Roundtable on the Future of the Left

Maria Helena Moreira Alves, Barbara Fields, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levins, Daniel Singer, Cornel West, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Moderated by Steve Brier

Part I
Steve Brier: This is obviously a time of great insecurity and distress both emotionally and physically and of great confusion politically and ideologically across the globe. The realities we confront are imposed by a world capitalism that is at the same time vigorous and expansionist and in decline and crisis. How do we understand this current moment and the profound distress it is creating across the globe? How do we understand it and relate to it?

Maria Helena Moreira Alves: From my perspective, what is creating the greatest ideological confusion is not capitalism per se but rather what the so-called socialists are saying about their own beliefs. I am now talking about those who say that they are socialist but who hold positions of power within neoliberal systems. I’m living in Chile now, so a lot of what I say reflects that experience. It has been very painful to feel the ideological confusion produced, even in me, at the sight of ex-members of Allende’s government standing with Pinochet now on television and defending all the neoliberal policies that the Pinochet regime has been implementing. I think we need to discuss, “What is socialism?” and take back our heritage from those who have stolen it.

Daniel Singer: What strikes me is that capitalism is now shown in its whole nakedness. Even if you read their newspapers, their publications, what do you find? You look at the figures from the latest U.N. Human Development report and you find that the 225—I was going to say gentlemen but, I don’t know, men or women—who are the richest in the world, their combined wealth is equivalent to the income of half the world’s population, that is to say nearly 3 billion people. Capitalism is in crisis; their strength is our weakness. You have a situation like that and you get on the other side no alternative. “There is no alternative.” TINA, I repeat; this is the nickname given to Maggie Thatcher because she was saying it louder and in shriller tones than anybody, but it has not been proclaimed by her alone, it has been internalized by everybody, including the Left. I think we should be aware of the fact that we really must provide an alternative because otherwise the world is going to pieces.

Ellen Meiksins Wood: I hope I’m not just clutching at straws here but I like to think that we’re beginning to see a change in the wind. Daniel referred to the notion that there is no alternative, and yet there seem to be fissures opening up in that uniform, monolithic view. As it happens, our awareness of these fissures is coming more from right-wing sources than from our comrades; but if you look at newspapers like the Financial Times, you find them saying things which even five minutes ago would have been absolutely anathema to them. They understand their pocketbooks, they rely on the markets, and they know that the contradictions of capitalism are displaying themselves in a truly dramatic way, and so they start talking about things like, God forbid, capitalism. It’s going to be interesting to see how long it takes some of our, how should I say, academic left comrades to get around to seeing and perceiving some of these contradictions, but I’d like to think that objective reality is going to impress itself on all of us before long.
Steve Brier: Is this new? Is this sort of moment different from moments in the past, moments that Marx and Engels dealt with and that the people who followed them had to deal with in the 1930s? What’s special about this particular late capitalist crisis?
Richard Levins: First of all I would like to put in a little bit of a plea for patience. We feel frustrated that capitalism has been around and we haven’t overturned it yet. Well, it’s not an easy thing to replace one social order by another. There were many attempts to establish capitalism before it took: the incipient city states of Italy, the Taborites of Bohemia, Egypt under Mohammed Ali, the great commercial centers of Baghdad, where mercantile capital was flourishing but never became industrial capital. Attempts were made and subsided. So the fact that we haven’t overthrown capitalism in the last decades doesn’t mean we can’t do it. The task of theory is to protect us against being overwhelmed by the moment. And the moment is that the world Left has suffered a massive defeat. It has suffered defeats before and it will suffer defeats again and therefore there’s a temptation to turn into questions of principle what is only momentary: to take the compromises that have to be made at the moment and turn them into bold new perceptions of socialism; to pretend that market socialism, like feminist prostitution or pacifist genocide, represents an advance in thinking. (laughter) My grandmother used to tell me that perhaps my own grandchildren will live under socialism and now I’m giving them the same message. So in calling for patience, I don’t mean toleration of injustice; we have to be simultaneously patient and totally impatient with the decay, the waste of human potential, the injustices of the moment.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: I’d like to jump in on that, too. I am celebrating a recent tremendous victory in my country [Brazil], where we didn’t win the presidency but we won half of the population—and it is significant that a worker, a socialist worker in the new way, emancipated and strongly active, got 37 million votes in an organized country that really believes there is an alternative and is building that alternative. The seed is there, we’re all in the process of building it, and I don’t think we were surprised that the Soviet Union fell apart. We had the guts to criticize it, to criticize the reasons why it could fall apart, way back in the 70s, and create alternatives that would really allow everyone to be emancipated. So I think this is a moment for celebration.
Stephen Jay Gould: I’d like to hark back to the line in Galileo, “Where is the divine patience?” I understand the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine wrath? In this kind of world where technology is so powerful, I don’t quite know where to be wrathful. I don’t have a granddaughter, and I don’t have the patience you do. But I think it’s very plausible to say, just in my narrow intellectual world, that the whole electronic revolution is the most important change since Gutenberg, and if you were alive in 1470, ten years after he printed his first Bible, would you have known where it was going? I don’t know where biotech- nology—my own field—is going. This is not in any sense a plea for inaction; but, with technology that powerful, simply unbridled, wrath doesn’t make any sense. It’s a unique time. People have been saying, “Thoughts are the same, social injustice isn’t the same,” but there’s a unique set of powerful new technologies which have caused changes to come about so rapidly that I just don’t quite know how to assess it—so, we’ve got to talk about it, try and understand it.
Barbara Fields: Well, it seems to me that there are two answers: one is simple-minded and one isn’t really an answer to the question. How do we understand this moment, and why have we not—“we,” whoever we are—been successful at putting a counter-hegemonic view on the table? The simple-minded answer—although I think it’s a circumstance we have to give its due weight—is that the capitalist powers, having won the Cold War, are never obliged to say they are sorry. There is no fear any longer that the other camp is going to gain the propaganda advantage if we don’t make some sign of compassion for the suffering millions, if the worst we have to fear for indulging in capital punishment is that there’s going to be an adverse report by Amnesty International. I’m not sure that’s enough to concentrate anybody’s mind. The other, which isn’t really an answer but is something I think we have to think about, is that there are many ways in which the Communist Manifesto didn’t work as a prediction of the future. The revolution went wrong; the proletariat did not become the gravedigger of the bourgeois order. But the area in which the Communist Manifesto rings truer and truer, so that it’s even truer today probably than in its own time, is in the way it understands the relentless revolutionizing of bourgeois society. It understood that so well that it could possibly have understood in detail what that means about the possibility of dealing with the monster. The bourgeois order so takes the ground out from under the past, which is really the chief resource humanity has for trying to envision the future, that it becomes very difficult to figure a way out of the confines of this society.
