Reflections on the Left Forum

This weekend at the Left Forum I had a very mixed experience of good and bad.  I appreciated all the hard work that went into organizing it and I thought it was inspiring that there were more people in attendance and a broader spectrum of panels and speakers and attendees than I saw last year.  However, I went to several panels that left me disappointed.  I think it’s important to bring up criticisms of ourselves on the left—I think it’s something that we don’t do enough.  If we want to become better organizers and rebuild the left in this country we need to look at what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, what language and concepts that work and those that don’t, the useful frameworks and the frameworks that are not useful.  I was frustrated by some of the frameworks that structured conversations this weekend.  I was annoyed by dogmatic language and concepts that were not relevant to reality.  And I was depressed by many I listened to who lacked the ability to think strategically.

The first panel I went to was one called "Anarchism and the 2008 Presidential Elections".  I went to the panel thinking it would about what the title implied: a conversation about what the anarchist left should make of the hype around the current presidential race and how it should relate to and use the political moment to its advantage.  Unfortunately I didn’t read the description closely enough, "Can anarchists shrug off the end of the Bush era and this particular U.S. presidential election as just the same old statecraft – and proceed to "shut down" the conventions – or do the race (Obama), gender (Clinton), and "hope" factors problematize our usual responses?"

The panelists proceeded to talk about how the candidates were basically the same:  they were all ruling class and all represented an inherently undemocratic system.  It was the whole "voting doesn’t change anything" spiel.  Well, yes, it doesn’t make any systemic changes but if you can’t tell the different between "a thousand years in Iraq" and "withdrawal in six months" then you are being blinded by your ideology.  And the political climate for movement building (which is most important if we want to make any systemic change in this country) will be completely different under an Obama administration than under a McCain administration—or even a Clinton administration.  Here is how I think of it:  If McCain—or even Clinton—were to win the election, what would happen to all the Obama supporters? How would they feel? What would they blame for their political discontent?  I think that their general sentiment would be along the lines of "these policies would have never been implemented by Obama, the country would be so much better if Obama won, if only we can run a better campaign in the next four years then we can fix all the problems with poverty and healthcare, etc."  What if Obama did win?  If he fails to make any systemic changes or solve any of the problems that he commits so strongly to solving, like most of us on the left say he will, the political energy he generated cannot easily flow back into the electoral process.  It is of my opinion that if Obama wins the presidency we will have a huge base of disillusioned and disappointed Obama voters that will be looking for an alternative.  The question is whether or not the left will be there to provide them one.

This kind of discussion was not present in this panel.  The sentiment of the panel was that we should first, encourage people not to vote and second, if they vote encourage them to do other things.  More time was spent talking about how voting is bad and how bad all the candidates are—as if everyone didn’t already agree.  There was little mention of any strategic way that we can relate to the election other than encouraging people not to vote and continuing our own organizing efforts in our communities.  If this is how the anarchist left thinks then we are definitely going to miss this boat.  In the panel I asked the question: "Do our ideologies prevent us from seeing how we can use the political climate and electoral politics to our advantage?"  I did not receive a sufficient answer.  However, one panelist said something along the lines of "One of the things I like best about being an anarchist is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean".  This is one of things I like least about considering myself an anarchist and one of main reasons that I don’t like to identify myself with that word.  If it can mean whatever you want it to mean then you can call yourself an anarchist but not really believe social change is possible—and worse—shut your mind off strategically and become attached to inefficient tactics that don’t accomplish your goals and actually hinder the movement.  What is the point of an ideology if it allows you to be dogmatic and prevents you from being relevant and open to new ideas and changes in the social, cultural, and political climate?  What is the point of having an ideology if it allows you to believe things that prevent you from actually attaining the goals that you say you believe in?  Political ideas and ideologies can be useful, but only if their purpose is to actually create social change—and as history shows there is no one formula for social change.  There are approaches that have proved successful and approaches that have proved unsuccessful.  There are concept and tools that work at some movements but not at others.  There is a historical trajectory that we can and should use to our advantage—but sometimes we don’t use it or we even use it to our disadvantage.

