Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 19, 2013

Left Forum 2013

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

To preface my report, I should mention something that I probably never have mentioned before. As a rule of thumb, I go to workshops that hold out the promise that I will find out something new. By the same token, I avoid plenaries since they tend to be opportunities for celebrities on the left to address the Big Questions of the day in a vaporous manner.

The only other point worth making is that the weekend was graced by the opportunity to have lunch with a couple of Marxmailers I have known for some time now, “Red Arnie”, a veteran of the Asian student movement of the 60s and 70s, and Robbie Kwan Laurel, who came over from the Philippines to the Left Forum for the second time since 2009 and who presented me with a gift copy of his new book “Philippine Cultural Disasters” that has a chapter on “Academic Entrepreneurship and Scholarship in the Age of Hyper Capitalism”. Not having read it yet, I confess to a sneaking suspicion that Leon Botstein and John Sexton come under scrutiny based on the title. Here’s a nice profile on Robby timed to the publication of an earlier book, a collection of short stories.

1. Class Struggle in Contemporary Quebec

This was the perfect example of what I am looking for in a Left Forum panel discussion. I think that most people on the left are like me. You followed the student struggle over tuition hikes when it was happening and sort of lost track after it came to an end. The discussion was not so much centered on the outcome, which was to be taken up in a separate panel and appeared to be something of a compromise, but on the social and economic background that was most illuminating. Since two of the panelists were student activists, the discussion was really quite detailed and interesting.

There were two things I learned. To start with, a Quiet Revolution in Quebec took place in the 1960s that led to the province becoming a secular welfare state with the least amount of social inequality in the Western Hemisphere.

In keeping with the austerity drive taking place everywhere, the Liberals tried to impose higher fees by demagogically appealing to tax payers about the “privileged” students gaming the system. The alternative to the Liberals is the Parti Quebecois that despite its leftish coloration proposes a more “intelligent” approach to managing austerity, reminding me of the Social Democrats in Greece.

The session was chaired by Matthieu Dufour who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which like the U. of Utah economics department is an unlikely hotbed of leftism.

2. Unpacking the University-National Security State-Corporate Complex

With my keen interest as indicated above in Academic Entrepreneurship as displayed, for example, by Bard College hosting a week-long conference on the mystical droolings of a self-published jeweler to the big bourgeoisie, I was anxious to hear what Marxmailer Alan Ruff and FB friend and fellow CP contributor Steve Horn had to say about Khazakstan, a nation I have more than routine interest in since a young woman I had a lot of contact with when she was working on PhD at Columbia University Teacher’s College on Education Reform in Khazakstan turned out to be a neoliberal opportunist with a distinct aroma of the CIA about her.

Alan and Steve are looking into how major American educational institutions with a liberal veneer like U. of Wisconsin, where they have close ties, are like buzzards feasting on the carcass of Khazakstan—a country that is developing a GINI coefficiency rating that threatens to break past the 100 percent ceiling.

Joining the two intrepid investigators was the inimitable Liza Featherstone who spoke about the ties between “leftist” academics and the war machine through their research on “focus groups” intended to gauge what is effective propaganda—in other words movies and radio shows that were intended to get young Americans to go kill axis soldiers. Brilliant stuff.

3. The Future of World Capitalism

This involved a bit of false advertising but not egregiously so. I went to this panel chaired by Alan Freeman to find out when the Big One was going to hit according to the FROP crystal ball. But it turned out instead to be talks from the authors of a series of Pluto Books that Alan and Radhika Desai are editing. I was more than mollified to meet Henry Heller for the first time. He spoke about his book on “The Birth of Capitalism” that I couldn’t recommend highly enough as the definitive answer to the Brenner thesis.

And just as enticing is another book in the series titled “To Live and Die in America: Class, Power, Health and Healthcare” that was reported on by Robert Chernomas, a co-author. Chernomas makes the claim that most modern diseases that cut life short, from cancer to high blood pressure, are a function the capitalist mode of production. Two hundred years ago cancer was an uncommon illness.

