Marxism conference kicks off in Melbourne

29 March 2018
Tom Bramble

The 2018 Marxism conference kicked off in Melbourne tonight. More than four hundred people packed into the Collingwood Town Hall to hear a panel of activists and socialists talk about “Fifty years since 1968: Rebuilding global resistance to capitalism”.

Gavin Stanbrook, Indigenous activist and member of Socialist Alternative, opened things up by outlining the acute oppression faced by Indigenous people in Australia today. But oppression breeds resistance and solidarity too. Gavin, one of the organisers and featured speakers at this year’s Invasion Day rally in Sydney, recalled the record crowds turning out on the streets as an indication of the growing groundswell of opposition to the annual celebration of genocide on 26 January.

The next speaker on tonight’s panel was Geoff Bailey, a socialist activist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. The US was central to the 1960s radicalisation. Organising against the Vietnam War on American campuses, in the military and in workplaces built on the foundations established by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s and, together with the Black Power movement and the outbreak of massive urban riots predominantly by African-Americans, radicalised a new generation. By the end of the decade, millions in the States identified as revolutionaries, having shaken off the liberal illusions that dominated the movement just a few short years previously.

American capitalism, however, was still booming and living standards rising in the late Sixties. Today, things are much worse for the mass of the population. Conditions for workers have gone backwards after decades of neoliberal attacks and, with Trump in the White House, the right has gone on the offensive. But at the same time socialism has made a comeback, evident in the mass resonance for the Sanders campaign in 2016. The 12-day strike by West Virginia teachers last month is an indication that the working class in America can be organized to fight, once again. But for fights like these to take root, the struggle has to be organised and for that, socialist organisation is necessary. Building the foundations for such organisation, Geoff argued, is the task ahead of us today.

Shaun Harkin, from Derry, birthplace of the civil rights movement in Ireland in 1968, was our third speaker. Shaun, editor of a forthcoming collection of readings by Irish socialist James Connolly, explained that the North had been a bedrock of conservatism and political passivity for decades leading up to the great explosion of struggle in 1968. In the following years, the north of Ireland experienced one of the most dramatic radicalisations in the world as the Catholic minority, oppressed by the Unionist hierarchy and inspired by the US civil rights movement, went out into the streets to demand their rights and an end to discrimination. Police violence only emboldened them and drove them to make more far-reaching demands. Today, after the so-called “Irish Tiger” economy has well and truly bust and with workers subjected to years of grinding austerity, popular resistance is growing and socialism is again winning an audience in Ireland.

Following our two international guests, the evening featured two more Australian speakers. Mick Armstrong spoke about his own experiences as a teenage radical in 1968. The Vietnamese Tet Offensive in February and the Paris student and worker revolt in May enthused Mick and thousands of others like him across the country. These big international developments ratcheted up of the anti-Vietnam war campaign in Australia, most evident in the dramatic protest outside the US consulate in Melbourne on 4 July. The subsequent flourishing of anti-war activism included mass resistance to conscription and hiding draft resisters on campus, along with the huge national demonstrations against the war in 1970 and 1971. Vietnam raised questions about how the whole of Australian society was organised: about the racism underpinning the war, about the huge profits piled up by big corporations selling military supplies, about how a government could send young Australians off to a distant conflict to die in their hundreds. Young people in particular increasingly looked to socialist politics for answers to their questions.

Like Ireland, the upsurge of unrest in Australia came out of a period of stifling Cold War conservatism in society, including on the university campuses, demonstrating that even in periods of apparent political passivity, dissatisfaction with society can well up beneath the surface, creating the conditions for mass outrage and mobilisation on the streets. The movement against the war and on the campuses intersected with a rising tide of working class struggle. Two major strikes in 1968 and 1969 blew apart the government’s attempts to intimidate the unions and sparked off the biggest strike wave in decades.

Diane Fieldes an activist in Sydney since the early 1970s, rounded off the speeches. Diane argued that the promises of the 1960s radical movements have not been fulfilled. The world is still scarred by war and imperialist occupation, and capitalism continues to generate extreme inequality. The Turnbull government has made clear it stands on the side of the rich, trying to push through corporate tax cuts while attacking welfare recipients. Racism towards refugees and Muslims is simply its way of trying to deflect popular opposition to its right-wing agenda.

