There was a lot about the enemy being capitalism, but nothing much when it comes to strategy. Scott Evans reports on the SWP’s weekend festival in Glasgow
Last weekend I attended the Socialist Workers Party’s ‘Marxism in Scotland’ festival,1 though I was only able to be present at three of the available eight parallel sessions (with 18 total individual sessions). The ones I attended were: ‘Revolt in an age of catastrophe’ (opening rally), ‘The new age of catastrophe’ (Alex Callinicos’s book launch), and ‘No rainbow capitalism: fighting for LGBT and liberation’.
The opening rally, ‘Revolt in an age of catastrophe’, featured a panel of speakers (not all SWP), discussing a handful of independent topics (strikes, Palestine, police violence, etc) for about 10 minutes each. Some of them spoke well, but, as this was a rally, there was little to delve into or criticise here. In each case what was being discussed was an injustice, its source, and some positive take-away on what has concretely been won.
The one identifiable big idea or ‘strategy’ is, as usual, ‘one size fits all’ streets and strikes, including for combating the far right. Contributions from the floor in the other two sessions were commonly also rally-esque, as it is the only thing a lot of the rank and file seem to be well trained in: identify and point to injustice, such as general or particular instances of poverty, alienation, homelessness, police violence, environmental degradation, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc; then point to the enemies, such as capitalists and bosses, landlords, police, the right, etc; next, cheerlead strikes and bring these broader ideas around injustice to picket lines; and shout about it all on the streets and online.
The second session, on Callinicos’s The new age of catastrophe,2 can be summed up by a twist on Rosa Luxemburg’s maxim that what we face is a choice between socialism or barbarism. For Callinicos, barbarism has arrived, and the question now is instead ‘socialism through barbarism’ (‘through’ not in the sense of ‘by means of’, but ‘passing through’). Or, in his words, “revolution through catastrophe” rather than revolution to prevent it. For what it is worth, I always understood ‘barbarism’ in the Luxemburg sense as being something mutually exclusive from capitalism as we know it: more like a generalised warlordism, which massively depopulates, deindustrialises and deglobalises production - a sort of catastrophic non-mode of production.
Beyond this, the book looks to our present “multi-dimensional crisis” and for each aspect names the fundamental driver as the capitalist system. For example, “Putin’s nuclear war is capitalism coming to kill us” - despite the fact, Callinicos says, that it is not even in the interest of the capitalist class to wage nuclear war. He picks out all the various environmental crises as being one of the key issues, where naming the system is essential and through which one can reach a new layer with socialist ideas - we agree; see Jack Conrad’s The little red climate book!3
It is a “new age” in comparison to the “first age of catastrophe”, which in his talk he referred to as the early 20th century ending in 1945. What distinguishes the first from the second age is that the first age was an economic and geopolitical catastrophe, driven by “fossil capitalism”, driving capitalist growth and eventually the industrial war machine, plus the long depression and inter-imperial conflict (Michael Roberts was mentioned here). The second age is a biological catastrophe, consisting of climate breakdown and pandemics, and we also see the return of the spectre of inter-imperialist war, this time between the USA and China (he started the book before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
I did not quite get the full gist of what Callinicos was trying to say when he referenced Walter Benjamin’s writing on progress in On the concept of history, but it seemed to me as if he was doing two things: the first of which I agree with; and the second of which I do think has some merit if one avoids ‘degrowth’ traps.
First, criticising the notion of ‘inevitable progress’ as not just being wrong, but actually positively demotivating political action and covering people’s eyes to the sheer gravity of the emergency situation we find ourselves in. Equally, ‘inevitable doom’ as doing the same; Extinction Rebellion he sees as a positive example of a group which helped to push back on this fatalism.
Second, the notion of socialist revolution not as a great leap forward, but an emergency brake. Personally, I think a 21st century socialist revolution is necessarily a mix of both. It will involve a radical reallocation of labour away from obsolete and wasteful production (advertising, finance, ‘here today, bin tomorrow’ toys and widgets, huge military outlays, etc), which may result in many fewer labour hours (because all the crap is done away with) or many more (to get the whole world up to a comfortable standard of living) labour hours, spent in reproducing society in the first years of socialist planning. All this will certainly need to be balanced, so as to radically reduce “negative externalities” through reducing output or by pursuing green technologies - or both. Whatever will actually be the case, my conclusion from a “mix of both” is a fairly modest one with regards to agitation and propaganda: you can appeal to different political temperaments among the working class by sometimes stressing the revolutionary leap aspect, sometimes the conserving our world, plus the standard-of-living aspect of socialist revolution.
The third session I attended, ‘No rainbow capitalism: fighting for LGBT and liberation’, contained some Marxism on issues of oppression - specifically around sexuality and gender - but also many frustrating elements of how this is often approached on the left.
Tomáš Tengely-Evans was the main speaker from the panel. The other one was too rushed in what he said for me to follow along easily, and did not seem to directly address the title very well; if one already agrees transphobia, homophobia, and so on have to be tackled by socialists, that rightists are awful on the issues, and that ‘pinkwashing’ of Israel is to be resisted, there was not much there to grapple with, as far as I heard.
