Socialism 2009

The Women's Building, San Francisco

This past Fourth of July, instead of watching fireworks, I listened to verbal fireworks at the ISO’s Socialism 2009 in San Francisco. It was held at the Women’s Building in the Mission District. This is a charming old structure with a beautiful mural painted on the outside. However, it quickly became embarrassingly obvious that it was not designed for an event the size of the one we were having. The problem was over-cautious thinking on the part of the organizers. They expected between 400 and 450 people to turn up. Instead, there were over 900 people. Clearly, there is an audience for socialist ideas out there.

In spite of the logistical problems, this was the strongest of all the Socialisms that I have been to. Of all the talks I went to, not a single one was a disappointment. Each one had something interesting and thought-provoking about it. Just as good were the discussions that took place. People made well-informed arguments and asked challenging questions. Too often at previous events, some people would just get up and ramble. It was as if they were picking their brains to show how much they knew about a particular topic. I didn’t see much of that this year. This may have been due to aggressive chairing, but I think it may be because the economic crisis has forced people to be more politically serious.

Some of the discussions were so good, that they seemed too short. At a number of the talks I went to, the discussion list had to be cut because time was running out. One discussion that I found particularly interesting was after a talk on Iran by Barry Sheppard and Lee Sustar. There were a number of Iranians in the audience who had taken part in the 1979 revolution. During the discussion it became clear that there were sharp disagreements between them on some issues (such as whether or not the ’79 revolution was “reactionary”.) I was interested to see how these arguments would play out, but unfortunately the discussion had to be cut short, because time was running out.

I saw Michael Yates speak at a panel on the future of the labor movement. He was harshly critical of the labor unions in this country. He argued that what we need to build are not traditional unions, but more broad-based organizations that address a whole host of issues that affect the working class. I would have liked to hear him discuss this idea in more detail, but again, time did not permit it.

I also liked a talk by Christian Parenti on Afghanistan. He managed to go into a lot of detail about that nation’s history. He predicted that Obama is going to try to destroy the Taliban in the next couple of years. If that fails, he will wind down the war in time for the next election. His main thesis, though, was that the war is already lost. Prolonging it will only cause needless suffering.

Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage and which was passed last fall in California, was a big topic at the conference. Friday night there was a panel discussion on this. I was impressed by the positive and upbeat tone of what people said. They feel confident that they can overturn this ban. This is so much different from the mood of the left only a few years ago. All you could hear then was about how helpless we were and about how the right was getting everything it wanted.

There was also a lot of talk about California’s fiscal crisis. At the Haymarket bookstore, they were selling T-shirts that read “Tax the Rich”, a demand that we all can get behind. (I might have bought one of these, but I didn’t like the font that they used. That’s what happens when you work as a graphic designer.)

There were some Sparts on the sidewalk outside, grimly selling their newspapers. One of these poor souls made the mistake of telling Sherry Wolf that the ISO is “sexist” and “homophobic”. You can imagine the earful that person must have gotten.

I was so busy that I had no time to see the city, except for a four block area of the Mission District. I remember that I talked a couple of young friends of mine from Eugene into going to an informational meeting on joining the ISO. Afterwards, when I asked them about it, they sheepishly admitted that they had instead gone to Haight-Ashbury to check out the head shops. (One of them expressed indignation at finding a McDonald’s there.) Well, I guess there’s a little bit of a tourist in all of us.

My friends and I stayed with two comrades, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, in Berkeley. (You may recall that back in 2005 they wrote an eyewitness account of the destruction of New Orleans that was widely disseminated on the Internet and caused some controversy. You can find it here.) They were both very friendly and hospitable, and they made our stay a pleasant one. We had to take the subway out to their house. I must say, I was impressed by the Bay Area’s transit system. It only took us half an hour to go from the Mission District to Berkeley, even though they are on opposite sides of the bay. I also liked the fact that the stations had LED signs announcing how long it would take for the next trains to arrive. (The thing that always drove me crazy about subways in the past was that one never knew how long one would have to wait for the next train.) However, I didn’t like the ticket machines, which I found confusing and inconvenient. I ended up paying more money for tickets than I needed to. (Do you think maybe they designed the machines to make that happen?) I also didn’t like the fact that the trains stop running shortly after midnight.

There are some images from this conference that will alway be with me – such as the expression on Mark Steel’s face as almost half the audience showed up late for his talk on Che Guevara. What made the greatest impression on me, however, was the energy and enthusiasm of the people who came. There are people out there who want radical change, and we must reach them somehow.

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2 Responses to “Socialism 2009”

  1. skidmarx Says:

    It’s Mark Steel(no final “e”).

    I remember the LBs from when they were in a couple of SWP branches in England in the early 90s. Good to hear they’re still active.

  2. Renegade Eye Says:

    Interesting report.

    I didn’t know ISO was that large.

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