Seth Adler speaks about the upcoming forum in New York City, the importance of an inclusive discussion space for the left, and the relationship between theory and practice
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you here in Baltimore. The Left Forum takes place this weekend, May 20-22 in New York at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Left Forum is this annual panel with thousands of attendees, over a thousand speakers. This year’s theme is “Rage, Rebellion and Revolution.” So, here to talk about this forum itself is Seth Adler. He’s served as the Left Forum’s conference coordinator since 2008, helping to build the forum into the largest gathering of progressives in North America. Before joining the forum Seth received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Cruz and he cofounded the national Jobs with Peace campaign. Thanks for joining us again, Seth. SETH ADLER: Thank you, Dharna. It’s good to be back. NOOR: So, “Rage, Rebellion and Revolution.” Can you elaborate on that theme? Where did the theme come from, and what are you aiming to capture this year? ADLER: So, each year the Left Forum, now in its 12th year, bringing thousands out, has a new theme that sort of reflects the time, the tenor, the politics, the hopes of this sort of grand spectrum of people and activists and scholars who come together to think about organizing and ideas around the world. And the themes themselves are developed in conversations with organizers through a board of directors that founded Left Forum, that came out of the Socialist Scholars many years ago. And this particular theme was developed, and the whole theme, Dharna, is “Rage, Rebellion, Revolution: Organizing Our Power.” And the theme itself reflects the, not just the current times, but hopes and momentum in, sort of, the moments of organizing from the progressive to the revolutionary spectrum, and also in the intellectual and public life of individuals. The theme itself, if one thinks about, you know, sort of how it applies and how it’s going to manifest at the 400 workshops, performances, panels, big events and other dynamics of this large Left Forum gathering, many of the discussions reflect on almost any of the challenges, the problems, the issues that one can imagine with people coming together planning this for a year now and engaging in the type of dialogues and network building that has come to be known as rather unique in the world for an annual event. So, the theme also reflects what speakers will be talking about on the big stages. For example, on the closing plenary we have the philosopher Slavoj Zizek with the host Amy Goodman. And Slavoj has taken this theme and directed this towards a talk that he’s developing with the title “Rage, Rebellion, Organizing New Power: a Hegelian Triad.” So, lending that philosophical, political and, you could say, left heft to the theme itself, Slavoj and Amy Goodman will be addressing the issues. On the Saturday night, a big program, these are in the evening, we have another title and group of speakers that also, in many ways, reflects this theme. The title is, “Black Liberation and the Sanders Groundswell: Prospects for Left Unity.” There we have a speaker, Kshama Sawant, she’s the socialist elected city council member of Seattle, August Nimtz, a great historian, Debbie Bookchin, Debbie is known also for the development of the libertarian municipalism of direct democracy, as well as Keeanga-Yahmahtta Taylor. And these four speakers will engage in discussing issues that very much tap into this idea of “Rage, Rebellion, Revolution: Organizing Our Power.” Lastly, on Friday night, we have a panel, big plenary session titled, “Capitalism and Militarism: at Humanity’s Peril, Organizing Our Power.” That is with Tariq Ali with Medea Benjamin and Chris Hedges, with Laura Flanders moderating. So, the question of how, you know, how does this theme come up and what does it really mean can be answered both in terms of the thousands of conversations that are taking place at the Left Forum in sort of every nook and cranny of this sort of grand concourse and gathering space, as well as in the big events and the many hundreds of panels. NOOR: I think a lot of what you’re talking about here is possible in part because the Left Forum is so huge. Of course, its size is sort of a testament to its success, but by design, then, part of what the Left Forum does is capture lots of different opinions about how to interpret the way the world works and lots of different opinions about how to change the world. One particular controversy I’ve seen come up this year is that, over the plenary speaker, Slavoj Zizek. He’s elicited a lot of critique over his view of the refugee crisis, particularly for his call for, and this is a quote, a new kind of international military and economic intervention. So, why do you think that the left needs this kind of space to disagree and flesh out these controversies? ADLER: That, in the United States, a left, a robust left from progressive to radicals to people who identify as revolutionary, have many more spaces to, you know, work out, debate, respect and at the same time develop their sort of commonalities by understanding their differences. More times than not, in this sort of milieu we have where there are many dynamic social movements, social justice movements, horizontalist to direct democracy movements, the separations and the lack of resources is at such a high pitch that, besides being in the streets, we all, the we, barely get places to even listen to each other, let alone have this type of focused conversations where controversy as well as disagreement, as well as understanding out of the disagreement and controversy what are the bases of forging greater unity, rarely do we find these spots, especially of gatherings that bring a big tent together of a very diverse spectrum. So, whether it’s with Slavoj and Amy Goodman or it’s with the many other issues of environment, of the anti-racist struggles, of the social movements, of the gender struggles, we will have many different opinions, and you’ll also see that not just have the 1300 speakers and workshop facilitators thought about how to engage their issues with others over the planning times, but also on site you’ve got a mixture of so many people coming in that what results are not one or two networks being built stronger but hundreds of networks being built stronger. Indeed, Dharna, we could address, you know, each of the controversies with all of the panels. I think it’s a great thing that there is this ability to hear the different voices and challenges, and Left Forum has provided that now for 12 years. One of the questions is, why in the world has such a gathering, that brings up to five thousand people every year, comparatively speaking, not gotten any attention in any sort of the media mainstream. NOOR: Sure, and I think that as y’all have sort of