On June 11-13, over 220 members of Socialist Alternative (SA) gathered near Denver, Colorado for our twelfth national convention. The convention gathered elected delegates from 33 branches in 20 cities, as well as observers from around the country. Every geographical area of the country was represented – from the Northeast to the Southwest. The convention reflected the increasing diversity of our membership but especially its youthful, dynamic character. What was striking was the focus and seriousness of the delegates, many of whom were attending their first convention, over three long days of discussion and voting.
The convention marked a qualitative turning point in the redevelopment of Marxism as a serious force in the United States. It comes in the wake of the re-election of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant as a Seattle city councilmember; the politicization and radicalization of millions through Occupy, BLM and Bernie Sanders’ campaign; and the tripling in size of SA over the past three years. There is a huge space for the creation of a new broad left party of the 99% and Socialist Alternative supports and assists all serious steps in this direction. But there is also enormous potential to develop a distinct, clearly socialist force of thousands which will be essential to the success of a new broad party and to the rebuilding of a fighting labor movement. Socialist Alternative is clearly poised to build that force, standing in solidarity with socialists in 45 countries around the world united in the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). The convention also was a historical milestone, marking the 30th anniversary of our political trend in the U.S. since the establishment of our predecessor organization, Labor Militant, in 1986.
Crisis of Global Capitalism
The opening session of the convention was on “The Crisis of Global Capitalism: World Relations and the Stage of the Class Struggle” with an introduction by Tony Saunois, Secretary of the CWI. Saunois described the imminent prospect of another deep global recession against the backdrop of an obscene concentration of wealth. Capitalism has been exposed as a completely bankrupt system and the mass of the working class hates neoliberalism.
Focusing to a large degree on important recent developments in Europe, what has been lacking is the past period is leadership from the labor movement either against austerity or during the refugee crisis. This has opened the door to the right in a number of countries exemplified by Austria where a far right candidate was almost elected president. The most significant setback for the left was the betrayal of the Greek working class last summer by the Syriza party led by Alexis Tsipras after a magnificent movement, including 30 general strikes, to resist the austerity diktats of the IMF, the EU, and the Bundesbank.
But it is also clear that important sections of the left are trying to learn the lessons of the Syriza betrayal. The United Left (IU) as well as the Left Bloc in Portugal, both of which have significant bases of support, have correctly stated that left governments would have to be prepared to take serious measures, as part of breaking with the austerity agenda, including leaving the Eurozone.
However, in Britain, the new left leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, squandered a brilliant opportunity to decisively defeat the right wing government in the Brexit referendum. Corbyn reluctantly abandoned the historic position of the socialist left in Britain in opposing the “bosses club” that is the EU and unfortunately lined up with the establishment forces supporting “remain.” The Socialist Party of England and Wales along with sister organizations in Scotland and Northern Ireland clearly distinguished our call to “leave” from that of the anti-immigrant right and counterposed the demand for a voluntary socialist federation of Europe. This part of the discussion helped to prepare our organization for the earthquake caused by the outcome of the referendum.
But what is also striking is the redevelopment of the class struggle in the recent period in France and Belgium in the teeth of an “anti-terrorist” crackdown. This shows that contrary to all the propaganda about the “end” of the working class as a distinct force in society, the class struggle will keep coming back as the only way to defend the interests of ordinary people. Saunois also touched on the social catastrophe in Venezuela as the Bolivarian revolution has failed to take decisive measures against the capitalist system. During the discussion, there were important contributions on Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Nigeria. Later, Saunois gave a report on the work of the CWI many of whose sections are making decisive contributions to the redevelopment of the workers’ movement and a fighting left, like the Socialist Party in Ireland which now has three members in the Irish parliament.
A perspective normally means a point of view but for Marxists perspectives has a different, precise meaning, namely using the underlying economic, social, and political trends in society to develop an estimation of how those trends will play out in the short and medium term based on the dynamic interplay of the various forces at work. Perspectives are not a crystal ball but rather a working hypothesis which aids us in having an active orientation towards the most likely developments.
Socialist Alternative’s National Committee (NC) produced extensive material in the pre-conference discussion period addressing economic and political perspectives as well as the development of the consciousness of different sections of the working class and youth in the past period and how we see social struggle unfolding in the coming period. This material was amended at the convention before being approved by the delegates and will now be published on our website.
