“I’m Jeff Bezos’s arch-nemesis.” A man dressed as a West Coast rapper is speaking before a 1,000-strong crew of Britain’s hardest Leftists. Since this is London, my first thought was: Ali G impersonator. “I cost Amazon $4 billion,” he swaggers. “Let’s talk about the revolution.” Of course, behind the bling and sunglasses, this is America’s leading trade unionist, Chris Smalls, President of the Amazon Labor Union.
It’s the opening rally of Marxism 2023, the “festival of socialist ideas” organised by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). We are tightly gathered into the Quakers’ central hall at Friends House. But, unlike your traditional Quaker meeting (austere, silent, confessional), the mood is one of daring, colour, braggadocio. Speeches are interrupted by whooping applause, if not by collective chanting. Not a great deal of laughter though — in this place enthusiasm goes hand-in-hand with militancy. Side-lined from the Labour Party since the catastrophe of the 2019 election, the hard Left is no longer satisfied with the lucid registration of historical defeat. I’m told this is the biggest Marxism festival for a decade, since the crest of the post-Occupy and anti-austerity movements. But now the final disintegration of capitalism is nigh. They believe this is their time.
Never mind the old joke about socialism taking up too many evenings with dingy “meetings”. Marxism 2023 isn’t shy. Settling in for a long weekend of proselytising, it has booked out the blocks and quads of the entire SOAS campus. And aside from a brief scuffle with some far-Right counter-protesters, all goes smoothly. The Art Deco halls of Senate House are bedecked in posters. On the grass and patios a fleet of trestle tables has docked, groaning under the weight of revolutionary literature. An intergenerational crowd moves between them. The grizzled remnants of the old labour movement are here, “the warriors for the working-day” with their buckets for donated change. But I also meet students attending for the first time. There’s one thing they all agree on. There’s a fresh energy here. “It’s younger.” “More enthusiastic.” “More open.”
But, like Milton’s rebel angels, the radical Left has been exiled from frontline influence to that bottomless hell of irrelevant perdition: the university campus. Do they have answers for our historical moment? Here to narrate the theoretical underlay over video link is Adam Tooze, who has probably done the most to repopularise a Marxian worldview in recent years. In conversation with SWP vanguardist Alex Callinicos, he trades names and abstractions. Lukács and Horkheimer; “complex totalities” and “conjunctural analysis”. But they capture the mood best when they returned to plain Anglo-Saxon. We are living through an “oh shit” moment, says Tooze. A polycrisis of pandemic, climate change, war and neoliberal collapse not seen since the Seventies. The rough end of capitalism (or, as they say around here, its copious “internal contradictions”) has never felt more real. There’s talk of Hobsbawm’s “age of catastrophe” — the years 1914-1945.
So far, so inarguable. It’s a language that’s trickled into the mainstream commentariat, words such as “structural” and “systematic” polished off and redeployed. And labour (not the party) has organised itself in response. The recent record of Britain’s trade unions is a point of pride at Marxism 2023. Fighting for wage increases ahead of inflation, they’ve had their busiest year for a generation. The number of days lost to strikes in 2022 (2.47 million) was the highest since 1989, and the 2023 figure will exceed even that. Picket lines are a daily constant, whether at railway stations or primary schools. And Marxism 2023 was themed around collective action. Tucked away in the smaller rooms, of course, there were still events such as “Family affair: does capitalism want you to have kids?” But the headliners were far more grimly dialectical. “System crash.” “The New Age of Catastrophe.” Not for them the woolly identity politics of the 2010s: here is a harder, sharper project.
The challenge for the radical Left has always been how to convince workers to connect their experiences with the politics of revolution. But Darren Westwood, an Amazon warehouse worker from Coventry who addressed the opening rally alongside Smalls, has already done this. He mobilised the first British strike action against Amazon in January after he was offered a 50p per hour pay rise (to £10.50, a fraction over minimum wage) — when he questioned it, he was told he “should’ve bought shares”. It started as a wildcat strike with a few mates, but now, with hundreds of colleagues signed up and the support of the GMB union, he says it’s “all-out war”.
