Around 2,700 people gathered at the Marxism 2016 festival last weekend. Hundreds heard former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg address the opening rally on Thursday of last week.
Newly elected People Before Profit MP Brid Smith from Ireland also spoke alongside French train driver Axel Persson and others. Sheila Coleman from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign spoke about the struggle to expose state injustice.
She said, “The police got away with their behaviour because it was sanctioned by the state.”
The event, hosted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), took place at a time of intense political crisis.
Discussions about the meaning and implications of the Leave vote in the European Union referendum ran through it (see right).
Activists debated how socialists should relate to the Labour Party, the state of fascist groups in Britain, the level of class struggle and much more.
Karen Reissmann introduced a session on From Benn to Blair—Labour from the 1970s to the 1990s.
She described how Labour’s strategy of electing left wing candidates to councils only saw them coming under pressure to make more cuts.
Speakers in a number of meetings stressed the need to build activity outside parliament to fend off attacks and defend Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Writer Tariq Ali introduced a meeting on The American Empire and its Discontents. He argued that the US was an “ultra imperialist” power that had united other advanced capitalist powers under its leadership.
He said, “The dominance of the US remains unchallenged.” In the discussion others argued that Ali underplayed the weaknesses of US imperialism.
Alex Callinicos introduced a meeting on Imperialism Today. He said the failure of the US in Iraq was a “bigger defeat” than the one it suffered in Vietnam.
Weyman Bennett introduced a discussion on the state of the Nazis in Britain. He stressed the need to properly define fascism as a specific threat to the working class and democracy.
Weyman said anti-fascists had held back the Nazis in Britain, but their frustration meant they could be “incredibly violent”.
He and others stressed that the main focus for anti-racists in Britain is not fascist groups but fighting racism in the mainstream.
Alex Kenny from the NUT union joined a panel meeting on resisting Prevent and Islamophobia. A speaker from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said this racism “has not emerged since the Brexit vote. It was years of drip, drip.”
Socialists and activists from across the globe spoke at the event. Ron Margulies introduced a meeting on Turkey, Syria and the Kurds. Ilan Pappe spoke on Israel–the apartheid state while Lucia Pradella looked at migrant struggles in Italy.
Stathis Kouvelakis and Panos Garganos discussed Greece and Syriza today. Stathis said it was “a lie” to say that Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras “had no choice” in pushing through austerity in Greece.
Panos said the “majority of the working class in Greece is to the left of Alexis Tsipras”.
Sheila Coleman, Gareth Peirce and Joe Rollin led off an emotional meeting on the lessons of Hillsborough and Orgreave for justice campaigns.
Courses explored aspects of Marxist theory including alienation, the dialectic, exploitation and accumulation. Other meetings debated the origins of women’s oppression, gene editing, art and revolution and Shakespeare.
Serious debates reflected the gravity of the political crisis. But there was also a strong sense that ordinary people can shape events in a left direction.
Important debate over what the EU referendum result means
Socialist Worker editor Charlie Kimber introduced a session on After the Leave vote–what is the way forward for the British left?
He said the vote was an “anti-establishment” one. Racism was an element in the vote, but this racism is also “mainstream and long term”.
Two Labour Party members who had voted Remain spoke in the discussion, and stressed the need for the left to unite in fighting racism and austerity.
The Leave vote was a feature of many other meetings too. Panos Garganas from Greece said ordinary people there felt the Leave vote “gives them more strength to resist”. Marnie Holborow from Ireland said there were “claps and cheers” at the vote because “it was such a blow against the elites”.
Green Party deputy leader Shahrar Ali and SWP member Joseph Choonara discussed where next after the EU referendum. Shahrar said he was “disappointed” at the Leave vote. But he said it was “patronising” to claim that people had “voted in ignorance” and he did not back a second referendum.
Joseph said the Leave vote had implications that go “way beyond this country” in damaging the EU and weakening Nato. “The EU has acted as a last line of defence for capitalism,” he said. “We have to welcome a defeat for a neoliberal organisation.”
Both speakers stressed the opportunities for the left to build on the deep discontent shown by the Leave vote, and the need to challenge racism.
One speaker from the floor said that the vote had encouraged the right. But another said people had voted “to give Cameron a kicking”.
And another said ordinary people had “contradictory ideas” that meant anger could be channelled into fear of immigration—and socialists had to challenge this.
Lauren Barnes, Manchester student
“There are so many meetings at Marxism. You can choose what’s important to you and meet people interested in the same things.
“The panel discussion on fighting Islamophobia and sexism with Nahella Ashraf and Maz Saleem was really good. It had four minority women on the platform–I haven’t seen that before.”
Joanna Papa-Serjura, Brighton student
“I’ve always been interested in Marxism and decided to study modern history because of that. I’d never heard of a solution to the system until I heard of socialism.
“I saw a poster for the festival and came to see what the SWP’s ideas were about.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve been here since Friday and I don’t want to go home. It feels great when you meet a lot of like-minded people.”
Hannah, PCS union rep from National Museum Wales
“I’ve become more involved in class struggle politics through our dispute. I’ve become a rep and got active in grassroots struggles.
“It was a huge honour to speak at the opening rally and I’ve ended up staying for the whole five days.
I’ve made links with people here. The level of debates has been impressive—it’s been really eye-opening. I’ll definitely come next year.”
Stuart Brown, Labour Party member
“It’s the third or fourth time I’ve been to Marxism. It’s important to recharge your batteries. It helps me to get a focus for all the arguments going on. Two years ago I went to all the theory meetings. But now it’s all kicking off, so it’s good to talk more about what we do now.”