[Marxism] Leftforum 2006

Louis Proyect 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 
attended yesterday.

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 
capitalist evolution.

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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