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Platypus at Left Forum 2009

Left Forum 2009 "Turning Points"

April 17-19, 2009


"Each spring in New York City, Left Forum gathers intellectuals and activists from around the world to address the burning issues of our times. The theme for 2009 is TURNING POINTS. [...] The 2009 Left Forum poses the question, could we be at a historic juncture in the evolution of American power and politics? [...] Left Forum provides a unique space for the generation of ideas crucial to theorizing and building a resurgent Left. This year the Forum will include participants from all corners of North America, as well as Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. It will truly be a rare opportunity for a global left dialogue."

Dialectics of Defeat: Towards a Theory of Historical Regression

Presented by The Platypus Affiliated Society

Dialectics of Defeat video animated thumbnail stills

The panelists elucidate significant moments in the progressive separation of theory and practice in the 20th and 21st Century history of Leftist politics: 2001 (Spencer Leonard); 1968 (Atiya Khan); 1933 (Richard Rubin); and 1917 (Chris Cutrone). Each of these dates marked fundamental transformations on the Left. How do we relate to their legacies today? How has the problem of relating theory to practice, and ends to means, been dealt with politically on the Left? How has the political thought and action associated with each of these historical turning points revealed or obscured problems on the Left? How do the historical failures of the Left affect possibilities for the Left today and in the future?

An edited transcript of the presentation is available here.

A panel discussion with:

Benjamin Blumberg (Chair)

Chris Cutrone

Atiya Khan

Spencer Leonard

Richard Rubin

Dialectics of Defeat panelists
(L-R: Ben Blumberg, Spencer Leonard, Atiya Khan, Richard Rubin and Chris Cutrone
at "Dialectics of Defeat" panel, Left Forum 2009, Pace University, NYC, April 18, 2009)

Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures

Contemporary Student Left video animated thumbnail stills

link to video

Young people's heightened participation in politics in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama was crucial to his election and cannot be ignored. The burning post-election questions that the Left must answer are 1) what are the current politics of youth and student organizations and 2) how can the mobilization of youths and students be expanded and deepened? This panel aims to explore these questions by critically reflecting upon the politics of two of the largest and most successful Left student organizations of recent times: the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). The panelists engage these organizations by examining the various perspectives currently influencing them, and explore how these ideas affect their means and ends. This requires us to delve into their current politics, principles, and practice with relation to the history of Left student activism, as well as the history of the Left as a whole. We hope this panel will not only provide insight into the failures of the student Left, but also begin a serious discussion within these organizations and the Left at-large of what the revolutionary potential of such struggle can be.

An edited transcript is available here.

A panel discussion with:

Atlee McFellin: Students for a Democratic Society, New School Radical Student Union

Pam Nogales: Platypus (New York)

C. J. Pereira Di Salvo: former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops

Laurie Rojas: Platypus (Chicago), former member of Students for a Democratic Society

Chair – Alexander L. Hanna: former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops


  • Posted 8 years ago

    Platypus participated in two very well attended and highly engaged panels this weekend at the Left Forum 2009 in NYC: one on the Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures, in which Pam Nogales and Laurie Rojas from Platypus participated, along with Alex Hanna and C. J. Pereira Di Salvo from the Marxist-Humanists; and the other on the Dialectics of Defeat: Towards a Theory of Historical Regression, in which Ben Blumberg, Atiya Khan, Spencer Leonard, Richard Rubin and I participated.

    In addition, Platypus had a literature table in the exhibitors’ space, with a display of back-issues of the Platypus Review and posters from our public events. In addition to those of us who came from Chicago, several Platypus members from Boston came down to attend and participate.

