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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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