I promised I’d write a review of Marxism 2016… well…

Marxism is an annual political conference hosted by Socialist Alternative in Melbourne. In the past I’ve attended and written reviews; if you’re interested you can read my review of Marxism 2012 here and Marxism 2013 here.

There is no denying that Marxism is the most significant political conference on the far-left in Australia. Socialist Alternative claims to have sold 1,253 tickets to this Easter’s conference, which seems broadly plausible. There were several hundred people actively participating across three days, with up to seven concurrent sessions at any given time. Socialist Alternative presented a range of international speakers, as well as streams on workers’ organizing, Indigenous struggles, current political debates, ‘Marxism 101’, and more.

For all anyone might like to criticize Socialist Alternative’s conference, no one is putting on anything better.

Yes, their conference is geared towards recruiting new members to Socialist Alternative. There is no great debate or diversity of opinion in the material presented (that is not to say that the material itself is not diverse, but the political perspective is largely uniform); Socialist Alternative has their line and they advance it. As an organisation they know what they are doing with Marxism, and they do it well.

I say this as someone who wishes there was something better. I am not a member of Socialist Alternative; I am an unapologetic and unrepentant anarchist. I sincerely wish that anarchists in Australia were prepared and willing to undertake the work to put on an explicitly anarchist political conference that could rival Marxism.

No, scratch that, I wish we would put on a conference better than Marxism. I wish we could put on something with greater depth, better debate, and more diversity of opinion. I wish we would put on an event that gets people excited about politics!

Socialist Alternative should rightly be proud of the work they’ve put into Marxism. Anarchists and others should rise to the challenge that it presents.

Odds and Ends and Gossip

Members of the Spartacist League attended the conference on the first day (they even purchased a ticket!) but it seems their welcome was conditional and they were soon ejected. Socialist Alternative members inform me the Spartacist League were ejected for disrupting a ‘Marxism 101’ session. Others claim that the Spartacists were informed they could attend a ‘101’ session but they would not be permitted to participate in the usual Q&A/Discussion these involve; it seems they decided to participate nonetheless.

For all their rhetoric about fighting “left wing treason” and “communism”, the sewer dwellers of the United Patriots Front were nowhere to be seen all weekend.

Raif Rawandi takes issue with Socialist Alternative’s attitude on Islam in his review, .

The lanyards were colour coded.

After his session on the Cuban revolution, former RSP member James Crafti wrote:

Discussion on the Cuban Revolution held at Marxism… organisation did not explode.

I hope he gets to host a session on post 1959 Cuba at a future conference, I look forward to going to troll!

Bonus David Rovics trolling
Clash Of Clans Cheat And Hack Tool

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Another Easter, another conference! Socialist Alternative’s set piece Marxism 2013 went off without a hitch.

Banner's on display at the conference bookshop.

Banner’s on display at the conference bookshop.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

See also:

Anarchist Contingent for Marxism 2013

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In my review of Marxism 2012 I said:

In simple terms of self care, it would have paid to have small group prepared for the atmosphere of an event so totally dominated by an organisation so hostile to anarchism, who could debrief at the end of the day over a beer.

I’ll be heading down to Marxism 2013 at Melbourne uni over easter.

The lineup doesn’t look as good as last year, but there is still a lot on offer. It will also be interesting to observe how the conference dynamic is different in light of Socialist Alternative’s wider pitch for “left unity”.

This year’s conference also features a stream denouncing anarchism. I imagine this year, as last, a couple of fellow anarchists will rise to the bait.

Whether you’re going to engage or just to observe, it’s easier to do this event with some moral support.

If you’re an anarchist planning to head to Marxism 2013, drop me a line, let’s meet up.

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Honestly, when I saw this on Slackbastard back in September, I thought it was a joke. A merger between Socialist Alternative and Revolutionary Socialist Party… What the f-ck?!

But then there was this, this, this, and this. If this is a joke, then it’s a pretty elaborate one.

In the past I’d argued that :

The society that existed in Russia after Stalin’s rise to power was not socialist. Nor are those in China, Cuba or Vietnam. Such regimes, which are merely a statised version of capitalism, are essentially no different from the West. Just as here, a small minority benefits from the labour of the majority. Whether that minority control is exercised through the state, private corporations, or a combination of the two, makes no difference to the fundamental dynamic of the system. – Socialist Alternative, General Principles

The contrast with Revolutionary Socialist Party seems clear:

According to the Victorian leaflet, the SA [Socialist Alliance – kb] believes that “the differences which do exist [among socialist groups] can be contained within a single organisation”. This ignores reality. For example, the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group while formally opposed to US threats against Cuba, considers Cuba to be a capitalist state and advocates a mass armed uprising to overthrow the Cuban government. The SA has policy of solidarity with Cuba against US threats, but it hasn’t adopted a position on supporting Cuba’s socialist revolution. Perhaps, therefore, the SA could co-exist with SAlt in a united organisation in regard to its policy toward Cuba. But how could the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which regards the Cuban Revolution as an inspiring example to the working people of the world of socialist politics in action, get along in the same party with socialists who advocate the overthrow of the Cuban government? –
Allen Myers in Direct Action, May 2010, ‘‘


It’s two and half years later and they’re a merging. Socialist Alternative is stepping back from ‘state capitalism’. RSP members are selling Socialist Alternative magazine alongside their Direct Action. There’s a joint Christmas party.

