Marxists at Medill

By Charles Rollet

“Hey comrades,” says Shaun Harkin in a thick Irish accent. “Mornin’.”

It’s 11am on a freezing Saturday, and while most Northwestern students are sleeping in after a night of either partying or studying, the comrades in Kresge 4-425 are laying down the political tactics for the next Communist revolution. This is the Midwest Marxism Conference, and Harkin, a Northern Irishman and Socialist activist, is here to speak about Marxism’s political future in America.

That’s right, the most significant gathering of Marxists in the Midwest was held at Northwestern this year. On December 7th, over a hundred mostly white, Obama-hating Midwesterners took over Fisk Hall and other parts of South Campus to plan the eventual toppling of the entire capitalist order. (They hate Obama for “defending capitalism,” of course, not because he’s a closet Communist – if only!)

The conference was organized by the International Socialist Organization, which is headquartered in Chicago. But why did the ISO choose to hold its event in Evanston, home to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and an undeniably bourgeois private university? Well, the ISO saves considerable money by getting its Northwestern student group to book event spaces across campus completely free of charge, even if almost no students attend the conference. And until private property is abolished, this strategy seems like the most reasonable alternative.


Proletarians of the Midwest, unite!

The conference begins at 10am, and despite being held entirely on campus, there are barely any comrades from Northwestern in sight as the attendees stream into Fisk’s ample auditorium. It’s a diverse crowd: there are old academics whose massive beards make them look like Communist Santas, socialist geeks with scraggly beards and baggy jeans, and even some Marxist hipsters. This last group is the most visually striking – they roam about confidently, like true vanguards of the working class, rocking undercuts, Doc Martens, and tight V-necks emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle.

In the auditorium, Northwestern’s usual corporate feel is gone: Karl Marx is on posters everywhere, radical literature and pamphlets lie scattered on the stands, and above the stage a huge red banner boldly reads the classic Wobbly slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

The motley Marxist crew settles down in its seats at around 10:30; after listening to an organizer introduce the conference’s schedule, the revolutionaries nod their heads and head out to the first session. Let the work commence!


Stormin’ the Heavens

Back at Harkin’s lecture in Kresge (the first of the conference’s two sessions), the talk is getting a little depressing.

Harkin recognizes the traditional Left has lost much ground in the US since the 1970s, and often mentions neoliberalism’s weakening of the working class. “Capitalism is winning right now,” he says bluntly.

Yet Harkin isn’t all doom-and-gloom.  As long as Leftists can “get back to Marx,” he says, a happy workers’ state is just around the corner. Harkin, a passionate speaker, gesticulates profusely as he harkens (!) to the working class’ inevitable “stormin’ of the heavens.”

“Class war is gunna shape our humanity,” he says. “And I think we’re gunna win.”

But the lecture is scattered and rambling, and difficult to decode for the uninitiated. Harkin seems to contradict himself a number of times, arguing the radical Left needs to work with everybody (but only certain people) and is in a better state than ever (except that it’s at an all-time low.)

Perhaps Harkin makes the most sense when he says lines like, “our side isn’t really clear about its goals,” “we’re not organized sufficiently,” and “We don’t really have a strategy to win.”

Indeed. Clearly, the struggle is long.


Privilege-Checking and Bus Tipping

 The second session of the day, held in Harris’ lecture hall, is titled “Intersectionality: Black Feminism and Post-Modernism” and is an attempt by writer and Socialist activist Sharon Smith to rescue intersectionality theory from the identity politics of the postmodern Left.

For those unfamiliar with the term, intersectionality is an academic field which examines oppression not just through the prism of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, but from the combination of these evils.

To describe this somewhat abstract concept, Smith uses the interesting metaphor of a black woman crossing a busy traffic intersection and getting hit by various vehicles at the same time, with each vehicle representing a different type of oppression. Which car(s) actually injured this poor woman? That’s what intersectionality is for.

But what’s wrong with intersectionality today? It’s not the field itself, which, as a “unifying force” in the fight against racism and sexism, makes it a concept which is “not only part of Marxism but advances Marxism,” says Smith.

No, it’s the more-oppressed-than-thou mentality which “appropriates” intersectionality theory to get in fights on the internet over who is more privileged, Smith argues. This kind of fruitless identity politics destroys working class solidarity and does nothing to upset the capitalist status quo. Smith says the most egregious example of this is the noxious idea of “checking your privilege.”

In privilege-checking, “class is reduced to a detail, and it ends up being very moralistic,” says Smith. Instead of shrieking “check your privilege,” Smith tells activists to chill. “It’s not a new concept if someone’s asking like a jerk to tell them to fuck off,” she says.

