Interpreting the World at the 2015 Left Forum

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Paul Jay talks to Seth Adler Panel about the upcoming Left Forum taking place in New York City

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The Left Forum, a gathering of upwards of almost 5,000 people that takes place each year, as many as 1,300 speakers and hundreds of panels, takes place in New York this year at the end of May. Begins on May 29th. It’s a place where people come to talk about how to change the world. Some people come to talk about how to interpret the world. That’s just one of the tensions that takes place at the Left Forum. And there are others, and we’re going to talk about that today.

Before we do, let me say I’ve actually never been to the Left Forum before. I’ve just actually been too busy to go, I guess. I am going to be going this year, so for full transparency, I’m on a panel. I guess I’ll plug it, 5:00 on Friday the 29th, and I’m moderating the Saturday evening plenary event, I think is 7:00. the reason I’m saying all this is because I am involved, and now we’re going to talk about it.

So now joining us to talk about the Left Forum 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 co-founded the National Jobs with Peace campaign.

Thanks for joining us, Seth.

SETH ADLER, CONFERENCE COORDINATOR, LEFT FORUM: Thank you, Paul. It’s great to be on your show.

JAY: So the Forum is quite an amazing achievement, actually. You guys really don’t have much budget. Everybody pays to go, I think, including the speakers. It’s a big event. And so there’s a certain success in terms of the size. Some of the critique of the Forum that I’ve heard is that it’s kind of a little chaotic, a little disjointed. There’s so many workshops on so many divergent things.

Maybe some of the bigger critique has been a tendency to talk about the world in kind of big, macro terms. But I know last year one of your board members told me they thought that the conference had not dealt properly with climate change in a way that helps develop that movement. I know this year, the theme is No Justice, No Peace, and there’s a real attempt to link up with the uprisings and struggle that have taken place in Ferguson and Baltimore. What is your take in terms of the achievements and the weaknesses of the Forum?

ADLER: Well, it’s a wonderful intro. The Left Forum is unique, and in some ways it is the largest yearly gathering of every spectrum of imaginable progressive, radical, revolutionary identified left activists, scholars, and social movement and justice folks. And in the 11 years since it came out of the Socialist Scholars Conference, it’s developed more away from that sort of scholarly quality that you alluded to, the tension between interpretation and in many ways activism. It’s moved more towards the activism side. And when I say that, it’s moved with thousands of people coming and reflecting the politics and the tone and the culture of the times.

So one can say, when you hear that there are 1,350 speakers and facilitators of workshops and artists and others coming to present, to talk, to network and so forth, that it is an agglomeration that’s almost as varied as the political spectrum of progressive politics that we can imagine in the United States. And at the same time, it reflects those many fragments and elements and so forth that have more or less cohered. The Left Forum is certainly one of the places that reflects a greater coherence or a greater gathering together of those many minds, bodies, and activists. And so the type of dialogs, the type of big room discussions that you’ll be involved in, and the small workshops and performances and so forth reflect, as one can imagine, the tone of the times. Which also, as the Left Forum has developed each year with themes that reflect what are the politics, what are sort of the social movements thinking and doing out there.

So years, a few years back it was the mobilizing for ecological, economic transformation. And in that case we had the Vice President of Bolivia coming. But now it’s No Justice, No Peace: Confronting the Crises of Capitalism and Democracy.

JAY: Now, in your written introduction, one of your introductions to the Forum, you talk about the Forum playing a role in revitalizing the left. Why do you think the Left needs revitalizing? I’m not actually arguing that it does, I’m just wondering why you think it’s in a place that it does.

ADLER: Even the phrase “the left” probably needs a little vitalization now and then. And often it’s cast around as such a generalization that the great diversity and difference and elements of what may not just be called the left in many ways needs certain vitalities, needs certain, you know, places to feel more of the unification as well as the differences.

So in some ways to revitalize the left is, not wanting to overstate what the Left Forum is, I see it as this amazing gathering, and also it’s a great privilege to be at this crossroads of so many international activists who come together. But I see it just as one node among many different in the social struggles and the social movements and the progressive and radical action that takes place all over the world, and especially in this country where so many people come to the Left Forum.

