconditions for sustainable socialist development. The ultimate defeat of the German Revolution closed off those possibilities and instead helped set into motion counter-revolutionary dynamics that ultimately led to the horrendous tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin…The lessons of this lost revolution remain crucial for socialists and radicals today.

It was striking the extent to which at least some members of the audience were conversant with the details of this complicated history, with its numerous political factions colliding violently and then regrouping in new combinations. (One lesson everyone apparently took here was the perennial tendency of social democrats to betray the workers’ revolution in pursuit of bourgeois democracy. In short, you cannot trust those people.)

One lanky ISO member arose to make a point by casually referencing the Stuttgart Metal Workers’ five demands of the KPD (if I’ve got that right), as though these were as familiar to us all as, say, the first five amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Part of one’s socialist cred, apparently, depends on one’s ability to pull out these historical details with dialectical precision.

During a lunch break, I encountered my first radical architect, an engaging chap who also taught at the Art Institute of Chicago. I cheerfully admitted to him I had never before met a radical architect. How many radical architects are out there these days, I asked?

About 300 nationwide, he explained, and gave me the web address of their organization. I asked if his interests included things like New Urbanism. “No, I’m a modernist,” he replied, adding “And you realize, any group that talks about traditionalism now risks being adopted by the Alt-Right. They love that stuff.” This was discouraging to hear but I was left curious about his modernism, guessing it was all about the early Bauhaus’ principles and not about neoliberal “starchitect” follies.

Audience members at these sessions offered numerous telling comments. “I’m a college student,” one young woman began. “But I consider myself to be in solidarity with the working class because students are simply people selling their intellectual labor in exchange for a degree.” Definitely something to that idea, I thought.

On the theme of exploitation, one UPS worker concluded a comment by noting that his employers now expect him to be working fully 57 minutes of each hour. One nurse noted that she was working in what had become a kind of “Taj Mahal” hospital, more focused on creating a kind of Disney effect rather than on good patient care.

A long-haul trucker noted that he had quit that kind of work some time ago, finding it hellish. “I still have nightmares replaying in my mind the close calls, the near-accidents I had. No one should have to work under those conditions.” Other speakers offered similar glimpses of the grim nature of today’s workplace—both virtual and physical.

At times, the conference struck me as resembling an old-fashioned teach-in, with professors and students hashing out political history together. (I’m old enough to have been one of those undergrads seated on a campus lawn at UT-Austin while we were coached on the French colonial history of Vietnam.)

Another tantalizing feature of the conference was the bookstore area, a large room filled with tables marked “Feminism”, “Environmental,” “Culture/Media Studies,” “Latin America”, etc., on which attendees could browse piles of radical titles from publishers like Verso, Haymarket Books, and others. Also available were multi-volume sets of the works of key figures such as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton, David Harvey and several more.

Unable to resist, I picked up about a half-dozen books—including Naomi Klein on climate change for one of my college-age daughters, a collection of essays on Arab nationalism and capitalism for second daughter, and a copy of a fascinating-looking radical urbanist book called Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers.

What did I not see at the Socialism 2018 conference?

Given the particular strain of Marxist traditions emphasized in this group, perhaps I should not have been surprised at the lack of interest in the ways that Christianity or any other spiritual source have contributed to justice, equity, racial healing or solidarity-building. No books by Stringfellow Barr, Dorothy Day, E.F. Schumacher, A.J. Heschel, James Cone, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre. No workshops on Kingian nonviolence or the Catholic Worker movement. Nothing on the antiwar traditions of the Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc.

Nor was there offered a single workshop on any visions of a future system—whether distributist, platform cooperativist, or civil economy-focused. I noticed a puzzling lack of interest in what we’ve learned to call root causes, beyond the one or two workshops referencing neoliberalism in fairly general terms. Not that this audience was one to shy away from fairly analytical material. But surely an opportunity missed on this score.

I came away with a sense of having attended a kind of lifestyle event, one at which membership was signaled by a mix of dress, jargon and a sole focus on building power through organizing the working class politically, rather than building power for an even bigger population through a wider, systemic approach. I think it’s the latter job, rather than merely picking a political party to join, which will be our new focus here.

That said, I’m hopeful that some of these attendees might nevertheless count themselves among our Solidarity Hall comrades in our vision of building a new society, as Peter Maurin put it, in the shell of the old.

About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.