Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2017

Left Forum 2017

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last year I boycotted the annual Left Forum conference in New York, an event I have been covering since 2005. As I put it in a blog post last year, “the same sort of idiocy that has taken over the left on Syria has become so pervasive this year that I cannot justify spending $70 to attend.” When I bad-mouthed the 2017 conference this year, someone tipped me off on FB that there were a number of good panels on Syria. Indeed, there were four of them featuring my favorite people to balance those sponsored by the usual gang of “false flag” idiots. Just as encouragingly, I got word that the event would be more tightly controlled this year with an outright ban on 9/11 Truther panels. This elicited a complaint from David Lindorff on Counterpunch that I will address at the end of this report but for now let me turn to the workshops I attended that were among the most productive in my entire experience going to Left Forums.

Saturday 10am-11:50am: The Long Depression – A critique of the book by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts, blogged about the workshop here. He also advised that the event was recorded and will be available on the Left Forum Youtube channel in a couple of weeks. Roberts is a strong defender of the falling rate of profit thesis found in V. 3 of Capital that not every Marxist agrees with, especially Michael Heinrich.

After Roberts recapitulated the arguments in his new book, he was critiqued by Paul Mattick, the son of the famous Marxist economist, and Jose Tapia—both of whom agreed with the FROP theory but had problems with some of Roberts’s findings that can be recounted in his blog article and that can be heard in all their complexity on the Youtube video when it becomes available.

While I understand the need to examine Marx’s theory against the actual data, I am not sure what bearing it has on the challenges facing the left. While I have problems with the critique of “catastrophism” mounted by people like Sasha Lilley, I have to wonder why economic immiseration does not produce working class motion. Throughout the rust belt, there are millions of workers who have lost their jobs and are being forced to work for Walmarts and other low-wage companies but this has not produced the kind of openness to radical ideas that you saw in the 1930s. Roberts refers to a “long depression” but to some extent I have to wonder about the appropriateness of this term given what I know about the period from my mother’s account. This was a time of great hardship that left families on the edge of disaster.

Roberts tried to explain the difference between recession and depression by referring to two graphic symbols. In the first, you see a V that indicates a sharp drop followed by a recovery to the old economic indicators but with a depression, you see something that looks like this:

Chart can be found here

The problem is that if economic recovery only reaches 80 percent or so of the previous level, that might just be enough to placate a working class that has become accustomed to the idea of austerity. I keep thinking back to Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger and Me” where he interviews unemployed auto workers in Flint who are either raising rabbits for food or making plans to move to Texas where the jobs haven’t dried up. That’s the American working class of today, not “Grapes of Wrath”.

Saturday 12pm-1:50pm: Rural Proletarian Revolutions, Oklahoma and Mexico, 1917: Capitalism, Environmental Disaster, and Why the Land Question Remains Relevant

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that will add to my knowledge. The provision of economic, historical or social facts that I have been unaware of is a kind of litmus test. With that in mind, the relationship between rural proletarian revolutions and Oklahoma was something I found most intriguing. What was up with that?

It devolved upon long-time scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to explain the connections in a talk on the Green Corn rebellion of 1917 that was about as promising a historical event upon which to make a film as “Free State of Jones”. As it happens, I have been apprised by Roxanne by her events in NY over the years but this was the first time I was able to attend one. I first became aware of her in 1971 when Trotskyist women working in Female Liberation were giving reports to the branch about the problems they were having with Abby Rockefeller and Roxanne Dunbar, who were in Cell 16. Looking back in retrospect, I should have gotten up and defended Abby and Roxanne. The SWP had a tendency to force its agenda on social movements and this was no exception, I’m sure.

Roxanne would seem to be well-equipped to speak about the Oklahoma left given her background (from Wikipedia):

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1939 to an Oklahoma family, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in Central Oklahoma, daughter of a sharecropper and a mother that Dunbar believes to have been Native American. Dunbar’s paternal grandfather, a settler of Scots-Irish ancestry, was a landed farmer, veterinarian, a labor activist and a Socialist Party member in Oklahoma and also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Wobblies.” Her father was named after the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World—Moyer Haywood Pettibone Scarberry Dunbar. Her father’s stories of her grandfather inspired her to lifelong social justice activism.

