Marxism 2017 conference off to a flying start

The 2017 Marxism conference got off to a flying start in Melbourne tonight. Four hundred people packed into a big theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in South Melbourne to hear a panel of speakers talk about “Crisis, global resistance and the fight against the right”.

First up was Haley Pessin, an African American activist from upstate New York, who reported on the boost that the election of Donald Trump has given to racists in her country, but also the impetus it has given to popular resistance to the president’s right-wing agenda. These include the huge Women’s March and the airport protests against the introduction of the Muslim ban, along with smaller actions that are breaking out like spotfires all over the country. Haley explained that “Our job as socialists is to be tribunes of the oppressed, to contribute in every way to the resistance and to recognise that the fight for one group is a fight for all, and to fight for an entirely different kind of society, and that is socialism”.

Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (ML), explained the global context for the rise of the right. The period since the collapse of the USSR has not seen, as the West’s capitalist apologists argued in the 1990s, a flourishing of peace and democracy, but an era of permanent war, permanent austerity, and the sacrificing of human and natural needs to the interests of corporate greed. This has led, Dipankar argued, to the emergence of the kind of right wing politics we see today, “a very specific kind, a very rabid, very racist and fascist right wing”. India’s prime minister since 2014, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu chauvinist BJP, is just one example of this trend at work. Behind Modi’s nationalist and racist agenda lies a hard economic logic: enriching local billionaires like those who run Adani, now India’s second largest business enterprise.

But the far right are not getting it all their own way: “The battle is on, the resistance is on, our institutions of democracy are very weak, but what we lack in maturity, we more than make up for with people’s struggle and courage. We are fighting back, and must fight back with all the powers at our disposal and turn the tide on the fascist danger, a globalised threat. We shall fight and we shall win”.

Christos Stavrakakis, a socialist from Greece, followed Dipankar. The Greek working class has been put through the wringer since the onset of the global financial crisis. Living standards have plummeted, unemployment has soared; meanwhile the rich have been living it up. But the authorities in Greece have been trying their best to divert working class anger by fostering racism towards refugees and immigrants. Greece is now home to 60,000 refugees who are maintained by the government in appalling conditions on the islands. Socialists in Greece are fighting to bring together campaigns to defend refugees with the struggle against neoliberal austerity as a way of combating the divisions that the right are sowing.

Christos was followed by Lebanese socialist Farah Kobaissy who spoke passionately about the need for solidarity with the Syrian revolutionaries who have battled the Assad regime since the uprising of 2011. The uprising has been under constant attack by Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers who have fought it with every weapon at their disposal. Farah slammed those on the international left who try to whitewash the regime’s war crimes, arguing that “We are in desperate need of an anti-war movement that opposes all imperialist intervention: one that is anti-Assad, anti-Trump and anti-Putin. It should act in deep solidarity with the struggle in the Arab region and with the Syrian revolution.”

This has to be situated in a broader emancipatory project, not just one of deposing Assad, not just overthrowing all the exploitative regimes in the Arab world but tackling the problem at its source: “We should locate the problem in capitalism itself that is the principal problem, capitalism in its totality. To overcome capitalism should be our goal, not to seek capitalism with a human face.”

Liz Walsh, from Socialist Alternative here in Australia, rounded out the night, and spoke about the situation facing us at home. On the one hand we have escaped the worst of the austerity measures that have blighted the lives of hundreds of millions across the world, but we haven’t escaped the bosses’ and government offensive – the attacks on penalty rates, welfare, health and education, privatisation of public services, the holding down of wages, anti-union industrial laws, the appalling policies towards refugees, the genocidal campaign to deny Aboriginal people the right to a basic humanity.

With inequality at record heights, so too are profits, but they are never high enough for the bosses who keep squeezing the working class for more. Labor would not save us, Liz argued, social democratic parties around the world are just shadows of the conservatives. Both are equally responsible for the rise of the far right because they have mainstreamed racist policies that were once regarded as unacceptable. Our response has to be unity and solidarity among all the oppressed. Not for liberal or sentimental reasons but because only through bringing together our struggles can we win. Liz concluded that “We want to break the chains that bind the oppressed, to tear them apart and to fight for a society where ordinary people are not exploited, a society we all deserve.”

Tonight was just the start of a veritable festival of talks, debate, discussion and cultural events. Marxism 2017 comprises more than 90 individual sessions and runs all the way through to Sunday night. The international speakers who appeared tonight will also be giving talks over the weekend. Other international speakers include US socialist Khury Petersen-Smith who will be talking about “The US Democrats: lesser evil or just plain evil?”. Rena Lau, an activist from Hong Kong, will be reporting on the battle for labour rights in China.

Marxism 2017 will also feature a video link-up with Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi whose visa was disgracefully revoked by Immigration minister Peter Dutton just one day after it had been granted. Bassem will be talking about the struggle for justice for Palestine in the face of a sustained Israeli onslaught to deny the Palestinian people their basic rights, including to a homeland.

But it’s not just international speakers who will be making Marxism 2017 the place to be over the Easter weekend. Other highlights include the Marxism 101 sessions which explain the basics of socialism and which always draw a big crowd; this year they will be joined by talks grouped under the heading “Socialist Myth Busting”. These will be demolishing the arguments always raised against those who want to change the world, including “Isn’t Marxism a 19th century concept?” and “Doesn’t Marxism work in theory but not in practice?”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution and Marxism 2017 features a string of talks on this momentous occasion: on the role of women in the revolution, and why the revolution is still relevant today, among other things.

Racism and anti-racism will be a theme of many talks at Marxism 2017. The conference organisers are particularly proud to host a panel featuring S Nagaveeran, known to many as Ravi, locked up for three years on Nauru, and Aran Mylvaganam, who will speak about the complicity of the Australian government in deporting Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka.

We will also be welcoming Aunty Valerie Linow and Aunty Adelaide Wenberg who will speak at a screening of the film in which they feature, “Servant or Slave”, about Indigenous women who were stolen and forced to work as domestic servants. “Servant or Slave” is part of the Radical Reels film festival, featuring films and documentaries about struggles all over the world. Tickets for the film festival can be bought separately.

Other sessions focusing on racism and anti-racism include “Apartheid Australia: from mission times to the NT intervention”, “From Redfern to Kalgoorlie, the history of Aboriginal riots”, and “Hansonism rebooted: the hows and the whys”.

Marxism incorporates several cultural events. These include book launches, one of “Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism”, by Tom Freeman. Tom wrote a ground-breaking PhD on Lenin while studying at Melbourne University in the 1990s. Interventions Books is pleased to now make this available to a much wider audience. Interventions is also publishing the memoirs of veteran American-Australian socialist Tom O’Lincoln. Tom first got involved in the struggle with the free speech campaign at Berkeley in the early 1960s and never let up as the years and decades went by. Tom was a founder of the forerunner of conference host Socialist Alternative back in 1972. Janey Stone will be back at the Marxism conference again with one of her popular presentations about cultural resistance: this year she will be presenting “Winds of the people: art, music and poetry in Allende’s Chile”.

Marxism 2017 is also proud to include an exhibition by Syrian refugee, Miream Salameh, now based in Melbourne, entitled “Maps on our backs”, featuring paintings about refugees, borders and displacement. And on Saturday afternoon a special anti-Trump mural “Choke on ya diamonds” will be unveiled.

Marxism kicks off every morning, Friday through Sunday, at 9.30am. Tickets are available at the registration desk from 9am at the VCA Grant Street theatre in Grant Street, South Melbourne, and more details about the conference, including a full program, are available at www.marxismconference.org