But until that Damascene moment, he had little politics beyond alienation. He didn’t really bother voting; he doesn’t see the parties as red or blue, but “a dirty purple”. The only choice was “which one is less shit”. But: “I consider myself now as a Marxist. My eyes have been opened and I see it as an alternative. And people point to Venezuela — ‘inflation’s through the roof’. That’s Great Britain now under capitalism … Everyone in this country is angry with what’s going on. Everyone. And all the voices are saying the same thing: there’s got to be a change.” That final clause is a clarion that any voter on Right or Left could have sounded in the past decade.
One of the stories of that decade has been the Left’s failure to successfully interpret this rage. A brief flowering of populist-socialists around Europe has wilted. In Britain, the populist Right has been the principle beneficiary of our turbulence and alienation, turning apathetics into activists and offering the promise of social transformation through projects such as Brexit. As the economic situation worsens, particularly at the crummy extremes of the gig economy, some of that energy is being diverted Left — to its most traditional institution, the trade union — and it can be detected throughout the Festival. Ben, a student from Bradford, is here because he’s “bored as fuck”. Back home, he says, “all you end up doing is going out, getting pissed — the so-called student lifestyle. And it’s just boring. I want to see something change, so I’ll come down here and see it.”
There’s a tentative path forward for the Left if they can capture this, translate that visceral grumble into a politics of inspiration. But the path backwards is here too. Just after lunch on Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the culture tent. He’s been asked to discuss his three books that changed the world. There are cheers as he arrives and he looks happy. A reverential hush comes over the crowd. It doesn’t matter what he’s going to say. It’s him that’s saying it. But there’s an immediate air of disappointment as he starts boring away about An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. By the time he’s onto his visit to the Texas agricultural museum, and certainly by the time he starts actually reading from the book, even this captive audience begins to trickle away. He’s a grandfather reading stories, not a leader.
But Keir Starmer’s not their leader either. Whenever I mention his name people look revolted. Some look as though they’re going to spit. I ask Ben to describe him in a word and he laughs: “You wouldn’t be able to say it.” (“Tosser”, he later clarifies.) “I don’t have enough swear words,” an otherwise kindly 77-year-old woman tells me, shaking her head. The hard Left had an accord with the Labour Party so long as Corbyn was in charge, perhaps even as long as Starmer pledged to imitate his policy platform. But the purges, the obsessive ideological discipline, have forced them elsewhere. Lewis Nielsen (joint national secretary of the SWP and an organiser of Marxism 2023) tells me their strength and their success lie outside Parliament, “in protests, with strikes… Real change comes from below”.
They say they’ve sold 4,000 tickets; Lenin seized the Winter Palace with fewer. But are these people plotting a revolution or waiting for one? And what follows — a centrally-planned economy run by the SWP? Marxism 2023 has been tastefully marketed in Barbie pink (“Did Marx ever wear pink?”), with the party name excised from the posters. But through the gates, you hit a blizzard of joining-forms and evangelical cadres — who look at you very strangely when you stand them up. Socialist ideas aside, it’s clear this Festival is substantially a membership drive. And there are historic questions about the SWP’s own toxicity. Some 700 members disowned the party after it allegedly covered up a rape case in 2013, including prominent Marxist writers like Richard Seymour and China Miéville (the SWP later admitted it “failed the two women who made the complaints”). It may be a harder, sharper world than the soft Left, but it can also be a nastier one.
After 2008, the Occupy movement also believed they were bearing witness to the final irresolvable crisis of capitalism. And they were wrong. Different people have come to Marxism 2023 seeking alternatives, seeking answers to their sense of political rage. But how much do university lecturers and Amazon warehouse workers really have in common, other than the fact that they’re both on strike? When, at the closing rally, Amy Leather from the SWP leadership declares, “we’re against all immigration controls and we say, ‘open the borders, all refugees welcome’”, how many people does she expect to win over?
If we read Marxism 2023 as a symptom rather than a cause though, it clearly reflects political energy searching for an outlet. Anton Jager has described our age as one of “hyperpolitics”: politics is everywhere again, on the streets and in our lives. But it is not being practised through the parties or associative structures which traditionally generate change. Instead we see the scattered, the lost and the angry — everywhere from the gilets-jaunes to the BLM protesters and the Brexit vote. The question of state failure and democratic deficit is repeatedly posed and never resolved. However fervent its leadership, this isn’t a vehicle for revolutionary socialism. Its reach is too narrow. Its heraldry — the clenched fist, the Internationale — looks back, not forwards.