Since the panel was sponsored by Monthly Review, it would help to refer you to an article Roxanne wrote that covered the Green Corn rebellion.

In August 1917, tenant farmers and sharecroppers in several eastern and southern Oklahoma counties took up arms to overthrow the United States government, to stop military conscription and U.S. entry into the war in Europe. Renegade Socialists, organized in their own “Working Class Union” (WCU), white, black, and Indian, they believed that millions of armed working people across the country would march with them to take Washington.

In a time of leftist disparagement of rural farmers and workers, what better time than now to study this important part of working class history? My friend Yale Strom has made a documentary about Eugene V. Debs that covers the support he received in Oklahoma and other such “boondock” locations that the SP and the IWW oriented to. Maybe it’s time for a revival of Debs socialism that has little to do with what Bernie Sanders spoke about.

Saturday 3:30pm-5:15pm: Geopolitics, the International Left, and the Syrian Revolt

This was one of four panel discussions at the Left Forum that marked a departure from the majoritarian “anti-imperialist” camp. Although I am obviously familiar with the arguments that would have presented here, I made a point of attending since it helps my morale to see other people who continue to fight the good fight. The event was sponsored by The Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution whose FB page is at https://www.facebook.com/Global-Campaign-of-Solidarity-with-the-Syrian-Revolution-147353662105485/.

Among the speakers were Ashley Smith, an ISO’er who has been writing terrific stuff on Syria, Loubna Mrie, who debated the wretched Max Blumenthal, Joseph Daher and Malak Chabkoun, who was described as an “independent researcher” and who I had not heard of before. Blumenthal, I should add, disparaged all of these anti-Assad panels and referred people on Twitter to the only pro-Assad panel that was the only one not to include a Syrian. Fancy that. My advice is to check Malak Chabkoun’s articles on al-Jazeera. She is really sharp.

Daher was as incisive as ever but I am not sure whether his call for ending the war in Syria will fall on deaf ears. It is true that peace will allow civil society to regather momentum but as long as the Assadists are in power, the same old restrictions will remain. The struggle against despotic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa will take decades to win and will likely gain the upper hand when the left is much more powerful globally. At least the “primitive accumulation” of a pro-revolution movement as represented by the speakers at this workshop gives hope that a better day lies ahead.

Saturday 5:20pm-7:10pm: Evaluation of Progressive Governments in Latin America in Recent Years

This was in sharp contrast to all the Chavista workshops at Left Forum over the years that featured people like Steve Ellner and Dario Azzellini over the years. Concurring with Jeffery Webber and people writing for the ISO press, the talks focused on the structural flaws of the Pink Tide that evolved from their dependence on commodity exports such as soybeans, oil, etc. that were gobbled up by an expanding Chinese economy.

For one of the speakers, an Argentine named Juan Kornblihtt, this was explained on the reliance on “ground rent”, a form of surplus value extraction analyzed by Karl Marx in V. 3 of Capital. I first ran across Juan Kornblihtt’s analysis while preparing an article for CounterPunch dealing with the point of view expressed by the speakers, which can be likened to a coroner’s report.

Essentially, Kornblihtt and others such as Daniel Ellinger who are committed to the ground rent analysis tie mining and agriculture (the “rent” is extracted from the soil or ground) to a decline in manufacturing, which is capable of providing more traditional forms of wage income. For Lula and Chavez, the “rent” could be used to provide subsidies to families and hence their support until prices began to drop.

I pointed out in the discussion period that investments in manufacturing might have dried up because capitalist investors saw much more profit in soybeans or oil than in starting up an auto sector—as if Brazil or Venezuela could ever compete with South Korea or Japan.

You can read Kornblihtt’s article here.

Much of it relies on the research of Juan Iñigo Carerra, a subscriber to the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail. Juan used to write in a style that sounded like a parody of Marx’s Grundrisse. He was quite the character.

