Now that the triumvirate of public intellectuals from Burlington has passed on – social ecology theorist Murray Bookchin, peace activist Will Miller and world citizen Garry Davis – who will replace them? Who has the ego and the vision, and is driven enough to be willing to take to the virtual soapbox, day after day, to convince people of the dire threats to participatory democracy and justice and freedom in our country and the world?
It’s a hard act to follow. Nevertheless, one place to look is amongst the Vermonters who got themselves to the Left Forum, held in NYC from May 30-June 1st this year.
What is the Left Forum? Each spring the Left Forum convenes the largest gathering in North America of the US and international Left. According to their website, “For the US and the world, revitalizing an American Left has never been more urgent; the Left Forum has a critical role to play in that undertaking.” This year’s forum was titled Reform and/or Revolution: Imagining a World with Transformative Justice.
Sandy Baird, Burlington College professor, was critical of this year’s forum, implying it might better be titled the Left out Forum. She was shocked that there were almost no workshops on war. “They were mainly on the politics of identity and economics. Nothing about the surveillance state or violence against women, constitutional issues, civil liberties, or the Glenn Greenwald NSA scandals. The US is fomenting riots around the world. The 1% will not allow any alternative power to arise in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Left Forum has no analysis of US foreign policy.” Pointing to the lack of ANY workshop on the disastrous situation in Iraq, she asked, “Will Americans have to leave Iraq clinging to the bottoms of helicopters?”
Fred Magdoff is an editor and writer with Monthly Review, an independent Socialist magazine co-edited by Magdoff’s father Harry Magdoff from 1969 until 2006. Fred pointed out that the Forum is made up of workshops proposed and created by the participants themselves. He admitted that ‘it’s a grab bag:’ it originated out of the Socialist Scholars Conference, thus it has inherited an academic slant. He took part in two panels on Venezuela, a country that, he said, is facing “an uprising of the wealthy.” Regarding the political situation in the US, his opinion is that “things have become more clear. We don’t have fascism yet, but everything is in place. Surplus weapons from the wars in the Middle East are being given away to our police departments. There is an increasingly low threshold of tolerance for dissent. The Occupy movement was disrupted. And, they’re reading everything” we write. Magdoff himself is reading The Iron Heel by Jack London, a book that George Orwell called “a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of fascism.”
Other Vermonters were more positive. Social ecologist Brian Tokar of Montpelier, who spoke on three panels: ‘the Venezuelan revolution and Climate Change;’ ‘Challenging GMOs;’ and ‘the Radical DecentralistPolitics of Murray Bookchin,’ felt this year’s Forum “was an excellent gathering. People approached issues from a whole range of positions.” He was pleased to note that the organization that Bookchin helped to found, the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) in Plainfield Vt. will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer. The discussion on the legacy of Murray Bookchin, he said, was very stimulating. “Murray,” Tokar said, “was a genuinely original and prescient thinker who was grappling with problems that we still face today – and proposing solutions for them—before most people realized those problems existed.”
The Left Forum workshop focused particularly on Bookchin’s organizing strategies – what Bookchin called libertarian municipalism or “communalism.” Bookchin proposed the idea of organizing and running candidates on the municipal level as an essential strategy for anti-capitalist Left movements. He believed that these grassroots democratic organizations, which would confederate to make regional decisions, would give structure and sustain movements (such as Occupy!), and would allow the Left to create meaningful, lasting social change. Tokar, and fellow panelists Eleanor Finley of the ISE, and Damian White, professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and author of the book “Bookchin: A Critical Appraisal” had a lively wide-ranging discussion of these ideas and others developed by Bookchin. Joe and Bea Bookchin also took part in the discussion.
Ashley Smith is a member of the editorial board of the International Socialist Review (ISR), and a lead organizer in Burlington of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). “The Left Forum is a wonderful smorgasbord of the American Left,” he said, “an event that shows the potential but also the very early stages of rebuilding it as a force in American politics.” He participated in several environmental activist panels where people discussed why capitalism and the existing state system cannot solve the climate crisis. “We talked about how to mobilize for the upcoming People’s Climate March in September in New York City.” One of the highlights for him was Kshama Sawant’s attendance. “Her election as an open socialist to Seattle’s City Council showed us that Socialism is not only not a dirty word but an alternative that people are looking for.”
Toward Freedom (TF) sponsored three workshops. On a panel called “What Did We Learn From Wisconsin?” Burlington video journalist Sam Mayfield showed her feature documentary Wisconsin Rising. Mayfield spent seven months in Wisconsin, covering the popular uprising against legislation gutting basic workers’ rights. Although the protest failed to win a recall of reactionary Governor Scott Walker, the struggle is not over. She says that the response of labor groups to the film has been very positive. Evaluating the Forum’s plenary sessions, she said they seemed “predictable,” and elaborated further: “I see the Left Forum as a place for the political Left to convene and share ideas about contemporary issues facing their individual political community. The conference itself is relatively disorganized with too many workshops, leaving many of the panel discussions – though very important topically – diluted and with small audiences. Perhaps it is a curse of the American Left. There are too many choices and not enough of a consensus about the true deep issues that keep us connected and working together for a more just world.”
John Summa, economics professor at UVM, led a workshop on “Justice for Victor Jara.” The good news is that justice is moving forward in the case of the singer-songwriter of Chile who was killed by military officers in 1973 after the overthrow of democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. His alleged killer is a naturalized US citizen living in Florida, awaiting resolution of an extradition request by the Chilean justice system. An attorney and counsel representing Joan Jara spoke about the case. Summa’s long awaited film on Jara will be completed by the end of the year.
The third TF workshop was organized by Juan Carlos Vallejo, a Colombian human rights activist living in Burlington since 2003. He too is hopeful: the title of his workshop was “Colombian Peace Talks: the Flame of Hope is back again.” Members of the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) negotiation team joined him to talk about the current peace talks in Cuba that have recently received a boost due to the re-election of peace supporter Juan Manuel Santos as president of Colombia. Vallejo claimed that this was the first time since the FARC was founded 50 years ago that official representatives appeared live on a panel in the US. They responded openly to all questions. Vallejo reported that the session was videotaped by two cameras: “One from TeleSur, a Latin American TV network, and the other from…I don’t know…the FBI?”
Finally, I was there. I tried to organize a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom workshop on the global war on women, but was unable to muster a panel. I attended a fascinating workshop on Revolutionary Animism (e-mail me if you’d like a copy of my notes – see below), and another on Conflicts and Peace Building in Africa, where I met Horace Campbell, a scholar and author on the liberation struggles of Africa who spoke in Burlington, VT last year. He handed me his latest book – Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya – and asked “when will the progressive community invite me back to Burlington? There’s a lot to talk about.”
With all the insights gained in NYC, we could hold our own Left Forum here in Burlington, and include everything that’s been Left out.
Robin Lloyd is the publisher of TowardFreedom.com. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.