Left Forum 2009 - High Energy, Colorful Mosaic
NYC's Left Forum:
Left 'Turning Points' :
Exploring New Ideas,
Seeking Common Ground
By Carl Davidson
Keep On Keepin' On
New York City's annual 'Left Forum' this year was a solid success. Under the theme "Turning Points, it drew more than 2000 participants to Pace University April 17-19, to take part in some 200 panels featuring around 600 speakers.
For something on this scale, I won't even pretend to give a comprehensive overview. No one person can. Instead, in what follows, you'll get my personal diary-like account as I wove my way through the crowds, met up with old and new friends, and faced a dizzying array of choices every time a new round of panels were set to start.
Pace University was an oddly appropriate place for the forum, located next to City Hall in New York City's financial district. The artifacts of the two major crises shaping our last decade were in your face. Wall Street, den of the derivative speculators, was a few blocks away; and you could tour 'Ground Zero,' the site of the destroyed WTC Twin Towers, with less than a 10 minute walk. Pace had a memorial plaque on its grounds for its own faculty, staff and students that perished on 9/11.
I arrived a few hours before the opening plenary. The New York City Labor Left Project, a grouping of socialist and communist trade unionists from several left organizations, set up a small early-bird session with Bill Fletcher, Jr, former AFL-CIO Education Director, co-author of "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis of Organized Labor,' and a founder of Progressives for Obama. About 25 people showed up, from half-a-dozen unions.
This was important. Most events like the Left Forum over the years, this one included, have been a "gathering of the tribes" of the left intelligentsia, serving as both common ground for every trend to talk with each other, and a trade fair of sorts, where left groups and publishers display their wares. Labor activists usually are notable by their absence, so this panel, even though small, was a step forward.
Fletcher hit hard on the need for an organized left in the union movement. He used some example from the early 1930s to explain that he didn't mean just the more militant and left-leaning staffers, but a socialist and communist left that brought a wider political perspective and array of tactics than what was likely to emerge within the trade unions themselves. "People often talk about the great achievements of the 1930s,' he said, "but they often fail to mention and take into account, even among themselves, the political forces that helped bring them about, political forces that were later pushed out." A lively discussion followed, covering everything from the current 'Civil Wars' in labor, to the failure to mobilize adequately around the economic crisis.
The Fletcher talk ran late, so by the time we made it to the auditorium for the opening plenary, it was completely packed, not even standing room. Luckily, the forum organizers had an extra side hall with a giant screen and speakers. That room quickly filled, too.
The first speech was the best, in my book. Richard Wolf, from the Economics Dept at the New School for Social Research, laid out a lucid and high-level Marxist explanation of the current crisis, but spanning 150 years of capitalist development in the U.S. His most important point: the U.S. working class was able to maintain its living standard over the past 30 years only by adding women to the work force, working longer hours, and going deep into debt. By the same token, U.S. capital survived on the speculative bubbles rooted in that debt. Now the wreckage is in front of us, and it's way past time to put socialism on the table.
While Wolf was clear and forceful, Adolph Reed, political science at the University of Pennsylvania, who followed him, was opaque and hesitant. He seemed to argue that because the left lacked institutional strength in the labor movement, and because that strength was not in the cards anytime soon, just about anything anyone did was going to be co-opted by neoliberalism, especially by what he termed 'the fetishism of electoral politics.' In a time of hope, he offered "politically correct" gloom and pessimism.
Arlie Hochschild, sociology from UC Berkeley, stressed that the left needed to get over it 'mistrust of government, which she suggested was borrowed from Ronald Reagan. It was groundwork to convince people to work for social-democratic state-centric solutions, but it didn't go over too well with this crowd. Katjia Kipping from Die Linke, the Left Party in Germany, did better. Faced with 'class warfare from the top down,' she outlined her party's stand in parliament of refusing to have the working class pay for the crisis, to bloc its further development with "anti-cyclical reforms," and to tie them all together with a more strategic campaign for worker control and ownership of the economy.
Walden Bello from the Philippines was the final speaker, but unfortunately, I had to miss him. I had a more important engagement with my young grandson and two daughters, who live in New York City, at a nearby restaurant. First things first!
