I spent the past weekend filming and tabling at Left Forum in NYC. It was one of the largest Left Forum’s ever with over 700 speakers and a wide range of panels.
As with any event like this the tough part is deciding on which panels to attend. Many friends and comrades came in to town to speak; fellow Wobblie Andrej Grubacic and comrades from the Institute for Anarchist Studies. It’s never easy to decide.
The first talk I attended was “Proudhonism and other false alternatives to capitalism,” held by the Marxist-humanist initiative. As an anarchist what could be more interesting than watching a panel of marxists continue the 160 year assault on Joseph Proudhon, the father of anarchism.
The feud between marxists and anarchists is an old one; so it was of little surprise to see such a panel, but it ended up being much worse than I could have anticipated.
First of all, the speakers simply read papers to us. Five speakers each took turns boring the audience with their papers, and because of time considerations large portions of their papers were skipped over leaving their polemics rather incoherent.
The first speaker did a grand job of arranging a litany of ad hominen attacks against Proudhon, quoting him out of context and using every stupid thing Proudhon had ever said or written to conjure up the most negative image of Proudhon possible: Joseph Proudhon was the father of fascism!
The speakers who followed spent less time on Proudhon and more time quoting the great master, Karl Marx. The last speaker hardly mentioned Proudhon and simply made his case that we must adopt nuclear energy.
The panel represented the worst of Left Forum, not because of their irrelevant and specious attack on a long dead anarchist, but because of their entirely academic perpetuation of what many anarchists and marxists feel is a false division.
At the Q&A portion of the talk, I said, “I sat here and listened to you butcher and skewer Proudhon, and I can’t help but wonder if you approached any anarchists to maybe balance things out?” “No,” I was told. One member told me how three years ago he had met with a hostile crowd at an anarchist bookfair, which sounded eerily famiar to the arguments you hear from many racists: I had a bad experience with members of group X, so all members of that group are bad. He went on to tell me that he’d debate any anarchist anywhere, anytime. Nice to know, but not exactly what I was looking for.
A lady on the opposite end of the room stood up and said, “I came here today to defend Proudhon, and it looks like he needed defending. She pointed out that anarchists don’t name themselves after any particular thinker. We take what’s good, leave the bad; but she went on to say, “You folks are very much disciples of Marx and that kind of rigid thinking is dangerous.”
With perhaps half the dozen or so people in attendance showing support for me and the other woman who spoke out in defense of Proudhon the panelists became more agitated and began to retreat. We were told that the criticism wasn’t of Proudhon the anarchist but of Proudhon the liberal.
Suffice to say, it was pretty lame and undoubtedly the worst panel I’ve seen at any Left Forum. I find value in the writings of Proudhon, Marx, and Bakunin as well as many other thinkers. In light of everything we are up against as people fighting for social justice, it’s absurd to perpetuate these false divisions.
The Left Forum wasn’t all bad, though. In my next post I’ll talk about one of the best panels I attended.