The Future of the Left in the Americas

1537194793leftamericasconfillustrationpng128666x333In collaboration with Dissent magazine and the New School, I have organized a conference for October 5th & 6th, 2018.

At this link, there are descriptions of the panels, panelist biographies, and links to the panel videos.

Here were my opening remarks:


I want to welcome everyone to “The Future of the Left in the Americas.” Before going on with my remarks, let us take the time to thank everyone who has made it possible for us to be here together. First, let us thank Dissent magazine and its staff: Natasha Lewis, Colin Kinniburgh, Alex Lubben and Kaavya Asoka, who have worked unflaggingly over months. Second, let us recognize our partners at the New School for providing us with the space for this event: Julia Ott and Federico Finchelstein, of the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, and the Janey Program in Latin American Studies, respectively. Thanks also to Oz Frankel, Chair of the History Department, Will Milberg, Director of the Heilbroner Center, and Mayra Cotta, assistant to the Hielbroner Center. A special word of thanks to the New School’s Julián Gómez Delgado, who has done so much to coordinate our panelists’ travels, assist with translation, and do much of the logistical work that a conference like this requires. Thanks also to NACLA for co-sponsoring, and specifically to Lau Peñaranda Currie for doing so much to spread the word, as well as to the journal more generally for laying important intellectual groundwork for these discussions. We’re glad to have so many NACLA contributors participating over the next two days. Finally, let me thank the Open Society Foundation, and Mario Arriagada in particular, for the funding that has made it possible for our panelists to travel to this event. Without any of these people and organizations, we would not be here together today, so please join me in recognizing all of their hard work behind the scenes.


We are gathered together at what feels like an inflection point in the history of the left. But why are we here to discuss the future of the left in the Americas, rather than that simply of the United States or of Latin America? There are still many things that separate conditions of life in the United States and Canada from those in the rest of the hemisphere; the wealth gaps are still considerable, the poverty more extreme in most of Latin America, and so on. But there are also factors that give us common working conditions, and common purpose. If the lives of our poor are still different, the lives of our wealthy are similar. We are united by working against conditions of severe inequality, with the tendency towards oligarchic politics undermining the democratic control of political systems and economic resources. We are united, in many cases, by highly polarized electorates, by an insurgent right and the collapse of traditional centrist parties. We are united by violence: of the 50 most violent cities in the world—outside of conflict zones—48 are in the Western Hemisphere. (The remaining two are in South Africa, also afflicted by high levels of inequality.) We are united by the struggle against elite impunity. And many of these problems, it seems to me at least, will have to be solved together. Everyone in this room knows that many governments in Latin America that have attempted forms of redistribution have frequently had to face the wrath of the United States government. And that much of the violence in Latin America comes from the competition to control profitable trade routes to illicit markets in the United States. These problems must be solved together; the lefts in the Americas depend on each other’s success, and so it is appropriate that we think together about how to approach them; and that is the intellectual task ahead.


It goes without saying that the task of building the left that we want is not only, or primarily, an intellectual one. But our analysis of the situation will help us direct our attention and our efforts. A few of you may know of my work as a historian. A few years ago I published a book about the cultural Cold War in Latin America, about artists and intellectuals engaged in cultural and ideological struggle to define a vision for the left under conditions of Cold War. There were Communists linked to the Soviet Union, socialists linked to Cuba, social democrats linked to the CIA; a few independent souls who tried to develop alternatives, but were institutionally homeless. The book was, in a way that was premature for anyone to register it as such, a book about democratic socialism, and the paths to it that were closed by the historical conditions of the Cold War. The easiest thing to do would be to have condemned the historical actors I was studying: almost all proved to be apologists for oppression somewhere. But by the time I had finished the book, I found I was no longer interested in doing so. Instead, I tried to explore—perhaps imperfectly, but this was the intent—what their various positions allowed them to see clearly and what they obscured.


