Another Easter, another conference! Socialist Alternative’s set piece Marxism 2013 went off without a hitch.
The organisation is claiming victory, a record 1140 tickets were sold and keynote sessions with John Pilger and Billy X Jennings were packed out. The queue for Brian Jones’ Australian premier of Marx in Soho snaked through the UMSU building long before it was due to start.
At the Opening Night, Socialist Alternative officially and the twenty or so activists who remained in that organisation were proudly showing off their new membership cards. The honeymoon was clearly on, John Percy in particular was walking around with lovehearts swirling in his eyes as he sang the praises of his new comrades in Socialist Alternative!
The theme of the conference was Socialist Alternative’s “left unity” project, in practice their pitch for assimilating much of the far left into Socialist Alternative (Resistance is futile!). Having absorbed RSP, SAlt has clearly set it’s sights on the rump of Socialist Alliance. I say “rump” because it was pretty clear that SAlt will not achieve a smooth merger with Socialist Alliance. Merger with Socialist Alternative will probably cause a split in Socialist Alliance; it’s members expressed significantly different attitudes towards their Alternative hosts in sessions like “What sort of organisation do socialists need?”. But smooth merger or troubled split, either way it seems likely that Socialist Alternative will soon neutralise it’s main rival on the left.
For the reasons I go to this conference, 2013 was significantly less impressive than 2012. Corey Oakley on Syria just can’t compare to Malalai Joya on Afganistan. Toufic Haddad and Antony Loewenstein are interesting speakers on Palestine, but they simply do not compare to hearing from activists who are struggling inside Palestine today. Billy X Jennings was interesting, he presented some biographical anecdotes and a few snippets of video, but for a conference subtitled “Ideas to Change the World”, his presentation was notably superficial.
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) March 30, 2013
On the up side, I heard excellent things about most of the sessions in the “Organising workers” stream, and the session with Bob Carnegie highlighted the new vector of attack we can expect employers to deploy against “community pickets”.
Carnegie was instrumental in the success of a community picket at the Queensland Children’s Hospital site last year that forced Abigroup to concede pay equality for subcontractors. In response Abigroup is pursuing Carnegie for nearly ten million dollars damages using the common law tort of nuisance. He is also facing numerous contempt of court charges. If this attack succeeds, we can expect to see it deployed against “community pickets” across Australia.
Of particular relevance to my own political history was Simon Butler’s session on Marxism and ecology. Making the case that capitalism is the cause of the ecological crisis is critical to the future direction of the environment movement. Having wasted years in The Greens, these were arguments that convinced me to abandon reformist politics.
Unlike last year, in 2013 I made an effort to attend SAlt’s sessions on anarchism.
In “Be the change you want to be: Marxism and prefigurative politics” Roz Ward presented a passable critique of lifestylism that had about as much to do with anarchism as dumpster diving. It would have been more interesting to see Ward try and engage with the anarcho-syndicalist conception of “building the new world from within the shell of the old“, which is more of an argument about the importance of mass working organisation before, during and after revolution.
Sarah Garnham in “Anarchism: Spontaneity, horizontalism and organisation” spent a deal of time denouncing the likes of David Graeber and John Holloway before moving onto platformism. Her critique of platformism amounted to the contention that Nestor Maknho was a bad man because he didn’t have the support of the Petrograd soviet, and modern platformists are evil because they differ in approach to that of the Bolshevik idolisers. Apologies, I will make a more serious attempt at engaging with what Garnam said in the platformism part of her talk in due course.
Finally there was Damien Ridgwell with “Anarchy versus authority? The debate between Marx and Bakunin”. This was largely a potted and poor reproduction of an SWP talk that has been doing the rounds. It was clear that Ridgwell and SAlt don’t actually understand what a state is, what authority is, or even the most cursory details about the life of Bakunin. I really hope we have a full recording of this session, because again it’s one I intend to come back to in a later post.
Speaking of serious attempts to engage, pointing out that these conferences are no forum for the reasoned presentation of ideas about anarchism, is to state the f-cking obvious.
The sessions are tightly controlled, speakers in the Q & A carefully picked, there is never going to be enough time to adequately respond to the party speakers pro-longed presentation in the three minute speaking session. Socialist Alternative members who have done the set readings will be chosen for at least every second speaking spot in the brief discussion, and then the whole affair is subject to a “summation” by the presenter.
"Everything you wanted to know about SAlt" session will see people "new to Socialism" quarantined out of session #marxism2013
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) March 31, 2013
But some of my fellow anarchists sure made it easy for them. It is one thing to grate at the strictures of a discussion managed by a group who’s intent is to “put our politics on display”, but those who wanted to say this repeatedly in each session allowed the chair to appear to call anarchists to speak without any danger of substantive anarchist ideas being injected into proceedings.
SAlt member: lack of call list, controlled Q&A, is because this conf is about putting SA politics on show #marxism2013
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) March 31, 2013
If we just want to call Socialist Alternative wankers, we’d be better off taking the approach of the Sparts. They had a lovely sectarian leaflet that they distributed outside the conference, without having to go through the grating experience of a condescending thirty minute lecture.
When I attend a conference like this, I have different goals.
We can’t seriously hope to “nullify their arguments” in this environment (as one anarchist friend proclaimed), but we can try and use three minutes speaking time to intelligently plant a seed or two that might lead some of those present to look for information on anarchism beyond the caricature presented by Socialist Alternative. We wont achieve this by pouting, storming out in an angry huff, or by hurling insults. I hope that those who did re-evaluate their strategy.
This was still an enjoyable, if emotionally draining, Marxism conference, but it lacked the lustre of last year. None the less I still consider it worth the effort, for much the same reasons I outlined last year, and I will probably return in 2014.
A few random things I couldn’t be arsed incorporating into a proper narrative.
The children’s program is a very welcome development and a significant improvement on past years. However lectures on philosophy, social justice and the history of the America held in a dark basement probably weren’t the best ideas for kids escaping the tyranny of school over Easter. I get the feeling this was somewhat inevitable:
So the kids themselves didn't just accept it and rebelled against curriculum-took a vote & decided to go play soccer instead! #Marxism2013
— meet_jo (@meet_jo) March 31, 2013
The conference’s strict “no drugs” policy (in this setting basically a no weed policy) seemed oddly moralistic whilst in each session conference attendees were reminded that “the bar is open all weekend!”
Other left groups made a much more concerted effort at trolling this years conference. The Sparts leafleted outside, FSP, Workers Liberty, Solidarity and a person calling themselves “Communist Left Australia” leafleted inside. I must have been the only non-SAlt member who wasn’t distributing a “statement” trying to link Socialist Alternative to the SWP cluster f-ck, or in the case of Solidarity (who are actually linked to the SWP), to racism.
I am told that for inter-Leninist stoushes, Solidarity vs SAlt in the 457 visa session was a must see.
A special mention has to be made for the lone Libertarian Communist* who wandered into the conference, seized a table and set himself up in the stall space without so much as a ticket or a stall fee. He distributed copies of Marxist Missionary Cults, Leaving a Marxist-Leninist Cult, and Ideological Intransigence as well as a variety of anarchist and insurrectionist material. I am told Socialist Alternative went to some lengths to throw him out of the conference, or at least stop him distributing his material, and failed.
* That’s how he described himself, in conversation his politics struck me as more insurrectionist.
Other Reviews of Marxism 2013:
Liam M, Anarchist Affinity, Left Unity in confusion, the first part in a series he has prepared on the conference.
Martin Thomas, Workers Liberty, Big turn out at Australian left conference, comments on the truly imporant issues the conference raised, namely the number of young women in Socialist Alternative.