Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Marxism 2006

I've survived another Marxism. With help and therapy I can look forward to Marxism 2007 with hope and enthusiasm.

Of course some people have an unambiguously good time at Marxism. Snowball at Adventures in Historical Materialism has a good positive account. The treatment in Socialist Worker is, of course, very positive, but I applaud the opening up of coverage. Rather than a single authoritative voice telling us how good it was, backed up by short snippets of interview, this year they've given the space to several positive but obviously fresh accounts. You can find more critical accounts in Weekly Worker and Solidarity (actually the AWL account is pleasantly honest and balanced), but just as the SWP can come across as having pre-packaged views and conclusions, so can their critics.

Socialist Worker also gives a figure for attendance: 4,100. This is an interesting and positive development for transparency. Before it has always been bigger and better. I treasure the memory of an SWP-blogger last year saying Marxism 2005 was also bigger, but people just weren't necessarily in the meetings. Ah, bless. Last year's Marxism took place in the immediate and disruptive wake of the horrors of 7/7, which must have held numbers down. And last year's Marxism was also the first to be transformed into a long weekend, justified quite naturally by the previous weeks focus on Edinburgh and Gleneagles; however they seem to have decided this is a better format and soon it'll only be the experienced activists who'll remember the dark days of the Tuesday to Friday mornings. In 2004, what with the Respect campaigns in Leicester and Birmingham it was basically only the foreign comrades who gave the thing a semblance of life.

Back to numbers: 4,100. It seemed like roughly the same number as recent years, and that's quite a bit less than the numbers being claimed a few years back. It's harder to judge: the topography of Marxism used to centre it on ULU and the Institute of Education, but it's a bit more dispersed now. The word was that there were unprecdented numbers of young people going: students and school students. Good, but if they've got more first-timers going, those of us not satisfied with the simple bigger and better message have got to ask what about the people who used to go. There's an obvious demographic effect. Despite the wonders of the creche and the obvious effort that the SWP puts into providing this, there's going to be a demographic effect as comrades have children, etc. But there's still an issue: the SWP puts a lot of emphasis on the new, the fresh faces, and very good and invigorating that is too, but political organisation needs to keep the older people with it. Yes, I'm disagreeing with Vladimir 'let the Liberals have the old people over 30' Lenin here. There certainly were old comrades who turned up, partly to meet old friends and comrades, partly to get a political boost; but I was certainly aware of the vast swathes of people who used to go, but no more.

It's interesting to compare Marxism's 4,100 to both the Tolpuddle commemoration with around 10,000 people, but also the far fewer numbers that any other left organisation could muster for a long weekend of political discussion. Please remember this oh worthies of the AWL, CPGB and others. Where but Marxism would the promised introduction to Battle of Algiers by the venerated Giles Pontecorvo be replaced by Saffron Burrows?

What was good about Marxism? Well, the range of non-SWP speakers for one thing. Praise be to Danny 'I'm not in the SWP, I don't shout' Dorling the geographer from Sheffield exposing mythss of segregation in Britain. Paul Gilroy was exceptionally cool in the forum on multiculturalism. The list goes on, imagine my despair at discovering Walden Bello had been replaced by Chris Harman! I missed Bernadette McAliskey, but everyone said how insprinig she was.

Of the non-SWP speakers I think special praise should go to the various Islamic speakers. In the forum on 'Muslims and the left today' the Respect Mayoral candidate in Newham, Abdurahman Jafar was cool and happening, and the other speakers Anas Al-tikriti and Nahella Ashraf (Respect candidate in Manchester) were also excellent: fresh and honest, far away from tired old Marxist rhetoric and convincing in their claim to be part of the left, and that we are at the start of a dialogue and developing relationship. I know this is one of the most controversial issues, but to me its an application of then old principle about revolutionaries being tribunes of the people and that people can and do change in stuggle. Jafar was clear that the engagement with Respect was the start of potential changes.

