[Marxism] Steve Bloom: Assessing the Cleveland Conference

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Jul 2 18:38:06 MDT 2008

First, for those who were not present, a few factual notes: 
There were 350 participants, more or less, though only around 200-250 were
actually in the room and voting at any one time. Solidarity had (if my count
is accurate) 9 comrades present. I could have missed one or two. David can
report on how our literature table did. The main other revolutionary
political current there as a constructive participant in the conference was
Socialist Action, which clearly mobilized its forces. The FSP, which has
been part of the conference planning committee, was also present, but their
numbers are limited. Various sects came to disrupt and expose (Spartacists,
LRP, etc.) but did not constitute a serious problem. The ISO was not
present, except for their book table. There was a substantial and visible
presence of SDS.
Among other participants (that is, not presently or formerly affiliated
revolutionaries) the attendance was fairly broad. A bus full of young people
arrived from Connecticut. Individuals wore T-shirts from Code Pink,
Progressive Democrats of America, and Iraq Vets Against the War. There were
perhaps 3-5% Black faces, a scattering of women in head-scarves, a number of
Latinos (including some prominent leaders of the immigrant rights
struggles)--though the predominant participation was our usual anti-war
movement white. A workshop I attended on "the war at home," for example, had
three Black panelists speaking to an all-white audience. 
The most interesting discussions (and most revealing votes) took place
around two issues: 1) whether to propose dates in December for common
actions that can try to unite the various wings of the movement, and 2)
Palestine. The factors at work were similar in both cases. 
On the question of December dates the proposal from the conference
coordinating committee was to call for actions on December 9-14. This
includes Mumia Abu-Jamal's birthday (December 9), International Human Rights
Day (December 10) and a Saturday on December 14. UFPJ, ANSWER, TONC, and
USLAW were consulted about these dates, and positive replies came from all
but UFPJ which took a wait-and-see approach. (Leslie Cagan of UFPJ was
present at the conference as a speaker on Saturday night and as an observer.
Brian Becker from ANSWER was also there, and likewise spoke on the Saturday
evening panel. TONC was present as a participant in the conference planning
committee and played an active role in the conference itself.) 
The conference call clearly stated that unifying the movement was one of the
prime objective of the assembly. Still, in the floor debate on this
question, it was clear that many (and not just the sectarian leftists
present) were not persuaded that this should be the overriding objective.
Many said that the conference should just do the right thing, go ahead with
actions that were independent of the Democratic Party regardless of whether
they would be able to generate unity. October 11, a date proposed by
coalition forces in New England, was prominently mentioned in this regard,
as were proposed demonstrations around Inauguration Day. Some said to just
skip any attempt at unified actions in the Fall of 2008 and focus on the
proposal (also in the main resolution) to unify the movement around
bi-coastal protests in the Spring of 2009. And everyone, including those who
supported them as the only dates around which unity might be generated in
the Fall, acknowledged that December 9-14 were far from ideal. 
In the end, the motion to include these dates in the overall conference
resolution, as a proposal to the braoder movement, was adopted, but by a
relatively slim margin. (I would say 55% to 45%, or something like that).
This may limit the degree to which this proposal actually puts pressure on
UFPJ to sign on. At the same time, the fact that most of the opposition was
proposing to simply go it alone, not actually caring whether UFPJ signs on,
also puts pressure on UFPJ, though in a different way.
The Palestine discussion revealed similar divisions in the conference. A
motion came in from the Middle East Criisis Committee of Connecticut
(spearheaded by Stan Heller) to make the quesiton of Palestine an integral
part of the agenda of the broader antiwar movement, and to include support
to the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. A
more moderate proposal was presented by the conference presiding committee,
noting the links between Palestine and Iraq and calling for quesitons
related to Palestine to become a central discussion in the movement. The
presiding committee proposal explicitly omitted the call for BDS. These two
approaches were counterposed to each other in a discussion on Sunday
morning, and in the end the Middle East Crisis Committee's language was
adopted (by a similar narrow margin as the December dates). 
What can we make of this? 
First an assumption that goes into the following analysis: Probably about
half of those in the room and voting at any one time were conscious
leftists/revolutionaries of one kind or another, affiliated or unaffiliated.
On the Palestine vote that layer was probably split pretty much 50-50. The
members of Socialist Action, along with others who appreciate the need to
think strategically (in terms of making links with more conservative forces,
particularly in the labor movement) voted for the presiding committee
language. Others, who were either interested in consciously pushing a left
agenda, or else just voting their individual consciences, supported the MECC
language. If this is true (that the conscious leftists were split) then the
decisive vote came from others, who did not arrive in Cleveland with a
consciously "revolutionary" agenda. That layer as represented at this
conference, then, would seem to have a substantial majority which is
prepared to put Palestine in its rightful place politically, as a cause
which anti-war activists ought to place front and center in their political
program. . 
The arguments for the more moderate position on Palestine just weren't going
to fly. All of the arguments in favor of it hinged around the need to adapt
to more conservative forces, such as the union movement. Too many people
were not prepared to subordinate a correct, anti-imperialist (in the
positive sense of that term) political agenda to "unity" if they have to
choose between the two. These are instincts which I think most in Solidarity
would disagree with. But we also need to understand them, understand why a
layer of activists is so frustrated with the two wings of the movement so
far (UFPJ for its reformist approach and ANSWER/TONC for their sectarianism)
that they are prepared to go-it-alone if necessary, simply say and do the
right thing and not care what the consequences might be. While this is not a
sentiment we should endorse, it's also not simply an ultraleft response in
my judgment. It reflects something positive in terms of levels of
consicousness and combativity (even if also a certain immaturity) on the
part of a layer of activists. 
BTW, Jeff M of SA seemed to have a similar assessment after the assembly,
based on a brief conversation I had with him. 
The final act of the gathering was to elect a new administrative commitee of
13. In addition, there will be a "continuations body" consisting, as the
previous Coordinating Committee was, of individuals nominated by endorsing
organizations. The outgoing AC of three people had proposed a new AC of
nine, and presented nine nominees. In the end 13 were chosen from among 19
nominees, which is a positive thing IMO. 
One final political conclusion. From the outset there was a tension in the
planning process for this conference, different goals that were, in some
ways, in conflict with one another: 
a) promote unity in the movement as a whole
b) cultivate a base in the labor movement as a key constituency for the
antiwar movement generally and the National Assembly in particular
c) bring together a wing of the movement that would consistently struggle
for "US Out Now!" to stay in the streets, remain indpendent of the
Democrats, generally stand for the right to self-determination. 
In the end, (c) turned out to be stronger than (b) (thus the Palestine
position), and (a) barely squeeked by (thus the close vote on December
actions). It seems to me that we simply have to move ahead now as best we
can, understanding that all three goals remain worthwhile, but that there
are going to be continuing difficulties as we try to articulate them with
one another given the political realities of the antiwar movement today. 
This conference was far from perfect. It would have been good had there been
more people there, and a smaller proportion who (as Charlie quipped at one
point) would be able to identify the transitional program. Some of the
procedures developed by the planning committee were cumbersome and made it
more difficult to generate clarity on the issues. On the whole, however, I
would rate the assembly at a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10. There was a genuine
debate, and considerable clarity generated, on some of the key political
questions: Do we need dates in December that will try to unify the movement?
What is the relationship between those dates and others that folks are
organizing around, such as October 11? What position should a group like the
NA take on Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iran? (I did not take time to
elaborate the latter two discussions here, as a concensus developed in the
end. Comrades can read the language in the final resolution when it comes
out.) The main thing we need to do now is help move things forward.

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