Monday, 5 July 2010

Marxism 2010: A Virgin’s Tale

Am I a Marxist? This is a question I have asked a number of times when trying to place myself within the political spectrum. I have just spent the weekend attending the SWP’s Marxism festival trying to answer this question. The answer I arrived at is resolutely no, well not the Marxism defined under the narrow constraints of the SWP anyway.

Unlike Dan and Tom I was a virgin to the event. I have a general distaste for far leftist meetings due to many past experiences which involved a large amount of hippy idealism and limited dogmatic thought. I was certain that I would hear phrases like “can’t we just all get along” and “when will everyone learn that we don’t need governments anymore”.

The first meeting I attended did nothing to allay these preconceptions. I was late due to a delayed train but helpfully Dan and Tom had sat at the front of the room in the middle of a row which meant I disrupted the speaker by pushing past people and apologising loudly. This entertained Dan and Tom greatly and for them was the highlight of the talk. The speaker mumbled at the floor and then a precession of people crowed about how clever they were.

This was a trend which ran through the whole event. Each meeting consisted of 30 minutes of a lecture and then 45 minutes of people speaking from the audience. This resulted in far too many occasions of people standing up and ranting with the sole aim of impressing everyone about how committed and intelligent they were. If your point was the inevitability of a workers revolution led by a vanguard, you would be well supported by the speaker, if not you were either ignored or told the above was true. Sometimes you would get the bizarre situation when the lecture topic or debate seemed to disagree or be unconcerned with the idea of a Leninist workers style revolution but would end with the speaker stating that it was the natural result of what had been discussed. This confused me as I wondered why you would devote a considerable amount of time to a discussion and then ignore it.

It became clear to me that much of the organisers and attendees were living in the past. The majority of topics on display were based on historical overviews and analyses of theories over a hundred years old rather than on anything progressive or new. Only one of the lectures I attended employed any technology above a microphone. Whilst I would be the first to admit that an analysis of history helps understand the future, this subject has been debated in this way for the past 100 years.

At one point I overheard a conversation between a man and woman that completely summed up all those present. At first the middle aged man complained that he had just missed a meeting with a friend due to being delayed. When asked why he didn’t call his friend to notify him he stated “I don’t believe in mobile phones”. I resisted the urge to show him my own phone as evidence that they existed. His female friend then produced a letter from BT which she said had a code on it that could be used in a phone box to get 90p’s worth of call time. This letter was a response to a complaint the woman had made after losing that value in a phone box once. He then tried to give her 90p which she refused. After hearing this exchange I worried for a while that I had somehow been transported back to the 1950s.

However, not everyone was caught in the past. We soon realised that picking meetings needed skill. If you weren’t careful you would end up with an SWP activist giving you the usual spiel. Occasionally though you would find either a multi-speaker debate or an outside expert. One such expert was Dr John Parrington (a Molecular Pharmacologist) whose lecture on evolution and genetics inspired a really interesting debate over the ethics of gene screening. His contention that a Marxist model of society was the best method of dealing with these ethical issues was compelling. Similarly a fair overview of psychoanalysis and its arguably necessary relationship with Marxist theory given by Sabby Sagall gave rise to one of the most intelligent debates I have ever witnessed in person. I was astonished with the breadth of knowledge, ideas and articulate discussion that followed (although I suspect half of those who spoke of being academics).

I would characterise the whole event as a well organised wasted opportunity to engage with new ideas and a wider audience. When those new areas of thought were explored an unparalleled opportunity for leftist debate arose.

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