History: From the Socialist Scholars Conference to Left Forum

In the Beginning

Left Forum was founded in the 1960s as the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) by Bogdan Denitch, Stanley Aronowitz, and others. The Socialist Scholars Conference was re-founded in 1981 and was meant to be a broad effort by new left academics to create a forum in which to present theoretical and historical work in a mostly scholarly format, but for an audience reaching far beyond academic circles.

When the conference was re-founded in 1981 by the leading personalities of The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—a 1983 fusion of DSOC and The New American Movement—it moved to a venue within the City University of New York (CUNY) where it enjoyed the active support of the socialist chancellor of CUNY, Joseph A. Murphy, giving it nearly unlimited space and many advantages. In this period, precisely during the Reagan onslaught, the conference grew to an average of 1,500–2,000 attendees a year, approximately 300 to 400 speakers, and about 50 exhibitors including book publishers, university presses, journals, and organizations. By this point, the conference had up to 200 panels and had largely lost its scholarly character, having taken on the function 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, supported by CUNY 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 has appeared at the SSC at one time or another, along with many international unionists and political officials. By the year 2000, after Chancellor Murphy’s death and with the growing costs imposed by CUNY, the organizers explored the possibility of finding a more stable anchor outside of the CUNY environment, and of making the conference economically self-sufficient. With space no longer unlimited, the SSC moved to Cooper Union and reduced its number of panels to 60–70.

The Socialist Scholars Conference Becomes Left Forum

Right after the 2004 Socialist Scholars Conference, the organizers associated most closely with The Democratic Socialists of America split from the newer members of the board. The latter continued to organize the conference but was obliged to change its name. One of the main differences was the perceived fading away of the social-democratic character of the large plenary sessions. However, it should be said that zealous supporters of each side of the split had exaggerated the political differences between each side and the level of felt enmity.

Due to building construction at Cooper Union, Left Forum had to move again before the 2008 conference. The new venue, Pace University, had provided Left Forum a space as nearly as unlimited as that of the pre-2001 venue. The organizers of the Forum were able to make the Forum grow to its largest size ever—with over 3,000 attendees and more than 200 panels.

The opening plenary speaker for the 2010 conference was Rev. Jesse Jackson. The closing plenary featured Noam Chomsky, and it 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 away as Alaska and Germany. The conference theme of this year, Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism, reflected the sea change in politics in 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. 

Left Forum Moves to John Jay

In 2014, Left Forum moved again and celebrated its tenth anniversary at a beautiful new conference center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The 2014 Left Forum achieved record attendance for the third consecutive year with 4,500 people gathering for three days of discussions, panels, art events, workshops, movement-building dialogues, debates, and direct action. With 1,200 speakers, 400 panels, workshops, and events, the Forum was organized around the theme of Reform and/or Revolution: Imagining a World with Transformative Justice. Speakers included Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Immortal Technique, and Kshama Sawant. Inclusive of a left comedy show, a 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.

The theme for 2015 was No Justice, No Peace: Confronting the Crises of Capitalism and Democracy, a reflection of the police violence taking place in Ferguson and elsewhere, and the nationwide response of activism headed by the Black Lives Matter movement. The conference saw 1,600 participants, and the panels linked social and political movements to the war on terror, to climate justice, and to the environment. One panel was moderated by Phil Donahue, who lost his TV show on MSNBC in 2003 for opposing the Iraq War. The plenary speakers included Glen Ford, Alicia Garza, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Medea Benjamin, Immortal Technique, M. Adams, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Ashley Franklin.

The 2016 conference’s theme was Rage, Rebellion, Revolution: Organizing Our Power, which reflected the hopes and momentum of organizing power from the progressive to the revolutionary spectrum, and also the intellectual and public life of individuals. Popular topics included Bernie Sanders, the 2016 presidential elections, and the way forward. Plenary speakers included Medea Benjamin, Chris Hedges, Kshama Sawant, Jill Stein, Amy Goodman, and Slavoj Žižek.

Looking Toward the Future

Left Forum has plans in the works to expand its activities to include a conference on the West Coast, and to gradually build its work to a year-round basis beyond the annual conference(s). Several potential projects include a regular series of smaller events which will focus on current events and topics that are relevant and important to the left, as well as music festivals and other projects to be determined.

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Photographs by Joel Simpson.

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