Steps forward at the Social Forum

June 30, 2010

I WANTED to share with readers my journal from last week's U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit.

Preliminarily, many activists, including myself, were shocked--shocked--at the condition of the city of Detroit. Abandoned homes, stores and buildings appeared block after block after block. Instead of a vibrant skyline, Detroit was marked by a skyline of empty office towers, long since left to rot. As one fellow socialist pointed out to me, the city has been like this for decades, the result of neoliberalism at its worst.

Moving to the conference itself, however, it was quite awesome to see 10,000-plus activists all under one roof. In some ways, the left is weaker than it was in the late 1990s, but this conference is one example of where we're stronger--such conferences simply did not exist prior to 2001.

One other proviso: As Lee Sustar pointed out in his article on the USSF ("Festival of resistance in Detroit"), with well over 1,000 sessions, it'd be impossible to generalize from one person's experience.

I first attended the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's session "Lynching Then, Lynching Now." One panelist noted (a la the title of the session) that 80 percent of all lynchings occurred in South and the same percentage of death penalty cases also occur in the South.

And while one activist questioned why many lawyers make a lot off the system, it was noted that for some yes, for some no--but it's not inconsistent for our movement to fight for more funding in states which underfund legal services for the poor.

Finally, Stanley Howard, a former Illinois death row prisoner, speaking via speakerphone, concluded "not only is the death penalty unjust because its based on innocents are being convicted, but over the last 25 years, no judge wanted to rule in favor of the torture victims [of Chicago police under the command of Lt. Jon Burge]." Thus, the death penalty must be seen merely as an aspect--an extremely tragic aspect--of the larger criminal system of injustice.

I next attended the session "Capitalist Roots of Ecological Crisis." Socialist Chris Williams highlighted the fact that equivalent of Exxon Valdez is spilling into Gulf of Mexico every four days.

It was also noted that because of the continually expanding nature of capitalism, even efforts to "green" a workplace, will make that workplace more efficient, while freeing up more resources to feed into more expansion, thus affecting the environment in newer and broader ways. Furthermore, it would take about 3.8 million wind turbines to power the world, yet capitalism is able to produce 80 million cars annually, so our continued dependence on oil is really a question of priorities.

At the same session, activist Theresa Turner gave a report-back from the People's Summit earlier this year in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Among the resolutions reached at the conference was a push for an international court to try ecological crimes. She also observed more of an emphasis, unlike prior similar conferences, on joining the resources of social movements to end dependence on oil.

I NEXT attended a session on rebuilding the antiwar movement. In answer to the question of "where has the antiwar movement gone," I noted that Iraq Veterans Against the War is among those on the left making connections between movements (e.g., getting involved in immigrants rights protests).

Thus, the key to rebuilding the antiwar movement is to make connections between the movements (i.e., war is about oil, which affects the environment, and also causes budget cuts, etc.).

The last session I attended was "The Case for Socialism." Many great questions were raised in this session, ranging from what role the petty bourgeoisie may play ("it doesn't matter what class you belong to, it's what class you fight for which matters"). Another question was whether socialism itself was just too small as a movement to have any real effect. One answer was how the Bolsheviks were no more than 10 percent of the population on the eve of the October revolution.

Socialists must be there not only in the thick, but also in the thin, of social movements so as to earn a place as leaders of the movements.

Finally, the question of regroupment arose (i.e., whether the socialist movement would be stronger if many socialist groups merged). As a partial answer, while certainly there are many socialist groups out there, some are simply sectarian, a few extremely hostile.

More importantly, the International Socialist Organization stands willing to work with those non-sectarian groups willing to fight for common interests. The urgent task at present, however, is to rebuild the left via social movements, not necessarily regroupment. At critical points, for example, Lenin broke with larger communist organizations to form smaller, yet more politically cohesive groups.

In sum, I was psyched by the wide diversity at the conference--young and old, Black, Latino, Arab, Asian and white.

I'm already looking forward to the next U.S. Social Forum in 2013, but with the re-energized motivation to do my little part to help rebuild the left in between.
Dave Bliven, Briarwood, N.Y.

Further Reading

From the archives