There’s no escaping it – Marxism Festival, the Socialist Workers’ Party’s annual jamboree, probably is, as it claims, Europe’s largest left-wing ‘festival’. For someone on the socialist wing of the Green Party therefore, it’s an interesting opportunity to get into the head of the Marxist left for a few days, as well as listen to some amazing speakers. This year was no different (except perhaps one thing – many of the amazing speakers didn’t turn up).
I attended last year’s conference as someone essentially new to political theory and to global radical politics. As such, it was fairly incredible as an experience in itself – crashing on a Kurdistan social centre floor with comrades from across the country before getting the tube to the magnificent University College London where the festival is based. Tony Benn, Tariq Ali, Laurie Penny and Alex Callinicos seem to be some of the regulars, and with George Galloway re-elected as an MP, he looks set to join the regulars list.
So, all good then. Except this year it didn’t seem to emit quite the same buzz. Perhaps four or five years of financial crisis and no real left-revival in the UK (despite some promising signs) might be something to do with it. Or perhaps it’s because it wasn’t fresh to me – the annual opening and closing rallies seem to follow the same formula; several speakers, a fund-raising closing speech (with an inevitable collection) and then some semi-spontaneous chants and huge round of applause. All held every year in the same Friends’ Meeting House main hall. The closing rally (though I couldn’t make this year’s) tends to end in the same ritualised Internationale that sounds all too like an official SWP hymn. Needless to say I need a rest for a few years.
The atmosphere is uplifting though, it somewhat overly optimistic. Yet a key disappointment of this year’s Marxism was the non-appearance of several key speakers – the journalist Laurie Penny, the famous political thinker Toni Negri (meaning a debate between himself and Alex Callinicos became a one sided attack on Negri), and George Galloway MP, who had to be in a meeting in the Middle East. The final timetable came out less than a week before the conference, and all featured as still coming. Is it likely the SWP didn’t know Galloway was going to be in the Middle East? If they didn’t, it was poor planning. If they did, it was misleading and cynical to include him in the programme, all the while selling tickets on that basis.
And the tickets did sell. Around 5000 came this year in what was described as the ‘biggest Marxism on record’. Of course, last year they said essentially the same thing. And this year didn’t seem particularly larger – not that one can criticise the SWP’s usually impeccably accurate statistics. Heresy, comrades!
But perhaps the most irritating part of Marxism 2012 was not the predictably questionable figures (on membership gains or meeting attendance, for a start), or the non-appearance of several major ticket-shifting speakers, but the absurd ultra-leftism of it all. Take a couple of examples – a meeting on the Latin American left heard frequent denunciations from the floor and the platform of Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan leader, as ‘centre-left’ or even on a par with neo-liberalism. Voting for him was described by one person as a ‘betrayal of working-class self-emancipation’. Because the working-class would be emancipated by his right-wing rivals set to win in the result of a Chavez defeat? Such absurd leftism went hand in hand with, I joke not, a Marxist interpretation of the Higg’s Boson’s discovery.
And a debate on the Cuban revolution fell to similar extremes. The talk was balanced and well-researched. Yet any slight criticism of the degeneration of the Cuban Revolution into what is essentially a hereditary regime was met with outrage by a bewildered and wide-eyed listener who claimed the talk was ‘interesting, in the same way that the Lord of the Rings is interesting’, who then proceded to shout over anyone responding to his long defence of the Cuban political system and Castroism. All its faults, apparently, are to be blamed entirely on the US trade embargo – because of course to have democracy in a tough economic climate would be impossible, even counter-revolutionary…
The usual caveats to more reasonable minded attendees apply. All attendees are met with constant ‘are you in the party, comrade?’ interrogation at the end of every session (and there are six on most of the five days), to which you learn to respond ‘yes’ almost unthinkingly. But for the un-rehearsed, any ‘no’ response will be met by a semi-professional (though always unpaid) recruiter proclaiming the merits of Bolshevism for however long it takes for you to either walk away or join the ‘vanguard’.
So for a Green, what does it have to offer? Let’s be clear – it is an inspiring festival. Sessions on all political (and sometimes non-political) topics – Europe, the Arab Spring, trade unionism, anarchism, inequality, the modern working-class and so on – are fascinating, and vital for students of politics or people on the verge of becoming radicalised. It’s well worth attending as a political education course to which socialists on all sides should cast a critical but interested mind.
But with just one session out of several hundred overtly environmental, with the kind of insanity as to describe Chavez as centrist and Syriza as merely ‘reformist’, and with the party line followed in almost every discussion – even responses from the floor – it makes a good once-in-a-while political education conference/get-together for a Green socialist and little else. The atmosphere is too stifled for any serious non-SWP (let alone non-Leninist) engagement. Refreshing, however, was the sight of thousands of radical young people coming together to share ideas (though the beer prices weren’t very socialist).
So. Try it once, but don’t expect it to be as inspiring after your first time. There are some great fighters in the SWP, but Marxism Festival lacks the open-mindedness needed to unite Britain’s (and indeed Europe’s) very divided left.
[This was originally written for the Green Left website, but was too late. Still relevent (hopefully) though]