Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Marxism 2013 Conference in Melbourne, Australia

I attended this conference over the Easter weekend in Melbourne, Australia. Around 1140 people attended the conference. This makes it the largest Marxist conference to be held in Australasia since the 1970s. Here are a few of my reflections on the conference.

• On an international scale the anti-Stalinist Marxist intellectual tradition has been undergoing a major revival since the Seattle protests at the end of 1999 shut down the millienium round of the WTO and sparked the global justice/anti-capitalist movement that fed into the anti-war movement of the early 2000s.

The impressive size of Marxism 2013 in Melbourne is in small part due to this wider international shift to the left of the intellectual cultures of the advanced capitalist societies, but mainly a result of the sustained effort and success of Socialist Alternative (SA), which is the largest socialist group in Australia and the sister organisation of the ISO in Aotearoa, in building this conference over a number of years.

• This has become a truly inspiring event for those of us who think that there are some pretty major problems with global capitalism, and that it is important to consider how we might collectively create a socialist world that is more democratic, egalitarian, libertarian, and environmentally sustainable. The sessions which featured John Pilger, Black Panther Billy Jenkins, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, and US socialist Brian Jones were especially stimulating and energizing.

A sample of the featured speakers is provided at:

See, for example, Brian Jones: The hypocrisy of US capitalism today

Gary Foley speaks @ Marxism 2012 (Excerpt)

But as there were six streams running concurrently there were many other topics and sessions to chose from. A link to the final programme is below.
• Videos from Marxism 2013 will be uploaded to the following site. At present videos of talks from the 2012 conference are available at: http://www.youtube.com/user/marxismconference/videos?view=0

• Several people commented to me that the conference had developed into much more than a ‘party conference’. Although SA built and hosted the conference, it was supported by Socialist Alliance and most of the other socialist groups in Australia, and the discussions made it clear that there were people from a wide range of left organisations and perspectives.

• The intellectual level of the talks and discussion was much higher than I’ve come to expect from attending academic conferences. At most academic conferences you get to speak for 15-20 minutes with around 10 minutes of discussion. At Marxism speakers spoke for around 40 minutes, following by 45 minutes of questions, discussion and debate, and then the speaker had five minutes to sum up and reply to the questions and criticisms. This meant that you came away from each session having learned a lot about the topic.

• It was great to see the School of Rebellion being run at the conference for the kids, both so they learnt something, and also to help ensure that their parents could make it to the sessions. Brian Jones, one of the keynote speakers from the US, spent aound two hours with the kids. They painted placards and a banner and at various points rebelled against their teachers!

• The one concern that I had about the conference was that there needed to be a session focused on the racist Northern Territory Intervention, now called the Stronger Futures Policy (meaning more appallingly racist policy from the Australian federal government whether Labor or Liberal), and more than one session on indigenous politics and resistance to racism. For example, I would have liked a discussion focusing on resistance to the NT intervention and then in a different session a panel discussion of the state of aboriginal people and their resistance to racism in the various states. 

This was a very youthful conference. My rough estimate would be that at least 70% of those who attended are under 30. The older generation (over 50) would have made up not much more than 2-3% of those attending. In addition, the gender balance of those attending the conference was close to 50/50 male and female. The leadership of SA is, to a greater extent than any other socialist organisation that I have encountered, both young and female. SA has produced an Anti-Sexism Manifesto for socialist men, and clearly has created an internal culture that encourages women to participate fully at all levels of the organisation. There were undergraduate and postgraduate students from virtually every major city in Australia and New Zealand (Christchurch being the only notable exception). All of this bodes well for the future of Marxism.

• Just in case it wasn't obvious already, this conference confirmed that in the West and Australasia, Stalinism is dead. Virtually everyone at the conference, with the possible exception of a few anarchists, recognises that the Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and Asia were socially, economically and politically inconsistent with the classical Marxist vision of a socialism that is more rather than less democratic than the limited form of democracy that exists in the liberal democracies governing advanced capitalist societies. As this indicates, this was a conference that stands on the intellectual and political foundations of the Trotskyist tradition. 

• I came away from this conference feeling incrediably inspired and energized. In Aotearoa the International Socialist Organization is much smaller than Socialist Alternative in Australia, but it is grounded in the same intellectual tradition and shares the same broad political programme. Joining can not only help you to develop a stronger intellectual understanding of the world, it can provide a means for you to become involved in the struggle to change it. For more information follow the link below: