Friday, November 19, 2010

The Politics of Food

Thanksgiving is in less than a week, and ISO Pittsburgh member Russell Pryor has put together a fantastic presentation-and-discussion event entitled "The Politics of Food" that we'll be hosting on Tuesday, November 23rd at 7:30 p.m.

Below is a preview of Russell's presentation.

The modern food industry is inherently inhumane and unsustainable. The herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and, increasingly, genetically modified crops that make the modern industrial agricultural system run hurt most everyone and everything involved. The production process destroys groundwater and soil and disrupts local ecosystems while simultaneously poisoning farm workers, rural communities, and, eventually, consumers. Much of the grain produced in this agro-industrial system ends up in antibiotic-laced feeds for livestock and poultry. "Confined animal feeding operations" (or CAFOs, as these factories are called) produce millions more tons of waste than rural ecosystems can take on, and serve as ideal breeding grounds for pathogens. Debt-strapped contract farmers operate under the iron hell of fewer and fewer corporations, and the men and women who catch and process their animals work in some of the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs in the country. The regulatory system in this country is, in many ways, a cruel joke. More than anything, it provides us with a false sense of security.

On the retail and restaurant end of the system, millions of workers, many of them young and virtually all of them underpaid and highly exploited, cook and serve our food, stock the shelves, or ring us up every day. Obesity and related diseases have reached epidemic proportions, along with other eating disorders. Nicely arranged supermarket aisles, colorful, eye-catching advertisements, and pleasant, seemingly sterile packaging obscure all of this from view. Chicken McNuggets, after all don't have a backstory; they're just Chicken McNuggets... Not so much.

Join the Pittsburgh branch of the International Socialist Organization for a presentation and discussion about how we all got into such a sad state and, most importantly, how we work to remake our food system.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ecology and Socialism

We're excited to announce that longtime environmental activist Chris Williams will be taking part in an event on Saturday, November 6th entitled ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM. Williams is professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute. In addition he is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review (ISR) magazine. Ecology and Socialism is his first book, and ISO Pittsburgh is happily hosting him to speak on the issues that it raises.

Williams writes, in the first part of his 2008 piece "Hothouse Earth: Capitalism, climate change, and the fate of humanity":

Solving the problem of global warming requires understanding the relationship between capitalism and the environment, examining the solutions on offer within the framework of the system, and determining whether those solutions are up to the task of preventing a runaway greenhouse effect. The world system of capitalism has been, and will continue to be, largely impotent in the face of climate change, not because there are evil, uneducated, backward individuals in power--though this is arguably true in many cases--but because capitalism's own social relations prevent effective solutions from being realized. The blind, unplanned drive to accumulate that is the hallmark of capitalist production--the profit motive--has created the problem of climate change, not individuals' profligate natures or overpopulation. Therefore, the system of economic production and distribution needs to be transformed or we will be living on a much less hospitable planet.

The intersection of environmental issues and economics is especially relevant to us as Pittsburghers--our region's natural resources and the multifaceted industrial history of the area have exposed generation after generation to the realities of the nature of capitalism. From the early days of glass production, to the steel industry that swept over a huge swath of northern Appalachia and then sharply contracted, to the nascent growth of high-tech and "green industry" that could be reshaping the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh has reflected America's economic and industrial pulse.

Currently, the issue of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") has come to the fore, as numerous energy companies vie for leasing rights to drill into the ground and pump rock deposits with chemicals that release natural gas. The chemicals--kept as trade secrets--are flammable and toxic. In a piece for Socialist Worker entitled "Don't frack with Pittsburgh", ISO Pittsburgh members Russell and Nick outlined the issues surrounding fracking from a region-specific perspective: "Energy corporations are again on the prowl in rural Pennsylvania."

ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM will be held on Saturday, November 6th at 4:00 p.m. at University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Building, room 202.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Socialism In Our Time, a day school event

On Saturday October 23rd, we are hosting a comprehensive event that we call a "day school"--three engaging talks by three active members of the ISO, all under the heading "Socialism In Our Time." The work shop-style event will focus on Marxist ideas and experiences to effect social change. It's to take place from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Frick Fine Arts Building, room 202. But come whenever you can, and stay as long as you're able! We'll have pizza delivered for lunch, and all of our literature to peruse and purchase will be on hand. The following is our schedule for the day:

10:30 a.m. Ashley Smith will speak on "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx"

1:00 p.m. Sherry Wolf will speak on "Overcoming Divisions in the Working Class"

2:45 p.m. Paul Le Blanc will speak on "Marxist Perspectives on Revolutionary Organization"

And here's a bit about each of our featured speakers:

Ashley Smith is an activist, co-founder of the Burlington, Vermont Anti-War Coalition, secretary of the Vermont chapter of the United Writers Union (UAW 1981), northeast regional organizer for the ISO, editorial boardmember of the International Socialist Review magazine, and contributor to the Socialist Worker newspaper, among other publications. Check out this video of a presentation entitled "Socialism 101" he gave recently at the Burlington, Vermont branch of the ISO.

Sherry Wolf is a member of the ISO, associate editor of the ISR magazine, long-time activist for LGBTI equality, and author of "Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation," which was named one of The Progressive's favorite books of 2009. She was a leading organizer for the 2009 National Equality March, as well as a founding organizer of the resulting Equality Across America coalition. She keeps a blog here, and you can see a video of her talk "Sex Wars," given at the Socialism conference in 2010, here.

Paul Le Blanc is a professor of history and a life-long revolutionary socialist activist based in Pittsburgh. He serves as the national coordinator of the ISO's anti-war fraction. He is the author of several books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class, and Black Liberation and the American Dream, and most recently co-edited Leon Trotsky, Writings from Exile, which comes out in 2011.

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 8, 2010

We'll be at the Pittsburgh Flea this Sunday

ISO Pittsburgh will be at the Pittsburgh Flea this Sunday, October 10, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Flea is a Pittsburgh standby, with vendors from all over the region selling a variety of wares, and this will be our first time there. We will be selling used books donated by branch members. The proceeds of the day's sales will go toward hosting more events with guest speakers this fall.

This will be the first time ISO Pittsburgh sets up at the Flea, and since Sunday's forecast is looking sunny with a high of 75ยบ, you have to come out and take a look!

The Flea takes place at 21st Street and Railroad Street, behind the Society for Contemporary Crafts building. Check out Pittsburgh Flea's website for more information and photos from past events.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Don't frack with Pittsburgh," say members Nicholas and Russell

Just posted in the Socialist Worker is ISO Pittsburgh members Russell Pryor and Nicholas Rushin's piece "Don't frack with Pittsburgh," a round-up of the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing, a process in which natural gas is extracted by energy corporations pumping a mixture of sand, water, and a chemical combination into the earth to loosen rock where the deposits exist. The gigantic Marcellus Shale formation lies underneath the ground of New York state, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, and it has been pushed into the spotlight of a debate over jobs, energy, and the environment.

But the way in which this gas is extracted, "fracking," is problematic--the chemical cocktail that companies use to break up the shale is kept as a secret, and many people out west, where the fracking process has been used extensively in the recent past, have reported illnesses. Some of the chemicals used in the process are even known carcinogens. And in July, two Pennsylvanians lost their lives when an explosion erupted at a gas well.

As residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, our branch finds itself in the middle of a large debate--and a large grassroots movement that is building momentum. We support standing up to companies that keep the truth of their toxins secret and exploit our environment, and on November 3rd, a large coalition has planned just that. Energy executives will be meeting at the David Lawrence Convention Center, and a large action has been organized to protest it. Check for more information.

Stay up to date with our events and conversations at our Facebook page. And check out the article at!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Glenn Beck plays with magnets, mentions the ISO

In a segment airing on September 28th on his Fox News channel show, Glenn Beck broke out his chalkboards to play with a bunch of magnets. Attempting to paint all leftist organizations that would be attending Saturday's One Nation Working Together rally as a giant web of "evil," largely funded by George Soros and ideologically represented by Van Jones, he weaves his way through glib stock phrases while slapping up logo-magnets of groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Council of La Raza among pictures of Jeremiah Wright and Howard Dean.

