With more than 2,500 participants, more than 1,000 speakers, 200-plus panels, and three plenary sessions (as well as musical performances, art exhibits and film screenings) this year’s Left Forum filled two-and-a-half days at Pace University in lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge towered over the scene, but there was, alas, little in the discussions to remind us of the monumental past of American radicalism. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office was across the street, and the familiar injunction to the aggrieved, “Tell it to City Hall,” did come to mind.
Whoever now governs the country (a point on which there was no agreement) is likely to remain resolutely indifferent to the forum’s messages.
There were plenty of them. Marx, in his several historical incarnations, was much cited. Ethnic, feminist, gay, racial perspectives were voiced. The religious left–and especially the Christian left–was very vocal. The new immigrants and their problems were evoked. Some of the participants, clearly, did not require instruction from the president on community organizing: they had their own experiences to draw upon. Empire, in its varied forms, was not an abstract category at this gathering: its invasion of our institutions and lives was a matter for telling portrayal. A majority of those present were teachers and students, and the cleavages, conflicts and serial deprivations of education in America were brought to life.
A serious survey of the demographic and social composition of those present would be instructive. Visual inspection suggested that seniors and the middle-aged at least equalled, and may have outnumbered, those younger attendees. Students were there in numbers, but hardly in sharp, much less dissenting, profiles.
Of course, there were panels on the excitements of the 1960s and ’70s, in contrast with the current relative calm. No one mentioned that Pace in 1970 had been invaded by thugs from the building unions, who assaulted students protesting the invasion of Cambodia–but an acute historical consciousness was decidedly not the forum’s most evident aspect.
Listening to a very few of the panels, talking with acquaintances and with people I did not know, I sensed a good deal of historical bewilderment. However much its articulation was left to Obama’s electoral managers, a large popular tide in which discontent and demand were inextricably mixed had swept him into office. Since inauguration, he appears to have recalled Lenin: three steps forward and two steps back is his operating model (unless it is two-and-a-half steps back). What do those to the left of the Democratic Party think, and what plausible course of political action can they now adopt? These are questions that suffused much of what I heard. Many at the forum (star authors and their readers alike) found compensation for their failure to achieve clear answers in a singular obduracy. They kept repeating ideas most of which were not new at the old Socialist Scholars Conferences of the sixties. That is, they recurred to the ideas of American historical sequence–the multiple forms of alienation and exploitation, of imperial vocation and of an immutable system. They did so even though, as intelligent contemporaries, they intuited that our situation may now be different and even open, if we could apprehend it. For all the forum’s attention to crisis, this was an exercise in intellectual routine.
The world beyond our borders was represented. Some Chinese scholars were there, and plenty of persons with roots elsewhere in Asia and Africa and Latin America. Europe, particularly Western Europe, was represented by several figures from the smaller formations to the left of the larger socialist and social democratic parties. I suppose that is how the forum’s organizers and participants thought of themselves–as marginal to the Democratic Party, but part of the forces that may in the end transform the nation, because uncompromising in their insistence on radical change.
Most of the older participants have given long lives to educating themselves and others about the world. Many younger ones represent communities and groups otherwise without voice. We have a president who actually attended earlier meetings of this group. However, the experience, knowledge and talents of the forum’s people (and there are hundreds of thousands more like them in the country) are unknown in Washington. The Left Forum could claim vanguard functions when our nation’s politics were rigidified. Now that all is in motion, a new footing is hard to find. Perhaps the forum’s people should consider new historical possibilities. Nearly 20 percent of the House of Representatives belongs to the Congressional Progressive Caucus–which needs energies and ideas from well beyond the members’ districts. Yet I could find no trace of any contact to the caucus, or any other part of national government. The Kingdom of Heaven will probably remain just below the historical horizon, but the nation’s radicals could experiment with new paths to democracy.
The New Deal was much talked about at the forum. Its moving mosaic of action and ideas joined urban political machines and prarie populists, professors and folk singers, well-connected bankers and lawyers and union organizers. Sometimes, political contradictions of the sort besetting the White House are best met not by taking ascetic distance from them but by taking them on.