Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

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.

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At 11:41 am, Anonymous Dr_Tad said...

I am puzzled by your assessment of this year's HM.

You rightly point out that the main weight of the conference is Marxism in/from/for the academy, and that this can produce papers that are utterly ungrounded in anything directly useful to the immediate needs of the class struggle (broadly defined).

But then you review a series of panels and talks that you actually found very useful, which seems to cut against that initial idea. There is no sense of whether you thought this year's conference was better/worse/pretty similar to previous HMs. I can only speak about 2011 and this year, but I found that this year's had an overall more serious political edge (i.e. that the developments in society and politics have propelled academic work that is more thinking about the kinds of themes you or I might be interested in, and that discussions from the floor have also been more interesting as a result).

You then also make much of how HM was centred on a theme (the working class) that is terribly unfashionable in academia. Now surely this theme, the range of related contributions and the success (size-wise) of the conference all point to HM being able to draw on and pull together positive developments in the academy, ones that are flowing against the stream rather than with it. Rather than simply noting this is all contradictory, are there any conclusions to be drawn about this being a space in which revolutionaries could fruitfully intervene in a systematic way, and how that could be done?


At 11:42 am, Anonymous Dr_Tad said...

What most confused me is how you try to make Abbie Bakan's closing talk an exemplar of HM’s contradictions, taking up over half of the post on her paper and her general political trajectory.

I missed the final session because I had to fly home, but I saw another paper of Abbie’s at HM this year and have been closely following the developments in her position on Marxism and oppression, including her critique of the Marxist Left's approach to feminist theory and politics.

My own disagreement with Abbie's position is that her focus on the Marxist Left’s insensitivity to the lived experience of oppression (and how resistance often manifests itself in "feminism") is leading her to have problems pulling together a framework that can satisfactorily put class relations at the heart of an integrative and dialectical theory of the mediations between exploitation and oppression within the differentiated totality of a unitary capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, Abbie is attracted by the work of theorists like Lise Vogel who propose a unitary theory drawing on an extremely orthodox Marxist method.

Disappointingly you seem more interested in picking a few quotes that you think you probably disagree with to prove your point rather than try to reconstruct her whole argument to criticise. You then make some highly tendentious claims about what you think she means by these things. FWIW, to me quote 1 seems simply a statement of fact about how North American Marxism had to redevelop itself in the 1970s after the degeneration of past proud traditions. Quote 2 I think I probably disagree with but it is unclear in what context it was said. Quote 3 seems entirely reasonable — wasn’t the Harman and Barker critique of Althusser premised precisely on splitting the “economic” (often meant as workplace/industrial) struggle off from political, ideological and other struggles against the social totality of capitalism? Quote 4 also seems IS Tendency ABC — I thought we always warned against mechanical formulas, and were always open to new forms of struggle “teaching the teacher” how to take things forward. I’m not saying you’re wrong in your assessment, but your argument is unconvincing because it seems to be more about projecting your view of the orthodoxy without seriously testing Abbie’s overall politics against that.

Further, to make the claim — as you do — that Abbie is trying to “maintain the pretence that she is somehow still a 'Marxist' when it is clear how far she has moved theoretically” strikes me as a pretty reductive and dogmatic way to characterise what should be fraternal disagreements. I’m not sure why you are so hostile to Abbie’s position as to want to excommunicate her from your definition of “what is Marxism?” By this standard, my preference for Vogel’s “social reproduction” thesis as a corrective to some of the gaps and problems I see in the otherwise excellent and innovative SWP position on women’s oppression must relegate me to non-Marxist limbo also (oh, hang on, I’m probably already there for other reasons, right?).

It’s not my intention here to whitewash either the HM project or Abbie Bakan’s politics. But I think you do your ability to convince people of your position few favours by approaching your polemic in the inflexible and tendentious way you have.

At 12:13 pm, Blogger Gary McFarlane said...

Thanks for the report comrade. Marxism without the working class is one hell of a contradiction!

