Reflections on HM conference 2013
Over the weekend I attended Historical Materialism conference in London, which was enjoyable enough (the chance to meet friends old and new, and pick up some of the latest Marxist literature - for example the new issue of Revolutionary History journal) but it was not - as ever - without its own internal contradictions. Back in 2008, five years ago, at the start of the economic crisis, I wrote a short piece on Histomat reflecting on that year's HM conference, noting it was an 'essentially academic Marxist affair'. It is this which largely explains its contradictory nature, for the latest academic fads and fashions as often clash with classical Marxist theory as add anything useful or valuable to it. Moreover, those latest academic fads and fashions are sometimes presented and discussed in a language which is so obtuse as to make it impossible for those without PhDs (and even many of those with PhDs) to understand. One can only have sympathy with Selma James, who noted after hearing three papers on the tensions between Marxism and postcolonial theory, 'I can understand Marx, but I have a problem understanding Marxists'.
This will not be a full report of this years conference - I was only there over the weekend as I said, not the full four days - but I thought I may as well write up some brief impressions nonetheless. On the plus side, it was as big as ever (some 880 paid attendees apparently) and some of the sessions at HM one finds oneself in are genuinely stimulating and enlightening affairs, where - though often the time for discussion is necessarily limited - one has a chance to hear from those doing extremely important and worthwhile work both theoretically and practically. On the Sunday for example, I attended a session hosted by the Institute of Race Relations which included listening to a recording of a fascinating interview with the veteran anti-racist A Sivanandan as well as others from IRR talking about the dangerous and violent rise of racism and fascism across Europe, and the importance of for example, the Left standing in solidarity with, for example, the Roma people and their 'community of resistance'. This was then followed by an opportunity to hear Heide Gerstenberger, Robin Blackburn and Priyamvada Gopal on 'free labour and wage slavery', a great discussion which ranged from the meaning of freedom in both Marx's writings and in those ex-slaves in Jamaica who rose against British colonial dictatorship at Morant Bay in 1865.
As well as such themes as 'race and capital' illustrated above, the overall theme of this years conference was 'the making of the world working class', given it was both the 75th anniversary of CLR James's classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins as well as the fiftieth anniversary of EP Thompson's classic account of the revolutionary history of the resistance to capitalist industrialisation, The Making of the English Working Class. And many of the papers addressed themselves to thinking about either James, Thompson or the making and re-making of the international working class today. However - and here was for me perhaps the key contradiction about this years HM conference - the ideas about the centrality of the working class as the agency that will fundamentally change the world through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism - ideas that were, more or less, at the heart of the intellectual project of both CLR James and EP Thompson themselves - have rarely been more unfashionable than they are currently, certainly among academics and to a large extent in the anti-capitalist movement at large. This is despite the fact that the Occupy movement's slogan about the 99% against the 1% spoke precisely to a wider popular feeling of class - of 'us' and 'them' - in society at large amidst austerity and welfare cuts.
The sheer unfashionable nature about thinking about class struggle in a classical Marxist sense in many academic and activist circles manifested itself at even HM conference - and came through strongly in the final plenary session, 'Labour, Race and Gender in the Making of the World Working Class', provoking almost an 'existential crisis' feeling about Marxism right at the end - which is surely a bit of an odd feeling for one to leave an ostensibly 'Marxist' conference with. This was not because of anything said by two of the three final plenary speakers. S'bu Zikode from the shack dwellers' social movement in South Africa talked movingly of the lost dream of Nelson Mandela amidst the brutality of post-apartheid neo-liberal capitalist South Africa - as he put it 'freedom has been privatised and we have a long way to go to get democracy'. The American labour historian David Roediger for his part built on WEB Du Bois's classic Black Reconstruction to give us a clear sense of the 'magnificent drama' involved in 'the self-emancipation of U.S. slaves' and how their victory gave confidence to and fed into other struggles for liberation among other oppressed groups in American society, above all women and their struggle for the vote.
