March 19 – 21 at Pace University in New York City saw the 29th annual gathering of the conference first known as the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) (1981 – 2004) and then the Left Forum (LF) (2005 to the present).1
The first SSC in 1981 was actually the refounding (without mention of its predecessor) by Bogdan Denitch, Stanley Aronowitz and others of the 1960s of Socialist Scholars Conference which involved people closer to the Communist Party than to Denitch’s DSOC. The earlier conference was a broad effort by new left academics to create a forum in which to present theoretical and historical work, for the most part in a scholarly format but with an audience reaching far beyond academic circles.
When the conference was refounded in 1981 by leading personalities of Democratic Socialists of America – a 1983 fusion of DSOC, a social-democratic grouping, whose best known personality was Michael Harrington, and the more radical New American Movement – it could, after the first year, move to a venue within the City University of New York system where it enjoyed the active support of the socialist chancellor of the City University, Joseph A. Murphy, giving it nearly unlimited space and many advantages. In this period, precisely during the Reagan onslaught, the conference grew such that there were on average 1,500 – 2,000 attendees a year, some 300 – 400 speakers and ca. 50 exhibitors (book publishers, including some university presses, journals, organisations). By now, with a great number of panels (up to 200), the conference largely lost its scholarly character, taking on the function, as it has done ever since, of being the largest annual gathering of the left in North America. Indeed Paul Sweezy once pointed out that if it hadn’t been for the hegemonic control of the media, this large gathering of the left, with university support and taking place “in the shadow of Wall Street” would have been a fascinating mainstream newspaper story for the general public.
Bogdan Denitch, while making the largest panels reflect a somewhat social-democratic outlook (which was nevertheless important and interesting in the US context, as it meant the presence of elected officials and contact with more mainstream thinkers), observed a strict policy of pluralism in the conference as a whole, which he worked out with a broad spectrum of left journals, for example Monthly Review.
Practically every major socialist thinker appeared at one time or another at the SSC, and many international unionists and political officials. By 2000, after Chancellor Murphy’s death, and with the growing costs imposed by the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a reflection of the neoliberal impact on public university budgets as seen in the tendency to rent out university space at a commercially competitive level, the organisers explored the possibility of finding a more stable anchor outside the City University, and of making the conference economically self-sufficient. To this end, the writer of these lines was hired to coordinate the conference (which he did from 2001 to 2006). The SSC was able to stabilise itself.
With space no longer unlimited, the SSC (now moved to Cooper Union) cut down the number of panels to 60 – 70, with the board of directors planning half of them and, for the remainder of the panels, working with a reduced number of journals and some organisations, e.g. the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, coordinating these as well, ensuring complementarity and no redundancy.
Right after the 2004 SSC, the organisers associated most closely with DSA split from the newer members of the board. The latter continued to organise the conference, which for legal reasons was obliged to change its name. One difference was the fading away from then on of what some felt was the social-democratic character of the large sessions (”plenaries”). However, it should be said that zealous supporters of each side in the split exaggerated the political differences between each side and the level of felt enmity.
Due to building construction at Cooper Union, LF had to move again before the 2008 Forum, and the new venue, Pace University, has put at LF’s disposal a space nearly as unlimited as that of the pre-2001 venue. The board and the new director, Seth Adler, have been able to make the Forum grow to its maximum size to date – with 3,400 attending and over 200 panels.
The keynote speaker this year was Rev. Jesse Jackson. His appearance at the Forum was historically significant in marking a new interest on the part of the radical left to interact with figures connected to institutional politics, as well as the interest of someone like Jesse Jackson to acknowledge his relationship to the radical left. The US left is notable for its separation from the institutions and from the political centre, even from the centre left. It was undoubtedly the relationship to the Obama campaign that prompted debate on what combination of support, tolerance, constructive pressure or opposition the left should practice in relation to Obama, and this debate was very much in evidence in this year’s LF.
