Organizing today for a world of liberation
In a speech at the final session of the Marxism Conference in New York City last weekend,documented the violence and oppression of the Trump era — and put forward a vision of liberation and solidarity for the left to work toward today. Below is an edited and slightly condensed version of the speech.
I WANT to first take a moment to acknowledge why we are all here today — for every one of us sitting in this room. We’re all here to understand what is happening in the world around us and to figure out what it will take for us to change it, to transform the chaos and uncertainty of everyday life. We are here to talk about liberation.
Liberation in a world that feels increasingly closed off, oppressive, racist and sexist. We see ourselves advance only to be shot down again.
In the last year, we’ve watched the right wing of this country and the world grow, their confidence bolstered, supported by heads of state, by governments and political officials, by the military.
Less than two weeks ago, a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and shot 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. A few days before that, two African Americans were grocery shopping at Kroger in Louisville, Kentucky, when a gunman opened fire and killed both. The gunman had first tried to force his way into a Black church nearby.
Since his election, Donald Trump has spoken at over 60 mass rallies. Since the Unite the Right mobilization in Charlottesville a year and a half ago, hate crimes have spiked, and the far right is increasingly making its presence felt on a national scale.
Yes, it’s true that Trump’s mass base is largely from the middle classes, but the reality is that Trumpism has penetrated rather deep into some parts of the white working class.
This right-wing assault that we are witnessing is connected to the demonization of the thousands of men, women and children making the long journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, fleeing violence and poverty produced by decades of U.S. intervention in Latin America.
The thousands of people who are courageously making their way here are going to be met by over 10,000 troops. In fact, 5,000 soldiers are deployed there right now, setting up military bases.
In the last year, the number of refugees in the world has skyrocketed. In the U.S., the reality of the detention of refugee children has come to light. Some 12,800 children are still separated from their families, held in detention centers in dismal conditions.
And let’s not forget the Muslim ban, which continues to be in effect today, targeting majority Muslim countries, many of which have been victims of the so-called “war on terror” that has killed over half a million people — and that has done absolutely nothing to end violence and bloodshed, nothing to end terror, whether domestically or abroad.
In the last year, we saw both the appointment of a rapist to the Supreme Court and the Trump administration’s attempt to remove all federal recognition for transgender people.
We’ve watched the health care crisis unfold across all 50 states, reflected so clearly in the opioid epidemic, which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 115 people die every day from overdoses.
It’s critical to remember that the right wing exists beyond our borders — whether it’s in China, where concentration camps are being created for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang; in Germany, where the extreme-right Alternative for Germany Party is now the third-largest in the country, leading mass rallies in the streets; or in Brazil, where a neofascist, Jair Bolsonaro, was recently elected president.
PEOPLE ALL over the world — in every town, every village, every city, every single country on this earth — are facing the impact of the crises brought on by this system.
We’re constantly told the economy is growing, that there are more jobs and more opportunities. But who is actually profiting from this growth? One thing is very clear: It’s not the majority of the world’s population.
In the last year, the wealth of the billionaires of our world increased by 20 percent, while living conditions for the majority of the world’s population have continued to deteriorate. Eight men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.
The economy’s growth has not resulted in higher salaries, in greater access to health care, in protections for people of color and the LGBTQ community in the workplace. This growth has certainly benefited those who rule our society: the rich, the owners of our apartments or our desks at work, but what about us?
What about we who work more than one job because one simply does not cover the bills, or because we know we could be let go at any moment — that a financial crisis is looming over us, and we need to pick up every scrap so that we’re in a better position when it hits?
What about those of us who can’t work a steady job because our papers don’t allow it, so we have to work under the table without any protection, we have to deal with sexism and racism, and we stay silent not just because we could get fired, but because our bosses might turn us in — because we might be deported, separated, yet again, from our families and loved ones?
What about all the immigrants, documented and undocumented, who live in perpetual uncertainty, imprisoned by borders, living in constant mental and physical separation because home is just an idea, no longer a reality?
These people, whether they are fleeing from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, or Somalia and Sudan, or Gaza or Syria or Yemen, are seeking to escape the very wars that have been imposed on them by their governments and its imperial allies, the most prominent of which is the United States.