Steve Brier: We’ve talked about why there isn’t socialism, but I think Barbara raises the interesting question, why have we been unable to create this counter-hegemonic force, not to the point of being able to overthrow capitalism—it is a long and protracted struggle—but why, given the contradictions being so intense and absurd, have we been unable to create even the basis for an opposition that can speak to something more in the future?
Cornel West: I think it has something to do with the unleashing of market forces as a result of the world economic crisis of the mid-70s. This began to reshape so much of the world in the image of precisely what Marx was talking about—of a profit-making, profit-obsessed way of being in the world—that it has created an ice age, where it is fashionable to be indifferent to social misery. So it’s difficult to get the focus, the limelight on social misery into the public conversation. This has gone hand in hand with a waning of the institutional capacity of the Left, a gutting-out of the subcultures of the Left. As a result, progressive voices carry less weight in the larger conversation. Given the struggle over the means of communication, this means that an alternative is viewed as incredible, just a matter of fantasy, utopian in the worst sense: nowhere, nowhere, nowhere. This is one reason why the Brecht Forum is so important. It’s hard for the Left to sustain pre-party formations, let alone parties, let alone subcultures where networks can be sustained; but with the Brecht Forum, you’ve got an infrastructure still going.
Ellen Meiksins Wood: I don’t think we should underestimate how long it has been since we lost the habit of thinking alternatives to capitalism. I don’t think this dates just to the collapse of communism; it’s not a particularly recent phenomenon. We have to think of it in some historical time, and I’m struck by the fact that the political culture of the Left today is still dominated by people of my own generation, that is, the so-called sixties generation. If you think about our formative experience, there’s a rather interesting gulf between us and, for example, the previous generation of the Left, whose formative experience was the Depression and the second world war. What was our formative experience? Our formative experience was the so-called golden age of capitalism. Now, this created some interesting contradictions in our radical conscious- ness, which we still haven’t completely played out today. I mean, we were certainly preoccupied with the evils of capitalism, but we were just as much mesmerized by its apparent successes. And I don’t think we’ve ever entirely gotten over that. Even in the most radical moments, many of us may have been involved in anti-racist struggles and anti-imperialist struggles, and so on, but it seems that, with a few notable exceptions, we were not thinking in anti-capitalist terms. We have yet to overcome this historical limitation, but I think that the realities that we’re confronting in capitalism today are going to concentrate our minds in a way in which they haven’t been concentrated in a very long time, and so I’m hopeful about new developments.
Steve Brier: I imagine, though, that would look very different in Brazil or Chile. (laughter)
Ellen Meiksins Wood: Yes, yes, of course, I wanted to emphasize immediately ...
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: I was dying to jump in, thank you. I think this is a very American perspective, and I want to say just one thing about our generation. In 1989, I was standing at the podium watching a crowd of over a million people in the closing rally of the first attempt to have elections for president of the Workers’ Party, and one of my students came and said, “You know something, why don’t you just retire and go home and pass on the flag to us?” And I realized that everybody who was there was under twenty...and I really felt, well, maybe I should retire, I’m too old (laughter). I was, at that time, only 45. I’m learning from them, it’s a process in march. They are busy doing. They are not commiserating about how they’re not hegemonic, they’re busy building hegemony, and being extremely creative in all forms of organization, all forms of thought, all forms of delineating public policy and ideas, and they were, surprisingly, winning elections all over the place. We almost won the state of Sao Paulo. We lost by only one percent; in fact I think they stole it. We won three of the most important states in the last gubernatorial elections; we won over one hundred city govern- ments in the last municipal elections. We won 115 Congressional and 3 Senate seats. Almost all the cities where the PT [Workers’ Party] was in government since 1982 have never been lost; in fact the Right now says the opposite: if the PT wins power, just forget it, we might as well pack up and leave town, because it’s not about just losing, because of the creativity of the involvement of the population. So, I can hope for this outcome, but I do feel that our generation has left a seed. I think his sentence was very good: “Go home, retire, think about it, watch us, we’re carrying on. Pass us the flag.”
Steve Brier: Daniel, what about in Europe, is there somewhere to go?
Daniel Singer: I want to respond to something that Cornel said regarding the crisis of the mid-70s, the structural crisis. Before that, they could argue, look at capitalism, after all, it’s working. This was the golden age of capitalism. They could say, “Look, why should you change society when you can make such good changes within society?” In Europe, for instance, the cake was growing and the slices were going to be bigger, and so on. But now we have a situation, since 1973, where their ideological hegemony is strong but they have no economic justification. The contradiction between our technological genius and the absurdity of our social organization is so obvious, it should strike everyone. They’ve managed, in spite of that, to have the hegemony; the last twenty-five years have seen a fantastic swing to the Right. I think the Soviet Union did play a part, and an important part, in this. It seems to me strange that although not many people by 1989 or 1991 thought that a socialist alternative was really being built in the Soviet Union, they’ve managed—Fukuyama and others—to create that impression of “the end of history.” This is what we have to fight against. You may remember Jeane Kirkpatrick and company who were saying that the Soviet Union was a hell from which there could be no exit. Now, they’ve succeeded in saying of our society—hell, paradise, purgatory, call it whatever you like—that you can’t get out of it. Our problem is to convince people once again that you can get out of this society, that you can change life by collective political action, and until we convince people of that, I think, we won’t have a chance.
Steve Brier: Is socialism still the relevant concept for that struggle? In other words, in a world in which history has ended, or at least the bourgeois ideologues tell us it has, and the market rules all things, how do we make socialism a relevant ideology? That’s a tough, tough sell.
Richard Levins: How can we afford to allow our lives to be side-effects of the quest for accumulation? (laughter, applause)
Steve Brier: Fair enough. Anyone else, on that comment I made? (laughter)
Ellen Meiksins Wood: There’s a one-word answer to whether socialism is relevant, and that word is capitalism.