One side of Tengely-Evans’ talk attempted to take a historical-materialist approach to sexuality, which will probably be fairly familiar to most readers, focusing on the family - especially the nuclear family - as the key source of repression under capitalism. This contrasts to prior modes of production, where the family household was less of a key unit in societal reproduction and so where this unfreedom was absent or less pronounced. Additionally, with capitalism is created the idea of LGBT+ as a matter of being, a social identity. Discrimination based on act (or role-in-act - eg, ‘bottoming’) becomes under capitalism a more pronounced repression based on being. Because of these changes in class and family relations and attendant re-conceptualisations of sexual identity as such, LGBT+ people under capitalism have become more systematically oppressed as LGBT+ people, and alongside this a repressive heteronormativity took root in society.
As for the title’s promised strategy, all we got is: ‘The ruling class uses identity issues to divide us, so we need to overcome those divisions’. True as far as it goes, but this alone does not amount to much. Later added to this from the floor was the idea of “first they came for ...” as a powerful motivator of solidarity, including between sexual, gender and racial majorities/minorities. A couple of people argued that it is impossible to bring socialism about, while some identity or minority rights are left behind, because “we aren’t free until we’re all free” (a principle of the socialist movement, but surely not an explanation for this so-called inevitability) and the most oppressed among the working class will necessarily rise to the forefront of the movement for socialism. Another argued that oppression cannot persist after the revolution for long, because the abolition of class will result in its withering away in fairly short order.
One of the key thrusts of the talk and the contributions from the floor was the idea that all oppression based on identity is rooted in the capitalist system - this was further expanded (or ‘corrected’) in the course of discussion to class society in general. Going along with this, throughout all of the contributions were fairly numerous references to pre-capitalist and especially pre-class society which were a bit underdeveloped. Engels’ work on this got a citation, but it is disappointingly very rare to hear more modern ethnography and anthropology mentioned before speaking so authoritatively on it, especially as some of the cruder ideas around this come close to being little more than ‘just so’ stories about angelic human nature, with a couple of skim-read 19th century citations, and sometimes approach the ‘noble savage’ idea. We do not have to overegg it to be convinced that human nature is communistic.
Some of the discussion was lacking in a more dynamical and emergent view of how some phenomena come about: ie, not variants of ‘The ruling class decided to create the nuclear family’, and a more variegated understanding of different family structures outside of the patriarchal nuclear family, which continue to exist under capitalism. Surprisingly, none of the speakers spoke on religious institutions, which I would suggest are an important second community beyond the family to consider as part of this.
Any significant oppression or bigotry outside ‘the west’ was described by some as being created by capitalism and then exported by colonialism, with some going so far as to say that this cannot or should not be addressed without overthrowing capitalism or certain aspects of the imperialist world system. This seems in contradiction with the point about overcoming divisions, unless revolution is to be delivered to the rest of the world by a revolutionary wave emerging purely from within the imperial core, with little antecedent development in the periphery.4 Where is the negative and positive agency of those in ‘non-western’ countries here, both in terms of having a hand in producing and reproducing oppressive/repressive laws and institutions and of having the possibility of challenging this now without waiting for the end of capitalism or some specific imperial order?
While the correct Marxist position was expressed on speaking for the whole of the oppressed, while insisting on maintaining independent working class organisation and rejecting cross-class organisational unity, nothing concrete was elaborated on this and a bit of introspection on the popular-frontist history of Stand Up To Racism and initiatives like it would have been nice - though the Gay Liberation Front was cited a number of times as a concrete positive example of an ‘identity movement’ worth following.
The ‘class reductionists’ were also mentioned, who, according to those who spoke, think identity is a mere distraction from bread-and-butter or more fundamental issues. Certainly there are some so-called Marxists who largely just want to sweep under the rug issues of transphobia, racism, homophobia and so on until ‘after the revolution’. But the way in which this question was dealt with highlights a common issue, meaning that the session was not as enlightening as it could have been: namely the method of picking the ‘most stupid, but actually existing’ or one-dimensionalised picture of one’s opponent and attacking that. Perhaps some group of thinkers is missing something very obvious, working from bad assumptions or ‘arguing in bad faith’, but at least do them and yourselves the benefit of approaching things at least once with serious engagement.
We all pretty much agree on the need to name the system, when confronted with instances of exploitation, oppression or domination under capitalism. The Lenin quote, beginning “the Social Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people”, is relevant here and was mentioned in this session. But sometimes when I hear someone do this ‘capitalism reveal’, and especially over the course of this weekend, I cannot help but think of the term ‘scooby-doo Marxism’, I believe first coined by the journal Chuang in its article, ‘Social contagion: microbiological class war in China’ on the Covid outbreak: “the simple ‘scooby-doo Marxist’ exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes indeed, it was capitalism … all along”.
marxism.scot, around 500 tickets sold.↩︎
There is some important truth in this. See: migrantsrights.org.uk/2023/02/24/homophobia-british-empire-export; and E Han and J O’Mahoney British colonialism and the criminalization of homosexuality Cambridge 2014.↩︎