Monday, November 10, 2008

A Tale of Two Conferences

I am a bit chary about posting anything relating to familial politicial allegiances, as the last time I did I found out that my Dad actually reads this, but the imperatives of self-indulgent politico blogging dictate the following. This weekend I was at the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS, which was excellent - reassuring, even. As a couple of weeks earlier I attended a meeting on 'Marx and the Credit Crunch' where a fresh audience attracted by the immediate failure of capitalism to these new-old ideas gradually vacated the room as the same old geriatric sectlets turned the Q&A into the fantasy fighting aptly described as a 'Dungeons and Dragons geo-politics in which the gentle orks of the working class go and do battle in far-off lands in exchange for the amulet of exchange-value.' After that horror, the supposedly more rarefied, 'intellectual', 'academic' mileu of Historical Materialism is actually a damn sight more accessible, more friendly, needless to say a great deal more relevant to the horrendous mess we're in, and, knee-jerk Workerism notwithstanding, a lot less impenetrable. I won't pick out particular papers and panels (although Ben does this very well here), as it's more the general level of civility, lack of sectarianism, idiot posturing and respect for the intelligence that makes it worthwhile, as much as anything else.

The funny thing is, however, is that at exactly the same time, in exactly the same buildings, was the annual conference of the Socialist Party, the second-largest Marxist organisation in the UK, begat by Militant 11 years ago. Inbetween sessions I bump into someone I've known for as long as I can remember, the full-timer for the Southampton area, and the usual candidate in elections (no deposits held as yet). He's very pleased to see I'm there, and when I tell him I spoke the day before, even more so. Then when he mentions the 'Rally' I suddenly recall the other conference. The Socialist Party are, as well as the more bonkers likes of the Spartacists and their ilk, the only far-left group which would fail to notice a clash between their Party conference and that of a major international theory journal like HM, nor could you imagine members attending both. The anti-intellectualism of Militant is legend - reinforcing Castoriadis' jibe about Trotskyists as 'the Stalinist bureaucracy in exile', a Zinovievite dismissal of anything other than The Canon (Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky, as interpreted by such theoretical titans as Alan Woods, Peter Taaffe and the late Ted Grant) meant that even intellectuals as deeply involved in praxis (and therefore morally acceptable) as Lukacs and Gramsci were beyond the pale for the party reading list, let alone anything published since 1940 that wasn't marginal notes on The Great Ones. 

In a sense, this was not so much because they were Marxists, but because they were Labourites - now, in fact, they could be more accurately described as 'The Labour Party in Exile'. In a typical Western Marxist/New Left tract on Labour, Gregory Elliott's Labourism and the English Genius (a mostly convincing, if insufferably arch demolition of the idea that the Party was ever socialist), they are dismissed as what happens when Marxism literally morphs into Labourism. Rather, Militant were the best and worst of Labour, not the foreign body mythologised at the time by Kinnock and his tabloid assistants. A lumpen, nothing-ever-changes empiricism alongside the serious, confrontational municipal politics of Poplarism - the kind of incremental class politics of housing, conditions, facilities, which intellectuals have long dismissed as mere rearranging of the furniture but which can, at best, provide microcosmic models of what another life might be like, here, now. The mutual incomprehension of HM and the SP are, in Adorno's phrase, those two halves which do not add up. The SP still has a strong base in certain concentrated places, council estates in Coventry or Lewisham that consistently vote them in as councillors, but they never seem to break out beyond that. Yet this sort of quotidian activist politics might be just what we miss, when we ponder the value form and real subsumption. As it is, one room has speakers advocating a return to vanguardism, and just round the corner in another room is a wannabe vanguard which doesn't even notice their existence, and wouldn't be terribly impressed if it did. 


Anonymous a_ said...

But which room is which? (And I'm not being facetious).

10:30 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

The 'we need vanguardism!': HM, though bear in mind that there was also a session on Debord that involved lots of Lenin-bashing; the 'we are the vanguard! Sort of!' would probably be the SP, although they're more keen on their 'campaign for a new worker's party' initiative, i.e 'a new labour party' (albeit not new labour obv) so maybe they're not quite so sure that they will be the ones to lead the proletariat to its inevitable victory as they were in 1986.

