Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Saturday sessions

Filed under: Academia,China,financial crisis,india,socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

For those who are not familiar with the Left Forum, this is a yearly gathering in NYC that began as the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1982. In 2005 there was a split between the more rightwing social democrats on the steering committee, such as Bogdan Denitch, and those more inclined to agree with the perspective of Monthly Review, Socialist Register, etc. The leftists launched Left Forum and the rightists pretty much faded from the scene.

I regard the Left Forum as an important event for the left and have seen it become more and more relevant to the class struggle. While it is nominally an academic conference (the original orientation to “socialist scholars” set the agenda pretty much on a permanent basis), it is not as rarefied as the Rethinking Marxism conferences in Massachusetts.

So here goes.

10am-11:50am: Developmental Terrorism in India Today

This is the second year in row that I have attended panel discussions organized by Sanhati, a network of scholars and activists focused on the struggles of the poor and the peasantry in West Bengal. As Marxmail subscribers know, we receive fairly regular communications from Sanhati whose website http://sanhati.com/ is must reading for those with an interest in Indian politics.

The first speaker was Sirisha Naidu, an economics professor at Wright State University in Ohio, who spoke about the conflict between indigenous forest dwellers, who rely on collective use of the “commons”, and private industry bent on exploiting the forest for commodity production. Years of struggle by the forest dwellers finally resulted in the Forest Rights legislation of 2006 that protected their rights within the usual pro-business loopholes you’d expect in any bourgeois laws. Despite the loopholes, the legislation has been a real aid to advancing the mass movement. You can read her paper The Individual Versus the Common in the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 on the Sanhati website.

Next was Svati Shah, who teaches Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the U. of Mass., where a number of Sanhati activists are based. She spoke about the economic forces driving rural people to Bombay (she used this word rather than Mumbai—why I am not sure), forced to migrate because of landlessness and meager resources—especially water that is being squandered by sugar plantations. Water shortages are also a big problem in the city where a new suburban neighborhood only gets water one out of five days from public sources. This has led to the sale of water as a commodity, a form of exploitation that will surely increase under the impact of climate change.

The final speaker was Siddhartha Mitra, a web developer in NYC who spoke about the Naxalite insurgency in the state of Chhattisgarh, an area where mining companies have clashed with indigenous populations. As is the case with all areas in which the Maoist guerrillas have gained a foothold, the objective conditions are rotten-ripe for revolution. Mitra stated that in the rural areas, largely unreachable through roads or any other modern forms of transportation, 1 out of 2 households lack water and 10 out 16 villages have no hospitals. Once the insurgency broke out, the local bourgeoisie launched something called “Salwa Judum” (purification hunt) that involved the distribution of guns and cash to the local population to be used against the Naxalites. You can read an account of his visit to Chhattisgarh at the Sanhati website: http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1921/

During the q&a, I asked whether Indian Marxists have theorized about the problematic of indigenous or tribal peoples in India living in precapitalist social conditions as an obstacle to the development of a proletariat. As someone who has studied this problematic in Latin America, where “stagist” conceptions have pitted revolutionaries such as the FSLN against their own indigenous populations like the Miskitos, I wondered if the Communist Party—a promoter of “modernization” in Bengal—had cast their role in such terms. My question did not seem to register with the panelists but I might follow-up on this on my own.

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.

3pm-4:50pm: The ‘PIIGS’, Baltics, and Hungary: Economic Crisis on the EU’s Internal Periphery

This was a look at the failed economies of the European periphery.

Jeff Sommers, who teaches at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia, gave an excellent talk on the origins of the worst economic crisis in Europe today—perhaps greater than Iceland’s. Since I recorded his talk and plan to upload it to Youtube, I won’t say anything about it now except to recommend it highly. Jeff, as it turns out, is somebody I used to have email exchanges with long ago when he was on PEN-L. He has also collaborated a bit with two of my favorite people on Marxmail, the late and lamented Mark Jones and Jim Blaut. I will announce Jeff’s talk just as soon as I have worked out the kinks with IMovie and Youtube.

