After spending much of Saturday wandering around with my Dad, older brother, and celebrated younger brother, "Jake the Snake" of breakdancing fame, I went to the Left Forum from 10am-6pm on Sunday. As far as I could tell, there were fewer people there than in previous years, although they were happily back in Cooper Union and had the usual fantastic book sales. I didn't know everyone there, but I did run into an old comrade from Love and Rage, with whom I attended many of the same sessions, and he, master of sectarian lore, was able to give me an informed view of the ANSWER/UFPJ divisions.
My general observations: Gilbert Achcar, like Hermione Granger with her "time turner," was on every panel at the conference. Economists are more charming than you might think. That guy from ANSWER is more magnetic than I had thought he would be.
At 10am I went to a session on the meaning of the election of Hamas and the proper approach of the left. The panelists were Noura Erakat, Gilbert Achcar, Uri Ram, and Peter Weiss. Interestingly, not one of the panelists discussed the issue of Islamic fundamentalism; they all agreed with Erakat, who spoke first, that the reason for Hamas' victory was the occupation itself, Oslo, and the corruption of Fatah. The person who mentioned things I hadn't heard before did not discuss Hamas much, but rather talked about Ariel Sharon's new party and its meaning. The next session I went to, at noon, was "China, India, and Capitalism in the Long Run" with Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, Leo Panitch, and Gilbert Achcar. Arrighi and Silver, who have written together from the "world systems" approach, argued in favor of the proposition that China would eventually surpass the US as the leader in the world economy, and that this would be good for American workers. They also argued that neither China nor India, the two most successful "new" economies are actually practicing neoliberalism, and that the media's promotion of these quasi state-socialist societies as neoliberal is pure ideology. They have also been going around giving talks in which they argue that "living in the number one country" is actually not so advantageous. Panitch was the most persuasive speaker on the other side, that China is not about to take over the world economy because of degree to which Chinese industry is actually US multinational corporations. Gilbert Achcar, perhaps thinking about his next panel, was just tendentious and made a strawman out of Arrighi with vague accusations of Stalino-Maoism. My friend and I agreed that this was an exceptional panel, as both sides presented such compelling arguments and facts. We nodded as one speaker would speak, then, as my friend leaned over and said, "on the other hand...." Except for Achcar accusing Arrighi and Silver of praising the Chinese government, all was good, and I recommend reading the articles by Panitch in the Socialist Register and Arrighi and Silver in New Left Review for further explanation.
The next panel I went to was not on such an elevated level, but was equally packed, in a tiny penthouse lecture hall, "The US Economy Today: Debts, Bubbles, and Uncertainties. They all discussed the fact that the US people for the first time since 1933 have a negative savings rate, and of the meaning of the loss of retirement. They also talked extensively about the real-estate bubble, China and the trade defecit. The most optimistic speaker was also the funniest: Richard D. Wolff, who talked about the need for "going beyond the reforms" of the New Deal in the future round of activism in response to crisis. The other speakers were Doug Henwood, who I've never liked, Eric Glynn, and Bill Tabb. All of them predict the real-estate crash to come, but few think it will be as bad as 1933. I think it may have been Bill Tabb who told the joke that Marxist economists have predicted ten of the last five depressions. For more of Richard Wolff, who was by far the most entertaining of the speakers, you can go look for an Amherst based website called "macroscope" - which he referred to in his talk, but which I was unable to find. You can also go to Monthly Review to read Tabb's article. OK, here's a session without Gilbert Achcar. Maybe he was napping?
Finally, I went to the big show-down of the day between ANSWER and UFPJ: debating strategy in the anti-war movement, with a couple of added comments by Arun Gupta, of the Indypendent, who posed as an objective observer of both groups, and Rahul Mahajan, a prior member of the UFPJ steering committee and frequent denizen of the Brecht forum. The possible unfairness of having Rahul Mahajan, who pretty much backed up Leslie Cagan, as an extra man for the UFPJ team, was more than made up for by the unfairness of the moderator, Jim Lafferty, who was on the side of ANSWER, cut off Leslie Cagan several times, and was generally rude to the audience. I was quite depressed after attending this session, which to me, revealed the complete failure of everyone in the official leadership of the anti-war movement to do much to speak to the great mass of the American people about anything relevant. Brian Becker, of ANSWER was very charismatic and articulate, and said a number of true things about the US empire, but wasn't honest about his group's methods of organizing, and was, in my view, unrealistic about the current "revolutionary" mood of the US working class. Leslie Cagan, of UFPJ, was defensive, denied that she cared that much about the Democratic Party, and was disingenuous about the impact of UFPJ's decisions in the Summer 2004 on the anti-war movement in general. "what is this huge power of UFPJ?" she kept asking. I think it was Mahajan who made the point that what we desperately needed was a meaningful Marxist presence within the anti-war movement. Arun Gupta made some interesting observations, but took the typical anarchist position of standing off to the side like a disinterested and holier-than-thou critic.
I did make up my mind after hearing each side present its views about its strategy that the big problem with UFPJ stems from its belief that the progressive middle-class will provide the base of the anti-war movement. This does stem from the infiltration of the leavings of the CPUSA (according to my comrade, UFPJ's leadership all comes from the Committees of Correspondence) by the Democratic Party. This explains why UFPJ continually takes such a timid stance on the issues and reaches not only a middle-class, but middle-aged group. I generally agree more with ANSWER's view of who the powerful base of a mass anti-war movement should be: working class people and people of color, but it seems fairly obvious that their methods aren't working to engage those people in anti-war activism. Long diatribes about US foreign policy do not a movement make. And no, I don't have the answer either. Near me, a disgruntled and perhaps mentally-ill Iraq veteran, started loudly grumbling about "intellectual masturbation" and complaining that not enough vets were there. This for me, was the icing on the cake.
And there you have it: the problems of the left in a capsule. The problem is not as this anti-intellectual put it, too much discussion, but rather, not enough. There's no room for a serious debate of strategy because of sectarianism, defensiveness, and finally - anti-intellectual responses to the effort to talk about anything beyond "let's all get in the streets!" Although I'm always criticizing the Democratic party lean of the Dailykos, at least people there have embraced debate as necessary. And people at that last anti-war movement panel would have learned from lurking-in on their debates, if only to get a measure of at least one branch of the people against the war in the US.
and that's it for now.