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‘We can change the world’—over 1,000 at opening rally of Marxism Festival

Thousands of people have booked for the four-day political festival in central London
Issue 2862
A crowd shot of the opening rally at Marxism Festival

An electric atmosphere at the opening rally of Marxism Festival (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Rage at the system—and a mood of resistance—ran through the 1,000-strong opening rally of Marxism Festival 2023 in central London on Thursday night.

Over 3,300 people have booked for the four-day political festival, hosted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at Soas university.

Set to be the biggest Marxism Festival in a decade, it partly reflects the return of class struggle—and people wanting to debate how the strikes can win. Speakers at the event include Amazon Labor Union (ALU) president Chris Smalls from the US, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and rapper and activist Lowkey.

The opening rally followed a series of meetings during the day. Topics included Don’t touch my hair: women race and class, Frantz Fanon: decolonisation and revolution and Degrowth: what do Marxists say? Author Laura Miles launched a new pamphlet, Beyond Binaries: how can we win trans and non-binary liberation?

And in the Culture Tent, hosted by Bookmarks bookshop, Iain Ferguson launched a new edition of Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress.

The rally kicked off to huge cheers for St Mungo’s charity workers—who are on indefinite strike against poverty pay. A delegation walked onto the stage with their banner that read, “CEO salary 189k–lowest paid worker 20K.” 

Sofia, a St Mungo’s strike, said, “We, the frontline workers, are the essential workers. We support vulnerable people to achieve their dignity. How can we do that if we cannot achieve our dignity? We need more money to achieve our basic needs.

“Voting for indefinite strike was a big decision. But at this point with agency workers legally covering our strikes—which is anti-democratic and anti-strike—we can only deprive management of our skills. Then they will see how essential we are.”

The crowd broke into chants of, “The workers, united, will never be defeated,” as Sofia finished speaking. Strikers encouraged everyone to join the St Mungo’s picket lines on Friday morning. 

A picture of St Mungo's strikers with their banner on stage at Marxism Festival

St Mungo’s strikers take to the stage (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Darren Westwood works at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry, where GMB union members have staged a series of strikes over pay and built a union. He told the rally, “We went on wildcat strike last August. We worked through the pandemic and saw how much money Amazon had made.

“They told us we could have 50p extra. We sat down in the canteen and wouldn’t move. We didn’t have a union. We walked out the next day.

“We started with 30 members and we signed up 100 in a day. We grew when we walked out officially from January—and now we have over 700 members.”  He called on people to “support our strikes on the 11,12,13 July”. 

Chris Smalls, ALU union president, said, “We are standing up and fighting back for what we deserve. What we really need to talk about is revolution. I see the people who represent different movements.

“We are all in the room right now. When we say this is a revolution, this is everyone’s fight—it’s not just Amazon workers. 

“There’s nobody coming to help. We could elect progressive all you want, but we will only get breadcrumbs. So we have to come together as people and remind ourselves who really has the power.”

Smalls will speak on, Striking back: workers vs the system, on Saturday.

The last year has shown the potential power of the working class. But it has also brought home the limits of the trade union leaders, whose strategy has failed to break the Tories and bosses and win inflation-busting pay increases.

Debating how rank-and-file members win escalation—and stop bad deals—is an important theme of Marxism.

Aamer Anwar is the solicitor of the family of Sheku Bayoh who died after contact with the police in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 2015.

Speaking about the family’s fight for justice, he said, “Sheku was going through a mental health crisis. The police painted an image of a large black man, with extraordinary strength wielding a machete.” It was all false. Aamer went on, “When black men die in police custody in Britain, France or the US they’re dehumanised, stereotyped and smeared to strip them of their right to life. Why is it that black men are held responsible for their own death?”

Aamer also slammed the Tories’ Rwanda deportations plan, ruled unlawful on Thursday by the Court of Appeal. “Refugees seeking safety are not a drain on Britain’s resources,” he said. “The number of billionaires has risen to record highs. The super rich should be the target for workers’ anger, not refugees. If there were safe and legal routes refugees wouldn’t be pushed into the arms of traffickers.”

Marcia Rigg is the sister of Sean Rigg, who died at Brixton police station in south London in 2008. She said, “It’s 15 years since my brother died. In those 15 years I’ve met so many families whose loved ones have died at the hands of the state.

“I’ve learnt there is no justice. There is just us. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue the struggle. We don’t give up. Just this week we saw more failures by the Met police. A sixth murderer was involved in the death of Stephen Lawrence back in 1993. 

“Since 1990 there have been over 1,869 deaths in custody. But no one is held accountable. I learned last month that the three officers involved in Sean’s death were paid compensation.

“In 2023 they received £65,000 between them because of the length of the case. It went on for ten and a half years, and they walked free. This is a public scandal. Where there is no justice there will never be any peace.”

Lewis Nielsen, the SWP’s joint national secretary, said, “A recession is on the way—and the Tories and bosses are going to try to make us pay again. 

“That’s why the strikes are important—because they tell us that we don’t have to take it lying down. The question isn’t how we resolve the strikes—it’s not how they’re settled, it’s how they win.” 

He said every workers should take inspiration from the St Mungo’s strikers going all-out. 

Lewis said we have to take on the “Tories’ biggest weapon—divide and rule.” The festival comes at a vital time added Lewis, with fascists in parliament in Italy, France and Greece. “We don’t beat racism by compromising with it, we fight it by confronting it,” he said. 

He added, “I’m sick of people telling us that trans and LGBT+ rights have gone too far. We are clear trans women are women and trans men are men.”

He added, “All those crises are linked—and if that’s true, all our struggles have to be linked. Our power doesn’t lie with Labour. It certainly doesn’t lie with Keir Starmer, but it didn’t lie with Jeremy Corbyn or Syriza either.

“What we’ve learned from the strikes, is that working class people have power.” 

Marxism Festival continues over Friday, Saturday and Sunday—it’s not too late to book a ticket and join the debates. Check out the full timetable. 


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