[Marxism] Leftforum 2006
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 13 09:07:00 MST 2006
I try to make it to at least one day of the yearly Leftforum Conference
(once known as the Socialist Scholars Conference) in order to get a handle
on what the academic left is putting out. The conference features
speakers--mostly male, white tenured professors who were 60s radicals early
in their life--who publish in Science & Society, Monthly Review, Socialist
Register, Dissent, the Nation Magazine, etc.
The following are some off the top of my head notes on the sessions I
On Sunday 10am, I attended a panel on "Marxist Views of China 's
Contemporary Development" that was distinguished by the participation of
Cheng En Fu, who is dean of the Marxism Research Institute of Shanghai
University of Finance and Economics and standing sub-dean of the Marxism
Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Just by coincidence, the NY Times that morning had a lead article on the
front page about the reemergence of Marxism in China. It stated: "old-style
leftist thinkers have used China's rising income gap and increasing social
unrest to raise doubts about what they see as the country's headlong
pursuit of private wealth and market-driven economic development."
That certainly describes Cheng's presentation. He began by defending the
Maoist economic record that sustained an 8% growth rate over the period
from 1953 to 1978. He alluded to Maurice Meisner, a very fine left-oriented
China scholar, for support on this claim. With the advent of "market
socialism," there has been a tendency among the Chinese intelligentsia to
downgrade Maoist economics. It would seem that the new generation of
Marxist scholars, who are the ideological descendants of the original
Maoists, might be advised to not bend the stick too far in the other
direction since Maoist bureaucratism had a lot to do with China's current
In Cheng's view, market reforms were not intended as a repudiation of the
Maoist past, but as an attempt to make something good even better. He
likened it to a champion athlete experimenting with a new technique to make
his or her performance even better.
Market reforms have indeed accelerated economic growth, but there are two
other factors that Cheng mentioned (and that I have never considered
before) that have complemented the unleashing of market competition. One is
a reduction in population to the tune of 300 million. The other is a
reduction in the size of the army, a result of a lessening of cold war
Next, Cheng launched into a frank discussion of the failures of what he
described as market socialism. Mainly, this has been a function of a
decline of the public sector and a concomitant growth in inequality as the
iron rice bowel has shrunk and unemployment has grown. He was also critical
of a tendency among Chinese intellectuals and policy makers to look at the
USA uncritically and to see it as a model for China. Basically, Cheng did
not call for an abolition of private property but a series of reforms that
would restore the balance between the private and public sector. Although
it is heartening to hear a Chinese scholar speak in the name of Marxism, it
struck me that he was proposing something not much different than what
Gorbachev proposed in the USSR. As we know, it is difficult to reconcile
the imperatives of a market economy within the framework of socialism,
especially when the nation is as integrated in global economic markets to
the degree that China is.
Dave Kotz, who chaired the panel and who is the co-author of a very useful
book on capitalist restoration in the USSR titled "Revolution from Above:
the Demise of the Soviet System," made some pointed observations on the
evolution of market socialism as an ideology.
When it was first proposed in the 1930s by Oskar Lange, it was seen as a
form of socialism with "market-like" mechanisms. But competition or
profit-seeking as we know it in China did not exist. Later on market
socialists like Alec Nove did call for genuine markets. With the collapse
of the USSR, there was a tendency for market socialists to put forward
these ideas as goals for the Western left, which were largely ignored of
course. Mainly, market socialism only has relevance for a way of
(mis)describing China today.
Kotz then presented an historical overview of how market socialism has been
formulated by the CCP since 1982. Like the evolution that took place from
Lange to Nove, Chinese ideology has moved inexorably to a belief that
markets per se are necessary to keep a socialist economy viable. He also
made an interesting observation on the tendency of elites in the state
sector to become willing partners in privatization even though they don't
actually *own* any capital. With the acquisition of *wealth* and perks by
plant managers, etc., there is a tendency to accept inequality and the
logic of privatization, especially since their connections make it almost
inevitable that they get the lion's share in a sale of plant assets.
Minqi Li, a young professor at York University and contributor to the
Socialist Register and MR, gave a talk on China's role in a capital
accumulation crisis that will mature in 25 years or so and give rise to a
challenge to neoliberalism. It should be obvious that Minqi is very much
into "long wave" type analyses. His talk was basically a version of an
interesting article that can be read here:
Richard Smith was the last speaker. He called attention to China's looming
ecological crisis. Although his talk was informative, it was basically the
same one he gave a year ago.
