Historical Materialism 2014: Getting somewhere better?

The winners of the 2013 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, gave their award lecture on 7 November, as part of the Historical Materialism conference. They had been awarded the prize for their book The Making of Global Capitalism and the title of their lecture was ‘Marxist theory and strategy: getting somewhere better’. Nick Evans discusses their arguments. 


The theme of this year’s Historical Materialism conference was ‘How Capitalism Survives’. Panitch and Grindin argued that Marxists have been too inclined to be surprised by the ability of capitalism to survive periodic crises: economic, political and ecological. If we want to ‘get somewhere better’ we need to rethink the history of global capitalism.

The central argument was that competition and class conflict within states has remained more important than competition between states. Inter-imperialist rivalry was explicitly downplayed. The implications of this were reflected in a passing remark on Ukraine, where Leo Panitch referred to tensions between neo-cons and Obama’s allies within the US administration over NATO expansion, without any reference to EU association agreements or the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) does not spell the end of US hegemony because ‘capitalism is not a zero sum game’ and ‘China does not want the burden of empire.’ The decision not to discuss the ‘military dimension of empire’, when challenged in the discussion, was justified on the grounds that ‘the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve are more important than the Pentagon and the CIA in reproducing US global hegemony.’ Most people might suspect there is a link between the two.

We were lectured on the primary importance of national institutions for class formation. So for the capitalist class, national institutions such as the CBI in Britain, the Communist Party in China or the ANC in South Africa, are more important than international institutions such as the World Economic Forum. The asymmetric impact of competition and capitalists and workers is crucial, strengthening the former and weakening the latter. We need to be aware of the ways the working class can find itself divided on sectional or racial or gender lines.

There should be no illusions about the post-WWII Keynsian period, still less of the possibility of any return to it, we were told. The 1950s and 1960s was not a period in which the banks were tamed, but one in which they were ‘nurtured back to competitive health’, before they then outgrew the state protections in the neoliberal era. This was the period where the US established its global hegemony, spreading corporate forms that had emerged in the US in the late nineteenth century across the world; it was then that characteristic institutions of the neoliberal period were built. And it was the period in which the radical left within the labour movement was co-opted and destroyed.

We were then offered nine strategic guidelines to help us ‘get somewhere better’ now.

  1. Capitalist crises can’t be relied upon to produce socialism.
  2. There is no going back to the Keynsian welfare state.
  3. The working class is not automatically an agent of revolution.
  4. The working class needs to build institutions to organise itself into a class, and to centralise struggle.
  5. We should focus on fighting for goods and services to serve collective needs, and should not ignore the ecological dimension. We should reclaim the concept of ‘structural reforms’ from the neoliberals.
  6. We should reject the goal of economic competitiveness and reject export-oriented strategies for economic growth.
  7. We need to advance international struggle by supporting struggles within each country, not through international collective bargaining.
  8. We must recognise the continuing importance of states, and the primacy of class struggle. We should reject the strategies of dual power and ‘changing the world without taking power’: we need to transform the capacities of states for providing social services and planning our way out of ecological crisis.
  9. There has been a ‘clearing of the way’ through the collapse of the parties built to replace the old Communist and Social Democratic parties in the 1960s and 1970s (apparently an allusion to the collapse of the British SWP). This gives us the opportunity to ‘start over again’ to build the kind of organisation to ‘rekindle the socialist imagination’.

Two final notes. Firstly, Panitch and Grindin’s approach to imperialism and the state, both in their coyness about violence, and in their tendency to treat the current system of nation states as the natural and only appropriate arena for class struggle, was in sharp contrast with the analysis that emerged from the panel on ‘Contemporary Politics in the Middle East’ at Historical Materialism the following night. The latter provided far richer accounts of the complex interplay between states, sub-imperialisms and the larger imperial powers; of the relationship between state institutions and local, regional and international capitalism; and of the ways in which the shape of the working class is transformed by movements across national borders.

Secondly, as a member of the audience noted publicly at the end, not a single woman asked a question in the discussion of this lecture. This was also in contrast to the following evening.

Panitch and Grindin’s call for us to use the current ‘clearing of the way’ as an opportunity to build new organisation to ‘rekindle the socialist imagination’ is welcome. But if we are going to ‘get somewhere better’, I’m not convinced that their nine-point programme, and the kind of discussion that followed, is where we’d start.

The lecture started with the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Deutscher Prize, which was awarded to Roland Boer for his In the Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, V, both in recognition of the book itself and of the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series of which it was the culmination. The other shortlisted works were Costas Lapavistas’ Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, Frederic Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, John Saul and Patrick Bond’s South Africa – The Present as History.

There are 4 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    Miles off beam. No addressing of how attachment to capitalism is generated through debt and desire. No addressing of how passivity is produced, through education and atomisation of leisure. Oh well. Another year of dull meetings. dum de dum…dum de dum…

  2. louisproyect

    Roland Boer? Poor Isaac Deutscher must be spinning in his grave at such a rapid rate that a transformer attached to his grave could supply enough energy for Glasgow over the next six months.

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