Impressions of a Historical Materialism Conference

Conferences of Historical Materialism (HM), a Marxist academic journal founded in 1997 to promote research in Critical Marxist Theory have been annual affairs in London for fifteen years now. HM networks have held regional conferences in other cities including New York, New Delhi, Beirut and Toronto. This year a regional conference was held in Montreal, Canada from 17-20 May 2018 on the theme of The Great Transition: Preparing a World Beyond Capitalism. The Montreal conference, like most HM conferences, was, primarily, a gathering of Academic Marxists with a small number of intellectuals and writers outside of academia and affiliated to different political groupings. The dominant political traditions that inform the conferences are the Trotskyist Left, the New Left and the Anarchist Left. In the Canadian context, it also included indigenous groups, perhaps the only groups who were not from any Marxist tradition. As a congregation of largely North American and European Marxists, the conference provided a synoptic view of items on the political agenda of Critical Marxists and the points of convergence and divergence between the three dominant traditions.

A prominent item on the agenda concerns the goals of movements, political and social. Many informative and insightful papers highlighted the recent down-turn in American economic and political prowess, the significant class polarisations, cut-backs and austerity measures particularly in the U.S. and Canada and Europe more widely, and the surge in popular protest movements from Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and strike waves across economic sectors. After the protest waves of the Great Depression era in the 1930s this is the first time, perhaps, that popular movements have pushed Left politics to the forefront in the ‘belly of the beast’ so to speak. The pause in class struggles for eight decades in the U.S. corresponds to the emergence and consolidation of the U.S. as the leader of transnational monopoly finance capitalism after the end of World War II. Themes like the political ramifications of the pause in class-struggles and the renewal of it, the causes and conditions for it, the historical significance of the revival of class-struggle in the heartlands of capitalism and above all the short and long-term goals for Critical Marxist leadership were notably absent.

What is “Left” however? From the deliberations at the conference at-least it appears that the Euro-American Left defines itself as what it is not rather than what it is. In other words, it does not attempt to articulate a political programme or a minimum coalition programme. Instead the “Left” self-defines itself in opposition to the “Old Left”. Regardless, to say Marxism and socialism is ‘not this or not that’ still says something about what Marxism and socialism is. It is through evaluating what is entailed in the negations about socialist history that one can come to understand what Euro-American Critical Marxist theory stands for. What stands out in this assertion-through-negations is a view of capitalism that can be known in its generality – capitalism-as-such –as an abstract concept that encompasses everything that is wrong in the world today: consumerism, racism, sexism, wars, poverty, individualism, repression at home and abroad and much else that is wrong. Capitalism becomes a generic abstract empty conceptual shell into which affected groups can infuse any meaning or content and still remain within the broad “Left” church. The only exception to admission in this broad church are ideas of the Old Left. Gone are the old debates around ‘means of production and relations of production’, of the conditions and trajectories of class-struggles, of the agrarian question, of the recognition of anti-imperialist movements as distinct yet important allies of class-struggles in capitalist countries, and above all attempts to map the architecture of power. What is the ‘nature of the beast’ we call capitalism? It could be many things to many people.

Analysis and understanding of the architecture of power has always been pivotal to Marxism in scholarship, in polemics and in practice throughout history. Indeed, Marxist theory was impelled by the need to understand the architecture and sources of power in capitalist societies with all its economic, political, cultural and ideological dimensions. The character of the state, the stage of capitalist development in particular societies, the relationships between states, between urban and rural sectors, the ways to read contemporary political unfolding before the world (recall Marx’s analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Class Struggles in France or the Civil War in France) were notably absent. After attending several sessions on Trump, and hearing several references to Trump’s America, I was left wondering what is ‘Left’ about the Critical Left critique of Trump or the protests against Trumpism beyond opposition to the former and endorsement of the latter. One does not have to be a Marxist (critical or otherwise) to oppose Trump and support protests for better wages or non-discrimination.