A few years have passed since the publication of that book. When I wrote it, I wrote about socialist intellectuals as a historian. Much to my surprise, in the years since, I have had the opportunity to become one. When I was first asked about organizing a conference of this type, I declined. As a historian of left conferences, I know all too well all of the things that can go wrong. Let me share a few of my concerns, so that you may be amused by the specters haunting my worries and nightmares. I fear obstinacy and secret agendas, thinking of 1956 in Mexico City, at the Inter-American Conference for Cultural Freedom, where the U.S. delegates grew surly and obstinate as the Latin American delegates to a CIA-funded conference explained to their counterparts that the United States was one of the greatest threats to freedom throughout the region. Or I have my fears of sectarianism: thinking of the Cultural Congress in Havana in early 1968, when Joyce Mansour found David Alfaro Siqueiros in the lobby of the Hotel Havana Libre and began kicking him in the pants, declaring that each kick delivered was “For Trotsky!,” who Siqueiros had tried and failed to assassinate in 1940.


But I have helped to organize this conference in spite of the risks because I feel a sense of responsibility to the moment. I have put a great deal of thought into how to how to do this in a way that does not convert me into a character I would have criticized. First, I have tried to offer transparency; second, rather than trying to invite people of only one tendency among the left, I have tried to put several in dialogue. There are multiple opinions represented here, from social democrats to Marxists of various kinds. You are not here because I agree with everything you have written, nor certainly because you agree with everything I have written, you are here because of your critical capacity, combined with commitment. I do believe that everyone here cares deeply about building a more just future; there are differences about how to go about this. My only request is that we, as participants and audience members, assume good intentions even as disagreements inevitably arise. Let us challenge each other as comrades to produce the best version of the left for our time.


To do that, our conference will proceed in essentially two parts. Today we are looking back. The end of the pink tide has been widely proclaimed. Though this may be exaggerated, it is certainly in retreat from the place of five or ten years ago. What has it achieved? What did it have the capacity to achieve that it did not? Where has it failed? Were these failures of leadership, of the structure of movements, of the misreading of the correlation of forces, or reflections of the balance of power? How do we account for, and take responsibility for, the very serious humanitarian crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua? We begin with two panels, separated, however imperfectly, by the form of governing strategy: first with “social democratic” Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, then Bolivarian Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia. This afternoon we will also devote a panel to the one country, Cuba, with considerable experience with really-existing-socialism. What should the Cuban experience tell the rest of us, and what might a “left” politics look like in Cuba today? This afternoon we will also include a discussion of the left and the media, thinking about how information and access to knowledge structures our understanding of the tasks ahead.


If today’s task is primarily diagnostic, then tomorrow we must turn to the future. Whatever problems the left has experienced, the conditions that brought it to power have not disappeared: the poverty, injustice, and inequality. As we know, Mexico will soon have the most left-wing government it has had since at least the 1970s and probably the 1930s. By the end of the weekend we will know more about the elections in Brazil. And here in the United States, the left is gathering a kind of strength that it too has not seen in at least fifty years and perhaps longer, though as of yet it is doing so in a context in which virtually all of the power of the government is arrayed against it. Wherever our countries are in the electoral cycle, we face an urgent task. How do we define the future of our projects so that they can do the most good? In my historical work, with benefit of hindsight, it was relatively easy to render judgment on what various frameworks for understanding the world could see clearly and what they could not; it is more difficult to ask these questions of ourselves, probing the strengths and weaknesses of our own ways of thinking. But the effort may help us to be more effective, and is worth the work.


To begin, tomorrow,we will consider how to define the socialist project in our time. In 1954, at the beginning of Dissent’s life, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser wrote, somewhat ambiguously, that “socialism is the name of our desire. And not merely in the sense that it is a vision which, for many people throughout the world, provides moral sustenance, but also in the sense that it is a vision which objectifies and gives urgency to their criticism of the human condition in our time. It is the name of our desire because the desire arises from a conflict with, and an extension from, the world that is; nor could the desire survive in any meaningful way were it not for this complex relationship to the world that is.” But what should it mean? We will confront this question at the level of ideas and at the level of concrete and essential programs: what kind of political economy can sustain the work of the left? How must we address the problem of the environment and of climate change? And finally, how can we support each other and reimagine the task of solidarity for the 21stcentury? I do not know the answers to these questions, and they are not for me to decide anyway. But it is my hope that together we may make some progress, and it is for this reason that we have come here today, so it is my great pleasure to step aside and let us begin to think about “The Future of the Left in the Americas.”

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