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The Left Takes Chicago

At the 2022 Socialism Conference, a new generation of radical young organizers revivifies the US left.

Chicago—It wasn’t hard to tell which of the guests at the 63,000-square-foot Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago were there for the 2022 Socialism Conference. Giveaways included T-shirts bearing political slogans and labor affiliations (“Abortion is a Human Right,” “Troublemakers Union,” “Tired Feminist”); elaborate tattoos; moth-like attraction to the makeshift bookstore set up by Haymarket Books, this year’s main sponsor; and anything red. At one session, when the moderator called on “the comrade in the red shirt,” three heads pivoted toward the podium. “I dropped, like, $100 on books and already have tons I haven’t read at home,” a middle-aged Black male comrade confessed in the elevator, adding, “The wife is not happy.”

The conference, which took place over Labor Day weekend, was a four-day gathering organized and supported by around 40 leftist groups and publications. (The inaugural Socialism Conference took place in 2002, and for years it was primarily organized by the International Socialist Organization. Haymarket has been a cosponsor since the mid-2000s.) Especially visible this year were left-wing magazines like Lux and groups like the Highlander Research and Education Center, which leads organizing efforts in Appalachia and the South, and Dream Defenders, a Black-led, Florida-based group committed to moving society “away from prisons, deportation, and war—and toward health care, housing, jobs, and movement for all.”

For such an earnestly ideological event, the conference was neither dry nor doctrinaire. “We have a pretty loose interpretation of ‘socialism,’” Sean Larson, the conference’s lead organizer, told me. “We try to make this as grassroots and bottom-up of a conference as possible.… We try to not have a whole bunch of professionalized nonprofits and to gear more towards membership-based organizations and local activists who are active in their communities.”

While it certainly achieved its aim of bringing together “hundreds of socialists and radical activists from around the country” to discuss “social movements, Marxism, abolition, working-class history,” it’s less clear what those discussions will yield. Because of Covid, this year’s was the first in-person gathering since 2019. A member of the organizing team since 2017, Larson has been attending the conference for over a decade. He told me that in the spring organizer were expecting just 500 people. (Two thousand showed up in 2018, but there was no virtual program then.) This year, more than 1,700 people attended in person, and 1,600 bought tickets for the virtual program. Eighty percent of those who came this year were attending for the first time.

Larson attributed the unexpected popularity of the 2022 conference to organizers’ “aggressive prioritization” of young people, prison abolitionists, Black organizers, and/or people from the South—anyone “not typically represented” in socialist or left-wing spaces—and efforts to ensure that those voices were “prominent and powerful.” Women and gender-nonconforming people also appeared to be better represented than in years past, and there were four separate sessions on safeguarding abortion access, which hasn’t always been a top priority of the socialist left.

Scholarships were also available to those who couldn’t afford to travel to Chicago or stay at the Hyatt. As interest in the conference grew and more organizations signed on, more scholarship funds became available. Some groups paid for members to attend, and some people who registered for the conference donated additional money to help cover costs for comrades in need of financial assistance. “We won’t turn anybody away,” Larson told me.

The weekend featured dozens of sessions on a range of topics, from “The ABCs of Marxism” and “Socialist Solutions to the Gun Crisis” to “Transgender Marxism,” “Solidarity with Brazil and Latin America’s Pink Tide,” and “Racial Capitalism, Deaths of Despair, and the Black Working Class in the Post-Civil Rights Era.”

Several themes emerged: (1) a new generation of radical young organizers has revivified the US left, (2) these organizers are not necessarily coordinating effectively, and (3) Twitter is a toxic but addictive hellhole where social movements go to die.

Attendees were delighted to interact face-to-face rather than through a screen, and a number of speakers stressed the importance of having a forum where organizers could hash out differences of strategy and vision in a productive way, rather than compulsively contributing to time-wasting, energy-draining Twitter threads.

To David Duhalde, chair of the DSA Fund, the conference demonstrated the “sustained momentum” of an “anti-capitalist left” that continues to grow and attract new recruits well after Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Many conference-goers, especially the younger ones, were radicalized not by Sanders’s campaigns but by the anti–police brutality uprisings of 2020. Some even see Sanders as, in the words of one attendee, a “massive disappointment.”

