Socialist Scholars Conference 2000

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The eighteenth annual Socialist Scholars Conference took place in New York before about 1,800 participants from more than a dozen countries. The Conference theme was “Rockin’ the Boat: Building Coalitions for a New Century,” but the haunting specter this year was globalization.

Meeting right before the Washington, DC mobilization against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the weekend panels and plenaries focused on on resistance to global corporate domination. The Union for Radical Political Economics, Dollars and Sense, Monthly Review, New Political Science, New York Student Environmental Action Coalition and community college students all held panels analyzing the economics and politics of the integration of trade and investment. Gone were the sterile debates of past years over the whether globalism was a new phenomenon or just another name for imperialism.

CUNY Democratic Socialists of America, the primary organizer of the Conference, sponsored major sessions that included DSA Vice-chair Frances Fox Piven, DSA NPC member and Temple professor Joseph Schwartz, Julie Eisenhardt of the Johns Hopkins Student Labor Coalition, speaking to a large audience on the subject of What Next? Organizing Strategies and Tactics for a Humane Globalism. Drawing on her experience as one of the leading strategists of the welfare rights movement, and analyst of social movements, Fran Piven pointed out that the usual way of organizing, individual by individual, to build enduring institutions, join in majority coalitions, and thereby deliver votes, doesn’t work. The social victories that U.S. labor won in the 1930s came about by threatening workplace disruption and the Democratic coalition. New movements, Piven said, “can do what conventional movements can never do.” While parties in our political duopoly achieve voting majorities by appealing to the middle ground and doing nothing, “protest movements thrive on conflict. In-your-face politics, like those in Seattle, make social movements grow and encourage mass defiance — the only way that our issues can enter mainstream political discourse and lead to concessions.”

Schwartz spoke of how the new campus activism has an ideology of “militant laborism” rather than socialism. He stressed that Left activism can bring its ideological outlook to the anti-globalism movement: “We must build a movement allied with labor, but not submerged in it. We must push for the revitalization and democratization of the public sector as a form of redistribution of life opportunities. . . We need militancy around citizens rights.” Julie Eisenhardt stressed the need for a “humane globalism,” but also asked whether coalitions necessarily lead to political compromise. “With our money-soaked political system, the old electoral model of social change is increasingly irrelevant.” Recounting her participation in the victorious campaign for a living wage at Johns Hopkins, she pointed out that students now direct their anger at corporations and institutions — not simply conservative politicians. “We should appreciate partial victories,” she added and advised DSA activist to “keep ‘em guessing.”

“The Battle After Seattle: Globalization and Its Discontents” featured Medea Benjamin co-founder and executive director of Global Exchange, David Abdulah, education director of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union of Trinidad and Tobago, Hector Figueroa of the SEIU, and Mark Seddon from the executive committee of the Labour Party in Britain. Three of the speakers addressed the challenges and importance of organizing against a seemingly invincible international force at the local level. Figueroa reminded the audience that immigrants will be a crucial component of any coalition fighting for a just globalism. Benjamin spoke of channeling grass roots movements for global justice into battles that are directed at local institutions and are winnable, such as the anti-sweatshop campaigns being waged at universities across the country, and the pressure campaign against Starbucks to promote less exploitative trading agreements. Mark Seddon traced how Thatcherism prepared the way ideologically and politically for the imposition of neoliberalism. His equally pointed criticisms of “Third Way” politics emphasized that domestic politics still matter. David Abdulah eloquently questioned the rhetoric of free trade and democracy that the United States has championed in its quest for global control. He added a bit of reality when he recounted that “Trinidad had a greater degree of internal democracy thirty years before the United States granted all its citizens the right to vote.”

Conference co-chair Peter Kott told Democratic Left, “this is what makes the Conference worth doing. A new generation of political activists is being born, and the Conference gives them a chance to be heard. It gives us the chance to learn from them.”

Opening Plenary

The Friday plenary attracted an audience of hundreds, hearing the large New York City Labor Chorus (with DSA members) sing classic union songs, followed by DSA National Director Horace Small who chaired the meeting with Robin D. G. Kelley, NYU historian and cultural critic, and Steffi Woolhandler, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, and Harvard Medical School professor, on the promise of building coalitions around health care. She cited the single-payer health care as probably the only issue in politics where the Left and the American people are in agreement. Tariq Ali, New Left Review editor, and veteran British New Leftist, addressed the importance of values in building coalitions, particularly excoriating the hypocrisy that accompanied the holding of Elian Gonzalez, likening it to kidnapping. Mark Seddon, executive committee member of the British Labour Party, was upbeat, noting with surprise that there “seem to be so many socialists in the heart of American capitalism, so close to Wall Street but so far in spirit.” He chided the audience for not being more ambitious. “Don’t worry about rocking the boat; why not sink it.”

Conference co-founder and chair Bogdan Denitch reminded us of why we are socialists: “Despite the demoralization and conservatism that has set in in the social democratic parties of western Europe, so distant from their socialist foundings that Bernstein and Kautsky would be considered far leftists in them today, we have to put building democratic socialist organizations at the forefront of our agenda. Regardless of how militant the labor movement might become or how powerful single issue campaigns might be, without a socialist movement that can affect political power, we will be condemned to fighting the same battles over and over. Political power grants permanence to our victories.”

Bhairavi Desai, a diminutive, twenty-something organizer of New York City taxi drivers, moved all with her tales of the determination and moxie that immigrant cabbies bring to their fight for justice — face-to-face with ugly xenophobia, class prejudice, and the nations most vindictive mayor.

More Culture, Fewer Cults

Monthly Review sponsored a well attended panel on culture and contemporary capitalism with Marshall Berman and Robert McChesney. In your face publishers Soft Skull Press asked “Can There Be a Resurgent Left-Wing Culture?” Utopian visions with bite were the topic of a panel on science fiction and socialism organized by DSA. Authors Terry Bisson, "Bears Discover Fire", and Michael Swanwick, "Stations of the Tide", joined Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin and Australian critic Justine Larballestier. The Nation UN correspondent and NY DSAer Ian Williams reported that the people at the panel were excited by the fact that “Sci-fi allows one to try out our ideas. Most socialist utopianism is boring, conflict-free, nothing to work out. Sci-fi adds back some of the clash of ideas, interests, reintroduces evil.” Next year we hope there will be other panels on detective fiction, movies, maybe sports.

The 2000 conference featured the New York theatrical premiere of Howard Zinn’s play "Marx in Soho". Brian Jones, an LA-based actor and activist, performed powerfully as a time-warped Karl Marx who finds himself in the 20th century Soho of New York instead of 19th century London.

Bright Spots

Tariq Ali remarked that the Socialist Scholars Conference is a vital part of the “internationalization of the struggle of against corporate globalism: Europe was heartened by the American people’s resistance in Seattle. This conference represents a piece of that struggle.” Despite the differences that exist on the Left, reflected in sharp debates (“U.S. Intervention is [N]ever Justified”), “the Conference is a space where debate can go on in a spirit of cooperation.

Robert Saute is a doctoral student in sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is co-author of "The Part-Time Paradox".

DSA thankedd Saute for his years of dedicated work on the Socialist Scholars Conference, and "we wish him well in his impending nuptials".

John Mason, Ian Williams and Jason Schulman helped with this report.[1]

References