Revolution in our time: Marxism conference starts Friday in Toronto

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How do you make radical ideas part of your day-to-day practice? Can you be a revolutionary without a revolution? Who has the power to change the world? Is it possible to stop the austerity agenda? What would it take to shut down the Tar Sands? Why is capitalism in crisis? What causes oppression?

These are just a few of the questions we'll be discussing at this year’s Marxism conference, the annual weekend-long political event in Toronto organized by the International Socialists. This year's theme -- "revolution in our time" -- refers to the reality of revolution happening in the world today, even if it’s not (yet) happening here.

In the 1980s, the popular right-wing expression -- "there is no alternative" -- denied the possibility of anything other than capitalism. The anti-globalization movement, with its slogan "another world is possible," began to challenge that idea in the late 1990s. A decade later, the Arab Spring has begun to make that slogan concrete.

"Revolution in our time" also refers to the ways that revolutions in other parts of the world affect struggles here. Following her "Stop Harper!" protest in the Senate in June 2011, former parliamentary page Brigette DePape said: "This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring, a flowering of popular movements that demonstrate that real power to change things lies not with Harper, but in the hands of the people, when we act together in our streets, neighbourhoods, and workplaces."

The media was outraged, insisting that no link existed between political issues in Canada and the social upheaval in the Arab world. But DePape was right, and was echoed by Egyptian revolutionaries who issued their own call for "a world spring." Months later, Occupy Wall Street inspired global protests against the bailouts and capitalism itself. Even before then, the ripples of the Arab revolutions were obvious in the Indignados movement in Spain, and in anti-austerity protests that erupted all over the world, from Greece and South Africa to Chile and Quebec.

Since then, that process has continued. In Canada, the best examples are the Quebec student strike and Idle No More. The strike, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of students over many months, led observers to describe the movement as "the Maple spring" (in French, "le printemps érable"), a direct connection with the Arab Spring. Although there wasn't a revolution in Quebec, there was a mass movement that not only won its immediate demands, but also created a political crisis that defeated Jean Charest's Liberals.

Similarly, Idle No More emerged in late 2012 to challenge Harper's attack on indigenous communities and the environment. In just weeks, Idle No More became the single largest mobilization against Harper's agenda, and galvanized the entire country. For the first time in years, indigenous sovereignty was widely discussed at all levels of politics, and in a way that continues to transform other struggles, from the fight against climate change to how activists understand imperialism.

Despite these successes, we are far from a revolutionary situation in Canada, and continue to face setbacks and other serious challenges. Another important aspect of "revolution in our time" is addressing the gap between the pace of social change in other parts of the world and the pace here. We need to understand that revolution is a process, not an event, and that even those movements that inspire struggles all over the world face their own obstacles.

This approach -- generalizing the possibility of radical social change, while soberly assessing our own situation -- has informed the way we've organized Marxism 2013. Our objective is to create an open space for wide-ranging discussion on all the major issues of the day, and to hear from leading voices in these struggles. The conference features 30 talks and panels, organized into courses by theme: indigenous resistance, anti-imperialism, anti-oppression, capitalism and crisis, environmental justice, and tools for radicals. Check out the courses here and the full schedule of talks here.

Marxism 2013 also features an impressive line-up of guest speakers, including:

Indigenous activists Pam Palmater, Ron Plain and Crystal Sinclair: Pam and Ron will join climate activist John Bell for "Indigenous resistance, Idle No More, and the fight against Harper" on Saturday morning, while Crystal will be part of "Women, resistance and revolution" on Saturday evening.

Ludvic Moquin-Beaudry, an organizer and spokesperson during the Quebec student strike, will kick off the opening panel on Friday evening, "Solidarity against austerity: Lessons from the front lines," which also includes Ron Plain, member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Idle No More activist; Andria Babbington, vice-president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council; and Carolyn Egan, president of the Steelworkers' Toronto Area Council.

Greek socialist, journalist and anti-fascist campaigner Dimitra Kyrillou will be part of "Women, resistance and revolution," and will lead another session on "Fighting fascism: An eyewitness account from Greece."

Wael Barakat, a leading member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists and a labour activist based in Alexandria, Egypt, will speak on "Egypt: Class and revolution" and "Revolution in our time."

Palestine solidarity activists and leading organizers in the BDS movement Hammam Farrah, Arshia Lakhani and Tim McCaskell will be part of "Palestine, BDS and the Arab Spring."

Debbie Pope, a delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union and a long-time social justice activist, will join Pam Johnson, a rank-and-file trade unionist and contributor to From the Rank and File, for "Teaching them a lesson: The struggle for public education."

Québec solidaire members Benoit Renaud and Monique Moisan: Benoit will join socialist Chantal Sundaram for "Quebec, First Nations and Canadian imperialism," while Monique speaks on "Women, resistance and revolution" and "Revolution in our time."

Leading disability rights activists and organizers Melissa Graham, Janet Rodriguez and Kevin Kackson will speak on "Disability, austerity and resistance."

Tamil solidarity activist Krisna Saravanamuttu will join Paul Tsang, president of United Steelworkers Local 1998 and Michelle Robidoux, member of the War Resisters Support Campaign, for "Austerity and scapegoating: Fighting the Conservatives' attacks on refugees and migrants."

Ameth Lo, an organizer with the Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa, will join anti-war activist Sid Lacombe for "Libya, Mali and Canadian imperialism."

Susan Gapka, a leading activist in transsexual and transgender struggles and a social housing activist in Toronto, will join activist and socialist Alex Adams for "The fight for trans liberation."

Blogger and education activist Nora Loreto will join social justice activist and NDP member Katie Arnup and trade unionist Ritch Whyman for "From the Orange wave to Third Way? The NDP under Mulcair."

Dave Fennario, Quebec/pan-Canadian playwright and revolutionary socialist, will mount Ground Zero for a Political Theatre, a special presentation about Motherhouse, his new play about women, war and capitalism in the anglo-Protestant enclave of Verdun in Montreal. Dave's presentation is not a full staging of the play, not even a reading, but a showing of what the play means, through explanation of its back-story and performance of excerpts to illustrate the story of its creation.

Health and disability rights activist Julie Devaney will perform excerpts of her critically acclaimed book and interactive workshop series My Leaky Body.

Other talks include "Revolution 2.0? Social media and social movements"; "Marx’s ecology"; "Occupy! A brief history of workplace occupations"; "The origins of racism"; "Marxism and anarchism"; "From Red Power to Idle No More"; "Powershift: Energy revolution and social revolution"; "Socialism and indigenous sovereignty"; "Socialism, feminism and the fight for reproductive justice"; "Why do we need a revolutionary organization?"; and many more.

We welcome anyone interested in learning more about these ideas, and in sharing their own experiences and insights, to join us this weekend. With this year’s program, we hope the discussions at Marxism 2013 will be a real opportunity for activists, and those just beginning to radicalize, to deepen our solidarity with each other and all the struggles and movements of which we are a part.

See you at the conference!


For more information, check out the conference website. 

James Clark is an anti-war activist in Toronto, and a member of the International Socialists. He is part of this year's Marxism organizing team. You can follow him on Twitter.

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