Mark Weisbrot, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an ubiquitous figure on the leftwing of the Internet, spoke about the financial policies of Wall Street banks that led to the disaster in the countries under discussion. I suspect that Mark’s talk was drawn from a paper on the CEPR website titled Latvia’s Recession: The Cost of Adjustment With An “Internal Devaluation”. Based on what I heard from Mark, this paper should be required reading for radicals.

Mark was followed by Salvatore DiMauro, a Geography professor at SUNY New Paltz who spoke about the situation in Hungary, an area that he specializes in. Apparently, the shock therapy that was administered there in the early stages of the crisis is intended to be a model for the other basket cases in Europe.

5pm-6:50pm: Debunking the Myth of the “China Model”: Is a Radical Alternative Possible?

This started off with a talk by Ben Mah, a Chinese private investor based in Canada in his 60s or 70s (shades of Henry Liu) who has no use for capitalism in China! However, the fire was mostly directed at Western banks rather than the Chinese elite, a tendency that I also associate with Henry Liu.

He was followed by two young academics studying/teaching in the USA: Tong Xiaoxi and Xu Zhun. They are part of an increasing participation by Marxist academics from China at the Left Forum, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, I have found nearly all of their contributions to be a bit academic—a function perhaps of the tight leash that the government keeps on the intelligentsia. It is one thing to invoke a Marxist analysis; it is another to tie that analysis to a program of political action. Tong Xiaoxi spoke about the forms of political protest in China, using conventional sociological discourse that at least had the merit of viewing protests as a good thing. Xu Zhun gave a disarmingly modest talk on the impact of changing agrarian relations in China which has had two stages. First, there was the conversion of collective farms into individual households which had the merit from the ruling party’s standpoint of undermining class solidarity. This was an advance over the old system, but insufficient for the needs of a “modernizing” economy. The next phase, currently in progress, involves converting the land for use by large commercial farms. In other words, China is undergoing the changes that took place in Britain or the USA but telescoped in time.

The last speaker was Michael Hudson, who is a lively speaker and interesting personality. He began by defining neoliberalism basically as a form of exploitation in which Western banks impose a dollar regime on a weaker country, strip its industrial assets and dictate terms favorable to imperialism. Supposedly, according to Hudson, China has rejected neoliberalism and is some kind of success story. To give you an idea of where he is coming from, Hudson referred to a book he wrote some years ago that has been translated into Chinese and is being discussed by the country’s nationalistic-minded economists, to his great pleasure. I can’t recall the title but it makes the case that protectionist policies guaranteed the success of American corporations. Somehow, this had little to do with “radical alternatives” to the China model and I made that point during the q&a. I asked Hudson what differentiated him from Paul Craig Roberts who makes similar points on Counterpunch. I also asked him what good China’s “success” did while it was at the expense of other East Asian economies that—according to Marty Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett—were the losers in the competitive export marketplace. He had no answer.

Tomorrow I report on the Sunday sessions.


  1. I was one of the videographers at the Left Forum. I had a camcorder & tripod stand and filmed whichever panels I wanted (that wasn’t too crowded by the time I got there & I couldn’t get to an outlet). I was at that Venezuela panel and filmed it.
    (I usually go to & film the panels on the crisis of Capitalism. I love those talks since they usually go into Marxism and a structural analysis of Capitalism.
    Some of the panels are like that, which is what I like better, while the plenaries are pretty much mainstream Liberal/Left, saying that we have to support/defend Obama or the Right will attack him.
    I’ll let you know when the video of the Left Forum goes online and the website.

    Comment by Carol — March 22, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  2. yeah man, you must have been on another Left Forum than I was… at least what you say about the Venezuela panel is total bullshit. Azzelini said the normative orientation of the process is not referring to state socialism but to council based models. He never said the words you put in his mouth… and he even said that it is a contradictory process because it’s still a capitalist environment.

    Comment by Anthony Lefter — March 22, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  3. Azzelini said the normative orientation of the process is not referring to state socialism but to council based models.

