Marxism 2023 – a Festival of Socialist Ideas, held at SOAS 29 June to 2 July.
The Socialist Workers Party hosted four intense days with over 100 presentations and discussion, attended by a mixed bag of around 5,000 people. There were members of various progressive parties, people of all faiths and no faith, Trade Unionists, and activists from a range of campaign groups for social justice and environment. It was also a family event, I went along with my adult son and daughter, and there were facilities for those with younger children. There were over 100 presentations of which I managed to get to just 12, here are my highlights…..
In Degrowth – What does Marxism say? Martin Empson started by suggesting that GDP is a pretty useless way to measure economic progress, we need to find better ways. Degrowth was presented as a reformist strategy, humanity hitting the emergency stop as we move from being a profit driven economy that is destroying the planet, to one that is socially driven to produce what we need. To some the idea of “taxing the rich out of existence” may seem a bit extreme, but on my way to SOAS I stopped by at the exhibition of Luxury and power Persia to Greece at the British Museum and was reminded of the historic precedent that Michael Hudson referred to when tax and jubilee* were used to ensure that nobody accumulated greater wealth than the monarch.
In Capitalism and War – Yanis Varoufakis explained how the imperial powers had used war to burn down capital to expand the market; and how the end of the gold standard in 1971 had delinked the Dollar from trade, allowing trade to expand during a period without war. The US sustained its ever expanding deficit with Japan and Germany with what a Chinese diplomat described as “The Dark Deal” which saw Japanese and German dollars invested in the US. The US moved away from industry into technology and weapons for security against the Soviet danger. After the end of the Soviet era Iraq saw a return to Imperialist wars, and a resurgent China emerged again as a great imperial power. The war in Ukraine has split the left as had happened at the outset of the first world war, and the world is being distracted by the threat of nuclear conflict between imperialist powers in Europe and Asia while the rest of the world burns. The UN has become, as many had predicted, just a vehicle for the imperialist powers.
Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, had moved its stock and staff to SOAS for the duration and there was plenty of time to browse volumes written or mentioned by speakers. In Three books that Changed the World, Jeremy Corbyn mentioned a visit to a museum in Texas. When he asked about the people who were there before the Europeans arrived, he was just told “Oh we are not allowed to talk about those”. That this is now changing is down in part to the book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Statesby Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This work has exposed the genocide committed by those who led the expansion of the United States westward. Presidents and generals who for generations were celebrated as heroes are now seen in a different light. The myth that the Europeans were settling on unoccupied land has been exploded. We are also coming to terms with our own history thanks to works such as Sathnam Sanghera’s book ‘Empireland’.
For me the stand out talk was Striking back: workers vs the system with Chris Smalls taking us through how he was able to organise and unionise the Amazon workforce in New York. Along the way we heard about how he succeeded where the traditional unions had failed, by being accountable to workers, rather than to the employer. He talked about working through COVID when New York was at the epicentre of the global pandemic, and about why the Democratic Party isn’t working to improve labour laws. Perhaps most alarming was his encounter with Joe Biden at the White House. where Chris recalled that as he was talking he realised that little he was saying was being taken in by the president. He was left wondering how it was that the man in front of him is president (similar questions are now being asked after Mitch McConnell’s senior moment at a recent press conference). Smalls also recognises that union leaders need to stand up for the wider community. He is there supporting climate justice, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, Palestine and Cuba. A union has to be there for its members wherever they happen to be, helping to pay bills and organising food. Union leaders in the US just don’t see this as part of their role. The key to the success of the Amazon Labour Union is that it has a management team that reflects the workforce, the majority of Amazon’s workforce is women, so 11 out of 16 board members are women.
In a panel discussion on Radical Solutions to the Housing Crisis, Elizabeth Salmon set out the case: housing has created wealth for a few; there really is no point in politicians looking to help people buy houses that they simply cannot afford, whilst children are dying because they are forced to live in cold and damp conditions; there is an urgent need for rent controls to freeze rent and service fees. Rent controls are supported by 2/3 of the public, they work in other places: in Barcelona rents cannot exceed 30% of your income, and are even present in some states in the US. People are having to give up jobs or studying in London because they cannot afford to live there. At last people are talking about using land taxes so that local authorities build the high quality public housing needed.
The quietly spoken Rajan Naidu, a Quaker from Just Stop Oil, kicked off the discussion on What Strategy can win the Climate Justice, with an update from the global south, where glaciers are receding in the Himalayas, and where soil erosion, extreme heat and extreme rain in southern India are combining to make life a real struggle. He described what it is like to take direct action, facing arrest and imprisonment. Asad Rehman explained why we need to understand the systems that cause the crises: accumulation, growth, profit etc, so that we can put forward concrete demands for change, then use the power of organised labour to bring people together to demand the changes we need.
Yes there were calls of frustration to “Smash the State”, but for me the concrete demands we should be pressing are
- Make parliament representative and accountable so that direct action isn’t needed.
- Introduce a wealth tax.
- Reform the UN so that it stops being a vehicle for the imperialist powers to protect their own interests, by enacting Article 109 of the UN Charter.
Over 4 days I learnt so much about the issues we are all struggling to understand in and address. A huge thank you to everyone who organised the event, and for all the volunteers who made it happen. I can’t wait to return next year.
*The Biblical Year of Jubilee, outlined in Leviticus 25-26, a magnificent and widely ignored text which calls for periodic complete overhaul of the economy. See also here.
The author is writing in a personal capacity and the views expressed are his own.