Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Reflections on HM conference 2008

Well, apparently 500 people attended this years successful and enjoyable Historical Materialism conference in London last weekend. I was fortunate enough to be one of them, attending my second 'HM conference' (as it is known by afficionados, as though Her Majesty had something to do with it). Why is an essentially academic Marxist affair like HM conference growing in popularity? Well, obviously subjectively the organisers behind the thing deserve some credit but I think they are undoubtedly helped by the objective fact that capitalism as a system is, well, hardly conjuring up a vision of sweetness and light at the moment.

As Jeremy Hardy noted on Radio 4 this week (and I am paraphrasing here), we used to hear a lot about the wonders of job 'creation' and were told to be thankful to creative businessmen and give praise to the entrepreneurs responsible, but when people are made unemployed, their jobs are just 'lost' as though it was completely by accident and no-one or nothing is to blame - you just turn up for work one day only to be told your job has gone missing. And there are a hell of a lot of jobs going 'missing' - or rather being murdered - just now. 'What all this goes to show,' as Hardy put it, 'is that capitalism sounds a nice idea in theory, but sadly it just doesn't work in practice'.

In fact the system is showing all the signs of behaving rather as Karl Marx said it would; e.g. going into economic crisis of its own internal contradictions. While the devastation and misery to ordinary people created by the crisis is not of course something to be scoffed at, for Marxists, capitalism has been threatening to go into a crisis on the current scale for a while, and a certain degree of vindicationism is inevitable. As the great American Marxist historian Mike Davis noted recently,

Let me confess that, as an aging socialist, I suddenly find myself like the Jehovah's Witness who opens his window to see the stars actually falling out of the sky. Although I've been preaching Marxist crisis theory for decades, I never believed I'd actually live to see financial capitalism commit suicide or hear the International Monetary Fund warn of imminent "systemic meltdown". Thus my initial reaction to Wall Street's infamous 777.7 point plunge a month ago was a very 1960s retro elation. "Right on, Karl!" I shouted. "Eat your derivatives and die, Wall Street swine!" Like the Grand Canyon, the fall of the banks can be a terrifying but sublime spectacle.

So inevitably there were a lot of sessions of 'HM conference' devoted to Marxist economics in general and 'finance capital' in particular, and arguments over the exact weight one gives the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over the counter-veiling tendencies within the system at this particular juncture. And all this is of course how it should be. Personally, however, as someone who is quite content to remain in blessed ignorance for the time being about 'the transformation problem' that bedevils Marxist economics, I prefer to just sit back and marvel at the quite exquisite timing of 'The Great Crash of 2008' as far as New Labour in Britain is concerned. In their youth the likes of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Peter Mandleson used to be socialists who had at least some understanding that capitalism as a system was prone to not only booms but also busts. Indeed, Darling and Mandleson were briefly if not members then fellow travellers of Marxist organisations (the International Marxist Group and the Young Communist League respectively). And yet in the 1990s if not before they all bought into the idea that 'there was no alternative' to liberal free-market capitalism and that the system would grow and grow indefinitely. Effectively crying 'Enrich yourselves!', Mandleson famously declared that New Labour was 'was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich'. And when all three renegades had contented themselves that 'history really had come to a .' and they thought they had safely ensconced themselves permanently in power the world economic system decides to go into meltdown. This was truly the revenge of history, to borrow a phrase from Trotsky.

And it was therefore perfect timing for Rick Kuhn's 'Deutscher Memorial Prize Lecture' on 'Economic Crisis, Henryk Grossman and the responsibility of socialists'. The lecture will itself be published in Historical Materialism journal at some point, which somewhat saves me having to attempt to do justice to what was a timely tour de force reminding us all of the Marxist position on the question of the role of revolutionary socialists at a time of capitalist decline - to take sides in the class struggle and become what Gramsci called 'organic intellectuals' of the international working class movement, and build up revolutionary organisations able to give political leadership and confidence to workers fighting back in the midst of the crisis. Kuhn is of course the author of Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism - reviewed here and here among other places - and I for one was convinced easily enough that by the suggestion that Grossman did for Marxist economics what Lukács did for Marxist philosophy and what Lenin did for Marxist politics.

What Grossman's biographer Kuhn did effectively was also give us an overview of Grossman's fascinating if ultimately rather tragic life, from militant of the early Jewish working class movement in Poland to ultimately lending decoration to the Stalinist state of East Germany. This was an advance on some of the sessions at HM Conference, particularly those organised around the theme of 'International Relations', or 'I.R.' to use the jargon, - not to be confused with this comrade - where sometimes speakers give whole papers on say 'the antinomies of x' while assuming everyone present is familiar with who 'x' is. This would not be a problem if 'x' was at least a semi-famous Marxist thinker but when 'x' turns out to be a current professor of international relations at one or other English university one begins to feel one is intruding on some private party, and one doesn't really want to crash the party by parading one's ignorance in a vulgar fashion and noting that 'you have certainly made some telling criticisms of the problematic nature of x's thought but I'm sorry, who is 'x'?'

