Vasilis Grollios reports on the Toronto conference of the academic journal Historical Materialism, held on 13-16 May.
Some of the most well known socialist researchers participated in this conference, just like the other conferences the journal organises in New York and in London. Here are the lectures that aroused my interest most.
In his welcome speech, the organiser of the conference, Toronto-based Professor of Political Economy David MacNally, stressed some of the main ideas he analyses in his new book: Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. According to him crisis changes its form and this leads mainstream commentators to think that it is over.
The recent crisis started as a house debt crisis, then transformed into a bank crisis and now a public budget one. For MacNally we are experiencing the most systematic attack on public services possible, probably leading to austerity measures for the next ten years. Cuts in public spending will be even more in the future. It is not easy to get out of the crisis. Japan has not yet gotten out of the crisis of the 1990s. We can expect every form of neo-liberal discipline to be intensified. Thus, class struggle must also be intensified to meet the neo-liberal measures.
In a packed room, political economists Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch presented their ideas on the crisis which are explained in their new book: In and Out of Crisis. The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives. The three writers focused their lecture on wrong interpretations of the crisis.
They reject the social-democratic interpretations that tend to accuse the state for not properly regulating the financial sector, and that what should be now done is that the state should apply the right kind of regulations. This view is fettered by the logic of the idea of a separation between the markets and the state. The authors believe that the market and the state form an inseparable relationship in the capitalist mode of production. The contemporary form of the capitalist system needs the state to buttress the functioning of the markets. And because of the role it plays, the state perpetuates the volatile character of the capitalist system.
For Albo, Gindin and Panitch the contradictions in the financial sector are contradictions inside the core of the capitalist mode of production, are intrinsic to it. The question is if they can be contained to some extent. At the end of their presentation they said that those who want to be realists today must propose new ideas.
The left must move away from the logic of the proper regulations and of “technical” solutions. We must put on the agenda, instead, proposals that will question the right to private property. The foundation of these kind of proposals will come from the political theory of democratic and social rights. Thus, the efforts of the democratic camp must focus on how we can outstrip the capitalist system and the state. The realisation of this course of action requires the existence of class consciousness and the unity of the workers in the private and the public sector in their fight against capital.
A third presentation that got my attention was Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. The writer is part of the team editing Marx’s unpublished notes on the subject.
Anderson notes that although most commentators on Marx see in his thinking a unilinear model of social development for capitalism, but this is not accurate. The common view is that Marx leaves out of his analysis the variety of nations and the races.
For Anderson, these critics have a point as far as the young Marx is concerned. From 1848 to 1853 European colonialism was indeed depicted in Marx’s work as a necessary stage.
However, from 1879, to his death, Marx had a multilinear approach. Russia’s near future, for example, was not unavoidably tied to capitalism. Thus, the theory of revolution in Marx was not exclusively based on the classes, but on a dialectical relationship of interaction between nation, race and class.
The sense that I got from attending the conference is that which any careful reader of Marx cannot but notice: that the reason for phenomena of social disintegration such as poverty, unemployment, corruption, is not the behavior of individuals such as politicians, stockbrokers, capitalists, CEOs, as the mainstream ideas propound, but the existence of capital itself, that is, the logic of the system.
In my lecture on democracy and materialism in Marx and Engels, I attempted to bring to light the philosophical background of their theory on democracy, meaning the method that enabled them to consider the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production, a presupposition for democracy.
Democracy in their thinking presupposes a change not only in appearance but also in form. A change in the form of the government is not enough. A serious change must take place in the content, in the essence of the social relations, in the way human beings come to terms with nature and cooperate with each other in order to satisfy their basic human needs.
In “bourgeois democracy” this relationship takes a perverted, inverted form, dictated by capital. It is perverted because instead of using wealth in order to satisfy their needs, people are transformed in personifications of economic categories. Therefore, their needs are satisfied only to the extent that they help wealth to be accumulated. Those who constitute the world, the workers, appear as derivatives of it.
According to Marxist philosophy, in order to understand the true nature of the social forms (such as state, “democratic government”, wealth) we must decipher them on a human basis. The eighth thesis on Feuerbach summarises Marx’s materialism. “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” In this materialist framework the content of the social forms depend on the development of the class struggle at each moment
Autonomy acquires a materialistic character in Marx and Engels because its existence presupposes the abolition of the current form of labour, that of capital, and thus the overthrow of the capitalist system.