For her part, Radhika Desai spoke about “Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire”, a book that challenges the idea that the US ever was a true hegemon in the same way that Great Britain was. It sounds like a good companion piece to the new Gindin-Panitch book.

4. Prospects for the Syrian Revolution

I blogged about this stellar session here: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/10/prospects-for-the-syrian-revolution/

5. Political Ecologies of Developmental Terrorism: Neo-liberalism and People’s Resistance in India

This was a presentation by members of the Sanhati collective, a group of mostly Indian academics and activists in India and the USA committed to the cause of India’s most oppressed, including the indigenous forest dwellers that provide the basis of the Maoist movement. While the comrades are not Maoists themselves, as far as I can tell, they know which side of the barricade they are on. These are not only some of the sharpest people politically I have run into in recent years but also some of the most fearless. One speaker, Partho Saratha Ray, had some interesting comments in reply to a question I posed about a possible disjunction between the forest-dwelling adivasis (tribal people) and the city dwellers appeared dedicated mostly to a consumerist life-style, alluding to problems that I had read about in the Mexican revolution of 1910 when a similar city-rural divide existed. Partho talked about his own experience in the struggle, one in which the conditions of life in the city were just as miserable. Here is a BBC report on this remarkable comrade’s dedication to the cause:

18 April 2012 Last updated at 05:55 ET

Indian Professor Partho Sarathi Ray freed from jail

A molecular biologist who was arrested in India’s West Bengal state for allegedly participating in a protest, has been freed after 10 days in jail.

Partho Sarathi Ray was arrested on 8 April for protesting against a slum eviction drive in Calcutta.

He says he was not even in the city on 4 April, the day of the protest.

More than 50 activists and academics from India and abroad wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to intervene.

A well-known scientist, Prof Ray’s work has been published in respectable journals around the world.

Police charged him with assaulting policemen during the protest, but he denies the charge.

His lawyers say he was at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Nadia district to attend a faculty meeting on the day. They say he stayed there for the night and did not leave until the next day.

‘Clear message’

His arrest was condemned by scientists and academics who wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to intervene to secure Prof Ray’s release.

“There seems to be a clear message to others not to raise voices of dissent,” said the letter, signed by activists and academics including Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Noam Chomsky, Mrigangka Sur, Abha Sur and others.

7. Hollywood and the CIA

Got a chance to exchange ideas with a couple of leftie film buffs. Dumped all over Katherine Bigelow and Ben Affleck. Yeah!

March 19, 2012

Left Forum 2012

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

The Left Forum is always a mixed bag but even if some panel discussions turn out to be duds, there is always enough there to warrant the time and money spent. Apparently about 4000 other lefties agree with me, at least based on Stanley Aronowitz’s announcement of registration figures at Friday night’s plenary. What follows are my impressions of various workshops I attended with no pretense of objectivity. In fact they will be highly opinionated so please be forewarned.

After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One?

To start with the best, After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One? was just what I hoped it would be: a debunking of the FDR presidency in the spirit of chapter 13 of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ironically, the participants were all from the economics department of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a city college nominally geared to training cops. I am not sure how this came about, but the school apparently has a fair share of leftists. Michael Meerpol, who recently retired from the economics department, had been the chair of a lecture series on social justice with my good friend Paul Buhle a recent guest. Perhaps there’s a certain cachet in having socialists on a faculty of a school with an ostensible reputation for being politically backward. The Mormon-oriented University of Utah also has an economics department with a bunch of Marxists, including the good Hans Ehrbar who hosts the Marxism list.

The first speaker was Ian Seda-Irizarry, a graduate of the U. of Massachusetts, another haven for left scholarship. Ian is a Marxmail subscriber whose dissertation on the Latin music industry in New York sounds like just the thing that can be turned into a good book, unlike the usual sterile credentials-earning exercise.

The talks, delivered from notes, were a model of concision and clarity, qualities missing from many others I heard over the weekend. My suggestion to any of my readers who plan to be a featured speaker at future Left Forums is to not read papers and if you do so, please try to make eye contact with your audience and to pause between sentences occasionally as if you were speaking one-on-one otherwise you will put people to sleep.

