A panel event held on November 14th, 2012, at Dalhousie University. The first iteration of our "Democracy and the Left" international panel series.
Matthew Furlong (Foundation Year and Contemporary Studies Programme, King’s University)
David Howard (Historical and Critical Studies, NSCAD University)
John Hutton (student activist, Dalhousie)
Clare O’Connor (Toronto activist and author)
From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.
At the same time, the impending general election in the U.S. seems, by comparison, to be a non-event, despite potentially having far-reaching consequences for teeming issues word-wide. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Hence, while contemporary demands for democracy to politicize the demos, they are also indicative of social and political regression that asks urgently for recognition and reflection. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its already obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections, but was split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary.
Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both the progressive social and emancipatory demands, but also their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte”.
What is the history informing the demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment?
What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution, especially as understood by the Left?
Questions for panelists to consider:
What would you consider as “real” democracy, as this has been a primary demand of recent spontaneous forms of discontent (e.g. Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity protests, student strikes)?
What is the relationship between democracy and the working class today? Do you consider historical struggles for democracy by workers as the medium by which they got “assimilated” to the system, or the only path to emancipation that they couldn’t avoid trying to take?
Do you consider it as necessary to eschew established forms of mass politics in favor of new forms in order to build a democratic movement? Or are current mass form of politics adequate for a democratic society?
Why has democracy emerged as the primary demand of spontaneous forms of discontent? Do you also consider it necessary, or adequate, to deal with the pathologies of our era?
Engels wrote that “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is”. Do you agree? Can this conception be compatible with the struggle for democracy?
How is democracy related with the issue of possibly overcoming capital?
Is there a difference between the ancient and the modern notion of democracy and, if so, what is the source of that difference? Does “real” democracy share more with the direct democracy of ancient polis?
Is democracy oppressive, or can it be such? How would you judge Lenin’s formulation that: “…democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears.”
Electoral politics are a longstanding problem for the U.S. left. In recent decades, a number of parties have formed as an alternative to the Democratic Party: the Labor Party, the Green Party, and now, the Justice Party. However, these parties risk becoming little more than networks of activists or pressure groups on the Democratic Party, and it still remains unclear whether a serious electoral challenge to the Democratic Party is possible. Radical Minds is pleased to air an edited recording of a panel organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, which investigates several contemporary approaches to electoral politics and draws out the theories that motivate Leftist third parties. The major speakers, Lenny Brody of the Justice Party and Jason Wright of the International Bolshevik Tendency, consider how the historical achievements and failures of third parties bear upon the present.
Aired on April 10th, 2012 on the Radical Minds radio show.
An international forum on the
CRISIS OF THE LEFT
Chicago | NYC | Philly | Boston | Thessaloniki
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. “…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…”
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, we’ve invited figures from across the Left–academics, political organizers, theorists–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.
1.) How would you define the Left?
2.) Do you think the Left is in crisis? If so, then what constitutes the crisis?
3.) 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?
4.) Could the Left have done something to avoid its current impasses? If so, what?
5.) 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?
Paul Berman is a writer on politics and literature who is affiliated with two magazines, The New Republic and Dissent, and also contributes from time to time to the New York Times, once in a while to Slate, and to other journals. He has written a history of the left-wing Generation of 1968 around the world, so far in two volumes, under the titles "A Tale of Two Utopias" and "Power and the Idealists." His other books include "The Flight of the Intellectuals," "Terror and Liberalism," and a number of edited anthologies, including a "Selected Poems" of Carl Sandburg. His books have been translated into fifteen languages. His next book will be a study of Nathaniel Hawthorne - who, after all, went through a socialist phase.
Carl Dix is a long-time revolutionary activist. He was one of the Fort Lewis 6, soldiers who refused to ship off to Vietnam. He is a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. He is a leading figure in the movement to stop the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth.
Bertell Ollman is a professor in the Dept. of Politics at NYU, but has also given courses on Marx at Oxford and Columbia. He is the author of Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Social and Sexual Revoluition: Essays on Marx and Reich, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marxâs Method, Class Struggle is the Name of the Fame: True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman (he is also the creator of the Class Struggle board game), How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World, and a number of other works in this general area. He is currently completing the first collection of Marx's writings on economic crisis.
Marco Roth is an editor and co-founder of n+1 magazine.
Nikil Saval is an associate editor of n+1, where he is a frequent contributor. His writing has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Oxford American, and The London Review of Books. He is currently working on a book about the history of office design and white-collar work.
Jeremy Cohan is a PhD candidate in sociology at NYU, as well as the lead NYC organizer for the Platypus Affiliated Society. Jeremy has written and presented on the political and social theory of Marx, Georg Lukacs, and Michel Foucault; he has chaired several panels for the Platypus Affiliated Society, including on nationalism, bourgeois revolutions, Obama and the Left, and sexual liberation; he is currently doing research on transformations in American education and on early twentieth century revolutions. He has taught introductory sociology and philosophy courses, as well as courses on fascism, and will be a graduate assistant in the year to come in a program on Critical Theory and the Arts.
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.”
Platypus President's report by Chris Cutrone at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, May 1, 2011.
The usual ways of categorizing various trends on the "Left" today have become less useful for distinguishing politically and indicating potential future developments. Trends have defied historical or expected trajectories -- if these in fact ever applied properly -- and so call for a new and different approach to sort out what we're dealing with today and are likely to encounter going forward. Platypus has been rightly recognized (if only occasionally and intermittently) for traversing if not transcending these categories in the approach of our project. Other sets of categories that can be usefully problematized by the "anti-fascist" vs. "anti-imperialist" division are: 1.) socialist vs. liberal; 2.) libertarian vs. authoritarian; and 3.) anti-Stalinist vs. Stalinist.