They leave only to be turned back, or humiliated, scorned and attacked, impoverished, deliberately, and in calculated ways to ensure they never, ever, make it out of their condition.
No one escapes the deathly, dirty, savage grip of capitalism. Not even the planet itself.
In October, a report was released stating that as early as 2030, the earth will reach a global warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This means rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more severe heat waves and wildfires, like the ones currently raging across California. More droughts and flooding...the list goes on.
THE GROWTH of the right is real. The threat of fascism is real. The reality of climate collapse is real.
But remember that people do resist. And they always have.
Sometimes in small groups, and at other times in mass movements, people have always resisted their exploitation and oppression. Everywhere people have waged a fight for a different kind of world, a more just society that doesn’t run on the blood and sweat of its poor and oppressed.
Often, this resistance is hidden from plain sight. Its meetings are underground, in basements, in homes or in classrooms, behind closed doors. But other times, it comes out into the open in full force — through protests and mass mobilization.
In the last year, we’ve seen this resistance express itself in so many forms.
We saw the protests against the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. We were reminded of the resistance of Anita Hill, who stood before an all-white committee that sought to humiliate and delegitimize her on national television.
We saw it with the rise of the #MeToo movement, when McDonald’s workers in 10 cities walked off the job demanding an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.
Or the years of organizing in Chicago that led to the conviction of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in a hail of 16 bullets.
We saw it with the wave of teachers’ strikes, also led by women, that began in West Virginia and spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona, and now Washington and California. These strikes are a key step toward reviving the radical labor movement that once thrived in this country.
We also see resistance flare up beyond the borders of this country.
In Ireland, decades of organizing finally led to a “Yes” vote on May 25 on a referendum repealing a constitutional ban on abortions. It was a victory for women everywhere.
In Gaza, Palestinians began marching for their Right to Return to their occupied homes and lands. After seven consecutive months of mobilization, they continue to march every Friday demanding an end to Israeli occupation.
In Spain, a mass women’s strike on International Women’s Day saw millions of women take to the streets for a day to protest sexism and demand full equality and liberation. It was one of the largest days of working class feminist action in history. As many of these examples make clear, women are at the forefront of the resistance.
In the last year alone, it has become undeniably clear that there is a new socialist generation on the rise. Socialist organizations are growing, their politics spreading. Groups like the International Socialist Organization and the Democratic Socialists of America are finding an eager audience excited to organize.
In the last few years, we’ve seen socialism reflected in the elections — first with Bernie Sanders in his run for president in 2016 and more recently with candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But we’ve also seen socialism beyond the ballot box — on the streets building for walkouts, for Medicare for All, for open borders.
There is an alternative to the world that gave us Trump, to the ideology that Trump and his klan so badly want to enforce. But as professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, building for this alternative requires a “qualitative transformation in both our political expectations and demands.”
I WANT to ask you to think with me for a moment about the kind of world we want to build. Think about a world built on the self-emancipation of every human being. A world that does not depend on racism, sexism and oppression to reproduce itself. A society in which our abundance of resources is not used for destruction or to profit a small handful of people, but instead is used by and for the many.
Temporary fixes can only take us so far. Relying on those in power has not worked for us historically. It has not transformed our society in the way it needs to be transformed. Temporary fixes are not the end we fight for.
How could elections in this country produce leaders that can transform our world permanently when our electoral institutions are so profoundly weak and undemocratic? When voter suppression is so rampant? When some of the most oppressed of us are not even given the right to vote, and those who are face a whirlwind of challenges just to get to the voting booth?
Just look at the three-and-four-hour-long lines in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams was running to be the first African American woman governor in history.
The midterm elections were in many ways a clear indication that the electoral system isn’t made to represent the majority of Americans. The midterms showed that millions and millions of people want this system to change and are eager to take part in challenging the status quo, to be represented by people from the working class and from oppressed communities.
We don’t want to build and work toward reviving the past, toward the status quo that existed before Trump. We don’t want to push for someone posturing as the antidote to Trump, but who comes with their own capitalist framework that may look more palatable than Trump’s, but is simply not enough.
