I'm used to being the most liberal person in any room I'm in. Maybe that's why I was so excited and refreshed by Left Forum 2016, a dizzyingly busy and well-attended three-day annual gathering in New York City.
Left Forum has a long, proud history. It's a multigenerational experience that allows practical-minded progressives (like myself) to congregate with deeply devoted utopians and socialists, as well as several hard-core ideologues who seem to be holding on to past or unfashionable ideals: Marxists, Spartacists, Trotskyists, even a few Maoists, like the friendly and knowledgeable owner of Revolution Books with whom I had an intense conversation that ended with these words: "You are the only person I've ever met who actually defends the Great Leap Forward. But it was good talking to you."
I've never been attracted to any doctrinaire forms of Marxism, and was surprised and intrigued to discover that several intense politicos still define themselves with creaky class-struggle labels that seem now to belong to the dustbin of history. I also felt an overwhelming sense of history when I noticed that resonant names like Robert Meeropol (who was representing the worthy Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg movement) and A. J. Weberman (hmm, is he still hanging around Macdougal Street?) could be found in the vast list of panel discussions. I was intrigued, but also concerned that Left Forum 2016 might be stuck in some Leftist past.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about. There was plenty of fresh life and enthusiasm in this diverse, bristling gathering. The Spartacists and Trotskyists and Maoists shared the floor with newer movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy and 350.org and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and there was plenty of healthy back-and-forth between various points of view. We were all there because we all care about the future of the world. Even with all the hyper-intellectual baggage in the air, I sensed more unity than diversity at this midtown Manhattan event.
I wouldn't have known about the Left Forum if my friend Sander Hicks hadn't invited me to participate in a panel we called "Inner Truth to Power: Meditation as a Revolutionary Act", along with Rafiq and Gregg Hill. We had a pretty unique proposition for our discussion:
This panel turned into a lively and moving nearly two-hour event. We were pleased to find a full room of people eager to talk about spiritual consciousness as it relates to Leftist politics. My fellow panelists and I commemorated the moment with a photo on the sidewalk outside.
I followed my panel by rushing off to another one called "Toward a Revival of the U. S. Anti-War Movement" (hell yeah!) featuring Medea Benjamin, Nidal Batari, Ashley Smith, Dan Fischer and moderated by Stanley Heller, who is gathering representatives of organizations who wish to Revive the Peace Movement (Pacifism21 definitely plans to jump aboard).
This panel turned out to be an eclectic discussion in a packed room: Batari spoke of the ongoing refugee tragedy in Syria, while Fischer emphasized the potential to tie the peace movement to the environmental movement. I was most inspired by CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin's response to another panelist who declared his bitter feelings towards other antiwar activists who choose to support the Hillary Clinton campaign. This was the first of many exchanges I heard about whether leftists should support Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in the upcoming US presidential election.
There was not much affection for the Obama/Clinton tradition of mainstream political compromise at the Left Forum ... and this is why it took courage for Medea Benjamin to challenge this panelist — not about whether he or she or we should support Hillary Clinton, but whether or not we should alienate and disparage others who come to different conclusions about this difficult question than we do. Benjamin suggested that liberalism needs to be a big tent, that tolerance is difficult but essential, and that even antiwar activists who despise Clinton's embrace of high-tech warfare and Kissinger-style foreign policy need to respect others who choose to support her.
Like Medea Benjamin, I try to be as broadly accepting of different points of view as possible, and I don't see why I can't support Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at different levels at the same time: Jill Stein because she speaks so truthfully about the critical issues we must face, Bernie Sanders because his movement has been an incredible inspiration to so many people, and Hillary Clinton because she would not be anywhere near as destructive as President Donald Trump. On a less specific level, it's a great general point that political activists should always welcome diverse opinions from others. For these reasons, Medea Benjamin's call for unity and acceptance of political diversity at this panel expressed what was in my own heart.
My Saturday evening ended with some wonderful leftist standup comedy featuring Randy Credico and John Fugelsang. I didn't make it back in time on Sunday for this event, though I love the title ...
— Marc Eliot Stein (@asheresque) May 22, 2016
But I hit the next time slot for a second peace-related panel, "The Fight to End US Wars" featured Sara Flounders, Joe Lombardo, Phil Wilayto and Bernadette Ellarin. Lombardo emphasized the extremely outsized presence of US military bases around the world and asked us to think about what this signifies. I was impressed by the passionate conviction of an activist named Phil Wilayto, and after he pointed out that he has never seen the US antiwar movement as depressed and demotivated as it is today I took the opportunity of a Q&A session to ask him to elaborate on why he thinks this is the case.
My question led to a lively discussion that reached towards the type of conversation I think we need to have more often (indeed, this is the kind of conversation Pacifism21 is designed to instigate: why are people so utterly hopeless about the prospects for world peace in 2016, and what can we do to fight this hopelessness?).
There was a bit more optimism at a lively and chatty meeting with Rodolfo Reyes, United Nations ambassador from Cuba. I mentioned above that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton are popular with the generally hard-line crowd at Left Forum, and yet it must be due to Obama's extraordinary decision to finally break with the USA's shameful legacy of hostility towards Cuba's government and visit Havana that there was such a sense of excitement in this room.
— Pacifism21 (@Pacifism21) May 22, 2016
The Left Forum's Sunday night closing session featured a stirring, perfectly pitched talk by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, who related the story of Bree Newsome's brave solitary decision to remove a confederate flag from South Carolina's capitol grounds all by herself instead of waiting for others to solve the problem (Bree Newsome was arrested, but later the state finally made the sane decision to take the flag down for good).
Goodman was followed by the controversial Slovenian Marxist philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek, who I've written about before. I have mixed feelings about Zizek, who at times seems to troll for controversy with insulting language, who like the Revolution Books owner I spoke to on Saturday actually calls himself a Maoist, and who speaks a bit too glowingly for my tastes of the "divine violence" that occurs when even an innocent civilian is slaughtered by a terrorist for a good cause.
I don't like Maoism and I don't like divine violence. And yet I remain an admirer of Slavoj Zizek for his passionate style, and his wide-ranging imagination. His main point at Left Forum 2016 was that the spread of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee ideology in Europe reveals a layer of psychological weakness in the European sense of identity that is worth examining further. All other controversies aside, I'm happy to explore this thought, and I'm glad Zizek brought it up.
I punctuated my Left Forum 2016 experience by introducing myself to Medea Benjamin and taking a fanboy photo. It was an enlightening weekend, remarkable most of all for the clearly evident intelligence and human concern of nearly everyone who'd gathered there. Workers of the world, I'll see you in 2017.