Marxism 2007: Day Five (Monday)

OK, Day Five has been hanging over me throughout a very busy week, so rather than waiting for the right time I’m going to write about it now, while I still have a million other more pressing things to do.

First up was “A history of rebel art from Dada to Banksy“. I only went to part one, which took me up to 1960, but it was a very interesting discussion, led by Esther Leslie of Birkbeck College. She argued that all art is rebellious in some way because it is an imaginative act, a rebellion against the mundane order of everyday life, a reordering and reinterpretation of the world around us. But in her talk she focused more on artists who rebel explicitly against art itself and try to rewrite the rules.

She began by exploring the contradictions inherent in art – a practice that rebels against commodification and yet often itself becomes commodified, a practice that speaks to the human and the universal and yet often becomes elitist and exclusive. The Dada movement developed in opposition to what they saw as the hypocrisies of the German expressionists, who collaborated in war and inequality (many of them saw the war as a way to cleanse and renew decadent German society).

Another very interesting idea from the Dadaists was that art reinforces class divisions: it makes the worker feel small and useless against the “genius” of human culture, as they are unable to do anything as brilliant as the art which hangs in galleries for the edification of the bourgeoisie. There was a wonderful image of the painting that hangs in front of a safe in a bank or mansion as a metaphor for art covering up the lies of capitalism.

She then went on to talk about Russian artists like Tarabukin, who said art was useless and should be dissolved totally into industry, artists should go into the factories and start designing and producing useful objects, combining aesthetic value with use value. He was used for a while by Stalin and was then discarded when Stalin wanted to return to a 19th-century representational art, the traditional role of art as a glorification of the ruling class (think bucolic scenes with Stalin as a father figure, surrounded by a crowd of adoring children).

Next I wanted to see “Is the anti-capitalist movement in crisis?” by Alex Callinicos and Trevor Ngwane, but it turned out to be only Alex Callinicos. Shame, because (no offense to Mr. Callinicos) it was really Trevor Ngwane that I was interested in hearing. However, the speech did turn out to be interesting, and gave some good food for thought on the very rapid calcification and bureaucratisation of the anti-capitalist movement. Of course, there are still very successful mobilisations, particularly around the G8 summit in Rostock, but the World Social Forum in Nairobi was plagued by accusations that Kenyans were being excluded, as well as protests against the corporate sponsorship and the hotel catering being provided by companies owned by some of Kenya’s most hated capitalists.

He highlighted the February 2003 worldwide anti-war protest as the high-point of the movement, something that surprised me because living in New York at the time, I had no idea that the event had come out of the anti-capitalist movement. In fact, if you had said to most of those people standing on First Avenue on a bitter February afternoon that they were protesting against capitalism, they would have turned around immediately and gone to the nearest Starbucks. I accept his statement that the idea originated in a European Social Forum meeting, but I think it’s a mistake to believe that anything more than a small fraction of those millions of antiwar protesters had a beef with capitalism. Most of them were simply protesting against a patently ridiculous war. As soon as they failed to stop it, they went home and haven’t been to another protest since.

The point is important, because it casts doubt on the rest of his argument, and his conclusions. From the February 2003 “high-point” of millions of people in the streets, he charted a steady downward trajectory to the present day. I think this is misleading. The February 2003 event was an anomaly, a one-off spike in popular activism due to a specific event. It was not, in my view, much at all to do with anti-capitalism, and so to label the current movement somehow a failure because it no longer attracts those numbers is not fair.

His criticisms of the bureaucratisation of the Social Forums did seem valid, though. The mechanics of the forums, where decision-making is structureless and everyone has a veto, sound good in principle but cause problems in practice. In such a framework, the only people who have the time to go to endless, long meetings are an elite group of activist groups at the heart of the movement. Ordinary people simply don’t have the time or energy to take a meaningful role, so decision-making becomes dominated by an elite. This was very interesting to me given my anarchist leanings, and is certainly something I have to think through properly.

The last real meeting before the closing rally was “A rebel’s guide to Rosa Luxemburg” by Judy Cox. It was a very good overview of her life and thought, and I was glad I went. One question that I wanted to ask but didn’t get a chance to, though: did Rosa Luxemburg ever in her life get anything wrong? I’m just curious, because she seems to be a hero to everyone on the left. Reformers love her because she rejected Lenin’s vanguard socialism, while revolutionaries love her because she insisted on the importance of working-class revolutionary emancipation against those such as Kautsky who wanted to go down the road of reforming capitalism through the democratic process. And so every time her name is mentioned, a certain reverence tinges the conversation and all criticism is silenced.

