On not attending the Left Forum
A few weeks back in Manhattan, hundreds of socialists, communists, anarchists, and even few decent “small-d” democrats shuffled into the unlikely venue of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (ironically, best known as a “cop school”) for Left Forum 2015. If you aren’t up on your radical political symposiums, Left Forum evolved out of the now-defunct Socialist Scholars Conference, which was re-founded in 1981 after the original Socialist Scholars Conference petered out in the 1960s. The SSC grew into the largest, most prominent leftist summit in the United States, though nationwide university cuts eventually curtailed both budget and staff for the event. By 2004 it was renamed Left Forum, and it still commands a big draw: This year’s confab boasted 1,300 speakers and four hundred events under the salient title of “No Justice, No Peace: Confronting the Crises of Capitalism and Democracy.”
At its best, Left Forum remains a reassuring beacon of cameraderie and ambition. In addition to seasoned journalists, organizers and academics, it usually snags a few big public intellectuals, like Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, and Angela Davis, while also peppering the bill with high-profile activists like Harry Belafonte and Michael Moore. The organizers sometimes even lure the odd political success story, most recently Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Council member and open socialist. Generally, both speakers and attendees are smart, friendly, and often quite young and good-looking (if I do say so myself).
At its worst, however, Left Forum is Comic Con for Marxists—Commie Con, if you will—and an absolute shitshow of nerds and social rejects. There are bitter old codgers that will harangue you about a thirty-some-years-old internecine grudge, and there are politically unsophisticated kids with Che Guevara t-shirts and Adbusters subscriptions. There are sanctimonious Trotskyists, ridiculous Maoist Third-Worldists, condescending horizontalist anarchists, smug social democrats and a glut of ardent adherents to similarly esoteric ideological traditions, all competing for the title of Most Insufferable Anti-Capitalist. Left Forum is notorious for grueling Q&A sessions, often with nary a “Q” to be found. People like to demonstrate how many books they’ve read (or worse, have written and self-published) in embarrassing displays of pretension and/or machismo, and cynicism is frequently substituted for insight.
But the grumps and the brats, the blowhards and the sectarians, the narcissists and the pessimists—all of these people are bearable to me, some even charming. No, the worst part of Left Forum is the crackpots, the paranoiacs, the hysterics, and all the other truly dysfunctional personalities attracted by the conference’s most infamous policy: no panel submission will be rejected.
That’s right: If you pay your registration fee and fill out the proper forms, you get a room and a table and a spot on the schedule. So in addition to all those experienced and intelligent rabble-rousers, Left Forum is a home for 9/11 Truthers, those who would save us from the terrors of “mandatory fluoridation,” and the generally batshit and/or pathologically anti-social. No one is required to observe their lectures, but they wander into other people’s and there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing.
Last year, the wackjob nadir was “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”) The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi. The reading list included The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf, and the abstract was a masterpiece of paranoia:
Zizek is not only an individual celebrity intellectual who, with the help of the NYTimes, the Guardian, the BBC, In These Times, and Verso Books has become the most recognizeablle [sic] “Marxist” in the spectacle, but the name of a type of ideological revanchist black operation which seeks to reverse the gains of the radical scolarship [sic] and decoloniality of the past decades, to vend US imperial propaganda and disinformation as “critique of liberalism” and “contrarian insights,” to rebarbarize moeurs (normalizing racist and sexist verbal aggression, re-segregating intellectual milieux) which had been to a great degree civilized by the successes of the social movementsm [sic], and to revive Nazi ideology—rebranded as “radical left”—in academic, “indy” a publishing, and what’s left of “counterculture” circles. The problem is not confined to this one individual (whom many dismiss as clownish) but involves a significant network of culture producers showing his influence routinely reproducing US imperial apology, propaganda and disinformation in a superficial “left” package and opportunistically attacking all challenges to Empire which threaten to gain steam.
The nearly two-hour panel can be heard here, but it’s disappointingly dull; who’d have thought tankies were so prissy and meek in real life?
Despite being a longtime member of an American socialist organization, I decided this year that I was too sane to make time for Left Forum. There weren’t any outlandish conspiracies about Slovenian Communists, but the classic bugaboo delusions—combined with the recent rise of “identitarian” and “intersectionalist” buzzwords—filtered through the wool-gathering indulgences of academia, produced some truly surreal situations.
One of the first report-backs I heard was on a Black Lives Matter panel, that “devolved into a polemical debate on the merits of Stalinism vs. Trotskyism (resulting in a panelist claiming that ‘taking over the army in order to wipe out the police would probably be the most feasible short-term strategy’).” Such is the quixotic single-mindedness of the live-action-role-playing Russophile.
