The 2022 Socialism Conference in Chicago earlier this month felt more like an academic conference than, as the promotional materials pronounced, “a place where activists can share lessons from their struggles.” Attendees paid $150 for full-price passes granting access to four days of panels, talks, and social events for professional schmoozing at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place hotel and convention center in Chicago’s swank South Loop neighborhood. Panels hosted academics and writers plugging and signing books that could be purchased at the conference book fair. Keynote speakers gave the kind of rousing and impassioned prewritten talks to restrained applause that one would expect of a literary reading. The only real perceivable difference between the Socialism Conference and, say, the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference was that of genre, which was social justice instead of more traditional literary poetry or prose.
One might assume such a conference is sponsored by universities, as would normally be the case, but the annual Socialism Conference was originally a production of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a Trotskyist group formed in 1976 in order to lay the groundwork for a vanguard socialist party in the Leninist tradition. Once the largest revolutionary socialist group in the United States (though that’s obviously not saying much), the ascendance of leftwing identity politics moved the ISO toward a more generic progressivism over the decades. This shift was evident in much of the content put out by its publication, podcast, and nonprofit publishing arm, Haymarket Books, as well as within the ranks of the organization itself. Internecine squabbling and online harassment broke out in what had become a far less ideologically homogeneous organization. Infighting eventually reached a crisis point, and a new generally younger, generally “woker” dissident majority, which allegedly wanted to bring the organization into the greater Democratic Party apparatus by supporting Democratic campaigns and candidates, ultimately voted to dissolve the organization in 2019. This was mere weeks after much of the ISO’s old guard had been ousted from leadership in response to fallout from revelations of sexual misconduct and its coverup within leadership.
The dissolution of the ISO cast the future of the Socialist Conference in doubt until Haymarket Books, which has survived as a vestigial remnant of the ISO, Jacobin magazine, and the Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member) stepped in to sponsor the 2019 conference. Put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Socialism Conference has now returned. If the final days of the ISO were a battle between revolutionary Marxists and a new generation of social justice progressives, the 2022 Socialism Conference makes clear who was left standing when the smoke cleared. The vast majority of panels were on topics related to police/prison abolition, antiracism, reproductive rights, opening borders, and other progressive movements and causes with precious little to do with socialism proper. And while there were panels billed under the categories of “labor movement” or “socialist theory and strategy” (for example, “Class Struggle Unionism,” featuring union negotiator and labor lawyer Joe Burns, and “The ABCs of Marxism”), these topics received no more time, and often far less attention, than abolitionism or various kinds of identity politics. In other words, the Socialist Conference treated the labor movement—and even socialism itself—as just one of many progressive causes, and class as just another identity around which to organize.
Some panels that might seem off topic for a conference on socialism did offer tenuous or suspect connections to socialism by way of intersectionality, such as “Transgender Marxism,” while others, such as a panel on abolishing the family or many of those on antiracism, appear to have barely even bothered. Indeed, much of the conference was devoted to making the case that any progressive cause or movement actually is socialism. Keynote speaker Ruth Wilson Gilmore, professor and a center director at the City University of New York, claimed that abolition is communism, race the modality through which class is lived, and mass criminalization class war, pretty much all in the same breath.
Speaker Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, argued that we have all been bequeathed an impoverished view of socialism, which, apparently, can be about oh-so-much-more than just class struggle. In a 50-minute talk, he blamed the failure of previous international socialist movements on white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, the failure to center antiracism, and an internationalism that was insufficiently internationalist. The socialist project, in Kelley’s view, must be about abolition, reparations, antiracism, and climate justice. Socialism can even, he insisted, require skepticism of “science as a product of Enlightenment rationality”—it is not just a fight against capitalism but also patriarchy, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, settler colonialism, and more.
“The socialist project isn’t just about changing material conditions,” Kelley announced. “It is a spiritual and ethical project. It has to be. It is a psychological, cultural, and dare I say, civilizational project, in the sense that we need to create a new kind of civil society.” Though so vague as to be almost functionally meaningless, the only thing we can really take from all of this is that socialism now encompasses anything and everything, the whole cosmos, and heaven and hell too, apparently. The title of the 2022 Socialist Conference, “Change Everything,” is a phrase borrowed from Gilmore, whose keynote address was promoted with a session description stating that abolition, which we are now to understand is socialism, “requires that we change one thing: everything.”
This tendency to make every issue about every other issue is the project of intersectionality, not socialism proper. Socialism here serves merely as the now-neutral canvas upon which all progressive projects may be painted. But socialism is not a neutral blank slate, it is a set of specific political and intellectual traditions and histories. There is no need here to get bogged down arguing which traditions and histories merit inclusion. For the purposes of understanding the Socialist Conference and its political tendency, we need only consider which traditions are being displaced, discredited, de-emphasized, redefined, and watered down through endless recombination with others: those of universalism and class struggle.
Identity politics redirects radical energy away from class struggle and obfuscates the class position of the professionals, managers, and academic and media elites who promote it, a point so thoroughly explored elsewhere that it hardly requires recapitulation here. However, the 2022 Socialism Conference—with its pageant of writers, professors, and nonprofit/university managers redefining socialism—illustrates that point with rare clarity. Some speakers, familiar with such criticisms, came prepared to counter them in advance. When Gilmore acknowledged selling her books for profit, an apparent attempt to deflect accusations of hypocrisy, she absolved herself by pointing out that most of her readers had never paid her a dime in royalties. Of course, Gilmore doesn’t make a living selling books, at least not directly. Her work isn’t as popular as that of someone like Ibram X. Kendi, whose How to Be an Antiracist sat on the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of a year.
Nevertheless, her books are helpful in securing elite academic jobs, coveted work in media, or managerial positions in the professionalized space of leftwing organizing, scholarship, media, and the nonprofit sector. As a university professor and director of a university center, Gilmore knows this well. The red herring of book royalties is meant to distract from the very real material benefits of being a successful professional and scholar. When at one point she referred to herself as a “privileged worker”—a sentiment speakers expressed repeatedly during the conference—the emphasis wasn’t on her privilege so much as her inclusion within the working class. Never mind that her scholarly work undermining class politics as a university professor and administrator comes with a salary three or four times the national average. The phrase “privileged worker,” in this context, emphasizes her presence within the working class in order to de-emphasize her specific place within it.
This same kind of class obfuscation could be found throughout the conference. In perhaps the most eyebrow-raising panel of the whole conference, “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics,” speaker Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò specifically referenced the “class reductionist” or “class first” Left when making the case for identity politics and what he called the “class plus Left” (again, getting out ahead of the criticism). He acknowledged that identity politics are weaponized in pursuit of personal or anti-solidaristic group interests but blamed the problem not on identity politics itself but its co-option by political, social, and economic elites. By his account, the real identity politics is that put forward by the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement, often credited with laying the groundwork for identity politics as a theoretical and organizing concept, and an identitarian theory of interlocking oppressions that critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw would later term intersectionality. Conversely, again, by this account, liberal identity politics is the universalist colorblind politics of the center-Left and center-Right promoted by elites.
The problems with this narrative should be immediately apparent. First, mainstream liberals have supported non-colorblind policies like affirmative action as far back as the Kennedy and LBJ administrations in the 1960s, and now openly embrace the extreme racialist identity politics of the Combahee River Collective. Intersectionality and social justice discourse around “equality vs equity” became mainstream among liberals and progressive Democrats years, arguably decades ago. Táíwò ignores both history and the present when he lumps the “center-Right” and “center-Left” together in a sleight of hand that collapses the differences between Richard Nixon and Bill Gates (representative examples of his own choosing) to create a class of political and economic elites that excludes himself, a professor of philosophy at prestigious Georgetown University.
Identity politics was not “captured” by political, economic, and social elites—it was created by them. Despite the folksy-sounding name, the Combahee River Collective was a collective of mostly scholars and academics. Their ranks included Audre Lorde, sisters Beverly and Barbara Smith, Gloria Akasha Hull, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Cheryl Clarke, and Chirlane McCray, among others. Feel free to google the names you don’t know. Many were educated at some of the nation’s top universities and some went on to become professors at them. They entered academia, politics, and nonprofits and headed various centers and university hospitals and the like. McCray, despite her participation in the black lesbian socialist collective, later went on to marry Bill de Blasio.
