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First Left Coast Forum

Professor Richard Wolff after his talk "A Left Program of the U.S. Today"

Dick and Sharon’s First Left Coast Forum was a success. I’m not clear about what their goals as event producers were. But it successfully informed people about a lot of “leftist” thinking, politics, opportunities, and problems. And it provided people a weekend full of opportunities to meet and network with other people interested in a “leftist” approach to social and political issues.

One feature of this sort of day, weekend or weeklong program is that there is far too much going on to do more than sample. Multiple panels run simultaneously, forcing attendees to pick and choose, sometimes missing out on something they really wanted to attend because it was at the same time as an equally compelling panel. This is a normal part of such events, can’t be avoided, and serves as a reminder of the wealth of topics to discuss and the variety of resource people available to present panels.

Some of what went on reminds us of Will Rogers’ famous comment, “I’m a member of no organized political party – I’m a Democrat.” A look at quotations from some of the panels and speakers shows that self-proclaimed progressives and “revolutionaries” can hold positions as diverse as those that sponsored Will Rogers’ observation and still work together toward progressive goals.

On Friday evening of the Left Coast Forum, Professor Richard Wolff, a proponent of cooperative businesses, spoke about the desirability of engaging unions with cooperative businesses, to multiply the beneficial impact of each. Then, on Saturday, one self-proclaiming “revolutionary” instructed listeners at his panel that unions are always and inevitably the enemy of workers.

One of the core principles of corporate control efforts, and of despots around the world and through history, is that education must be controlled and discredited. Only courses useful to the state or to business interests should be allowed. Slashing education funding is a standard part of every Republican administration, including our own Arnold Schwarzenneger and such corporate luminaries as Kansas’ Sam Brownback and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

First Left Coast Forum

Keynote speakers David Kim and Aimee Allison

So it was unsettling, but not surprising to listen to a panel of graduate students, at California State Universities, explain that our public universities are awash in excess funds, all of which have been stolen from the people. It is therefore, appropriate for anyone able to do so to take any university property back for use by the people. “It’s ours anyway” the audience was told.

The universities are under the “vicious” and “oppressive” control of “capitalist racism.” For those who might doubt this, two examples were provided. A group of students wanted the university to send out a mass email to all of its available email addressees announcing the concerns of the group that wants to “decolonialize” the university. The university refused. This refusal was “vicious.” Another group wanted to appropriate university supplies for activism, including copying, paper and other essentials of revolutionary activity. The university’s resistance to this appropriation was “oppressive.”

What struck me most about the language being used was how familiar it was. The student presenters sounded a lot like a lot of the organizers I worked with, first on Civil Rights and then on anti-Vietnam War activities, back in the ‘60s.

What struck me most about the language being used was how familiar it was. The student presenters sounded a lot like a lot of the organizers I worked with, first on Civil Rights and then on anti-Vietnam War activities, back in the ‘60s. Equally familiar were their calls for an end to all academic disciplines, in favor of “Radical Activist Scholarship.” That concept struck me as anti-educational back in the ‘60s, and still strikes me that way. We need schools and research and more, not less scholarship.

But I might be wrong. I may not understand the language. My notes from the weekend include the statement by a panelist that we must do these things “in accordance with this principle.” But I never heard mention of what “this principle” was. Probably it was a principle related to bringing about “the Revolution.” Lots of panelists wanted to bring about “the Revolution.” Many fewer were able to articulate what “the Revolution” actually would be.

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In contrast, there were speakers like Professor Wolff and National Lawyers’ Guild official Jim Lafferty, who have decades of experience fighting practical battles trying to improve the lives of real people. Their talks made clear that they have principles that they can define, and that they are working toward revolutionizing daily life for everyday people.

The National Lawyers’ Guild in Los Angeles has won significant victories for people in the street, dealing with the Los Angeles Police Department. The National Lawyers’ Guild strives not to eliminate all police, but to force the police to provide services to all Angelenos, without racial or gender bias. For some self-proclaiming “revolutionaries,” what the National Lawyers’ Guild does make the Guild counter revolutionary, because it acknowledges that police have a place in society. One panelist told us that “The purpose of police is to cause harm.” For some, the Guild is helping to prop up a “fascist state.” But as Jim Lafferty reminded the audience, if the U.S. were a fascist state, Dick and Sharon and their colleagues would not have been allowed to organize and present the Left Coast Forum.

First Left Coast Forum

Panelists Jim Lafferty, Ed Rampell, and Mike Farrell: "Censorship and Free Speech in the Trump Era:

The Left Coast Forum allowed both points of view, and lots of others, plenty of expression. Both the corporate right and the “revolutionary” left would not. One self-identifying communist speaker told us that “we need an expansion of freedom of speech,” and went on to explain that to achieve this, it would be necessary to silence a lot of corporate speech, and speech by those who disagree with the Left.

Language is a funny thing. We continue to read Shakespeare, 400 years after his death, and long after his version of English has become incomprehensible to most of us, because of his clarity of expression, vision into universal social issues, and imagination. We continue to read George Orwell, even though he got the history of 1984 all wrong, because he wrote with such clarity and insight into real problems in society.

And language can also obfuscate and alienate and disempower. In the main stage tent at the Left Coast Forum was an area for organizations to promote their views. Many of the fliers and information handouts proclaimed that an organization’s position was “the only” way to solve whatever problem or issue the organization addressed – implicitly disparaging any progressive who didn’t agree with them. A panelist told us on Saturday that we need to “build trust,” but only with people and organizations who share our values.

I trust that corporate America will spend billions of dollars to misinform people going into the mid-terms. I don’t trust what they will claim is the truth. But I trust that they will act. And I trust that some leftists with whom I disagree will respond to corporate untruth with real truth. I trust that leftists with whom I disagree will help move the country forward in progressive, if not revolutionary ways.

Listening to some of the views noted above, I thought that differences might reflect age. But talking to a young woman who mentioned having a very conservative husband, it occurred to me that experience might be a better guide. It is easy to see the writings of Marx as guides to a pure form of society, if one has not lived under a government that calls itself Marxist, and used Marx to justify brutal repression as bad as any found in a corporate banana republic. It is one thing to view the activities of the LAPD across the quiet confines of a courtroom, and quite something else to be on the street having daily contact with LAPD patrol officers.

The National Lawyers’ Guild has a program of “observers” for demonstrations around the nation. The goal is to provide neutral observers, to ensure that a record is made of police activity during demonstrations, marches, and other events which might result in arrests. One panel provided a short opportunity to “train” as observers. While the trainer repeatedly stressed the importance of observers remaining honest, neutral recorders of incidents, arrests, names, and other information that would be useful when people need legal help after the event, many in the audience expressed the need to be sympathetic to demonstrators, and hostile to the police.

That seemed in step with a general sense of the Left Coast Forum. As Jim Lafferty pointed out, repression has historically been directed at the “Left” and at people who push for social progress. Those people need sympathy and support. They also need to distinguish between dogmas and real life. Denying history and the mistakes of the left will not make the mistakes go away, but will provide opportunities to repeat them.

The weekend was eye opening. It was encouraging. It was followed by electoral victories on the following Tuesday that remind us of what is at stake, and what is possible if people apply some of the things they learned during the Left Coast Forum.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall