Left Forum 2005


Posted towww.marxmail.org on April 16, 2005


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 Bogdan Denitch 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 should suffice.


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 status.


That being said, the three panels I attended today were fairly interesting.


They started off with a 10am 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 Bogdan Denitch 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, Bogdan Denitch!!), 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 the USA's 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 12pm 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. Palme Dutt, 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!!