Sunday 12pm-1:50pm India’s Contested Spaces: Labor, Land, and Environment

This was sponsored by India Civil Watch, a new group dedicated to opposing Modi that appears to involve some of the activist-scholars who used to sponsor workshops at Left Forum in the name of http://sanhati.com/.

Their analysis rests on the premise that Modi’s neoliberalism is simply an extension of Congress Party rule that will be distinguished by its attack on India’s marginalized population. Among the speakers was Biju Mathew, whose name was familiar to me as the founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the only trade union that bears any resemblance to the labor movements of the past. He was also a member of the board of the now defunct Brecht Forum that these Left Forum events remind me of. No matter how valuable my exchanges with Marxists on the Internet, there is nothing about the face-to-face encounters in real space that stay with you.

In his talk, Mathew compared Modi to Trump, something that makes a lot more sense than Mussolini or Hitler for that matter. Matthew’s article on Modi’s election victory can be read on Sanhati (http://sanhati.com/excerpted/10478/) and is well worth it:

We are no longer fighting to defeat the BJP. Instead we are fighting for a new meaning and a more revolutionary democratic form that exceeds the bourgeois liberal framework we have been stuck within. It doesn’t matter that it may well take us a decade or more to win this battle. It’s the only kind of fight that can withstand the majoritarian logic especially now that the capitalist elite have signed on to it fully. This battle fortunately won’t be unique to India. All across the world liberal democracy under conditions of neoliberal dominance has begun to come apart on the question of minorities. In the US and the UK, for instance, Islamophobia and anti-third-world migrant sentiment has produced the sharpest divisions in civil society. In post-revolution Egypt, the struggle has also turned in significant part on the question of minority rights, though for now the army has fundamentally short circuited the debate. The significant showing of nine fascist parties in the EU elections is an indicator that in almost every part of Europe a majoritarian sentiment is on the rise. In Iran, the emergence of the Green movement over the last decade articulates aspects of a similar problematic. In Pakistan, the struggles around the status of Shias, Christians and the Baluch invoke the same limits. The solution in the end is to produce a global revolution in the democratic form that must arrest majoritarianism. Let’s work to put into place our part in this revolution.

Sunday 3:40pm-5:40pm Puerto Rico and the Junta: A tale of colonial and neocolonial dispossession

Three speakers, all Puerto Rican, spoke about how the island was being raped by hedge fund investors and a colonial government that bent over backwards to satisfy them. Ian Seda-Irizarry, who is in the economics department at John Jay—the host of the Left Forum, asked his fellow panelists who the most progressive governor of Puerto Rico was. They had no idea that he was speaking of Rex Tugwell, one of FDR’s top economics advisers who served as governor during WWII.

For the three speakers, the big job now is coming up with the data that can demonstrate how vulture funds are destroying the Puerto Rican economy. I recommend panelist Ed Morales’s article on the Puerto Rican crisis in The Nation and would urge you to pay close attention to the section that shows how the black bloc tactic was used to victimize 42 groups that are on the frontlines attacking austerity and colonialism. I also recommend Ed’s interview with Ian that includes a discussion of salsa music, something that he knows as well as his Marxist economics.

Afterword on Dave Lindorff’s article:

Titled “Left Forum Bans Four Panels Under Zionist Pressure”, the article takes up the case of Veterans Today editor Kevin Barrett and Anthony Hall, a tenured professor of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

Supposedly they were banned for anti-Semitism although I would have booted Barrett for his 9/11 crap that supposedly was being purged from this year’s Left Forum and all future events—thank god. They told him that they had no use for his workshops, a sign of growing maturity on the left. It seems that Lindorff was scheduled to appear alongside Barrett on the “false flag” panel discussion that included Barrett and someone named Ole Dammegard.