(I do hope this lesson in British Marxist groups is useful...)

10:50 pm  
Anonymous rwillmsen said...

YOu've really nailed it here, this is great.

12:59 am  
Blogger CO said...

Your history of British Marxist groups is useful. I was at HM and was puzzled about the socialism signs in the same building. Good to find out they hadn't been put there by a HM splinter group or some post-partisan culture jammers.

On a more serious note, I think your discussion about the relationship between the two halves is right on. But, at least in the example of the vanguard panel and the vanguard party, I also wonder how much this has to do with the exclusionary assumption each share; the Leninist vanguard.

While I understand Lenin has a sort of ageless sex appeal for activists and some activist intellectuals, if you really want to form a Leninist vanguard, why not join the Spartacists? They already exist and have already been marginalized from participation in quotidian politics by virtue of the logic of the Leninist vanguard party.

From my perspective Gramsci would be a much more suitable model for today. After all, he practically combined the mutual incomprehensions of the SP and HM. Perhaps this is why he could stand as an example of what an intellectually rigorous leftist approach to quotidian politics should be. At the very least he seems like a better place to start, which is why i was surprised the panel only alluded to him.

11:32 pm  
Anonymous Mark P said...

Unmitigated gibberish, really, this post.

I have a subscription to Historical Materialism and I often find it interesting and occasionally find it useful. However, despite it's merits (and there are many of them) HM is a tiny circulation journal with no influence anywhere apart from the dwindling ranks of Marxist academia and only limited influence there.

The fact that some Socialist Party member you met was unaware of the HM conference - a very much smaller affair than the conference he was at himself - does not mean that the Socialist Party as a whole was unaware of the clash. However there are only so many weekends in the year and quite frankly, avoiding a clash with the HM conference would quite reasonably be a lower priority than avoiding a clash with any number of other events.

The other significant sized Marxist current in Britain, the SWP, has its Marxism event on at the same time as the national climate change demonstration. I would not suggest that this means that they have a lack of interest in the environment, whatever other flaws they may or may not have.

By the way, both the SP and the SWP bookshops carry books by Lukacs and Gramsci. They don't do that because they regard reading either as beyond the pale.

2:19 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Mark P, where to start. First, there is a difference between a clash with a demonstration and a clash with another conference in the same sodding buildings.

'The Socialist Party member I met': Socialist Party members also include most of my immediate family and many of my friends, and I've attended Socialism quite enough times to know that it's actually around the same size as the HM conference. Suffice to say I know the organisation pretty well - well enough for instance to know that they don't actually have a bookshop to stock Lukacs and Gramsci in. The SWP do, but I wasn't talking about them, as they had a fair few people attending HM, and a healthy interest in ideas that acknowledge that there have been developments in Marxist theory since the icepick in 1940, irrespective of their manifold flaws.

I also know that the many SP members I know all to well don't read anything outside the canon, nor is there ever any theoretical discussion of any worth in The Socialist or Socialism Today (which is not to say there isn't some good but predictable geopolitical stuff). Oh, there was an unforgivably anti-intellectual review of Empire in around 1999, and that's as far as it goes), nor was there in Militant. No doubt individual SP members might occasionally dabble in Gramsci, but in the 80s such things were considered dangerously revisionist. If there was any interest in any of the debates of the last 15 years over neoliberalism, the city, the new social movements (short of setting up cynical front organisations) then I would be very pleased. But you have a subscription to HM and good for you. But I'd rather you didn't imply I don't know what I'm talking about.

None of this means that I think the SP should be glibly dismissed (as many academic Marxists seem content to do), which is why I mentioned Coventry and Lewisham. Finally, talking about the 'dwindling ranks' of anything is rather dangerous territory in the world of Marxist organisations.

3:30 pm  
Blogger Duncan Money said...

I'm a Socialist Party member, I was at Socialism 2008 and I'll freely admit I had no idea a conference about Historical Materialism was on.

I wouldn't say we were anti-intellectual though, I'd put it down to a more general isolation from what passes for a Marxist movement in Britain.

For example, I'm currently studying the early works of Marx at Balliol College while another member of the local branch, an RMT rep, has recently completed a phd on the development of new social movements in the 1990's. We're not alone in such heady intellectual pursuits in the local organisation either.

