HM conference: Theory in exile

The ninth annual conference of Historical Materialism journal provides a snapshot of the academic left, writes James Turley

Every autumn, what feels like the entire population of that strange territory, academic Marxism, descends upon the campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The candle-flame which draws the moths is the annual conference of Historical Materialism, a quarterly journal of “critical Marxist theory”, and rapidly becoming an institution on the left.

Satellite events have sprung up as far afield as Toronto and New Delhi, and on a left calendar when international speakers are regularly billed as “a Greek worker”, or “an Egyptian activist”, the genuine cosmopolitanism of both conference and journal is one of many things worthy of respect, airing serious voices from all continents and a good many divergent theoretical traditions.

The theoretical cosmopolitanism is the main draw, and equally at the root of many of the problems. Though I have attended the conference a few times before (usually fleetingly), this was the first time I delivered a paper myself. My talk was on the young Georg Lukács’s theory of class-consciousness, as it relates specifically to the party form; I shared the panel with Ian Jakobi and Amy Wendling, whose papers concerned Marx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right and the domination of consciousness by abstract time, respectively.

These were, by any measure, three papers that significantly diverged in subject matter. Chair Paul Reynolds hoped that discussion would allow them to cross-pollinate productively, but an hour of openings and a bit of housekeeping left about 40 minutes of debate, and in the event the bulk of discussion focused on comrade Wendling’s paper.

This should not be interpreted as the griping of a bruised ego. My paper was a necessarily compressed version of an opening for this year’s Communist University,1 and turned on technical points in Lukács’s arguments that would be necessarily abstruse for those unfamiliar with the fine grain of History and class consciousness. Comrade Jakobi’s paper, similarly, focused in considerable detail on a single text, and offered a fairly uncontroversial interpretation. Conversely, we all have a phenomenal experience of time under capitalism - and thus something to say about it.

HM conference consists of two broad varieties of panel. There are those consciously designed and proposed as a collection of related work; and there are those cobbled together out of what is left. Unsurprisingly, the former are more successful in generating debate and discussion; but time for discussion is pinched for everyone, simply because so much is crammed into the timetable. There are four sessions per full day, with 10 panels per session and three or four papers per panel. The most masochistically rigorous attendee will see at most 10% of what is on offer (plus the three evening lectures and plenaries).

The sardine-can arrangement of sessions has certain consequences for the overall patterns of debate over the weekend, with people free (obviously) to attend whatever they want. The consequence is that they tend to go to sessions on matters of direct interest to themselves. It is possible, broadly speaking, to pick your way through the schedule without ever meeting a direct discussion on political economy; and equally possible to do so without seeing anything else.

Falling in the void

The story is less true, but not by much, of particular theoretical frameworks. I attended two out of the three sessions directly engaged with the philosopher, Louis Althusser (to no regular Weekly Worker reader’s surprise): one concerning Althusserian theories of law and another which launched a new collection that surveys the state of Althusserian research at the present time.2

The session on law focused on Althusser’s early book on Montesquieu. This is partly due to the fact that this book sees Althusser engaging most directly with the subject of law; and some of the discussion was interesting on this point. David McInerney’s paper argued that this reading of Montesquieu was compromised by, in a sense, having come too early - before the fundamental theoretical tools of his philosophy were in place. A speaker from the floor questioned whether the Althusserian obsession with the notion of the subject did not slide into metaphysics when confronted with British law, which is not based on the notion of a legal subject, equivalent to continental juridical notions.

Yet there is another reason why the Montesquieu book takes up such a great prominence here – which is, paradoxically, that Althusserian scholarship is presently obsessed with the last works of his career, focused on a theory of random encounters as an alternative to theories of historical causality. The great ‘image’ of the encounter comes from classical Greek atomism, via Lucretius: there is a rain of atoms in the void; one swerves and strikes another; a new world is formed out of the resulting pile-up.

Within the academic discourse on this theory, the Montesquieu book has come to be seen as a remarkable theoretical prototype. Comrade McInerney was right to raise methodological problems of missing out 20 years of work, except to assimilate the relevant parts that fit neatly enough; but on the whole the Althusser ‘stream’ at HM tended to reinforce the already existing fashion in this micro-corner of academic Marxism.

Many people will have struggled to stifle a yawn at the last four paragraphs; this is both fair enough, and points to problems in the general HM edifice. HM is, first and foremost, an academic project. The short sessions are cramped by the standards of the far left, but pretty run of the mill for academic conferences. And HM has always looked every inch an academic journal, and is published by the Dutch academic publishers, Brill. It is available primarily to university libraries, through the usual Athens/Shibboleth sign-in portals.