Saturday promised to be jam-packed, and I was on two panels myself. I arrived earlier than usual because City Hall Park in across the street from Pace, and my grandson, along with all the other Little Leaguers, with their new team uniforms, were preparing for an early-morning season-opening parade. I couldn't miss this, so I had my morning coffee in the park, meeting other proud parents and grandparents.
But Pace was open by 9am, and batches of people wrestled with boxes and carts filled with books, getting their displays up on time. I studied the program, and picked 'The Trend of Chinese Marxism in the 21st Century." Where else would I have the opportunity to listen to three Chinese philosophy professors from Fudan University, having travelled half way around the globe to get here? Since the presenters weren't comfortable with their English skills, the presentations were read to us by a young Chinese woman. The key point: because China was now a transitional society with a socialist market economy, and problems arising from capitalist modernization, it needed some 'Western Marxism" to battle backward trends and keep it on the socialist path. The discussion was difficult, with translation back and forth, but still very lively.
I had to quickly get to the next panel, since I was on it, and there was only about five minutes between sessions. "Building a Progressive Majority and Advancing a Vision of Socialism" was the title, and it was pulled together by my group, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and chaired by Pat Fry, an SEIU staffer. I led off by presenting Van Jones's program for Green Jobs for inner city youth, but framing it as a larger structural reform project that could, if done right, unite a progressive majority and help get us out of the current crisis. At the same time, we had to unite a militant minority around socialist tasks, so I offered the solidarity economy movement and its projects as practical examples of cooperative forms that could, within the capitalist present, point to a socialist future.
Carl Bloice from Black Commentator followed, with a warning that the problems of inter-imperialist rivalry still existed in a multipolar world, as did the problem of militarism and the need for disarmament as a path to greater global equity. He also stressed the need for popular resistance to Obama's Afghan-Pakistan escalation. Renee Carter, a physician from Virginia and CCDS NCC member, described some to the practical organizational work in the South, including a recent conference in Charleston, SC. "It showed people are very hungry for socialist ideas and groups like ours."
Mark Solomon, CCDS Co-Chair, presented a very practical organizational model for organizing the progressive majority, based on the Majority Alliance Project in Boston, which was pulling together dozens of existing organizations "to work wholistically" on a range of project where progressive majorities exist-such as ending the wars and green jobs. At the same time, they worked to take issues with large minority support, such as Palestine self-determination or gay marriage, and develop new ways of thinking to get them to become majorities. Critical to both sets of work was building wider alliances with the labor, youth and community forces that emerged as activists in the Obama campaign.
Our session filled the room with about 40 or more people, most of whom knew little about us. They learned more in the discussion, which covered a lot of bases, from rightwing populism to community base-building, and we got everyone's email address. Other groups did likewise throughout the conference, revealing one of the stronger points of the Left Forum: providing a venue for organization building.
Lunchtime was for networking. While my fellow panelists took off with some folks from the French Communist Party, I decided to spend some time with a young and very sharp organizer from New Jersey, doing some significant organizing with the Obama volunteer bases in the inner city.
Next up was a panel dubiously titled "Obama and the Politics of Hype," pulled together by Lauren Langman, an old friend and sociology professor at Loyola in Chicago. I didn't no what to expect, and Langman got double-booked, so he made a quick speech and left, turning over the chair to Tom Ponniah of Harvard. It was in a large room, and many people, mainly young, kept pouring in until we had about 100. Besides me, Laura Flanders of Grit TV made up the remaining panel.
Flanders was very good, outlining the strengths and weakness of both Obama and the left, with an emphasis on new media, of which she is a rising star. I took the view that the real "politics of hype" around Obama came from conservative talk radio and rightwing populism. My examples were very concrete, arising from the campaign work we did in Beaver County, Western PA, exposing the hype of the right on a daily tit-for-tat basis. Some of the participants would have none of it, however, and wanted to lash out against Obama for almost everything. One even accused him of declaring racism was over, and that he was the key enabler of Black oppression.
