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The Left! For…um… (the Left will return as soon as it remembers how to do so)

Since 1981, New York City has annually played host to the Left Forum conference, a quasi-academic/quasi-activist gathering which brings together a hodge-podge of representatives from the union hall to the citadel of academia to the community center to the squat. If the description of those in attendance isn’t a sufficient give away – and the “Left” in the title isn’t a give away – consider that the conference was originally called the Socialist Scholars Conference. The 2013 conference – titled “Mobilizing for Ecological/Economic Transformation – was held at Pace University from June 7 to the 9th.

Left Forum is a bit of a funny conference. It exists at an odd crossroads of what some might term “the old left” (as in labor and socialist groups) “the new left” (as in groups and causes that grew out of the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s) and “the now left” (as in the new wave of activists associated with Occupy and similar contemporary actions). Within political activism there is always a mixing of the generations and groupings, but what gives Left Forum its odd air is that the conference maintains a decidedly academic bent even if “mobilizing” was in its title and even if many a panel is about “organizing” or “building.”

I’ve attended Left Forum for several years, all of which have been since the financial crash of 2008; I was there in the year before the Occupy movement (and the Spring of the Arab Revolutions), as well as the conference in the months following the crushing of the Occupy encampments, and this year as Occupy seems to have receded into the background. Thus, in the years I’ve been in attendance, I’ve heard people pining for some type of Left mobilization, I’ve heard people eulogize the “awaited” Left mobilization, and now it has become just so much fodder to be pondered by academics once again pining for some type of Left mobilization while being somewhat dismissive of the last ill-fated mobilization.

If I were to distill the spirit of Left Forum as I’ve observed it (across the years) into a simple summary it would be that Left Forum is a gathering of the Left wherein the Left bemoans the state of the Left whilst imagining that many things in the world could be greatly improved if only the Left were not in such a sorry state but…and here the sentence would loop back to the beginning (participants are mainly American [with a strong showing of Canadians {and assorted other international groups}]).

Part of the question that is always of great difficulty in this context is that the “left” of Left Forum is frequently in disagreement over what “left” they are bemoaning, and by extension what “left” they are hoping to rebuild. The “left” of Nation readers who are disenchanted with the Democrats yet still think that party can be pushed leftwards? The “left” of the readers of one-of-the-fifty-socialist-newspapers who wish to see some resurgence of the spirit of the old left mass parties? The “left” of Jacobin or Adbusters readers who want to see an updating of the left of yore into a left of “you are?” Or perhaps the “left” of one of the anarchist leaning groups (AK Press, IWW) which on some level seem to view such bemoaning as rather comic. These questions swim about beneath the marquee speakers of more widely embraced left luminaries (Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Arundhati Roy, Chris Hedges), who speak to the crowd in large plenary sessions wherein conference attendees enjoy a rousing talk before going home (or to a hotel [or a bar]), feeling stirred up but still in the pot.

It is difficult to attend Left Forum and not come away with a sense that there is a lot of passionate energy amongst a range of left activists, who are eager to take action to fight for a more equitable and sustainable vision of the future. Alas, it is also difficult to attend Left Forum and not come away with a sense that at the next year’s forum all of the same conversations will be taking place, and those in assemblage will still be grumbling about the state of the Left. In fairness it is more of an “academic” conference than an “activist organizing” conference, and yet if the left is in disarray and the left needs to get organized…would Left Forum not be an ideal place to do it? It would seem so to some, but as much as the left loves bemoaning the state of the left, it also really enjoys arguing amongst itself (which is not to say that there are not legitimate disagreements). And thus Left Forum becomes an experience better described as: “Here is the Left! And we have come together for…um…well, we’d know if there was a functional Left!”

[A disclaimer must be offered that at any year at Left Forum there are many, many sessions on a wide variety of topics with a vast range of speakers. Thus it could be the case that I have simply made consistently crummy choices in my panel selections (possible). Perhaps the productive conversations about rebuilding a serious Left are always going on in a different session than the one I was attending, yet my experience over the years (and my conversations with fellow conference attendees) has left me thinking that it’s not just a matter of being in the wrong room. Yet, I acknowledge that this could be the case. In truth, sessions on “rebuilding the left” that I have attended in years past have frequently devolved into arguments demonstrating why that hasn’t happened instead of working towards it. Furthermore for such conversations to be truly fruitful they would need to be the topic in more than a smattering of panels.]

The 2013 Left Forum took place in the immediate aftermath of Glenn Greenwald’s articles regarding the NSA’s surveillance on Americans and the government’s usage of PRISM to keep tabs on citizens. Thus the moment was of a cleavage point where one could easily make the case for the need for further breaking and for building a strong left alternative. Consider the tweet by economist Robert Reich (a liberal if a not radical figure):

True, the above tweet came post-conference (and Reich was not in attendance), but that sentiment was certainly present. And while these conversations were certainly happening between individuals, the conference did not act as a true forum where people came together to form a plan and strategy for the left in these times. Rather the conference provides for the fracturing wherein small groups meet in classrooms (the forum was held at a university) to discuss topics in a way that might be very interesting…but wherein little actually comes out of it.

At risk of being crass, it has seemed to me that in every session I have attended at least one person raises the question: “so what do we do?” To which the answer is usually some form or a shrug, a long sentence packed with a doctoral-thesis-bibliography worth of references, or—most commonly—some variation of the reply “we need to rebuild the left.” Reply, “fine, let’s start to do that,” and one will be met with silence, or one will find the room erupt into a verbal battle as the “old left” shouts at the “now left” who shouts at the “new left” who shout at the “old left” and so forth.  And all of these “left” groups shout at the sell-out “liberals” who shout back at the too-radical “left” who shout back and so forth (for a great example of this see this review in The Nation [cross posted at Alternet] of David Graeber’s new book).