seemed to address inclusivity in the Left Forum you’ve seen even more diversity of opinion. Last year the Left Forum included even more young people, more people of color, more people of grassroots movements in Ferguson, here in Baltimore. So, what steps this year has the Left Forum taken to promote inclusivity and promote more diversity of opinion? ADLER: Part of it is, as you started out you mentioned the theme. So the theme is one of those beacons. It’s not the whole. It’s also the idea of a forum of the left, or of a left, but the theme itself, which [inaud.] just look about politics where young people, really across the ages and genders, are involved. The presidential extravaganza, we almost can’t take our eyes off of that, and when we see what’s happening with the suppressed, the alienated rage and anger that so many people are now feeling, they’re expressing in the form of the Republican presidential candidates and now Donald Trump. How is that rage sort of to be understood in terms of a political analysis that explains why a Left Forum and why a younger group of people are coming and organizing through the Left Forum? You know, in many respects that type of anger that’s being expressed mainly by white, working class men and women is, we could say, not fully informed, to say the least. On the other side, we have Bernie Sanders who’s utilizing the term political revolution, right in the theme also of “Rage, Rebellion, Revolution,” and also with the concept of organizing our power. But in this case you have terminology like socialism being embraced by ever more young people, probably a large majority of young people, 8 out of 10, especially that are coming to the Sanders campaign, are looking leftwards and accepting these terminologies and the politics and the possibilities behind them. But that type of democracy has such limits that the challenge to move beyond just the cycle of elections, or even that electoral framework, to think about that as constituting democracy is something that Left Forum is one of those nodes of the struggle in social justice and other communities in which it resonates and it brings these various communities out, even though it’s just a three day event. While Left Forum has other events, this is the major event. With that, there were other forums to give that space for the type of organizing that goes beyond just these sort of limited frameworks that we’re presented with. NOOR: Right, and as you said, the Left Forum is certain for, you know, lots of different kinds of communities, lots of different kinds of conversation. But is there a sort of a common thread? Who is the desired audience for the Left Forum? Who do you do all of this for? ADLER: If you think about the joining of the term left and the joining of the term forum, it’s a very interesting combination. It sort of speaks to a set of, I guess you could say conundrums in this country. It’s not only the question of, why is there no robust socialist movement? Why is there–although that’s developing–why is there not a robust left movement, or really is there but it’s just not characterized in that way? And yet why there may be a right side, or, as Tariq Ali says, it’s a lovely term, he calls sort of that middle the extreme middle, you know? The so-called moderate politics is no more or no less an ideology to control minds and bodies and money than is a left or the right, and that sort of speaks to the question you’re asking. And the idea of a forum on the left cuts across many sort of possibilities of opening up dialogue while, at the same time, asserting a politics that’s important, I think, for many of the organizers, for organizing around now. That is a left spectrum of politics, a radical spectrum of politics, and in the sense that we could also say that other areas of political organizing, which are reflected at Left Forum. For example, the anti-authoritarian moments in Occupy and beyond around the world, where left and right sort of fade away a little bit to an idea of direct democracy and a horizontal democracy with, sort of, leadership suppressed and everybody having an equal voice with a pluralism that speaks beyond sort of this sense of vertical, represented democracy. That too comes into the Left Forum, and the idea of taking a stand, whether it’s the extreme middle or it’s right or it’s horizontalism or it’s a Left Forum, there’s no avoiding that, and at this point it really seems dynamic that people identifying in this spectrum do some together in larger amounts. And it’s important, whether it’s toward building formations, organizations, a party itself, that is, of the left spectrum, these are all possibilities that are vital at this time. And one can say, on the other hand, no less vital are the broad, sort of horizontal, consensus and direct democracy politics, but that’s a politics that is complimentary with a group of people consolidating their power or, as the theme says, organizing our power in that sort of [inimical] connection between rage, rebellion, revolution. NOOR: And something that’s always sort of a tension at the Left Forum is this, I guess, the relationship between theory and practice, right? So, how do you think that the Left Forum does help go beyond critiquing the current situation of the left and of the world that the left is reacting to, and into political change, whether that’s organizing movements, organizing a new political party, new platforms? ADLER: You know, the division between the word theory and practice or talk and action is an instructive one. It can be very positive in places where, a workplace where workers are thinking about how do they organize, and going on strike as a possibility not just to raise wages but maybe to organize solidarity and to build more democratic control over their workplace. So, the notions of the type of organizing that are put out there are quite vital for the Left Forum. Anyway, just to go back to, sort of, the question of the theme and how it reflects in all of this, the Left Forum is bringing out more people, sort of more of the social movements and more of the social justice movements, and that type of vitality will be reflected for the long term. In terms of organizing towards party or other formations, Left Forum is just one moment in many of these possibilities, and they’re very daunting in the United States. NOOR: Sure, it’s true. Okay, Seth, [inaud.] to see you this weekend. I’m looking forward. ADLER: Oh, it’ll be great to see you, too, and the whole Real News crew and the many panels that they’re doing, and just, it’ll be great to see all the listeners if they can tune in. It’ll be live streamed, too, at www.leftforum.org. NOOR: Absolutely, and if you’re in New York this weekend, come see us. We’ll have a table, we’ll be featured on a number of panels. So thanks for joining us, Seth, on the Real News. ADLER: You’re welcome. NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.