JAY: This conference has a lot of focus on No Justice, No Peace. The movements out of Ferguson and Baltimore. And many cities, and nationally, the link and relationship between the white left, white radical left, and the African-American activist–some of whom aren’t necessarily call themselves left. But the black left, if you will. You can say kind of friendly, but often don’t collaborate all that closely. How is this playing out in terms of the preparation for the conference, and how do you see that developing, in terms of the role that this debate and discussion’s going to take place at a, maybe a broader front between the white and black left.

ADLER: I think you’re characterizing that well. There are great schisms and differences that are reflected in the political movements. The Black Lives Matter movements that are arising now, and earlier the Occupy movements also reflected at the Left Forum. So Left Forum organizers, and it’s really all volunteer-based, Left Forum organizers reach out wide and far. And the name of the left being Left Forum also has attracted various disparate elements.

So you’re articulating that some of the great, some of the movements within what we can call the left field of politics and ideas, and some of the two, I’d say the two great movements, we have the Occupy and the more anti-authoritarian moment years ago in 2012. And now we have Black Lives Matter, and we have in many ways important identity movements that are arising between, if you want to characterize it as the white left or the black left, or the left that’s people of color. I’m not sure that’s the exact way to characterize it, but there are some very significant and important issues, practices, strategies–.

JAY: You’ve got to remember, I’m in Baltimore. So we have our own prism to look at this through.

ADLER: That’s right. So in New York, and because it’s an international conference, that’s deeply reflected. And I guess you could say, Paul, where are those places where discussions can take place not necessarily out on the street, not necessarily in small, organizational settings and so forth, but where do the “we”s that come together that may form the sentiment towards the struggles for justice, equality, and transformative politics, where are those larger settings where we can feel the dynamics of the differences, the challenges, and the potentials to come.

Left Forum is one of those places, and sometimes I put it a certain way in that there are in the streets and in the organizational frameworks, there are certain languages we get used to using in organizing and protesting and rebelling. Those languages are wonderful, dynamic, they’re changing, they reflect the great quilt of so many actions. But within other spaces, and Left Forum is one of that, you’ve got other potential languages that can be raised and used.

And there are not enough spaces for this. Would that our educational institutions were really about everyday life and its political, cultural qualities of the struggles that people–.

JAY: Seth, really quickly because we’re running, getting near time. Just tell us, the plenaries are going to be livestreamed. Quickly tell us what’s happening each night.

ADLER: Sure. After the panel that you and others are doing, some great panels with Black Lives Matter and with transformative media and so forth. Those are at 5:00. There’s a large plenary at 7:00. The plenary is–.

JAY: Is it on the Friday?

ADLER: On Friday. Friday the 29th at John Jay at 59th and 10th in their new conference center. And so that’s with Syriza, Podemos, the Left Bloc from Portugal. And it raises the question of a European revolutionary politics. Podemos has sent their representative. [Eduardo Maura] from Syriza is one of the founders of Syriza and one of the people who’s written the economic and the other platforms for Syriza. Member of Parliament Tsoukalas, along with Laura Flanders and Catarina Principe. Very exciting folks coming together to bring the struggles and the latest [inaud.] in Spain to the audiences. That’s Friday night.

Saturday night as you know, you are moderating a wonderful panel that really raises the issue of indicting and transforming the system. The system of state, the system of capitalism, in light of Ferguson, in light of Baltimore, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. So these questions of what is next raised there with Glen Ford and Alicia Garza, with other activists that are coming, as you know, from Baltimore. So that’s at 7:00–or excuse me, 7:30 on Saturday, after a whole day of two hour sessions with the 400 panels and events, basically, for Saturday and Sunday.

Sunday concludes with a large grouping that are asking the question for the plenary, a national left politics, a national left presence. Are these possible? What is the state, what are the divisions. And really, Left Forum has pulled people from around the country. So you have, like, Reverend Sekou from St. Louis. M. Adams from Wisconsin. You have Pamela Brown from Occupy Student Debt here in New York. You have Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, also from New York, but beyond. We have Glen Ford and Stanley Aronowitz. The number of speakers includes Immortal Technique and Ashley Franklin. They are the hosts for the evening. It’s going to be very exciting, and that is at 6:30 on Friday. So it’s this sweep of events and action that goes throughout the weekend.

JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Seth.

ADLER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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