I couldn't let that stand, and fired back that she needed to read Obama's Philadelphia speech, and that Obama, his family and his base were under racist fire from the far right, and part of our task was to defend him and expose them on those matters, even as we opposed him on the wars. Several members of the Revolutionary Communist Party went ballistic over that, and the battle was on. I think Flanders and I, together with the chair, did a fairly good job. But the polemics served as a microcosm for an overall division at the forum, which I'd make an educated guess as divided with one-third being critical supporters of Obama, one third see him as the main enemy, and the rest in between somewhere, still making up their minds.
After all that excitement, my next pick was a little more subdued. Titled "The Challenge of Rightwing Populism in Northern Core Capitalist Countries," it was presented by two academics from York University in Canada. One was German, Ingar Solty; the other Canadian, Sam Putjina. Solty gave an overview of the various "National Front" parties in the European countries, while Putjina unfolded a sociological study tracking the rise of rightwing populism with the decline of trade union membership. He made a pretty good case, but the dozen or so people in the room saw the matter as more complex, a had an interesting discussion, pulling in matters of identity and religion.
My panel picks had all served as preparation for the big evening session. "The Obama Campaign and Presidency: Lessons for the Left" was the theme, and it featured Stanley Aronowitz, CUNY; Frances Fox Piven, CUNY; Barbara Epstein, UC Santa Cruz; and Gihan Perera, Right to the City Alliance; with Bill Fletcher as moderator.
Fletcher ran the panel in an interesting way. Rather than have them each deliver a speech, he decide to "interview" them, as if it were a news show. They were to answer, and also comment on each other's answers. He started by asking them if they though there was "a movement" around the Obama election, or whether it was just a slightly more jazzed-up mass campaign. All four of the academics hedged their bets on that one, and gave convoluted answers. (My opinion was that there was definitely a mass movement, several in fact, and some of the movement is still around). The community organizer, Perera, said he didn't know how they were using terms, but he called it "an electoral riot," meaning a mass insurgency from below.
This set some of the dynamic-the academics making points rather removed from grassroots struggles, even when lucid, as was Frances Scott Piven. Then Perera, as counterpoint, making substantive comments anchored in mass struggle. At one point, Fletcher asked whether they had voted or worked for Obama. All had done so, with the exception of Aronowitz.
Once questions and comments were opened to the floor, things got a little livelier. The RCP, clearly noticeable in their uniformed red-on-black T-Shirts, launched the calls for "revolution," pretty much denouncing the panel and challenged Fletcher to a debate to boot. He firmly said "No," and kept charge of the session. At one point, after some outbursts, he announced that the hallway was available to anyone who wanted to debate the RCP, but this discussion would continue.
Pro-Obama and anti-Obama is something of an oversimplification. Those opposed to Obama mainly stressed issues, and saw Afghanistan and foreign policy as decisive, together with the fact that he was for capitalism, and working with former neoliberals to rescue Wall Street. Anything positive in Obama's efforts was just blowing smoke.
Those who had voted for Obama mainly stressed organizing opportunities, new allies at the base, and the opening of political space for more protracted efforts. They supported Obama's measures that were right, and opposed those that weren't. In that sense, the debate was never really engaged. People talked past each other.
One feature of the Left Forum is the '"after parties." There were several; I was invited to one held by the Socialist Party, and another at the Brecht Forum. It had been a long day, so I settled for a late dinner with the organizers of the "Politics of Hype" panel at a nearby bar.
Sunday is usually a light, wrap up day at weekend conferences. I was surprised the next morning to see the place packed once again.
To start the morning off, I picked "In Praise of Socialist Planning" to attend. It featured a good friend, David Schweickart, author of "After Capitalism" and a leading theorist of Marxism and worker-controlled market socialism. The other speakers were Bertell Ollman, an expert on Marxism from New York University and a decidedly anti-market socialist, and Raymond Lotta, from the RCP and self-described as a Maoist political economist. The session was chaired by Anwar Shaikh from the New School.
