I spent last weekend at the Historical Materialism conference, at SOAS in central London. Owen Hatherley has penned a brief blog post about it, in which he notes: 'there are enormous amounts of non-organised but deeply politicised people capable of spending an entire three day Marxist conference talking, analysing and agitating on politics, economics and aesthetics without shouting at each other about who expelled who in 1973 or last week and the burning question of whether or not a defunct state was 'deformed' or not.'
One of the sessions I attended was by two Russian artists from the Chto Delat collective. Chto Delat (pronounced Show-de-la) is Russian for 'What is to be done?', the title of a classic Lenin pamphlet as well as being the perennial question facing socialist activists. They showed excerpts from their film-based work and talked about issues ranging from their thoughts about Soviet-era art to their links with social movements today, via such contentious topics as whether radical artists should exhibit work in commercial galleries.
The best session, for me, was on feminism and socialist strategy. Lindsey German combined the topic of her books 'Sex, Class and Socialism' and 'Material Girls' with her experience as convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, talking about women, war and the anti-war movement. She has conducted interviews with women, from various backgrounds, about campaigning for peace and how this political activism connects with their life experiences. She located a number of such examples in the broader history of changes in women's lives over the last century. This talk was complemented by presentations from Greek and American feminist activists, prompting some interesting connections and dialogue (the international character was a significant plus of the whole conference).
Another interesting meeting, again with an international range of perspectives, was the one on youth revolts and student movements. Speakers from the Balkans, Greece and the UK shared practical experiences of being involved in student occupations and mass demonstrations - and the audience included visitors from Austria and California, both sites of significant student unrest in recent weeks. Clare Solomon's paper on the wave of UK student occupations in solidarity with Gaza drew on first-hand experience of having a leading role in the SOAS occupation. It prompted some good discussion about the role of the Internet in spreading action and forging activist links nationally and internationally.
The session with perhaps the most intense debate was on Marxism and ethics, with very different views on how Marxists should think and talk about the question of morality. Alasdair MacIntyre, who has recently become subject to greater critical attention, was a major reference point.