At 12PM, I attended a panel discussion on "Evo Morales and the New Bolivia"
that was organized by North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). It
opened my eyes to an emerging ideological tendency to invest the Bolivian
radical movement with the themes present in Zapatista support literature,
John Holloway and autonomism. I had been obviously aware of the differences
between people like James Petras, Jorge Martin of the Grant-Woods tendency
and Gerry Foley on one side (representing varieties of ortho-Marxism or
ortho-Trotskyism) and enthusiastic supporters of Morales like Roger Burbach
on the other.
I tended to lump Forrest Hylton, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch and
Znet and critic of Morales and who spoke at the panel, in the first camp
but now I see him much more clearly as a defender of autonomism rather than
Marxism. His frequent allusions to "radical democracy" and "the social
movements" in past articles might have alerted me to this, but I was
focused more on his reportage. His talk yesterday did not get into these
questions, but dealt more with the history of Bolivian indigenous
resistance going back to Tupac Amaru. It was a bit superficial but useful.
It was up to NYU professor Sinclair Thomson to lay out the autonomist
perspective. Describing himself as a colleague of Hylton (they co-authored
a Counterpunch article at:
Thomson described the indigenous movement in Bolivia as best seen in terms
of the EZLN and/or anarchism and as a rejection of "Bolshevism". Hostility
toward Morales had as much to do it seems with a distrust of the state as
it did with whether he was willing to nationalize the energy resources,
etc. In the Counterpunch article cited above, Hylton and Thomson recommend
the following for Bolivia's indigenous peasantry and workers:
"The Assembly could help redraw state-society relations to reflect
Bolivia's new historical conditions. It could recognize the enduring
non-liberal forms of collective political, economic and territorial
association by which most rural and urban Bolivians organize their lives.
It could democratize the political relations that throughout the republican
era have limited the participation of indigenous peoples in national
political life, forcing them to resort to costly insurrectionary struggles."
I would say that in order to truly "democratize
political relations" is
impossible without an insurrectionary struggle, but what the heck, I am one
of those Brontosaurus Bolsheviks I guess.
During the q&a, I asked Thomson why anybody would try to superimpose
Zapatismo on the Bolivian mass movement, since the EZLN is basically
defunct. (I could have also made the point that Cuban doctors from the
dreaded Bolshevik island are saving the lives of more Chiapas babies than
anybody from the EZLN, but these conferences frown on speech-making.)
Thomson simply ignored my question. I don't blame him, since he obviously
had no answer.
The final speaker, Anibal Quijano, a Peruvian academic and World Systems
theorist, endorsed the idea of Andean capitalism as put forward by
Morales's vice president. He hailed the idea of energy profits being
siphoned off to fund community-based projects.
A word or two about NACLA might be useful in understanding the political
meaning of this panel discussion, which might not be obvious to many of the
attendees. Basically, NACLA is hostile to state socialism. Although it was
formed as a nonprofit research institute in the 1960s by young scholars in
solidarity with Cuba and the guerrilla movements, it has evolved into a
combination of State Department liberalism and autonomist post-modernism.
When Laurie Berenson was arrested by the Peruvian cops for supporting
pro-Cuba guerrillas, NACLA said something like, "tsk-tsk--she should have
been making better use of her time." God knows what that might have meant.
Working for a Soros-funded NGO, I suppose. NACLA has also falsely accused
the FARC of murdering Indians. In the current issue, there's a letter
complaining about their bias on Cuba:
I suppose that NACLA is trying to demonstrate its evenhandedness by
printing the letter, but it would be better advised to adopt a more
objective outlook, especially in light of Cuba's role in helping to stiffen
Latin American resistance to neoliberalism today. But that would take a
different editor and a different board of directors and different funding.
So, in other words, don't expect any change.
At 2pm, I attended a panel discussion on Bubbles and the US economy that
was remarkable for Doug Henwood's obvious worries about the impact of
rising interest rates in the home mortgage market, and consequently on the
economy as a whole. When Doug Henwood starts to sound like the people from
In Defense of Marxism, Watch Out!
At 4pm, I attended a debate on perspectives for the antiwar movement which
brought together Leslie Cagan from UfPJ and Brian Becker from the ANSWER
coalition. As might be expected, Cagan made noble-sounding statements about
the need to work harder and reach more Americans but did not really get
into the substantive disagreements between UfPJ and ANSWER. Becker, on the
other hand, was determined to have things out but his talk was so utterly
detached from political reality that debate with Cagan or any other living
human being would have been impossible. Basically, Becker analyzed the
differences in terms of the Zimmerwald Manifesto and carrying on in the
traditions of Lenin. His speech was phrase-mongering elevated to an almost
stratospheric level. After he was done, he was applauded by a smattering of
Spartacist types in the audience but I booed him at the top of my lungs.
That really felt good.
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