Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: Left Forum 2012

This year’s edition of the Left Forum, the annual New York conference for the exchange of left wing ideas, achieved record attendance numbers.  Over 4,500 participants were registered for the event, far surpassing previous years.  The conference, which had its first outing in 1965, (it was then called the Socialist Scholar’s Conference), has long since outgrown its origins as a scholarly venue for radical and New Left professors to present their views.  The 2012 Left Forum, which was hosted at Pace University in New York on March 16-18, boasted more than 400 panels and several higher profile plenary sessions featuring a number of semi-celebrities on the left. Included in the lineup of stars were Cornell West, Chris Hedges, Barbara  Ehrenreich, Frances Fox Piven, Stanley Arronowitz and Rick Wolf among others.  There was also a talk by one genuine celebrity, the left-wing film maker Michael Moore, on Saturday night.  [1]

The permanent-revolution web site had initially scheduled its own panel at this year’s Left Forum to follow up the highly successful panel we hosted last year.  However, personal difficulties intervened this year and we had to limit our participation to that of attending several panels and being careful observers of the overall event.  

Although one can still find a number of “theoretical” panels among the 400 that were listed in the program guide, the bulk of the panels were oriented toward activists.  The theme this year was naturally the Occupy Wall Street movement and many of the participants were either active in OWS or were inspired by it.  This is evident in some of the panel descriptions: “Occupy Research – Research by and for the Movement” or, “Occupy Outside Metropolis: Small-Town and Rural Occupations”. There were dozens of other panels with similar titles.  In addition to the more activist-oriented panels, there were also a number of panels in which radical academics tried to engage with the Occupy movement.  One such panel had the title, “How Should Left Theory Respond to the New Movements?”.  Judging from the lineup of participants in this panel, Richard Wolin, Simon Critchley and Stephen Eric Bronner among others, this one promised to be a series of reflections on the Occupy movement from the vantage point of critical theory loosely inspired by the Frankfurt School.  (As I did not attend this panel I cannot report on its proceedings.)

In  contrast to Left Forum’s of previous years, the older generation of academics and radicals that have been a staple of the this conference were outnumbered by a new generation of young people who came to the conference looking for  ideas  to take back with them and inform their struggles. One should not conclude however that the large contingent  of college age participants were simply looking for practical tips in how to organize their individual struggles.  While the anti-intellectualism that is a common staple of radical politics in the U.S. was certainly evident in many panels and a number of contributions, there was also a healthy curiosity on the part of the newer participants who were eager to inform their practice with something more than practical suggestions. At least some of them exhibited what can only be described as a genuine hunger for theory.  And while it would be difficult to obtain a systematic theoretical outlook from anything happening at the Left Forum given its eclectic mixture of viewpoints and theorists, there is no question that the desire was there. Some of the most weighty philosophical and theoretical panels were filled to capacity with younger participants.

The more  overtly political panels were heavily weighted toward a social democratic, left reformist outlook.  This was doubtless no accident as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are the chief organizers of the Left Forum.  Which is not to say that other  points of view were absent.  Aside from the DSA, a number of other political groups participated, including the Stalinist Communist Party U.S.A., the Maoist cult known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, the International Socialist Organization, and the Green Party.

Some political groups chose not to participate officially in the conference or even have an official literature table, but set up informal tables outside the conference or gave out flyers promoting their events.  It is hard to understand why any political group on the left that was serious about winning over the new generation of young people who have been inspired by the Occupy movement would pass up the opportunity to present their views to such a large audience or even pay the modest fee to have a literature table. One of the groups that abstained from the conference was the Socialist Equality Party.  They did however manage to send two supporters one afternoon to distribute leaflets promoting a polemic written by their long-time leader, David North. The polemic is a response to the falsifications of a recent biography of Trotsky by Robert Service.  And indeed Service’s biography does contain a number of crude falsifications.   But other than this extremely modest “intervention”, the SEP was nowhere to be seen at this year’s Left Forum.[2] (Curiously enough in one panel I attended I heard the Marxist scholar Kevin Anderson make some disparaging remarks about this flyer. Anderson objected to the attack on Service and felt that any biography of Trotsky, no matter what its perspective, should be welcome because it encourages public discussion about Trotsky and his legacy.  I replied by saying that having different interpretations of Trotsky is one thing but outright falsification of his life is quite another and the latter should always be exposed.  The falsification of history, far from advancing an open dialogue, only serves to poison the atmosphere.)  

