Rob Owen reviews the largest conference of the revolutionary left this year.
Marxism 2014, the annual political festival organised by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), maintained its place as the largest Marxist conference in the UK. Although at 2600 registrations it was slightly smaller than in 2013 and half the size of previous years. The event may have lost its festival like atmosphere but many sessions, like those on the Middle East, showed the politics of the SWP at their best. There are few events where you can hear speakers like Anne Alexander, Joseph Daher, Ian Birchall as well as strikers from Lambeth College.
If meetings on the International situation including Alex Callinicos on Imperialism, Rob Ferguson on Ukraine and John Rose on Palestine were high points then meetings on areas of recent contention were low points. Courses on ‘Leninism’, ‘Marxism and oppression’, and ‘class struggle in Britain’ showed a defensive engagement in wider debates. Meeting titles often reflected the nature of the discussion: Amy Leather’s ‘Has neoliberalism changed the working class?’ could have been summed up with a simple ‘no’. This left some meetings feeling like they only half dealt with important topics, and left little space for wider discussion.
Organisation and Oppression
The course on Marxism and oppression saw speakers deal fleetingly with current ideas in the movement. On topics like social reproduction theory, privilege theory and intersectionality meetings rarely displayed an understanding of the way ideas are being used by activists today. While most Marxists would use the idea of oppression rather than privilege, we can learn from looking at how the use of the term ‘privilege’ in discussions around oppression has changed. Intersectionality and social reproduction theory are both areas rs21 supporters have begun to develop ideas around. Unfortunately discussion at Marxism has not moved on in recent years. Without reference to the nuances of the current debates it is hard to see how these meetings could win activists to revolutionary ideas.
The meetings on revolutionary organisation displayed the most defensiveness, with some of the most vocal SWP supporters badging themselves as the last defenders of Leninism. Esme Choonara’s meeting ‘What is Leninism’ was introduced by a useful defence of Lenin, with several contributors explaining why reformist commentators want to bury him. However, in discussing the crisis of Leninism today, contributors joked about labelling themselves “Leninists and proud.” The question of whether we should assess how best to organise today was dismissed as moving away from genuine ‘Leninism’, meaning the question ‘what is Leninism?’ was left, at best, half answered.
Sessions on July 10th strike and ‘where next for the left in Britain?’ showed the organised network of serious militants that remain around the SWP. Contributors to discussion of #J10 showed the range of committed and rooted SWP supporters there are across the public sector. Any activist engaged in the strike would have benefited from listening to the experiences relayed in Michael Bradley’s meeting ‘where next after J10’ – whether or not they agreed with every emphasis.
In the coming month’s the SWP will be focused on the October 18th TUC demonstration, the stand up to UKIP demo in Doncaster, maintaining pressure for future national strikes and their electoral project TUSC.
No more new ideas?
Two things have left a real impression on me from this year’s Marxism. The first is that at 30 I was one of the younger attendees and recognised a large majority of faces from previous Marxism festivals. The second was the phrase “there are no new ideas” with which Alex Callinicos summed up Saturday’s main meeting. “The crisis of the radical left” session saw Alex give a more general introduction than that in his recent article to an audience of around 500 people. He gave a reasonable sketch of the crisis of the European left, but missed the key subjective factor – the political decisions of the main organisations in each country. In stark contrast, Denis Godard of the NPA in France and Panos Garaganos of the Greek SWP both spoke from the floor on the subjective failures of leaders of far left groups in Europe. The question of the crisis of the SWP in Britain was only raised by Dan Swain in response to coded, and not so coded, criticisms of rs21. Alex’s summation was directed at those he saw as adapting to new ideas in the movement, with a call to stay true. Yet his insistence that all ideas are recycled from the past captured something of the atmosphere of Marxism.
The focus of Marxism has shifted dramatically this year: from engaging a radical milieu with revolutionary Marxist ideas, to cohering supporters of the SWP, despite many parts of the conference that contained sharp analysis and interesting theory. If Marxism 2015 is to be larger and younger, the conference organisers need to look outwards to engage with the radical ideas shaping a new generation of activists.