Conference discusses Marxism, socialism

Speakers argue Marx’s ideas still relevant today

“An injury to one worker’s power is an injury to all.”

A banner with this slogan hung behind the podium at the 2012 Northwest Marxism Conference.

Speakers argue Marx’s ideas still relevant today

“An injury to one worker’s power is an injury to all.”

A banner with this slogan hung behind the podium at the 2012 Northwest Marxism Conference.

miles sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFf

Ahmed Shawki spoke at the Northwest Marxism Conference on Saturday.

The annual event, held on Saturday in the Smith Memorial Student Union, attracted members of the International Socialist Organization and curious individuals alike from Oregon, Washington and even Northern California.

Members of the Portland State ISO helped plan the conference.

Socialism had its heyday in the U.S. about a century ago. Often lumped with communism and anarchism, the practice of socialism in the 20th century often devolved into totalitarian dictatorship.

For much of the American public, socialism is a dirty word.

At the heart of Saturday’s discussions was the ISO’s goal of overcoming this bias and making socialism relevant to people in the 21st century.

The ISO bases much of its doctrine on the theories of Karl Marx, the 19th century economist and philosopher. Marx is known for his works Capital and The Communist Manifesto.

According to the conference program, the ISO presents socialism as an alternative to capitalism and defines socialism as: “A society based on workers collectively owning and controlling the wealth their labor creates.”

miles sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFf

Workers of the world, unite! Enthusiastic young Marxists soak up stories of dominance and oppression.

With many Americans sensing a second “Gilded Age,” in which a few corporations control most of the nations’s wealth and resources, the ISO has found new openings for its message. Members credit the Occupy Wall Street movement with paving the way.

According to Neil Loehlein, a geography graduate student and member of the PSU ISO, the Occupy movement was a wake-up call for many people. He hopes involvement in the ISO can be a venue for those still interested in radical activism in the waning aftermath of the Occupy movement.

Several themes emerged during Saturday’s event. Aside from the traditional rhetoric of working-class consciousness, those giving presentations made numerous references to Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 presidential election, the Arab Spring and the union movements in Chicago and Madison, Wis.

The “frankenstorm” Sandy served dual purposes. First it was a metaphor for the devastation the socialists see capitalism wreaking on both society and the environment. There were moments when speakers came close to blaming Sandy on the capitalist system itself.

Second, the hurricane has revealed real inequalities in social infrastructure, according to the speakers.

“Natural disasters only bring to the surface the crime and robbery of capitalism,” said Rebecca Anshell Song, an activist from Seattle and writer for the Socialist Worker.

She pointed out that after the storm the poor of New York remained without resources while the lights and activities of Broadway were quickly restored. Song also cautioned that gentrification is easier in the wake of disaster.

In the presidential race, the socialists are no fans of conservatives. “[Mitt] Romney might as well live in a different galaxy than the rest of us,” Song said. The speakers saved their worst criticisms, however, for President Barack Obama.

On issues of corporate taxes, post-bailout banking profits, corporate campaign donations and heightened worker productivity since 2008 (meaning fewer workers doing more work), speakers compared Obama to Romney.

“Obama is saying a slightly different version of the same model,” Song said.

Several attendees pointed out that if one took the transcripts from the recent debates, excised the speakers names and tried to guess who said what, it would be hard to tell the difference.

Adam Sanchez, an activist, writer and teacher, talked about resistance to capitalism popping up in unexpected places. In particular he noted the Arab Spring movement, which swept over the Middle East in early 2011.

“It is one of the biggest threats to American imperialism in nearly four decades,” Sanchez said.

Referencing last year’s movement in Madison to battle local anti-union legislation, he pointed out that talk of a general strike, one of the mainstays of socialist ideology, was coming not just from radicals but from respected members of the community.

The privatization of education and the “insane workload” demanded of teachers was another issue he mentioned.

The recent Chicago teacher’s strike, which won victories for educators in the nation’s third-largest school district, should be used as a model for combating exploitation, Sanchez suggested.

“We need more working people who understand the history and theory of the working class,” he said.

Exemplifying this was recent PSU graduate Wael Elasady, who spoke on the Marxist theory of class. As a student, he took a class on Marxism.

“Capitalism leaves workers no choice but to struggle,” Elasady said, emphasizing the divisive nature of capitalism through the use of racism and sexism.

He explained that through struggle workers gain hope and solidarity, which, in the aims of the ISO, means that they will ultimately organize into a revolutionary socialist party.