On Your Marx

I should write something about the Marxism conference. This year, I decided to go to meetings on subjects I don't know anything about.

After years of going to the conference, reading bits and pieces of socialist literature and associating with people who've read a whole lot more, I reckon I can predict the gist of a lot of the meetings. But there's still plenty of subjects I just don't know about.

Here's a selection of meetings in the former group, together with a summery of what I imagine was said:

How Important is Class Today? - Very. In spite of all half-baked theories to the contrary, there's still the two basic classes - ruling and working, the former constantly shrinking and the latter getting more miserable. The smallish managerial (or "middle") class shills for the rulers, but identifies itself and it's values with all humanity.

Will China be the Next Superpower? - Probably, in twenty or thirty years, but we can't be certain.

Has Racism Always Existed? - No. It began as a justification for the slave trade, and mutated into scapegoating on religious or national grounds.

Is Iraq the New Vietnam? - Not really, but there's a few useful parallels.

Who Really Ended Slavery? - Not the anti-slavery campaigners.

Can Identity Politics Help Us Fight the BNP? - Only the same way wearing clogs persuades your friends to learn Dutch.

Walter Benjamin - Philosopher of the Frankfurt school, and more-or-less Marxist. Wrote about pop culture and art.

Cultural Relativism - Isn't it odd how people who say there's no right or wrong never question the market?

Was Marx a Revolutionary? - Duh. But not all marxisms or marxists are.

Where Does Profit Come from? - The worker makes 300 dollars worth of product, and gets paid 100.

What's Wrong with Conspiracy Theories - They're unscientific, and distract from the real issues.

Do Western Workers Benefit from Imperialism? - The same way a slave charged to whip other slaves benefits from slavery.

Can the Working Class be a Force for Change in the Global South? - We bloody well hope so, 'cos if not we're totally frelled.

Marxism and Feminism - Feminists attribute the big problems of the world to it being run by men. Marxists attribute them to it being run by greedy bastards (who tend to be men). Marxists are by definition feminists to the extent that they oppose oppression of women.

Why is Multiculturalism in Crisis? - Because it's a way of saying "I generously tolerate you being different from me, so long as your difference doesn't affect me at all.". Or, because it's part of the problem it thinks it's the answer to.

Is Marxism Anti-religion? - Only when religion is used to oppress.

...and here's some meetings I actually went to:

Islam and Islamic Civilisations - The prophet Mohamed was born around 600CE, when two Arab empires were collapsing and fighting, and the old gerontocratic tribal cultures were dying.

He had a nervous breakdown, saw angels, heard voices and started a religion. Powerful groups found the relgion's message of unity, peace and mutual respect useful, using it as ideological cover for military expansion and reconsolidation of the middle east. Which some might find ironic.

One intriguing tidbit that the speaker brushed past: There are no surviving contemporary accounts of Mohammed's life, and he isn't mentioned in any documents until 125 years after his death.

Compare with Jesus, who isn't mentioned anywhere until 35 years after his death, and whose life story looks greatly like an agglomeration of older legends. There's no reason to suppose Jesus Christ the man existed. Is it possible Mohamed is also a retrospective fiction?

Latin America - A New Kind of Revolution? - I walked into this one not knowing what the title meant, and left still not knowing. What I do know is, the nationalist Independence movements in Bolivia and Venezuela are still getting stronger, they are focused on quality of life as well as self determination, and Hugo Chavez is a very mixed bag indeed.

I also know the speaker made herself very unpopular by accusing the audience of romanticising the working class.

Beethoven - Compared with slightly older composers like Hadyn, whose work is staid background music for aristocrats, Beethoven's is proud and assertive, reflecting the optimistic and individualistic values of the new bourgeois class.

Africa Before the Slave Trade - Everyone knows Africans used each other as slaves long before Europeans used them. What isn't known is there were many types of slavery, most had tenure limits, and slaves had rights.

Apart from that, Africa has had an absolutely dizzying array of shifting borders, intermixing language groups and some notably civilised empires in 6000 years of history. If I ever get a spare decade, I might be able to study some of it.