Schweickart led off with a condensed outline of his theories, and how they related to both classical Marxism and today's conditions. He favored planning, but not of the old anti-market, centralized Five-Year-Plan type. He was for macro planning where markets failed, but favored moving the decisions downward. He mainly argued for public control of social investment funds, and deploying these locally as a form of democratic planning. Ollman was a little more abstract, describing the creative potential unleashed by revolution. Interestingly, he conceded Schweickart was right about Marx and the market, and that classes and the market would be around for a post-revolutionary period. He simply asserted that this would only last about two years! Ray Lotta basically asserted the primacy of revolutionary politics at every step of the way, and declared there was no need for 'technical economic blueprints." In that sense, everything was a plan determined by the constant mobilization of the masses, who consciousness could trump economic backwardness-a classic "voluntarist" deviation from Marxism, and one Mao was prone to at various times as well.
I moved on to another smaller session, about a dozen people, where the topic was "The Green New Deal." It had an interesting lineup: Victor Wallis from the theoretical journal, Socialism and Democracy; Mario Candeais, from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation; and Freider Otto Wolf, from the Free University in Berlin, and one of the original German Greens. Wallis gave a succinct explanation of the old FDR New Deal, and described the character so far of the current one. It was positive, but whether it, or anything, would resolve the crisis was still open. I was a bit taken aback by Candeais. He attacked the Green New Deal because it included more "infinite economic growth," which he saw as civilization-destroying. Wolf answered him, supporting the Green New Deal as a "Red-Green Project," one that worked best with transitional demands of structural reform take could open a path to socialism.
Needless to say, I became an immediate fan of Wolf, but decided to cross swords with Candeais on his opposition to "infinite growth." I argued we needed infinite growth, especially in high design technologies and the growth of knowledge, and that these were critical to both a green and socialist future. In this way, economies could grow in sustainable ways, however large they became. He simply wouldn't accept my framework, and clung to a vision of growth as accumulating garbage heaps. We had to agree to disagree.
The last panel was one where I was the chair, "Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet." Our panelists were Pasqualino Columbaro of the Global Economic Alternatives Network, Maliha Safri of the Center for Popular Economics, and Peter Ranis, Political Science, CUNY. We had the final 3-5pm slot Sunday afternoon, and I didn't expect much. I was surprised when about 30 people showed up, so I quickly passed the sheet and got everyone's emails, a critical task for organizers these days.
The purpose of our panel was to introduce activists to the concept of a solidarity economy, which is still relatively new in the U.S. Columbaro described many of the principles, and the various organizations, together with a good description of the Emilia-Romano region of Italy, where hundred of thousands of workers are involved in thousands of interconnected cooperative enterprises. Safri gave an overview of the US Solidarity Economy Network, and the achievements of some of the groups in it, ranging from food coops and credit unions, to worker coops and public schools like the Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago, focused on high tech manufacturing with a worker-ownership component to the school's outlook. Ranis stressed the importance of connections with trade unions, and getting them to partner in joint collaboratives, and put the capital in union pension funds and banks to good use.
Most of the discussion here was more in the form of questions than debate, with the participants wanting to learn more. I pointed out that the solidarity economy was value-centered, but than so were all schools of political economy-Marxism's core value was the emancipation of the working class, the economics taught in school had private accumulation of wealth as the core value, while the green economy was focused on sustainability and harmony with the environment. In the solidarity economy, obviously, the values of solidarity and mutual aid are at the center.
Since I had an eight-hour drive back to Western PA, I had to leave and miss the final plenary. Too bad for me, since I was told later that one of the speakers had quoted from a paper of mine negatively, where I made the point that if we were going to move forward as a more dynamic and broader left, within a wider progressive majority, we had to make a decisive break with a semi-anarchist and ultraleft mindset. I would have loved to debate the point since, from just my experience at the Left Forum, I though my case was fairly evident, to those who cared to think it over in some detail. A clear majority of groups calling themselves socialist and communist in our country, not even mentioning the anarchists, had solidly opposed Obama and his movement every step of the way, and as far as I could see, it hadn't helped them one bit. Those who had engaged that movement in a positive way, however, were making some solid advances. Maybe next year, we can revisit the topic, hopefully with a little more clarity and, also hopefully, from positions in the class, anti-imperialist and democratic struggles that are a little further down the pike.
[Carl Davidson is webmaster for 'Progressives for Obama' and 'SolidarityEconomy.net, a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and a coordinating committee member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. Together with Jerry Harris, he is author of 'Cyber-Radicalism: A New Left for a Global Age, available at
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