  • False Flags: Staged, Scripted, Mass Psy-Op Events 2-3:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Dave Lindorff, Ole Dammegard • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards
  • 9/11 Truth: Ground Zero for a Resistance Movement 4-5:50pm Speakers: Dr. Kevin Barrett, Barbara Honegger, Richard Gage • Moderator: Dr. Lucy Morgan Edwards

You can get a feel for Dammegard’s provenance from this:

During the interview, Ole Dammegard also affirms the role of elites such as David Rockefeller and the Rockefeller group, and the Rothschild City of London banking families in originating the Kennedy assassination for a variety of motives, ranging from Kennedy’s breakaway from the Rothschild-controlled Federal Reserve Bank in printing U.S. Treasury silver-backed currency to Kennedy’s plan to end the Vietnam War.

This sort of person has no business at the Left Forum. If Dave Lindorff wants to start a conspiracist conference, let him get in touch with Michel Chossudovsky and Alex Jones.

As far as Anthony Hall is concerned, his panels were also shit-canned:

  • Political Correctness: The Dangers of Thought Crime Police 10:00-11:50am Speakers: Dr. Anthony Hall, Jeremy Rothe-Kushel • Moderator: Cheryl Curtiss
  • Terrorism”: Fake Enemies, Fraudulent Wars Noon-1:50pm Speakers: Michael Springmann, Dr. Anthony Hall, Dr. Kevin Barrett • Moderator: Tom Kiely

Trying to prove that Hall is anti-Semitic is not that easy. He was punished by his university for tolerating an anti-Semitic comment on his FB page. He has also made a Youtube video urging “open debate” on the Holocaust, a rather fishy call if you ask me.

For my money, his worst offense and grounds from dismissal from Left Forum events is the imbecilic conspiracism that he and Veterans Today publisher Kevin Barrett traffic in. Like Barrett, Hall is a big-time 9/11 Truther. He runs two websites that offer the same crap as Global Research, Infowars, Off-Guardian, Moon of Alabama, Information Clearing House, et al.

One of them, No Lies Radio, will allow you to listen to the banned panels for only $15. If you want to waste your money on that rather than a nice bottle of Pinot Noir, be my guest.

Hall also runs American Herald Tribune that has about as much to do with the original newspaper that Donald Trump has to do with Abraham Lincoln. This website is virtually indistinguishable from a thousand others that traffic in 9/11, False Flag, pro-Assad talking points that more and more can be seen as shared by people like Richard Spencer, David Duke and Alex Jones. For me, the disappearance of Assadist and 9/11 panel discussions at the Left Forum is a welcome sign that the left is finally waking up from a deep slumber.


  1. Excellent review!

    Comment by Les Evenchick (@evenchick) — June 6, 2017 @ 7:53 pm

  2. Good piece. Lindorff’s article was lame, not sure why CP ran it. I am glad that they 86’d those panels.

    That conspiracy shit gets tiring.

    Comment by brandybaker — June 6, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

  3. WOW! The author of this piece might be the sloppiest war propagandist I’ve ever encountered(at least on the supposed left). Try harder, dickhead, pretty much every website you took a shot at regularly bash Alex Jones, a guy who now sells some of the same basic war propaganda that your stupid ass does.

    Comment by N — June 7, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

  4. While Professor Hall may be arguing in bad faith, it should be remembered that denying the Holocaust can get one in legal trouble in Canada (recall the Ernst Zundel trial a few decades ago). Holocaust denial is also illegal in many European countries. Leftist should be able to defend the free speech of even the most odious deniers, while excluding them from left conferences and gatherings.

    Comment by Adam Minsky — June 7, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

  5. Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter that they “bash” Alex Jones. What they all have in common is a hard-on for Assad.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 7, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

