This is a report on Left Forum 2005 (http://www.2005leftforum.org/), an
academic conference that is a pole of attraction for the people who contribute to
journals like New Left Review, Monthly Review, Science and Society, Socialist
Register, New Politics, etc.
Essentially it is a continuation of the Socialist Scholars
Conference which suffered a split last year after Eric Canepa,
the long-time conference coordinator, was fired by the steering committee. A
near majority resigned in protest and launched the Left Forum. The program is
identical to that of the Socialist Scholars Conference. There is a mixture of
panels on the "new imperialism", the state of the labor movement,
Marxism and philosophy or psychology, ecology, etc. The plenary sessions are
dominated by celebrities such as Barbara Ehrenreich
or Cornel West. I make it a habit to stay away from them.
Although there has not been an airing out of the politics
that led to the split, it arose out of differences over Yugoslavia
and other "humanitarian interventions." Canepa
had been accused of being too soft on Milosevic sympathizers and other
"hard leftists" by BogdanDenitch and other steering committee members whose Dissent
Magazine type politics favored an even more explicit orientation to the
Democratic Party and liberal imperialism. I had heard that they favored a kind
of synthesis between their kind of socialism, such as
it is, and the forces around the Dean campaign, moveon.org, etc.
It is a little hard for me to take seriously the idea the
Left Forum people are pro-Milosevic or Saddam Hussein because one of their
prime movers is Stanley Aronowitz, a long time leader
of DSA, America's
leading social democratic organization. My guess is that they correctly
assessed the attack on Canepa as an attack on the
independent and radical character of the Socialist Scholars Conference, despite
its flaws. In other words, the fact that the Left Forum happened and the fact
that it was well-attended (as far as I can tell) is important for the left. In
their magnanimity, the Left Forum organizers even allowed Bogdan
to speak at the closing plenary, curse his eyes.
As has been my tradition for the past several years, I
attend only one day of the conference since it is not worth an entire weekend
to me. Basically, a lot of the panels involve people saying the same thing that
they have been saying in one form or another for years. If you've heard Leo Panitch making the case that US
imperialism is not declining, there is no need to hear it for the fourth or
fifth time no matter how many accolades he has received. Two or three times
The other thing that bugs me is the utter inability of proles like me to make comments during the discussion
period for more than a minute or two. After hearing 3 speakers go on for an
hour or so, you lose the motivation to make a 2 minute response. No matter how
you slice it, these conferences replicate the culture of the academy with its
refereed journals, its dissertation boards and its mad scramble for tenure and
That being said, the three panels I attended today were
They started off with a
debate on Iraq
between Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali on one side and Joanne Landy and Stephen
Shalom on the other. Although all four panelists were in favor of immediate
withdrawal from Iraq,
the nub of the debate was how to regard "the resistance". Arnove and
Ali supported it, while Landy and Shalom staked out a "third camp"
position in tune with New Politics magazine, where they both serve as editors.
Arnove, a member of the ISO, referred to the racism and Islamophobia
that was infecting sections of the antiwar movement. He is of course correct. Ali
made the essential point that it would have been a disaster if the occupation
had not encountered an armed revolt. It would have allowed Bush to gloat over
his "great victory" for democracy.
Shalom and Landy clearly despise the people who are shooting
at American troops. For Shalom, the mass demonstrations of the kind that took
place in Baghdad last week are the
only legitimate form of resistance. Landy circulates petitions blaming the
resistance for the murder of the Iraqi trade unionist. Since nobody has a clue who killed him, it is disingenuous in the extreme to demand
that the antiwar movement take a stand against such killings as if the culprits
were ex-Baathists. Nobody can be sure at this point
who killed him.
In a way, the debate reflected the somewhat "soft"
character of the Left Forum, despite claims to the contrary by BogdanDenitch and company. Tariq
Ali, the "street fighting man", spent a lot of energy last year
urging a vote for John Kerry, who attacked George W. Bush from the right on the
war in Iraq.
Although I have nothing but praise for the ISO on its involvement in the Nader
campaign and for its willingness to stick up for the freedom fighters in Iraq
(so there, BogdanDenitch!!),
the exchange between him and his detractors seemed confusing at times. Landy,
who achieved some notoriety for her anti-Soviet agitation in the 1970s and 80s,
bragged about her refusal to take sides in the Cold War. In response, Arnove
made the obligatory denunciation of "Soviet imperialism". Landy also
rubbed his nose in the fact that he signed one of her stupid fucking petitions
during the first Gulf War about how "we the undersigned are opposed to
both George Bush and Saddam Hussein." I hope the comrades in the ISO have
learned from the experience. In fact, I expect they have since none of them
have signed Landy's petition supporting the
counter-revolution in Cuba.
For a real debate to take place, it would have been
necessary to include somebody like Jim Petras. Petras even goes farther than me in taking up the cause of
latest bogeyman. I imagine that Joanne Landy would never speak from the same
platform as him after he denounced her Cuba
petition and her past membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.
In his closing remarks, Tariq Ali really made a fool out of
Stephen Shalom who kept baiting the hard left about whether it should have
backed Pol Pot because the USA
was attacking Cambodia.
Ali dryly observed that the only reason that the Khmer Rouge had a seat in the
UN for 12 years is that the USA
and Great Britain
resisted all attempts to unseat it.
The next panel at
was an examination of "fascism". One presenter, an editor of Cultural
Logic who came up to me to say hello (I am on the editorial board--please keep
that a secret), had some wittily dismissive things to say about Philip Roth's
new novel, which imagines President Charles Lindbergh instituting fascism in
the USA. Michel
Warshawsky explained why Israel
was not fascist. But the most interesting if muddled presentation came from a
North Carolina A&M professor who tried to
resuscitate the "3rd period" ideology of the early 1930s, citing R. PalmeDutt, and contemporary
American authors (including Thomas Frank) who dwell on the ultraright.
He believed that loss of hegemony might provoke a fascist takeover in the USA
rather than a need to repress an unruly working class.
I took the opportunity during the discussion period to
present my own views on fascism in about two minutes or so. Fortunately I am a
very fast speaker.
I started off by noting that fascism is about repression,
while the rightwing in the USA,
particularly the Christian right, is about self-repression. Thomas Frank's book
is basically about working class people who repress themselves. They deny
themselves alcohol, pornography and other nice things while happily kissing the
hand of the boss or politician who cuts their wages, benefits and social safety
net. If these people ever stop repressing themselves and begin to bite the hand
that slaps them, then there might come a time when the boss is required to
organize fascist bands. That time is nowhere near. We are passing through a
period of intense quiescence, not class struggle. That could change, of course,
but we should not be chicken littles. Thatís not the
role of Marxism.
I also noted that after Great
Britain lost its empire and world hegemonic
status, it did not see fit to organize fascist bands. It just muddled along as
junior partner to US
imperialism. Since the USA
models itself on the British Empire rather than the
Third Reich, perhaps we can see our own future in Great
Britain's slow steady decline. Of course, if
you are a member of the British ruling class, things are not really that bad
one way or the other.
Speaking of slow, steady decline, the last panel I attended
was on Jared Diamond's "Collapse". I heard presentations by Neil
Smith, a CUNY professor with a fine Scottish burr and John Bellamy Foster who
described Diamond's book as "terrible".
After the discussion ended, I was approached by a Greek Marxist
who is on the editorial board of one of the country's leading journals. He told
me that he is a regular reader of the Marxmail
archives and finds the discussion here very interesting. So keep up the good
work, Comrade Organic Intellectuals!!