Eventually he arrives at the ISO: "Now, here's a great one--the International Socialist Organization. They say socialism is not only possible, it's worth fighting for." He even features some of the ISO's tenets on a fancy Fox News telescreen.

Beck manages to conflate a number of groups, representing many specific ideologies with nuanced differences, as one large, organized mass of froth that's out to get your children. He also reduces a complex legacy of Marxist thought into a muddy slop, saying that "Marxism is evil, and the only thing it has contributed to the history of mankind is mass graves."

But a broken clock is right twice a day, and so sometimes his whining carries some truth: "All of these groups...want nothing short of fundamental transformation of America."

The ISO shout-out begins around 6:20.

Join the Socialist Contingent at the October 2nd One Nation Rally!

Hundreds of thousands of Americans organized by labor and civil rights organizations will gather in Washington, D.C., on October 2 to demand a change in the direction that our nation is heading.

We are proud to join this march to demand jobs, to demand an end to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for a society that is fairer, more equal and more just. We believe it important to be in the capital on that date to help create a counterweight to Glenn Beck, the Tea Party and Republicans, their reactionary politics, ruthless economics and their racism.

We do not, however, share the goals of the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and other organizations which hope to achieve jobs and justice by supporting Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the national elections on November 2.

We believe that it has become quite clear now that neither Democrats nor the Republicans are capable of solving the country's three great crises--the economy, the environment and the wars--in a way that will be good for the American people. The goals of a full-employment economy, real environmental sustainability and peace cannot be achieved by our capitalist system and the corporations motivated only by profit. We need a new direction toward a new system.


So, Pittsburghers, join the socialist contingent at the rally!

One group that is providing free same-day bus services to D.C. and back is the NAACP. These buses will leave from the Hill House at 1835 Centre Avenue at 4:00 a.m. and will return to Pittsburgh immediately following the march, with an expected return of about 10:30 p.m. To reserve your free place on the bus, e-mail, or contact Celeste at 412.670.0937. More information about their generosity at

Once in D.C., the ISO will be marching within the socialist contingent, with a meeting place of 12th and Constitution Avenue (NW) at 10:00 a.m.

After the rally's events, the ISO will be holding a forum entitled "Socialism for the 21st Century." Join us at 5:00 p.m. at Busboys & Poets, at 2021 14th Street (at V Street). Featured will be Dan La Botz, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and others.

To meet up with ISO Pittsburgh's group in D.C. on Saturday, contact Paul at 412.760.9716, or look for our banner among the socialist contingent. It'll be an exciting, energized day, and we hope to seeing you there. We have a world to win!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Workers' Republic" Documentary Screening

Next Tuesday's meeting, September 28th, will feature a screening of Workers' Republic, a documentary telling the story of the workers of the Republic Windows & Doors plant in Chicago, who, when laid off without severance in 2008, staged a sit-in with the help of the United Electrical (UE) workers union and won their due compensation.

The screening starts at 7:30 p.m., with a presentation and discussion by Al Hart, editor of UE News.

Sponsored by the Economic Justice Committee, a project of the Thomas Merton Center, and with support from University of Pittsburgh's ISO group, this event will take place at ISO Pittsburgh's usual meeting place in Dining Room A at the William Pitt Student Union Building.

RSVP to our event on Facebook.

Pakistani Flood Relief Show at Shadow Lounge

This summer, monsoon floods swept over Pakistan, killing thousands and displacing millions. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN, called it the "worst disaster" he's ever witnessed. The Washington Post reported that "more than 8 million people are in need of emergency assistance."

Springing to action, the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign has launched Revolutionary Flood Relief and Protest Committees across Pakistan, especially in the intensely affected areas, to conduct an efficient and effective rescue and relief effort. Fifty seven camps of this campaign have been set up in various regions and is appealing for help.

Locally, the PTUDC is co-sponsoring a benefit show featuring a number of bands:

The Edukators
The Pheromones Underground
Old Accusers
Code Orange Kids

The show is taking place at the Shadow Lounge at 5972 Baum Boulevard on September 26th, starting at 5:00 p.m. Cover is $5, which is going to this urgent relief effort.