The reluctance to articulate a political programme shifts attention from ends to means-without-ends where struggles have intrinsic value and meaning, a subject addressed quite explicitly in different sessions at the conference. Winning struggles could include winning a very local strike, a successful protest march against police excesses, organising successful rallies against racism or a good electoral result for Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn or other ‘Left’ candidates in electoral politics or improving the performance of local political groups with Marxist orientations. A political movement without a minimum political programme where struggles are expected to overthrow capitalism if their size and scope can be expanded. How will bosses, capitalists, the surveillance states respond? Without an analysis of the ‘nature of the beast’, attempts to characterise contemporary phase of capitalism, it becomes difficult to answer questions concerning the agency of capitalists who are amongst the best organised classes in society. Resistances becomes so open ended, so malleable and so flexible that it can change course, diverge or move from one popular surge to the next. In doing so, resistance can only remain an oppositional force within capitalist societies, where the see-saw for working people may go up now, down tomorrow and up again the day-after without denting the institutional structures of capitalism in qualitative ways. Not surprisingly leading organisers and figures at the conference converged on the idea that western states are “democracies”, the importance of electoral politics, the need to support radical factions of the political establishment e.g. the Left factions of existing political parties like the Democratic Party in the U.S., the New Democratic Party in Canada the Labour Party in the UK and new Left parties that have emerged in Spain, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere with numerous riders, qualifications and conditions of course. Critical Marxists were careful to distinguish between the state and the government. Whereas the governments were capitalists, the state had democratic potential and could be reformed from within. What might this reform of the state in the United States, Canada or UK or France look like? I am no wiser after the conference.

In the 1990s many on the Euro-American Left rallied to the idea that John Holloway described as ‘changing the world without taking power’. Today many on the Euro-American Left appear to be rallying under the idea of ‘autonomous organising’. ‘Autonomous organising’ is the overthrow of capitalism without a political party. Political parties of the Old Left that channelled energies of struggles towards defined political goals, short and long term, are “totalitarian” as they demand discipline and command-control structures. Autonomous organising is emerging as a popular model of organising across different sections of the Left. Autonomous organising is where interest groups build interest-based organisations that can continue to defend their interests, whichever way the political weather-vane in the country turns. Autonomous organising is spontaneous, leaderless and self-propelled activity from below. Autonomous organising allows classes, groups and communities to organise themselves (not a bad idea at all) but without an overall programme for structural changes. If people can democratically self-organise, self-manage, and self-direct their destinies (a fantastic idea!) what is the need for Marxists or Marxism one must wonder. The interest-based reorganisation of society as ‘self-organised’, ‘self-managed’ institutions of ‘civil society’ is something that classical liberalism advocated, attempted but never fully succeeded in realising. Whether classical liberalism can succeed with a bit of help from Critical Marxism must remain a moot question.

The papers at the HM conference shared a wider trend common to Academic Marxism around the world beyond North America and Europe. Academic Marxists have nearly everywhere been disciplined effectively and thoroughly by their academic disciplines. Each academic discipline brings with it a distinct vocabulary, methodology and inflexes different trajectories and aspects of socialist histories. Whereas developments in natural sciences like AI, robotics, genetics and stem-cell technologies have taken inter and transdisciplinary methods to another level, social sciences trail behind. The irony is Marxism developed as non-disciplinary, non-academic mode of knowledge production guided by practices, past, present and future that was simultaneously theoretical as well as empirical. The siloed knowledge produced within academia fossilise the past and produce a hall of mirrors where the images of the world are distorted in different ways depending on one’s own disciplinary mirror. There has never been as much Marxist knowledge in the history of modern capitalism as we have today. Yet, to subvert Coleridge’s famous lines in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ‘water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink’, we have today, ‘Marxism, Marxism everywhere, and not a drop for a new world’. A caricature perhaps – but it clarifies the point here. The point is important because Academic Marxism does have a profound influence on socialist and communist imaginations around the world.

Given the times we live in, no social science conference, least of all a Marxist one, can escape addressing international events: Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Kurdish question and much else. Notably absent at the conference were papers on struggles in Africa and Asia (barring one paper from India). Might it be because Africa and Asia have been pushed out of the agendas of North American and European academic institutions where the current geo-political priorities are the Middle East and Latin America? Whereas, the word ‘capitalism’ echoed through the conference, imperialism was much less audible. When references to imperialism were made it was generally to highlight what Left groups attempted or failed to do in different conflicts. One participant articulated something that is perhaps on the minds of many: that there are way too many conflicting and contradictory accounts of what is happening on the ground in places such as Syria and Iraq so that it becomes difficult to evaluate the character of the wars going on there. An account that seeks to clarify what is happening in Syria or Iraq (whether or not those clarifications succeed is another matter) presupposes some attempts to engage with the apparent contradictions and conflicts in those wars and the real drivers the underpin the conficts. In turn such an account calls for some explanation of imperialism and the internal contradictions of capitalism that drives contemporary conflicts.

