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A Tale of Two Conferences

BY Ken Brociner

By sheer coincidence, the two wings of the American left held back-to-back conferences in mid-March. What follows is not only a story about those two conferences, but also a tale of the American left itself.

Before it became known as the Left Forum in 2005, the annual gathering of leftists at New York’s Cooper Union College went by the name of the Socialist Scholars Conference. As in the past, this year’s conference billed itself as a meeting of “intellectuals and activists from around the world.” But it was mostly a coming together of the radical wing of the American left, with a concentration of activists from the New York metropolitan area.

Despite my alienation from the overall politics of the Left Forum, as I was walking around on Saturday, I did feel a kinship with many of the approximately 1,100 people in attendance. [Editor’s correction: This estimate is too low. Stanley Aronowitz, co-chair of the conference, states in his comment below that 2,300 people registered. See also Part 2 of Ken Brociner’s comment.] Given the average age of the activists and intellectuals who were shuttling back and forth between workshops and panels, it was obvious these folks have been in the struggle for decades.

But I also felt a mixture of sadness and anger. It was like I was in a parallel political universe from the one I inhabit. Nothing captured this surreal feeling more than the fact that the upcoming U.S. presidential election was all but ignored.

Here we were in the middle of compelling race for the Democratic nomination–a race that that has seen the emergence of a remarkable grassroots movement in support of Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign and yet one would barely know it from attending the Left Forum.

Even the panel “The interplay of movements and electoral politics in the U.S.” managed to focus on everything but the political race that has been capturing the imaginations of activists all over America. Instead such hot topics as how progressives can build a labor, green, or left party were addressed.

Some panels were better than others, but for the most part ideology–and a turgid and dogmatic one at that–appeared to have trumped everything going on in the world outside of Cooper Union.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the Left Forum as an annual gathering of the mostly irrelevant far left–doing so would be a mistake.

First, even though the activists who attend the conference each year represent a distinct minority of the American left, their visibility is disproportionately high. And because this wing of the left specializes in shrill ideological pronouncements, it has served to limit the overall appeal of the American left with its most important audience–the American public.

Secondly, the “explain it all” ideology that is so characteristic of the far left (everywhere, not only in the United States) siphons off a significant portion of the overall pool of potential activists. Unfortunately, instead of becoming involved in relevant political work, all too many of these activists wind up wasting their time on the abstractions of stale “ideological struggle.” Or worse, Nader-style Third Partyism.

On Sunday morning when I took my seat on the train to Washington, I couldn’t wait to leave New York and connect to the kind of pragmatic politics that I knew would be on full display at the Take Back America Conference.

This year’s conference was being promoted as “The Progressive Convention.” It is the one gathering each year where the progressive movement comes together. Despite the different functions and agendas of each of the component parts of the movement, practically every one of the 2,000 or so in attendance shares the same general goals and values.

Defeating the right and electing progressives to office serves as the overriding raison d’etre of the conference. Connected to those objectives are: broadening and strengthening the grassroots movement around the country; and advocating on behalf of an ambitious set of social, economic and political issues.

Take Back America 2008 was, as usual, rousing and inspirational. The keynote speeches that stood out for me were those given by Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (the group that convenes the conference each year); Van Jones, a young and dynamic leader in the environmental movement; and Donna Edwards, the newly elected, soon-to-be, congresswoman from Maryland’s 4th district.

Borosage presented an analytical overview of the current political situation with a stress on how the progressive movement can shift things in a leftward direction. He once again restated his belief, which was clearly shared by most of the people at the conference, that the best way to move forward is to do so as “an independent progressive movement, not as an arm of the Democratic Party.”

Borosage’s perspective is spelled out in a paper that was distributed to everyone at the conference: “Progressives Rising–2008: As Sea-Change Election.”

In the most poignant panel of the conference, Jesse Jackson, Roger Wilkins, and Taylor Branch reflected on how “the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement” might be applied in the event that we have a Democrat in the White House come 2009.

At a Take Back America press conference it was announced that a loose coalition of progressive groups will be mounting a huge $400 million-plus effort to register voters and advocate for candidates in the run-up to November’s election.

The AFL-CIO will be spending more than $53 million on outreach to union members. Individual unions within the labor federation, along with the seven unions in the Change to Win coalition will be spending another $300 million or so mobilizing their members, as well as on direct contributions to progressive candidates.

MoveOn.org announced it is planning to spend more than $30 million on the presidential race and in key House and Senate races.

The economic justice group ACORN, a nonprofit organization that cannot advocate for candidates, announced it will be running a massive voter registration drive aimed at low-income minorities–to the tune of $35 million.

Other groups participating in the press conference included Rock the Vote, Planned Parenthood, and the National Council of La Raza, each indicating that they are involved in mobilizations of their own.

As the AFL-CIO’s Karen Ackerman made clear, the overall progressive effort to turn out the vote on Election Day will be the most extraordinary mobilization of its kind in American history.

On my flight back to Boston, I was thinking about the two conferences I had just attended. Sadly, one wing of the American left is still stuck in a rigidly ideological view of the world, rendering themselves politically irrelevant. On the other hand, the pragmatic wing of the left has become a real player in American politics and is stronger than it has been in decades.

If the Democrats can recapture the White House, this wing of the left should be able to claim at least partial credit for the victory. As a result, progressives are likely to have at least some influence on the new administration’s policies, while at the same time expanding both the ranks and the reach of the progressive movement itself.

Ken Brociner's essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.

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