The last speaker, who is in the audience, was Josh Mason, an URPE member who teaches at William Patterson University and who speaks in favor of a new New Deal. Again, that’s another good idea. When you stack a panel with speakers who agree with each other, it is counterproductive. Marxism is based to a large extent on dialectics, a Greek word for dialog involving opposing different viewpoints.

One of the points that had the biggest impact on me during the workshop was made by Eric Pineault, the chairperson who teaches sociology in Montreal. In drawing a contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of today, Pineault referred to the different forms that the attack on the working class took. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment but today working people are being crushed by debt much more than by joblessness. He used the term debt peonage to describe the problems faced by millions as they confront home foreclosure and collection agencies trying to get a worker to pay for a huge Visa or Mastercard bill.

In the 1930s, layoffs in a place like Detroit or Chicago would affect workers as a social layer. Since this was at a time when workers tended to live near the factory and even walk to work in many instances and when they hung out at the same saloons or parks, they tended to think in terms of joint action.

But today someone in debt will tend to see themselves as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Since going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, they will also tend to blame themselves rather than larger social and economic forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I was speaking to a very old friend about my age who hasn’t worked in a couple of years. Not only is the job market poor, he has developed Parkinson’s, an ailment that will make getting hired as a salesman even harder. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are (and my friend was great at this) if your hands are trembling. That is the reality of a fucked-up system that places so much emphasis on appearances.

To keep a roof over his head and to pay for other basics, he has gone into debt—owing over $40,000 on various credit cards. He now pays $300 per month, the minimum required. At this rate he will be paying until he dies and have not made a sizable dent into a debt that mounts steadily as he continues to dip into Visa or Mastercard to pay for food or other necessities. This is the same treadmill that millions of other Americans are on, with no end in sight. We might be living under advanced capitalism, but the social relationship is not that different than the one described in B. Traven’s novels. Fortunately, there are no debtors’ prisons today—at least for the time being.

I was reminded of this at a panel discussion on Capitalism in India: Glitter, Commodities, and Blood presented by Sanhati, a network of academics and activists committed to social justice in India, and chaired by my friend and fellow Marxmailer Taki Manolakos.

Deepankar Basu, another good Marxist economist ensconced at U. of Mass., spoke on peasant suicides, a problem that Sanhati has devoted much attention to.  During the discussion period, with Eric Pineault’s comments on debt peonage fresh in my mind, I asked Deepankar if the epidemic of suicides might be related to the phenomenon noted earlier in the day. Was debt peonage in India leading to mass suicide rather than mass struggle for the same reason that debt-burdened workers in the USA were tending to seek individual solutions?

A bit of research this morning turns up some evidence that connects the two societies. From a blog post by Barbara Ehrenreich on July 28, 2008:

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock’s brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. “All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once,” Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, “describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, ‘If you don’t help me, I’ve got a gun in my car.’”

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition – like an ever-rising number of Americans – you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

For reasons I can’t quite fathom—maybe it is just psychological—I decided to check out a couple of workshops run by the ISO. Unlike the New Deal discussion described above, the comrades felt no need to include a point of view opposed to their own. Despite everything that Paul Le Blanc has written, I strongly doubt that they are open to the idea of a multi-tendency left organization since their actions suggest a preference for something far more homogenous if not quite so stifling as the American SWP of yore. The SWP of my youth would have been as open to the idea of publishing an article in the Militant that went against the party line as they would be to running ads for tobacco (even though Iskra did in Lenin’s day.)

