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Marxists struggle over ideas at Left Forum

Published Apr 2, 2010 3:50 PM

While thousands protested the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on March 20 and hundreds of thousands rallied for immigrant rights in Washington on March 21, several thousand people interested in Marxism participated in the Left Forum at Pace University in NYC for a struggle over ideas.

The LF is the largest annual gathering in the United States to hear Marxist scholars, most from universities and colleges. Organizers say this year’s attendance, with more than 3,500 registered, was the largest since the LF started as the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1982. There were 200-plus panels with more than 700 speakers and 90 distributors of books, magazines and other media.

The LF’s Marxism has a distinct social-democratic bias, that is, it tries to omit Lenin. The main force is the Democratic Socialists of America, usually allied with the Democratic Party. At the LF, however, communists, anti-imperialists, and other activists and a broad range of speakers have a chance to raise their voices.

The two plenary meetings set the overall political tone. The March 19 opening plenum, where civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson was the keynote speaker, overflowed the 700-seat auditorium and had to be broadcast to a nearby room. Jackson urged activism, but appealed to loyalty to the Democratic Party and the current administration — that is, he tied the activism to U.S. imperialism.

The closing plenary featured Noam Chomsky, who sharply criticized the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the role of the Barack Obama administration, but his critique was unattached to any suggestion of struggle. In his otherwise anti-imperialist commentary, Chomsky made a gratuitous attack on the late Korean communist leader Kim Il-Sung. The remark had nothing to do with Chomsky’s general talk; it seemed its sole purpose was to show Chomsky’s anti-communist side.

Role of activists and communists

In the workshops, however, leftist, communist and activist forces could raise their ideas. Some academic Marxists at the forum also defended revolutionary ideas, although they tend to be isolated from any form of action, given the low level of class struggle.

Activists participated in panels or staffed literature tables for political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal or the Cuban Five, defended the revolutionary movements in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia or agitated for a single-payer health care system.

This report mainly covers those panels that involved the organizations and individuals we frequently write about in Workers World newspaper.

The strongest such panel was on Sunday and was titled, “How to Fight Disappearing Jobs and Falling Wages: Labor Strategies in the Epoch of Low-wage Capitalism.” It was organized by Dee Knight. Speakers were Million Worker March spokesperson Brenda Stokeley, BAYAN USA Chairperson Berna Ellorin and Workers World contributing editor Fred Goldstein, author of “Low-Wage Capitalism.”

The audience, which had Black, Latino/a and Asian participation, was far more representative of people of color than the LF in general. More than half signed up for further contact, reflecting the excellent quality of the presentations. Together, the three gave a comprehensive overview of the economic crisis, the effect of globalization on the oppressed and the fightback that is necessary.

Extended and lively discussion included serious questions from the audience on the role of the Democratic Party and the labor movement, how to fight the right, how to organize within the labor movement from the rank-and-file up, and how to deal with the question of super-exploited workers abroad, such as call centers in the Philippines that are set up to compete with workers in the U.S. Closer to home, the panel discussed how to get the union movement to recognize the cause of homeless workers and the role of militarization in the economy.

The workshop was a living example of how every struggle against exploitation, war and oppression is a workers’ struggle, and drew the conclusion that only socialism can end the crisis of capitalist society.

At a panel on education, Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) leader Larry Hales spoke on the March 4 national student protest. The panel, chaired by Doug Singsen of CUNY Campaign to Defend Education, also featured the Transport Workers Union’s community liaison Marvin Holland; Tami Gold, Professional Staff Congress chapter chair at Hunter College; and New York City teacher John Lawhead. There was a good give and take between the audience and the panel, including a debate about two May Day proposals.

FIST activist Easton Smith also participated in a panel on student organizing.

A battle over ideas took place in a May Day workshop where some unionists called for taking back May Day as a day of worker protest in New York’s Foley Square. This otherwise progressive impulse had a negative side: it excluded the May 1st Coalition for Worker & Immigrant Rights that was already organizing its fifth consecutive May Day protest in Union Square around the key slogans of legalization for undocumented workers and jobs for all.

Intervening in the discussion, Brenda Stokely and others from the May 1st Coalition for Worker & Immigrant Rights insisted that the panelists stop splitting the workers’ movement and asked them why they couldn’t hold a united protest. The speakers stonewalled, refusing to address the question. (See editorial.)

Naomi Cohen contributed to this article.