But the Labor party is no genuine alternative, Diane argued. Here in Victoria, the Andrews government says that it cannot fund hospitals while diverting hundreds of millions of dollars to build more prisons and recruit more police, to tackle a non-existent and highly racialized “crime wave”. Diane pointed to the campaign by the Victorian Socialists at this year’s state election as an alternative to the anti-working class politics of Labor and the conservatives alike.

While the economic crisis of 2008-09 was less severe in Australia than elsewhere, life for the working class has become more difficult, Diane explained. And although the political polarisation between left and right that has seen fascists and right wing nationalists poll strongly in Europe and Trump come to office in the US, has not flowed through as dramatically in Australia, we are not isolated from these tendencies. Pauline Hanson is back in parliament and her party won 14 percent of the vote at the recent state election in Queensland. Plenty of people across the country despise the whole political set-up and are utterly cynical about politicians of all stripes.

But to shift politics in Australia we have to fight back, Diane insisted: “To resist the injustices we see all around us, we need to take a stand wherever we are. We need to be on the front lines organising protests, occupations and strikes to demand change”. The marriage equality campaign last year was just one example of such a struggle: when there is a clear polarisation, people can respond to the opportunity to act.

Socialist politics is essential in these fights, half measures aren’t enough. Diane argued: “We need an alternative that doesn’t politically accept the framework of capitalism, that is anti-capitalist to its core”. But socialist organisation will not emerge fully formed at the next outbreak of mass struggle. We need to prepare today by taking the steps to build such an organisation, armed with the radical vision spelled out by the students of Paris in 1968, “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”.

Coming up over the weekend

Tonight was just the start of a festival of talks, debate, discussion and cultural events.

Marxism 2018 comprises more than 100 individual sessions and runs all the way from the morning of Good Friday through to Sunday night. Geoff Bailey and Shaun Harkin, who appeared tonight, will also be giving talks over the weekend. Geoff will be speaking with special guest, Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin magazine, on Friday morning, on “Politics and resistance in Trump’s America”. Jacobin has established itself as one of the premier journals of the international left and publishes the work of leading left wing thinkers and activists from the US and around the world. Shaun Harkin will be joining forces with Socialist Alternative’s industrial organiser Jerome Small on Saturday afternoon to address the question “Why should you be a socialist?” and will also be speaking on “Corbyn, Brexit and British Labour today” on Sunday afternoon.

Other international highlights include Huwaida Arraf, Palestinian American activist and founder of the International Solidarity Movement. Huwaida is a well-known figure in Palestinian solidarity circles. She took part in several flotillas to Gaza in 2009 to try to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and to bring the issue to international attention. She now lives in Detroit and runs civil rights legal cases against police brutality in the States. Huwaida will be speaking on Friday afternoon on “International solidarity and the struggle for a free Palestine”.

The struggle in Catalonia has been in the headlines in recent months and with the Catalonian leader Carles Puigdemont just arrested by German police while in exile in Europe, the presence of Catalonian socialist Josep Maria Antentas at the conference could not be more timely. Josep is a lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and has been a participant in successive waves of social protest and rebellion in the Spanish state since the late 1990s. He will be speaking on “Spain and the struggle for Catalonia” on Sunday morning and, on Saturday, on “Podemos and the new left in Spain”.

Radical American activist Becca Bor, now resident in Derry, recently took part in massive demonstrations in Dublin and Belfast demanding reproductive rights for women in both the North and South of Ireland. She was formerly a teacher in Chicago and participated in the 2012 Chicago mass public education strike. Becca will be speaking on “Lessons from struggle: the West Virginia teachers strike” on Friday afternoon and “Free, safe and legal: the fight for abortion rights in Ireland” on Sunday morning.

Marxism also welcomes back a regular visitor from the Philippines who will be speaking on “Rodrigo Duterte: South East Asia’s Trump”. Our guest is involved in labour struggles in Manila against outsourcing and casualisation.

Alper Sen, a Turkish film-maker, will be another welcome speaker. Alper makes films about Turkey’s contemporary urban life, including gentrification, forced migration, refugees, and the fate of those pushed to the margins by urban renewal. Alper’s films have been screened to audiences across Europe. He will be talking on “From coups to capitulation: politics in Turkey today” on Friday morning.

