Friday, 9 July 2010

Marxism 2010: Reminiscences of the SWP bore?

In recent years I’ve often felt as if I’m in a bit of a political limbo – too left-wing to join the modern Labour Party, too logical to make any kind of enthusiastic call for a working class uprising. I think this is a common feeling among progressive people of my age. We were born and raised under Thatcher and then became politically switched-on just as a ‘Third Way’ version of Labour came to power. That is to say, we were born during the destruction of the old left and became self-aware under a confusing, blurred, neo-liberal version of what I will begrudgingly call ‘social democracy’. When I was 18 – and a self-avowed Marxist, no less! – Marxism 2003 seemed to offer an exciting opportunity to mix with people who shared my hard left politics and ‘revolutionary’ zeal. In the event I was actually put off by the unquestioning nature of the SWP’s lectures and so-called debates. The latter tended to consist of a load of people calling for a workers’ revolution led by a vanguard party (the SWP, of course) who would ignore or jeer anyone who suggested a reformist route. Even by my naive analysis they seemed to be, well, naive. Still unable to bring myself to join or vote Labour, I saw Marxism 2010 as an opportunity to see how the far left in Britain (at least the part of it that was represented here) had developed over the last seven years, while also comparing it to the progress of my own political thinking.

The first lecture we attended was on the Marxist analysis of economics – a nice easy start, then. I actually found this lecture to be a good refresher for basic Marxist theory and it gave a fairly clear analysis of Marx’s argument regarding the crisis-prone nature of capitalism. The speaker made a good fist of applying it to the current economic situation but his argument didn’t quite come off as he failed to even mention the fact that the ‘means of production’ has largely been moved to the third world, therefore negating any possibility of the workers in this country seizing them from their capitalist owners. This lack of progressive – or even logical – thinking was to become a regular fixture. Following this we attended talks throughout the weekend on seemingly diverse topics including Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s socialist ‘revolutions’ – apparently they’re not socialist enough; the British working class and whether they are ‘revolutionary’ or not – according to the SWP they are, we’ve just got to keep telling them that until they rise up like one massive BA cabin crew; and the history of the world through a Marxist perspective – I found this to fit with my own beliefs in a very general way, but their debates about history and the way it is taught today were woefully out of date.

This is not to say that it was all bad. One talk on Keynesian economics and another entitled ‘Does the media control out minds?’ were enjoyable and were followed by interesting contributions from audience members. However, the latter talk made very little reference to online media and its scope for organising networks of disparate people and putting pressure on politicians (see the 38 Degrees and Take Back Parliament campaigns for evidence). All the speaker seemed to suggest was taking the Socialist Worker newspaper into your place of work with you or attempting to flog it to disinterested passersby who would probably rather be reading the Sun. By far the most positive aspects of the whole event were Slavoj Zizek’s contribution to the panel discussion on ‘The Idea of Communism’ and Tony Benn’s lecture. Unfortunately, other than these examples the unifying theme was a slavish deference to Marxist-Leninism, with seemingly no effort made to develop this theory past the 1920s. Combined with their rejection of trade unions and Parliamentary reform as a means of achieving better conditions for workers, and their constant references to some unidentified form of ‘struggle’ to achieve a revolution, this all added up to a very frustrating and, at times, irritating experience. The overall result? I’m still in limbo.

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