Cornel West: But for me it’s not really a battle over the word “socialism” because it’s already come to mean so many different things to different people. Michael Harrington said, in his last book, “Socialism is a name for a particular desire to insure that social arrangements are in place so that the free development of each becomes the condition for the free development of all.” And that’s harking back to 1847-48, but I think what that means is that we have to be able to translate the language of socialism in such a way that it means something to people on the ground who are catching hell: that it actually is connected to their tears, their suffering, their misery, so that they feel that they are agents and subjects in the world, such that they are capable of coming together and making some change against the power of capital. And that’s why we have to talk about, as sister Maria mentioned, the legacy of colonialism and slavery. The legacy of white supremacy cuts deep in the United States, and I think it probably holds for Brazil. I haven’t been there for awhile, but I know a lot of black folk are catching hell over there, too. (laughter) It cuts so deep, and the legacy of male supremacy cuts so deep, that the Marxist tradition is both indispensable and inadequate. It’s inescapable yet insufficient, because you don’t see the focus on white supremacy in 1848. The modern world is the property question. Well, black folk were property, yes. But property of a certain sort. And the challenge to the U.S. Left has always been, how do you allow for the crucial role that working-class and trade union movements have played at their best—must play at their best—and yet also come to terms with the specificity of the development of U.S. capitalism? And that’s where the legacy of white supremacy, male supremacy cuts in, in a very distinctive kind of way, and it’s always been a major challenge for the Left. One of the reasons why the social capacity of the Left is so feeble at the moment, and one of the reasons why the Right is so strong, is that they can organize around white fears and anxieties by pushing white supremacist buttons in a very subtle way. And so we can’t talk about right-wing hegemony in the United States without talking about the racial dimension of crime, taxes, welfare, affirmative action, right across the board the black and brown faces there. And so how do we hit that head-on in the States? (applause)
Stephen Jay Gould: I just wanted to throw in one other issue. It just amazes me, this Fukuyama-style proposition of the “ends” of things; I guess “end books” sell, (laughter) but this confident assertion that you hear over and over again with a battering ram, that somehow the collapse of the Soviet Union means that this other system is triumphant forever, is something we ought to dissect a little bit. What I wanted to throw in, given the experience of history, is that nothing’s not only forever, nothing even lasts a human eye-blink, not to mention a geological eye-blink. But I think there is one other argument we need to talk about that’s behind that, if not always articulated. This gets back to my own field, or evolutionary biology. That is, one of the deepest assumptions is that socialism has been shown to be incompatible with human nature. Even those who say “capitalism forever” will allow that it’s not in theory the fairest of systems, but it has now been decided, so they say, that human nature is effectively selfish, and that the socialist person cannot be constructed. I think we have to continue to push the nonsensical nature of that point. Embedded in the notion of capitalism’s permanence is a theory about human nature that is not articulated often enough and that we have to continue to battle, because it’s so blatantly false (applause) in this flexible species around us.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: I was very touched by the emotions that were brought by the burial of Che Guevara in Latin America and the whole renewal of the idea of new men and new women, and the emancipation movement having to be one in which you are creating this new man and this new woman at the same time that you are creating the new society. And I think you’re right, there has to be that counter-hegemony, in fact an infinite variety of counter-hegemonies. The trick is to allow it to develop really dialectically, over time.
Barbara Fields: I would say that socialism as it’s been handed down—as a product of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is going to be seen as less and less relevant by a lot of people. But to me socialism means bringing our collective social capacity under democratic control. And that is, and remains, relevant, as opposed to the self-evidently irresponsible and dangerous kinds of control that now are in the hands of individuals or corporate entities, or government entities that are unaccountable. The danger of the moment, it seems to me, is that the Left has stood by in virtual silence as there has been a relentless narrowing of the area of democratic prerogative that is open to people. You can see this in the European Union, the development of the common currency; you can see it in the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, in the workings of the IMF and the Federal Reserve System—all of these are ways in which governmental or intergovernmental agencies are essentially establishing mechanisms to remove from the realm of democratic debate and democratic control whole areas in which people used to be able to press their governments to protect their well-being and their interest. All these mechanisms will be seen to affect labor almost like acts of God: “Oh, we can’t do anything about unemployment because, after all, we have to meet the target for the common currency.” That’s one mechanism, there are others; but it seems to me that the common element is that even as we speak, the citizen is being made less and less relevant to the processes of government; and even governments and nation-states are losing those tools that in the past have been available, through at least potentially if not actually democratic processes, to improve people’s conditions of life. We on the Left, I think, have not had a concerted word to say about this process, which is pre-empting the possibility of our future actions.
Daniel Singer: I would like to just add one thing. We shouldn’t be so astonished. After all, we’ve learned from Marx that the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling class, and it’s not the first time that it happens, and that ideology permeates the air all the time. I’m rather fond of telling this story: I live in Paris, and when there is a meeting in France between labor representatives and the employers, the radio and TV commentators say, “There has been a meeting between social partners, the social partners have met.” And everybody, even my left-wing friends, recognizes this as part of the language: “social partners.” I tell them, look, imagine for a second if somebody on television said “class enemies have met today.” (laughter) Then everybody would say, “it’s terrible, you can’t do that, it’s ideology.” I say, look, it’s true it’s ideological, but whether you consider it partnership or conflict, both are ideologies. We breathe the ruling ideology as the air we breathe, and so we have to react against it. One way of reacting against it, obviously, from our point of view, is by social movements. If you have social movements from below, the climate changes, and I’ll give you an example of that. During the so-called French “winter of discontent” in 1995, we had strikes and at the same time lots of demonstrations all over the country. Suddenly, our pundits, our chatterers, the professional ones, were completely at a loss, they were repeating exactly the same thing, about the people not understanding monetary policies, and the louder they shouted, the bigger the movement grew. During that moment they were completely lost. Suddenly, the ruling ideology was no longer dominant. I think this was the first turning point, and the climate has changed. So there is clearly a link between social movements and our ideology.
Part II
Steve Brier: Let us move to the second theme, which is the question of vision and potentiality. Marx and Engels proclaimed the possibility of realizing communism, not as a static, utopian state of perfection, but as a scientific path of development, using scientific understanding to gain knowledge of ourselves, our societies, and our conditions of life and nature. Is it still important to speak of scientific socialism? What does the “science” in scientific socialism mean, now as compared to when Marx and Engels conceived that term in the mid-nineteenth century?