Interested to hear more from David Roediger's on how the 'self-emancipation of US slaves' bolstered the struggles of other oppressed groups, in particular women. His comment is true in its widest sense but at the critical juncture, when radical reconstruction was about to begin, some of the main leaders of the women's movement - notably Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - in fact broke with the radical republicans when its leadership wrongly insisted on downgrading (or opposing) demands for women's suffrage. Eric Foner covers it in his fine and essential companion to du Bois's seminal master work.

It was the arguments in Congress over the 14th Amendment to the US constitution on citizen rights and equality before the law that provoked the decisive break between the middle class leaders of the women's movement and the abolitionist movement.

Indeed, it could even be argued that it was one of the key formative elements in the development of 'feminist consciousness' if I can put it that way. To the outrage of the leaders of the women's movement, the first clause of the amendment introduced the word 'male' into the constitution for the first time; any restriction on suffrage (unlike race) would not reduce a state's representation - the southern states would have to ratify the 14th amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union.

Historically there had been a crossover in support among abolitionists and fighters for women's rights with the one camp, in general, supporting the other. The radicals' overwhelming opposition to gender being treated the same as race, was justified, wrongly, on the basis that this was 'the Negroes hour' was too much for the women's movements leaders to bear.

For Stanton this episode proved that woman 'must not put her trust in man'. The women's movement broke with the 'reform' movement and set up an 'independent' feminist movement in response. The best of the radicals supported votes for women - Sumner, for example, could see the glaring inconsistency of the sexists and supported but he was in a minority and even referred to the women's suffrage issue as 'the great question of the future'.

Stanton rightly continued to argue for widening the suffrage but her class meant she saw no contradiction in, perversely, at the same time arguing for restrictions. It led to this infamous statement from the founder of the US women's movement, related by Foner: 'a black woman would be better off as "the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one."'

Roediger is right in general about the black struggle for liberation's positive impact on the fight of other oppressed people, which you can clearly see if you look at the liberating role women carved out for themselves in the vanguard of the Freedmen's Bureau, for example, where they made up the overwhelming majority of the teachers that went into the South and in the solidarity movement in the North. However, we should be careful to observe and draw out the lessons from the revolutionary struggle that was the civil war and reconstruction. Chief among those lessons is the fact that there is no automatic unity of the oppressed. That's to say just because you are oppressed does not mean that you necessarily identify with other oppressed groups, although there are many examples from history that show people drawing progressive conclusions.However in periods of defeat of setbacks it can lead to reactionary outcomes as Stanton's 'feminist racism' above shows.

The leaders of the women's movement drew the wrong conclusion from the way their demands were cast aside. A working class perspective could have provided a material basis for a different conclusion but that class in the US was only just becoming a class 'for itself'.

At 12:21 pm, Blogger Gary McFarlane said...

sorry about the typos above - writing in a hurry at work...

I'm re-reading on reconstruction with a view to eventually writing something to arm socialists today - there is so much it teaches us about capitalism and oppression, and more. References to any good (as in uncovering new history, although novel theoretical postulations require a necessary appraisal too I guess) current scholarly work much appreciated.

At 1:24 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Many thanks for your comments - which I will try to respond more fully when I get a moment. Just briefly on Tad's first points for now - and very sorry Tad for missing your session after explicitly promising you I would attend - yes, this was just an all too brief characterisation of both HM in general and Bakan's talk in particular - and your points stand as an important and necessary corrective. As I only attended some of the weekend sessions, I don't really feel able to compare it to previous years I have attended - and you are right - to have such a big conference on a theme like 'the making of the world working class' is impressive and the organisers deserve to be acknowledged for their work in pulling this off. Really I guess what I was trying to do is open up a space for discussion around the essential contradiction as I saw it between the theme of the conference on class - and Bakan's paper - which seemed to reflect the academic pull of elements of the conference away from seeing that as central. I was not trying to 'heresy hunt' or be sectarian towards Bakan - I just think these are matters that deserve more discussion than they got time for at HM and so hopefully give people who want to discuss them more a space to do so.

At 1:56 pm, Anonymous Dr_Tad said...

Thanks for replying.

The Sedgwick session had a good mix of theory and talking about how to build both social movements and political organisations.

I remain mystified, however, as to how a sentence saying of Abbie that she is trying to “maintain the pretence that she is somehow still a 'Marxist' when it is clear how far she has moved theoretically” is not reflective of heresy hunting on your part.

TBH, if you'd written it about me (and by the criteria you seem to be deploying here it fits), I would read it as a pretty nasty attack on me as a renegade from some implied Marxist orthodoxy over which you have full rights of definition.

I have no problem with hard strategic, organisational & ideological demarcation — but I think your approach in this post betrays a logic that goes well past that.

At 2:38 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Tad - again just quickly for now - actually in my final paragraph I still describe Bakan as a Marxist (so revealing inconsistency on this point on my part):

'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.'

I suppose my main point is that the trajectory Bakan seems to be currently on - from what I saw in the final plenary alone - and without having made any detailed study of her recent work in the way you have done - is a move away from classical Marxism towards something much looser (I thought maybe something like 'socialist feminism') - but where exactly she currently is on that trajectory would require further analysis and am happy to defer to your assessment on this question.

At 3:27 pm, Anonymous Paul Kellogg said...

1. You actually don’t address the main point of Abbie Bakan’s talk – the need for a constructive conversation between those on the left who enter through the category of class, with those on the left who enter through the categories of gender and race. Just a thought: you might want to take the former – the question of a constructive conversation with those influenced by gender politics – a bit more seriously. Seems your SWP has had some difficulty with that conversation, and is paying a very big price.

2. Epistemologies of Ignorance. Charles Mills’ point on this is outlined in an edited collection Race and the Epistemologies of Ignorance. Here’s the link http://www.sunypress.edu/p-4439-race-and-epistemologies-of-igno.aspx. Some of us find it useful in Canada. It is an attempt to explain the silencing and invisibility of theorists and activists of colour, the invisibility and disappearing of the lived reality of indigenous people. You might have heard of Idle No More. One year ago, tens of thousands of activists took to the streets and in action challenged these racist epistemologies of ignorance. They are entering politics through the category of race. If we listen to them, we can learn something about how to rebuild class politics. Perhaps, though, it’s just us folks stuck out in the old ex-colonies who have these issues, and not you folks at the centre of old empire.

3. Point of Production. This was not, as Gary McFarlane seems to be implying, an argument for “Marxism without the working class”. Try on the following. The Relief Camp Workers’ Union in the 1930s. The On-To-Ottawa Trek organized by same. The cocaleros in Bolivia. The piqueteros in Argentina. The 1953 uprising by forced labourers in Vorkutlag. None of these examples fit precisely into “workers at the point of production”. All of them were or are central to the class struggle in their day.

4. At the heart of this discussion, is how to navigate the intersection between social movements and the class struggle. Québec solidaire is the most hopeful left-of-social democracy party in North America (http://www.quebecsolidaire.net). Central to its creation was the long experience of the feminist movement in Quebec. Françoise David was president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec from 1994-2001. In 2004 she helped found Option Citoyenne, and it became one of the key founding organizations of Québec solidaire. In other words – we learned from activist experience, in Canada, that those entering politics through the category of gender are absolutely central to the reconstruction of meaningful, left class politics.

5. You call HM an “academic Marxist conference”. Whatever. I think there is some evidence of the need for a space for productive discussions across radical paradigms, emphasis on the adjective “productive”. Certainly we feel the need for this in Canada. Perhaps there is a similar need in Britain. HM this year played a fine role in facilitating just such a productive, respectful dialogue.

Paul Kellogg

At 5:16 pm, Blogger Gary McFarlane said...

Hi Paul,

I'm all for constructive conversation but your contribution in that regard drips with sarcasm, vis a vis the SWP.

My initial comment rests on the comrade's interpretation of the happenings at the HM conference. I am happy to be dissuaded of said opinion by rebuttal from Abbie Bakan or yourself for that matter. The examples you offer are entirely valid - the traditionally least organised sections of the class getting organised is to be welcomed. But it should be emphasised that although many may be drawn from the ranks of the reserve army of labour they are nevertheless not beyond the gravitational pull of the 'point of production'. Therefore, contrary to your assertion, the examples you hold up do in fact 'fit precisely into "workers at the point of production"' but not in the narrow mechanical way you would imagine things and which leads you into concluding otherwise. Not quite sure what is so pathbreaking about the re-appraisal of the meaning of the 'point of production', unless it's fundamental importance is being relegated that is. Tell us more.

Back to the conversation. You say: 'those entering politics through the category of gender [or race presumably - GM] are absolutely central to the reconstruction of meaningful, left class politics.' What does that mean? For me the centrality in your sentence must be the impossibility of achieving socialism without women's liberation and black liberation at its heart - in transforming consciousness, smashing the state and delivering a society free of exploitation and oppression, ie socialism. It should be obvious: you can't have class unity with sexism and racism left unchallenged. It is how exploitation provides the material basis for the eradication of sexism and racism. However, talk of 'reconstruction' and 'rebuild'(ing) implies past destruction of 'left class politics'. Again, in what way? You point to the heart of the discussion(s) at HM as something to do with navigating the intersection between social movements and the class struggle. Look at it a different way Paul - could it not be that the social movements are an aspect of the class struggle you refer to? Compartmentalising the struggle at the base of society by the direct producers against the exploiters as distinct from any social movements that arise in effect makes hidden gender and race inside the working class - it erects a different kind of 'epistemology of ignorance' strategy that you and Mills apparently are seeking to overthrow elsewhere.

So much of this stuff is just warmed-over identity politics and is a million miles away from social reality. When I was standing in the middle of the Tottenham uprising two years ago against police racism and social inequality maybe I should have pointed out to the kids and others that it was all a waste of time because it wasn't happening at the point of production. But that would be a caricature of classical Marxism. Consider the possibility Paul (and Abbie) that perhaps you are trying to knock down a straw person.

Your approach, although tentative and lacking clarity suggests to me at any rate that the classical Marxist tradition is indeed being abandoned by some, in both the 'ex-colonies and the metropolis'.

At 3:27 pm, Blogger Joe Kelly said...

What's wrong with drawing on Charles Mills, who happens to be a black philosopher? No Marxist, but he is a tad critical of postmodernism. In any case, we engage extensively with white American or European non- or post-Marxist thinkers like Rawls, Habermas, Zizek (who indeed has had the temerity to rehabilitate Hitler from evil to someone who merely missed the boat of genuine orientation to social change). Why not a Mills, a Du Bois, Fanon, etc? We can retain the proletariat as the potential emancipating subject, but that should be no excuse for dismissing serious engagement with black intellectual traditions, which nowadays includes a growing body of vibrant philosophers that includes Mills, Lewis Gordon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, etc,

At 4:17 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

There is nothing wrong with Bakan drawing upon Mills, I just merely reported that in the debate that followed it was interesting that a black comrade actually questioned why she had not talked about Marx to make the point. Indeed the lack of references to any Marxist thinker (black or white) in Bakan's original presentation was quite noticeable, and I think this might have been why the comrade raised this as an issue with Bakan.

At 11:00 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Sorry for delay in getting back to some of people's earlier points. Firstly Tad, in response to:

'Quote 4 also seems IS Tendency ABC — I thought we always warned against mechanical formulas, and were always open to new forms of struggle “teaching the teacher” how to take things forward.'

I agree with this to some extent - we don't need a 'transitional programme' or anything fixed drawn up in advance explaining exactly how we see the future course of struggle - however, to simply say, as Bakan did, that 'we don't know' and stop there - seems to be distinctly problematic given if Marxism is anything, it is the theory of working class revolution based on the generalised experience of the history of working class struggle - and given this historic experience, and over 150 years of thinking and writing about this experience by Marxists, we do actually have something more to say about strategy and tactics, and it is a little dishonest to pretend that we do not.

At 11:06 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Secondly - in response to Gary - thanks for your discussion of reconstruction. I'm afraid I don't really have much to give you in response though others might have taken better notes - Roediger only had 20 minutes and did not give his full talk on this question - but I guess you could email him directly and ask him for more information or perhaps a copy of his full paper. One thing he did use were the paintings of Winslow Homer - in particular 'Near Andersonville' which features an enslaved black woman, to illustrate some of his point about the relationship of race and gender during the Civil War. Sorry I can't be more help here - others perhaps can be more helpful:


At 11:36 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Paul - thanks for your response, which I think Gary has responded to much more effectively than I could. Just one thing though, you are right that 'the main point of Abbie Bakan’s talk' was 'the need for a constructive conversation between those on the left who enter through the category of class, with those on the left who enter through the categories of gender and race'.

I agree that I should have spelt out more clearly that this is what Abbie Bakan's talk was actually about, and for that I apologise. However, I did note that there was nothing that was 'particularly that problematic' in her main talk from a Marxist point of view - of course we as Marxists should have a constructive conversation and listen to the concerns of those coming into political activity from say a feminist perspective and around those issues.

However, to make such a point is surely only half of what needs to be said, and I guess part of my frustration was that Abbie did not go on in her talk at the final plenary at least to even allude to the fact that in fact there is a rich tradition of Marxist theorising about the relationship of class struggle to women's liberation dating back to Engels onwards and up to the present day. Instead of discussing or even just pointing people to some of this rich literature at all, I think Abbie just said - and again I apologise for paraphrasing - something like 'Marx was writing before first wave feminism and therefore he can't help us very much in such conversations today'. And then kind of left it there.

Of course Marxists have things to learn from feminists today - and I admit that personally I should certainly better acquaint myself with the debates around social reproduction that Tad discussed above - but to try and suggest that classical Marxists have nothing distinctive or specific to say in their own right that poses a challenge to feminist theory in both its socialist and bourgeois forms actually does not make for the kind of 'constructive conversation' with the new wave of feminists who are making a turn towards anti-capitalism and grappling with questions of class and class struggle today that is needed.

At 1:27 pm, Anonymous Dr_Tad said...

Snowball, at some point early in the SWP's current crisis I sharply defended the SWP's theoretical contribution on women's oppression against a critic (it might even have been Paul Kellogg!). Specifically, one of the things I said was that I didn't buy formulations that were going around that there was some SWP theoretical original sin on women's issues that led directly to those aspects of the leadership's actions that were being called out as sexist (or apologising for sexism, rape, etc.). Yes, I have some criticisms of the detail and framework (and gaps and unanswered avenues) of the "settled" SWP position, but in broad outlines I think it is very robust and not dramatically different to social reproduction theories like those of Vogel, etc.

In general I am against arguments that are essentially in the mould of "from scratch to gangrene". I still think that today.

In your responses to the criticisms here you have backed down from some of the stronger claims in your post. That's good. Yet you persist with reading a lot into what Abbie Bakan *meant* despite not really being able to pin down a serious deviation on her part. You seem now to be unhappy with how open she left it, as if she can only criticise once she has a settled alternative.

In light of this your post reads more and more like a rigid defence of orthodoxy against a pre-identified heretic, whose greatest crime is to be trying to open up some questions. This is not only antithetical to serious debate on these issues, I think it makes defending the IS tradition's strengths harder for the rest of us.

At 10:12 pm, Anonymous Amanda said...

Dear Gary & Snowball,

To begin with, I think Paul’s contribution was dripping more with than comradely critique with regards to the SWP crisis than sarcasm. Abbie’s contribution was meant in the same comradely manner. Whether you choose to listen in an equally open manner is your choice.

Snowball – I’m assuming you’re the same person who politely “reminded” Abbie that issues of oppression can certainly be fought alongside of capitalist exploitation in the sphere of workplace struggle, insinuating that it’s in fact possible to take race and gender out of class formation and exploitation?

From memory, Abbie’s comment with respect to the “point of production” is that Marx never clearly defined where the point of production begins and ends; for example, whether it involves the social reproduction necessary to move from one day’s labour to the next. Which brings us back to your false separation of exploitation and oppression. From my point of view, part of the challenge for the (Canadian) left is finding a way to come to term with material divisions in the working class along lines of gender, race, and further class divisions (say, between immigrants and native workers) that allow capitalism to reproduce itself, and (here’s the kicker) create material contradictions between workers. Arguing that we’re all “just one class” isn’t enough – as it wasn’t during the Tottenham riots. The SWP at least had the decency not to call youth in the uprising lumpen. But okay, what kind of organization were you suggesting to those youth, Gary, with unemployment amongst black youth here remaining ridiculously high? “Black and white, unite and fight?” To take another example, one of the most fundamental challenge facing the Canadian left is to argue for working class unity that also reckons with the fact that most workers (not all) are settlers effectively participating in ongoing imperialist project at home (and now, increasingly abroad) on behalf of our bourgeoisie. We have a choice to make, between class (in a broader sense than you seem to be using here) and nation, and if we choose the former, our approach to organizing as a class will have to change.

Of course “there is a material interest among the working class to unite collectively to resist that exploitation” but even on the left (with or without the working class), the historical record in Canada and certainly here has been to ignore super-exploitation and imperialist oppression on the basis of race and status, gender, sexuality. Part of the crisis of the left is a result of this failure, not simply the neoliberal onslaught. In an HM session on Saturday, Allan Sears said that the point is to see the working class as it is, not the way we wish it were, and to start reckoning class politics from there. If you’re still speaking, and organizing, as though “women’s liberation” and “black liberation” (so few?) are add-on’s to the struggle for socialism, then we’re not talking about the same thing.

A Canadian Marxist in Tottenham,
whether the powers-that-be call me that or not [sarcasm].

At 2:31 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a first-timer at HM I drew two tentative insights.

The first is that most people I listened and spoke to were very open to new ideas. The Thursday discussion on neoliberalism (after presentations by Jim Wolfreys and myself) was no formulaic dance of cross-cutting point-scoring. Questions of how to understand neoliberalism beyond the Thatcher-Reagan-Pinochet frame led, via a thoughtful discussion about reformist politics, to tackling neoliberalism as both an historically periodised and spatially specific phenomena. The meeting about the politics of 'workers inquiries' was equally stimulating, full of young postgrads serious about learning how to connect with class experiences in the workplace. While the attempt to draw lessons from Maoist and Trotskyist groups 'industrialising' their cadres in the 1970s may have been underdeveloped (and from personal experience, a bit amusing) there was no denying most people's commitment to linking Marxist theory with practice.

The second penny to drop is that while 'social reproduction' peppered many discussions, the term urgently requires theoretical development. Not one talk tackled the relationship between social reproduction and, for example, value theory, the state, imperialism, or domestic labour, nor how racism and sexism are (in part) material expressions of these relationships.

I thought that this ongoing weakness in not be able to effectively integrate the political economy of social reproduction into contemporary Marxism underlay why Abbie Bakan's plenary speech had an unfocussed and slightly moralistic edge.

Marcus Banks

At 4:52 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with Abbie's politics is her theory of intersectionatily. Tad can go on about respecting debate but that works both ways and we don't have to accept her theory even if she does describe it as "marxist".

As for reaching out to those who do not hold a class analysis of oppression, as a socialist who happens to be gay, I think it's patronising to hold back from a discussion about oppression with other activists in case it disagrees with or offends their non-class analysis. I became a socialist in the 80's precisely because SWP activists took the time to actually engage me in a political debate rather than hold back as someone tried to sell me a rainbow flag and a whistle while I argued for lifestyle politics.

I'm not convinced by Abbie's theory that the SWP's analysis of oppression is itself oppressive. And I don't see why anyone should feel compelled to argue otherwise just because they are being lectured to about how to engage in a political debate.

I've been to HM twice and while there are many well attended meetings about many interesting subjects ultimately it feels like a place where academics come to present their latest research rather than a venue to debate political strategy and engage with those who are involved in struggle. I wonder what Marx would think of that?

As an activist, what I find really irritating is the transformation of marxism into a poststructuralist hybrid that has become institutionalised and depends on the academy for its legitimacy. Those who challenge this orthodoxy are sneered at for their so-called lack of subtlety and characterised as mechanical or sectarian.

It was laughable when postmodernists used these superficial put downs to inhibit any debate that challenged their theories but when marxist's use the same rhetoric it becomes farcical. Please have the political debate - don't engage in inhibitory tactics that end up patronising the oppressed.

At 2:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lindsey German on Abbie Bakan and Sharon Smith's politics.



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