Leftforum 2006


Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 13, 2006


I try to make it to at least one day of the yearly Leftforum Conference (once known as the Socialist Scholars Conference) in order to get a handle on what the academic left is putting out. The conference features speakers--mostly male, white tenured professors who were 60s radicals early in their life--who publish in Science & Society, Monthly Review, Socialist Register, Dissent, the Nation Magazine, etc.


The following are some off the top of my head notes on the sessions I attended yesterday.


On Sunday 10am, I attended a panel on "Marxist Views of China's Contemporary Development" that was distinguished by the participation of Cheng En Fu, who is dean of the Marxism Research Institute of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and standing sub-dean of the Marxism Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


Just by coincidence, the NY Times that morning had a lead article on the front page about the reemergence of Marxism in China. It stated: "old-style leftist thinkers have used China's rising income gap and increasing social unrest to raise doubts about what they see as the country's headlong pursuit of private wealth and market-driven economic development."


That certainly describes Cheng's presentation. He began by defending the Maoist economic record that sustained an 8% growth rate over the period from 1953 to 1978. He alluded to Maurice Meisner, a very fine left-oriented China scholar, for support on this claim. With the advent of "market socialism," there has been a tendency among the Chinese intelligentsia to downgrade Maoist economics. It would seem that the new generation of Marxist scholars, who are the ideological descendants of the original Maoists, might be advised to not bend the stick too far in the other direction since Maoist bureaucratism had a lot to do with China's current capitalist evolution.


In Cheng's view, market reforms were not intended as a repudiation of the Maoist past, but as an attempt to make something good even better. He likened it to a champion athlete experimenting with a new technique to make his or her performance even better.


Market reforms have indeed accelerated economic growth, but there are two other factors that Cheng mentioned (and that I have never considered before) that have complemented the unleashing of market competition. One is a reduction in population to the tune of 300 million. The other is a reduction in the size of the army, a result of a lessening of cold war tensions.


Next, Cheng launched into a frank discussion of the failures of what he described as market socialism. Mainly, this has been a function of a decline of the public sector and a concomitant growth in inequality as the iron rice bowel has shrunk and unemployment has grown. He was also critical of a tendency among Chinese intellectuals and policy makers to look at the USA uncritically and to see it as a model for China. Basically, Cheng did not call for an abolition of private property but a series of reforms that would restore the balance between the private and public sector. Although it is heartening to hear a Chinese scholar speak in the name of Marxism, it struck me that he was proposing something not much different than what Gorbachev proposed in the USSR. As we know, it is difficult to reconcile the imperatives of a market economy within the framework of socialism, especially when the nation is as integrated in global economic markets to the degree that China is.


Dave Kotz, who chaired the panel and who is the co-author of a very useful book on capitalist restoration in the USSR titled "Revolution from Above: the Demise of the Soviet System," made some pointed observations on the evolution of market socialism as an ideology.


When it was first proposed in the 1930s by Oskar Lange, it was seen as a form of socialism with "market-like" mechanisms. But competition or profit-seeking as we know it in China did not exist. Later on market socialists like Alec Nove did call for genuine markets. With the collapse of the USSR, there was a tendency for market socialists to put forward these ideas as goals for the Western left, which were largely ignored of course. Mainly, market socialism only has relevance for a way of (mis)describing China today.


Kotz then presented an historical overview of how market socialism has been formulated by the CCP since 1982. Like the evolution that took place from Lange to Nove, Chinese ideology has moved inexorably to a belief that markets per se are necessary to keep a socialist economy viable. He also made an interesting observation on the tendency of elites in the state sector to become willing partners in privatization even though they don't actually *own* any capital. With the acquisition of *wealth* and perks by plant managers, etc., there is a tendency to accept inequality and the logic of privatization, especially since their connections make it almost inevitable that they get the lion's share in a sale of plant assets.


Minqi Li, a young professor at York University and contributor to the Socialist Register and MR, gave a talk on China's role in a capital accumulation crisis that will mature in 25 years or so and give rise to a challenge to neoliberalism. It should be obvious that Minqi is very much into "long wave" type analyses. His talk was basically a version of an interesting article that can be read here: http://www.monthlyreview.org/0104li.htm.


Richard Smith was the last speaker. He called attention to China's looming ecological crisis. Although his talk was informative, it was basically the same one he gave a year ago.