Is it because she died so tragically young? Is it a socialist version of Elvis-mania? Or, more seriously, did she just not live long enough to make as many mistakes as others. Whatever it is, I am always left just wishing someone would say something bad about her — not because I know of any reason not to admire her, but just to break the aura of sainthood and omniscience (she predicted the gulag! She predicted New Labour!) that too often surrounds her.

Another problem I had was the apparent paradox between a belief in working-class self-emancipation and an instinct to blame the leaders when it doesn’t pan out as it should. (I’m concentrating on problems here but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the speech – overall I thought it was great. Just don’t see much point in repeating here the details of why Rosa Luxemburg is so fantastic — you can find that in many, many places.) So, the problem I had was that Judy Cox said that the German proletariat was ready for revolution at the end of World War One and the only thing that held them back was the failure of the German socialist leaders who “failed to create a German revolution.”

Well, if the German working class was truly ready to throw off the chains of capitalism, it shouldn’t have mattered in the slightest what Karl Kautsky chose to do or not do. Of course, people do look to those in powerful positions and take a cue from them. But they can also choose to ignore the politicians and chart their own course. To suggest that the failure of the German revolution was all the fault of the leadership suggests that you don’t actually have much faith in the working class to effect revolutionary change after all.

To be honest, I seize on this not because of Judy Cox particularly or even Rosa Luxemburg, but because this paradox seemed present throughout the event. I spent five days hearing that the working class will emancipate itself through revolution from below, and yet most of the discussion was about leadership and tactics from above. It suggested to me a kind of paternalistic attitude to “the workers” – of course they are the revolutionary heroes and we must salute them with raised fists, but they need guidance and direction from above if they are to make the right choices. The most truly socialist part of the whole conference for me was the meeting with the Argentinian workers who occupied their factories, and they wouldn’t even have called themselves socialists!

Anyway, on to the final rally. Here the fist-raising and standing ovations and chanting and hymn-singing all got a bit much for me, I have to confess. To be honest I’m not sure why — there’s just something that always unnerves me about mass rallies where everyone thinks and acts in exactly the same way. The herd instinct of humanity, the overriding and bypassing of individual thought processes in favour of the collective, can be put to very good uses or very bad ones, and in history the uses have mostly been bad. Although this whole thing was extremely good-natured, I just couldn’t shake the irrational fear that if a capitalist had walked on the stage he would have been set upon and lynched. Again let me emphasise, since I know things can be misinterpreted in the blogging world — I don’t for a moment think this would have happened, or that there was anything at all sinister about the gathering. It was just a feeling I had, and I recognise that the feeling is irrational and baseless but I had it nevertheless. It’s something I always struggle with. Collective acts have been the most effective at liberating people, but I never feel comfortable when that collective mind takes hold. Maybe it’s because I’m not really a “worker”, and unlike some other people have no real interest in pretending that I am. Maybe lending support from the sidelines is my role. Maybe I don’t have a role other than to get superseded and consigned to the dustbin of history. Maybe this is what makes me uncomfortable!

Well, despite the negative things I have said about the conference, I am truly glad I went. Over the five days, I can definitely say that the good far outweighed the bad. Highlights for me were the Argentinian factory workers for showing us what socialism is really all about, Slavoj Zizek for appearing to be utterly incomprehensible and yet actually communicating a lot of fascinating ideas, Michael Lowy for linking socialism and the environment very convincingly and not getting stuck in the quagmire of eco-bullshit (energy-efficient lightbulbs, carbon credits), and Tony Benn for making socialism fun.

I was also impressed by the format: roughly half an hour for the speaker, half an hour for comments from the audience, and ten minutes or so for the speaker to answer questions and wrap up. At first I was irritated by this – I wanted to hear from the expert who’d flown halfway across the world to speak to us, not from some lunatic picked out at random from the audience. However, over the five days I came to appreciate the value of this approach. Although there were some crazies and a fair number of people just taking an opportunity to publicise their pet cause, I would say the majority made intelligent and relevant comments which added something to the event and often made the speaker revise or clarify their earlier pronouncements. It also gave people a chance to get used to speaking and debating in public, and made it more of a democratic process rather than just a passive crowd listening to an expert.

And finally, with about ten events happening simultaneously for most of the conference, I am also left with a long list of speeches I would love to have heard but couldn’t: The new scramble for Africa, Latin America–rising of the people, Capitalism and food, Alienation and liberation, Culture wars in Brazil, Who really ended slavery?, Class and sect in the Middle East, Pontecorvo, Beethoven, Cultural relativism, Communal living…. And I’m only up to Friday on the timetable! Can’t wait for Marxism 2008.