This Saturday, the Midwest Marxist Conference was held at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The event was teeming with teachers who spoke about the new found bond between the radical socialists and their Teachers Union. The all-day event, which collected money to support Chicago Socialists and featured a communist bookstore, provided students on-campus along with the radical left community to plan the next phase in their activism.
Becca Barnes, a Chicago Teachers Union teacher and organizer with Chicago Socialists, proclaimed at the beginning of the conference that “the struggle here in the United States has entered a new phase. Nowhere have we pointed the way forward more clearly than here in Chicago with the teachers union strike.”
After the opening plenary, breakout sessions addressed more specific topics like the history of the Democratic party, education, and case studies in Russia. In these sessions, speakers continued to celebrate the use of education as a mechanism to insert Marxism into public institutions. In one session, the idea of targeting their message to students, even over “the working class,” was debated.
One teacher, who spoke in an afternoon session, described his tactics to overcome the problem of teachers’ unwillingness to take part in the strike, while Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey underscored Barnes’s earlier point when he spoke about the “struggle” of Chicago teachers and the need for additional support from other revolutionary movements. Through a renewed focus on the “strike weapon,” Socialist organizers remarked that they felt their movement had rediscovered its vigor—and the path forward ought to include “mass strikes,” they said.
Eric Ruder of the ISO spoke about the Socialists’ partnership with the Chicago Teachers Union during “The Meaning of Marxism” breakout session:
There are big moments in the sort of chain of historical development that we have to be able to intervene… And in order to that, you need an organization. That’s really the sort of thing you saw in the Chicago teachers strike. In a situation where there was a huge struggle, our organization threw itself in the middle of that and had a demonstrable impact on it.
Because we’ve been rooted, experienced activists who worked together in a collaborative way to try to build up that influence over the long haul… I think when you get in revolutionary moment where your ability to quickly assess what’s happening and make strategic and tactical shifts on the fly, that is essential.
Working class revolutions have never succeeded without the existence of a revolutionary party that’s capable of making those sorts of decisions and providing that kind of leadership. And that’s what we’re asking you, the members of this group, to join and help in that process. We need you to be able to have enough size and influence to matter, but you need us to be able to be part of a force that could intervene in that sort of chain in historical development.
Other speakers addressed perceived weaknesses in the Socialists’ messaging, including the need to shore up the high pay of union members and racism inherent at the AFL-CIO, which, according to participants, has been an historic problem. Others acknowledged that the general public “seems to fear us” and brainstormed ways to counter these fears.
The event itself, though advertised online as via social media, retained a sense of extreme secrecy. Attendees were told not to record video or audio unless they had express permission from organizers. Rather than traditional discussions in the breakout sessions, we were instructed to “raise your hand in a fist” in order to be first approved and then added by a moderator to a queue to speak. This orthodoxy resulted in extremely disjointed Q&A sessions where no one comment followed another and most questions went unanswered.
After attending the all-day event, which began at 11 a.m., I was singled out as “not in solidarity” by International Socialist Organization (ISO) organizer Dennis Kosuth around 4 p.m, and removed from the premises for “not being a Communist.”