Panel held on November 15th, 2011, at the University of Chicago, as part of the international Crisis of the Left panel series.
What is the Crisis of the Left?
Crisis: Pathol. The point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death.
Many on the Left feel a sense of crisis.
Existing strategies and theories seem inadequate in a bewildering contemporary political scene. Disparate groups have begun to show an interest in rethinking the fundamentals of Left politics. The Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to make the conversation explicit, and to host a series of discussions about the crisis of the contemporary Left: its quality, causes, and significance for future reconstitution and transformation.
Across five cities worldwide (Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Thessaloniki, Boston), weâve invited figures from across the Leftâacademics, political organizers, theoristsâ to answer and debate six fundamental questions. We also pose these questions to the Left as a whole and invite responses from all quarters. The questions below stem from confusion; taking nothing for granted, we hope that confronting this confusion might open up future possibilities for renewed consciousness and practice on the Left.
How would you define the Left?
Do you think the Left is in crisis? If so, then what constitutes the crisis?
In trying to understand the contemporary Left, what history matters most? What tasks and problems have we inherited from the Old Left and the New Left?
Could the Left have done something to avoid its current impasses? If so, what?
What is the relationship between the Left and anti-capitalism? Between the Left and Marxism? What should it be?
How does the Left need to change? Who is responsible for making the change happen?
Moderated by Greg Gabrellas
Mike Ely is a veteran revolutionary who works with Kasama's project for reconceiving the communist movement. He started political life with the early SDS and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and spent time in France and Soviet-Occupied Czechoslovakia during the heady year of 1968. During the 1970s, Mike worked as a communist organizer within waves of coal miner wildcat strikes in Appalachia, and participated in the debates and organizational shakeouts of the New Communist Movement. For 25 years after 1980 he was a writer and editor for the Maoist press in the United States, and a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. As a journalist, he reported on the life and struggles of immigrant workers in the Deep South, Native American spear-fishers in the Midwest, steelworkers within the rustbelt decline in Johnstown, anarchists and Turkish youth in Berlin squats, and residents of Chicagoâs Cabrini Green housing projects. Mike is currently the editor of the Kasamaproject.org discussion space and a close observer of the Occupy together movement.
Roberta Garner completed her undergraduate work and her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago. After three years in New York (at Queens College and Barnard), she returned to Chicago and started teaching at DePaul University where she served as sociology department chair for a total of nine years. She has lived abroad in Italy, France, and Mexico. She writes in the areas of political sociology and social movements, theory, and research methods; her book Doing Qualitative Research (co-authored with Greg Scott and published by Pearson) will be in print in February. Her recent articles include three pieces in Science and Societyâa review article on Nassim Talebâs The Black Swan (with Michael Ash), a review essay on fraud in science, and an article with Larry Garner entitled: "How the US hasnât been the same since the SU passed away."
Alexander Hanna is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on politics and social media. His research looks at social movement groups and networks in Egypt, and how blogs, Facebook, and Twitter aid them. He is in his second year as co-president of the Teaching Assistantsâ Association (TAA). The TAA is the oldest graduate employee union in the country and represents nearly 3,000 teaching and project assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Greg Gabrellas is a graduate student at the University of Chicago for American history and social thought, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, and a lead organizer for the Crisis of the Left event series. He was a founder of the Woodlawn Collaborative, a center for the arts, education and progressive political activism on Chicago's South side. He has contributed to the Platypus Review and the Chicago Maroon on topics ranging from the politics of race and sexuality, immigration and the labor movement, environmentalism and the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg. With Spencer Leonard and Watson Ladd, he is a co-producer of Radical Minds on WHPK 88.5 FM Chicago.
Platypus in Chicago will be giving a series of talks on The Relevance of Marxism Today at Occupy Chicago, look out for the banner, “The Left is Dead! Long Live the Left!”, and come join us for discussion.
Teach-in: Does Marxism Matter?
In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels famously observed in the Communist Manifesto that a ‘specter’ was haunting Europe—the specter of Communism. 160 years later, it is ‘Marxism’ itself that haunts us.
In the 21st century, it seems that the Left abandoned Marxism as a path to freedom. But Marx critically intervened in his own moment and emboldened leftists to challenge society; is the Left not tasked with this today? Has the Left resolved the problems posed by Marx, and thus moved on?
Does Marxism even matter?
On May 19, 2011, Platypus invited Carl Davidson, formerly of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Guardian Weekly, Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Mel Rothenberg, formerly of the Sojourner Truth Organization, to reflect on “The Marxist turn: The New Left in the 1970s.”
The original description of the event, which was moderated by Spencer A. Leonard at the University of Chicago, reads: “The 1970s are usually glossed over as a decade of the New Left’s disintegration into sectarianism, triggered by the twin defeats of Nixon’s election and the collapse of SDS in 1968–69. But the 1970s were also a time of tremendous growth on the Left. The embarrassed silence retrospectively given to the politics of this time contradicts the self-understanding of 1970s radicals’ finally “getting serious” about their Leftism, after the youthful rebellion of the 1960s. After a decade of searching for new revolutionary agents, and faced with the reordering of global capital towards post-Fordism, the 1970s saw a return to working class politics and Marxist approaches, in both theory and practice. The conventional imagination of the 1970s as the long retreat after the defeat of the late 1960s occludes an understanding of the political possibilities present in the 1970s. Our contemporary moment provides an opportunity to rethink the politics of this period. The collapse of the anti-war movement and the disappointments of the Left’s hopes for a reform agenda under Obama have exhausted the resurgence of 1960s-style leftism that took place in the 2000s. The reconsideration of Marx in the wake of the current economic crisis, which parallels the neo-Marxism of the 1970s (if much attenuated by comparison), raises the question of the possibility of a Marxian politics that could fundamentally transform society. Therefore, in this panel discussion we will investigate the neglected significance of the legacy of 1970s-era Marxism for anticapitalist and emancipatory politics today.”
Panel organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society given at the 2011 annual conference of the Cultural Studies Association in Chicago, IL on Thursday, March 24th, 2011, at Columbia College, Chicago.
Benjamin Shepard - Independent Scholar (Los Angeles), Platypus Affiliated Society
Jacob Cayia - University of Illinois - Chicago
Omair Hussain - School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Lucy Parker - School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Greg Gabrellas (chair) - University of Chicago, Platypus Affiliated Society
A panel discussion held on November 9th, 2010, at the University of Chicago.
The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a “new New Deal” to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form. “In the United States today there is no Left,” C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, âpolitical activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities — though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial — or merely private. If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.
This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Left’s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?
Spencer A. Leonard