We don’t want to an Elizabeth Warren or a Corey Booker, for example, who denounces Trump left and right, but fails to organize a real resistance when Muslims or Jews are attacked, when the caravan nears the border, or when Black and Brown people are shot in broad daylight. Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave an explanation for her absence when she said in a speech to the regional business association in New England that she is “capitalist to her bones.”
We have to go beyond the narrow form of democracy offered to us by the electoral arena. But it’s crucial to remember that this doesn’t mean that we should ridicule and dismiss elections altogether. We need to understand that our strategies and tactics must be based on what advances our movement forward, what helps us build our struggle to transform this society, what prepares us for a revolution.
The victories of the midterm elections are important — the fact that the first Muslim women and the first Native American women were elected to Congress is no small feat. But we’re still up against a powerful right wing and a complicit Democratic Party establishment. Nancy Pelosi, just hours after the Democrats won back the House on Tuesday, called for “bipartisanship” with Trump.
We need a movement that is strong no matter what party is in power. After all, it is U.S. imperialism that taught us that when democratic elections don’t work in favor of the ruling class, it is prepared to dispense with elections altogether.
Fear should not dictate what we do next. This means we shouldn’t be voting for this or that person because we are afraid, or because we so desperately want a lesser evil to represent us. We should be choosing our actions based on what will let our resistance surge forward.
But fear is no simple matter. It’s not something we persuade ourselves or others out of, especially now, as the hard right is emboldened. Fear doesn’t just disappear overnight. Only through struggle and through experience do we temper our fear and develop our confidence to resist.
This is precisely why a socialist alternative is so necessary.
SOCIALISM IS a process of working-class self-emancipation, where racial, sexual and national oppression are directly challenged. This means building unions, organizing social movements and, where possible, supporting or running candidates independent of the two-party system.
Our socialist movement must be democratic and revolutionary to the core. And perhaps most importantly, our socialism must international.
This means that we understand that our liberation is tied with the liberation of working class and oppressed people beyond our borders, everywhere. That we have more in common with the workers and oppressed in any country on earth than we do with the rulers of our own, regardless of whether or not we share the same language, culture or religion.
Internationalism must be at the core of our politics. We are not revolutionary socialists if our vision for liberation is restricted to one group of people. It must be liberatory for all.
Internationalism is especially important with the rise of Trump and the far right, whose entire project operates around American exceptionalism and hyper-nationalism. This is what fuels imperialism, what allows for the wars against Black and Brown people to thrive both here in the U.S. and all over the world.
Being internationalist means resisting the pull of nationalism that penetrates many political and social spaces among both the liberal and radical left. It also means acknowledging that the U.S. became a state through displacing and colonizing existing Indigenous nations that were here long before European conquest.
It means calling for an end to all forms of colonization, whether it be U.S. rule over Puerto Rico or Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine.
It means standing up against imperialism in all its forms, no matter what country is leading the charge. Anti-imperialism means solidarity coupled with action to put an end to this country’s spending of billions of dollars to kill people overseas.
Right now, this means standing with Syrian revolutionaries against Bashar al-Assad and Russian and American imperialist forces. It means defending the caravan coming to us and standing up against the ongoing demonization of refugees and migrants.
It means demanding an end to the economic imperialism the U.S. enforces on Mexico and all of Latin America. It means refusing to accept the Muslim travel ban or the ban on refugees, whether they’re coming from Honduras or Sudan or Syria. It means ending the “war on terror,” which thrives on Islamophobia and is fertile ground for the growth of fascism and the far right.
OUR PROJECT is to build for a future that may be long in the making, but whose result is the difference between freedom and servitude. Liberation is our goal, and liberation is possible.
It is far too easy to get stuck thinking our goals are too lofty or unrealistic, and to forget that, in fact, we have the power to determine what is and is not realistic.
This is what makes a movement built on collective ownership and real democracy different. It’s different because our vision doesn’t end with an individual leading us forward, it doesn’t end with a new form of top-down government, with a new leadership that sings the same song.
It ends with every individual on every last corner of this earth having the right over their labor, their bodies, their lives.