Marxism and Rubbish - A whimsical presentation from sci-fi author China Mieville, aka The Sexiest Man in Politics. Waste disposal is big business - there is 70 times more waste produced by heavy industry than by all other sources put together, much of it is amazingly toxic, and the governments of 3rd world countries are selling their land as dumping grounds for it. No recycling, no processing, and whole communities live on it and in it.

Rather than bang on about how evil capitalism is for doing this, Mieville asked how artists could represent and interpret the reality, without falling into the old traps of turning piles of rubbish into towers of benign beauty, or turning the tip dwellers into heroic figures living outside the system.

Tolerance as a Political Category - My favourite Yugoslavian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek holding forth to an audience of a thousand. He began by pointing out how tolerance in itself is nothing more than the powerful refraining from hurting the powerless, and what's needed instead is a removal of the power imbalance.

This is old news, but he somehow segued into how the political left in the west has failed to update its theories to cover the last thirty years of change - which is contentious but IMO partly true.

And then he ended by saying it's the task of intellectuals to radicalise the slum dwellers. Which is, um, an interesting thing to say.

I travelled up to the conference in the back of a furniture van, helped set up an art exhibition there, slept on the floor of a community centre (with 30 young Kurdish men, which was very nice), ate nothing but pasta salad, got blisters and sunburn, somehow managed to gain a pound in weight and lose an MP3 player, got rather drunk in the evenings, fell very briefly in love and travelled home in a slow, bumpy train.

Same again next year?


  1. That’s a great article and also an excellent pithy recounting of many communist policies

    It’s interesting about Mohammed. I’d always assumed there were contemporary accounts of his existence. I don’t know why (his being powerful in his lifetime – unlike Jesus and the claim that the Koran is as given to Mohammed?) So maybe, like Jesus, he didn’t exist.

  2. Thank you, Kapitano! (I've decided not to deprive you of the name of your choice anymore. I'm sorry for my former attitude. But «Captain» does remind me of Walt Whitman tthough...)
    ... I was saying, thank you for this great text! (I've made a copy for further work...) Really quite interesting! And as a summary it's quite pertinent and actual.
    Only one question: is that Walter Benjamin the same German I presume to know?... He wrote about pop art and culture?! I don't think so. Are you somehow being sarcastic? Why? Because of the School of Frankfurt? You dislike them?...

  3. Thank you! I never intended the list to be authoritative, or to be taken as more than a tongue-in-cheek glance through beliefs held by most British socialists. I never try to be a serious writer, because there are so many others who are so much better at it than me.

    As for the name, I'm happy to be "translated" as Captain, Capitane or indeed Kap.

    You're right, I should claify about Benjamin.

    The members of the Frankfurt school all wrote about ethics, psychoanalysis (critiquing Freud), the Philosophy of Science (critiquing Positivism), and culture (critiquing Marx and using Weber). And lots of other things too.

    However, in Britain the Frankfurt philosophers are mostly taught on two types of university courses: (1) Philosophy and (2) Media Studies. Art degrees are nowadays essentially Media Studies (aka "Cultural Theory") degrees - art production skills are taught very little.

    The result is that the names of Benjamin, Horkheimer etc. are more known to artists than to psychologists, moral philosophers or many other intellectuals. And therefore their work on art and culture is emphasised greatly over their other ideas.

    The result of this is that Adorno is more quoted than the other Frankfurk School members, because he wrote more about art and popular culture than the others, and of all Benjamin's works, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is by far the most referenced.

    It's as though Lenin were to be remembered only for his writings on epistemology (set out his little book called, I think, "Empirio-criticism"), and his political works forgotten,

    I admit I've only read short sections and reviews of the Frankfurt School's output - I always meant to read more. I don't dislike them - I think I'm too ignorant of them to have much of an opinion.

    Incidentally, I've spoken to professional psychologists who've never heard of Lacan, and linguists who hadn't heard of Saussure. I don't think this indicates that they're badly educated or incompetent - rather that the psychologist Lacan is much more useful to cultural theorists than to the psychologists he thought he was writing for. And a similar remark for Saussure.