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What's the Matter with the Left Forum
The Left Forum risks irrelevance
By Steven Sherman
In its organizational structure and attitude, the Left Forum isolates itself from most social movements. But it also refuses to constitute itself as a living organization. Instead, the preference is to berate all existing forces and implore participants to somehow get their act together. Unless it shifts the way it does things, it risks irrelevance.I attended the Left Forum last weekend at Pace University. Notwithstanding many excellent moments, I found the experience disappointing and disheartening. The Left Forum is the new name for what used to be called the Socialist Scholars Conference. It references the World Social Forum, which since its first meeting in 2000, has redefined the significance of left gatherings. Notwithstanding the name change, the Left Forum seemed almost antithetical to the spirit of the Social Forum movement. The first world social forum was the product of a combination of a French NGO (ATTAC) and a Brazilian Political Party (the Workers Party). They invited many other NGOs and social movement organizations, as well as sympathetic intellectuals. Since then, more and more movements have been involved. There has been ongoing, vigorous critique of the larger NGOs, both by more militant social movement organizations (such as labor movements) and by anarchists. It is fair to say that the social forum has been pushed to the left by this process. The US Social Forum, which held its first meeting two years ago, was largely grounded in social movements, rather than wealthier NGOs or liberal pressure groups. Although such gatherings will first and foremost appeal to those already committed to the left, it was clear that many social movement organizations made an effort to get some of their base members to come to the social forum.
By contrast, the Left Forum does not appear to have significant social movement participation in its planning. Its board of directors largely appears to be academics (affiliations are not listed). Most 'endorsing organizations' are academic or quasi-academic journals whose readerships are tiny. Practically the only exception is the National Lawyers Guild. The Left Forum relies on identifying its intellectual (i.e. academic) stars in its advertising, ensuring that its participants will mostly be other academic sorts. It's tone is mostly academic, even if it does not lapse into the pedantic gestures that overwhelm most academic gatherings. Not surprisingly, the attendees parallel those at academic conferences like the American Sociological Association or the International Studies Association. Most are white and college educated. Not based on any scientific survey, but my own guess is that it skews a bit older than these academic meetings, which attract a lot of 30 to 40 year olds hoping to gain a toehold in their field (there were some students at the Forum, but very few people between 30 and 50). However, the Left Forum is not a cross disciplinary national meeting of academic leftists. If it were, it might be much more useful than it currently is. Such a meeting could highlight how to fight against renascent McCarthyism, against budget cuts, how to broaden the impact of academic work, better engage communities colleges and universities are embedded in, etc. But this is not the Left Forum's strategy. Instead, the Forum appears to be a gathering defined by a particular outlook, broad enough that attacks of sectarianism are unwarranted, but too narrow to make much of an impact. And its leading lights seem to have given up on the prospect that the Forum might make much of an impact. The Left Forum is dominated by a perspective I would describe as Unorthodox Marxism. Unorthodox Marxism is assertively anticapitalist and anti-liberal, but it does not glorify the various socialist revolutions around the world. It is less statist than typical Orthodox Marxism. It also does not urge its followers to adapt and hew to a 'party line'.
At the same time, one frequently heard the argument that we need a new socialist organization, or party, or something. But then we were also told that the Left Forum couldn't possibly play a role in getting such an organization off the ground. This indeed, is practically the crux of my problem with the forum. It isolates itself from existing social movement groups. This gives its plenary speakers freedom to talk in critical, sometimes insulting, terms about actually existing community organizing, labor unions, liberal electoral strategies, etc. But then, notwithstanding the urgent need for an alternative, it refuses to pick up the ball. Why not ask everyone registering whether they would be interested in participating, over the next year, in discussions leading to the formation of such a party or organization? Why not use the Left Forum website as a forum for such discussion? Why not do something, anything, instead of just preparing the ground to come back next year and complain about how we need a new left? Adrift from any relation with actually existing social movements, leading lights of the forum nevertheless felt an urgent need to pontificate on the matters of the day. We must push Obama to the left. No, we must push Obama from the left. No, Obama is just a defender of empire and the status quo. But Obama needs to be thanked when he does good things, like shake Chavez' hand. Etc. You would think 'we' amounted to something, given the amount of advice 'we' were getting. On top of this were fantastic (and I mean fantasy-like) recommendations to replace capitalism with some altogether new model, that apparently has no relation to any social force or political contradictions in the US (and I mean the US--global perspectives were woefully marginal). Listening to these sorts of proposals, I was reminded of the wisdom of that saying 'Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals'. There were exceptions to this mentality. Frances Fox Piven, for example, recommended fighting to stop foreclosures as a way forward that might catch on, directly benefit people, and lay the groundwork for further victories. Walden Bello took issue with the bitching and moaning about the weakness of the left in the US to note the importance of the Seattle 1999 protest to the antiglobalization movement worldwide.
The Left Forum is in danger of rendering itself completely irrelevant. There aren't that many people under fifty who want to come out for a weekend of advice from people over sixty that seems completely disconnected from any really existing organizations (add to that the prominence of sectarian organizations and crackpots, and the whole thing can really try one's patience, although I should emphasize that there were many first rate presentations on panels throughout the forum). I recommend the organizers take some or all of the following steps in preparing for next year's Left Forum. First, contact social movement organizations now, before planning begins, to find out what sort of gathering would help them or would interest their base. New York City has lots of community organizations, labor unions, left elected officials who can be consulted or included. Second, think about how the website of the forum can be used before, during and after the event to advance the goal of rebuilding the US left as a pole of opinion in the nation. For example (and it is just one) there was no twitter stream this year. This could have been a useful tool for participants in the forum to let others know about important debates or points that were made at panels. Third, make an affirmative commitment to diversify attendance, particularly with an eye towards age and racial composition (ditto for plenary sessions). Fourth, short of creating a national left organization out of the forum, consider realistic goals that can be advanced. Maybe the left journals who usually sponsor the event can combine forces (and add others) to better advance the visibility of left intellectual arguments. Maybe a New York City socialist grouping can come out of the forum. Or a cross disciplinary academic left organization. Or a left publication readable by people who aren't academics. But simply holding a similar event, year after year, and exorting people for one weekend a year to get their act together, is not going to get us anywhere.