Unlike most academic journals, however, HM is neither focused on a particular discipline - political economy, literature, whatever - nor on a particular aggregation of theoretical perspectives. “Critical Marxist theory” turns out to include Brenner and Badiou alike. It is often remarked that there are more disputes within Marxism than between it and bourgeois theory. Yet at this point, it would seem that it is less a matter of disputes than a primitive accumulation of almost wholly separate discourses, falling in the void like Lucretius’s atoms.

Academic Marxism

Thus the character of the HM journal, which covers the most abstruse papers on the theory of value, but also gave over almost an entire issue to Mark Bould and China Miéville for a symposium on fantasy literature and film; and the character of the conference, which is something like 10 academic conferences taking place in the same place at the same time.

What does this tell us about academic Marxism today? There is a certain contrast with the 1970s ‘scene’, which is worth drawing out. Marxism, at that time, did have a serious outpost in the academy. There were journals such as Telos, which focused on the Hegelian neo-Marxism that rediscovered Lukács, Adorno and others. There were others, like the film journal, Screen, which became dominated by a quasi-Althusserian academic tendency, and produced obscure but often illuminating work on the ideology of the cinema. Cultural studies as a discipline, driven by the famous centre at Birmingham University, pushed variants of Marxism as an explanatory framework for cultural production. Meanwhile, an ecosystem of political-economic work, ranging from Monthly Review to Critique, thrived in this period.

It is not exactly all gone. Critique remains as a scholarly journal with clear Marxist commitments, as do the (increasingly obscure) likes of Capital and Class, but their collective influence is on the wane. Screen is stuck in the same post-post-modernist rut as everyone else; Telos ditched Adorno for the dubious inheritance of the Nazi political theorist, Carl Schmitt.

Partly this is due to the protean nature of the ideas on offer themselves. Literary criticism and economy, to take two examples, are very different disciplines, with different levels of direct reliance on the lived concrete realities they analyse. It is simply far more difficult to ‘prove’ convincingly that Marxism is a more effective technique for formal cultural analysis than for economics (not impossible, though). So the political economy journals loped on, while cultural theory was colonised by post-structuralism and subsequent ideas.

Yet the more fundamental problem is this: society is less Marxist today than it once was. There exist no mass organisations of the working class committed to any version of Marxism in Britain today. The Communist Party was once able to provide an (often indirect) pole of attraction to intellectuals and academics; its cohering role in the labour movement actually benefited other trends, such as Trotskyism and the broader new left, however much it hated them.

Theory and practice

HM has managed to cut against the general trend of decomposition in the academic left. It manages this partly through sheer bloody-mindedness and hard graft on the part of the core editorial team, as well as innumerable proof-readers and the like. It has accumulated a good amount of savoir faire as regards obtaining funding for particular projects from various research councils and foundations; although such funds are limited by the days we live in.

It also benefits from close links with the Socialist Workers Party. Whatever one might accuse Alex Callinicos of, the SWP’s leading ‘red professor’ does not lack enthusiasm for high-level Marxist theory. To be less complimentary, he is a dedicated follower of academic left fashion. He wrote on Althusser and in the 90s was deeply engaged with critical realism (and whatever happened to that?); and one of his openings at HM conference this year was on Alain Badiou, whose attempts to prove Maoism with set theory and Pauline theology have proven bizarrely modish recently.

As HM approaches the directly political, it becomes – in Lukács's terms – 'contemplative'. Various movements and political projects get lip service, but the political consequences of the theory on offer for the movements under discussion become oddly obscured.

A paper by Panagiotis Sotiris asked the question: “is there an Althusserian politics?” He concluded with a series of points that attempted to crystallise the cryptic relation between Althusser and the political into a series of theses, which were at once too vague for activists and too specific for rigorous readers of Althusser. If the latter has one abiding political lesson, which flows both from his best work and his worst political interventions, it is that philosophy does not produce meaningful imperatives alone, but is entirely reliant on the class struggle and the state of theory more generally.

The accidental relationship between theory, philosophy and practice is in fact paradigmatic of all left intellectual currents, whose existence is never their own. Their authentic fusion is immensely productive and a condition of serious political work, but no theoretical framework guarantees it.

In the SWP's modus operandi, the three characteristically become separated; and philosophy is left – as it were – falling in the void, waiting for something to collide with it. (If anyone mentions Badiou at this weekend's Unite the Resistance conference, I will personally buy them a pint.) HM is, page for page and seminar for seminar, one of the greatest assets we have as a movement. Its limitations are ultimately the limitations of the far left as a whole.


1. http://vimeo.com/52145416.

2. P Thomas, K Diefenbach et al (eds) Encountering Althusser Bloomsbury, forthcoming.