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Socialist Alternative’s Marxism 2012: Worth our engagement

2012 April 30

Originally posted at Anarchist Perspective, where there has been some interesting discussion about the state of the IWW, and the value of Anarchist engagement with Trotskist organisations and ideas.

Socialist Alternative’s Marxism 2012 was, for this anarchist, worth the effort.

The Easter long weekend sees Socialist Alternative’s yearly Marxism Conference held at Melbourne University, and after a couple of years of false starts, this year I was finally able to attend.

Naturally my keenness to engage with this conference raises the occasional eyebrow. The objection I get from anarchists when I suggest engaging with this or similar events, “It’s not worth the effort”, “there are real struggles to engage with”, and so on.

Of all the small Marxist groups on the far left in Australia, Alternative’s political orientation should be of the greatest interest to Anarchists.

Their position that the so-called socialist countries after WWII were not socialist but “state capitalist” class societies bears more than a passing resemblance to an Anarchist description of these states. Alternative rejects the dictatorships in Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, and do not foster delusions about the nature of events in Venezuela and Bolivia. Alternative does not carry the baggage of having to simultaneously reject their connection to Stalin whilst defending the legacy of Stalinists in Cuba (and elsewhere).

As a result of this positioning, of all the vanguardist groups in Australia, Socialist Alternative has been the one that has been able to recruit an increasing number of the university students who arrive on major city campuses with some basic interest in the ideas of the left.

Socialist Alternative is growing in significance within the small pond that is the far left in Australia. They are probably correct in their claim to be the largest far left grouping in Australia at present (related discussion at Slackbastard). Their presence at demonstrations, the readership of their magazine and website, and (importantly for this article) the scope of interest from outside their party in their yearly conference, are probably more important measures of their growing influence that a raw count of dues paying members (~250).

And Anarchists exist within the far left. We exist within the small activist milleu who’s far left element is increasingly dominated by Socialist Alternative.

Any attempt to claim otherwise is self deluding. There is no significant separate anarchist movement in Australia. There are no social movements heavily influenced by anarchist ideas. There is no real presence by anarchism in the union movement.

The IWW in Australia at present is NOT a union. Individual activists within the IWW and individual anarchists are members of larger unions, some are even delegates. None is in a position to bring anarchist ideas to a wider audience. The IWW is at present in the same position as other small groups on the far left, trying to convince individuals of the merits of their ideas, one by one. It is at present no mass vehicle through which anarchists can advance their ideas.

The criticisms of the insular world of social issue activists circles and what passes for the student movement are valid. The activism milleu is not the wider of Australian society, and it does not at present offer anarchists the means to advance their ideas to people outside this milleu. It is insular, it does have an air of unreality about it.

But the fact is that this is where anarchism in Australia is presently located. There are no other great avenues through which anarchist ideas can be advanced, no other areas in society into which anarchists are embedded. In the present situation, refusing to engage in the struggle of ideas within this milleu is the same as refusing to advance the ideas of anarchism at all. We have to start with an understanding of where we are.

Which brings me to Marxism 2012.

Socialist Alternative is an organisation of no more than three hundred members. This years conference at Melbourne University drew nearly one thousand participants. These were a whole cohort of people with whom anarchists should want to engage.

Of course the formal conference structure offered little to no broad opportunity that anarchists could use to engage with these people as a group. All sessions were chaired by Socialist Alternative members, and all but the international speakers were well versed members of socialist alternative. The question and answer sessions that followed gave some small forum for different views, but only within a structure that saw them heavily rebutted by Socialist Alternative members, before discussion was capped off by a Socialist Alternative chair.

As a project of Socialist Alternative, we should expect nothing less from this conference!

But even within this structure there were still a multitude of opportunities.

The biggest opportunity is to learn. In order to engage in a contest of ideas, it pays to have a more accurate understanding of the ideas others are advancing, rather than to simply try and engage with straw men and caricatures. It was apparent in this conference that Socialist Alternative members do not have that advantage when it comes to engaging with the ideas anarchism. It pays for anarchists to experience the level of critique a product of Socialist Alternative’s process of political education has of anarchism, and to practice engaging with it in a respectful manner (I struggled!).