To continue being heretical I also enjoyed the 'What next for Respect?' 'forum' (yes, okay, rally). Rees and Galloway both gave good rousing speeches, some overlap in their list of positive accomplishments (and I'm sure I was alone in thinking 'if Leicester was so brilliant in 2004, where's Leicester Respect now?'). Both were good on the emphasis on the trade union conference called by Respect in November and even Galloway's hope that Respect could replace Labour as the political voice for working people sounded convincing. Okay, long and difficult way to go, no guarantee of success and lots of reasons for cynicism about both Galloway and the SWP, but good to have 'eyes on the prize'.

Other points: Joseph Choonara on Bolivia gave good background, but clearly wasn't interested in talking about practical solidarity. There seem to be a lot of 'revolutionarytourists' around: the wonders of globalization of course. On the other hand only one comrade made the call for a revolutionary party in Bolivia as necessary for success and that kind of stuck out as a sore thumb. Once upon a time it would have been said in every meeting.

Chris Harman on Cuba: really I went to see if the line had changed, with the firm assumption that if it had, Chris would have been in the rearguard. Well there is a distinct change of emphasis from the old days, a bit more emphasis on the positive and defence of Cuba against US imperialism, but the old underlying criticisms of 'socialism from above' remain - even if 'state capitalism' didn't get mentioned.

There's much more to be said, but let's jump to the downsides. The comrades trying to recruit you are still a pain. Weekly Worker recorded a figure of 121 joining , a bit down from previous years I think, but including two Respect councillors from Tower Hamlets. Good, but how many willstill be members next year? I'm told a firm 'no' puts the recruiters off, but I'm not so sure myself. There's still too much arrogant egotism about the SWP's view of itself. There's still too much triumphalism. There's still a bit too much of people saying the same thing. The rhetoric remains a bit too shallow, 'Neoliberalism' was a bit too much of a mantra. I couldn't face the opening and closing rallies: still expect the level of hysteria to be just too much. But I'd put all these things in the context of what is positive about the event, which remains by far and away the largst and most significant event of its type for the left in Britain.


AN said...

My experience is that after Marxism, as branch secretary I would be sent lists of people who had “joined”, a few of them were false names and addresses, a few thought they had been signing up for more information, and of those who had genuinely joined, they didn’t stay around after the reality check of a provincial branch meeting and paper sales. Now recruitment is not a bad thing, but I always remember one full timer (Ok it was Helen Shooter) emerging with two new “members” on a student loans demo in Bristol years ago, who were passers by with learning difficulties, and had signed the form but had not idea what she was talking about.

I would happily still go to Marxism, except that whereas I used to meet loads of old friends, they are no longer going.

But I have a question Matthew, I get the impression that to a degree the SWP have packed away the theory. And fewer SWP members are confident with the theoretical background. Is that a fair observation?

Nick said...

Thanks for the report Matthew, I didn't see as much of Marxism as I should have this year!
On the question of new and old members, I always remember what Tony Cliff used to say: (paraphrase)"When I speak at a meeting and recognise everyone, I'm depressed because it means we're not recruiting. When I speak at a meeting and don't recognise anyone, I'm even more depressed because it means we're not retaining members."
Sometimes I do feel that half the current SWP was already in the party when I joined (1990) and half have joined this year!

Martin Wisse said...

Nick: that's probalby not that far from the truth...

Any organisation which demands so much devotion to the cause as the SWP (or its counterparts) will consist largely of new members and long termers who've made it their life. Anybody else will have stopped being a member after a year or two, three.

AN said...

In fact martin it is also true of people who learn Spanish, or even go to the gym regularly.

In whioch case it might reflects not that the SWP is in crisis, but that it is stable and mature organisation in tune with the rythm of people's lives

A scary thought

Anonymous said...


It raises sectarianism to a whole new realm to slag of AWL in a report on Marxism.

What's our crime? Being 'worthy' and being small.

Anonymous said...

A long time ago a young ben elton was asked why Terry and June got 14million viewers if it was the rubbish he claimed it to be, his answer was just to say "you get a lot of flies around shit"

AN said...

LOL anonymous AWL member!

You have totally over-reacted to the Matthew. And yes the AWL's criticisms of the SWP do often come over as trite and reflex.

BTW Terry and June were always much funnier than that sanctimonious pile of self promoting shit, Ben Elton. But I am not suprised you are too embarassed to give your name.