As an aside, the 'book shop' is more a large stall that travels from event to event and it does stock Gramsci.

4:30 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Duncan - glad to hear it on all counts...

12:20 am  
Anonymous Mark P said...

Where to start? I'm not sure, but perhaps you should consider starting somewhere other than your rather idiosyncratic memories of the 1980s.

The Socialist Party does have a bookshop. They don't have a high street shop premises, but they have a relatively large permanent shop in their offices, an online bookshop and, as Duncan notes, a kind of travelling bookshop at various events.

I know that they stock both Gramsci and Lukacs, because I bought both History and Class Consciousness and an abridged edition of the Prison Notebooks from them some years ago.

You are correct that the Socialism event used to be close enough to the size of last weekend's Historical Materialism conference. However, a couple of years ago the Socialist Party started to put more emphasis on their weekend school and it grew very significantly. This year the attendance was well over 1,000, which is a great deal larger than the Historical Materialism event.

Yes there is a difference between a clash with the climate change demonstration and a clash with another conference in the same building. The Historical Materialism conference, despite the interesting things discussed at it, is sadly not of particularly wide interest at the moment. The climate change demonstration on the other hand could be a starting point for a significant protest movement. If a conference I was organising had to clash with one or the other, I would choose a clash with the Historical Materialism event every time - despite the fact that I would have very much liked to attend the HM event.

Neither the Socialist nor Socialism Today are academic journals or even faux academic journals along the lines of the International Socialism Journal. The Socialist does not carry theoretical articles except in a popularising sense. Socialism Today is, as you have noted, more focused on geopolitical issues than anything else, which is not, in my view, a flaw. I can't recall the review of Empire you mention, although as I found that particular book to be almost entirely without merit or interest despite wading through its endless turgid prose, I can only identify with anyone who was moved to write a dismissive review.

As for commenting on the dwindling ranks of academic Marxists, it's hardly a secret that Marxism has been thoroughly unfashionable in academia for some time now. I have a great deal of respect for those Marxist academics who haven't bent with the prevailing winds, but it is not unreasonable to note that those prevailing winds exist.

By the way, my partner, a Socialist Party activist, is writing her PhD thesis from a sort of post-Gramscian perspective. I'm sure she would be a little bemused to be told that she isn't supposed to read such things.

3:11 am  
Anonymous Mark P said...

By the way, despite finding this post slightly irritating, I do like this blog. Are you going to publish your paper from the HM conference? I'd like to see it in a more polished form than your blog post.

4:01 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Mark P: backhanded compliment taken. The paper might be published, I'm not entirely sure, I will shamelessly flag it up here if so.

Incidentally, HM was abt 500 people, so Socialism with 1000 is bigger, sure, but not a difference of the exponential order you implied earlier. The review of Empire irritated me because the main complaint was 'this is hard to understand'. Fucking hell, have you read Capital? And 'endless turgid prose' is not a phrase that should be used in condemnation when in proximity to the writing of Peter Taaffe.

Honestly, I am glad SP members are up to all the things you say they are up to - and frankly, politically I have agreed with the SP about practically everything over the last few years vis-a-vis their usual competitor, despite my writing often for Socialist Worker. And I suppose there's the rub, in that I would never get to talk about the things I consider important in the SP's publications, because of the general anti-intellectualism I mentioned (which is nowhere near as bad as it was, as the real headbanging element seems to have transferred to the risible Socialist Appeal but is, let's face it, pretty obvious in the general character of what the SP actually publishes) - I do wish the magazine, the paper, and the writing therein were just a little less boring, and that's where more of an interest in matters non-directly political (oh, art, urbanism, gender, theory, film, culture other than Ken Loach, all which can be done well without turning into Marxism Today, as the SWP manage it well enough). As it is, we have Peter Taaffe wasting paper on sectarian jeremiads against the SWP, leavened only by his usual slightly embarassing Classical references.

1:42 pm  
Anonymous Mark P said...

The compliment was not intended to be backhanded. I found your blog posting on "Googie", the International Style etc genuinely interesting, but blog posts are by their nature generally less considered and polished than academic papers.