Stephen Jay Gould: This may not be a popular position, but at least it’s mine. (laughter) I think, at least as I understand it, the way in which they use the term “scientific,” we should drop it now. It was the nineteenth century, and Marx came out of this tradition which was highly deterministic and had theories of historical stages. I think he was following a procedure that’s been very common throughout history, based on the prestige of science and the misunderstanding that science is meant to be a deterministic enterprise. I think that’s really an incorrect position. I think if we’ve learned anything in the twentieth century, it’s the depth of history’s contingencies and unpredictabilities. They can be explained after they happen, you can certainly have prognostications, you can certainly learn important things, and the word “scientific” itself is very broad. It doesn’t only mean the caricatured LaPlacean determinism, and I think science could be broadened as a concept to include historical complexity which doesn’t grant that kind of predictability. Nonetheless, the whole historical context of the phrase “scientific socialism” is so bound up with the outmoded, deterministic view that was common in nineteenth century science, and which spilled over into theories of social structure and predictability, that we’d probably be better off just dropping it. (applause)
Ellen Meiksins Wood: It’s funny, because I never understood scientific socialism in that way. To me, all that scientific socialism means is that socialism is not just a free-floating aspiration, it is a historical possibility. Now to say that it’s a possibility is to say something important. It’s not to say that it’s an inevitability— possibility is not inevitability—but a possibility is also not an impossibility; and to say that something is possible is to say a great deal. To use the term scientific socialism (I never do myself, but I don’t get terribly worked up about the use of it), is simply to say that the conditions of possibility for socialism are rooted in capitalism, are rooted in the conditions of capitalism. It may or may not happen, but it is a real historical possibility and it is a part of our task to do a critique of capitalism. In other words, I would say that the science of socialism has less to do with socialism than it has to do with capitalism. The science of socialism is simply the political economy of capitalism, and a critique of capitalism.
Stephen Jay Gould: I agree with what you’ve said, but it’s the twentieth century. Anything can have the adjective “scientific” attached to it and it doesn’t have any meaning.
Cornel West: I think we have to make a distinction though between possibility and probability. Now, of course we know that Marx in the Manifesto makes claims about inevitability, and I think we can all agree, that’s wrong. In fact, Marx makes a double claim; he says that the decline of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable. Now that’s a 29-year-old young brother trying to make sense of the world. (laughter and applause) And he’s got some profound insights as to the asymmetrical relations of power between capital and labor and as to the revolutionizing of the technology and the society; but the inevitability claim is simply remnants of an old Weltanschauung that we have to give up on. Now the question then becomes, how do we talk about the probability? You see, when we go to fellow citizens, the language of possibility is new-age language, right? “Everything’s possible, try this out, try this out, try this out.” (laughter) Leftists can’t go to fellow citizens who are suffering and say, “This is possible.” We need a stronger claim. It’s probable if we can do x, y, organize, bring power and pressure to bear, that we can make collective or social democratic control a reality. The problem is, the Left can’t do that right now. The Left can’t do it we’ve got an intellectual crisis, we’ve got a political crisis, and we’ve got a communication crisis. That doesn’t mean we give up, but we have to be honest; it’s hard to make the case that a socialist project is probable on 125th Street. (applause)
Steve Brier: I have to say, it’s the first time I’ve heard Marx described as a 29-year-old young brother. (applause)
Cornel West: But we’ve got to keep in mind, we’re working with a young man.
Daniel Singer: I was just going to say, Cornel, that it was always a probability because one always said “socialism or barbarism”; so it was always assumed that there is an alternative.
Richard Levins: Well, first of all, science is far less deterministic than it presents itself, and Steve certainly has led the way in making the science of paleontology, evolutionary biology, nondeterministic and yet nonetheless scientific for that. It means a reconcep- tualization of science. Now, in science there are things that we don’t know and there are things that we do know, and there are things that we sort of think we maybe know. But even though we don’t know that we can overthrow capitalism successfully, we do know that capitalism will not create humane social relations or a rational relationship between us and the rest of nature. Those things we can be sure of. The things we are not sure of, we deal with by saying that while objectivist science tries to separate thinking from feeling, Marxist science is partisan. We are against capitalism, and therefore we talk about capitalism not in the sense of predicting from the outside that we inevitably have to go through certain stages, but rather in the sense of asking: what do we have to do? And what we have to do is get rid of capitalism. We may fail, but we certainly won’t have decent lives for our people before that. (applause)
Daniel Singer: We don’t need to know that victory is certain in order to fight, but we do have to know what we’re fighting against, and we know that capitalism is unbearable. Now, that’s the beginning, but secondly we also know that we can change it into something else. The problem is, will we change it through a model, an example, something that is handed down from above? Or will we change it by a movement from below which advances stage by stage, basing itself not on a Holy Scripture that will “happen,” but on a draft which can we can work on and which we can change? I think this is our conception. It is not a uniquely Marxist conception, but I think that we can live with it: a project without certainty of victory but with a feeling of the necessity of struggle.
Barbara Fields: I’d like to add another term. We’ve talked about “scientific,” but I think reason needs a lot of help these days. It’s in bad repute in many quarters, and it’s undeniable that many high crimes and misdemeanors have been carried out in its name. Nevertheless, I think we have to insist on the possibility of applying reason to solving social problems as against, on one hand, a completely unbridled subjectivity, which leads ultimately to an extremely anti-democratic conclusion, or, on the other hand, obscurantism, which I think is one of the lines of least resistance of a society whose culture is ruled by generalized commodification. The idea that everything can be true and its converse is true and its reverse is true and its obverse is true is the sort of thing that the market can easily sell because it’s good selling technique. And it really is. One of our tasks, going against the current, is to reconfirm to people that they have in their hands the tool of reason to apply to their circumstances. Otherwise, we are completely disarmed against whatever idea happens to be the one with the most powerful engine behind it. And our engines aren’t the most powerful engines these days, so if we allow reason to go to the wall on the grounds that we can just allow maximum self-expression, then we’ll find out whose expression is going to be maximized and whose expression is going to disappear. (applause)
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: I’d like to add one other element, and that’s the role of social science in the process of emancipation. I think that if we research and understand our reality constantly and do it in a collective manner, we can further the process of emancipation. In the Brazilian social movement, it is common to see social science being done in collaboration between intellectuals and members of social movements—for example, research about the automobile industry and how it affects the lives of close to 20,000 workers, members of trade unions. The workers gathered the data which economists and social scientists then analyzed and discussed with them. The result of this kind of process is a collective understanding of the economic and social reality, which is scientific and emancipatory at the same time. So maybe we can understand Marx’s comment in a different context.