At least two speakers noted that there are multiple “lefts,” a reality reflected in the audiences attracted by various sessions. At times it felt as if we were talking past each other or reinforcing what we already knew. While no talk I attended was completely homogeneous, the sessions featuring Black speakers seemed to draw audiences with higher concentrations of young and/or Black people. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, who led a session on “Organizing the South,” expressed disappointment that it was attended mainly by Southerners. I attended just one of the four sessions on abortion rights, plus an “Abortion Access Activism After Roe” meetup; the abortion talk I went to drew far more women than men.

There were, however, plenty of men at the meetup, perhaps because it offered more opportunities to speak; at one point, a male comrade was defending abortion rights so loudly that the mostly women in the room couldn’t hear one another. He quieted down after somebody yelled, “Indoor voices!”

Identifying its top priorities and implementing a national strategy to achieve them is a major challenge facing both the broader and the socialist left. The organizers who disdain Sanders as an insufficiently radical sheepdog with a racial blind spot and those who wept when he won Nevada may all support single-payer health care, but they don’t necessarily agree on how best to make it a reality (“I have lots of thoughts, and none of them are about Bernie,” the abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore dryly quipped in response to a question from author and podcaster Daniel Denvir, moderator of the “What Now? Perspectives on the Conjuncture” panel.) As a DSA member from California put it, “One of the big problems the left faces at the moment is that there’s no clear broad coalitional structure or single group that can bring people together to organize in concert.… We all agree we need to be more organized, but it’s unclear how we get there from here.”

Younger attendees marveled at the presence of so many old people, but to conference veterans it was the youths who were noteworthy. “This was my second Socialism Conference, but I have been attending similar ecumenical convergences like the Left Forum for over 20 years,” Duhalde, 38, told me in an e-mail. This year, he noted, “The vast majority of participants seemed to be under 30, unlike the gatherings where I was a third of the age of most attendees.”

For a gathering of people passionate enough to travel to Chicago to spend a holiday weekend sitting through talks like “In Defense of Socialist Planning: Why Socialism Requires Planning,” a vast, ultra-corporate chain hotel felt like an odd setting (Larson said they chose the Hyatt because it’s capable of fulfilling the accessibility needs of comrades with disabilities).

In spite—or maybe because of, its “Middle-Aged Dads Gone Wild” vibe—the hotel bar was packed every night, and not just with business dads. There were drink specials for conference-goers ($5 for domestic beer, $6 for imported) and last call was at 1: 15 am. In a sectioned-off area of the hotel’s ballroom on the first night of the conference, around 70 socialists were treated to a performance by Ric Wilson, “Chicago’s own disco/funk dynamo.” Wilson, a young Black man in a sleeveless shirt and pigtail dreads who described himself as a “baby of the Chicago Freedom School,” led the mostly twentysomething, mostly white crowd in a rousing dance routine and shouted pointed encouragement (“Some of you organizers know how to have fun!”).

Throughout the weekend, couples canoodled. I began to wonder if all the socializing, drinking, and dancing were meant to spur a red diaper baby boom (child care was on offer for those with already-existing socialist offspring; 23 parents and 32 kids took advantage of it). The public displays of affection brought to mind the words of Akin Olla, a speaker at a session on “Building a Black Mass Movement for Socialism in the Age of White Nationalism”: “We’re here to end capitalism; we’re not here for fun,” he said, playfully adding, “Well, we’re here for fun, too!”

Some found the conference overwhelming; others were energized, inspired, and overwhelmed, but in a good way. “There’s so much coming at you, all of this information, and you get home and you’re so excited about all of these new ideas and new connections, and then it’s like, ‘Now what? How do we actually make this happen?’” said Anne Rumberger, an activist with NYC for Abortion Rights. “It’s such a generative gathering.”

The final plenary, “A World to Win,” took place at noon on Labor Day and ended with a singalong of “”The Internationale,” the lyrics of which were distributed beforehand. I was seated behind two small blond children, one of whom sang with gusto and raised his tiny fist in solidarity.

“I remember my first conference,” Larson had told me dreamily the day before. “There was my life before I went to the Socialism Conference, and then there was my life after the Socialism Conference, and that experience—overstimulating as it may be, at times, especially after two years of pandemic introversion—is just so memorable…. That’s what we’re trying to do: bring people together in person and create a public sphere on the left.”

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