What Are Leftists Thinking?


Jesse Lemisch is Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author of "On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession."


The Left Forum is a descendant, much changed, from the Socialist Scholars Conference which in turn originated in the mid ‘sixties. (For the complete voluminous program, go here.) This year it was held May 30-June 1, in the conveniently located new building of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (where I taught 1988-2000), at 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue in New York City. (I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I am practically the last of the left Jewish intellectuals in a gentrifying neighborhood; Marshall Berman died down the street at the Metro Diner last year.)Writing helps me to make sense of my experience, and I discipline myself to do it right away after the event, late at night. So what follows is a kind of a diary, written for Facebook. It is very much my own thing, but it reminds me a little of the higher-quality journalism about academics and academic quarrels by Ved Mehta  that I read years ago in The New Yorker, later published as Fly and the Fly-Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals (1962). I see very little of this kind of journalism, and think it’s a form that we ought to see more often – perhaps with a touch of A.J. Liebling.Below is, with minor corrections, pretty much what I wrote down each evening. So I have no doubt that it has flaws, but it conveys the flavor and content of things with immediacy.

I.  May 30

The Left Forum opening night plenary (see below) was very good. A full crowd of several hundred (there was also an overflow room) filled what I recall as the gym in which I used to do registration when on the faculty at John Jay, and it was fascinating for me for the first time to see the spectacular new building at 11th Avenue and 59th St, connected seamlessly to the old building facing 10th Avenue, across the street from North Hall (formerly a shoe factory, I was told) where I had my office.

Cornel West was, as ever, fantastic in his preacher mode – but with an intractable left message: we need revolution, not reform, and shouldn’t be taken in by Obama and the next Obamas. Both Cornell and Stanley Aronowitz spoke of the ruthlessness of the system, which quite literally seeks to have us dead and has the means to carry it off. Cornel even got in a word about the Pope, of whom he spoke a little well, while reminding us that he is the head of a huge patriarchy.Stanley spoke of the need for something that sounded a little like Jimmy Weinstein’s 1969 attempt to establish a new socialist party, with coherent positive definitions of what we hope for in the new society. He also warned us to see DeBlasio without illusions, including his promoting Cuomo's re-election by persuading the so-called Working Families Party not to oppose the hideous Cuomo. Both Cornel and Stanley (Stanley more so) were politely critical of Marina Sitrin’s horizontalism (she also spoke), speaking of the failure of Occupy to put down lasting roots. I agreed with Stanley but thought I saw a contradiction in his advocacy of a non-sectarian party of the left and his impatience with anarchism. While agreeing, it seems to me that people like Snowden, Manning, and Aaron Swartz come at least in part from a new world of computer nerd/anarchistic ideas, and they must be part of our new movement.

Afterwards, Cornel came over and we hugged (which I found very moving), and Stanley said he had read my piece on Steve Kindred and U of C SDS. After all this, and the talk of the violence of the state, I was touched by the John Jay cop who, seeing me with my walker, made special arrangements to get Joanne and me out of the 10th avenue side of the building, unlocking a closed-down elevator and accompanying us.

Among nice conversations, I heard what turned out to be Bill Strickland of the W.E.B. DuBois Dept. of Afro-American Studies at UMss sitting behind me and talking about the death of Vincent Harding. I asked him what he thought of the Times obit for Vincent by Margalit Fox. He thought it was great, as I did, and this confirmed the position I had taken a few days ago with another leftist who, erroneously and furiously, saw the obit as carrying out the “scolding” that a Times editorial had given ML King. (Since that dispute, Fox has written the Times obit for Maya Angelou.) So many years after Woodward's disgusting campaign to bar Herbert Aptheker from what amounted to a one-semester adjunct appointment at Yale, Bill told me that the DuBois papers (Aptheker was literary executor) were now on microfilm and on line. I don't think we ever dreamt of such a thing.

The John Jay hosts were from the self-described “heterodox” Economics Department, who seem products of Sam Bowles et al’s Umass Dept. A speech of greeting was offered by the despicable JJ president Jeremy Travis, who posed for the evening as a Friend to the Left. It was ironic that amidst all the talk about cooptation, nobody there seemed to have had the experience of having challenged Travis for his utter silence about the barbarities committed by NY PD. There’s of course no cooptation involved in holding the event in these great facilities, but it is certainly paradoxical to have people speaking of the armed violence of the state in a supposed College of Criminal Justice run by a liberal bigot.

More tomorrow.

II. May 31

Left Forum 2014 Day 2 A few years back, I submitted an article to the American Historical Association magazine called “Historians and Facebook: In the Halls of an Electroriic AHA.” Blind to the potential of Facebook, and a bit stodgy, AHA rejected it. To their credit, History News Network published it. I am ashamed and remorseful that at AHA meetings, I tend to stay away from formal sessions and instead prowl the halls (and now Facebook) for valuable conversation about what’s going on, who is doing what, who disagrees with whom, testing out my ideas, etc, I’ll read the papers later.  I say this by way of preface to an account of my staying away from sessions at the Left Forum for a second day. There are sessions of value (including Joanne Landy’s Greece session), but this is a lifelong habit that I can’t break. (If you believe this remorse, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you …)

The attendance this year is enormous, the event is very successful, despite problems that I have pointed out: the program remains faithful to the ancient left tradition of pretty much ignoring feminism; there is no suggestion of the relevance of science and debates within science, and sessions do not require debate and tend to be pre-packaged advertisements for particular groups and sects (including one that wants to rehabilitate Stalin.) But the halls are great. Naomi reminds me that a version of Lenny Bruce’s famous remark may fit both AHA and Left Forum: “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