Their workshop on Evo Morales was chaired by Jefferey Webber, the author of a book titled From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia that the ISO speakers agreed with, but in terms probably more extreme than anything Webber has ever written. One of them, a young man named Jason Farbman who compared Morales to the former dictator Hugo Banzer, felt compelled to repeat a Facebook comment on a confrontation between the Bolivian police and a protest of the disabled:

The handicapped BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE COPS. The cops only covered themselves with their shields. They didn’t do shit. The handicapped went loco, BUT REALLY LOCO. Hardcore, they were blowing up firecrackers in [the cops'] faces and [the cops'] helmets barely protected them. They threw real rocks at them…

I should add that after I forwarded a London Review blog post about this incident to Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time subscriber, offered this comment:

“Cambio dwelled on the injuries sustained by the police and blamed the violence on a group of infiltrados posing as disabled people….

“As evidence of the violent infiltration, Cambio unveiled a photograph of a man in a striped sweater standing in front of a policeman in riot gear, accompanied by the caption ‘Activist beats up policemen at disabled protest’. Below that were two more photographs, purportedly of the same man protesting against the TIPNIS road.”

The story says nothing about Cambio alleging the disabled themselves attacked the police — which would be pretty incredible to begin with.

It would have been nice if the ISO had invited someone with a different perspective, one like Frederico Fuentes whose critique of Jefferey Webber the ISO was nice enough to print in their magazine. (My guess is that Fuentes’s membership in the Socialist Alliance in Australia gave him the clout necessary to get a hearing.)

As I pointed out in the discussion period, there has been an ongoing debate about these questions and recommended that people check out Fuentes’s and Roger Annis’s responses to Webber (I mistakenly referred to Annis when I meant John Riddell, who works closely with Annis–and Richard Fidler as well.)

Despite my recommendation to the audience that they check out what Fuentes et al had to say, my own view was different from both the ISO and the other side in the debate. I never thought that Morales was going to make a socialist revolution in Bolivia but welcomed the kind of changes that he was likely to foster. Perhaps they do not measure up to the ISO’s yardstick but nothing ever would, when you stop and think about it.

The competition, as I pointed out in my comments, is between a living social reality with all its contradictions and the ideas in the cranium of Ahmed Shawki, Tom Lewis and all the other people who write for the ISO press about how socialism should work. Living reality obviously can never compete with someone’s ideals. I had an uncle like that in Kansas City. No matter how many women my mom introduced him to, they could not match his ideal which was a combination of Betty Grable’s looks and Katherine Hepburn’s wit. He died a bachelor.

There was more of the same the next day at a workshop titled State and Revolution in the 21st Century: Is Lenin Still Relevant? that included Todd Chretien, one of my favorite ISO’ers who was fairly close to Peter Camejo. Another speaker was Sam Farber, who the ISO’ers dote on for some unfathomable reason. Farber has written loads of bullshit about Cuba in the ISO press that I have tried to clean up over the years, like the guy with a dustpan following the elephants in a circus parade. This is the same Sam Farber whose new book on Cuba Jefferey Webber blurbed as follows: “Samuel Farber’s work on Cuba has long championed revolutionary democratic socialism from below.” I can only wonder if Webber has ever read Farber since the Cuban-American professor emeritus much preferred the Stalinist party in Cuba to the July 26th Movement:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

Yeah, we know how important it is to claim that you are “socialist” or “Marxist” to stay friends with the ISO, a group for whom ideals loom so large. Who cares if the PSP’s socialism was compatible with support for Batista? That’s not half as bad as being “antitheoretical”, I suppose.

Farber’s talk took the form of a lecture to the Occupy movement over its refusal to formulate demands on the state. He invoked the history of the civil rights movement to instruct the anarchists, who would not be found dead in a workshop like this, that in order to achieve genuine reforms you have to put demands on the state. He was generous to a fault to the young people who risked police attack and other hardships to occupy Zuccotti Park but felt that for the need for their full development as revolutionaries they had had to take a different path.

Radhika Desai, a political science professor at the U. of Manitoba, was far more polemical than Farber, lacing her talk with references to neo-Proudhonism and anarchism that were practically spitted out. We learned from her that there were petty-bourgeois tendencies in the Occupy movement that had to be combated. She recommended that the young people who were getting their heads busted at Zuccotti Park find the time to read Lenin’s State and Revolution, a work that was recommended in the same spirit that a navy doctor used to recommend prophylactics to sailors on shore leave.

