The annual Marxism conference, held in Melbourne over the Easter weekend, this year attracted around 700 people — activists, unionists, journalists, scholars, and the curious. Guest speakers included documentary maker John Pilger, academic psychologist Cordelia Fine, feminist essayist Monica Dux, Aboriginal historian Gary Foley, Russia scholar Lars Lih, former Australian Army Major Chip Henriss, and many more.
There were also first-hand accounts of struggles currently underway around the world, including Indigenous resistance in Chile, the public sector strikes in Wisconsin, the workers’ rebellions in Greece and the revolutions unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. Sessions covered everything from raunch culture and sexism in sport, to poetry and music, Aboriginal history and revolutionary theory.
How disappointed I was, then, when confronted with Lucas Smith’s article on the conference on New Matilda last week. One need only read to the second paragraph to find fabrication: Respected journalist Anand Gopal asserted at a panel discussion that the Egyptian revolution found its point of inspiration in the Wisconsin rebellion? He said no such thing, of course.
He provides more distortions and half-truths in the course of the article, such as this gem: "it was also explained why the Greens are an anti-progressive force". Readers interested in a socialist critique of that organisation should read our actual position, as opposed those dreamed up by others.
When I met Smith on the opening night of the conference he introduced himself as someone wishing to write an article "explaining what motivates people to be involved in socialist politics". I’ll grant that he did accurately record my response: One billion people go hungry every day.
He seemed unmoved by the figure. At first I thought this was due to my having forgotten Lenin’s famous dictum: "Patiently explain". Perhaps I should have spelled it our more clearly. Human beings are starving to death because financial institutions profit from speculating in the commodity futures market, while agribusiness values human life at less than the price of a bushel of wheat. The richest 10 per cent of the population who own 85 per cent of the wealth materially benefit from this mass starvation, and from countless other indignities inflicted on the greater part of humanity every day.
Smith’s article displays only bemused posturing in relation to such real world issues or to discussions of them at the conference. Someone brought up with affluence enough to enable a disconnection from the material problems of human existence can be forgiven for being unaffected by the plight of others. Anger is a gift. There is little point scalding someone for not having received it.
But the fact that hampers of passion were carried by others left Smith holding a shallow desire only to see them ruined. This led to some penetrating commentary of the event: middle class guilt can be the only explanation for such conviction as was on display. This resentful tripe can be found almost every week in The Australian, usually from HR Nicholls Society sympathisers drunk off their own fortunes.
That Smith had nothing better to do with his time than lug his grudge along to our conference is not that puzzling. He had an axe to grind. But here’s the rub: through the entirety of the conference the incisive critic offered not one opinion, despite clearly having numerous thoughts. That would be no great crime if he were a disinterested observer. But disinterested he was not.
For the most part he avoids dealing with substantive issues. He reports disapprovingly of a female speaking loudly and in a way he clearly considers unbecoming. What are these if not the usual misogynistic gripes of a man with no counter-argument confronted by a politically confident woman?
He complains that "few new ideas were in evidence" over the weekend, but clearly does not believe that novelty is the only signifier of utility. Witness, for example, the aforementioned trotting out (mind the pun) of time-honoured insults regularly levelled against the left — middle class, self righteous, guilt ridden, religious, and unreasonable. (Not to mention a quick plug for the old chestnut of "properly regulated capitalism". Yes, that’s the model that crashed on the rocks of stagflation in the 1970s.)
It is much easier to disparage as unthinking zealots those who dedicate some time to fighting injustice and oppression than it is to level a convincing argument. So Smith chooses the path of least resistance. "Wouldn’t it be nice to believe?" he asks by way of conclusion, apparently above the mere faith of left wing politics. Everyone believes in something. The difference is some of us don’t try to hide our agenda. We prefer to debate it out in the open.
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