Papers and presentations that did characterise imperialism, took their cues from bourgeois geopolitics and political economy regularly put out by capitalist think-tanks. Typically, these characterisations include China as the emerging imperialist power, Russia as a state aspiring to its old glory as imperialist power, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others as competing and independent regional powers in their own rights. The papers on Syria and Kurdish movements never mentioned the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French, the carving up of the Ottoman colonies between them and the ramifications of the imperial history for contemporary imperialism since the end of the Cold War and in the current wars. The relative strengths and weaknesses of strong and weak states in economics, military, culture, ideology, their hold on international organisations, the political consequences of extreme polarisation of military capacities in interstate rivalries, the significance of former Axis and Allied powers merging together in NATO, and in the economic alliances such as G7, their control of organisations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, WTO and others, their domination over culture and ideology through apparatuses like the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy funded outfits, the techniques for regime change which include decades of economic sanctions, its implications for democratic politics in the Third World, the proliferation of nuclear weapons – in a nutshell – the new developments in imperialism and interstate relations since the end of World War II- remains blurred and opaque. A state is a state for all that.

Critical Marxists at the conference tended to take the formal equality of states as the starting point of analysis and reify international law and the governance apparatus of post-World War II world order. Within disciplinary silos, each aspect of global injustice is addressed empirically without attempts to characterise the general features of imperialism in the contemporary world. As imperialism is, by definition, about interstate wars: economic, political and ideological, some understanding of interstate order that emerged after World War II is needed to shine a light on particular wars or conflicts. When theories of imperialism (old or new) is off the Marxist agenda, then, Marxist theories, by default, lapse into liberal theories as a framework to explain realities on the ground. As the goal of Marxist critique is to shine a light on those realities from the standpoint of oppressed classes and communities, the goals and the theoretical frameworks become mismatched producing the hall of mirrors.

One of the curious, even amusing tendencies at the conference was the obsession with anti-Stalinism – a compulsive need to make throw away pejorative comments about Stalinism even when it had no direct relevance to the issue under discussion. For example, it is possible to say Critical Marxists must build broad based democratic mass movements, or that there is a need for renewal of Marxism (much needed without doubt), without a throw-away axiomatic one-liner on Stalinism. I was left wondering more about the compulsive obsessive need to reiterate anti-Stalinism as an axiomatic truth at a time when there aren’t many movements on the Left around the world that venerate Stalin in the way the anti-colonial movements of the past did. Could it be fear of the resurgence of new anti-colonial movements against the new imperialisms in the New World Order after World War II? A speculation perhaps, but not without reasons. One leading member of the conference and political organiser argued that Marxist renewal must move away from ‘Cold War Campism’ mind-set to build genuine internationalism that opposed all imperialisms: Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Turkish, Saudi, the lot. The Two World Camp theory was a CIA driven theory (further reinforced by new material that has become available after the opening of new archives) pushed for by very conservative elements within the U.S. establishment to feed the gigantic military-industrial complex that emerged during World War II. But in its logic, the Two Camp mindset of the U.S. state during the Cold War era is not different from the new Two World Camps that is being peddled by the U.S. establishment today by pitting China against the U.S to feed more fuel to the military-industrial complex after the end of the Cold War.

Not many on the Left in the Third World bought into the ‘campism’ theory anyway. The very fact that the phrase ‘Third World’ continues to have purchase on the Left to this day is evidence that not everyone on the Left bought into the campism doctrine. Indeed, the characterisation of the former Soviet Union as ‘social imperialism’ came from the Third World way back in the 1950s and characterisation of China after Deng as ‘revisionist’ came in the 1970s, also from the Third World. I came away wondering the extent to which ‘anti-Stalinism’ as an axiomatic truth was less about Stalin and his role in the former Soviet Union and more about cutting out an entire history in which the anti-colonial movements played a prominent role in shaping a dialogue between Marxism, socialism and anti-imperialism. Remember the Ghadar movement? the Mau Mau rebellions? The Egyptian independence movements? Remember the conversations between Lenin and Muhammed Barakatullah and other ‘Moslems of the East’ during and after the October Revolution? And, closer to home, the struggles in the Philippines, Indonesia? And, Naxalbari? Where do they sit in the two camp theories of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, I wonder? The modes of generalisations about internationalism without considering the wide varieties of anti-imperialist struggles remains problematic then as it is now. While the Euro-American Marxists renew their socialist projects, will the Third World democratic/anti-imperialist movements also renew their anti-imperialist projects in the present context such that they can once again participate as real and equal partners in shaping a new world order as they did a hundred years ago. What might such renewal entail?


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