Report from Historical Materialism conference

Members from Middlesbrough SWP attended the recent Historical Materialism conference in London hosted by the journal of the same name. The event attracted around seven hundred people from across the world. The first meeting we attended was a debate on the economic crisis lead by Alfredo Saad Filho, Ben Fine, Hugo Radice and Dick Bryan. Fine emphasised neo-liberalism as the state intervening for the benefit of the elite while Saad Filho critiqued Post Keynesian theories that seek to reform the system rather than overthrow it. It went downhill from here with Radice repeating an idea that should be redundant after the bailing out of the banks I.e that the state isn’t important for capitalism anymore. Bryan meanwhile focused his attention on the big business opportunity that involves selling security for risky financial trading. The entire panel rubbished the idea of the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” without giving much justification for their views. This left a gap in all their theories, namely why did Capital and states move to financialisation if profit could be made in the so called “real” economy of industry.

The next meeting was a highlight with leading member of the SWP Alex Callinicos launching his new book Imperialism and global political economy. Callinicos chose to focus on some of the problems of Lenin and Bukharin’s theories of Imperialism for example the idea that they do not integrate an adequate theory of economic crisis. Drawing on David Harvey’s work Callinicos emphasises Imperialism as the relationship between geo-political and economic concerns with one not being determinate. This got some stick mainly from other SWP member Colin Barker who would prefer to establish one logic of Imperialism rather than the two logics Harvey outlines (Territorial and Capitalist logic). I asked the question whether Harvey’s theory of “accumulation by dispossession” could lead to economic determinism in terms of finding motives for wars (Afghanistan for pipelines). Callinicos answered it could, however Harvey does not use it in a deterministic way.

Other highlights included an entertaining speech by Feminist Hester Eisenstein. Hester spoke about elites trying to use feminism to sell policy that hurts the working class (women included). For example she talks about how the UN does not attempt to implement economic development in countries but instead focuses on “developing women” with the use of micro credit etc. She also spoke about the use of supposed feminist themes to justify the invasion of Afghanistan; her response to this was what she called “self determination with women’s rights”. The overall message was that any feminist needs to take class and Imperialism into account and fight on all fronts. There was a tribute to recently deceased leading member of the SWP Chris Harman that combined personal stories of his eccentricities with a presentation of some of his ideas. His main books were laid out at the meeting which is when you realise the impact he has made on Marxism. Simply a great loss for the left as a whole.

The final talk of the event was by Fredic Jameson, leading cultural critic and theorist. He focused on his new book based on Marx’s Capital volume 1. Jameson starts by saying he will ignore the first chapters on commodities in Capital and move on to talking about the “form” of the book. He states that Capital is primarily a book about unemployment that has two alternate endings, the heroic and the comedic. The heroic ending occurs when the expropriators are expropriated, a workers revolution. The comedic ending is that capitalism dissolves itself. As Jameson points out this is more popular with Anarchist’s and followers of Deleuze (pretentious people). Jameson ends by introducing the idea that a focus on politics is reformist and a focus on economic change is revolutionary. He speaks of Utopian theory in which a future society is worked out as reformist as we cannot conceive the future socialist society under capitalism. The Utopian Impulse is what will take us to this unknown future. His ends with the lines “cynism of the intellect, utopianism of the will”. Make of that what you will??

Lowlights included leading state theorist Bob Jessop. He gave a dull talk that highlighted that the crisis has actually further centralised power into the hands of the bankers etc. Andy Higginbottom presented his idea of there being a third value (one being absolute surplus value and the other being relative surplus value). His argument was basically Imperialism is very important, the whole system is based on imperialism; we need to rewrite Marx’s Capital as Lenin would. This Andy assured us is a new debate that needs to be opened and he wasn’t deterred when an audience member pointed out the debates on “unequal exchange” that occurred in the 70’s. Higginbottom’s ideas negatively highlight the twin danger of ignoring class divisions when talking about Imperialism and the other extreme of ignoring Imperialism all together.

All in all the historical materialism conference should be a date in every lefties’s diary.


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