One could be forgiven for thinking that the problem is not capitalism, impending ecological threats, rampant misogyny, the triumph of the culture industry, or numerous other factors, but that the problem is that liberals are disrespectful towards the real left, and radical leftists are too tough on liberals. Indeed, amidst a continuing economic crisis, the threat of ecological catastrophe, growing austerity, creeping authoritarianism, and spreading disillusionment with the duplicity of the Democrats, one could think that this is a banner moment for the rebuilding and resurgence of the left. And yet this never seems to happen at Left Forum. Leftists go in fractured, and leave just as fractured. The exhibitor hall is filled with tables for a host of organizations (and publishers) that offer attendees the opportunity at this “leftist” gathering to select a subgroup of the left to belong to instead of being part of a larger “left.” Certainly, there would be arguments and bickering in a larger “left” (one where the believers in a variety of permutations could still work together), but there would be a lot to be said for a “left” that can put aside some of the sectarian squabbling to build and sustain a larger movement.

Or, what would it take to stop looking forward to the “left manifestation” that so many attendees is sure is coming, and instead work to actively construct it in the here and now? I have a great appreciation for theory and theoretical discussions, but it seems a shame to gather the Left for a, well, a forum, and have so little come out of it except for a backpack full of (unnervingly similar) newspapers accepted only so as to not have to endure a lecture on why group R (not group A and certainly not group Q) is the true heir to the mantle of “socialism” or the “Left.”

Writing in New Left Review (Issue 74, March/April 2012) T.J. Clark’s article “For a Left with No Future” captures the unspoken emotion that lurks below the surface at Left Forum – a sort of suspicion that the glory days of the Left (at least as it was once defined) are gone and not coming back. If the financial meltdown of 2008, and the new NSA scandal, can’t prompt a real surge on the Left, what – if anything – will? While Clark does not aim to completely dismiss of the utopian longings that have motivated the left in the past, he emphasizes what he calls “politics in a tragic key” which holds a recognition that there will always be injustice in the world. What is central to Clark’s argument is the need for a politics that is present centered, that looks politics in the face, and for the left? Well:

“It should learn—be taught—to look failure in the face.” (69)

This would require an honest reckoning with the situation in which the left finds itself, a situation in which the left is so fractured and discombobulated as to make “finding itself” like assembling a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle to which the box top has been lost. A challenge that would require not awaiting the coming of some new wave of resistance but a recognition that here we are and though the water level is rising the struggle seems to keep ebbing. One doesn’t need to love all of the various leftist groups who participate (to varying extents) at Left Forum, to recognize that this is the building material we have. Back to Clark:

“what is central for the left is that tragedy does not expect something—something transfiguring—to turn up. The modern infantilization of politics goes along with, and perhaps depends on, a constant orientation of politics towards the future.” (72)

In other words this is where we are and we need our actions to come from this spot instead of pining for some shining moment that we should admit is probably not coming. Many leftists are becoming as messianic minded as those of other political persuasions, awaiting the appearance of a savior at some moment that we are oh so sure is just around the corner. Clark’s piece is pessimistic in tone, but if one is being honest one can’t help but recognize that a realistic assessment of the moment justifies a level of pessimism in our prospects. What matters is for this pessimism not to devolve into inaction and petty sniping but for it to give rise to a realistically minded assessment of politics: one that could see Left Forum become an organizing conference not based on the fantastical image of the left that will emerge in our naïve fantasies, but based on the recognition that those who identify with the “left” in this moment have the unfortunate task of constructing a left here and now. What if next year Left Forum did not have dozens of panels, but only plenary sessions and break out groups on the active work of building a new left, not tomorrow, but now?

As I exited Left Forum on Sunday and walked to the subway I passed through the gauntlet of numerous groups offering me their newspapers (and yes, all of those papers are online as well) and shouting that they were the true bearers of the light of the left. Yet in that maze of branching ideologies none seemed to recognize that they were growing from the same tree, and the trunk has withered as the numerous branches have grown overly self important. Beyond the paper sellers I crossed the street and made my way up towards the subway station, passing by shoppers and tourists who had not a clue (or a care) that they were within a block of a “left” that had lost the ability to interact with them. If people leaving Left Forum were internally scoffing at the multitude of red newspapers, what would the broader public have thought? And if the response is to shrug off that broader public than it just becomes more imperative to rebuild with the left we have.

Many criticisms of the Occupy movement are entirely justified, and yet in retrospect it seems that one of its great failings was also one of its great strengths. Occupy was not particularly future minded, it was focused in building a movement in the present, in looking the past failure “in the face,” and in struggling in the face of tragic conditions. The Occupy encampments did a lot of theorizing and thinking, yet they also tackled the issues that were right in front: what are we doing for dinner tonight? How will we distribute resources? Is this bench allotted for the media tent or the library? The present is messy, but it can also be exciting, and it can serve as a reminder that a left that is engaged in transforming itself and the world in the present has a more likely future than a left that awaits a general strike that is not coming.

If we keep stumbling forward with our eyes on some glorious future we will continually trip over the things that we’d see if we could just look down at where our feet are now. Possibly, what is needed for the left in this moment is an inversion of Walter Benjamin’s words on hope, maybe he got the order wrong. Perhaps it is actually for those who cling to hope, that hopelessness is given. Mayhap if we struggle without holding to hope, if we look “failure in the face” and stop counting on some coming wave that we will surf to a more just future, we just might be able to cobble together enough of a left that we can find our hope in each others hands and faces instead of in some mythical image of the activists to come.

But then again, I’m not that hopeful .


For a Left with No Future,” Clark, T.J. New Left Review, no. 74, Mar/Apr 2012

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “The Left! For…um… (the Left will return as soon as it remembers how to do so)

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