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Women in lead at London Marxism conference

November 24, 2013

By John Riddell. The tenth annual Historical Materialism conference, held in London November 7–10, was younger and more diverse in composition than its predecessors. Probably the world’s leading gathering of Marxist theorists, the conference, this year entitled “Making the World Working Class,” welcomed 880 registered participants to 140 sessions.

Rooms at the conference site (University of London) were often filled to overflowing; in one session, even a presenter sat on the floor. Almost twenty sessions had a feminist focus, and women were more numerous and more prominent throughout the conference than in the past. Discussion of anti-racism was also significant and strong.

The Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize Lecture was delivered at the conference by David McNally, winner of the 2012 prize for Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. The 2013 prize was awarded to Leo Panitch and Sam Ginden for The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. That makes it two prizes in a row for Toronto-based Marxists.

Inevitably, there was unevenness in the topics covered by conference presentations (the event retained its longstanding weakness on Latin America) but the trend is toward greater intellectual inclusiveness. Thus, while the conference remains weak in attention to attempts to build post-capitalist societies, it did include an outstanding session on Yugoslav workers’ self-management.

Given that no one takes in more than 10 per cent of the presentations, a participant’s report is inevitably biased toward areas of personal interest. That said, here are my impressions.

Marxism and feminism

For me, the most gripping session was on “Marxist Feminisms: Theoretical Contributions to Anti-Capitalism,” attended by an enthusiastic crowd of 150 participants.

  • Sue Ferguson introduced us to social reproduction feminism, which examines how “household labour perpetuates specific gendered relations.” She challenged us to “relate all forms of labour to capital,” not merely those of the workplace.
  • According to Heather Brown, author of recently published Marx on Gender and the Family, “Marx puts the male proletariat at the center,” but “some aspects of his theory can be adapted to a different approach.” Capitalism’s treatment of women should be understood in terms of a process where “production and reproduction are joined in a total connected process, reproducing the capital relationship.”
  • Abbie Bakan explained how unacknowledged Indigenous knowledge and guidance shaped the achievements of Lewis H. Morgan, whose late-nineteenth century study of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) society contributed (via Engels) to modern feminist thought. Morgan’s thought was permeated with racism, but its underlying concepts remain a living legacy that we can access through collaboration with our Indigenous contemporaries, Bakan said.

In the conference’s closing plenary session, Bakan noted the difficulties in dialogue between “those who start with class to those who start with gender or race.” She challenged us to examine the intersection of exploitation, alienation, and oppression as core concepts of human suffering under capitalism. “When class meets race and gender,” she said, “class changes by becoming inclusive” of all aspects of capitalist subjugation.

Historical Niches

Two years ago, at HM-London 2011, discussion of revolutionary history focused on the central debates regarding the Communist International in Lenin’s lifetime. This year, there were fewer such sessions, and their strength lay in presenting innovative studies of specific, limited experiences. The most challenging, I thought, took up resistance to anti-Semitism in Russia prior to and during the Russian revolution. Presentations by Gerald Surh and Brendan McGeever meshed well together, offering this picture:

In the decades before 1905, Social Democrats held back somewhat from active defense of the Jewish population against murderous pogroms, while the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers) took the lead in organizing Jewish self-defense, to good effect.

Social Democrats argued that anti-Semitism was a feature of feudalism that would disappear with the fall of tsarism, a theory that failed to prepare them for its persistence and virulence after establishment of Soviet rule.

The October revolution won support from many anti-Semites who saw it as a way to combat the Jews.

The Bolsheviks responded vigorously in 1918,  forging new alliances with the Bund and left Zionists to help overcome the anti-Semitic threat.

According to McGeever, the Bolsheviks’ subsequent practice was out of step with their own theory. For some evidence of this, see my “Nationality’s Role in Social Liberation.”

Among many other fine presentations, the following are worth noting:

  • The Workers Federation of Salonica – Jewish, anti-war, and internationalist – became the foundation for the Greek Communist Party (George Paizis).
  • The Bolshevik Left Opposition of 1918, while not proposing a satisfactory line of action, did portray convincingly the social contradictions of that moment (Eric Sevault).
  • Communist women played a central role in the rise of anti-colonial struggles in Indonesia (Rianne Subijanto).
  • Peter Petroff’s unpublished autobiography provides a unique portrait of this Russian-British revolutionary as ally and critic of Russian communism (Kevin Morgan).
  • Successive generations of Vorkuta miners, in the Russian far north, launched three courageous uprisings for freedom (Paul Kellogg).

My own presentation, “Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den,” will appear on this blog in early December.

Ecological challenge

Given the innovative tenor of the conference, it was surprising that only one session addressed ecological issues. Andreas Malm argued at this session that until the working class is ready for a bid for power, it cannot come to grips with climate change. Les Levidow criticized the capitalist Green Economy scheme. Anders Ekeland proposed a variant of James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” carbon tax proposal. Missing from these presentations was discussion of the need for system change, ecosocialism, and of the role of action on immediate ecological challenges.

The conference faces a challenge here. It needs to encompass Marxist ecological thought as a field of study and, what is more, to integrate this dimension into core analysis of capital accumulation.

In this regard, organizers of the May 2014 Historical Materialism conference in Toronto have taken a useful initiative by integrating an ecological theme among their list of fifteen proposed themes: “What are the contributions and challenges of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist politics to existing ecological crises?”

The Toronto conference, “Confronting Crisis: Left Praxis in the Face of Austerity, War and Revolution,” will take place May 8–11 at York University; the deadline for submissions is January 10, 2014.

The Historical Materialism project consists of an academic journal, periodic conferences in several parts of the world, and a publishing program now running at 15 volumes a year. It is an unfunded effort dependent on volunteer labour and our support. All friends of Historical Materialism are urged to assist this venture by subscribing to its quarterly journal.

Related article on this website

Note: Quotations and summaries in this article are taken from written notes and have not been checked with the presenters.

2 Comments
  1. One correction: Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, last year’s Deutscher Prize winner, was published by Brill and Haymarket, not Verso.

  2. Thank you, Critical Reading. I have corrected the text. John

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