Conversation rooted in leftist literature served as the foundation for the 2019 Socialism Conference, held July 4–7 in Chicago. The conference, organized for the first time this year by Haymarket Books, was cosponsored by Haymarket and Jacobin magazine, with support from the Democratic Socialists of America, In These Times magazine, Mondoweiss, New Politics, the New Press, Science for the People, and Verso Books.
This year, the book fair at the conference, which was previously a small part of the event, included more publishers and organizations selling books than ever before. Exhibiting publishers included the New Press and Verso, alongside hundreds of books from Haymarket and other independent publishers and sellers of left-leaning, Marxist, and radical books. In the spirit of camaraderie, and to encourage customers to purchase books by authors leading panels and discussions at the event, Haymarket provided a 40% discount for those in attendance.
Haymarket publicist Dana Blanchard, one of the organizers of the conference, said she often thinks about “the connection and intersection of what books people in different movements are reading, what study groups are happening in different spaces where people have political questions and debate.” The goal, she added, is to make reading a collective process and part of activist practice: “I’m always asking, ‘How can we help to facilitate that goal by providing books and materials that bring out some of these conversations, so that our books are not just something you put on your shelf and read by yourself?’ ”
Blanchard noted that the response to this year’s conference has been “tremendous,” adding that “the appeal of a conference like this is much wider than we were even able to tap into in years past, and just bringing on new sponsors and networks of people who helped us spread the word to wider layers of folks.”
Panels and group discussions over the long weekend were wide-ranging. Highlights included conversations about disability, including a talk by author Keith Russell on the disability politics of Martha Russell, and a deep dive into the radical political life of the late and acclaimed African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry by her biographer Imani Perry. For those who might be more unfamiliar with such classic leftist literature as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto, the conference offered Socialism 101, a session held first thing Friday morning led by University of Chicago philosophy professor Anton Ford.
The selection of books provided at the book fair invited attendees to consider a question many on the contemporary left, including radical and leftist publishers, are currently asking themselves: what does socialism have to be to meet the problems that we now face?
At the book fair, titles included radical poetry selections from authors Hanif Abdurraqib, Eve L. Ewing, and Camonghne Felix; feminist social analysis by such noted authors as bell hooks and Rebecca Solnit; and classic works that included Socialism from Below by Hal Draper. Haymarket also offered attendees special access to finished copies of forthcoming Haymarket books, such as A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital by Joseph Choonara, Syria After the Uprisings by Joseph Daher, and The Women’s Revolution by Judy Cox, among others.
Author Astra Taylor, who spoke on several panels over the weekend, praised the titles on display (“everything from classic tomes to punk rock memoirs”) and was especially impressed by the wide variety of literature in the disability rights section, including Feminist, Queer, Crip by Alison Kafer (Indiana Univ.). She said that the resurgence of socialism will continue to be “a boon for left-wing publishing.” Younger audiences, she added, are increasingly moving left, and so are their reading habits. “That means they are picking up books published by Haymarket, Verso, or Common Notions, or reading articles in outlets such as Jacobin or Teen Vogue. Socialism is and has always been a mix of philosophy and practice, reflection and action.”
This can be seen more clearly in the kinds of books being published by smaller, more radical publishing houses such as Haymarket in 2019, and in the high demand for those books, Taylor said. The growth of leftist publishing, she added, affirms that “revolutionaries love to read—and not just those inclined to the armchair.”
Blanchard said that she feels hopeful and “constantly excited” by the enthusiasm for radical books. The future of publishing and selling leftist literature, she noted, is hard to predict, since the present interest in such titles is “uncharted territory.” She added that she is heartened by this interest, and by the conference’s book fair, which, she said, used to be much smaller and less diverse.
That has changed thanks to growing demand and to the expansion by the cosponsors of the conference in recent years—proof positive that the cosponsors’ belief that leftist publishing should focus on organizing is producing real results.
“I started working at Haymarket right after Trump got elected,” Blanchard said, “and I feel like, every year, we’ve had a conversation about the leftist publishing industry in which we’ve set new horizons because of demand for radical books.”