Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Trinkl

U.S. leftists feel winds from East and reflect...

First Published: Guardian August 1, 1990.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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BERKELEY, Calif.–What is happening in the socialist world? What impact are these changes having, especially in the Third World? What are the roots and causes of the crisis of socialism? How will these changes affect the left and the struggle for peace and justice in the United States?

These were the themes that drew over 800 activists to a conference on the “Socialist Upheaval and the U.S. Left” on the University of California campus here July 7. Given their meager resources, organizers had expected only 200-400 people. The size of the turnout–but more importantly, the spirit of intense but comradely dialogue–demonstrated the importance of the issues to activists here.

Pat Scott of Pacifica radio station KPFA, one of the conveners of the event, welcomed the crowd, noting that the recent dramatic changes in many socialist countries had repercussions for the U.S. movement.

Linda Burnham of the Frontline Political Organization, another convener, elaborated on this theme. “The socialist project is battling for its life and its survival is not at all assured. Democratic socialists, Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Christian socialists–all of us have a tremendous stake in the present turmoil in socialism,” she said.


“It’s necessary for socialists of different stripes to find ways to work together and begin a dialogue about the present and future of socialism,” said Burnham, sounding the theme of the conference.

Other convening organizations were the Communist Party USA, Northern California Democratic Socialists of America–groups representing two historically hostile traditions in the socialist movement–the National Committee for Independent Political Action, Crossroads magazine and the Guardian. Four local groups–Global Exchange, Global Options, North Starand the Women’s Building– and Professor Leon Wofsy of Berkeley were also convenors.

The organizing process itself was a demonstration of the “unity in action” that is much bandied about on the left but seldom put into practice. The conference tapped a deeply felt need to discuss the implications of recent tumultuous events abroad.

The overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the moves of the Soviet Union toward a market economy, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Tiananmen Square massacre have all profoundly altered the political landscape.

The conference triggered an outpouring of debate over the meaning of these developments. In one day, many more questions were raised than could be answered.

The program was structured to give maximum room for discussion. A morning plenary on the themes of the conference was followed by workshops on the themes, workshops on 20 specific topics, an open plenary and finally an evening plenary on what it all meant for the U.S. left.

In the spirit of the conference, following are quotes from various activists: “Socialism is not being lost, the idea of socialism is being rebuilt.”

“Many different kinds of oppressive walls are coming down; we’re also free of the ’Evil Empire’ ideology.” “The nature of imperialism hasn’t changed, the collapse of the Soviet Union is a great defeat.” “There are exciting possibilities about what socialism is, but we have also suffered a tremendous reversal.” “Psychoanalysis can be useful, but our task is not just to find what happened in the past and who we are but to be architects of what we plan to do together.”

The discussions covered the whole spectrum of left views. Staking out one end was Worker’s World Party, which argued that the developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were an “unmitigated disaster,” in the words of one of its representatives. The other extreme viewed recent events as positive without qualification–a “tremendously exciting opportunity for socialism to move forward.” Most participants probably fell in between these views, seeing serious problems as well as possibilities.

There were enough calls to not “throw the baby out with the bath water” to cleanse an army of red diaper babies. “But which is the baby and which is the bath water?” one activist wondered.

In her opening remarks, Linda Burnham outlined possible levels at which the root cause of the recent upheavals might be found. “Was it the perversion of socialist democracy under Stalin?” “Does it go back to Lenin and the single-party state?” “Are its roots in Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat?” These have always been questions in parts of the left, but they are being debated now on an unprecedented scale.

In a workshop on Marxist theory, Irwin Silber, a leader in the Frontline Political Organization and former Guardian executive editor, argued that “the time we can look to Marxism-Leninism as a valid theory for the left has probably passed.” He noted that the World Marxist Review, “the last remaining symbol of the international communist movement,” has folded.


More importantly, Silber argued, fundamental concepts underpinning Marxism-Leninism have proved to be wrong: that capitalism is in its final stage or moribund stage, that we are living in an era of proletarian revolution and that a world revolution will replace capitalism. He maintained that the left has to get rid of “isms.”

“The collapse of Marxism-Leninism was a monkey off our backs, enabling us to look at politics in a way that qualifies as theory, and not a religion and a dogma,” Silber said.

According to Roger Burbach, author of an influential book on left strategy, “Fire in the Americas.” “Communism is in a final crisis from which it cannot recover.” But he framed the current upheavals in terms of the century’s struggles for democracy and against authoritarianism. He concluded that the left’s mission should be a profound struggle for real democracy in all spheres of life.

Barbara Epstein, an activist associated with Socialist Review, said there were strong traditions on the left either to adoptformsof Marxism more appropriate to other times and places or to throw out Marxist theory altogether. “I hope we can choose a course different from either. Traditional forms of Marxism and Leninism are not adequate, but no other body of thought puts forward a combined theory and political practice,” she argued. The recent upheavals “open space for looking critically at revolution and social change,” Epstein maintained.

The final evening session addressed what the recent developments mean for the U.S. left.

“We have to be frank about problems but without abandoning the tradition which is represented by the term socialism,” said writer and activist Manning Marable. He stressed that the left needs to work toward building a national political formation that could have real influence, a long process.

Marable strongly lashed out at the idea that the Democratic Party can be reformed or taken over or is any kind of strategic vehicle for the left He concluded that unity cannot be built in the abstract: “In the short run we need to be involved in intense dialogues and develop common projects.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, a leader ot DSA, greeted the crowd in her usual droll manner: “The idea of democracy has been sweeping the world; hope it gets to the U.S., the last great one-party state.” She noted that “different strands of the socialist left have come together to talk, not about our differences, but about the crisis ot confidence we are experiencing to some degree, no matter what our politics.” She added,

“We don’t have the security of an all-embracing theory to light our way...and it’s about time.”

Kendra Alexander, a member of the National Committee of the Communist Party, was critical of much of the left’s recent history–and of her own party. Uncharacteristically for a CP leader, she criticized the “dogmatism and sectarianism” of the party, which for example caused it not to support the Equal Rights Amendment for some time. While expressing pride in the party’s role in labor and minority struggles, she also criticized it “for not adequately taking into account the role of others on the left.”

“Yes, socialism is in crisis,” Alexander acknowledged, but she emphasized that whai comes out of the crisis is important: “I look forward to a future of humane, democratic, socialism.”

The day after the conference, the Oakland Tribune said in a front page headline, “Conference on USSR, Eastern Europe, Unites the Left.” It was overly optimistic and certainly premature, but at least one small step in that direction has been taken. Participants voted unanimously to have some kind of follow-up event.