Steve Brier: I actually think Marx’s intent was to posit scientific socialism against utopian socialism, and that word “utopianism” has been largely dropped from our vocabulary, and I wonder if that’s a good thing. Edward Thompson, an historian I deeply admire, wrote an essay which argued that we need to be able to think in a utopian way. That may or may not be scientific, I don’t know, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Is there a role for utopianism in our movement?
Cornel West: Depends on what you mean ...
Richard Levins: Part of it is the demand that we be able to see beyond the present, that what is doesn’t have to be. That’s the positive element. The negative side of utopianism is the belief that we can construct a society out of our heads without being concerned with how we get there from here. And it’s that aspect of utopianism that we reject, but certainly not the dreaming of another way.
Cornel West: I think it relates to Barbara’s earlier point. On the one hand, if it is defined as the great refusal to allow the prevailing status quo to have the last word on what is, then we have to be utopian. But there’s a real anti-intellectual streak, especially in U.S. society, where “utopian” has come to mean just projecting a dream, with no analysis of what you’re up against, no attempt to put forward better arguments, stronger evidence, more valid conclusions, which is what I think you mean by reason. And they’ve got to go hand in hand—how do we engage in the great refusal, which in many ways is both a moral and an existential stance. But the latter is a moralism that I think Marx was always suspicious of, and rightly so. That somehow just by being good people, or everybody engaging in internal conversion, we’re gonna have a better world, without some understanding of the institutions and structures in place, how they operate, how the power of wealth operates within those institutions, and how we can organize and mobilize around some grand or moral ideals. I think one of the problems with Marx is that he just didn’t want to hit the moral dimension and the ethical dimension head on, and it’s really come back to haunt the Marxist tradition, but that’s another conversation. (laughter)
Daniel Singer: Be realistic, ask for the impossible; I’m going to plead for a realistic utopia. What I mean by that is that if you say today that you can move beyond the confines of capitalist society, you are told that it is utopian, it’s dangerous, and so on. And it’s one of the worst insults that you can have. So I think that, in the same way that in ‘68 we were shouting that we’re all German Jews, we should shout that we’re all utopians, in the sense that we want to get outside this society. But why realistic? Obviously, if it is simply saying, take dreams for reality, that’s not much help. But if this realism means that, as Ellen was saying, within the existing societies there are already the elements of a different society, if it is the current struggles that carry us beyond the confines of that society, and if in those struggles we can show people that their demands, their wishes, their dreams, are impossible within the confines of our society, then we can lead to a realistic utopia and we can prove that what they want to call impossible is in fact possible. (applause)
Steve Brier: Richard, that conforms with your ...
Richard Levins: Yes, I’d like to pick up on what Cornel was talking about, about the idea that people simply have to acquire good will and change themselves and we’ll have a better life. There used to be these debates, back in the 1920s and 30s, do we have to change society in order to change people or do people have to change first to change society? And this was expressed as Rosa Luxemburg’s paradox, that we’re building a future with the materials of the past, namely us. I think that the Brazilian Workers’ Party is one of the places that have come closest to resolving that paradox, because what they seem to be doing is carrying out the act of human transformation within capitalism to the point that it can be transformed, to make it possible then to get the kind of socialism that we want. That way, the contradiction is resolved, and the utopianism is seeing before our eyes that people are capable of so much more when they act in concert; and that underlines our principle, that in a sense communism is the set of arrangements where it makes sense to be kind. (applause)
Steve Brier: Anyone else on utopianism?
Barbara Fields: I do think that for most of us the most powerful resource we have for trying to conceive ourselves out of the present and into the future is our apprehension of the past. And it is one of the cultural and intellectual conditions of our current social arrangements, to force people to live in a perpetual present, in a state of permanent amnesia. When people have had the past, they may conceive it in different ways, sometimes in mistaken ways, and it will be contested and so on. But when they have all that expropriated and live in a perpetual present, then they are subject to forcefields that they don’t have any control over. I don’t think you can have a utopianism, whether it’s realistic, unrealistic, good, bad or indifferent, if people have been cut off from an understanding of their own past. (applause)
Cornel West: Can I say a quick word about brother Dick’s word “kind”? Because that jumped out, and I think we need to dwell on it just a little bit, because when I think of the Left I don’t think of tenderness, kindness, gentleness, you know what I mean? I think of toughness, seriousness, engaged with reality. Now that’s very important, but it’s interesting to me, because I come out of a tradition—the black church tradition—where the discourse on sweetness, I mean the blues, is a sweet indictment of misery; a spiritual is a sweet indictment of misery. The discourse of sweetness and kindness means a lot because the people have been so bruised and scarred. If you can’t relate to their bruises and scars, then the best vision and analysis in the world is not gonna make that much sense to them because they’re reading you in terms of how you exemplify and embody the kind of society you’re talking about down the line. (applause) ‘Cause if you’re rough and tough now, then down the line they’re going, “Well, what kind of society are we actually talking about here? It sounds good, but you’re very unkind in spirit.” Now, what was behind your use of that word “kind”? I want you to say a little bit more about that.
Richard Levins: I was reminded of a poem by Brecht, where he talked about how we are living in a terrible time where a kind word seems an absurdity. And then he went on and said that the way we struggle against injustice, we could not ourselves be kind. At the core of communist morality, is breaking out of the false dichotomy of altruism versus selfishness, which are both individualistic. To say that it’s possible to have a relationship, or a world, in which human compassion, cooperation, kindness make sense, make good reason, can be a natural way of being, is not something that is anomalous, so anomalous that we label it as sainthood. I think that the moral force of a revolution is to create that kind of world. (applause)
Part III
Steve Brier: Maybe the dichotomy between scientific socialism and utopian socialism is too sharply drawn. I think our movement has always tried to imagine what ought to be, what’s possible, and I think that that’s the element of utopianism that we don’t want to lose. We want to hold onto this sort of vision of a possible future, because that’s what can keep us moving. Let me talk a little bit about an orientation toward our current tasks. We’ve been speaking about our contemporary situation, about our potential; now we should talk about what we can do to bring this into being. And I have a couple of questions to throw out, and hopefully they’ll generate some other ideas. Unlike Europe, capitalist development in the Americas did not emerge out of existing feudal societies, but was built upon colonial settlement, the destruction of indigenous cultures, and the enslavement of African peoples. In the Americas, our cultural, ideological, and political formations are informed by, indeed are the products of, these particular experiences. How do we position ourselves as a movement in relation to all the particular forms of oppression experienced by specific communities and people, defined by race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc., especially at a time when no unified working-class movement exists that encompasses these communities and fights to eradicate the special injustices they face? Are we destined to fight the individual battles, or is there a way for us to bring this together, all of these discrete battles, into a unified movement?
