“If you have a question, please raise your fist.”
Apparently, that’s how you ask a question at a Marxists’ conference.
On November 10th, I attended the Midwest Marxism Conference, where Marxists and others gathered at Northwestern’s Fisk Hall to discuss the meaning of Marxism in the 21st century.
The event teased that “millions of people have come to the understanding that capitalism is no longer working,” and included twelve “workshops” about various aspects of Marxist history and theory. It was organized by the International Socialist Organization, and used various locations on Northwestern’s campus.
I attended the whole conference that day (except for the final lecture), and was surprised by how many people were in attendance. Fisk Hall’s auditorium appeared almost full, and many of the workshops were held in packed classrooms of around 40 attendees each. Becca Barnes, a teacher in the Chicago Teachers Union, opened the conference with an ardent lecture on the evils of capitalism. Amongst other things, she used the effects of Hurricane Sandy as an example of capitalism’s many wrongs:
“From those who were most affected by the storm to begin with, all the way to those who still don’t have power, to those who’ve been completely ignored, our system is rotten to the core,” she said.
Nevertheless, Barnes said that events like Sandy “open up fault lines of opportunity” for Marxists to build up strength and ultimately spark a revolution.
“We need to build a revolutionary socialist party here in this country that is able to expose the horrors of capitalism, but also offer a different vision for the world,” she said.
The first workshop I attended was called The Meaning of Marxism, presented by Eric Ruder, a journalist for the Socialist Worker. He gave a Marxist explanation of history and capitalism’s inefficiencies, and called for unity among the working class in order for revolution to succeed.
“If the working class is going to be able to free itself to work collectively, to come together, and to stand against a common enemy, it is going to have to overcome the things that have been used to create the divisions that maintain the power of people at the top,” he said.
Ruder then explained:
“That means that if a revolution were ever to take place – which I think it will at some point – it would mean that working people would have to struggle against racism, against sexism, against LGBT oppression,” he said.
The second workshop I attended was called “Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement” and was mostly a historical explanation of the Civil Rights movement and its radicalization in the mid-60s. It was actually a very good history lesson, and I found it quite interesting. Marxism was not approached in this one as much as in the other workshops. It focused mostly on US history, although towards the end of the lecture there was some discussion of a need for a “New Civil Rights Movement,” along with laments about the new “colourblind racism.”
The audience at many of these workshops included a good amount of Chicago hipster types, who sported ironic beards and hand-knitted beanies. They inadvertently created a historically-appropriate environment, since their facial hair was probably last popular in the early 20th century- right when Marxism was too. This retro feel was complemented by frequent allusions to “the bosses” as the chief enemy of working class peoples.
The last workshop I went to was called “Imperialism: Capitalism Wages War,” hosted by Brian Bean. As one might suspect, Bean said that “war is intimately connected with capitalism” and that Marxism would lead to the end of war as we know it.
“A world with no war is a world with no capitalism,” he said.
He criticized both US parties, declaring them to be “bankrupt,” and said the main global catastrophe was (you guessed it) capitalism.
I talked to Bean after the presentation and he asked me what I thought of it. Refraining from calling it utter tosh, I said I did not agree capitalism was the reason war existed, since communist countries like the USSR have fought many wars. Bean countered that the Soviet Union was not a communist country. Figuring I’d hit a theoretical wall of sorts, I politely excused myself and left.
Although the Midwest Marxism Conference was a very large event, The Daily Northwestern did not cover it, much to my surprise. It was still “covered” by Breitbart.com’s Chicago-based activist Rebel Pundit, whom I (unknowingly) sat next to during the first workshop. He was kicked out of the conference for undisclosed reasons, causing a minor commotion in Fisk’s main lobby.
I can’t say the event was very friendly to journalists (despite being hosted in Medill’s main building), as the conference’s organizers made it clear people were required to register at the main desk if they wanted to take pictures or record. I tried to do so, but was essentially told to look up the organizers’ website if I wanted quotes.
Overall, the Midwest Marxism Conference was interesting to attend, even though it used up most of my Saturday. I am unsure of how “working class” many of the participants were, however; I can’t help but mention that during one of the workshops, the fellow sitting next to me casually said “yeah, my mom was in Texas- she winters there all the time.”
(Note- I have already written about the Midwest Marxism Conference in The College Fix; the article above is a personal account of it, exclusively for The Chronicle. Look out for more Chron coverage of the conference in our next print edition.)
The Top Five Quotes from the Midwest Marxism Conference
“We stood up not just to get paid for our labour, but to defend public schools from the capitalist vampires who wanted to invest in our children in order to turn a profit”
– Becca Barnes, a teacher in the CTU, on the union’s recent strike
“The beast must be slain!”
– Brian Bean on capitalism.
“Racism has been the foundation stone for the development of US capitalism”
– from the workshop Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement
“Just because it’s the best idea doesn’t mean that it actually prevails”
– Socialist Worker journalist Eric Ruder on Marxism
“Never has it been so easy to say ‘look at this election circus: and they call that democracy’.”
– Becca Barnes on the 2012 election