But it’s not just international speakers who will be making Marxism 2018 the place to be over the Easter weekend.

Helen Razer, former Triple J radio announcer, now regular contributor to Crikey, the Saturday Paper, New Matilda and author of the just-published “Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young”, will be teaming up with Safe Schools activist Roz Ward to discuss contemporary politics and what pisses them off about the politicians and commentators who dominate mainstream political discourse in Australia today.

On Friday afternoon, Marxism 2018 will launch the campaign of the newly-formed Victorian Socialists who will be standing in the November state election for Northern Metro. All three candidates on the ticket, including well-known Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly, will be speaking at the session “For people, not the powerful: Victorian Socialists in the state election”.

Racism and anti-racism will be a theme of many talks. Gavin Stanbrook will be back on Friday at 9.30am to speak on a panel with Melbourne Indigenous socialist Kim Bullimore on the topic “No pride in genocide!”

Australia is known internationally not just for its oppression of Indigenous people but also of refugees. Indeed, the offshore detention system is now a model for several right-wing European governments. On Friday morning, come and listen to Taqi Khan, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, and Jayesh Maharaj from Sydney speak on “Fortress Australia: the global refugee crisis”.

Taqi Khan also works with the National Union of Workers (NUW) in Victoria to organise farmworkers. These farmworkers are usually migrants cruelly exploited by contractors in a supply chain leading all the way to the big retail chains which make billions of dollars in profits from their sweated labour. Taqi will be speaking with other NUW activists at the session “Organising migrant farm workers today” on Sunday at 4pm.

Tamil refugees from Biloela Nades, Priya and their two children, at imminent threat of deportation to Sri Lanka by Peter Dutton’s department, are now drawing the support of tens of thousands of people, from small town Queensland to big city Melbourne, opposed to their deportation. The persecution faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka will feature in a special panel on “The Tamil Tigers and national liberation”. This session will include activists for Tamil rights now living in Australia and a hook-up with a speaker in Sri Lanka.

One of the most popular features of the Marxism conference every year is the Marxism 101 stream of talks which explain the basics of socialism. There will be no fewer than 11 Marxism 101 talks, ranging from “Can you create change from inside the system?” and “How do Marxists understand class?” to “Workers’ power in the German revolution” and “Everything you wanted to know about socialism but were too afraid to ask”. Be sure to get to your seat early for these sessions since they are invariably packed.

Marxism 2018 also incorporates a comprehensive cultural program. The conference will include an exhibition of the work of American documentary photographer Tracie Williams whose "Feed The Flame" exhibition documents the final three weeks leading up to the eviction of the main resistance camp of the indigenous led movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US in 2016. A launch event will take place on Friday at 5.45pm featuring words from Tracie Williams and a video link up with Ragina Johnson, a First Nations activist in the International Socialist Organization in San Francisco. The exhibition will be open throughout the conference. Entry to the gallery is free with all conference tickets.

Marxism 2018, together with Jacobin magazine, is also co-hosting “Reason in Revolt: Socialist aesthetics for the 21st century”, a special exhibition of Jacobin magazine cover art and design. The gallery will be open throughout the conference and will be introduced at a special session by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara on Saturday at 5.30pm. All conference tickets include entrance to the exhibition or a door price of $10 will be available for the event on Saturday only.

And, finally, Radical Reels, a collection of radical films and a regular feature of every Marxism conference, is back again in 2018. The focus this year, of course, is films made in or about 1968. These include a string of film screenings with a focus on the radical politics of 1968, one of which “Vietnam: the year of the pig” will be introduced by a veteran of the American and Australian anti-Vietnam war movements, Allen Myers. Liam Ward, a socialist and RMIT media studies lecturer, will also be back at Marxism to give one of his popular curated presentations, this year exploring “The breathless decade: cinema and revolutionary politics after 1968”. Entrance to the Radical Reels film festival can be bought as part of your Marxism ticket or as a stand-alone ticket.

The Marxism conference will also host Australia’s largest left wing book sale, with thousands of books and pamphlets to choose from, including all aspects of left wing politics, history and literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Be sure to bring a big bag to carry away your haul.

The Marxism conference starts every morning, Friday through Sunday, at 9.30am. The venue is the Victorian College of the Arts on Southbank. 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

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.