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: Well, first I want to go just quickly back to both your comments because I was reminded of the comment of a Brazilian bishop, Helder Camara, when he said, “It is very strange to me that when I was organizing the distribution of bread to the poor, I was called a saint, but once I started teaching people how to make bread, and how to organize themselves so that they can win bread, I was called a communist.” (laughter). Now, as to this question of how you connect the different experiences of people and the different racial backgrounds and histories: I lived through a dramatic answer to this question in a meeting quite a while ago that I think was very formative of the Workers’ Party. We were discussing agrarian reform, and we, I mean, intellectuals like myself and the core of the Workers’ Party then (which was urban metal workers and other urban workers of the south of Brazil, black and white but mostly white), were all discussing agrarian reform within the format of what we had been learning from our Left tradition, the models handed down to us. And suddenly a group of people from the Amazon, one of whom was Chico Mendes, a wonderful leader who was later killed, said, “You people should just shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” And, everybody sort of looked at him and he said, “Did any of you ever go to the Amazon?” And nobody had ever gone out of Rio or Sao Paulo. None of them (myself included) had the foggiest conception of what the Amazon could be like. And he said, well, you should allow us to go back and discuss with the indigenous people and the seringueiros (workers who tap the rubber trees) what agrarian reform means for the Amazon, which is a good part of Brazil, and then we’ll come back and discuss agrarian reform as a program of the party. And that was approved because it is the practice of the Workers’ Party to have such democratic participation from workers. It turned out that the original agrarian reform program that was being discussed never envisioned the maintenance and development of “Forest Reserves,” which is now one of the most important ecological aspects of the PT’s agrarian reform proposals and which has, in fact, become part of Brazil’s Amazonian development program. This idea had to come from the forest people themselves, now organized as the “Peoples of the Forest Movement.” So I think it’s very important, if we are going to have this myriad of peoples, to take seriously from the beginning forms of organization that really are emancipatory and that also unify different movements.
Steve Brier: Other ideas on how we put our movement together?
Cornel West: I think we need more interorganizational exchanges. The Left is so fragmented. I’ve been a part of Democratic Socialists of America for about 16 years. I’ve had my agreements and disagreements with them, but I try to accent the umbrella organizations over the New Party, the Labor Party, the Green Party, and a whole host of groups. They’re all full of wonderful folks doing important things, but there’s no communication, there’s no serious coming together, and you don’t have interorganizational interaction and communication that could forge at least a united front and set of voices in the public conversation so that we could at least get our alternative out to the public. But I think the Black Radical Congress—trying to unify all these black progressives—is a very important step, even given our relative movements, and I say relative because things are contingent.
Steve Brier: Is that a unified party, or is it a ...
Cornel West: No, I’m not talking about parties. As soon as you say “party,” you’re already causing problems; we’re just talking about a conversation. (laughter) Who’s running the party, whose resources, a whole lot of other status questions. No, we’re just engaged in forging a united front. Joel Rogers and others have been talking about this, and it’s a very important challenge to the U.S. Left.
Daniel Singer: This system, capitalism, has centuries of tradition and coherence and logic of its own, and it will only be brought down by an equally coherent movement capable of attacking on all fronts. So, however great all the movements are, unless they cooperate and really develop a project together—and I still think the labor movement is central to this—the capitalist class can cope with us; they’ve proved it.
Richard Levins: The Manifesto talks about how the working class cannot emancipate itself without emancipating the whole of society. Now, this was long misinterpreted to mean that when the workers emancipate themselves then everything else falls into place. But I think it means quite the opposite, that all struggles against oppression have to be part of the broad consciousness of a revolutionary movement. Now, the postmodernists tried to make the fragmentation of the movement into a virtue, talking about the struggles of different interest groups or identities. When that happens, these different currents necessarily will come into conflict, groups that ought to be allies. And my proposition is that when causes of liberation and justice come into conflict, it’s because they’re asking too little. If Afro-American groups compete with Latino groups over jobs, it’s because they’re all accepting that capitalism determines a limited number of jobs and guarantees unemployment. So the struggle for jobs already has to go beyond the confines of the system or else there will be clashes among liberation movements. And so, in that sense, the present fragmentation is a stage in development; we need special groups representing our own interests because we don’t have the overarching consciousness as yet, but as we move toward that, we need a combination of the two. We need the coalitions in which we may be uncomfortable, and we need the support-groups where we’re solidly at home. I think some of the best thinking on this question was done by Bernice Johnson Reagon, talking about the nature of coalitions, and that allows us to get beyond the really false polarization between a movement that projects the whole and specific movements around particular injustices.
Ellen Meiksins Wood: Well, it’s strange but it seems to me that we constantly circumvent the issue of what the principle of unity would be among these various emancipatory struggles. I mean, it’s all very well to talk about the fact that all the struggles have in common some desire for self-emancipation, but what is the principle that they have in common which a unified movement could organize around? I would like, if I may, to introduce the unfashionable notion that of all the available principles of unity we have, the most comprehensive one, even though it doesn’t cover everything, is that of class. I don’t see any way of avoiding that. (applause)
Cornel West: It depends on what you mean by class, though. I mean, we’ve got long histories of people invoking class and lynching folk, you know, so that we have to have a broader conception of class that would include, for example, gay brothers and gay sisters, their rights and liberties, and the ways in which they are also largely working-class in composition, and so forth. It’s just a matter of trying to be very clear about what we mean by class, because part of the problem is that postmodernists are parasitic on the logocentrism of the Marxists—it’s the flip side of the coin. I mean, as long the Marxists are ostrich-like and looking only for logos—“working-class savior”—and yet you have all these other everyday realities which are fragmented, then the postmodernists are gonna be accenting what you’re missing when you’re looking only at the workplace, only at the trade union movement, only at work. Now, if somehow we could show that that’s the flip side of the coin, that something else ought to go on, and still accent the role of class in the way in which Ellen is talking about it, I think we have a chance. But in the end, we might all get crushed, I mean this is another possibility. (laughter)
Daniel Singer: But otherwise we would be crushed in any case; at least we’ll be fighting to make a change.