Moving away from the narrow issue of what Socialist Alternative had to say about anarchism in this conference, it pays for anarchists to understand in a more sympathetic way where the largest grouping on the far left has come from, and how they understand their ideas. “They’re all authoritarian! KRONSTADT and STALIN!!!” is not a sufficient basis of understanding for engaging the ideas of this or any group.

Then there is the opportunity to learn about things we agree on! Anarchists critically appropriate Marxist political economy; any attempt to deny or cover this up is self defeating, and simple declaring “Marx plagiarised Proudon!!!” is both silly and inaccurate. There is not an anarchist I have met in Australia who would not do well to advance their understanding by studying and critiquing what Marxists are saying about economics and history. The series at the conference was genuinely interesting and enlightening. I am not saying we should ever remove the guard of critical engagement.

Then there is the opportunity to learn about struggles in the wider world. Simply by organising the largest far left event in this country, Alternative is able to attract speakers from struggles around the world. Filtered through the prism of Socialist Alternative interpretation they may have been, they were still absolutely wonderful sources of information and inspiration for anarchists.

Every anarchist who rejected attending this conference because it was not worth the effort missed the chance to hear about a seven month occupation of university campuses in Chile in the struggle for free education. A struggle that has brought together and resulted in significant political debates between Lenninists and Anarchists in Chile.

There were first hand accounts of struggles from the Philippines, Afghanistan, the US Occupy Movement, Japan, Palestine and others. Every one of these sessions were absolutely worth putting up with the strictures of a conference hosted by a vanguardist organisation!

Then there was the chance to observe, observe the products of Socialist Alternative’s process. Observe the way young members approached you, and asked the SAME questions every time, and tried to lead you into the SAME conversation every time. There was the chance to observe how the leading lights of this organisation and younger members interacted. Observe the things that lead unaligned participants to grate at the process.

I always find it fascinating to try and observe and interpret what I am seeing of the dynamic of an organisation in different situations. It is far more useful to be able to discuss this organisation based on conversations with its members and your own observations than to simply rely on the rumour and name calling that amounts to understandings of an organisation form the outside.

And there is the opportunity to test.

This was something I consciously decided to avoid at Marxism 2012. Gatherings like this offer us a chance to test our understandings and argument against the body of ideas we inevitably have to critique or argue against in broader settings.

As a lone anarchist, who acknowledges how much more I still have to learn, I did not feel confident in fully utilising the opportunity this conference presented to get up and argue for an anarchist alternative, either in question and answer sessions or in the informal social gatherings. Next year I would like to!

But purely in terms of emotional self defence, I think this will require organising a small group of anarchists to attend the conference. Because the other thing that has to be said about this conference, was that as someone who is not a member of Socialist Alternative and who does not passively agree with everything I am presented, this conference was incredibly hard work.

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

I will be attending Marxism 2013. It’s already booked in, and I have no doubt Socialist Alternative will again muster an impressive range of speakers and (in terms of Australia’s far left) a gathering well in excess of their own membership. I hope that anarchists who want to grow an anarchist movement on the far left in Australia will consider joining me.

Video

Alternative is progressively publishing videos of the major sessions on Youtube, and audio recordings of the minor sessions (the most interesting in terms of studying and engaging Alternative in my opinion) will be available on CD in the coming months.

Two absolute highlights of the conference were Malalai Joya (video and my thoughts here) and Saeed Amireh. Saeed’s presentation alone… just watch it.

Other Reviews

Socialist Alliance’s Sue Bolton, writing in Green Left Weekly, welcomed the broader focus on this years “Marxism Conference”, noting that Socialist Alternative had invited a larger number of international speakers and invited other far left groups to have stalls at the event, however –

the discussion could be even richer if the event evolved to become a conference of the whole left, including speakers from other socialist groups and allowing these groups to have workshops.

Socialist Alternative member and blogger John Passant argues that the conference shows

that Socialist Alternative is an organisation serious about understanding the world around it, engaging with it and changing it where possible

And Humphrey McQueen declared in his review, written and published before the event, that Marxism 2012 was “evading the class struggle”.