History: From the Socialist Scholars to the Left Forum

Left Forum developed out of the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC).  The first SSC in 1981 was actually the re-founding by Bogdan Denitch, Stanley Aronowitz and others of the 1960s Socialist Scholars Conference. The earlier conference was a broad effort by new left academics to create a forum in which to present theoretical and historical work, for the most part in a scholarly format but with an audience reaching far beyond academic circles.

When the conference was re-founded in 1981 by leading personalities of Democratic Socialists of America – a 1983 fusion of DSOC, whose best known personality was Michael Harrington, and the New American Movement, a New Left movement organization – it moved to a venue within the City University of New York system where it enjoyed the active support of the socialist chancellor of the City University, Joseph A. Murphy, giving it nearly unlimited space and many advantages. In this period, precisely during the Reagan onslaught, the conference grew such that there were on average 1,500 – 2,000 attendees a year, some 300 – 400 speakers and about 50 exhibitors (book publishers, including some university presses, journals, organizations). By now, with a great number of panels (up to 200), the conference largely lost its scholarly character, taking on the function, as it has done ever since, of being the largest annual gathering of the left in North America. Indeed Paul Sweezy once pointed out that if it hadn’t been for the hegemonic control of the media, this large gathering of the left, with university support and taking place “in the shadow of Wall Street” would have been a fascinating mainstream newspaper story for the general public.

Practically every major socialist thinker appeared at one time or another at the SSC, and many international unionists and political officials. By 2000, after Chancellor Murphy’s death, and with the growing costs imposed by the Borough of Manhattan Community College, a reflection of the neoliberal impact on public university budgets as seen in the tendency to rent out university space at a commercially competitive level, the organizers explored the possibility of finding a more stable anchor outside the City University, and of making the conference economically self-sufficient.
With space no longer unlimited, the SSC (now moved to Cooper Union) cut down the number of panels to 60 – 70.

Right after the 2004 SSC, the organizers associated most closely with DSA split from the newer members of the Board. The latter continued to organize the conference, which for legal reasons was obliged to change its name. One difference was the fading away from then on of what some felt was the social-democratic character of the large plenary sessions. However, it should be said that zealous supporters of each side in the split exaggerated the political differences between each side and the level of felt enmity.

Due to building construction at Cooper Union, LF had to move again before the 2008 Forum, and the new venue, Pace University, has put at LF’s disposal a space nearly as unlimited as that of the pre-2001 venue. The organizers of the Forum have been able to make the Forum grow to its maximum size to date – with over 3,000 attending and over 200 panels.

The opening plenary speaker for the 2010 conference was Rev. Jesse Jackson. The closing plenary featured Noam Chomsky, and included a tribute to Howard Zinn from Arundhati Roy and Frances Fox Piven, along with a performance of Zinn’s play “Marx in Soho.” The Zinn tribute and Chomsky’s appearance drew the expected enormous crowds, with people lining up around the block.

Building on the mobilizations of the Occupy movements around the country, Left Forum 2012 brought Occupy activists from as far as Alaska and Germany. The conference theme of this year Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism, reflected a sea change in politics of late 2011 brought on by the Occupy movement. The second day of the conference also coincided with the six month anniversary of the Occupy movement which gave room to plenty of discussion and action. Film producer and activist, Michael Moore contributed to Left Forum that year and a year later (Left Forum 2013) when the conference centered on the twin crises of mobilizing for ecological and economic transformation.

Speaking about the absence of environmental focus in broad Left gatherings Board member and plenary host Nancy Holmstrom said “..the historical progression [of the left] was reflected in the Forum’s decision this year to take up ecology as central to its theme‒an unprecedented step in the conference’s nearly decade-long history.” The closing plenary featured Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera, Marxian ecologist John Bellamy Foster and German anti-systemic theorist Tadzio Müller. 

Moving for the first time in six years from Pace to the new conference center at  John Jay College for Criminal and Social Justice of The City University of New York, Left Forum celebrated its 10th anniversary is a beautiful new conference center. The 2014 Left Forum achieved record attendance for the third consecutive year: with 4,500 people gathering from May 30th to June 1st for three days of discussions, panels, art events, workshops, movement building dialogues, debates and direct action at Left Forum 2014. With 1200 speakers and 400 panels, workshops and events, the Forum was organized around the theme of Reform and/or Revolution: Imagining a World with Transformative Justice. Speakers including Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Immortal Technique and Kshama Sawant helped usher in the 10th year of Left Forum with an unprecedented amount of panels and workshops by members of social justice and transformative social movement communities. Inclusive of a left comedy show and workshop and a commemoration concert for Pete Seeger the 2014 Left Forum saw the greatest number and diversity of panels and workshops on the arts in its ten year history.

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Photographs by Joel Simpson.

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