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July 15, 2011

Marxism Australia

by L.D. Boromeo and Diane Fielde

Marxism 2011

We are living in interesting times and socialists are excited. The theme of this year's Marxism conference in Melbourne was "The return of revolution". Marxism 2011, organised by Socialist Alternative [Australia], featured international speakers from Egypt, Afghanistan, the US, Greece, Bahrain, Chile, the Philippines and New Zealand, a return appearance by radical journalist John Pilger, as well as veteran socialists and activists from Australia.

The Marxism conference has become a regular fixture on the Australian left calendar every Easter. It is by far the biggest left conference held in the country, having attracted around 700 people for the last three years.

Opening night featured a discussion with Anand Gopal reporting on the revolution in Egypt, Thanasis Kourkoulas on the struggle in Greece; Shaun Harkin from the International Socialist Organization [America] on the revolt in Madison, Wisconsin. After the excitement generated by the first hand accounts of revolution in the Middle East, the intense struggle against austerity in Greece, and what may still turn out to be the rebirth of the labour movement in America, it fell to SA's Diane Fieldes to return to the situation in Australia.

Building on Anand's observation that before the occupation of Tahrir Square the Egyptian people were usually thought of as demoralised and apolitical, Diane argued that you can almost never predict when the intensity of the political struggle will swing sharply upward. Where once socialists talking about the possibility of revolution tended to look out of date, having to point to Russia in 1917, now we can see revolution occurring in our lifetimes. Furthermore, a fight back is building from the Arab world, to Europe, to Wisconsin.

Socialists must prepare themselves for struggles today, because "you know not the day nor the hour" of their arrival. Unfortunately, neither Diane nor anyone else at Marxism 2011 could seriously claim that we were witnessing the end times of capitalism – at best, some ventured to suggest, Australia might experience an upturn in the struggle. The focus of the conference was on the need to build a serious socialist organisation, deeply rooted in the Marxist tradition as well as engaging actively with whatever political opportunities were offered by the current political situation.

The opening night’s focus on the "return of revolution", and in particular the inspiring events taking place in the Arab world, set the scene for the rest of the conference. Over 70 different sessions, with talks and discussions on everything from women’s liberation to radical Australian history, offered both socialist theory and a call to all participants to involve themselves in the struggle against capitalism.

The conference was divided into several streams. There were the perennial "rival ideas on the left" and "Marxist foundations" streams which featured introductory talks on the nature of the working class, the history of the Russian Revolution, the nature of the state and the Marxist explanation of oppression. There were also more theoretical talks including an introduction to Georg Lukacs, Marx's method in Capital, Marxist political economy and a very interesting talk by Lars Lih on Lenin's conception of democracy. There were multiple talks on the history of the class struggle in Australia and abroad. Finally there were the streams on current issues including the efforts to build a union movement in New Zealand, and Anand Gopal’s frontline report on Afghanistan.

Other highlights of the conference included a fiery panel on “The face of women’s oppression today” featuring author Monica Dux, academic and psychologist Cordelia Fine, and socialist Allyson Hose. Prominent Aboriginal activist Gary Foley gave a thought-provoking account of the continuing oppression of the original inhabitants of Australia and all participants in that session left with an undeniable sense that “White Australia has a black history”.

Ex-solider Chip Henriss from the anti-war soldiers’ organisation “Stand Fast” spoke on WikiLeaks and the War on Terror, and the class divisions in the Australian military. Chip helped launch Socialist Alternative member Tom O’Lincoln’s new book Australia’s Pacific War: challenging a national myth. The conference also saw the launch of the second edition of Socialist Alternative’s new theoretical journal, Marxist Left Review.

Over the years a wide range of speakers from the international and Australian left have spoken at Marxism, including John Pilger, Trevor Ngwane from South Africa, Anand Gopal and Lars Lih, and representatives from the International Socialist Organisation (US), the International Workers Left (Greece), Revolutionary Workers Party of Mindanao (Philippines), PRD (Indonesia), International Socialist Organisation (New Zealand) and Socialist Aotearoa (New Zealand). Bringing together such a significant conference every year is part of rebuilding a serious Marxist current on the Australian left.