ONE OF the most striking things about the movement against capitalist globalisation that began with the Seattle protests of November 1999 has been the relatively limited influence of Marxism within it.
By contrast, the great wave of political radicalisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s swept millions of young people towards some version or other of Marxism.
The leading spokespeople of the anti-capitalist movement today—Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy or Susan George, for example—may use some Marxist concepts, most obviously that of capitalism itself. But their overall intellectual framework is not particularly indebted to Marxism.
There is an obvious reason for this. The political upturn of the 1960s and 1970s ended in defeat for the left and a triumph for liberal capitalism, symbolised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The collapse of the Soviet Union further discredited Marxism.
This meant that resistance to neo-liberal economic policies developed in the second half of the 1990s in a relative ideological vacuum.
Many of the activists who built the new movements were veterans of the 1960s and 1970s who, having had their fingers burned in the past, were wary about returning to Marxist debates.
Of course, revolutionary Marxists have helped to build the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. This is true, for example, of the Socialist Workers Party and its sister organisations in the International Socialist Tendency.
But we have had to fight to show that Marxist ideas have any relevance to the struggles of today. In many ways this is no bad thing. It stops us being complacent.
Moreover, much of what passed for Marxism 30 years ago took the Stalinist tyranny in Russia as the model of socialism. Ideas of this kind largely deserved to die.
But now there are definite signs of a reviving interest in Marxist theory. I spent most of last weekend at a conference in London, “Capital, Empire and Revolution”, sponsored by two very different journals.
The first, Socialist Register, is one of the most distinguished products of the old New Left that emerged after the international Communist movement first went into crisis in 1956.
The second, Historical Materialism, is a much younger journal in every respect. Founded in the late 1990s, it has quickly developed into a major venue for Marxist research and theoretical debate.
The conference was organised by Historical Materialism on a shoestring and advertised only on the internet. It was astonishingly successful—250 people registered. The attendance at a series of packed sessions was overwhelmingly young.
The papers given by speakers from Europe, North America and India were of very high standard. There were plenary sessions on resistance to capitalism and imperialism North and South, and on Marx’s labour theory of value.
Neil Davidson and Benno Teschke, joint recipients of the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, debated the great bourgeois revolutions that created the political framework for modern capitalism.
And the final symposium on imperialism organised by Socialist Register brought together, among others, Tony Benn, Ellen Wood, Peter Gowan and Leo Panitch (the editor of Socialist Register) to offer their different takes on the current global crisis.
There were plenty of disagreements on all these issues. But what ran through all the discussions was a shared sense that Marxist theory matters. This is the first time that I have felt that at a conference of the academic left for many years.
The tumults of the past few years are beginning to push growing numbers of young people towards Marxism as a means of making sense of the world.
Revolutionary socialists must engage intellectually with them, and try to help them make the next step and see that Marxist political organisation is also needed actually to change the world.