    Er, that’s the sort of thing that I have trouble with: “normative orientation”. Sorry…

    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  4. http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=318738120436

    Towards A New World: Via Maoist Insurgency?Share
    Monday, 26 October 2009 at 13:02

    [The following is a short note to evoke informed discussions.]

    First thing first.
    Nowhere in the world, till today, armed revolution has succeeded in any “functioning democracy”. Whatever the inadequacies or grave problems with such orders.
    That’s very important.
    The only apparent exception that one could point at is the first “Socialist Revolution” in Russia, back in 1917.
    In February, Tsar was deposed and “democracy” established. In the following October (November), the Revolution took place overrunning the “democratic” order.
    But then, one could very well argue, the October Revolution was in its essence a sort of briefly interrupted continuation of the closely preceding February Revolution. Under the conditions of tremendous flux – the WWI and at the end the failed Kornilov Revolt, a counterrevolutionary armed venture.
    In any case, if at all, that’s the only, repeat only, exception.

    Armed revolutions have, however, been more of a rule than exception in colonised countries, countries under autocratic/dictatorial/monarchic/apartheid rules.
    (That’s precisely why Indian Freedom Struggle occupies a special place in modern human history.)

    But even there, the legitimisation of “violence” and brutalities as the method for conflict resolution and putting an end to an unjust, and quite grossly at that, order did leave its stamp on the new order to emerge, pretty often.
    Kampuchea is a much talked of rather recent illustration.

    As regards the fate of Maoist insurgencies worldwide in the recent decades, we had three major hubs, other than India: Peru, Nepal, Philippines.

    In Peru, the Shining Path, known for its brutalities, with its supreme leader Guzman captured in 1992 and stood wiped out by 2000.
    In Philippines, the insurgencies have very significantly declined.

    In Nepal, after some initial spectacular success, Maoist insurgency faced a sort of stalemate. At the same time, there was (unarmed) mass upsurge – Jan Andolan II – in the valley, from where the Maoists had withdrawn quite some time back, against the monarchical rule. King Gyanendra had to abdicate under the massive impact of civil disobedience on April 24 2006. The Maoists initially rejected it and publicly derided the Seven Party Alliance and the civil society organisations for accepting that (ref.: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4942378.stm). In three days’ time, however, they reversed the stand (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4949066.stm). Declared a unilateral truce and then forswore insurgency to enter into an understanding with the Seven Party Alliance and join the “democratic” mainstream.
    For that the Indian Maoists have sharply derided them. So much so that the Gen. Secy. of the CPI(Maoists), Ganapathy, has in a very recent interview has issued a call to the Nepali Maoists to revolt against their party leadership. Nothing less.
    It is heartening to hear that a section of the leadership of the UCPN(M) has begun to struggle against the revisionist positions taken by Comrade Prachanda and others. Given the great revolutionary traditions of the UCPN(M), we hope that the inner-party struggle will repudiate the right opportunist line pursued by its leadership, give up revisionist stands and practices, and apply minds creatively to the concrete conditions of Nepal.
    (See: http://marxistleninist.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/revolution-in-india-interview-with-cpi-maoist-leader-ganapathi/.)

    In India, the Maoist insurgencies are restricted to the most backward regions: inhabited mostly by appallingly poor adivasis, typically in mountainous and/or forested terrains.
    In the eastern and central regions.
    These insurgencies, thereby, have strong ethnic dimensions.
    Nothing in the metros, cities and towns. Not even in most of the villages.

    In the recent years, particularly in Latin America, militant, but essentially unarmed, mass mobilisations have brought about significant shifts in regimes and their policies in a number of countries without actually breaching the limits of “democracy”.
    The processes are of course on. Not without ups and downs. Far from any definitive closure.

    Even in India, myriad struggles are on, on myriad issues. Ranging from gender to caste, from land rights to ecology.
    Struggles against the anti-people SEZ, fired up by the spectacular success of the militant – but essentially unarmed – struggle of Nandigram have made a very significant impact on state policies.
    A comparison between Nandigram and Lalgarh could be highly instructive.
    If Nandigram caused the SEZ juggernaut to significantly slow down its pace; Lalgrah has gone to radically raise the pitch of clamour for the Operation Green Hunt.

    As regards the path/goal, we’ll also have to look into three parameters:
    Feasibility of the path.
    Desirability of the goal.
    (Possible) Alternatives as regards path and goal..

    Feasibility: No precedence of success, in “democracies”.

    Desirability: Monstrous orders came up in the name of “Socialism”. Killing millions and sending innumerable people to the Gulags. The short-lived Kampuchea is just the most remembered illustration.
    During the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), in China, an estimated 30 million people perished – extra deaths – unrecoginised and unmourned.
    No one as much squeaked.
    Years after, foreign demographers would decipher that.
    Apologists are busy contesting the precise figure.
    Forget about the deaths – however enormous the scale.
    Just think of no one in China squeaked!
    What a monstrous order!

    Alternatives: We are to hunt for based on our experiences.
    The term, “Socialism for the Twenty-First Century”, which at least implicitly acknowledges the huge problems with the twentieth century version, as it actually obtained, deserves wide and serious attention.
    It is no exclusive preserve of Michael Lebowitz or whoever.
    Nor it should remain restricted to Latin America.
    And various concerns – ecology, gender, race/caste, culture, nuclear holocaust etc. have to be integrated with the goal and also the path ahead. The looming ecological doom demands utmost attention.
    And, of course, the central dream as captured in the Communist Manifesto, in socialism “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’, has got to be the guiding principle.
    No readymade, off-the-shelf available, model is out there to be emulated. Have to be worked out as we struggle ahead.

    Comment by Sukla Sen — March 23, 2010 @ 2:37 am

  5. What is a “normative orientation”?

    Comment by Castellio — March 23, 2010 @ 3:36 am

  6. Living standards are improving throughout Asia right now, even with all the extreme poverty that still exists. It’s just hard to feel that in the US where living standards are not improving on a generational basis.

    Comment by purple — March 23, 2010 @ 8:48 am

  7. Q: What is a “normative orientation”?

    A: It’s an academic’s way of saying: “Their Morals & Ours” or in this case the morality behind deciding “who gets what” in a particular regime.

    In other words, to use it in a proper sentence: I find it very difficult to distinguish between the “normative orentation” of the Obama administration and that of the previous Bush administration.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 23, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

  8. A “normative orientation” means what is the orientation in the general dicussion, the values shared etc. and it has nothing to do with “academic” but it’s a term to distinguish between the political / social orientation in the discussion and the result in real life – which always differs from what is said by govenrment/party/society. I guess if you have problems with it it’s because you don’t understand social processes… because it’s absolutely necessary to distinguish and to find out how and why things don’t always happen how you want them to.

    Comment by Josh — March 23, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  9. Very informative piece.

    “…..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………….I don’t think that the panelists were happy with my intervention”

    They had every right not to be happy with your intervention. If you cannot see that Chavez goes beyond radical nationalist then it looks like Steve Ellner wasn’t being defensive, he was just pointing out an observable fact.

    Comment by James — March 23, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  10. […] to. These are the Indian poor who are being displaced by mining companies that Sanhati activist Siddhartha Mitra reported on at last week’s Left Forum.  Zizek […]

    Pingback by Zizek embarrassments « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 24, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  11. “Chavez goes beyond radical nationalist”

    Prove it.

    Comment by Brice — March 26, 2010 @ 5:53 am

  12. @ Brice

    hahaha, can’t be more stupid than you. If you don’t know anything about Venezuela don’t ask silly questions. Prove that he is not anything more than a radical nationalist…

    That’s funny how some wannabe revolutionaries act like a religous sect, haha, that’s why you never get organized anything, any struggle, any serius organization, any relevant theory, just a webpage and stupid “I know it all” commentaries… while the people and movements you attack don’t spend time with your shitty games and get things done. But you know: Revolution will come, not because of you but despite… haha

    Comment by Igor — March 29, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

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    Comment by SnagEngemyzen — June 20, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  14. […] I should add that a panel discussion took place last year along the same lines, as I reported: […]

    Pingback by Left Forum 2011 — part two « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 28, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

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