In addition to those panels officially sponsored by political groups, there were a number of non-affiliated panels exploring different political perspectives.  There were more than a few panels from an identity politics perspective: most notably radical feminism and Black Nationalism. Also present were a number of issue oriented panels championed by environmentalists, social justice activists, civil libertarians, political prisoner advocates, housing and health care advocates, union organizers, radical educators, etc.  Added to this lineup were a number of panels of an anarchist leaning, not surprising given the prominence of anarchist ideas among Occupy Wall Street activists.  Finally there were several panels from a broadly conceived Marxist tradition, a few of them quite good.  I will comment about those panels shortly.

Solidly within the left reformist perspective was one panel I attended titled  “The Left in Crisis Today”, featuring Leo Panitch, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Rick Wolff among others.  This panel tried to address the question of what the traditional “left” can say to the new generation  coming into struggle against capitalism whether it is in Tahrir Square in Egypt or Zuccotti Park in New York.  This is clearly a topic worthy of considerable discussion.  However anyone looking for answers to this question would not find it here.  Of all the speakers, Leo Panitch,  whom I would describe as a left social democrat, gave the most radical response.  He said that capitalism is the problem and the left should not be invested in looking for nostrums to patch up capitalism but instead should focus on moving beyond it to socialism.  So far so good.   However, he could not connect this thought to anything specific.  Nor did he provide an adequate historical context in explaining why the left has continuously gotten trapped in the pursuit of band aid solution over and over and lost sight of the goal of socialism. He did correctly bring out the role of Stalinism in discrediting the idea of socialism in the minds of millions.   His talk included a fully justified critique of the notion, popularized by John Holloway and now prominent among Occupy Wall Street activists, that you can change the world without taking power. [3] Panitch also insisted that if movements like Occupy are to have any lasting effect then they must congeal into a coherent political institution. But that is as far as he got. While sounding very left and even claiming to support the cause of socialist revolution, Panitch never explained exactly what kind of political structure is required to bring us from where we are now to the socialist future of mankind.  The need for a revolutionary party guided by Marxist theory never came up in his talk.  The very subject seems to be anathema at the Left Forum (with the exception of the political groups who showed up and proclaimed that they and they alone are the revolutionary party.) One would think that given the unbroken string of failures of revolution after revolution, most recently witnessed in the hijacking of the Egyptian revolution by conservative Islamist forces,  that it might be time to revisit the question posed by Lenin in his ‘What is to be Done?’  But the antipathy to the heritage of Marxism and Bolshevism continues to dominate discussion in this forum. One suspects that had Panitch raised this question - a highly unlikely prospect - it might have embarrassed some of his friends in the academic and left political circles in Canada where he is based.  

Another speaker at this panel was the Marxist economist Rick Wolff.  Professor Wolff has recently broken out of the academic scene and become something of a celebrity, launching his own nationally syndicated radio program and lecturing to the Occupy Wall Street activists in Zuccotti Park  on the topic of Marxist economics. However Wolff’s interpretation of Marxist economics seems to have more in common with John Maynard Keynes than with Karl  Marx.  [4] In his talk at the Left Forum, following on the same theme he discussed in his teach-in at Zuccotti Park in November, Wolff emphasized the need for workers “self-management” of the factories.  Now there is nothing wrong with raising the slogan of workers’ self-management of factories as part of a series of demands aimed at the social ownership of the means of production.  But Wolff specifically counterpoises the demand for worker management of factories to the demand for worker ownership.  Wolff in fact derides the idea that workers should own their factories as just another reproduction of the same capitalist social relations that we already have.  And if ownership is conceived within the framework of capitalist social relations then there is some truth to this. In that case “ownership” merely signifies that workers assume responsibility for running a capitalist enterprise and take up all the obligations involved in ensuring that it turns a profit. If the enterprise is deeply in debt to begin with - and it is only under those circumstances that we have seen the transfer of ownership of an enterprise to their workers sanctioned by the state - then all that has happened is that the workers have inherited the debts of their former bosses and will be forced to institute the same ruthless exploitation of the work force in order to pay off those debts. [5] The fact that the workers have become their own exploiters does not change the essential social relations of capitalism.  However, raising the issue of social ownership of the means of production as part of the struggle for socialism is entirely different than workers assuming ownership of a capitalist enterprise.     By failing to make this distinction Wolff’s championing of workers self-management turns out to be a chimera and leads him right back to a blind alley similar to the illusion of “workers ownership” of  capitalist enterprises that he derides. In this context workers “self-management” becomes little more than a plea for workers getting a better deal within the framework of capitalist social relations, despite his protestations that the problem is indeed the existence of capitalism. 

