Last week the sixth anniversary of the protests in Seattle passed without much notice. The passage of time has, however, if anything underlined the importance of the challenge that demonstrators mounted to the World Trade Organisation summit on 30 November 1999.
It marked the beginning of a new wave of political radicalisation that continues to find expression in events last summer as diverse as the protests at the G8 summit in Scotland, the defeat of the European constitution in the French referendum, and the rising in Bolivia for the renationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbon reserves.
One remarkable feature of this radicalisation has been the relatively peripheral role initially played in it by Marxist ideas. This is in marked contrast with, for example, the great wave of students’ and workers’ struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Then it seemed natural for the young activists involved in these struggles to gravitate towards some version or other of Marxism — often Maoism, sometimes Trotskyism.
It is easy enough to see why things should have been different this time round. The revolutionary left went into deep crisis in the late 1970s, a process that was reinforced by the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement in the subsequent two decades.
Even the fall of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, though a liberation from bureaucratic tyranny, was generally viewed as a death blow for the Marxist left.
So it’s not surprising that the new movements that emerged in the course of the 1990s no longer looked towards Marxism. However, they weren’t quite as new as their rhetoric sometimes suggested.
Many leading activists were veterans of the 1960s and 1970s, some of them still Marxists. But they adopted a kind of self-denying ordinance, proclaiming their movements “autonomous” of traditional politics and excluding parties from the social forums.
This was always a silly idea. Organising struggles against the entire logic of neo-liberal capitalism and imperialist war is the most political thing imaginable. The logic of the anti-capitalist movement drove it into the political field.
In Germany the new Left Party has drawn in many activists who have been involved in the German Social Forum and in the very lively national branch of Attac, which campaigns against financial speculation.
It’s against this background that I found myself speaking last month in Berlin at the opening session of a conference entitled Capitalism Reloaded. It was an amazing event.
Around 800 people, most of them young, were packed into a lecture hall in Humboldt University. They heard the radical sociologist Giovanni Arrighi, the leading German Marxist Frank Deppe and me discuss the nature and future of imperialism.
This was the start of a weekend of intense discussion on a very wide range of issues. An excellent plenary session discussed how work has changed under neo-liberalism and there was a very stimulating workshop on European imperialism.
Berlin is a stronghold of the quasi-anarchist autonomists, who are hostile to Marxism and often don’t unequivocally oppose the Bush war-drive. But one of the main threads running through the entire conference was the Marxist critique of capitalism and the theory of imperialism that flows from it.
I don’t think the Berlin congress was just a flash in the pan. As the movement develops and has to grapple with tough and complex political issues, the demand grows for a harder-edged theory that can help activists in addressing these problems.
Marxism doesn’t have all the answers. One of the disagreements between Arrighi and me concerned whether the classical Marxist theory of imperialism, developed by Lenin and Bukharin during the First World War, is still relevant in its stress on the rivalries among the leading capitalist states.
Marxism can only live as an intellectual and political tradition if it engages in an open-minded and critical way with the present. But the Berlin congress showed that it is beginning to connect with a new generation of activists.