If you wanted to witness a legitimate threat of violence, though, you had to go to Greece vs. Germany: The Battle for Europe’s Future. The talk was facilitated by Podemos political secretariat Eduardo Maura, and featured Konstantinos Tsoukalas a member of the Greek parliament from the newly installed Syriza party majority. Heated debate was predicted, but the most furious spectator was just a nut who couldn’t fathom a malfunctioning microphone. As the packed house strained to hear Tsoulakas speak, a pudgy, middle-aged man wandered in and began shouting that he couldn’t hear.
The crowd shushed him and tried to explain the mic situation. He immediately responded with “You’re all a bunch of fascists!” A mild-mannered friend of mine tried explaining again, but our irrepressible partisan answered with, “And you, you’re a piece of shit fucking bastard, you know that?!?” At this point my gentle comrade felt obliged to use his considerable height advantage to herd the insurgent out the door, bravely enduring the cursing and unmistakable come-at-me-bro body language.
Moments like this are so legendary that my friend was actually a little delighted, saying it “felt like a real authentic Left Forum experience, like I’m part of some sort of club now.”
That’s somewhat true, but it’s actually unusual for the indignation on such robust display at Left Forum to get aggro. More often than not, the aggrieved are concerned with the sort of perceived transgressions one rarely hears of outside small liberal arts schools, as with Appropriation of Climate Justice and Intersectionality by Mainstream Environmentalists: Challenges, Opportunities, and Concerns.
Like a fifteen-year-old who’s recently discovered punk rock, the nouveau “Social Justice Warrior” crowd frequently presumes an undue sense of ownership over incredibly basic, nearly ancient ideas. Accusations of theft and plagiarism are all the rage. The aforementioned panel was put together by a group of people who believe they’re part of a uniquely unracist, unsexist, unhomophobic, untransphobic environmentalism, and that they’re somehow being ripped off. Their abstract:
The marginalization of queer and trans* people of color (QT*POC) within the climate movement—the silence around how climate change will disparately impact these communities and the disregard of the radical contributions QT*POC liberation offers the climate movement— highlights the importance of challenging, deepening and expanding the mainstream climate movement’s intersectional analysis.
Don’t you just hate it when those fake-ass poseur environmentalists rip off your intersectionality? One would assume that in any intelligible scheme of political success, the mass “appropriation” of their ideas/consciousness/jargon/acronyms would be the ultimate goal of these “intersectional environmentalist” pioneers. But when you substitute po-mo politics for your personality, “Moooooooom, he’s coooooopying meeeee” quickly becomes a new standard of oppression.
Adding to the generally collegiate atmosphere at Left Forum is the “lighter fare” on offer for panel-weary attendees. But these assemblies turn out on closer inspection to be sessions like the unsubtly titled LEFT WING COMEDY SHOW!—i.e., the political equivalent of Christian Rock—and therefore to be avoided at all costs.
The real comedy comes from panels like Dangerous Scapegoating of Islam: Exacerbated by the Left’s Silence About Controlled Demolition on 9/11. I counted this as one of three Truther panels this year, but these guys clearly had the best angle: Only a racist would believe jet fuel can melt steel beams!
Luckily, that one wasn’t at the same time as Legal Solutions To JFK Assassination Research—nothing worse than a scheduling conflict. Oliver Stone has spoken at Left Forum before, but this panel was hosted by “the newly formed Citizens Against Political Assassinations.” (I don’t know about you, but I am relieved that citizens are finally pushing back against the pro-political assassination populace.)
But at least that paranoia was organized. When I first asked friends for good Left Forum stories, one replied, “You mean like the guy sitting on a folding chair in the atrium Friday night shouting ‘anthrax’ and waving fliers?”
When I pressed her for details she responded with an impassive, “That’s it. Just local color.” That’s just how inoculated you become to derangement on the US left.
Then again, what are we to expect from a symposium with multiple “mad pride” panels, in which speakers denounce psychology as a failure and suggest that mental illness is a “spiritual gift”?
Attempts to reason with these marginalistas go about as well as you’d expect. Writer Arun Gupta spoke on a panel that intelligently and sympathetically criticized evangelical vegans and animal liberationists. Despite his open opposition to factory farming and animal cruelty, he was denounced as “speciesist.” As he later told me in an interview:
If I organized a panel in defense of Stalin in this setting, it would have been less controversial than a panel critiquing animal rights. What does that say about the left that it’s more controversial to say it’s OK to eat humanely raised meat than to say, ‘Hey, Uncle Joe may have broken ten or twenty million eggs, but he made one heck of an omelet!’
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration, and the ineffectual chaos of Left Forum is symptomatic of the state of the left at large. But I do not foresee doom.
It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.