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.