My understanding, from other reports, was that the HM conference had a little under 250 people at it. That would mean that it had between a quarter and a fifth of the attendance at Socialism 2008. You were there, I wasn't, so you presumably have a more reliable view of the attendance than I do. If it had 500 people, that's a good showing and I'm glad to hear it.

Peter Taaffe is not, perhaps, the world's leading prose stylist, however I can safely say that he has never written anything as bloated or dull as Empire. As for his short book about the SWP, there is nothing remotely "sectarian" about criticising the political methods and ideas of other currents on the left, where real disagreements exist and where those disagreements have an impact on campaigns, struggles etc.

I suspect that a book explaining the differences in programme and method between the only two remaining Marxist currents of any size at all will be of rather more practical use to young activists than even the most erudite and interesting explanation of post-post-modernist architectural styles. Which does not of course imply that writing about the latter is a waste of paper (or pixels).

The Socialist Party is not, in my view, in a position to produce and sustain an interesting, high level, academic or pseudo-academic journal, or an arts review magazine, or anything similar. It is a small organisation in the greater scheme of things and one with enormous burdens on tiny resources. This does not indicate "anti-intellectualism", so much as it indicates a sensible understanding of what precisely they are in a position to do. In so far as they publish theoretical or highly considered articles they deal with issues of political and economic analysis - quite reasonable priorities for a small political party.

This does lead to a tokenistic approach to things like arts reviews, unfortunately, but I think that on balance they'd be better of jettisoning that material entirely at the moment rather than covering it inadequately or diverting limited resources to it. I think that magazines like Marxism Today and Socialist Review have, for slightly different reasons, been very poor and that small cadre organisations really aren't best placed to do that sort of thing.

Much larger organisations than any the British far left have boasted in decades can, and should, support much more extensive publications of an intellectual bent. In the absence of large parties, and the surrounding cultural milieu, I think that non-party publications are a better forum in that regard. Historical Materialism, Critique, Monthly Review etc are all very much better and more useful than the International Socialism Journal is ever likely to be.

3:21 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I mostly agree with those points (aside from on Taaffe's new book - the way it no doubt inadvertently panders to Life of Brian stereotypes of the far left as being in a perennial state of inter-group warfare will override any good it could possibly do - surely these arguments could be better made through argumentation and stuff in the paper?).

I suppose what I would like to see is the Far Left producing something like a 21st century version of the old KPD Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, an up-to-minute magazine of politics and (political) culture, accessible to workers educated or not, and not insulting to the intellect or visually headache inducing to the designer. People are so completely formed by the experience of the mass media that in comparison we can't help but seem cheap and cranky. I'm well aware that the SP has nowhere near the resources for such a thing, but I really do think that Socialist Worker and (more occasionally) Socialist Review make more efforts in that direction, and that isn't to be sniffed at. I know that it is low on the list of priorities, but in terms of propaganda I can't help but think it's a missed opportunity, and better a failed attempt to produce such a thing than none at all.

3:55 pm  
Anonymous Mark P said...

Actually, I think that putting the detailed polemics in a party newspaper would be far more likely to create the kind of "life of Brian" image you mention than producing a short book.

The Socialist (and Socialist Worker) are sold to much more general audiences than a book like this will be intended for. Socialist Party members are not likely to be standing outside KFC in Brixton trying to flog this book to passers-by or knocking on doors in housing estates to do the same thing. It's a book produced for the small number of people who are in the orbit of the SWP or for the larger number of people who will encounter the SWP in campaigns or struggles and who are alienated by the methods they use in those campaigns.

The political differences between the Socialist Party and the SWP do matter, and they have to be argued out in some arena. This kind of narrowly focused book seems to me to be a pretty reasonable way to go about it, along with face to face debates (like the packed one between the two organisations at Socialism 2008).

I think that we are broadly speaking in agreement that it would be nice to see an "up to the minute magazine of politics and culture" from the far left and that no faction of the left is really in a position to publish such a thing.