Yet 'history' and 'materialism' were not too hard to find at this years 'historical materialism' conference. There was a useful session for example on 'early modern capitalism' where Pepijn Brandon, a brilliant young Dutch historian, expanded on his analysis of the Dutch Revolt as a bourgeois revolution with an exploration of how Marx's writings on the topic differed from the likes of Adam Smith. I will quote from his conclusion:

'Of course Marx did not have, somewhere up his sleeve, a developed analysis of Dutch history. But when he read the same limited sources that Adam Smith had used to come to his conclusions about the "Dutch miracle", he did have different questions to ask. Maybe they were the same class-biased questions that led him, in a youthful article, to overlook the self-righteous staalmeesters, and note with wonder that "Rembrandt painted the mother of God as a Dutch peasant woman."'.

I also attended insightful sessions on 'Utopianism', 'Bolshevism', and 'Marxism outside the "West"' and took lots of now quite illegible scribbled notes while Alex Callinicos was speaking on 'Imperialism and global political economy' (the title of a forthcoming book). Callinicos covered the strengths of the classical Marxist view of imperialism (an explanation of geopolitical competition located in a new phase of capitalism - what Hilferding called 'Finance Capital' - together with a focus on the uneven economic development of capitalism) but also its weakness as a theory historically limited in part to the early twentieth century. He then looked at the specificities of British and American imperialism (discussing how Britain was among other things a pioneer of 'informal empire' - non-territorial empire building of the kind beloved of the US) before ending with a discussion of the new great rivalries emerging today, and noting that Obama aimed to rebuild US hegemony. I would elucidate more on all of this, but my appalling handwriting means I would not be an altogether trustworthy guide. However, I did also learn that Adolf Hitler admired the 1930s British imperialist propaganda film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which is obviously a fact of great importance.

However, the highlight of the conference for me was Peter Linebaugh's lecture 'Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman and the Five Gates of Marxism'. I had never before heard Linebaugh speak and like most of those in the audience had no idea what the lecture would be about. One other bloggers report of HM conference was distinctly dismissive of this meeting:

'The final plenary I attended was Peter Linebaugh's Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman and the Five Gates of Marxism. This was a vatic performance, which as one conference-goer commented would not have been accepted if it had been given by a woman. Taking Marx's statement from the Manifesto that 'The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims' as a mantra Linebaugh ranged over reproduction - both intellectual, productive, and of children - law, primary accumulation, and the defence of the commons...More impressive in the prepared elements, the slightly revival-meeting style grated with your truly.'

Personally, I couldn't really disagree more - I thought that Linebaugh's presentation style had something of the genius of Tommy Cooper about it - and okay, Linebaugh could have condensed what he had to say into 20 minutes instead of taking up an hour with his long pregnant pauses - but even these (surely there in part for comic effect) together with his disgressions and tangents only added to the power of the lecture as a whole. To paraphrase is to denigrate, but he would say something like 'So I went to the British Library 'Taking Liberties' exhibition...[long pause]...I saw the Magna Carta, half hidden in darkness and written using azure from Persia and inks sold from West Africa...[long pause]...I am sure someone with some postmodern wit could make something out of that'.

A student of EP Thompson, who Linebaugh described as a 'great peacenik', what this lecture had was real historical depth. Essentially, what Linebaugh did was returned to the birth of Marx's magnum opus Das Capital, and described the labour - intellectual, moral and material - and birth pains that went into the writing of that classic. Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman was a member of the First International - and her businessman husband lent Marx the capital necessary for him to finish Capital Vol. 1. (I think she might have played some role in proof-reading the work - again my illegible hadwriting proves a handicap here). Linebaugh situated historically the publication of Capital with the other great events of 1867 and the 1860s in general such as the American Civil War.

The 'five gates of Marxism' then were the historical and 'empirical' chapters of that work that so often are passed over by political theorists and academic Marxists in search of 'the logic of Capital' who prefer not to examine in detail the hard material reality of class formation and class struggle brought to life in the work:
1. Chapter 10 (The Working Day)
2. Chapter 14 (Division of Labour and Manufacture)
3. Chapter 15 (Machinery and Modern Industry)
4. Chapter 25(The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation)
5. Part VIII - Chapters 26-33 ('Primitive Accumulation') - or what Linebaugh argued we should call 'Primary Accumulation' because of the unsavoury connotations of the word 'primitive').

There is some reading for people to be getting on with anyway - one only hopes the German comrades who I bumped into at the event who told me excitedly about the 'Capital reading groups' they were setting up do not simply pass over these chapters as so much 'emperical English history' - Marx was trying to give voice here to the struggles and stories of the voiceless - and those - like Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman herself - who remain so 'hidden from history'.

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At 2:03 pm, Blogger Rob said...

From my perspective (as an aspiring 'legal theorist') the chapter on the working day is one of the most important parts of Capital, insofar as I think it provides a theoretical model of how social struggle is articulated through legal forms. The chapter on primitive accumulation (and I like that name just fine, it gives some suggestion of the brutality of the process) has become increasingly theoretically relevant, particularly in the context of the contemporary work on imperialism.

But it is true they have been neglected.

At 3:39 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Rob, thanks - I have only just got around to reading David Harvey on 'accumulation by dispossion' - but it is very very pertinent stuff - agreed - and in this sense the 'struggle for the commons' is as relevant as ever.

At 2:13 pm, Blogger pauly said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the report.

At 7:12 am, Blogger Nate said...

Thanks very much for this report. I'm sorry I couldn't get over to England for the conference, Linebaugh's talk sounds quite good. take care,

At 9:46 am, Anonymous big and tall suit said...

500 people? great achievements and congratulations for this.


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