And no one mention the war?

Members of both organisations have told me that in the present situation, the political differences don’t matter, it’s a shared tactical position that brings the two groups together. They both want to build cadre style Lenninist parties with disciplined Marxist politics, rather than broad electoral alliances.

Anarchists always love a bit of Trot-spotting, but the merger of RSP and SAlt is worth considering for other reasons.

We continue to exist on the far left. The challenge for anarchists in Australia today is to begin the task of advancing anarchist ideas to people looking for an anti-capitalist alternative. As we do this we have to contend with the ideas being put forward by other groups. At the moment, Socialist Alternative remains the dominant grouping in our small pond.

And history matters.

Vietnam and Cuba matter for precisely the reason RSP said they matter in 2010. If you think Cuba is an inspiring example to follow, then what the hell is socialism? Socialist Alternative state their goal is “socialism from below”, yet they are making ready to accommodate apologists for dictatorship.

Any growth in far left politics has to be welcome news to an anti-capitalist. But the merger of SAlt and RSP poses a challenge for anarchists. When the pace of class struggle heightens in Australia, and more people look for an anti-capitalist alternative, we must make sure that authoritarian ideas are not the only ideas on offer.

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In my recent post, Thoughts on Anarcho-Syndicalism in Australia, I mentioned an article Daniel Lopez had published Socialist Alternative back in April (it was an edited summary of a talk he gave at Marxism 2012), ‘One Big Union? The IWW in Australia’.

Ben D of the IWW’s Melbourne GMB published this response in the most recent edition of Direct Action, and Daniel Lopez has since responded in turn.

Daniel Lopez’s article is a standard reproduction of the Socialist Alternative line on the IWW.

Socialist Alternative respond to the history of the IWW by trying to appropriate it. They praise it’s successes and militancy before and during World War I, and argue that it was actually quite Marxists, it’s practice and propaganda resembled that of a revolutionary Marxist party, and it had little if anything to do with anarcho-syndicalism.

Then they criticize it’s syndicalism strategy, arguing that this strategy led to the defeat of the IWW when faced with state repression, and that openly embracing the model prescribed by Socialist Alternative could have avoided defeat. The outcome is clear, anyone who respects the history of the IWW should join Socialist Alternative, the true modern heirs to it’s legacy!

This line was enunciated in detail by Verity Burgman in her 1995 book, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia.

Burgman is a Professor of Political Science at Melbourne University. She is also a product of the 1970s Socialist Workers Party in Britain, which she joined whilst completing her undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics.

The following was prepared by a Perth based Wobbly for his various encounters with Socialist Alternative and Solidarity members arguing the line advanced by Burgman in Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. I think it’s worth reproducing in full (not that I endorse it entirely and uncritically).

Mike P:

First of all let me say that I do not have much more than general knowledge of the IWW in the United States. I know that there were anarchists in it but I don’t know much about them so I am arguing from the history of our union in Australia. It seems to me that the biggest part of your argument is based on the research done by Burgmann in Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. This is unfortunate because it is my opinion that she is a bit one-eyed in this area. Anyway she essentially uses two witnesses from the first period of I.W.W. activity to show that the I.W.W. was Marxist and was certainly not anarchistic:

Bill Genery, who joined the I.W.W. in 1916, conceded in a 1969 interview that Wobblies regarded the I.W.W. as “an offshoot of the syndicalists.” When asked by a new left student whether the Wobblies considered themselves anarchists he replied, very definitely, that they did not.

And Norman Rancie in a 1957 interview explained: “Anarchists believe in complete freedom and each man a law unto himself. They refuse to recognise any form of organisation or authority. This is the very antitheses of all the principles of the I.W.W. which believes in organisation, discipline, and not every an a law unto himself’, but every member responsible to his organisation which has a book of rules and a constitution, which, of course, is the very negation of anarchism.” Anarchists, he was adamant, “would never by any standard fit into the I.W.W.”

Coming from the other side of the issue Burgmann gives some references from what she describes as “the real anarchists of the time,” – the Group d’Etudes Scientifiques. This group published in 1916 an attack on the I.W.W. protesting against, “that rotten mass of rules” in order, “to clear Anarchism and to disqualify I.W.W.ists as Anarchists”

Clearly this evidence does not stand up to even peripheral scrutiny.. To state the obvious critiques, both Rancie and Genery came from the Melbourne Local, which was generally regarded as the most conservative of all the Australian Locals being in some ways more like a political party than other Locals, probably because of the influence of Tom Mann’s Victorian Socialist Party. Rancie’s statement, further, was clearly not directed against anarchism as it was conceived by practitioners of the faith but rather against the popular misconception of it. He clearly never felt the need to research anarchism in any greater depth than this and no one can, of course, blame him for this. Several quotes from Burgmann, however, almost seem to indicate that she shares the same erroneous impression of the movement and this in a historian of working class political movements, is less excusable. “However, unlike the anarchists,” she writes “the Wobblies aspired to be organised”. Or again, “A perceived similarity with anarchism existed primarily in the minds of the I.W.W.’s detractors and cannot be detected an any serious analysis of its political practice, which emphasised collectivity, unity, organisation and centralisation.” Of course, none of the larger factions of the anarchist movement the anarcho-communists or the anarcho-syndicalists would have disapproved of collectivity, unity or organisation. The more the better. So it is only the last of these paradigms centralisation, that would give them any real problems.

How much of a drawback would this be in fact? If we take the article in *Direct Action *from ‘Flaneur’ (probably Jack O’Neill) in Western Australia, for example, we would not suspect very much at all. “The workers of the West need a new weapon,” he wrote, “Here it is: ‘Direct Action’. The I.W.W. by insisting that each individual unit in that organisation shall retain the power of control, directly, his or her own industrial and social welfare, and by rigorously restraining the profiteering instincts of parasite officials to fasten on the organisation, offers the only way out of wage-serfdom. Speed the revolution!” Not much rampant centralism to worry about there.

The Group d’Etudes Scientifiques was scarcely resting anywhere near the centre of gravity within the anarchist movement. It was an offshoot of the Groupe d’Etudes Scientific of Paris, run by the prodigious author Paraf-Javal its main propagandist in Australia was Dr. Xarus Sphinx, (pseudonym of the Austrian Bjelke Boekgen who with his son lectured on the Sydney Domain and was (as were many Wobblies) deported by the authorities after World War One.) The main purpose of the group was to advocate forswearing of poisons such as tobacco, alcohol and condiments and fighting for logical, scientific thinking. All those indulging in ‘a piori’ reasoning were judged to be ‘abruitis’ – which was apparently close to the source of all evil. You would be hard to find a reference of them today they were an absolute fringe group and represented the opinions of no anarchists but themselves.

There would almost certainly have been anarchists closer to a mainstream position who would have felt that the I.W.W. was too centralist and that its program could have had authoritarian possibilities should that organisation accomplish its goals fully. But that does not disguise the fact that many anarchists saw in the I.W.W. a practical way of implementing at least a major part of their program. “With the Education of the workers,” Mike Sawtell, for example, had written, “will follow as a necessary sequence, their real organisation. Not only will the workers find they can do without Parliament, but without a host of other barbarities besides – such as unpleasant surroundings, as long hours, high prices and wars etc. The future Parliaments will be at the union meetings, men and women will meet to discuss what they are vitally interested in – the economic resources of the earth. Such questions as divorce, as religion, or bi-metalism, can be left to those who are mutually interested in such things. The I.W.W. conception of what society ought to be, judged by present day standards is, no doubt ‘remarkable’, but it is good.”

Michael Sawtell, the Kropotkinite anarchist, was far closer to the heartland of anarchism than the troupe d’Etudes Scientific ever could be. He made no great effort to hide his anarchism and had articles admitting this fact published in Direct Action. Which same publication offered for sale pamphlets by Kropotkin, published quotes from Bakunin and, when its own members were jailed could find no better epitaph than those of the anarchist Chicago martyr Spies “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

It is not, nor ever has been, my contention that the I.W.W. was an anarchist organisation. It was and is, a union whose membership is open to all members of the working class. It was and remains a revolutionary industrial union – not some sort of positional confession. Its members could and do range widely in the sources that they draw inspiration from. It was, and I very much hope it remains, an organisation in which anarchists felt they could join and participate in without compromising themselves. The anarchists formed a minority within a union while Marxism was the key theoretical tool. This arrangement was made possible because the variant of Marxism present was a leftward revision of Marxism, much as Bernstein’s was a rightward revision, and was a variant that would without doubt have horrified the great man himself.

One feels that this tension between anarchism and Marxism and that slab of ideas and attitudes Wobblies created all by themselves (and of course other influences – we always had people in our ranks whose first source of inspiration was Christianity, Emersonians were popular in places and, of course, the Irish everywhere added their own insights and style) were found in very different strengths in different members and Locals. It is my belief that this tension was one of the ingredients giving the I.W.W. so much of its vibrancy and its effectively. If the Melbourne Local was at the more conservative, Marxian-socialist, end of the spectrum then Perth and Fremantle were nearer the anarchistic. If Rancie was more Marxist then Sawtell and Miller were more anarchist and syndicalist. If this creativity did stem from the organisation’s ability to take for itself ideas from both camps as it needed and to integrate activists holding these sometimes disparate ideas (all there, it needs not saying, to build the union rather than to win recruits to their own positions at its expense) then any winning out or domination of one over the other would have been destructive.

This balance became progressively harder due to the preponderant influence of the Soviet Union and its propriety claims over Marxism. I personally think that the experience of a century of so-called Marxist governments over much of our planet will mean that there will probably be a greater proportion of anarchist members in our union than there were in the early days of the last century.

– Mike P, Perth.

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