I also agree that Socialist Worker puts a little more emphasis on cultural matters and arts reviews than the Socialist does, although that's chiefly a function in my view of Socialist Worker being 16 as opposed to 12 pages long. Whatever the reasons, I'm of the view that the coverage of these things in both papers is rather poor. Reviews of works of art or cultural products which are centrally preoccupied with trying to find what "message" the work of art contains and how closely this correlates with the political ideas of the reviewer hurt my teeth. And all too often that's what all sections of the left churn out. The review of Persepolis (the film version) in Socialist Worker nearly caused me to vomit my lunch back up, although that was an unusually obnoxious example.

But really, I'd rather see non-party forums for this kind of thing prosper for the moment rather than see further resources diverted from small political parties into doing it very badly.

4:15 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I'd like to leave this alone now, as we (obviously) agree on more than we disagree, but I'm not going to let this be the last word:

The political differences between the Socialist Party and the SWP do matter.

What political differences? The differences are a) historiographical, in their disagreement about whether a now defunct entity was 'state capitalist' or a 'deformed workers state', and b) tactical, on what exactly is the best method to advance socialism in the aftermath of huge defeats for the socialist movement. In the latter instance, I tend to think the CNWP marks a potentially more worthwhile initiative than Respect (although the latter went out on far more of a limb) and there are serious debates to be had (debates which could easily continue as a part of an alliance, I would wager). But as to actual politics, the difference is so tiny as to be utterly imperceptible to anyone other than Peter Taaffe and Chris Harman.

My bookshelves include lots of old Militant and SWP material (from my parents, I'd like to add - if my memories of the 80s are idiosyncratic it's because I was born in 1981) on the failure of the German revolution and the rise of Nazism. The SPD, we are told, should have united with the KPD against Hitler. And of course they should have. But this was asking two parties to make an alliance where one had slaughtered (in the 1929 Mayday shootings in Berlin, not to mention 1919) members and supporters of the other. What I, and I am sure many others would like to see is an alliance between people whose most heated disagreements might have led at the absolute worst to a scuffle outside a pub. You may think this a hysterical analogy, but we face as I'm sure you know the worst crisis since 1929, and for the small and scattered forces of British Marxism to be infighting at this point rather than forming some sort of broad-based alliance - the Coalition of the Left showing the way here, I think - is moronic. Or shall we just let the BNP reap the benefits?

10:32 pm  
Anonymous Mark P said...

Well, again I actually agree with you that most of the matters which separate the Socialist Party or the SWP fall into those categories. And to be clear, if the only disagreements fell into the first category (historical analysis) I wouldn't just be arguing for an alliance of some kind, I'd be arguing for a complete fusion of the two organisations.

Unfortunately the disagreements about issues of tactics (or more precisely method) in my view preclude that. To give a more extreme example, Socialist Appeal and the Socialist Party have one really major difference (not counting gay rights for the purposes of this discussion) and that is purely tactical. Should socialists be inside the Labour Party or seeking to build a new working class party? The thing is though that those two purely tactical views are not compatible in a common organisation. Either we work in the Labour Party or we seek to replace it. No matter how much else we have in common, we work too much of the time in direct opposition to each other.

As far as issues like state capitalism versus the degenerated workers state are concerned, those are not, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, insurmountable. In fact, the Belgian sister group of the SWP did actually join the Committee for a Workers International while still holding to their own views on that subject and it didn't cause any significant problems.

In Scotland, the sister groups of the Socialist Party and the SWP coexist within the same party precisely because the two groups agree on enough of a tactical framework for that to be productive. In England and Wales though, we don't agree with each other on how to relate to the anti-war movement, how to build a new left party and on what basis, how to combat the BNP, how to work in the trade unions, how a political party should be organised and a thousand other things.

Were there to be a new organisation, involving significant forces outside of the two existing parties, then it is possible that both parties could coexist usefully and productively (even though there would at the very least be some tensions). But an alliance which would essentially exist of the SP and SWP with a very small number of others would not add up to anything greater than the sum of its parts. In fact it would be a disimprovement as significantly more of our limited resources would be spent on struggles over this or that matter internal to the alliance.

The fate of the Socialist Alliance is I think instructive on this. You can work together when you agree on what you should be doing and when working together will actually help as opposed to hinder your ability to argue the socialist case with other people. But unity for the sake of unity, leaving real political issues hidden, doesn't actually help anybody.

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