Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tips on making Marxism unmissable

Outside the university sphere it becomes difficult to access authors, academics and political figures – but the annual Marxism Festival provides an unparalleled opportunity to see renowned leftist commentators whilst meeting like-minded people. 

Expertly organised by the SWP, there are more than 200 talks over five days on a wide range of topics including philosophy, history and contemporary issues – all from a Marxist perspective. The most expensive ticket – £65 for the whole festival – gives access to people like Tariq Ali, Owen Jones and Slavoj Zizek. If you fill your diary, it works out about £3 a talk. If you're unwaged, you pay half that and the SWP will also help provide (basic) accommodation for free. If you're interested in social sciences at any level then this is an unrivalled opportunity.

However, as with everything, there is always a drawback. Whilst it’s clear that the SWP isn’t doing this to make vast quantities of money (they are socialists after all) there are many pitfalls that you need to be aware of to get the most out of the experience. We have been attending the festival for 10 years and have compiled our top 5 tips and tricks for you:

1. Don’t pick a topic, pick a speaker

This is the most important point. You might have an interest in a specific area and be tempted to pick talks relating to it – but don’t always do this. We make this mistake every year. Many talks are given by SWP members themselves and will reflect a Trotskyist line you’ll soon become familiar with. At worst, some sessions can be factually inaccurate (depending on speaker). For instance, in a talk on the Cuban Revolution, the speaker asserted that Cuba is still run by Fidel and operates a “dollar currency”.

Try to research the speakers beforehand. Many of the most interesting talks which attract the most debate will be from non-SWP figures. If you don’t recognise any speakers, pick the largest rooms. The best talks I have been to are on things I previously wasn’t interested in. Michael Rosen for example really opened my eyes to the dangerous education strategy Michael Gove is employing. Get to meetings early to secure a seat.

2. Don’t be threatened

When the main speaker has finished, the Chair will open the meeting to contributions from the floor. The first people called will probably be ones known to the organisers and you’ll hear the same dull SWP party line being repeated again and again. You know stuff, challenge them! There aren't enough people who do this. You might get booed but there will be people like me in the audience who think you are cool (I won’t show you any overt support though). On a number of occasions I have been humbled by some of the excellent points by contributors who have mind-blowing levels of knowledge. There are a lot of clever people around and sometimes the topics are so niche you might not have much of a clue what’s going on.

3. Social media is cool

You don’t have to stand up and speak to join the debate. The Marxism Twitter hashtag provides a great way to debate even when a talk is in progress. It was fascinating to view the online fallout when David Harvey suggested groups like the SWP sometimes puncture organic movements by trying to hijack them as recruitment exercises.

4. Don’t be afraid to be on your own – you won’t be  

The festival is a really friendly place and the demographic of attendees is diverse. People are there for similar reasons and many attend on their own. I was engaged in conversation many times in the talks and bumped into the same people time and again – even though I make minimal effort myself. Social media is good for connecting with people since two of you might be tweeting in the same room.

5. Don’t be afraid of eccentricities
In any low cost event with thousands of attendees, you get a fair share of eccentrics. You’ll meet people coming to verbal blows over North Korea or the role of the peasantry in the revolution – why not join in? Immerse yourself in it as much as you can. Talk to the International Bolshevik Tendency and the Revolutionary Communist Group. Buy the New Worker or Workers’ Vanguard. By the time you’re done, you’ll know why the term “loony left” was invented.

Have you been to Marxism before? Why not post your own tips below?

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