On a hot evening in July 2011, myself and a few other visitors from Canada, found ourselves in a cavernous meeting room in a hotel near a Chicago airport. A panel discussion in that room was set to begin at 7:30pm, and after a long day we wanted to arrive early and make sure we got good seats. What followed was unexpected, and extraordinary. A group of young people gathered in the centre of the room, stood on chairs, and in chorus began a chant. “!Obama, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” This great slogan – “Listen up Obama! We are in struggle” – from the 2010 march for immigration reform in the United States, was soon being joined by the voices of the 1,000 people packed into the hall. Young, old, Hispanic, African-American, white, male, female, straight, lesbian, gay, trans – the hall rocked to this and other chants – for abortion rights, against the death penalty, and for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid in the state of Israel. These were the voices of activists from many struggles. The enthusiastic chanting delayed the meeting by almost half an hour, but no one cared. You had a sense that here, in the belly of the beast, there were movements of the left, willing to challenge capitalism and imperialism, whether fronted by George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
The occasion for this enthusiastic display of movement politics was the Saturday plenary of the annual “Socialism” conference, running form July 1 to July 4, organized by the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The Saturday plenary when it happened – “Revolution and imperialism in the Middle East” featuring Ali Abunimah, Egyptian activist Mostafa Omar and Ahmed Shawki (editor of International Socialist Review) among others – was informative and inspiring. But it was already clear before Saturday evening, that the conference as a whole would be a special event.
Friday evening – up against five other meetings – 130 people attended David Whitehouse’s talk, “Will China rule the world?” There are two traps in any discussion of China. First – assuming that it is or was a socialist state. Second – dismissing its current rise in the global economy as being completely derivative of its relationship to the United States. Whitehouse’s presentation avoided both traps, and prompted an intense and interesting discussion.
Saturday morning – up against nine other sessions – Michael Fiorentino and Abbie Bakan spoke to 60 people on the topic of “Israel: Watchdog of imperialism.” As well as two informative and politically incisive presentations, the session was marked by the prominence of the call to build a movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid in the state of Israel. The discussion carefully worked through the use of the label apartheid, a term that originated in the context of racial segregation in South Africa, and which has now been extended to help analyze the Jim Crow era segregation in the U.S. south, and the ghettoization of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. Bakan argued that what is emerging is a rich new field of scholarly and activist research – comparative apartheid studies.
Again on Saturday morning – up against 10 other sessions – a panel of activists spoke to 140 people on the topic “Wisconsin: The end of the one-sided class war.” At least 70 people who had been active in the great eruption of struggle against austerity in that state, had made their way to the Socialism conference.
The profound interest among attendees in the issue of Palestine was made clear again in the first session Saturday afternoon. With nine other sessions happening simultaneously, 170 folks came to hear Ali Abunimah – editor of the invaluable web site “The Electronic Intifada” – speak on “Palestine and the Arab Spring.” It is now a recurring theme on the left to argue that with the emergence of mass struggle in Egypt, the Middle East’s biggest economy, there is new hope for the besieged people of Palestine. But Abunimah made the point that this is a two way street – the long, bitter resistance of the Palestinian people was a key spark for what we now call the “Arab Spring.”
And in the last session of the afternoon, 140 people came out to hear a panel on “Lessons of February 1917: Spontaneity and organization” with nine other sessions happening concurrently. The panel featured an interesting discussion between Jason Yanowitz and Paul D’Amato on the relative weight of spontaneity and organization in the February revolution in Russia in 1917. This author was the third person on the panel, presenting research on a forgotten wing of the socialist movement of that era – the “Mezhrayonka” or “Inter-District Committee” – rank and file trade unionists and socialists who resisted sectarian advice from the Bolshevik leadership in exile, and insisted on finding methods of work which would unite and not divide activists in the movement.
One of the highlights of the event was the extraordinary book room, with hundreds and hundreds of titles available at very reasonable cost. You might have missed the conference, but you can still get the books through the Haymarket books web site. In particular, make sure to order Omar Barghouti’s new book, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Barghouti was one of the featured guest speakers at the conference, part of a three country speaking tour beginning in Britain and ending in Canada. Also keep your eye on the conference web site. Many of the talks were videoed, and they will gradually be made available as time permits.
And remember – this is an annual event. Details won’t be out for a while for the 2012 conference, but it’s likely to be in July, and it definitely is worth the trip to Chicago.
Part of a series of articles based on a recent trip to the United States
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© 2011 Paul Kellogg
 Miguel E. Andrade, “”Obama Escucha!, Estamos en la Lucha: March for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Media Mobilizing Project. March 23, 2010.