Cornel West: Yes, but it’s different when you’re trying to make a case to people for whom America is really a chamber of horrors. You can talk about the chamber, you can talk about the suffering, but it’s something else. Now how do we make that bridge? That’s a major challenge, especially given the privileged status of so many leftists these days. You know what I mean? (applause) Let’s talk about that—who’s willing to die under what conditions? I mean, that’s what the Communists were talking about in the 30s, that’s what I love about the Reds in the 30s, they were willing to die. How many leftists are willing to die in 1998 for socialism? That’s a sign of living intensely for socialism. It’s a challenge at the existential level, because it’s gonna take that kind of fire in order to get this stuff off the ground.
Barbara Fields: We also cannot afford to take the Pollyanna approach about the necessary congruence of every struggle that to some group of people is going to seem legitimate. I’m thinking especially of struggles for national self-determination, defined in various ways. There are some that are mutually exclusive, and there are some whose methods and conditions don’t deserve to be supported, and then there are others that, however much we might want to support them, if we choose one we can’t choose the other. I’m thinking also of the assumption that every claim for self-determination in national or ethnic terms has to be met with a graft of territory and the state and so forth, which carries with it the assumption that you have to have mass, forced movement of people, ethnic cleansing, and all of this. These are ugly things and sometimes they are implied by what some people might define as national struggles. Not every struggle that someone chooses, even to the point of being willing to die for it, is something that we can harmonize with everything else, and I think we shouldn’t deceive ourselves with the idea that if we’re just kind enough, or if we’re flexible enough, we will find a way to make a unified movement out of all of this. We’re going to have to make some choices.
Stephen Jay Gould: But, as people of good will do resonate favorably to those who are oppressed, and that’s fair enough, where does future unity come from? What’s gonna turn it eventually? And I’m very sensitive to your comment that some of these are indeed not only contradictory, some of them are even movements we should oppose.
Richard Levins: Well, a good working hypothesis is that all of the major sufferings in the present world and the great threats that are hovering over us have either been created by or reinforced and molded by, shaped by, capitalism. The common interest comes in changing the contours of the society, so that for instance it becomes possible to struggle for the environment without threatening people’s jobs, and it becomes possible to struggle for women’s rights without dividing a national movement, and so forth.
Stephen Jay Gould: How do we get our good-minded biological colleagues who have never had a political thought in their lives, but that have good environmental feelings, to see that?
Richard Levins: Well, part of the answer is that not everybody is going to be on our side. The history of Green movements is that they eventually split over the question of capitalism.
Stephen Jay Gould: You’re right, and the conservationist movement was started by right-wingers who wanted to keep immigrants out of the woods on the weekends. (laughter)
Richard Levins: The possibility is that people who are seriously committed to the protection of the environment will eventually have to either sacrifice their commitment to the environment or abandon their class base. In fact, the destructiveness of capitalism is such that it becomes possible for larger numbers of people to desert the interest of their class in favor of a more overriding human interest. That’s not the basis for the revolution, but it’s an important contribution to it. And so the reconciliation of these various conflicting currents comes from recognizing that we have to change the structure of society, the class structure of society, in order to make these, the causes of human liberation compatible. That’s a very slow process, it’s a long one, and in the meantime, it’s not that I would tolerate different movements, they exist and, insofar as they can contribute to an overall liberation, we support them, and where there are contradictions we have to feel our way and work it out. There’s no blueprint.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: This is very important, to recognize that the majority has different interests within it. So just thinking that class is the determinant factor can lead us to become lost in less important discussions. I was reminded of that when you started to talk about class, and I recalled the discussions that we had when we were first organizing the PT, around 1978. We spent the next three years discussing who should be a member of the “Workers’ Party,” who was really a worker. And it was terrible, it was partly because at that point the actual workers our leadership was talking about were exclusively the metal workers, and included nobody else. I had endless discussions about this, and now all that’s left of that original approach is the name [Workers’ Party]. We didn’t bother to change that, because now it’s the tradition, but the party is in fact a myriad of those social movements. I wouldn’t even say that it’s a coalition of special interests; it’s a coalition of huge social movements, the largest of which we could never have envisioned, which is the movement called “landless,” sem terra, which now has officially organized, registered, 18 million members who are within the discrete spectrum called the Workers’ Party, but are not limited by it and are not it—they are much larger than the Workers’ Party, which only has about 10,000 members.
Cornel West: But I think this takes us back to Ellen’s first question about the grain of the Left and its relation to the younger generation, so-called “generation expectation,” “generation X” or what have you, and how the members of that younger generation politicize, depoliticize, in a variety of different ways, some of which may be even unrecognizable to some of us older folk—how do we talk about all that? How do we meet that challenge, given our experience in the 70s (60s I was still too young; some of you all, talking about the 50s and 60s, I was just runnin’ around in short pants), when you had not only a different historical moment but a different form of socialization, enculturation? The younger generation is qualitatively different. I think it’s a major problem for the Left, and I’m glad to hear that in Brazil you’ve got these thousands and thousands of young folk.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: Millions.
Daniel Singer: It’s not just a problem with the younger generation. When you raise the problem of women, or the problem of the ecologists’ concerns, and so on, how do we show them that if they want the transformation they desire, they must change society as a whole? How do we show them that if they want to have mastery over their fate and their life, they must take political action? If we are capable of showing that to them, I think we’ll be able to engage them. It’s certainly a question of language and how to find the right language, but what the other side really says is that people don’t want freedom, that people don’t know what they want. Many of you may remember the discussion of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky. He says that people don’t want freedom; they want society as it is, with rule from above. And I think that our bet, our assumption, an essential assumption, is that it’s the opposite, that people do really want to have mastery over their lives. If they do, we can change the world with them; if they don’t, we’ve had it.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: Good. I think they do, and I don’t think we need to show them anything. I think that was a mistake of the past. (applause) How did a movement of 18 million landless people—of all races, across all of Brazil—come about? It was not dreamt by any of the leadership, and it was far removed from all the intellectuals or the theorists or anybody else. It was done by small groups discussing in every area how the hell they could get land and change their particular situation in a country that is so vastly unjust as Brazil, where immense territories—making it the world’s fifth producer of food—are in the hands of less than 0.1 percent of the population, and the rest are starving. It was organized on the model of the church, although I don’t think the church envisioned or would have liked it. It was organized on the basis of comunidades de base, base communities, which discussed religion and reality in the theology of liberation context. That’s the basis for a lot of the social movements in Brazil. The theology of liberation took root and emancipated people so that they can act. But nobody showed them.