The economic/social crisis received a lot of attention in high-quality sessions, featuring some of the top US and Canadian left political economists. (It should be noted that ironically the U.S. and Canada have a higher proportion of Marxists and leftists teaching in universities than Germany and Italy, for example, have. This is due to the large number of radicals who obtained tenured positions during what is known as the “Marxist renaissance” of US universities in the 1970s. The presence of Marxist political economists in US universities is especially striking in comparison to Europe.)
Problems of unionism and of new union strategies were addressed in a large number of lively panels. An attempt was also made to address in a balanced way the recent splits in the US labor movement. The panels featured a large trade union participation both from significant functionaries and rank and file.
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation continued its by now more than 10-year tradition of organising panels at the SSC and LF with a panel on “Union Strategies, Poor People’s Movements and Crisis,” with Christina Kaindl, Jan Rehmann, and speakers from poverty and labur-organizing initiatives in the US. as well as a major session “Can Obama Be Moved? Movement Strategies to Pressure Party Politics” with Margit Mayer and an impressive panoply of speakers ranging from supporters of third-party initiatives to those cooperating with the Democrats, as well as from other initiatives.
For the first year, the Transform Network had a presence – and an important one – with three major panels: “Social-Security Systems in Comparison: Europe and the US” with Robin Blackburn, Lucy apRoberts, Daniel Ankarloo and Ruurik Holm; “Roundtable on Left Strategies in the Core Capitalist Countries,” with Sam Gindin (Socialist Project, Toronto, formerly with the Canadian Auto Workers), João Romão, Greg Albo (Socialist Project, Toronto), Cornelia Hildebrandt (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Die LINKE), Richard D. Wolff and Ruurik Holm; “Understanding and Responding to the Crisis: The Left in Europe and the U.S.” with Walter Baier, William K. Tabb, Jeremy Brecher, Rainer Rilling and João Romão.
The final plenary featured Noam Chomsky, and included a tribute to Howard Zinn from Arundhati Roy and Frances Fox Piven, along with a performance of Zinn’s play “Marx in Soho.” The Zinn tribute and Chomsky’s appearance drew the expected enormous crowds, with people lining up around the block. It was a fitting end to a very exciting and rich weekend.
Board of Directors: Stanley Aronowitz, Roderick Bush, Eric Canepa, Vivek Chibber, Nancy Holmstrom, Jamie McCallum, Lorraine Minnite, Frances Fox Piven, Hobart Spalding, William K. Tabb, Richard D. Wolff, Julia Wrigley
Advisory Board: Gilbert Achcar, Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Barbara Bowen, Rose Brewer, Renate Bridenthal, Michael Brie, Stephen Brier, Stephen Eric Bronner, Paul Buhle, Joseph A. Buttigieg, Luciana Castellina, Angela Dillard, Stephen Duncombe, Hester Eisenstein, Barbara Epstein, Deepa Fernandes, Héctor Figueroa, Harriet Fraad, Josh Freeman, Barbara Garson, Marvin Gettleman, Arun Gupta, Jack Hammond, David Harvey, Gerald Horne, Boris Kagarlitsky, Robin D. G. Kelley, Christine A. Kelly, Peter Kwong, Joanne Landy, Jesse Lemisch, Michael Löwy, Manning Marable, Randy Martin, Liz Mestres, Susan O’Malley, Leo Panitch, Christian Parenti, Thomas Ponniah, Barbara Ransby, Michael Ratner, Jan Rehmann, Gerardo Rénique, Rainer Rilling, Colin Robinson, Nan Rubin, Stephen R. Shalom, Neil Smith, Eleni Varikas, Victor Wallis, Ross Weiner, Joseph Wilson
Endorsing Organisations: Brecht Forum, Center for the Study of Culture, Technology, and Work, Graduate Center, CUNY, Critical Sociology, Logos, Monthly Review, National Lawyers Guild, New Political Science, New Politics, Radical Teacher, Rethinking Marxism/AESA, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Science and Society, Situations, Social Text, Socialism and Democracy, Social Register, Souls, Union for Radical Political Economics