But the audience is divided over Smith’s controversial lecture, and the session quickly devolves into an hour-long debate over the merits of privilege-checking.

 One of the conference’s organizers, Lauren, says privilege-checking “is white people self-shaming themselves, and takes the place of more productive organizing.”

 Another comrade agrees. “Especially in a revolutionary organization where we’re all committed to overthrowing the system, privilege checking is counter-productive. It should be banned from the ISO!”

 But no! One woman, with an Edna-Mode-style bowl cut, says only privilege-checkers can explain “why the oppression and exploitation of black womens’ bodies fuels American capitalism.”

 Others rush to the defense of privilege-checking. One man says “it captures an aspect of the experience of oppression.” Then, a trembling voice from a self-described “healthcare provider and healer” says privilege checking “is actually founded in compassion” and comes out of “intersections of pain and trauma” suffered by everyone who is not a white, thin, wealthy, cisgender Christian male. One person even suggests ostracizing the privilege-checkers “would be just like how we used called someone bourgeois if we didn’t like what he said!”

 And so this sort of thing goes on interminably, so much so that people start apologizing for bringing up privilege-checking before they inevitably share their opinions on the matter.

Smith gets pretty miffed after listening to such an exhausting debate, and starts reminiscing about the good old days when Leftist youths would spend time organizing the working class instead of furiously typing about social justice on Tumblr all day.

 She recounts the revolutionary days of her youth, when she rioted against the cops and violently fought for unions by harassing scabs.

 “When I was on a picket line we found the bus full of scabs and started rocking it, and it tipped over,” she says nostalgically. “And that’s a feeling of power.”

 “I feel so bad that young people today don’t have these experiences,” Smith laments. She ends the lecture on an inclusive note, calling privilege-checking “uncharitable” and “divisive” for assuming all white males are pure evil, instead of partners in the struggle against capitalism.

“We all have pain. Capitalism produces incredible pain,” she says. “Privilege-checking has this assumption that if you’re a white male from a certain class, you don’t feel pain.”

 And with that, the lecture is over. But tensions are still seething within the audience even after everyone moves back into Fisk’s auditorium for the final lecture. The Edna Mode lookalike angrily whispers to the person sitting next to her, “I have no confidence whatsoever that our comrades understood what privilege theory is.”

 A better question: does anyone?

Is Marxism Dead?

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

That is, perhaps unsurprisingly, how the final lecture of the Midwest Marxism Conference begins: with the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto. The speaker is Alan Maass, the editor of the ISO’s monthly paper Socialist Worker (and a Medill alum.)

The goal of the final lecture, titled “Why the Working Class,” is to double down on the idea of the working class as the revolutionary party which will overthrow capitalism in America. The idea is ambitious, and sounds a little too turn of the (20th) century to be realistic, but Maass argues our conception of the working class is “fundamentally a myth.”

“The working class is uniquely radical,” he says, and not all of it is made up of blue collar males. According to Maas, anywhere from 2/3 to ¾ of Americans qualify as working class when you includes retail workers, office drones, low-level management positions, teachers, etc.

So if most of America is working class, why isn’t there any realistic prospect of a Marxist revolution, a 21st-century 1917?

Maass is no chump. He knows the Marxist Left has failed to radicalize the working class in America, and holds little actual power in nominally Leftist outfits such as academia and the Democratic Party. Maass even characterizes Obama’s signature healthcare law as a neoliberal compromise doomed to fail. “The whole purpose of Obamacare is to ration down healthcare,” he says, strangely mirroring a conservative talking point.

So Maass argues that there must be more organizing and better strategy; a decisively class-conscious movement must be created, something along the lines of the Arab Spring and Occupy, but tailored to this new American working class.

Maass continues on, somewhat bitter yet strangely hopeful as he harps on about the next revolution. As his lecture wraps up, it’s hard not to feel the whole conference is a bit surreal. The red banners, the Marx photos, the raised fists, people calling each other “comrade;” in the post-Soviet era, it all sounds like a cult invoking its perennial pipe dream.

In Chicago, the gritty industrial birthplace of American radicalism, these Marxists are gathering in a building they’re using for free because they couldn’t afford better, and the event they held was ignored by all news outlets – even though they held it in journalism school. Even the right-wingers at Breitbart couldn’t be bothered to crash the conference like they did last year.

Is Marxism dead?


A tour group passes Fisk Hall. The cheery, upbeat guide describes how great Northwestern is and makes a joke about the frigid weather. The potential students, mostly from wealthy schools in the suburbs, laugh along. Meanwhile, in Fisk, a hundred of the last true believers stare starry-eyed into the great Communist future. They hope that one day, not soon, but one day, the working class will finally wake up and storm the heavens.


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