Socialism Conference 2023 took place in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Organized by the publisher Haymarket Books, the event brought together all the heavy hitters in the progressive socialist movement, including the Democratic Socialists of America (famous for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and Jacobin magazine. I donned the mandatory mask to attend the last day of the conference and took notes for the Thinker.
Takeaway #1: Labor unions are so back. . . maybe.
Young progressive socialists want to re-energize the labor movement, and they are doing it. A group of union organizers from the outlet Worker’s Voice explained to me that many of their union leaders seem cozy with corporate bosses and are not eager to fight for workers. To wrest control from the “administrative caucuses” within their unions, the Worker’s Voice organizers are forming militant intra-union factions.
The organizers mentioned newly elected United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain, who won by defeating the more conciliatory incumbent, Ray Curry. Though the organizers believed that Fain would call a strike against the big three automakers during the next round of contract negotiations, they questioned whether he is militant enough. Many union leaders are adopting more hardline rhetoric without making the preparations necessary to threaten credible strikes, the organizers said. (Update: by publishing time, the UAW declared a strike.)
Progressive socialist unionists don’t just want to recalibrate the status quo: they want to make unions organized and potent, which would be a sea change. I asked some of them what they think about President Joe Biden’s pro-union National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They replied that while improvements to labor law would be great, unions’ most pressing need is more organized workers.
One of the organizers pointed to his sweatshirt, which said “socialism from below.” He elaborated that unions were powerful in the 1930s because their members were organized and ready to fight, not because of labor laws, which were terrible at the start of the New Deal.
He has a point: organized working class people can exert real power. They did from roughly 1930 through 1970 through grassroots unions, churches, and political parties, as Michael Lind documents in his bookThe New Class War and his related op-eds. Post 1970, however, each of those three institutions declined, and working class influence in society declined with them. That shift resulted in government by astroturf (e.g., Bill Gates progressivism and Koch Brothers libertarianism) with the occasional side helping of populist revolt (see former President Donald Trump).
Progressive socialists may have elitist cultural values, but their penchant for organizing is giving regular people a stronger voice in the economy. That is a major social good in my view, though some of my Thinker colleagues might disagree.
I came to the Socialism Conference hoping to find some “citizens concerned about the war in Ukraine” or hear a few chants about how many kids Biden killed today. I left disappointed.
Everyone I met seemed totally fine with the United States spending more than $100 billion helping Slavs kill other Slavs in a place most Americans cannot even locate on a map, which sounds an awful lot like imperialism to me. I think that is because progressives tend to imagine themselves in a global struggle for cosmic justice against the forces of reaction, led by old, white men from recalcitrant places like Alabama and Moscow. The war in Ukraine fits that narrative a little too well, at least when all the unsavory parts about broken promises and State Department-backed putsches get airbrushed out. (Heck, how would you feel if Canada invited the Russian army in for “collective defense”?)
I did find one antiwar leaflet from a group calling itself the Chicago Antiwar Coalition, an outfit so dinky that it does not even have a website. It appeared to be an orthodox Marxist group, which makes it hard to take seriously, as many such groups insist that countries like Cuba and Venezuela are not dysfunctional disasters. By contrast, the pro-war group at the conference boasted a logo, a website, a table, and a speaking tour.
Takeaway #3: Progressive socialists remain focused on classic “woke” cultural issues.
The environment, identity politics (race/gender/LGBTQ/abortion), and de-policing/decarceration loomed large and took up most of the conference discussion.Speakers made constant references to “the climate crisis,” as well as the Stop Cop City campaign, a progressive protest movement to prevent the construction of a police training facility in Atlanta.
During the final session, participants chanted “Viva, Viva, Tortuguita” in honor of Tortuguita, an “Indigenous queer and non-binary environmental activist” whom police shot to death in the Georgia forest in January. Tortuguita may or may not have shot a Georgia state trooper immediately beforehand.
Takeaway #4: The journalists were AWOL.
Pretty much zero journalists attended Socialism Conference. The exceptions were an undercover conservative Forbescontributor, an orthodox Marxist from the World Socialist Web Site, and me.
I think that is because most of what happened at Socialism Conference was either trite progressive stuff or was not flattering to the mainstream media cartel. Angela Davis kicking off a drag show isn’t news, and ending Socialism Conference “on a black feminist and abolitionist note” isn’t either. The president of the American Library Association calling school libraries a site for “socialist organizing” is news, but it makes New York Times readers look bad.
Extra: some funny quotes (with my comments in parentheses)
“The 2020 uprising [of BLM riots] was not the first and will not be the last.” (It’s OK—the $1.5 billion damage from last time was mostly paid for by insurance companies.)
Speaker introduces next speaker: “We were running to bring milk to the protestors [at Ferguson], and we got tear-gassed, and we started pouring milk in each other’s eyes.” (Note to self: if you are going to get tear-gassed, make sure you #GotMilk. Not oat milk. Too expensive.)
Third speaker: “I got scared he was about to propose or something, but it’s ok: we believe in family abolition.” (I like my family, please don’t abolish them.)
“Brocialists [bro socialists] are becoming irrelevant as this conference closes out: look at who’s here.” (The brocialists are Trumpian populists now—alienate us white men at your peril!)
“The movement that elected Brandon Johnson was not a revolutionary movement.” (Thank goodness, I was worried there for a second.)
Mom sends cupcakes to entire class. “We’re doing this because we’re socialist, and we believe in sharing things with children and friends. We’re constantly converting children with every Krispy Kreme donut.” (I knew they were coming for our kids.)
“People are unwilling to fight for … the end of the manufacturing of guns.” (Heck yeah, Second Amendment!)
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Ben, who is a Thinker editor, is a law student with a background in microbiology, management consulting, and politics. He is from Minnesota and did a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines. In his spare time, he enjoys adventure sports and radical books. He tweets at @gogglesmammoth.