Co-sponsoring the show along with the PTUDC, is the Workers International League, the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor, the Economic Justice Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, University of Pittsburgh's branch of Students for a Democratic Society, and ISO Pittsburgh.

Read more about this natural disaster and what can be done to help.
RSVP to our event on Facebook.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Meaning of Marxism Study Group | Historical Materialism and Capitalism


Capitalism is a fundamentally unstable and destructive system. Its need for perpetual growth has, in the span of a few centuries, profoundly altered the conditions on earth that human life is adapted to. And at the same time as it destroys the planet it also destroys people. The entire system depends on transforming people’s ability to work, along with most everything else, into a thing to be bought and sold and devising new and more effective methods of getting the most value for the least input. Because it relies on exploitation, capital operates on the assumption that people can be treated like a commodity–like a car or a microwave oven–that can be bought and used. This is a false assumption that represents a contradiction at the heart of the system–people aren’t machines and they aren’t commodities. Though not always with red flags and barricades, people resent and resist being reduced to the level of a thing.

This tension is key. It is a contradiction that goes to the heart of the way the system operates and goes a long way in explaining how and why it operates the way it does. While this is arguably the key contradiction, it is certainly not the only one. Its irrational organization of production and its single-minded pursuit of profit produces periodic crises–like the one we’re living through right now–that put a temporary check on growth before starting again. This same irrationality has left and continues to leave billions of people mired in poverty, disease, starvation, and war. And it’s done this at the same time that it’s created the material conditions under which humanity has the potential to provide everyone with food, medical care, and genuine equality in a system based on social and economic justice and ecological sustainability–one that is democratically run and rationally planned.

This state of affairs is not a mistake. It’s not the result of an inefficient market or poor policy choices. It is the product of capitalism working the way it’s supposed to. There is nothing new or original in what is said here. Marx made these arguments over a hundred and fifty years ago. This study group is organized around the chapters in Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism that deal with Marx’s understanding of history and historical change–historical materialism–and part of his analysis of capitalism. I’m going to organize this introduction around a series of questions that, I hope, will get to the heart of what Paul D’Amato is getting at in the first few chapters. Briefly, these questions are: Why Marx? Why Marxism? What is historical materialism? Why is it important? What about capitalism–how and for whom does it work?

Marx and Marxism

So, why Marx and why Marxism? D’Amato’s answer works well here. Put simply, his analysis of capitalism and historical change has stood the test of time. Born in 1818, he came of age and to political maturity in mid-nineteenth century Prussia at a time when capitalist social and property relations became the norm. He cut his political teeth as a journalist and earned himself the ire of the Prussian state when he protested the imposition of private property on formerly common lands in the early 1840s. For centuries people survived through access to common lands to build their homes and cook their meals. New laws rooted in new conceptions of property made these customary rights into criminal acts and Prussian prisons soon filled with these "criminals." Along with the people whom the laws dispossessed, Marx protested the cruelty and irrationality of the new laws. He would later call this law and laws like it a process of "primitive accumulation"–or the forcible dispossession of peoples from access to the means of production. Without access to common lands–or land at all–people had to find new ways of feeding themselves. A section of these people became the working class, the exploited majority I mentioned above. His observations here shed light on some of his major contributions to socialist thought. First, he recognized that capitalism is a historical system. Second, he began to understand that historical change was rooted in material conditions rather than the world of ideas.

The first point made sense for Marx because, in a sense, he watched capitalist property relations replace older customary conceptions of property and, in the process, make a working class. If capitalism represented the natural state of things, then rural people in Prussia never got the news. Though this may seem like common sense, economists and historians alike during Marx’s time and even today have a difficult time with that. For them, capitalism is an eternal system. It’s almost like the only thing preventing industrialization from taking place a thousand years ago as opposed to two hundred was this or that law or piece of technology. The violence that Marx saw with the enforcement of new property laws and the determined resistance of the newly minted criminals makes these arguments seem unfounded, if not silly.

