New Economy Journal

Reaching out: Impressions from the 2019 Marxism Conference, Melbourne

Volume 1, Issue 2

May 6, 2019

By - Thomas Kern - Nicholas McGuigan

Piece length: 1,486 words

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What did you do over the Easter long weekend? We hope you managed to enjoy a peaceful and relaxing break. We on the other hand could not be bothered to join the queues at any of the more conventional Easter destinations and decided instead to take a short break at the Victorian College of the Arts, Southbank, Melbourne to attend the Marxism Conference 2019 (… and ended up joining queues anyway - for food and coffee during the breaks from the too few food stalls on the venue’s grounds. A really interesting economic phenomenon to experience from two business men).

This was our first Marxism conference ever. We were attracted by the diverse and engaging program which showed a promising variety of interesting, unusual and progressive topics from the broad disciplines of economics, philosophy, sociology, history and science, leaving us really keen to explore these topics through a Marxist/Socialist lens.

Marxism poster

New directions?

This variety was reflected across the fifteen conference streams: Marxism 101 and FAQs (obviously our first port of call), Current Issues, History, Australia, Victorian Socialists (the new party of the Socialist movement in Victoria, standing for three electorates in the upcoming federal elections), Resist the Right, Socialism Today, Theory, Border Crossings and Tear Down the Walls, Organising Workers, Resistance Stories, Save the Planet, and Art and Literature. Overall, nearly 100 presentations, panels and films over three full days and nights. Of course it was an impossibility to ever be able to travel across all sessions, but splitting ourselves in half allowed for the doubling of perspectives and entertaining late night conversations. So, this can only ever be – as every report will – a limited and very personal illustrative picture of Marxism 2019.

To capture the full experience, we started already on Maundy Thursday with the Opening Night: Tear Down the Walls! which was quite an experience in itself. The packed Brunswick Town Hall was roaring after each speech with socialist chants which can be quite intimidating, at least for timid socialist accountants  like us. The speakers were: Kim Bullimore, Aboriginal socialist, anti-racist and social justice activist, Justin Akers Chacón, US socialist, academic, and author of ‘No One is Illegal’, Kath Larkin, Australian socialist, unionist, and candidate for the Victorian Socialists in the seat of Cooper. Overall, the speeches seemed to lack the depth we had been expecting. We were a bit disappointed in the sense that they were not as informative as we had hoped for but leaning more towards the agitating side of the spectrum.

The fact that another panellist, Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian American writer, poet, and activist, was refused a visa and had to deliver his speech via video message, caused  us to deeply reflect on perhaps why there was such displays of agitation. It raises questions for us  on the social construct of borders, citizenship and visa regimes, combined with the resurgence of nationalism and protectionism around the globe, the current debate on the human right to free speech and how the latter is subject to the interpretation of people of ‘power’.

Our first full day was dominated by sessions on original Marxist ideas: the plight and struggles of the working class, how we got there and what solutions can Marxism/Socialism offer. We attended, to name some sessions, Marxism 101: How do people’s ideas change?, Theory: The Frankfurt School, Hollywood and the culture industry,  and Socialism Today: What’s the difference between democratic and revolutionary socialism? It was so easy to  concur with the reasons provided for why we are where we are, in the world today. The presenters referred to the control people in power have over the current system, in particular through media, entertainment industry and education, the lack of direct democracy and the fact that people who depend on waged income are forced into the reality of their work environments. The solution offered to our current plight seemed to be though: radicalisation and revolution. A thread that would spin throughout the whole conference. What we found somehow absent was … a positive visioning of where to from here?

Perhaps our largest confrontation was not what was said, it was also how it was said. Blame our naivety or ignorance in terms of Marxist thought, but a common perception we kept leaving each day with and taking up a great deal of our thoughts was the stark contrast between brilliant, intelligent analysis of the issues on one side, and the ideological simplicity and radicality of the proposed solutions on the other. We started to wonder how Buckminster Fuller might think about such a dilemma:

“You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

And then the real complexity starts to take form. How do you actually build a new model when the old one makes it so excruciatingly hard? Is the only way out a possible turn to violent action? A revolt in the name of equality, climate change, free borders?

We ended the first conference day with what we see as the conference highlight, the screening of Undermined: tales from the Kimberley, a brilliant documentary on the clash between western economic development of the Kimberly and the 60,000+ years of Aboriginal culture with its sacred links to Country. Director Nicholas Wrathall was in the room and gave a stark account of how western business models have and are continuing to desecrate sacred Aboriginal lands. He has created an excellent case study that questions conventional economic development – ownership, accountability and native land titles. He asks of us to question at what cost to people, to planet and for whose benefit? A must-see for every New Economist.

Tear down the walls!

Tear down the walls!

Saturday was a confronting day of issues facing refugees and immigrants, well founded on a morning session on Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of fascism and totalitarianism. Even though we did not agree with all conclusions the presenter draw we very much enjoyed the brilliant revisit of Arendt’s work. The ability to be inside a packed theatre with other concerned human beings and have the mind, the face, the wisdom and the sheer determination of Behrouz Boochani being broadcast live from Manus Island was overwhelming. It is one thing to read his deeply moving book No Friend but the Mountains, quite another to listen to his story live - there is no language which can describe this and it is why he has started to create his own. Behrouz Boochani’s book was written entirely through SMS, winning the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award making this a deeply Australian story.

We concluded this emotionally charged day with two fascinating films. The first one was Salt of the Earth, a 1954 American drama film based on the successful 1951 strike against a zinc mining company in New Mexico with actual miner families acting out their own story. The battle involved the sociologically-interesting conciliation of non-white immigrant miner families with their white American fellows. The second film was the perfect complement to Behrouz Boochani’s talk in the morning: Stop the boats: The real story of operation Sovereign Borders. A film you should see if you are interested in what is really going on in Australian waters.

Common ground?

Common ground?

Easter Sunday was the day to ‘Save the Planet’. We attended, for example, Countdown to catastrophe: Can socialism save the planet from environmental disaster? and Debates around revolution and the environment. It was inspiring to see throughout the conference that Socialists are genuinely concerned about climate change and the environment. We found a wide-spread feeling of urgency and that waiting for the revolution to solve all these problems could take too long. Presenters and attendees raised questions and entered into dialogue on how to reach out to other concerned parts of society to unite forces. As indicated in the photo above attendees were searching for common ground and it was never very hard to find. Direct action movements like the School strike for climate or the Extinction Rebellion were frequently heralded as models.

While there is a genuine need for pressure from the streets in order to drive governments into action, we were never fully convinced of an inviting language was present to win other parts of society to jointly combat climate change, let alone a visioning of practical solutions.

So, we ended the conference with the internal struggle we felt on the first day: to effect change, do we need a possibly violent revolution in the belief it will be THE solution for many, if not all problems facing humanity or are we to follow Buckminster Fuller’s advice and  build new models, reaching out to diverse and engaged groups in society and vision a socially inclusive future that makes the old notions of neo-liberal capitalism obsolete? We are left wondering. What about you?

Photo credits @Nicholas McGuigan

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