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1,200 Radicals 

Proceedings of the Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference

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Radicals come in all shapes, ages, and varieties. And they all--1,200 of them or so--seemed to be at the first-ever Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference, held in late October at Loyola. There were Maoists and Trotskyists and social democrats and anarchists. There were members of the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party, Democratic Socialists and International Socialists, representatives of the Progressive Student Alliance and the Progressive Student Network, of the Left Green Network and the Youth Greens, editors of the Socialist Review and In These Times, of the New Patriot and Libido. Partisans of the rebels in El Salvador, Peru, and the Philippines, of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and of the government in Albania. And feminists of all varieties.

It was a feast, a potluck, a smorgasbord, a leftist potpourri: 122 panels and four plenary sessions in one weekend. The problem was which to attend. Would it be "The Future (?) of Human Rights in George Bush's 'New World Order'" or "Chaos Theory: a slide presentation and discussion"? "Men and Co-parenting" or "Is Environmentalism Progressive? Could It Be?" And those were only a few in the first time slot. Later there were panels on eco-feminism and lesbian ethics, anarchism and the psychodynamics of domination, the future of the left and the future of work, the radical press and radical therapy--as well as discussions of conditions in Romania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean, and on the American college campus (among other places).

Ideas of crisis were everywhere, but somehow the participants didn't emanate a sense of it. At the opening plenary session, Paul Sweezy--venerable Marxist economist and longtime editor of the independent socialist Monthly Review--told how the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did not show the failure of Marx, who had not expected socialism to be possible in the less-developed countries of the East in any case. As other speakers assailed the United States for what it's doing (or not doing) in Africa and the Middle East, an anarchist who'd helped organize the conference called out in the men's room, "It's all truuue, but what's neeew?"

Market socialism--not new but newly popular--was the subject of another plenary. The idea is to have state or public ownership of big banks and corporations--that's the socialism part--but to let prices be set by the market rather than by a state planning board. John Roemer, a professor at the University of California at Davis who's written extensively on the subject, told how he thought it could be done. Other speakers offered caveats and emendations. It was all very professorial and provoked some heated reactions from the floor.

"I really think what they presented is the concept of state capitalism. It's capitalism with public ownership," said one respondent, who concluded, "One thing that was missing from all of their discussions was the question of revolution."

"We all know what's wrong with socialism, according to the speakers, because Russia didn't work," said another. "Which doesn't take into account that a number of us didn't think that anything about Russia since the 1920s on had anything to do with democratic planning with a real, you know, vision of socialist planning."

That was probably a Trotskyist--they haven't approved of the USSR since Trotsky lost his struggle with Stalin. There was also an adherent of the Communist Party USA, easily identifiable by the fact that she classified herself as a simple trade unionist then went on to uphold socialism in the Soviet Union: "To those who would like to bury socialism, I would say that socialism, although sick, is still alive and will continue living. One brother gave the reason why everything failed in the Soviet Union was that it was a command economy....That was under Stalin, which was a terrible mistake. Right. But now that the glasnost is there..."

Then there were the Albanianites. "I'd like to underline the importance of learning from actual experience," one said. "There is a very important experience in the world right now to examine for the kinds of questions that have been brought up here today, and that's the experience of building socialism in Albania for the last 46 years." These folks from the Albania Friendship Committee were busy as beavers all weekend, and it seemed one couldn't open a door or turn a corner without coming upon another sign advertising the showing of a film on their favored regime, the last bastion of old-time socialism.

Far more dominant among conference participants were leftists of the academic variety. Of the 378 panelists, most were affiliated with a college or university. One result was that presentations always began amazingly punctually, even those scheduled at nine o'clock. These are people who are used to meetings and schedules and starting classes on time. Another consequence was the proliferation of discussions on postmodernism, a hot topic that was linked with everything from ecology to feminism, and sparked debates on postmodern activism and "Can Postmodernism Inspire an Emancipatory Politics?"

Women were greatly underrepresented at this gathering. Almost 75 percent of the panelists were male, and the scheduled speakers at three of the plenaries were all male. (The fourth, on "Why the Left Needs Feminism," had all women speakers.) Participants pointed out these sorts of imbalances on many occasions, usually without rancor.

Sandra Bartky, a professor in the departments of philosophy and women's studies at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, confessed to being "a socialist-feminist academic" and then went on to some other "confessions." On the one hand, she was overjoyed at the explosion of women's-studies programs in American universities, an explosion she likened to a revolution in those institutions, "which are major centers for the reproduction of relations of production and of patriarchy." On the other, she confessed to bewilderment over this very success. "When I consider my own indictments of capitalism and patriarchy, why haven't I been, at the least, fired? But I wasn't fired. I was promoted. What am I doing wrong?"

Most speakers didn't worry about their luck at finding a home in the university. They worried about influencing the world outside. "We're at a key historical moment in this country," said Ann Ferguson, another speaker at the feminism plenary. ("Even to describe her is to make a political statement," said chairperson Nancy Fraser of Northwestern, in introducing her. "She is a lesbian, a socialist, a mother, and a philosopher.")

"The end of the cold war," Ferguson went on, "the federal budget crisis, the coming economic recession, the failure of Reaganomics, the unpopular war Bush is likely to get us into in the Middle East, and even the recent successes of the New Right in dismantling the gains of the civil-rights and women's movements by weakening affirmative action and reproductive rights--all of these show the failures of both rightist and liberal solutions to the economic and social crises of racist patriarchal capitalism. We have a historic opportunity to rebuild our movement to meet these crises, but only if we learn to forge new theories and visions for radical change and to work together in a new way than in the past."

It seemed to be a general consensus. But as to those new theories and visions, there wasn't much of a clue.

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