It wasn’t just the economists and historians who thought that way though–Marx was also unique among socialists for thinking in these terms. Most early nineteenth century socialists rightly recognized the absurdities and cruelties of capitalism, but build their movements around appeals to morality and reason. Understanding capitalism historically wasn’t really an issue for them. Elaborate blueprints and sophisticated arguments were key. These utopian socialists lived in a world of ideas as much as the economists. Marx argued that this sort of thinking was not only wrong but also dangerous.

Historical Materialism

Marx argued for a new way to think about and understand both how society works and how to change it. He called this new method "historical materialism." In short, he argued that in order to understand and change the present one had to understand how power was organized and maintained. Who had power and why? Over whom did they have power? How did they keep it? The most basic way to get at the answers to those questions, he argued, was through looking at how a society reproduced its means of subsistence–its food, shelter, and clothing. He used the concept of a mode of production to talk about the organization of production but also the operation of power more generally. It provided him with a framework to talk about how economics interacted with politics, culture, and nature–and how each shaped and was shaped by the other. Social relationships around production, he argued, were key to understanding how these systems operated. By this, he meant that asking who did the work and who controlled what they produced (and how it was distributed) was essential to understanding how any mode of production operated.

Just like I talked about in the introduction, however, each of these modes of production had tensions built into how they operated. This is another of Marx’s important insights. It’s also central to understand how he differed from the utopian socialists and why Marxism remains important. He argued that the social tensions created by the organization of production and the unequal distribution of power led to the struggle that are a constant feature of all class societies. Class struggle, more than anything else, was, for Marx, the primary motor of historical change. Nothing, for Marx, is predetermined. There was nothing natural about the way this or that mode of production–including capitalism–developed. New modes of production emerge over time through class struggle and that struggle plays the key role in shaping the form these new modes of production take.


Marx’s emphasis on modes of production and class leads us into the final section of this introduction: what is capitalism–and how and for whom does it work? This is definitely the more dense section of the introduction, but I think that a lot of what I’m going to say here builds pretty well on what I’ve talked about so far.

The criminalization of early forms of subsistence and the dispossession of millions of rural people was central to the creation of a working class–a people whose only real marketable property was their ability to work. Marx recognized this process in Prussia in the early 1840s. This new class of people, he argued later, is one of the forces that made capitalism different. He argued that the entire system depended on the labor performed by this new working class. It was through this production process that workers produced and capitalists expropriated economic value. Capitalists control the value that workers produce. They return part of the value to the workers in the form of wages. They keep the rest–Marx called this “surplus value.” They take the surplus value and reinvest it into the production process–machinery, land, science, and buildings. This isn’t something that just happens though. The entire history of capitalism is replete with struggles over this process. Capitalists want to extract more and more surplus value and workers want to control more and more of the value they produce–labor unions and workplace regulations are two products of this struggle. This is also key to Marx’s understanding of economics and its usefulness–he engaged a study of capitalism from the point of view of the working class. The production of value and struggles over the expropriation surplus value all sound like abstract concepts, but ultimately what Marx was saying was, in so many words, that capitalism was premised on robbing workers. Wages, in Marx’s view, were not a just reward for services rendered–they were a way for capitalists to mask that criminal relationship.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pittsburgh to Chicago: Socialism 2010

With the economy in shambles and with wars and occupations continuing, the challenge to change these conditions confronts us all. More than a year ago, millions placed their hopes in Barack Obama and the Democrats to solve these problems. But after months of broken promises and concessions to conservatives, jobs are scarce, the banks are unregulated, and full equality for LGBT people remains elusive.

Socialism 2010—to be held in both Chicago and Oakland—will provide an unparalleled opportunity for new and veteran activists and scholars to explore questions about how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it.

Last year, more than 1,800 people turned out to explore the history of struggles of ordinary people, to learn about radical figures who led social movements and to debate theoretical questions that can help us change the world.

Join us for more than 100 talks on issues such as: What is the Real Marxist Tradition?, Race in the Obama Era, Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity, Abortion and Women’s Liberation, and Building a New Left in the Obama Era.

Want to go with us? Contact us at for details and so we can make plans. For all other information, click here.