While the ISO is not nearly as batty on these questions as the American SWP (nobody could be), you can’t escape the feeling that they approach it in the same spirit that they approach Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Somehow the articles in their magazine that defend classical Marxism against reformism or anarchism are meant to change people’s behavior.

In reality groups or individuals only modify their actions when a positive example becomes prominent and accepted by the great majority of the left. That is why Lenin’s party became the party of the Russian working class, not because its words were so convincing but because they led by example.

Unfortunately for the ISO, this new movement has emerged with zero input from them or any other “classical Marxist” groups. It has all the problems you might expect to see in such a movement, including bouts of adventurism as displayed by the black bloc or fetishism over consensus, horizontalism and all the other pet schemas of the anarchist or autonomist movements. But whatever the problems of the new movement, it has reached ordinary working people in a way that no Marxist movement has done since the 1930s. For that they deserve our respect and our collaboration, not patronizing lectures from above.

April 4, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part three

Filed under: financial crisis,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

This is the third installment of video-based blogging on the 2011 Left Forum, although it won’t be my last report. The final one will cover some panel discussions that I attended but did not videotape, or in one case forgot to turn my camcorder on (sorry, Michael.)

On Sunday afternoon Doug Henwood, David Harvey and Mark Weisbrot spoke on “Post-Financial Crisis: Neoliberalism and the Global Economic Recovery”, a high point in many ways for me. Doug and David’s talks touched on something that has been on my mind for a year or so at least and led me to offer up a comment during the discussion period (I recorded most of the discussion.)

Both addressed the failure of the Obama administration to implement anything resembling a New Deal, notwithstanding David Harvey’s hope that a new New Deal might be enacted. I should add that Harvey first raised such expectations in 2003, long before Obama’s election:

In my own view, there is only one way in which capitalism can steady itself temporarily and draw back from a series of increasingly violent inter-imperialist confrontations, and that is through the orchestration of some sort of global “new” New Deal. This would require a considerable realignment of political and economic practices within the leading capitalist powers (the abandonment of neo-liberalism and the reconstruction of some sort of redistributive Keynesianism) as well as a coalition of capitalist powers ready to act in a more redistributive mode on the world stage (a Karl Kautsky kind of ultra-imperialism). For people on the left, the question is whether we would be prepared to support such a move (much as happened in leftist support for social democracy and new deal politics in earlier times) or to go against it as “mere reformism.” I am inclined to support it (much as I support, albeit with reservations, what Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is doing in Brazil) as a temporary respite and as a breathing space within which to try to construct a more radical alternative.

Ironically, Harvey felt that it was a waste of time expecting Obama to deliver the FDR type goods a few years later, when the Nation Magazine et al were fostering exactly such illusions. Here is Harvey in 2009 stepping back from his earlier projections:

The collapse of credit for the working class spells the end of financialisation as the solution for the crisis of the market. As a consequence of this we will see a major crisis of unemployment and the collapse of many industries unless there is effective action to change that. Now this is where you get the current discussion about returning to a Keynesian economic model, and Obama’s plan is to invest in a vast public works and investment in green technologies, in a sense going back to a New Deal type of solution. I am skeptical of his ability to do this.

My comment to the panelists focused on why the ruling class did not opt for a new New Deal, leaving aside the question of whether the absence of mass pressure is sufficient to explain this. I have found Shane Mage’s reference to FDR’s very early reform measures, taken long before the sit-down strikes et al, very convincing. What could possibly explain the difference between FDR and Obama, and as a corollary the difference between the bourgeoisie that backed FDR and that of today?

As I pointed out in my comment, there is absolutely no indication that the ruling class of today is willing to act in its own long-term interests. If serious financial re-regulation is the only way to avoid a new financial meltdown, why is so hard for Wall Street to back serious reform? If “fracking” will unleash carcinogens in the water supply that will cause cancer for the rich and poor alike, why won’t the billionaires who live on Park Avenue do something to protect our waterways?

