Over a thousand people filled Friends House in central London last night for a packed opening rally of the Marxism 2009 festival.
Over the next five days the festival will host more than 200 political discussions along with music, theatre and art shows. Thousands of people from around the world will attend.
The event takes place at a time of one of the biggest economic and ideological crises that capitalism has ever seen. At the same time as workers have taken more militant and unofficial action in the face of massive attacks on their jobs and conditions, the fascist British National Party (BNP) has been able to latch onto the crisis to make some gains.
Speakers at the rally reflected the rapidly changing times we are living in – and outlined the key tasks for socialists today.
Rachel Bennett, chair of Unite Against Fascism at Leeds University, opened the rally. She spoke of her shock at finding herself represented by a member of the BNP in the European parliament. But she also spoke of the fantastic response of anti-fascists in the city.
“People organised very quickly against the BNP after the election,” she said. “People in Yorkshire and Humberside are not more racist than people anywhere else. But they live in places heavily hit by the recession and have been let down by mainstream political parties.”
Rachel also spoke of the need for the left to unite to provide an alternative to both the mainstream parties and the Nazis.
She outlined upcoming activity for anti-fascists, including protesting at the BNP's “Red, White and Blue” festival to be held in Derbyshire in August, and was applauded when she said, “The Red, White and Blue festival must be shut down.”
International speakers brought news of mass workers' action and victories for the left.
Vanina from France's New Anti Capitalist Party (NPA) spoke to the rally about the wave of protests and strikes that have been sweeping France over the past few months and said it was especially notable that there was a “new, militant generation developing”.
Richard Boyd Barrett from the People Before Profit Alliance in Ireland described the fantastic election results in Ireland in the recent local and European elections.
“There has been a dramatic breakthrough for socialists and the radical left,” he said. “I know the picture here is not so rosy. But people across the world recognise that the bankers and the rich are behind this crisis and the only question they have is whether there is a united, credible alternative.
“We have shown that it is possible to create one that can win popular support, and that potential exists everywhere.”
Richard McEwan, a UCU lecturers’ union branch secretary at Tower Hamlets college in east London who is striking today against cuts, told the rally about the inspirational campaign to save jobs and courses at the college.
“The three and a half weeks since the cuts were announced have been the most intense and exciting that I can remember,” he said. “We have had unofficial walkouts, student protests, a huge march through Tower Hamlets and we will be on strike tomorrow.
“There has been an audacious level of resistance at Tower Hamlets. But we know that the biggest fight is coming in September – and we need to link up with the rest of the public sector to win it.”
Alex Callinicos from the Socialist Workers Party closed the rally. “It's important to keep in mind that we are confronted by the biggest crisis we have ever seen,” he said.
“It's very important that we don't fall for the argument that the 'green shoots' of recovery mean that the crisis is over.
“We are seeing brutal cuts as governments and the bosses try to make workers pay. Gordon Brown's government is miserably weak and pathetic – but it doesn't mean that workers in Britain will have an easy run.
“The best way to prepare to resist the coming attacks is to start fighting now. The struggles at Visteon and the recent walkouts at the Lindsey Oil Refinery show that militancy and solidarity can win.
“I think that we will beat the Nazis. But I don't want to keep having to fight them. The only way we can get rid of them for good, along with all the attacks on workers, oppression and inequality, is to get rid of the capitalist system that causes them.”
Many of those at Marxism this year are here for the first time. Irina, a student in Britain and member of the Workers Party in Argentina, said she had come because she wanted to get back involved in campaigning.
Fodey, a student at Birkbeck college, is also at Marxism for the first time.
“I agree with a lot of what socialists say about workers, human nature and how society should be run,” he said. “I came here because I feel like I'm a socialist.”
For details of Marxism go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk