The atmosphere was euphoric as the crowd gathered in Tahrir Square expecting the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. A hush descended as he appeared on the television screen. But Mubarak did not resign. He said he would die on Egyptian soil. The crowd was crushed. All they had worked for had come to nothing.
Then a remarkable thing happened. A rumour began to spread about a similar group of people fighting for a similar outcome in a place called Wisconsin. Protestors in Wisconsin were using the same slogan, "One world, one pain". Though the Egyptian protestors had never heard of Wisconsin the solidarity galvanised them to continue the struggle. Mubarak was ousted three days later.
This tale was told by journalist Anand Gopal in a Union House theatre smelling of stale sweat on the opening night of "Marxism 2011", the premier conference of revolution in Australia, organised by Socialist Alternative (SA) at Melbourne University this Easter Weekend. The extrapolations drawn by Gopal were typical of the weekend’s offerings. Though billed as a conference of "ideas to challenge the system," few new ideas were in evidence.
At a panel presented by eight-year member Ben Hillier, called "Exploitation, Profits & Competition: the ABC of Marxist Economics," people were reduced to economic functionaries. I learned that all value derives from labour, all profit comes from exploitation and competition rewards exploitation. It makes sense if you ignore the evidence that properly regulated capitalism is the surest route to widespread prosperity yet devised.
The thing is, no one at this conference needed to provide any examples at all. In fact Marxist economics cannot be disproved because apparently every nation which has called itself socialist has actually practiced a form of state capitalism, where exploitation is controlled by the state but remains otherwise identical with capitalism. You can’t disprove something that remains purely theoretical. So forget about counter-evidence. It’s just not possible.
After each panel at Marxism 2011, the floor is opened up for discussion. Audience members can and occasionally do ask questions. Usually, however, they deliver angry sermons to their fellow elect. I felt sorry for the grey-haired contingent. It must be sad to spend a lifetime fighting with no result, though ironclad self-belief must have its consolations.
Another panel, "Zionism and the Invention of the Jewish people" was a confusing and unedifying diatribe. Presenter Jade Eckhaus used The 13th Tribe, a book by Arthur Koestler — himself a famous and eloquent deserter of Marxism — which argues that European Jews were descended from the ancient Khazars, not the Judeans as proof that European Jews have no claim to the land of Israel. (The Khazar theory has been discredited by modern genetics.) Given the prevalence of injustice all over the world, the obsession with Israel was slightly disturbing.
I asked the building’s security guard what he thought about it all. "I have strong opinions," he said, "but I don’t like giving them. My wife is Russian and she calls these people Chardonnay socialists."
At a panel entitled "The Significance of the Arab Revolutions", a massive banner reading "END MANDATORY DETENTION OF REFUGEES NOW" was taped above the speaker’s table. A Bahraini man spoke in Arabic and showed a selection of images and videos from the Bahraini uprising. The very first slide read, "Bahrainis are suffering from poverty, unemployment, and naturalisation of Indians, Syrians, Yemenis and Lebanese." The slides displayed the names and photos of every demonstrator killed in the government crackdown. A video was shown of people deliberately run over in the street by jeeps and the crown of a man’s head split into three petals like a flower in bloom. These images were incredibly moving. There was sobbing around the room and I myself was aware of my own throat more than usual. But what the montage had to do with Trotskyism eluded me.
Sandra Bloodworth, a member of the SA national executive who spoke at this presentation has one oratorical register: loud. This has been taken up by the rank and file. Her rant against capitalism, was peppered — liberally, you might say — with "you knows", "likes" and the like, you know. Forgive me for not quoting directly, it was too loud and quick for me to follow exactly. Let me paraphrase: Capitalism is a rotten system. The Arab revolutions are irrefutable signs of this. Obama is a tall version of Bush. NATO’s intervention in Libya is a front for US interests. Now is the time to join a revolutionary organisation. Waves of revolution will reach Australia, we don’t know when, but they will and we need to be ready. Two corners of the banner behind Bloodworth came unstuck during her speech.
The last session I went to was entitled "So you are thinking of joining Socialist Alternative?" I counted 25 people in the room — at least half of whom were current members. Few prospective members asked practical questions such as "What if I don’t have a union in my workplace?" "How are internal decisions made?". An unready novitiate would need fortitude.
At this session it was also explained why the Greens are an anti-progressive force. Bob Brown backed away from Marrickville Council’s motion to boycott Israeli products. Therefore he is a stooge of the system. Apparently, there is no room for compromise. If you’re not with us all the way you’re against us all the way.
So what kind of people attend a conference like Marxism 2011? In about equal proportion, middle class types taking their guilt to its farcical extreme, true working class stalwarts, and academics. The largest demographic was composed of white males, followed by white females. There is no doubting the good intentions of these intrepid millenarians — and the time they dedicate to handing out flyers, attending and organising rallies, signing petitions and participating in union politics, is not insignificant.
The people I meet seemed realistic about the future. One attendee, Ben Hillier, told me that the hoped-for revolution won’t come anytime soon and certainly a stable capitalist society such as Australia won’t be first in line. So what motivated him to campaign for something that he does not expect to see in his own lifetime? "One billion people living in poverty," is his answer. "We have an end goal in mind, sure, but there are a lot of little goals along the way."
That sounds good, but too many of those attending Marxism 2011 acted like they have a monopoly on righteousness. And from what I could tell, the entire conference rested on an a priori argument. Real socialism has never happened therefore it can’t be disproved. The Arab revolutions are necessarily victories for socialism. Racism is impossible without capitalism. Yes, really.
As the cries of "one solution, revolution!" went up following the bludgeoning force of one speaker after another, the crowd was electrified. I felt the way I always feel when I’m dragged into a church service. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe?
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