At 12PM, I attended a panel discussion on "Evo Morales and the New Bolivia" that was organized by North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). It opened my eyes to an emerging ideological tendency to invest the Bolivian radical movement with the themes present in Zapatista support literature, John Holloway and autonomism. I had been obviously aware of the differences between people like James Petras, Jorge Martin of the Grant-Woods tendency and Gerry Foley on one side (representing varieties of ortho-Marxism or ortho-Trotskyism) and enthusiastic supporters of Morales like Roger Burbach on the other.


I tended to lump Forrest Hylton, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Znet and critic of Morales and who spoke at the panel, in the first camp but now I see him much more clearly as a defender of autonomism rather than Marxism. His frequent allusions to "radical democracy" and "the social movements" in past articles might have alerted me to this, but I was focused more on his reportage. His talk yesterday did not get into these questions, but dealt more with the history of Bolivian indigenous resistance going back to Tupac Amaru. It was a bit superficial but useful.


It was up to NYU professor Sinclair Thomson to lay out the autonomist perspective. Describing himself as a colleague of Hylton (they co-authored a Counterpunch article at: http://www.counterpunch.org/hylton11122004.html), Thomson described the indigenous movement in Bolivia as best seen in terms of the EZLN and/or anarchism and as a rejection of "Bolshevism". Hostility toward Morales had as much to do it seems with a distrust of the state as it did with whether he was willing to nationalize the energy resources, etc. In the Counterpunch article cited above, Hylton and Thomson recommend the following for Bolivia's indigenous peasantry and workers:


"The Assembly could help redraw state-society relations to reflect Bolivia's new historical conditions. It could recognize the enduring non-liberal forms of collective political, economic and territorial association by which most rural and urban Bolivians organize their lives. It could democratize the political relations that throughout the republican era have limited the participation of indigenous peoples in national political life, forcing them to resort to costly insurrectionary struggles."


I would say that in order to truly "democratize…political relations" is impossible without an insurrectionary struggle, but what the heck, I am one of those Brontosaurus Bolsheviks I guess.


During the q&a, I asked Thomson why anybody would try to superimpose Zapatismo on the Bolivian mass movement, since the EZLN is basically defunct. (I could have also made the point that Cuban doctors from the dreaded Bolshevik island are saving the lives of more Chiapas babies than anybody from the EZLN, but these conferences frown on speech-making.) Thomson simply ignored my question. I don't blame him, since he obviously had no answer.


The final speaker, Anibal Quijano, a Peruvian academic and World Systems theorist, endorsed the idea of Andean capitalism as put forward by Morales's vice president. He hailed the idea of energy profits being siphoned off to fund community-based projects.


A word or two about NACLA might be useful in understanding the political meaning of this panel discussion, which might not be obvious to many of the attendees. Basically, NACLA is hostile to state socialism. Although it was formed as a nonprofit research institute in the 1960s by young scholars in solidarity with Cuba and the guerrilla movements, it has evolved into a combination of State Department liberalism and autonomist post-modernism. When Laurie Berenson was arrested by the Peruvian cops for supporting pro-Cuba guerrillas, NACLA said something like, "tsk-tsk--she should have been making better use of her time." God knows what that might have meant. Working for a Soros-funded NGO, I suppose. NACLA has also falsely accused the FARC of murdering Indians. In the current issue, there's a letter complaining about their bias on Cuba: http://www.nacla.org/art_display.php?art=2643. I suppose that NACLA is trying to demonstrate its evenhandedness by printing the letter, but it would be better advised to adopt a more objective outlook, especially in light of Cuba's role in helping to stiffen Latin American resistance to neoliberalism today. But that would take a different editor and a different board of directors and different funding. So, in other words, don't expect any change.




At 2pm, I attended a panel discussion on Bubbles and the US economy that was remarkable for Doug Henwood's obvious worries about the impact of rising interest rates in the home mortgage market, and consequently on the economy as a whole. When Doug Henwood starts to sound like the people from In Defense of Marxism, Watch Out!




At 4pm, I attended a debate on perspectives for the antiwar movement which brought together Leslie Cagan from UfPJ and Brian Becker from the ANSWER coalition. As might be expected, Cagan made noble-sounding statements about the need to work harder and reach more Americans but did not really get into the substantive disagreements between UfPJ and ANSWER. Becker, on the other hand, was determined to have things out but his talk was so utterly detached from political reality that debate with Cagan or any other living human being would have been impossible. Basically, Becker analyzed the differences in terms of the Zimmerwald Manifesto and carrying on in the traditions of Lenin. His speech was phrase-mongering elevated to an almost stratospheric level. After he was done, he was applauded by a smattering of Spartacist types in the audience but I booed him at the top of my lungs. That really felt good.