Of the more theoretically oriented panels that I attended, the most notable were two panels exploring Marxist economic theory, “David Harvey and Capitalist Accumulation”, which presented several critiques of the well known Marxist economist David Harvey, and “Roundtable on Andrew Kliman’s  ‘The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession’”, which focused on reactions to the important new book by Andrew Kliman.    Both the videos of the panels and the texts of the papers presented are now available. [6]  Readers can judge for themselves the intellectual seriousness of these panels.  Suffice it to say that both the critique of Harvey as well as Kliman’s book, “The Failure of Capitalist Production”, are milestones in the restoration of a genuine Marxist understanding of the crisis of capitalism,  one that has to be rescued from decades of distortions by Stalinists, underconsumptionists, and all manner of academic “creative” interpretations. 

I was impressed by Cooney’s analytical deconstruction of Harvey’s theories.  Kliman’s talk focused not so much on the details of Harvey’s analysis but on the trend in academic Marxist economic theory that Harvey represents – what he calls “That 70’s Show” -  and more importantly the conditions that gave rise to those destructive trends.  Kliman convincingly argues that if Marxism is indeed a science then the development of Marxist theory must be taken out of the halls of academia.  As long as the advancement of Marxist theory is tied to the institutions of academia, it is no longer an autonomous scientific practice in the Kuhnian sense of the term, but is prone to the distortions of careerism and self promotion.    We can certainly concur with Kliman’s indictment of academia as institutionally ill-suited for the development of Marxism as a scientific theory. What Kliman proposes as an alternative is however somewhat problematic.  He presents a plea for something akin to a “Republic of Letters” for Marxist theorists where disinterested and unbiased scholarship is encouraged and the validity of any theory must be ultimately justified by its ability to explain the phenomena.  He writes,

“Marxian scholarship needs to greatly reduce its dependence upon the resources of academia. Intellectual autonomous zones need to be created.”

It’s a sentiment with which I can sympathize.  But where are these “autonomous zones” supposed to be? In prior generations the advancement of Marxist theory was tied to the development of Marxism as a living force in the political struggles of the working class.  In those days the Marxist movement itself provided the institutional framework for the development of Marxist theory. There was a certain space created for “autonomous zones” for scholars and intellectuals within the context of a very partisan struggle. But that institutional structure disappeared decades ago, or to be more precise turned into its opposite. Far from being a laboratory for the development of Marxist  theory the parties claiming the mantle of Marxism became a source of anti-Marxism. The degeneration of those movements, whether it was the transformation of Social Democracy into a pillar of the capitalist state, or the liquidation of Bolshevism by the Stalinist bureaucracy, resulted in the destruction of any “autonomous zones” and the transformation of party intellectuals into apologists for a  reactionary bureaucracy.  In the case of Stalinism we also witnessed the physical liquidation of an entire generation of Marxist intellectuals. Furthermore, the betrayals of Social Democracy and Stalinism in the past century created a rupture between Marxism and the working class.   The isolation of the Marxist movement from political life provided the impetus for the rise of academic Marxism in the first place.  But the modern university is a bourgeois institution and, especially in the 21st century when the demands of big business override purely “educational” concerns, it is inherently hostile to Marxism.  Yet  the overcoming of this sad legacy of academic Marxism cannot proceed in a vacuum.  Hoping for the creation of “autonomous zones” without  a firm foundation smacks of wishful thinking.   It is possible to work under adverse circumstances and individuals can still make notable contributions today - even within the groves of academia - but a generalized renewal of Marxist theory is an institutional problem.  It is not conceivable outside of a renewal of Marxism as a vital political force in the working class. 

And for all of the contributions at the Left Forum, some quite stimulating, the development of Marxism as a viable revolutionary movement is the one question that is not even raised let alone answered. 

Alex Steiner

[1] A video of Michael Moore’s talk is available online at .
[2]  For an account of the SEP’s “intervention” at the permanent-revolution panel at last year’s Left Forum see the essay, “Insults and Intimidation: An SEP ‘intervention’ at the Left Forum”,  
[3] John Holloway wrote an influential book a number of years ago with the very title: “Change the World Without Taking Power”.  His talk at the Left Forum is available online at
[4] A good deconstruction of what Wolff calls going “beyond capitalism” can be found here:

[5]  The best known example of this phenomenon is the fábricas recuperadas movement in Argentina, where the bankrupt owners of a number of enterprises literally walked away from their property – and their debts – allowing the workers to take them over and run them as worker-owned cooperatives.  
[6] The videos and texts are available on the web site of the sponsoring organization, The Marxist Humanist Initiative,