Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas - a radical departure

I'm in London this weekend. Yesterday I was at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, principally organised by Counterfire and also involving Verso Books and Scotland's International Socialist Group.

Starting at 10am and continuing until after midnight - with a very wide range of talks, discussions and performances - this was by far the most ambitious event we in Counterfire have so far attempted. It was a pretty remarakable success all round. Here are a few observations and reflections.

The most striking thing was the turnout: 600 tickets were sold. In March 2010 I was a founder member of Counterfire and we started with only 40 members. I was always optimistic about our prospects, but never imagined that we would be hosting an event on such a scale only two years down the line.

Obviously the vast majority of attendees were from beyond our own ranks - and I personally didn't recognise 90% of those around me. This is especially noteworthy given the event was only announced in January and didn't benefit from a long run up. It indicates the possibilities for a left-wing political event that is relevant, imaginative and promoted widely.

The majority were younger than me (I'm 33). This is not a normal experience for me when attending left-wing events, but was extremely refreshing. The scale of the event - reaching out far beyond the socialist organisations behind it - also meant there was a genuine range of views in much of the discussion.

The venue, east London's Rich Mix, turned out to be an inspired choice: a cinema and contemporary arts space, it has a very different vibe from more traditional venues (it helped that the staff were fully involved and genuinely helpful). There was a creative dimension to the daytime timetable, with artistic workshops, films, an exhibition and more, plus the rare instance of an evening of entertainment encompassing Tony Benn, hip hop and the SOAS samba band.

I feel like we may just have stumbled on a different way of doing a radical socialist event. It was not, I should add, entirely without precedent, but it was certainly distinct from anything previously put on by a socialist organisation in the UK. 

My personal highlight was Neil Faulkner's nothing-if-not-ambitious 'A brief history of the world', which provided a succinct outline of a marxist method for understanding history and gave a broad-sweep overview of the big historical transformations in human history. Neil is an archaeologist and historian, whose long-running 'A Marxist History of the World' series is one of our website's greatest assets.

The most engaging discussion was perhaps in Kate Connelly's session 'From suffragettes to slutwalk', drawing out a range of issues both historical and contemporary. This session - like 'A brief history of the world' - was actually repeated in an additional space (booked at short notice) to accommodate the larger-than-expected attendance.

The turnout at Neil's session - around a hundred - and the even bigger attendance, in the same space, at the 'in conversation' about Gramsci with Peter Thomas (facilitated by Nina Power) suggested an appetite for substantial, challenging topics. I was also impressed, generally, by the fact that discussion was genuinely thoughtful and inquiring - plenty of questions and contributions which felt like someone was thinking through the ideas.

I also attended 'Internet - serving the revolution?' and the 'war on terror' session, both of which were serious engagements with changing realities, illuminating the need to apply ideas to new circumstances. The latter also benefited from Stop the War Chair Jeremy Corbyn offering a potted history of imperialism, putting its current phase in a longer-term context. I made a contribution in the discussion myself, responding to someone arguing that 'direct action' not mass mobilisations is the way to stop wars.

Most of the day's speeches will soon appear on YouTube, including Owen Jones on class, Paul Mason on why it's kicking off everywhere, and others that I personally missed. And I think it's safe to assume we will be doing something similar again. Sign up to the mailing list to be kept informed. 

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