Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Jottings from Marxism in Melbourne

Back yesterday from a week in Melbourne, and four days at Marxism 2015. I’ve been travelling across, on and off, to Marxism for a dozen years now; I think this year’s conference was the best and most rewarding I’ve been to yet.

The stand-out sessions, for me, were talks by Marjorie Thorpe and Noel C Tovey AM. Both I’m sure I’ll be telling my children about many years from now, as moments I was near enough to History to feel it shivering. Thorpe, in sharing stories of her family’s times in Fitzroy, managed to recreate a whole social world of Aboriginal resistance, survival, struggle and celebration. A revelation. Noel C Tovey AM is one of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal dancers, actors, directors and performers. I hadn’t, to my shame, heard of him or his achievement before the conference – sitting through the excerpts he performed for us of Little Black Bastard, the story of the suffering early years, was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve had in years. How often do you listen to the memories of a man who was at the Stonewall Riots, and has performed on some of the most distinguished stages of the world? He was Young, Black, and Gay in 1950s Australia and he has survived to teach us all. A mind-bending life. Liz Ross’s interview with him in Red Flag gives just a little sampling of a richer feast.

What else? Khury Petersen-Smith was eloquent and wise on the struggles against racist state murder in the United States and the #BlackLivesMatter movement; a series of talks on philosophy and theory (on Lise Vogel; on Spinoza; on Hegel’s Phenomenology); an eye-opening and absorbing account by ETU militant Strawbs Hayes on organizing FIFO workers. This last talk was as much a cultural experience as a political one for me – who knew unionists in the Northern Territory can hold meetings under the shade of the gum tree?

The organization I’m a member of was able to host Nadia Abu-Shanab, from Auckland Action Against Poverty, as one of the speakers over the weekend. There are connections to be made.


My own talk on the poets in World War One went well, I think, although the stage is usually the worst place to judge those kinds of things.

It was a particular pleasure to be able to do the Australian launch of Writing the 1926 General Strike as a part of the conference, and so nice to have a dear friend and comrade James Plested do the launching. Thanks to the organisers for making this possible.

And the books! My budget, as usual, blown: Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon; Cannon’s own Notebooks of an Agitator; a collection of essays by Alan M. Wald on Writing from the Left.

Stutje’s biography of Ernest Mandel.

(I've learnt more from Mandel than a love of what Americans call "sweater vests", but I won't pretend that isn't part of the education too.)

Otto Braun’s account of being A Comintern Agent in China, covering his time journey with Mao and the Party through the Long March and after. This I picked up for $1 on the sale bin, and am not sure what to expect: the introduction mentions that Braun “suffered from the disadvantage of being ignorant of the Chinese language, culture, and history.” Let’s see.

There are lots of new friends met each time I go over for the conference, and that youth and energy are inspiring. But important for me too are the old faces – people I met a decade ago who are active still and in a range of different campaigns and questions. We’re building something real.

[The conference photographs I've taken from the Marxism Conference tumblr and Facebook pages -- both accessible via]

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