Fresh from his research on a new book about the American ruling class (that one hopes he will find the time to complete one day), Doug Henwood replied to my question by pointing out that it is not as homogenous as it once was and poorly structured to act in its own interests and in a “noblesse oblige” fashion of the FDR type gentry.

All this, of course, leads to the conclusion that socialist revolution is the only solution as we used to put it in the 1960s.

March 28, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part two

Filed under: Left Forum,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

This article contains a video of all the presentations made at “Venezuela and the Chavez Government: Advances and Shortcomings” on Sunday morning, plus my commentary.

Here’s the panel abstract:

Venezuela is going through a crucial period right now because it is emerging from a two-year recession and President Chavez and his allies have won only narrow electoral victories since the loss of a 2007 constitutional reform referendum. In addition, after 12 years in power there is a certain erosion of enthusiasm among rank and file Chavistas. Chavez is up for reelection in 2012, which will be one of his most critical contests yet. The speakers on this panel will explore what is currently going on in Venezuela, in terms of the advances and the shortcomings of the Chavez government and they will thereby try to make sense of where Venezuela has been and where it is heading.

The speakers included:

  • Steve Ellner—Universidad del Oriente, Venezuela
  • Dario Azzellini—Johannes Kepler Universität, Austria
  • Isabel Delgado—Ministry of Basic Industries and Mines, Venezuela
  • Mark Weisbrot—Center for Economic and Policy Research
  • T.M. Scruggs – University of Iowa / Independent Scholar

I found Ellner’s talk the most interesting since it claimed that Venezuela illustrated Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution to some extent. It differed, however, because Chavez believes in compromise and Trotsky didn’t. This amounted to a swipe against the trade union activists who have been interviewed in the ISO and British SWP press. In my view, they have made some important critiques from the left but are in no position to supersede Chavez. This is a function of “vanguardist” habits that prevent them from a reaching a critical mass.

I should add that a panel discussion took place last year along the same lines, as I reported:

12pm-1:50pm: Lessons from Venezuela: Achievements and Failures

This featured three very well-known commentators—Steve Ellner, Greg Wilpert and Eva Gollinger—as well as two that were new to me: Carlos Martinez, the author of “Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots”, and Dario Azzellini, the co-director of a documentary “Venezuela from Below”.

All the talks were a mixture of interesting observations about the current situation in Venezuela with what I am afraid were muddled theories about “21st century socialism” which amounts to statements that the revolution is impossible to categorize, but different from statist, 20th century models, and filled with contradictions, etc. There was a certain amount of defensiveness from Steve Ellner who stated that the revolution would never satisfy “the Trotskyists”, both inside the country and out.

Azzellini went furthest out on a limb by trying to describe Venezuela as an example of “council communism” since so many councils were being formed with the encouragement of the government. Apparently, these councils would eventually change from quantity to quality and result in a full-fledged socialist state or something like that. He said that Venezuela was very much like the Paris Commune, perhaps in a bid to assuage the “Trotskyists” in the audience who needed reassurance that the experiment in Venezuela was in conformity with the Marxist classics.

In the Q&A, feeling a bit testy from all the foggy rhetoric, I said that it might make sense to stop worrying about whether Venezuela conformed to some classical definition of socialism and perhaps be satisfied with the analysis put forward by Marxmail’s Nestor Gorojovsky, namely that Chavez was a radical nationalist not much different from Peron or a dozen other anti-imperialist heads of state. It is much better to leave it like that rather than to offer up definitions utterly lacking in theoretical rigor. I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention, even though it was offered by somebody totally in sympathy with Hugo Chavez’s presidency.

This year I had another comment that reflected my mixed feelings about “21st Century Socialism” (it had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez’s ties to Qaddafi). I stated that all socialist revolutions of the 20th century grew out of armed struggles (including the October 1917 revolution, which involved winning the army over) against despotic rule. Once the old state with its repressive apparatus was dismantled, a “workers state” would nationalize the means of production and institute large-scale planning. But the new model taking shape in Latin America has operated on a totally different basis. Leftist presidents have been elected but have carried out reforms, often quite radical, that have an anti-capitalist dynamic. The failure of these governments to complete this new type of revolution suggests that it might not be possible, especially with the collapse of the USSR that provided economic and military aid in the past.

