Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 4, 2018

Left Forum 2018

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

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/).

It is easy to bad-mouth the Left Forum because unless you are far less contentious than the average leftist, especially me, you will find much of it objectionable. That’s bound to happen because the Left Forum is really nothing more than a snapshot of the left, with warts and all. Maybe there will be 100 percent contentment about the program on the eve of the American revolution, notwithstanding the complaints from the Spartacist League who pass out strident calls for revolution on the doorsteps of Left Forum host John Jay College of Criminal Justice each year. Oh, did I mention that this school geared to training people to be detectives has the most radical economics department in the city, thanks to professor emeritus Michael Meeropol?

Saturday sessions:

As a rule of thumb, I try to attend workshops that promise to increase my knowledge. So that means staying away from anything titled “A Winning Strategy for the Left” or “Time to Shut Down the CIA”. With that in mind, I went to a 10am session on Saturday titled “The Far Right in Government: Hungary, Poland, and Turkey”, featuring leftist academics speaking very knowledgably about their countries. I came in midway during the Hungary talk but took in the other two in their entirety. (You can get a short version of the talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNVc23sj5hA) Both speakers emphasized the near-hegemonic grip that the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (AKP) have on society. In Poland, the ruling party emerged out of Solidarity and thus has a program much more generous to the working class than previous neoliberal regimes, even as it ratchets up the hatred and bans on immigrants. (I referred to this tendency in my review of a new film on Katyn: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/01/the-secrets-of-katyn/.) In Turkey, Erdogan has basically taken advantage of the exhaustion of the Kemalist project, drawing upon support from the country’s Islamist-minded majority. By using a combination of repression and social welfare similar to that being delivered in Poland, the AKP has few obstacles in his path, especially after the bloody purge of the Gulenists. Probably the only stumbling block will be the economic crisis that is taking shape with the Turkish lira in free fall. If Rosa Luxemburg Siftung, the organizer of the event, puts a link to the video recording of the event, I’ll post a notification.

Next on the agenda was “The Fight to Stay—Eviction Defense as a Right”, a 12pm workshop that featured lawyers and activists reporting on a victory for tenants—the right to a lawyer when you are served an eviction notice. This discussion was of great interest to me since I have been blogging about the Real Estate and Housing Crisis in New York. I recommend that you check the website of the people who organized the event: http://www.righttocounselnyc.org, especially a brief video providing background on their victory. I should add that our “progressive” mayor opposed the right to a lawyer at first but succumbed to pressure once he decided to run for a second term.

After lunch with my friend Tony DiMaggio, a regular contributor to CounterPunch, I joined him at a 4pm workshop on “First As Farce Then As Tragedy: It’s Time to Fire the Apprentice”, where he would be a discussant. I couldn’t tell from the title what the hell this was about but was anxious to hear what Tony had to say.

The panel was organized by Critical Sociology, a journal that was originally called The Insurgent Sociologist when it was founded in 1969 as a voice of the New Left on campus. Like me, the three speakers were all 60s radicals, including Lauren Langman who I remember from the days when he was the moderator of the now defunct Progressive Sociologists Network mailing list.

So, the goal of the three sociology professors was to try to explain why people voted for Trump. Langman, a professor emeritus, and Pace University professor Roger Salerno placed heavy emphasis on psychoanalytic theory with copious references to Freud. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding Trump as the projection of deep pathologies in white society that remind me of what Joel Kovel wrote in “White Racism: a psychohistory”. You can get an idea of Langman’s approach in his article “Psychoanalysis and American Sociology” (http://futureswewant.net/lauren-langman-psychoanalysis/). For both Langman and Salerno, explanations based on “economic” factors are of less interest than those based on psychic maladjustments. Naturally, I found all this unconvincing even though their presentations were lively.

David Smith, a U. of Kansas professor, made a useful point. If you look at extensive polling done with Trump and Clinton voters, you’ll discover that their views on economics, health care, etc. are almost identical. But when it comes to three issues: immigrants, minorities and feminism, the Trump voters depart from the consensus. You can read Smith’s explanation of this in a Critical Sociologist article that is fortunately not behind a paywall: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920517740615

During the Q&A, I cracked a joke about the Trotsky t-shirt that Langman was wearing and reminded the panelists that fascism was victorious because the social democracy tried to preserve capitalist property relations when they were driving the middle-class and much of the working-class nuts. I am no psychologist but that diagnosis seems sound especially when the DSA and much of the left hopes to recreate the governments that existed in the Weimar Republic and during Leon Blum’s troubled regime. I was pleasantly surprised that Smith was pretty familiar with Trotsky’s writings on fascism that I alluded to. Who knows? Maybe he was an ex-SWPer like me. There are thousands of us, the largest group on the left in fact.

