The third Historical Materialism conference in Australasia has come and gone, consolidating itself as a regular highlight of the Australian Left. A chance to meet old and new comrades, along with many stove-pipe pants, lush beards, grungy outfits, piercings, bold new ideas. This year’s event focused on political economy, with Sydney University now having a full political economy program – and the whole program was there. So no surprises that Leo Panitch – the award winning author of a study of contemporary capitalism – was the keynote speaker.

The session in which I presented had two papers (one having pulled out). Knox Peden and I held forth on different aspects of Althusser. For me, it was a return to an older interest, exploring in detail an early essay by Althusser – ‘A Matter of Fact’ – on the spiritual revolution of the church. Knox dealt with the tension between the epistemological imperative to make structures of inequality visible and the political imperative to make them disappear, not as matters of representation, but as matters of
fact. Althusser becomes relevant in this respect, especially in relation to the persistence of alienation. Knox spoke in a way that was young, energetic and sharp. Indeed, the same could be said of the good crowd there, so much so that I felt like an old fogey (then again, I am a grandfather). We decided to keep our presentations to 20 minutes each, to allow plenty of time for discussion, which was the best part of the session. I was thoroughly intrigued by the way every given concept is up for grabs, how efforts are under way to rethink them for a new context. To be sure, some ideas may go nowhere, but this is part of the generation of new possibilities.

One old comrade raved afterwards about how these younger people do not have a clear idea of the basic categories and distinctions of Marxism. I tried to remind her that this is how new ideas arise. For us, new ideas are now few and far between. We are too locked into our set ways, or most of us are. She was not happy with the suggestion.

That said, I did notice a pattern that is indeed an old one. Much was said about the need to study historical actualities of Marxism. But which realities? South America was a reference point, with Venezuela a favoured location. So also was Syziga party in Greece. But I was left wondering about the glaring gap here. The two most sustained and historically rich efforts to construct socialism were left aside – the USSR and China. To be sure, they appeared occasionally, but only as ciphers to be dismissed. After all, Stalin betrayed Marxism, didn’t he? Or at least, he did so if you follow Trotsky’s arrogant and wayward line. And everyone knows that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is an empty slogan, a veneer to conceal rampant capitalism. Obviously, I disagree. For me, this was a chronic blind spot that needs to be addressed.

But I always feel a conference has been a success if I get one new idea. And I found it – in a great point made by Liz Humphreys in the question time during the keynote address by Leo Panitch. She said that it is all very well to focus on surrogate examples (Syziga in Greece was the focus at that moment), but what about Australia? She pointed out that Australia has one of the most sophisticated and successful Labour organisations in the world, and a political Labor party that has been the most influential. Labour sets the agenda for politics, with even the conservative wings forced to address labour all the time. However, the trap with such a situation is that the unions and the party have become quite conservative in light of their success. The upshot is that the Left must question efforts to bolster the unions or to rejuvenate the Labor Party and thereby support their conservative bent. Is this really the best approach? To my mind, Liz nailed it, for that is the real issue for the Australian Left.

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