Time will tell, I am sure.

March 26, 2011

Left Forum 2011 — part one

Filed under: Left Forum,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Over the next few days I will be blogging about the 2011 Left Forum in New York, including full and in one case nearly full video recordings of the presentations. I will be starting off with talks by Lars Lih and Paul Le Blanc today but will now include some prefatory remarks on the event.

I have been going to these things for a number of years now, starting around the time I dropped out of the SWP. They gave me a chance to learn about ideas that were never taken up in the SWP, although this in itself is not necessarily a recommendation.

If you go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left.htm, you will find reports on past events.

Left Forum 2005

Left Forum 2006

Left Forum 2008

Left Forum 2009 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2009 (Sunday)

Left Forum 2010 (Saturday)

Left Forum 2010 (Sunday)

In 2005, the Left Forum had its premier. It grew out of a split in the Socialist Scholars Conference leadership over Yugoslavia, with Bogdan Denitch deciding that conference organizer Eric Canepa was soft on Milosevic. You can read a skewed account of the split on the website of the N.Y. Sun, an arch-reactionary newspaper that went out of business some time back. Here’s a snippet:

American socialists, in Mr. Denitch’s view, can learn something from President da Silva of Brazil, who “was elected by the largest electorate in Latin America,” but not from President Castro of Cuba, who “has never faced an election.”

Perhaps because people who do not take their marching orders from Denitch now control the Left Forum, it has gone from strength to strength. While the group around Denitch were not particularly associated with post-modernist trends in the academy, you will now find very few panel discussions of the sort that smack of Modern Language Association conferences with their scrutiny of Madonna videos in the 1980s and Lady Gaga today as expressive of “transgressive” politics.

In fact, the discussions were very much like the ones that take place on Marxmail although I suspect that Left Forum organizers might not consider that a compliment. There were extremely relevant discussions of Islamophobia, the labor movement, and the Black struggle drawing upon as many activists (like our own Jon Flanders) as academics.

The other thing that struck me was the broad participation of young people. This was the first conference I attended where there were as many people under 30 as there were over 60. This was truly inspiring to me.

Lars and Paul spoke at a workshop on “Lenin’s Marxism” organized by the Platypus group. As many of you know, I regard the Platypus group as American Eustonites (http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/q-what-is-a-platypus-a-an-american-eustonite/) so it will not surprise you that I did not record Chris Cutrone’s talk on “Lenin’s Liberalism”. Despite the obvious provocative character of the title, the talk was enough to put me into a coma.

I came to the session a bit late so I missed the start of Lars’s talk, which dealt with Lenin’s debates with Bukharin. Perhaps it will show up on the net at some point. If so, I will send along a link. Mostly, Lars made the same points he has made before, namely that Lenin was trying to build a party in Russia that was modeled on Kautsky’s in Germany.

Paul’s response to Lars covered the same points he made in the Historical Materialism symposium on Lars’s book on Lenin’s “What is to be Done” and accepts the idea that Lenin started out as a Kautskyist but turned into the architect of a “party of a new type” after 1914,

As I have stated on other occasions, I find the debate between Lars, Paul and the British SWP to be unfortunately disengaged with what I regard the most important question, namely the tendency of parties built on the “Leninist” model to turn into sects and cults.

When I raised the question of “democratic centralism” during the discussion period, Lars interpreted it as falling within the rubric of Soviet-style dictatorship when my real interest was in the failure of groups like the SWP (either American or British) to ever reach the critical mass necessary to become a bureaucratic state. Frankly, I would be willing to put up with bureaucratic distortions if Alex Callicos ever figured out a way to toss the David Camerons and Tony Blairs of the world into the ashbin of history.

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