Socialist Summit in the Heartland

In a crowded community church room in Ames, Iowa, Dr. Tony Smith of Iowa State University spoke to a crowd proclaiming, “There’s a consensus that something is really wrong.” The day of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday—and just a day after Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law—socialists from all over the state gathered to reaffirm their commitment to fight against capitalism and patriarchy. Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature this past session has been relentless in its assault on workers, schools, and women. It reduced workers’ collective bargaining rights with legislation touted as being more anti-worker than Wisconsin, drained state coffers in service to tech companies with Apple’s $200 million tax break, and restricted women’s control over their bodies. The reactionary forces in control of the state have held their commitments and created a socio-political landscape that is antisocial and rife with economic exploitation.

These times are not without hope, though. It’s precisely because the times are so dire that the socialist cause must assert a just, democratic alternative for Iowa—and for all people—even while contending with some of the most right-wing policies in the nation. Fortunately, the state is emerging as a hotbed of socialist activism. In just a short time, the seeds of a bygone prairie populism in the state are flourishing into a vibrant bed of red roses, quite literally demonstrated by the red roses adorning more than 80 socialists in attendance.

DSA chapters based all over Iowa, from the Mississippi to the Missouri, came together to host the Iowa Socialist Summit 2018. The summit was a day-long event featuring workshops on housing justice, socialist feminism, political education, and issue-based campaigning. Organizers and activists connected and engaged in conversation over how to build local campaigns and grow the movement. While a similar event was held last year in Iowa, this year’s summit featured a new format and brought in even more activists. Commenting on the day’s events and socialism’s growth in the state, Heart of Iowa DSA organizer Lisa Lai stated, “I think in the last year, people’s political analysis has been really refined. A year ago the concept of DSA was new to a lot people, but now we are more fired up and know what we are fighting for.”

The summit ended with a wholehearted keynote address by Dr. Tony Smith. In honor of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, Smith spoke about the continued relevance of Marx’s analysis of capitalism with a lecture called “Karl Marx, Our Contemporary.” His talk drove home the point that while capital has historically shown itself to be a dynamic force, it is bursting at its seams clashing with its own internal limits just as Marx had predicted, and the ideological forces of corporate capitalism are beginning to recognize this. Quoting the Financial Times from April 18, 2018, Smith stated, “The IMF on Wednesday sounded the alarm on excessive global borrowing, warning that with a total of $164tn owned, the world’s public and private sectors are deeper in debt than at the height of the financial crisis a decade ago.” And while the business press provides more questions than answers, socialists must make their appeal armed with the answers. The professor, drawing inspiration from Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, made this final appeal and in return, received an energized applause from the room.

So while from the outside Iowa’s future prospects seem almost dystopian (or even Kansas-ian), socialist activists on the ground continue to grow in numbers and in the breadth of the issues they are tackling. If the high density of DSA chapters means anything, Iowa is returning to its populist roots while articulating a clear message of anti-capitalism.