Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reflections on Marxism 2006

I promised to write a quick report on this years Marxism conference in London, which I thought was excellent overall, noticeably younger than previous years and I thought with a good friendly atmosphere created among those attending.

The opening rally, which happened to be held on the evening before the first anniversary of the London bombings, saw Hassan Jumaa, a trade union leader from the oil workers union in Basra (under British control) invite us all to visit Iraq - once it was free after the brutal US/UK occupying forces had been kicked out. Councillor Oliur Rahman from Respect pointed out that Britain spends something like £2.3 million pounds a day occupying Iraq, while pensioners live in poverty. The themes of imperialism, racism and resistance kind of ran throughout the whole event - one student from Hong Kong who I spoke to thought issues resulting from the 'war on terror' had perhaps too high a profile among the meetings - but when one watches the current Israeli bloody aggression in the Middle East on the news it would have been more odd I feel had this not been the case.

Highlights for me included 'The Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East', where a young Egyptian socialist passionately described their attempts to organise under conditions of a dictatorship (backed by the West) and the state repression routinely dealt out against them. I am a sad bastard and so also always enjoy going to watch 'left celebrities'. I went to hear the speeches at the big John Rees - George Galloway 'Respect rally', where Galloway brought us news that Blairite Stephen Byers has taken a lucrative job as an oil trader in Iraq, before quipping 'I thought that was my job'. The academic Paul Gilroy warned that Britain is 'only a charismatic personality away' from serious problems around the issue of race given by the Islamophobia and rising racism in British society because of the aforementioned 'war on terror'. Tariq Ali (who always gets a cheap laugh by pointing out Blair's lack of sense of History) brought our attention to the Second World War as an inter-imperialist conflict rather than as Blair puts it 'a war to save the Jews' - if that was the motivation for the war then the Allies did not 'win the war' - they lost it. I saw Ken Loach speak about the making of his classic film about the Spanish Civil War, 'Land and Freedom' - and get questioned by an audience who wondered why he hadn't got round to making films of the Haitian Revolution and the Russian Revolution yet. Loach explained that getting a few blokes to run around on Irish bogs for his award winning 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' took enough trouble as it was - and getting the material resources to make films is not easy. Tony Benn, who I did not go to see for once this year, actually came up to me for a change - but sadly only to ask me where the toilet was. Still, a claim to fame of sorts I suppose...

In any case, not all the meetings were about Empire - at least, not directly. Ian Birchall, who has compiled a bibliography of the writings of the late, great Tony Cliff, described Cliff's early life in colonial Palestine. My knowledge of American novelist John Dos Passos has gone from 'didn't he write a novel about American society?' to 'I really ought to read USA at some point - it sounds cool'. Alex Callinicos introduced a great meeting on 'Do socialists have to be atheists?' - but which as I suspected quickly got onto the facinating question of the relationship between Marxism and religion. Callinicos noted at one point that he thought the idea of 'agnosticism' was a ridiculous notion, only to be challenged from the floor by a member of the SWP who thought that Marxists who proudly declare their atheism risked just sounding 'conceited' and 'arrogant'.

Still, the best thing about Marxism are the people who go - and the chance to meet both old friends and new. With respect to the IS blogging fraternity, I succeeded in at last hunting down the elusive 'Lenin' of Lenin's Tomb in Bookmarks, which was no small achievement I thought, while I had the piss taken out of my T-shirt by Meaders of Dead Men Left. I also had a lovely morning spent with someone really special but who will remain anonymous listening to discussions of culture and resistance from modern art such as Libera's Lego concentration camp, one for minifig there perhaps, to photomontage with Peter Kennard, from which I learnt, among other things, that John Heartfield was a genius.

The final rally was inspiring, with Trevor Ngwane from South Africa and Oscar Olivera from Bolivia on top form. Perhaps most encouraging for me was seeing Azzam Tamimi, a British Islamic intellectual, giving a powerful speech attacking war and the hypocrisy of Western politicians like Bush and Blair. A few years ago - even before the London bombings - I saw Tamimi address a local Stop the War conference in Leeds where his speech was extremely moderate, with barely the mildest criticism of the political elite. Yet through his involvement over the last couple of years in the anti-war movement his confidence to resist the appalling ongoing racist backlash against the Muslim community has come on in leaps and bounds. I paraphrase, but his speech included something like the following. 'If standing up for justice and peace means we are labeled "extremists", then I am proud to be an "extremist"! If supporting those resisting Zionist occupation in Palestine and American occupation in Iraq means we are "terrorists", then I am proud to be a "terrorist"!' It was brilliant, hardcore anti-imperialism and it is no wonder that he - like Olivera and Ngwane - got the standing ovation he deserved. Martin Smith, national organiser of the SWP, however went one better than Tamimi, making a joke which I wish I could remember but I'll leave it to your imaginations to play with. Basically it revolves around two things - Tony Blair, on the one hand - and Bush's sick ideology which states that if one hangs oneself, one is surely only doing it as "PR stunt", to garner popularity if one finds oneself deeply unpopular. I think the punchline was something like 'Go and hang yourself, you warmongering bastard'. But, as I say, I can't quite remember how it went.

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At 10:02 pm, Anonymous isakofsky said...

Well, if you couldn't be bothered to go to the poetry evening then eat your own hand, you philistine dog.

At 11:28 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Profuse apologies isakofsky - I stand guilty as charged. The only feeble plea in my defence that I can muster, and it is pretty feeble I am afraid, is that I had a prior engagement and so was not at Marxism at all that evening.

It was not therefore that I selected say, Mark Steel over Michael Rosen - but rather that I chose to kill a few more of the dwindling number of brain cells I have left with alcohol that evening rather than tax them through cultural and political enlightenment.

However, I am aware that this defence does not sound particularly convincing in the eyes of the revolutionary working class movement - but it is nonetheless the awful truth of the matter.

At 12:02 pm, Blogger ragged trousered pessimist said...

poetry eh...

on yonder hill
i saw a cow
it must have shifted
it's not there now

At 12:12 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

I fell asleep in John Rees's meeting on imperialism. Now I have to read the damn book...!

Review on the way (probably rolled in with Planet of Slums)

At 4:05 am, Blogger Nicholas said...

From the people present I assume that this conference as i think I have seen elsewhere is run by the IS or is it non-sectarian? If so does anybody else show up?

At 7:46 am, Anonymous isakofsky said...

roses are red
violets are blue
most poems rhyme
this one doesn't

At 11:19 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Nicholas - it is organised by the SWP yes, though whether this fact makes the event inherently 'sectarian' in itself is surely something open to debate.

At 8:52 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

about a fourth of just over 4000 people attending were not members this year…fyi

At 12:38 am, Blogger El Tom said...

that's the first time I have heard the word 'philistine' used on an SWP blog!

for me terrorism is about targetting innocent civillians... something which most modern fighting forces are guilty of.


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