  6. Hi Lou: The “ground rent” thesis would be better if it were a “differential rent” thesis. Like rents from agricultural land, rents from mining can also be differential with above average rents accruing to especially productive mines or oil fields, or to those located closest to markets. In addition, rents are affected by market saturation in a way that is similar to profits. In other words, you can have a crisis of over-production of oil. What happened in the world markets for oil and its near substitutes (natural gas, coal, etc.) was a crisis of overproduction caused by fracking in the United States. That caused the collapse of oil prices in 2014 when the Saudis decided to stop cutting production to prop up prices in the face of Obama’s fracking glut. Because of differential rents, some oil producing countries were hurt worse than others, Venezuela was particularly hard hit because of its heavy oils. On top of this, the Chavezistas, despite being aware of the need to use oil rents to diversify the Venezuelan economy to be more self-reliant – and therefore less vulnerable to oil price swings and imperialist economic warfare (among other things), failed to take any serious action. Chavez died, Maduro was left holding the bag, Venezualans are leaving the country in droves to do manicures in Bogotá, but the right is deathly afraid of taking power in Venezuela because they will then have to take responsible for the economic disaster which they helped create before Chavez came to power, and for which they have no solution now. I don’t have much hope for the Latin American left in the short-run, but learning the lessons of Venezuela should be top priority.

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — June 7, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

  7. Why do people in the United States resist left explanations of their immiseration?

    I am not sure how much of an answer this is in the deeper sense, but everyone knows that a large part of the blame has to fall on the success of liberalism at least since Roosevelt in first co-opting the popular appeal of the left and then delivering the two-punch of anticommunism, which succeeded in large part because of the failure–indeed the refusal–of Stalinism to create a genuinely international socialist movement. The defeat of communism, followed by the long period of prosperity during which even “left” intellectuals like Marcuse believed in some sense that capitalism had permanently solved its problem of radical inequality and cyclical crisis, was followed by the worldwide collapse of “really existing socialism,” which softened the left to the point at which the cheap sloganeering of the right could become a universal folk religion.

    Few people outside the Left understand just how reactionary American liberalism was and is. Only liberalism could remanufacture the McCarthyite opportunist Robert Kennedy into a martyr for social equality and justice. Nor should we forget that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was as much a creation of the New Deal as is Social Security or the worldwide military presence of the United States. Nobody hated communists or loved imperialism more than the alleged liberals of the Americans for Democratic Action–or the allegedly liberal “professoriat” of American universities in the Seventies, who–outraged at the impious audacity of SDS and the antiwar left–purged the ranks of future faculty of very nearly everyone who professed anything resembling actual leftism as opposed to the harmless gibberish of mainstream post-modernism or the parlor “marxism” of the pure theorist.

    The Communist Party first monopolized the American left and then, betrayed by their own leadership, abandoned it. In their absence, people have no solid example of how to think and what to do to gain control over their lives.

    In our time, the immobilization of the masses is aided further by the looming threat of automation, which now appears to threaten the reserve army of the marginally employed with permanent extinction. How can you fight the bosses when work itself appears to be going the way of the dodo? First offshoring; then robots. Can anyone blame workers for feeling cowed?

    Workers rebel when they feel and know that in the mass they are indispensable. Convince them that this is not so, and perhaps they will be quiet forever.

    Given these facts, there appears to be no model of organization replacing the Party that can summon up the terrifying reserves of discipline that enabled Communists to take a leading role, for example, in the racial struggles in the American South and elsewhere

    I don’t know how this squares with Marxian economics, which, thanks to the likes of M. Roberts and his colleagues (despite their esoteric quarrels), is clearly more relevant than ever. But isn’t the defeat of the left in the U.S. by the center and right, following the abdication of the Stalinists, a plain daylight historical fact?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 8, 2017 @ 10:49 am

  8. […] Ever since 2005, I have kept a journal for the yearly Left Forum except for 2007 (can’t remember why it was skipped) and 2016 when I decided not to shell out good money for a conference that was riddled with workshops on 9/11 and why we have to support Assad. (You can read my complaints here: https://louisproyect.org/2016/05/06/left-forum-2016-the-truth-is-out-there/. As it happens, I returned to the Left Forum last year because they banned 911 workshops and because putting up with Assadist bullshit was worth it especially when there was still a lot of good stuff going on (https://louisproyect.org/2017/06/06/left-forum-2017/). […]

    Pingback by Left Forum 2018 | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 4, 2018 @ 9:01 pm

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