U.S. society in the past period has been characterized by the enormous dislocation caused by the neoliberal offensive against working people, exacerbated by the profound crisis of the system beginning in 2008-9. Now the international economic situation as well as the weakness of the economic recovery in the US points to a coming recession although it is very difficult to be precise about the timing of this.
Massive social polarization and unprecedented levels of inequality have led to an overall shift to the left in consciousness and sharp political polarization. This is especially true among young people. The institutions of capitalism face a deep crisis of legitimacy. All of this was of course reflected in Bernie Sanders’ campaign which also helped popularize the idea of socialism to millions. But the material and the discussion at the convention also underlined that we have to see the limitations of this shift in that it follows a whole historic period when class consciousness was thrown back internationally and in the U.S.
The labor movement has been in retreat since the ‘80s but the convention noted that there are important signs of life, most significantly the Verizon strike, the biggest strike in at least half a decade which ended in a victory for this strategic workforce. The convention also drew a partial balance sheet on Black Lives Matter which has represented the most significant radicalization of black youth since the ‘70s. The movement is entering a new phase where the challenge will be to build a sustained struggle rooted in all the day to day issues facing the black working class and linked to a wider movement challenging the domination of society by the corporate elite.
No matter who is elected president in 2016, the next period will be one of increasing social unrest with the potential for serious fightbacks by young people, women, immigrant workers as well as the ongoing struggle against environmental catastrophe. At a certain point, all of these strands could coalesce into a much more extensive mass movement especially if sections of the working class begin to organize and fight. But clearly working people and young people, up until now, have found it easier to express their discontent, their opposition to the establishment and to neoliberalism, on the political plane than through the class struggle in the workplaces. Both Sanders and Trump, in a distorted way, are expressions of this revolt. Sanders’ campaign in particular shows the potential for building a new political force of the 99%. But his campaign was also contradictory because he accepted the framework of the pro-corporate Democratic Party which has now become a decisive roadblock. Unfortunately Sanders appears to have concluded that the key task now is to reform the Democrats which is fundamentally a dead end. The only way forward for working people is to build an independent party.
This part of the discussion naturally linked to the following session on the presidential election. There was vigorous debate in both sessions about aspects of the position we have taken in the past period, such as forming Movement4Bernie. But in the end, the convention overwhelmingly affirmed its support for the engaged approach Socialist Alternative took towards the Sanders campaign while concluding that socialists must seek to use Jill Stein’s campaign as a rallying point for those who want to continue the political revolution against the billionaire class.
Following the discussions on world and U.S. perspectives, the convention focused on building Socialist Alternative in the coming months and years. There were inspiring reports from many parts of the country as well as discussion of the inevitable challenges faced by a rapidly growing organization trying to achieve a cohesive political approach across a continent. A number of practical conclusions were drawn about the tasks in front of us as we aim to become a small party of several thousand in the next several years.
The potential to build a more significant Marxist force in the U.S. than has existed in many decades is rooted in our perspective that capitalism’s economic, social and political crisis is set to deepen creating even more political polarization and huge openings for the left. But opportunities do not seize themselves and a conscious, well-organized Marxist force will play a critical role in the redevelopment of fighting labor organizations and broader political initiatives. Social democratic and left populist ideas need to be challenged as they accept the framework of capitalism and will lead the movement to defeat. Ultra-left purism which refuses to engage working people and the existing consciousness in a serious way must also be challenged. It is a recipe for the self-isolation of socialists, a path that has been all too common for the “far left” in the U.S.
The convention then broke up into a series of workshops on a wide range of topics from “Marxism, oppression and identity politics” to “working class media in the 21st century” and “building SA in your union or workplace”.
The convention concluded by voting on documents and various resolutions and electing a new National Committee to be the leadership of Socialist Alternative until the next National Convention.
Of course, part of the importance of a convention is not just what happens in the formal sessions but the opportunity to meet informally, discuss, and share experiences with activists from all over the country. And indeed this proved to be one of the one most rewarding and inspiring aspects of the convention.
In the end, it is hard to overstate the impact of this convention on all those who attended. It will certainly be remembered as a turning point and in reality it marked a transformation. The organization which arrived in Denver was not the same as the one that left and the change was very much to the good.