Splendid talking shop

James Turley reports on the Historical Materialism conference


Hundreds of leftwing academics and students gathered last weekend for the annual Historical Materialism conference. HM is a relatively prominent journal of ‘critical Marxist theory’, principally operated by Socialist Workers Party members and supporters as a complement to their International Socialism, which we may call a journal of uncritical Marxist theory.

Whatever the exact attendance figure, it was pretty good, and included a great many from outside the country, principally North Americans. This for an event put on by what is at times a very esoteric academic journal, with an admirably schizophrenic editorial policy, which has seen special issues on everything from fantasy to money, to collections of responses to influential texts. This was well reflected in the conference programme, which organised a quite bewildering array of topics, with as many as 10 in each time slot.

Academic Marxist ‘celebrities’ were in evidence as well, with the influential cultural theorist, Fredric Jameson, addressing the closing plenary, and the semi-autonomist Hegelian guru, Moishe Postone, among others presenting papers.

The standard of discussion followed the usual pattern of academic Marxism - that is, the closer one gets to politics proper, the lower the political level. I attended a few sessions on the first day (the rest conflicted with prior political engagements), which included an interesting discussion of science fiction basically in promotion of the new collection Red planets: Marxism and science fiction. Co-editors China Miéville and Mark Bould were present, chairing and presenting a paper respectively, and the discussion was interesting and productive.

On the other end of the scale, a session on ‘Agency, class, subjectivity’ was fairly dire. The second platform speaker, Sheila Cohen, castigated leftists, including the SWP, for turning up on the factory floor with political programmes instead of just building the struggle (SWPers present would have been mortally offended by such a slander …). Against this, she posed as a productive mode of activity the American periodical Labor Notes, published by a rather inert left regroupment organisation, Solidarity. Its purpose is to bring workers into awareness of each other’s struggles; it is, needless to say, marginally less exciting a read than somebody’s tax returns.

The discussion, unbelievably, consisted mostly of people agreeing with her - she and others criticised another platform speaker, a young grad student talking about worker-student unity in May 1968, for suggesting that any political organisation was necessary at all. How dare he be so concerned with the demands of workers who occupied factories - couldn’t he see that the occupations themselves were revolutionary?

I made the point that we are obviously still talking about the revolution in the future tense, and so simply occupying factories was not revolutionary per se. The point was political leadership - only the French Communist Party had sufficient penetration into the class to provide that leadership, and it used that penetration to mislead the class. What was necessary was a political battle against the PCF (or within it against the bureaucracy) to inherit that power. Comrade Cohen did not respond seriously to my intervention, and replied to the 1968 speaker in a basically confused fashion.

These are the limits of the academic left today - “The point is to change it” drops off everybody’s lips, but every detour of theory takes them further away from politics and programme. This is even obvious from the choice of Marxist texts we work from. Hegelians prefer the 1844 manuscripts; Althusserians prefer Capital (Hegelians, of course, also like the latter’s chapter on commodity fetishism). Nobody prefers the Critique of the Gotha Programme or the Civil war in France. The result is a statement such as Miéville’s that “the lived reality of capitalism is commodity fetishism”, or Cohen’s symptomatic slip into describing Marxism as a theory of the labour process. The academics live in sublime objectivity, tracing the process of capital as a machine which ‘works on its own’, or the myriad links between culture and material existence. It is no surprise that politics should also seem to ‘work on its own’. Practice (or lack thereof) distorts theory.

The academy has provided a home for Marxist thinkers, but not its natural home - that would be the party.