Social movements have happened all throughout history in a vast array of different political, social, and cultural conditions and under extreme and varied levels of repression and consciousness among people.  To continue blaming external conditions (which was a sentiment I heard at several panels) for the state of the left is to ignore this fact.  A strategic left should be able to examine and analyze the external conditions they are facing and figure out how to best adapt their organizing and movement building strategy to these conditions in a way that can best monopolize on the current sentiments of the population.  The way that ideologies are present in the left today prevents us from doing this.  If we really want to win we need to stop tying ideology to our personal identity and be open to questioning, critiquing and evaluating our and each other’s ideas.  We need to be confident enough in our political commitments to realize that voting doesn’t make someone a member of the Democratic Party and that admitting that elections are important and do change some things doesn’t mean we view electoral politics as a central venue for real social change.  The truly revolutionary leftist is someone who isn’t afraid about going against ideological tradition to help build the movement and is someone who can adapt their organizing to be relevant no matter what their ideology is.  There should be no reason that we can’t talk to people about alternatives to capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression in a way that is relevant to their experience.

The only thing worse than the "just convince people not to vote" sentiment was the "race and gender don’t matter because they’re both ruling class" sentiment.  Yes, the Left Forum has been traditionally dominated by Marxist thought, but one would hope that anarchists and other leftist don’t reduce every issue class as well.  The dynamics of race and gender in this election are important to look at from a systemic analysis—both to counter the dominant race/gender discourse that is surrounding the election in mainstream media and also to analyze the current political climate and intersectionality of oppressions (A good article I read recently that does discuss this is "The Tightrope and the Needle" by Linda Burnham http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/03/21/18487694.php).  For some reason, instead of discussing the contradictions and dynamics that race and gender play in this election, many leftists want to deny that they exist or claim that they are irrelevant—both positions are disastrous if we ever hope to be able to relate to these elections in any meaningful way.

Another sentiment I heard expressed at the forum was that "the youth don’t feel the urgency" or that the left is in the state it is in because of the apathy among the youth.  First of all, I can say from my experience organizing in student communities that the primary problem with getting students active is not that they "don’t feel the urgency", it is that they don’t feel that joining a movement is worth their time because they think it has no chance of winning.  Also, there is a ton of student organizing currently taking place in and out of universities and there are many different leftist student organizations doing great work:  Students for a Democratic Society, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Campus Anti-war Network to name a few.  Just two days ago on the anniversary in the war DC SDS organized a dance party called "Funk the War" of 600 students and youth aged high school and up.  The action turned downtown DC streets into a glorious community space of music, dancing, peace and protest while successfully blocking traffic at several major intersections throughout the entire day.  All of this was done with almost no arrests and the actions attained a good deal of media coverage—the majority of which was positive.  The most amazing thing about the "Funk the War" dance party?  It was fun, exciting, creative and it energized and empowered everyone involved.  Why, when there has been such a positive upsurge in student organizing—especially against the war and for environmental justice—do leftists think that no students and youth are in the movement? Could it possibly be that it was because there was only ONE panel at left forum that had anything to do with youth or student issues?  Could it possibly be because the majority of the organizers and panelists at left forum are from older generations and the majority of panels and workshops are geared towards them?  No wonder there was such a lack of youth representation at the forum and the majority of my friends who make up this youth contingency were disappointed and frustrated by their experiences this weekend.

I strongly hope that more people than us realize some of these issues and start to have these conversations in a productive way.  Knowing all these problems exist makes me hopeful.  It shows me that external factors that we have no control over do not primarily account for the state of the left in this country.  We have the ultimate agency to change things and create a left that is more inclusive and strategic—a left that can win.  As soon as we can realize our agency, our successes and failures, and learn how to analyze and adapt to external conditions I see no reason why we can’t build an undefeatable movement.  But it’s going to take a lot of work, a good deal of self-criticism, and fearlessness in reorienting our frameworks.

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