The problematic nature of this years HM conference for me was epitomised by the paper of the third plenary speaker, Abbie Bakan, entitled 'When Class meets Race and Gender: Reflections on Method'. Given her years of activism as a revolutionary socialist and the fact she has written important works in the past on subjects ranging from class struggles in Jamaica to Marilyn Monroe, she was certainly an important enough figure to justify her place on the panel at the closing session of a conference like HM. I guess maybe in part I was just expecting too much from her. It was not so much anything she said in her main paper that was particularly that problematic, though she seemed to be saying that the traditional class analysis of Marxists needed revision as it was 'sociological' to focus on waged work. It was more what she did not say that was problematic. Indeed, the general thrust of her paper seemed to be arguing for 'inter-sectionality' and left one vaguely wondering how someone can speak at a Marxist conference for 20 minutes on the subject of race, class and gender and not at least quickly discuss how class for Marxists is related to exploitation, while race and gender are related to oppression - and therefore there is a material interest among the working class to unite collectively to resist that exploitation - and in the process of uniting there is a need for workers to link together in solidarity, to challenge the ideas of the ruling class that try to divide us according to oppression - racism, sexism, homophobia etc etc if they are going to be victorious. Bakan talked of how capital divides us along the lines of 'race, class and gender' without explaining how only the working class - because it is as Marx put it, a 'universal class' - has a clear interest in this division of our common humanity being overcome, and more importantly, because of its strategic location as the central creator of profits and wealth for the capitalist class, also happens to be a collective group in society with the collective power to bring the whole system to a stop. As Rosa Luxemburg famously put it, 'where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken'.
Abbie Bakan's 'epistomologies of ignorance'
In the discussion, Bakan was challenged from many sides and many angles. One black guy noted that he kind of liked that Bakan had used the work of Jamaican scholar Charles Mills, but wondered why she needed to use his talk about 'epistomologies of ignorance' to discuss racism for example. It was a good point - as the guy seemed to be suggesting, Karl Marx had talked clearly and in language people could understand about how 'the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class' and that these ideas were necessarily therefore mythological, long before Mills's writing today. More critically, one SWP member challenged Bakan on her failure to identify class struggle as the key thing that can potentially unite all the oppressed groups into a common struggle through giving them a clear sense of their own power, and it was Bakan's response to this point that personally left me in a state of almost disbelief.
At this point, I should say that until earlier this year Abbie Bakan was for many years a leading member of the International Socialist Tendency, founded by Tony Cliff, of which as a member of the SWP I am also a member. I was aware that Bakan had already begun to move away from that tradition's ideas, particularly with respect to how that tradition understands the question of Marxism and women's liberation, so up to now I was not surprised by anything Bakan had said in her paper, though I thought she might have still alluded in some sense to how class was different from race and gender at least somewhere in the twenty minutes allotted to her. However, I was still shocked at how Bakan responded to criticism of her essentially inter-sectional analysis from a more classical Marxist perspective. I did not note down everything she said, so some of this is from memory - hopefully at some point if the debate was filmed a more accurate account of the debate may emerge - but these are some of the general points she made (do not take them as absolutely accurate quotes, but am trying to convey the general gist of Bakan's argument).
1. 'I had been trained in a white, male, masculine, Eurocentric version of Marxism, and so as a woman I had to do additional reading and work to make sense of things'.
Now the idea that because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were 'white', male and European intellectuals that Marxism is somehow incapable of explaining the oppression of women or people of colour is not a new one but a staple of feminist and black nationalist theory for decades. I think however Bakan here was trying to suggest that the particular tradition in which she was trained as a Marxist - the International Socialist tradition - trained her in a Eurocentric and masculinist reading of Marxism, which is a slightly new twist on an old familiar story. Of course before the rise of 'second wave feminism' in the 1970s, the IS tradition did not write a great deal on women's liberation, and no doubt women like Bakan had to do a lot of additional reading to catch up and engage with the new movement as Marxists in the 1970s. But isn't this what any and every Marxist has to do when faced with a new movement that emerges - or any new situation more generally - in order to relate to it effectively? Blaming the paucity of existing theorising on such a question is not a Marxist way of thinking - rather one has to return to the Marxist classics and try to apply them to make sense of a new situtation. This is surely what the likes of Abbie Bakan but also others, such as Lindsey German and of course Tony Cliff himself, did during the 1970s and afterwards as IS members in order to make sense of the relationship between 'sex, class and socialism', to quote Lindsey German's fine book on this question.
2. 'I can't find anything about the struggle at the point of production in Marx himself'. Bakan noted that Marx had talked of production and the labour process in Capital, but seemed to be suggesting that nowhere did Marx stress the centrality of the class struggle at the point of production.
3. 'The Communist International talked of political, social and economic resistance to capital' [ie. not about working class struggle]. Bakan here alluded to the work of John Riddell and his translations of the debates of the Communist International.
4. 'I still dream of a government of workers' councils, but I have no prescription for how to get from here to there'.
These three points can essentially be taken together - and nos. two and three of her argument certainly surprised even me. Karl Marx once said that 'the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing'. Marx meant that the working class was a revolutionary class. For Bakan, it seems that because the working class is not revolutionary now, it is therefore nothing now. Yet as Lenin noted, the Prussian Minister for Internal Affairs, Herr von Puttkammer, was right when he coined the famous phrase 'In every strike there lurks the hydra of revolution'. Now of course, strikes at the point of production are not the only way workers can be revolutionary or even just wage class struggle, but they are and remain the central way workers do this. No wonder if you move away from this that you can't connect how to move from the situation now - with a very low level of class struggle - with the future government of workers' councils every Marxist hopes for.
As for Bakan's comment on the Communist International, I am still puzzled by what she meant here (clarification from anyone welcome), but needless to say it did not take ten seconds of a google search to find a quote like this, from a 'Resolution of the Second World Congress': ‘The Communist International decisively rejects the view that the proletariat can achieve its revolution without having an independent political party of its own. Every class struggle is a political struggle. The goal of this struggle, which is inevitably transformed into civil war, is the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised and operated, except through a political party.’ Now maybe this is an old translation, and John Riddell's sterling work of translating Communist International documents mean this resolution actually did not talk of 'the proletariat' but 'the people', and not 'class struggle' but 'resistance', but somehow a tiny part of me doubts it.
In conclusion, Abbie Bakan once wrote a nice little pamphlet about 'the great lie' that Stalinist Russia was a socialist country. She alluded in her talk to her learning from the IS tradition about how Russia was state capitalist, or as she put it, how 'capitalism comes in many forms'. Yet it seemed to me that Bakan was herself guilty of perpetuating a 'little lie' in her talk at HM conference in 2013 - namely that when she talked of the need to update our theoretical understanding about race and gender that she was concerned with a move from what she called 'analogue Marxism to digital Marxism'. Rather, it seemed to me she was engaged in a move away from classical Marxism towards something else (perhaps 'socialist feminism', though she did not use such a label to describe herself in her talk at HM). The audience at HM in the final plenary was noticeably quite young, and Bakan's talk went down well among a significant section of it. One speaker from the floor who was well received by the audience at HM was a young black guy who began by saying that 'he liked Marx, but did not call himself a Marxist'. Such a position given what he went on to say is actually quite honest and to be commended in a sense - and one can only feel that Bakan should face up to the logic of what she was arguing and admit the same, rather than maintain the pretence that she is somehow still a 'Marxist' when it is clear how far she has moved theoretically.
I do not mean to make this point as a personal attack on Bakan herself - if people want to move away from Marxism then that is their individual choice - though the fact that she has moved so far in less than a year after leaving the IS tendency does raise questions about whether she will even want to appear at a conference such as HM in future years. Yet that given she has moved so far already - and was still invited to address the final plenary at HM conference - does raise even more significant questions about HM itself, and those who organise it. At a time when class struggle is low it is not surprising that many Marxists like Bakan are looking around for short cuts to socialism that do not involve talking about the central and revolutionary role of the working class. Many in the final plenary talked of the disconnect between 'the Left' and various movements and struggles taking place. It is absolutely true that such a disconnect exists and the revolutionary Left is tiny internationally, way too tiny to significantly influence even great class struggles such as those taking place in Egypt and Greece. However, this problem will not be solved one iota - in fact it will be deepened and widened immeasurably - if Marxists, including the Marxists who organise HM conference, choose to fundamentally orientate themselves around what passes for political radicalism in academia instead of the needs, concerns and struggles of the working class.