Thanks to Meaghan Linick-Loughley and Marcus Hill for beginning the useful discussion of this event. I attended it, sporadically, when it was the Socialist Scholars Conference, and regularly since it changed to the Left Forum (LF). Linick-Loughley and Hill’s experiences, and subsequent critiques of the most recent LF accurately describe one very real face of the conference. Some panelists seem to forget they are among people that already broadly agree with an anti-imperialist and even an anti-capitalist analysis, and continue to present the criticisms of empire, that brought us to the LF in the first place, as if they were breaking news. Others present carefully prepared analyses of current events and class alignments to confirm their line is still correct, and the only way in which to move toward a better world. As Meaghan and Marcus have pointed out, both of these approaches threaten the potential of the LF to contribute to a viable Left.
I’m volunteer staff at a Workers’ Center whose mission is to build a democratic, worker led organization that builds power for low wage workers and their families. We try to do our work at the point where community, race, gender and labor issues coincide. Finding that point, and transforming it into a space where people, who face overwhelmingly oppressive conditions, can glimpse the possibility of positive change, and find the courage to pursue it, is the challenge. Unsurprisingly, there are hundreds of individuals and small organizations in this country facing the same or similar challenges. These groups and people have been increasingly visible and vocal at the last few LFs. They may not be the names that jump out at us from the speaker’s list, but they have important things to say, and are getting respect for their creativity and lack of orthodoxy.
At a panel on alternatives to current labor law, Sarumathi Jayaraman from ROC-United, described ROC’s vision and methodology in successfully organizing restaurant workers into alternative labor associations. The effect on a roomful of union organizers was electric. They were stunned to discover that (among other things) members are required to attend a series of labor history, political education and worker justice workshops to gain the benefits of membership.
At another panel which included such veteran activists/historians as Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Kate Bronfenbrenner, Ai-Jen Poo of Domestic Workers United moved beyond unionism and ideology into a narrative about labor organizing that recognizes the structural support that was necessary to protect, inspire and sustain participants in the Civil Rights, Women’s and Farm Workers’ Movements, as a necessary element in DMU’s success.
A panel on organizing across race, ethnic, gender, and generational lines focused almost entirely on the issue Michael Albert has called “stickiness”. Susan Wilcox of Brotherhood/SisterSol, a project which encourages young people in Harlem to examine the economic and political reasons for the ways their lives have been defined by others rather than themselves, found the combination of vision, activism, education, love and respect that define the project to be quite matter of fact: “a way of life”. Whatever the theory or practice of the members of this panel, they were all seriously trying to consider aspects of movements that lie beyond ideology, and humanize them. There were other examples of what seemed to me positive and valuable narratives presented at the panels I attended. Granted I consciously chose panels that concentrated on labor and social movement building with organizers as panelists.
I think the LF is changing, and it’s not because one “ism” or the other has gained the upper hand. People want to hear from those of us who are winning. If the LF wants to appear relevant to people trying to build movements, it needs to provide a platform for their voices. I understand very well the disappointment of Linick-Loughley and Hill. The possibility of encountering stale doctrine and rigidity lies behind each door to the panels. At times, though, creativity and inspiration show up instead.