Monday, April 18, 2005

Sectarianism vs. Lameness, Either way you go, a Recipe for Paralysis

I'm sure I could have come up with a better title, but that seems like the two extremes of the current debate within the U.S. left, at least as represented at the Left Forum. Maybe I'm just adding provocation to the already provoked.
Nonetheless: here's what I saw (forum by forum)
AM Saturday: Discussion between two tendenies in the Trotskyist left about whether the anti-war movement should support the Iraqi resistance, which seemed a bit academic, given that the anti-war movement can't even come to the consensus on "out now" as a position, but the positions were well laid out by each side, though as my friend commented, those who made the claim that they want to only selectively support the resistance seemed to be "parsing" and not looking at the bigger picture.

Sunday: AM, discussion of meaning of current imperialist war (Reloaded or Overloaded) which was the best session I went to. The question was: Is the current US empire in a state of near collapse? and there wasn't total agreement.
Afternoon One: What's going on in the Middle East? Where the significant disagreement was between Gilbert Achucar, who says the US empire's clumsiness is reviving democratic movements in the Middle East and that the Iraq elections were won in spite of the occupation and were democratic (he's the one who made the argument that Mahajan echoed at his USLAW talk) and Christian Parenti, who says the occupation could continue as is for another eight years, and that he's not so sure about the elections.
These two panels were good to go to one after the other, and helped me think about how little we really know about what's happening, and how choices we make as activists in such a moment are really based on these assessments of a situation which is so completely unpredictable, and about which our sources of information are cloudy. No one I talked to among those who support the resistance could say anything about the ongoing murders of Iraqi trade union leaders. I left with new questions that I didn't know I had before, which is to me the sign of an excellent discussion.

Afternoon two: A reasonable discussion of why Americans fall for the "ownership society" at which Ellen Willis made an excellent critique of Tom Frank's "What's the Matter W/Kansas." She had a great position that the left needs to argue for pleasure,and she and others have been making a similar point for years. I generally agree with it, but unfortunately, it's a voice that few are listening to. The session was in a very small room.
There was a much bigger presence at the afternoon plenary where there was a face-off between Nader supporters and leftists who believe it's possible to present a challenge within the Democratic party.
While I responded positively to things that everyone said, (Medea Benjamin talked about how important it is not to be "mean" which people in a lot of leftist parties don't take seriously enough as an obstacle to organizing; Bill Fletcher talked about the importance of addressing race; The Green Party guy talked about the need for an independent voice and the history of third parties as putting pressure on other parties), I don't think it's worth spending much time on any of these initatives. Why spend time building within the Democratic party? - It's obviously a corporate ho' that has deflected and co-opted activist forces - (Look, for example at Mississippi-Atlantic City, 1964 and downward from there to Clinton and welfare reform).
Sure, do all the things politically and in terms of activism that the "Neo-rainbow" people suggest, but why focus those things on election campaigns instead of more direct community activism? It's possible to throw up one's hands and turn to "pure" social activism and create real pressure that elites and parties must respond to. I always like to use the example of Nixon's creation of the EPA - it wasn't because he just thought of doing that. When there's a significant movement - when labor spends money on organizing etc. instead of putting money in candidates' pockets, for instance, its more likely that the left will be in a position to build a third party.
That's why I'm even less sympathetic to the third party effort in the national elections because I think it actually sucks up more energy than the neo-rainbow initiative would. While I agree that it's important to maintain an independent voice, and that the democratic party is not a place to build change, I think that the battle for such a long term goal as changing the party system often fails on the national level to do anything about the very serious immediate political demands that need to be addressed - especially when it comes to battles around racial justice, which is probably why Nader's grouping is so largely white.
While I know plenty of people on both sides of the issue who do valuable organizing: IS, ISO etc. people are very good union activists, CodePink has effectively mobilized people across the country, Local and state-wide Green campaigns have made a difference and have been important. What is probably most frustrating, more frustrating than any strategic quagmire over what to do about elections, is the fact that UFPJ, which seemed initially so promising, and whose leadership was mostly absent at this weekend's conference, have been pretty lame when it comes to actually leading these "broad bases" of people that are involved in the anti-war movement to take more radical positions.

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