Each year from 1983 to 2004, the City University of New York (CUNY) chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) sponsored the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC). This annual event was actually a re-founding — led by Stanley Aronowitz, Bogdan Denitch, and others — of an earlier (1965-1970) incarnation of SSC, where New Left academics had presented theoretical and historical work, mostly in a scholarly format but with an audience reaching far beyond academic circles.
The new round of SSC conferences featured the elite of socialist academia, as well as union activists, political revolutionaries, radical reformers, and self-identified opponents of “corporate greed.” During the 1980s, SSC developed into the largest annual gathering of the Left in North America. The conferences drew, on average, some 1,500 to 2,000 attendees each year, along with 300 to 400 speakers and approximately 50 exhibitors (e.g., commercial book publishers, university presses, journals, and organizations). Each conference featured presentations by as many as 200 separate panels.
Particularly significant was the 1983 SSC (held at Cooper Union), which was promoted as a celebration held “in honor” of the 100th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death. As author Stanley Kurtz notes, fliers and ads for the conference “featured caricatures of an almost cuddly-looking Karl Marx reclining on a stack of books.” Frances Fox Piven delivered the opening remarks at this event, lauding Marx as a man who had “helped people around the globe to struggle to make history.” DSA founder Michael Harrington, for his part, lamented that many people misperceived Marx to have been a totalitarian; in reality, explained Harrington, Marx favored freedom and democracy as the essence of socialism.
A noteworthy figure who attended the 1983 SSC — and at least one, if not both, of the SSC conferences during the ensuing two years — was Barack Obama, who was in his early twenties at the time.
Among the significant speakers and panelists who appeared at subsequent SSC conferences were Philip Agee, Tariq Ali, Amiri Baraka, Charles Barron, Medea Benjamin, Phyllis Bennis, Daniel Berrigan, Paul Booth, Paul Buhle, Benjamin Chavis, Noam Chomsky, Peter Dreier, Michael Eric Dyson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, Dolores Huerta, Maulana Karenga, Arthur Kinoy, Michael Lerner, Julianne Malveaux; Manning Marable; Steve Max, Robert McChesney, Michael Moore; Jerrold Nadler, Aryeh Neier, Major Owens, Frances Fox Piven, Paul Robeson Jr., Edward Said; Bernie Sanders, Al Sharpton, Paul Sweezy, Leonard Weinglass, and Cornel West.
SSC continued to hold its annual conferences each year through 2004. In June of that year, seven of SSC’s sixteen board members abruptly resigned “in protest of the lack of democratic and participatory governance procedures.” The resignations came after the board, led by Bogdan Denitch, had voted by an 8-to-7 margin to fire SSC staff director Eric Canepa a month earlier. “We did not want to be part of an organization where we felt people were violating their own principles,” said CUNY sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz, who explained that his own decision to resign had less to do with the firing of Canepa than with the fact that it had been done in a unilateral, top-down manner. “You can’t be authoritarian and want a society that is democratic or non-authoritarian,” Aronowitz said. “My politics is that if you are a member of the organization, it has to be prefigurative of the society you want to make. It was not in this case.”
In an e-mail addressed to the “Socialist Scholars Conference community,” Aronowitz and his six fellow departing board members elaborated:
“We are leaving because we feel that the campaign to accomplish this [Canepa’s firing] was riddled with behavior we regard as politically unethical, including grossly inaccurate charges that were repeated even in the face of evidence of their inaccuracy, tirades that were abusive to the point of derangement, and the recurrent implication that those of us who objected to these procedures, being newcomers, were not the ‘real’ board.”