Political elites and capitalists cannot be said to have “co-opted” intersectional identity politics when they deploy it in much the same manner as elite workers in the professional-managerial class, especially its activist subset. Intersectional identity politics are perfectly compatible with capitalism because, as Adolph Reed has pointed out, it tacitly accepts inequality so long as it is spread evenly across certain identity groups. Capitalists now embrace identity politics in part to distract from growing economic inequality. They could not so easily embrace actual socialism or class struggle, except perhaps aesthetically, whereas corporations and capitalist elites can be antiracist without compromising their interests or calling attention to their own class position.
And so it is with the elite workers of the professional-managerial class and, especially, its activist subset of radicals and “socialists,” who also deploy identity politics as a means of obscuring their own economic fortunes as affluent workers with the means to invest by buying up homes and other assets. This was true for the affluent, highly educated radicals of the Combahee River Collective and it is true of the most successful social justice scholars and nonprofit managers of today. The newest generation of the activist Left is no different. In my time at the conference, I heard a number of young attendees thank the speakers for convincing them—for giving them “permission” even—to finally call themselves socialists.
Had the “class reductionist” Left been represented at the conference at all, perhaps we could have set the record straight. Socialism, we might have declared, is and always has been about the politics of class. The message would, of course, not have been popular among attendees. But suppose for a moment we had somehow won the debate and the progressive identitarians had either changed their minds or taken their ball and gone home. The prize would not be a class politics but merely a triumphant theory of class politics. We would win not a labor movement but an academic conference, perhaps another “revolutionary” Marxist organization with a couple of hundred, maybe a thousand, members on paper.
This particular debate over the soul and purpose of the Left has been dragging on since at least the ’60s and ’70s, when the New Left explicitly rejected class struggle and labor politics as primary concerns, favoring an aesthetically radical, countercultural individualism over class solidarity and replacing the proletariat as the revolutionary subject with activists and intellectuals (i.e., themselves). The stalwart “class first” socialists have been arguing with various shades of progressives claiming the mantle of socialism ever since.
When I joined the DSA in early 2020, as the Sanders 2020 campaign was bleeding working class support and collapsing under the pernicious influence of these same leftwing identitarian activists, I did so as a member of the Class Unity (CU) caucus, which describes itself as a Marxist pole of attraction working inside and outside of the DSA. We advocated for recognition of the problematic middle-class composition of the DSA’s membership, actual accountability of DSA-endorsed elected officials and candidates, and, above all, a reorientation toward class politics within the organization. Our efforts were frustrated when, after Class Unity outperformed expectations in sending delegates to DSA’s 2021 national convention, the influential Chicago chapter of the DSA adopted a non-proportional voting system to undemocratically keep CU members off of future committees in an attempt to marginalize the bloc.
We endeavored, for a while, to continue using the DSA as a venue for promoting class politics. This, too, has proved to be a waste of time and effort. The problem is with the venue itself. Organizing within the activist Left is a dead end for class politics. There is nothing to be gained from trying to persuade an activist Left mostly disconnected from the working class and anathema to populist movements.
Much of the “class first” Left, certainly its most prominent spokesmen, have been happy to do so anyway. After all, many of us are also in the professional-managerial class. Many are professors and podcasters and magazine editors and journalists and professional organizers and the like. We are engaged in the same elite discourse—largely divorced from real-world politics—as the progressive identitarians we oppose. But if we are truly serious about class politics, we should be making the case to the broader working class, not other professional activists and academics. The former don’t show up to DSA meetings or socialist conferences, mostly only the latter.
These are exciting times for class politics. Inflation and the “labor shortage” have given workers leverage unimaginable just a few years ago. Successful labor strikes and unionization efforts—though still modest when compared to the steady decline in union membership over the last 40-plus years—give new hope for a revived labor movement. But these actions have almost nothing to do with the activist Left or its internal debates. Few of the workers call themselves socialists. Fewer still care what gets called socialism. Perhaps, neither should we.