Lunch: Dave McReynolds, Carl Davidson, Richard Roman, and one other guy whose name I didn’t get who has a background in International Socialists. Carl tells me that Steve Kindred, the SDS leader of whom I wrote recently was a Trotskyist. I suspect that Carl simply meant that Steve had been in IS before the collapse of SDS. David is warm, humane and comical:  a deservedly revered elder of the pacifist left He had sent out Joanne’s great piece Ukraine Between a Rock and a Hard Place Is There a Way Out? to his Socialist Party and other lists, with a brief intro suggesting his disagreement with Joanne’s “Third Camp” position (as in, “neither Saddam nor the US.”) I’m potentially receptive to this critique, having moved beyond being the “boy Stalinist” that Stanley Aronowitz had described his young self as in the Friday plenary. I asked David to expand. But the people around the table, having lived through several different versions of Shachtmanism, presented historical details which seemed me to rehearse old quarrels but not to deal with the situation at hand, the relevance of a Third Camp position today. (Some of these people repeatedly move from an immediate present situation back to what they take to be an informative parallel during a specific day of the Bolshevik revolution, which I generally find in no way informative, since history tends not to repeat itself and, frankly, I can’t see the relevance of the Bolshevik revolution). The end result of this discussion was that David was soft on the North Vietnamese and the Cubans, and hardly persuaded me of the inadequacy of a Third Camp position. All this was done with much uproarious laughter around the table, and my love and respect for David.

Later in the day, I had a long conversation with Stanley Aronowitz. (This was at the “distinguished speakers” reception which I attended as Joanne’s SO, and was permitted to enter by a towering female self-described bouncer who got it when I said that her title was commendably gender free, i.e not “bounceress.”) Stanley hadn’t known that John Jay’s spectacular new building in which we sat had been paid for by money and property seized from suspected drug dealers. (College of Criminal Justice indeed.) Stanley has a book about C. Wright Mills. I have recently written about Mills’s Columbia contemporary Richard Hofstadter’s despicable speech at the 1968 Grayson Kirk Farewell Commencement (which, consistent with his other conservative work, warned against the flight from the center, attacked student protest, and seemed to approve of the bloody police bust in April.). I asked where Mills, who died in 1962, would have stood on Columbia 1968, since many previously left intellectuals turned against protest when it occurred on academic turf (e.g. Christopher Lasch.) Of course nobody knows, but I continue to wonder and don’t think we can project this from Mills’s pro-Fidel book, Listen Yankee, which Stanley mentioned as possibly relevant,

A good talk with Martha Livingston of Old Westbury and Physicans for a National Health Program seemed to confirm my view that, while valuable, PNHP’s Medicare-for-all addresses the financing but not the “delivery” of health care. My view is that the culture of the medical profession is contemptuous of evidence and science, humiliating and contemptuous of the patient, peddles misinformation, reviles patients who do their own research, sits atop a truly medieval hierarchy and demands deference, issues rabbinical reassurance rather than medical truth, and fails to understand how their view of medical reality is corrupted by their privileged access and treatment when they themselves are reduced to patienthood (as in my article, "How A Famous 90-Year-Old Doctor Survived Hospitalization, But You Probably Won’t”).

The evening plenary filled the gym, as had the plenary on Friday (Stanley told me the room’s capacity is 900, and, in addition, people were standing around the walls.) This session featured Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis. It was introduced by a member of the Left Forum board whose rhetorical Obamisms and talk-show clichés put me off. “Hello, New York City!” [cheers; louder: HELLO NEW YORK CITY!!”] He addressed the controversial matter of the absence of child care by stating, “I promise that we will have child care in 2015.” Thunderous applause. Addressing the live streaming of the session around the world, he remarked to a Venezuelan who had been refused a US visa,” I promise that we will get you here in 2015.” Thunderous applause for these Oblamesque commitments, almost made to be broken. When applause was insufficient, he demanded that we “give it up.” Then he introduced Belafronte with a lengthy parade of this honors, including awards from what we later came to see as frenzied right-wing Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League.

(A comical event. Joanne, unfamiliar with academic courtesies, has long been aghast about the following: a couple of years ago, I dedicated an entire plane trip together to reading a book which caused me to gnash my teeth and to remark on the utter inadequacy of the author’s class analysis. When we arrived at the author’s home, I rushed across the room, arm outstretched, saying, “I’ve just read your magnificent book.” Similarly, a Left Forum speaker told me in conversation how boring another speaker was when they had shared a previous platform. His denunciation was interrupted by her arrival. He immediately greeted her, warmly and enthusiastically, expressing delight about their previous platform-sharing, just short of telling her that it was “magnificent.” )

Although I found myself humming various Belafonte hits, I couldn’t stay, because his voice is gone (he didn’t sing), the amplification was poor, my hearing has diminished, and anyway I had to get to the Perdition Bar on Tenth Avenue, where the Howie Hawkins for Governor party was taking place. I vehemently support this candidacy and hope to undermine the vote for that exemplary right-wing Democrat, Cuomo. Some day, here in New York, we will have our own Kshama Sawant.

On my way out, I waved and was greeted by the same kind cop who had let me out John Jay’s front door the night before, and allowed myself a moment of warm feelings. I still run into former students who greet me from horseback, unaware that my mother would have denounced them as Cossacks. Along the way to the Perdition, I noticed that the area, a kind of industrial desert when I taught at John Jay, has become residential, with joggers, and dogs being walked. Still, the spectacular river view from John Jay’s new building includes the information that the huge electrical generator building across Eleventh Avenue is labeled, “Interborough Rapid Transit,” Some of us still think of the number 1, 2 and 3 trains as the IRT. But we’re getting used to the present, with all its many virtues and drawbacks. And we have hopes and plans for the future.

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