Cornel West: But I think brother Daniel’s point was that some kind of shift in perception must take place. You can call it showing, enlightenment, illumination, conversion, metanoia—some change of consciousness. At the moment they have the fetishizing of material possessions. The American ideology tells them, you can have full control of your life if you put those Nikes on. That’s a utopian fantasy. There has to be some shift that says where there are other conceptions of having control of your life. Because you’ll get downsized with those Nikes. And you’ll have no power against management. You see what I mean? There has to be a larger story, a thicker narrative put forward. Some kind of showing is taking place, even if it’s within the grassroots.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: But it is collective and it is based on your culture, your roots, and your history, what you were saying.
Cornel West: Oh sure, sure.
Daniel Singer: On your action. It’s in your action that you should find it.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: And the action is a collective action, but I think in our case we have a tremendous advantage, which is a history of collective struggle by black people from the moment that they were brought to Brazil. The cohesion and the struggle never ceased. It’s not the leaders showing, that’s what I’m saying.
Daniel Singer: Nothing from above, nothing from above.
Cornel West: But if all the black folk in Brazil were involved in intense organized mobilization, they would have overthrown the oligarchy a long time ago. Something else is going on in Brazil, you know what I mean? And the same is true in the States, that is to say, there has to be some blockage, some hemorrhaging taking place, even given the rich tradition of struggle. We’ve got a rich tradition of struggle of black folk in America, but look at all these black folk catching hell. The schools, the educational system; something else is going on, you see. Because we’re not winning.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: Maybe Paulo Freire was right; that is, when theory meets ...
Cornel West: Paulo, that’s right, was a serious freedom fighter, but he knew that some hemorrhaging was going on.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: But he was the first to say, “I don’t show anything to anybody.”
Cornel West: Well, his books show, I think (laughter)—but not in an arrogant, elitist way. There are democratic ways of showing versus elitist ways of showing. I’m just accenting the democratic version.
Steve Brier: Ellen said earlier in this conversation that class was the single best way in which we could organize people. In the past, our movement has often used the concept of class to deny the real rights of women, of African-Americans, of gays and lesbians in the movement. And the challenge for us is, how do we get away from that practice? We can do this if we all have good will, but I’m not sure we’re always going to have good will. What are the structures that the movement needs in order to assure that each of these groups has a place, has the ability to articulate its needs and goals?
Richard Levins: Here’s where I want to comment on this question of class. Sometimes class struggles are counterposed to other struggles because they are conceived too narrowly as trade union struggles. It seems to me, for instance, that the struggle for decent housing is a class struggle, it’s not the rich who are out on the street. (applause) The struggle for the environment, environmental justice, is a class struggle, because the incinerators are in the Afro-American and working-class neighborhoods. So if we understand that the injustices of this society, no matter how they affect us, are coming out of the division of society into classes and out of the struggle of the dominant class to accumulate, then we can understand that there’s no antagonism among ourselves. We don’t have to be hairsplitting, to see that a struggle against capitalist oppression is legitimately a struggle against all oppressions that are sustained by capitalism or that are created by capitalism to divide us, and this includes things that seem to me more remotely related. People’s dreams are formed out of the inversion of our most deeply felt sufferings of the moment, but they all trace back to common sources.
Cornel West: But patriarchy wasn’t created by capitalism. It was appropriated in a certain kind of way, oh yes, indeed, but it wasn’t created.
Richard Levins: But it is sustained, reinforced, transformed.
Cornel West: That’s very deep, that’s very deep.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves: I do think there’s some degree of formality that we have to put into our organizational structures. The Workers’ Party, for example, passed a rule three years ago to guarantee that 30 percent of all leadership posts and 30 percent of all candidates would be women. This was very important because women were more than 30 percent of the Party, but were nowhere in the leadership, much less candidates for any kind of office. So, I think that we have to have a combination, obviously, increasing the space for all the different struggles but also making formal points reflecting that priority from the outset. I remember a union strike right in the beginning where there were a lot of women—a very strong labor base of metal workers in the Sao Paulo region—and there were no women in the leadership, and one woman jumped out and yelled in the back, “How in the hell do you think you’re gonna have a strike without the women? And you better include us.” And they didn’t include them, they all walked out, and they couldn’t do the strike. So they had to start thinking, and again there was a lot of resistance—I think there still is a lot of resistance—but we have had this formality, and you’ve got to have some. (applause)
Daniel Singer: I think we’re coming almost to an end and there is one word we haven’t used though the occasion we’re discussing is the Communist Manifesto, and that’s “revolution.” We haven’t used that word at all.
Cornel West: I think Dick may have mentioned it one time.
Daniel Singer: Obviously nobody now believes in revolution as a sort of instant change, so it’s not a question of storming the Bastille or taking over the Winter Palace, but I think that by “revolution” we still mean the radical transformation of the structure of society that will enable us to live completely differently. That, I think, we still believe in. I would like to end on the words of the great revolutionary who happens to be a woman as well, Rosa Luxemburg: “Order reigns in Berlin,” she said, and we could say “Order reigns in New York and in Sao Paulo and in Paris”—“You stupid lackeys, your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will raise its head again and proclaim to your horror, to the sound of trumpets: I was, I am, I shall always be.” (applause)

Steve Brier: That serves as a fitting close to our panel. I’d like to thank everybody for joining us—you in the audience, give yourselves a hand. (appause)

Reprinted in Socialism and Democracy, this roundtable was part of the “Manifestivity”—celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto—sponsored by the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School and held in New York's Cooper Union on October 30-31, 1998. This closing Roundtable, attended by approximately 900 people, was the Manifestivity‘s intellectual high-point. Credit for its conception and organization goes especially to Mary Boger of the Brecht Forum and to Steve Brier. The participants were chosen in part to reflect a broad range of endeavor, encompassing the natural sciences, the social sciences, history, theology, trade unionism, party organizing, journalism, and political theory—as well as the experience of two continents outside North America. A key objective, as Mary Boger put it in her introductory remarks, was to overcome the debilitating fragmentation that has plagued the Left for so many years. The three-part discussion, in keeping with the Manifesto‘s example, begins with an analysis of the present, then turns to visions of the future, and finally tries to sketch how visions and reality come together in the form of concrete tasks. It is reprinted in Socialism & Democracy, Issue 23/24.  V.W.


Brecht Forum Archive
Publication/Event Date: 
October, 1998