We don’t have to look too far back in history to find examples of revolution. Only seven years ago, revolutions swept across the Middle East. In Syria, we saw democratic councils run entire cities and towns before they were violently squashed by the counterrevolution.
If we look even further back, we find the Russian Revolution of 1917. And while many on the left focus too much on the Russian Revolution at the expense of other revolutions, there are some important reminders to take from it. For a brief time over a hundred years ago, a workers’ government came to power, at a time and in a place where very few thought it was possible.
The Russian Revolution proved that working class people not only have the ability to rule society, but are in fact best fit to do so. Socialist journalist Albert Rhys Williams made this case beautifully in a passage written for the New York Evening Post in 1917:
The Social Revolution is in truth the apotheosis of the rights of property. It invests it with a new sanctity. By transferring property into the hands of the producers it gives the keeping of wealth into the hands of its natural and zealous guardians — the makers of it. The creators are the best conservators.
These examples can teach us a lot. They can point to the mistakes we should avoid, the pitfalls and struggles that we will no doubt face again and again.
BUT WE must not get caught in the past. We must remember that there is no guidebook, no golden rule to follow. If it were that easy, we’d be living in a different world already. We need to theorize based on our current conditions, based on the society we live in today in order to accurately assess our moment and what we’re up against, especially in times like these when the world is changing so rapidly.
This is going to be tremendously difficult because our task is to undo so much that is fed to us under the guise of “that’s just the way things are,” and to do so even as repression intensifies and the far right grows.
But for precisely this reason, we have to be open to all who want to fight with us in a united struggle. We must ensure that our disagreements don’t keep us from working together to fight for the goals we share in common.
The ruling classes will not voluntarily give up their power. They will fight, and they will attempt to make themselves stronger and bolder than their numbers. We are many, and for us to be able to achieve the kind of transformational change we need, we have to be ready to organize and mobilize for a long-term struggle that can lay the basis for a totally new social system. Otherwise, any steps we take forward will be snatched from us the moment our movement is weakened.
We need to fight to put power and control in the hands of the working class, the left and the oppressed, and to do so by seizing it from the far right, the ultra-rich and the army generals. This means we must be confident and believe not just that liberation is necessary, but that it is possible. That it can be done.
As the world around us becomes more and more polarized, as far-right racists and fascists come to power and parade in our streets, remember that our resistance is growing. But in order for it to consolidate, it must be organized and united so that we can realize the potential in our numbers.
Building this movement is urgent. It is urgent because the far right is on the move domestically and internationally, and because they, our enemies, are all connected. They feed off one another. It is urgent because people are radicalizing quickly, and they’re eager for ways to plug in. It is urgent because our planet is dying, and we are faced with the very real question of whether or not we’ll be able to build an alternative fast enough.
ALWAYS REMEMBER that you aren’t alone in this frighteningly isolating and cruel world.
When you wake up and think, “I don’t want to go to work, I just can’t do it today,” and you scramble to think about what excuse you’re going to give your boss, because obviously, “you’re exploiting me” is not an excuse for him...
You are not alone. Millions of people feel this way every day.
When you hear the news and feel heartbroken and angry, or frustrated — so frustrated that you want to turn it off and never hear the news again, but at the same time you want to go bang on your neighbors’ doors and go out into the streets together to demand change...
You are not alone.
What made Trump possible is the oppression and disenfranchisement of the working class. But we must remain hopeful, because if we take seriously the task ahead and build our movement, we’ll be able to sweep Trump and the whole establishment out of power.
So let’s organize! In our workplaces, in our schools and on the streets.
Let’s build a left that is strong, but whose strength comes from its openness, its confidence, and its ability to move, act and strike as one. Let’s build a movement that gives voice to the oppressed, that offers hope to billions of people seeking an end to their suffering and desperation.
Join the movement and help us build a society that truly works for the many, not the few.
I want to end with a quote by a Syrian revolutionary writer. It was written in 2013, two years into the revolution. He is writing to Syrians who have not yet joined the revolution, some who continue to fight with the regime, others who are still unsure about which side to take. He calls on them and says:
Break now, and not tomorrow
The dawn of freedom is ahead
Break now and join the revolution
Be not the opponents....be the free, be the liberated.