While I am far apart from Langman on how to view Trump, he did seem to grasp the nature of the period we are in through his reference to a Gramsci quote that speaks very much to Roseanne Barr, Scott Pruitt and every other horror we are living through now: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Prison Notebooks)

Sunday sessions:

Getting to John Jay a bit too late to make the 10am session, I started off the day at a standing room only workshop organized by Paul Street. Along with Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, and Chris Hedges, they all spoke on “Imagining an Authentic 21st Century U.S. Left”. While this is generally the sort of topic I tend to avoid since it might lend itself to empty rhetoric, I decided to go since I was curious to hear what some well-known leftists have to say on our “interregnum”. I understand that the talks will be online soon so I will be brief.

Paul made the case for taking a hard line against all forms of capitalist oppression, whether it is the hard cop Trump or the soft cop Pelosi dishing it out. Glen Ford spoke about the need to nationalize the banks, something he describes as feasible since everybody, including lots of rich people, hate them. Hedges called attention to Google adjusting its algorithms since it has cost traffic for leftist websites, including Truthdig, where his articles appear on a regular basis. I can understand why he (and WSWS) are upset about this but in my view, the bigger threat is outright bans of the sort that take place in Russia or Egypt. In a period of deepening radicalization, people will tell other people about Truthdig even if Google adjusts its algorithms to exclude it from search results totally. I doubt that in a prerevolutionary situation that’s the kind of website that will be attracting much attention anyhow.

This brings me to Bruce Dixon’s talk that was about as perceptive as any I have heard in years. He laid down some principles that the left should unite around that make eminent good sense to me, starting with the need for independence from the two capitalist parties. He acknowledged that the Green Party keeps screwing up but when you are trying to build something new, it is not an easy task especially when there is no blueprint. He urged the need for teaching people how to organize in the same way that the CP taught people in the 1930s. Even if William Z. Foster had some messed up ideas about strategy, he knew how to organize people as should be clear from his handbook for CIO organizers. Compare that to the Green Party that allows any 6 or so people to form a state chapter even though they may have no idea how to build the party.

But the most powerful part of his talk had to do with his observations about divisions on the left, referring to the whole ritual of unfriending people on FB when you agree with 90 percent of what they believe. Unless we learn to unite people on the basis of that 90 percent of agreement, we can not build a strong movement. That’s what I tried to explain to my pro-Syrian revolution FB friends when I stated my intentions to vote for Jill Stein—with mixed results, I have to admit.

Finally, at 4pm there was a panel discussion with veterans of the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. There was a slide show by Basir Mchawi about the East Cultural Center in Brooklyn from that time, which combined experimental jazz with poetry readings, dances and other cultural/political gatherings relevant to the black nationalist movement of the time. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it. That same semester I heard LeRoi Jones (as he was known at the time) read from his “The System of Dante’s Hell” that was an angry attack on racism of the sort I had never heard before. The combination of Sanders’s saxophone and Jones’s reading persuaded me that black nationalism was a flame that could help illuminate the path leading away from what Allen Ginsberg called Moloch.



  1. Received this as an email this morning from Michael Meeropol:

    OOPS — Louis, I had ALMOST NOTHING to do with the creation of the John Jay Department — all that credit goes to Jay Hamilton and the other senior people who, beginning around the time I was a visiting Professor, began to hire outstanding economists who “happened” to be of the radical persuasion. They all proved themselves in the classroom and as scholars and thus the new program ended up being created. I was a VISITING PROF and thus out of the hiring loop.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 5, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

  2. After the schism that led to the demise of the Socialist Scholar’s Conference, we’ve arrived at a point where two panels on “toxic masculinity” share billing with another titled “In Defense of Capitalism”. I think it’s time for another rebranding — I suggest Petite Bourgeois Liberal Forum.

    Comment by Max Power — June 9, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

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