    The Student Left panel was an excellent discussion of the problems of relating ostensible goals and the political means for achieving them among student activists. The prominent critique of the student Left that was mounted by the panelists was on the aversion to confronting ideological issues that inform and inhibit the organizational norms prevalent on the student Left today, and how these have roots in the undigested legacy of single-issue and protest politics since the 1960s. Specific discussion was had about the recent campus take-overs (at the New School, etc.), and the experience in recent years of political activism in organizations such as the new Students for a Democratic Society and the United Students Against Sweatshops. (Atlee McFellin, from the New School Radical Student Union, who was supposed to speak on the New School take-overs, fell ill and so could not participate on the panel as planned.) Audience members were very impressed by the high level of intellectual and political seriousness of the discussion by the panelists, which some veterans of the 1960s “New Left” contrasted favorably with their own generational experience of coming to consciousness of such issues only too belatedly.

    The Dialectics of Defeat panel was the first public expose of the Platypus philosophy of the history of the Left, with:

    1.) Spencer presenting on the post-2001 “Left,” with special focus on 1979 (Iran and Afghanistan), 1989 (collapse of Soviet Communism) and 1999 (the “battle for Seattle” and “antiglobalization”) as markers in the post-1960s “Left’s” degeneration;

    2.) Atiya presenting on the problems of the 1960s “New Left” that culmuinated in 1968, identified and critically theorized by Adorno in his late writings on the problems of theory and practice and how regression on the post-1930s Left took the form of (supposedly anti-)authoritarian “actionist” anti-intellectualism in an undigested, unconsciously Stalinist manner;

    3.) Richard presenting on the 1933-40 period as characterized by the two sets of figures Roosevelt and Hitler, and Trotsky and Benjamin, the New Deal vs. Nazism, and revolutionary optimism vs. intellectual pessimism, and how these have haunted developments on the Left ever since the 1930s; and

    4.) me presenting on the actually engimatic quality of 1917, the moment of the greatest attempt at emancipatory social transformation that has ever taken place, and its problematic legacy, which remains buried under the post-1917 divisions emerging in the disintegration of the Left, distorting history and pitting Luxemburg against Lenin as emancipation vs. necessity and libertarianism vs. authoritarianism, and finding both Lukacs and Korsch disavowing, in the divergent directions of Stalinism and “Left” Communism, respectively, their milestone theoretical works in the wake of 1917.

    Audience discussion at the Dialectics of Defeat panel focused on controversy around the question of whether the Platypus theory of regression on the Left applies (primarily) to the U.S. and Europe or (also) applies to the post-colonial/”Third” world, where progress on the Left in the 20th Century appeared to have been made. We replied to this by making the case that the apparent political “victories” in the post-colonial world through the course of the 20th Century were actually more fundamentally accommodations of defeat of the Left in a greater historical sense. In response to a question about the other panels going on at the Left Forum that reported on the progress being made by the Left around the world in places like Latin America, I replied that our panel was the only one that wouldn’t lie to its audience.

    Both panels were exemplary of the kind of discussion Platypus seeks to foster and affect in the direction of a productive working-through of problems those on the “Left” are otherwise loathe or merely averse to engage.

    Richard’s conclusion of his opening remarks at the Dialectics of Defeat panel could serve as a great motto for the motivation for the discussion at both panels, answering the apprehension that precisely the critical work we do might be demoralizing and not beneficial:

    “We in Platypus believe that ours is a hopefully pessimistic view. We continue to hope that, by an accurate recognition of its own defeatism, there is still time for the Left to reconstruct itself and create a future for human freedom. We reject a fake optimism precisely because we continue to hope, and a false optimism is the deadly enemy of true hope. In answer to Nietzsche’s question ‘Is there a pessimism of the strong?,’ we answer: Yes!”

    — Congratulations to all those whose work made our interventions at the Left Forum such a success!

    by Chris Cutrone on April 20, 2009 7:10 am
  • Posted 8 years ago

    The video from the Dialectics of Defeat panel discussion and Q&A has been posted at:

    by Chris Cutrone on May 7, 2009 5:47 pm
  • Posted 8 years ago

    The video from the Contemporary Student Left panel discussion and Q&A has been posted at:

    by Chris Cutrone on May 8, 2009 6:31 am

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