Anonymous said...

please link to some trite and reflex criticisms of SWP which warrant the above comment from matthew, it would just be better to remove the pointless remarks from his article since they just make you lot appear to be bitter sectarian ex-swp coat-tailers.

Anonymous said...

"BTW Terry and June were always much funnier than that sanctimonious pile of self promoting shit, Ben Elton"

Elton's comment finished: "...10 times more people read the Sun than the Guardian"

No surpise that an SWPphile would find tedious sexist, homophobic comedy funny.

AN said...

I am not going to debate with someone too ashamed of their opinions to give their own name.

And for whom the word "SWPphile" even exists!

grow up comrade.

Anonymous said...

It's not a debate, post the links to the "trite and relfex" criticisms, or withdraw your comment.

Don't hide behind "I am not going to debate with someone too ashamed of their opinions to give their own name."

AN said...

I suggest you look at all the trite rubbish on the AWL's web site about Respect being communalist, etc.

Anonymous said...

Is a criticism of respect a critism of the SWP? Come on AN come up with the goods or withdraw.

chjh said...

Returning to the topic, Ken MacLeod enjoyed Marxism too http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/

AN said...

Ok well most of these documents on your web site about the SWP are trite rubish;

But these are questions of political judgement, so i don't understand why you are so aerated about it.

For anyone who has had expereince of Socialist organiser over the years the combination of adopting a serioes of positions that support whatever imperialism happens to be doinbg at the time, along witha rather shrill sense of self belief is very tedious.

AN said...

Thanksd chjh

That is an intereting blog from ken McLeod, and I see he has some interesting things to say about warfare.

Anonymous said...

AN: So your reasoned criticism of the AWL is "Ok well most of these documents on your web site about the SWP are trite rubish;
http://www.workersliberty.org/swp" and some comments about Socialist Organiser making accomodations to imperialism.

Come on, everything we published in the last 10 years and all our major publications before that are on the web. Show us an article we have published which is "trite and reflex" criticism of the SWP, or withdraw your comments

AN said...

LOL anonymous

I have no intention in getting drawn into a debate with you. It is my political judgement that many criticsms of the SWP and Respect from the AWL are trite and reflex.

To which I would add that your behaviour is also humourless and boorish.

i have no intention in withdrawing anything, nor continuiing the discussion.

Anonymous said...

humourless and boorish? Ah your criticisms were a joke?

Surely you must concede that describing something as trite and reflex is the opposite of a political judgement. I fully expect you to disagree politically with AWL's assesment of SWP. But to describe it as trite and reflex suggests there is no political substance to our analysis, or that given some previous analysis we quickly trot out a reflex article periodically. This is actually what you meant when you wrote it and you are backtracking now.

Show some evidence to backup your statement or withdraw it as being wrong.

AN said...

Dear anonymous

Not everything the AWL write is trite and reflex, but often it is. In particular the criticism about Respect being communallist, etc is not only rubbish, but inaccurate sectarianism on the AWL's part. And what is more I don't see how you can seprate that from your critique of the SWP.

I am not back tracking, but I am not going to be sucked into a ludicrous exchange with you, whereby I have to justify my opinions to someone who does not even offer the courtesy of signing their comments..

As you yourself observce much of the AWL's writings are on the web, so people can make up their own minds.

BTW I would refer you to the comments of AWL supporter Mrtin Ohr on the comments about collective punishement, where he refers to opponents of Israel's war in lebanon as the "anti-Jewish" left.
A trite and foolish position if ever I heard one, if those of us opposed to Zionism are in martin's view "anti-Jewish" then he is minimising what anti-semitism really is.

morbo said...

I've worked on the organising team for Marxism two years running now, the figures are correct for both, the theory was last year a lot of people didn't come because of the london bombings (and because of general tiredness after the G8) - we definatley signed that many people up though.

As for newer younger comrades and people/students coming, it's due to the decision to build RESPECT in the colleges/universities, the best of which student who have got involved in RESPECT have joined the SWP or come to Marxism. Great stuff. Great event too, far better than last year, but not as good as 2003.

AN said...

hiya Morbo

What do you think was better about 2003?