Conference reaffirms Marxism in the 21st century
"In the world, the tendency today is to bury Marxism and communism. The equation is simple: the collapse of the European socialist bloc is the end of the ideology and the theory that inspired their existence. But Marxist and communist ideas have today, perhaps more than ever, the possibility of demonstrating their viability.”
With these words Maria Luisa Fernandez, the Cuban consul-general, opened the Marxism 2000 conference in Richmond, just outside of Sydney, from January 5 to 9. Her speech followed a welcome by Colin Giles, a representative of the local Darug Aboriginal people.
Marxism 2000, initiated and organised by the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), was the second Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference; the first was held in April 1998, also in Sydney.
Far from being a collective international obituary to the ideas and practice of Marxism, Marxism 2000 was instead a vibrant reassertion of the urgent need to build an alternative to the capitalist system and a reminder that such an alternative is the only way to solve massive global inequalities.
DSP political committee member Peter Boyle, in a speech on the first day of the conference, strongly reasserted the relevance of Marxism in the 21st century, a theme taken up by many of the subsequent speakers. Boyle said that whenever capitalism experienced one of its regular crises, even commentators in the establishment media would ponder whether Marx, in his analysis of the world economic system, was right after all.
For the 450 participants in the conference, the question of challenging the profit-driven policies of neo-liberal governments and corporations was not an academic one. Most of the 53 international guests were from parties and organisations in the Asia Pacific region. All are building socialist movements to challenge the pro-big business economic and social policies of their own governments—governments which are working in conjunction with or are under extreme pressure from the us-led International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Most Australian attendees are also involved in democratic and progressive struggles in their country.
Globalisation and internationalism
A lively challenge to the pessimistic world view of “globalisation” was presented by international keynote speaker James Petras, professor of sociology at New York University at Binghamton and an expert on Latin American politics. It’s not a new insight, he said, to point out that the capitalist economy is operating on a global scale; it has been for many years.
The propaganda about “globalisation”, he said, was aimed at demobilising those who challenge capitalism. It seeks to instil a belief that the struggle against one’s own government is no longer relevant or possible, and that the worldwide capitalist system is invincible.
Because every company still operates under the laws and regulations of the nation-state to which it principally belongs, Petras argued that even if a company employs labour and utilises materials from many different countries, struggles against that company will continue to occur, and can still be effective, on a national, as well as international, scale. The task of socialists is still to organise against the small layer of the rich and powerful within their own countries, he argued, while simultaneously developing strong and binding forms of international solidarity with others elsewhere.
This internationalism flavoured many of the more than 100 plenaries, talks and workshops during the conference. Many participants spoke of increasing political links between struggles in different countries, particularly within the same geographical region.
Some international speakers, particularly speakers from the Indian subcontinent whose governments are involved in bitter rivalries, said that the conference provided the first opportunity to meet with and plan collaboration between socialists who, despite close geographical proximity, had been unable to meet previously. Others, such as the representatives from different organisations on the Philippines left, found that the conference opened up space for a dialogue that had previously been difficult.
DSP political committee member Doug Lorimer presented the party’s analysis of the international neo-liberal forces and the prospects for resistance to this by socialist movements around the world. Sue Bolton, from the DSP’s national executive, described the fight back against the Coalition government’s offensive in Australia.
John Percy, the DSP national secretary, outlined the party’s views on the best basis for international left collaboration and socialist renewal. He argued for internationalism, solidarity and collaboration through a non-sectarian network of socialist parties, rather than a centralised international structure.
He explained that past and present attempts at forming tight internationals, whose member parties related only to a narrow range of international collaborators, had restricted the opportunities for building a healthy worldwide movement for socialism. “Because we’re internationalists”, he said, “we’re desperate to help others to build revolutionary parties, to build better collaboration, to build a real network, to build parties that can make revolutions, in all the countries of the world”.
East Timor and Indonesia
The independence struggle of the people of East Timor and the fight for democracy in Indonesia were given prominence at this conference, having been high on the list of priorities for the DSP’s international solidarity efforts for many years.
Avelino da Silva, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) and a member of the East Timor Transitional Council, received a rousing welcome from conference participants. He spoke of the transitional period to full independence and the enormous task of rebuilding East Timor, both physically and politically.
Da Silva said that international solidarity with the struggle of the East Timorese had been instrumental in their victory, and thanked all those who had displayed this internationalism. Da Silva and Naldo Rai from Fretilin later discussed strategies for the left in East Timor in a well-attended workshop.
One of the few political parties within Indonesia that displayed solidarity with the people of East Timor was the People’s Democratic Party (PRD). PRD president Budiman Sujatmiko, recently released after three and a half years’ imprisonment for political opposition to the Suharto regime, was welcomed with thunderous applause from an audience including many people who had campaigned tirelessly for his release.
Joining him in presenting the PRD’s view of the political challenges facing the radical mass movement were members of the Indonesian Committee for Socialism, Gatot, Machmud and Jazz. PRD leaders Dita Sari, also released from imprisonment in 1999, and Mugianto, from the PRD’s international department, addressed the conference on efforts to build the movement for full democracy in Indonesia. They said there was a need for a party which would encourage workers to pick up where the student movement of 1998, which had caused the overthrow of Suharto, had left off.
Struggles against the Indonesian dictatorship were also described by representatives from the Australia-Aceh Association and the Free Papua Movement.
Rebuilding trade unions
Dita Sari, who is also the chairperson of the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle, spoke on a panel bringing together trade union militants from across Asia. Activists from Australia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal, South Korea and Sri Lanka joined her in a discussion of the possibilities for revolutionary trade union collaboration in the region.
Speakers stressed the need for international solidarity between workers’ struggles, especially in the wake of the economic crisis that hit the Asian region two and a half years ago, causing mass unemployment and widespread increases in poverty. Dita Sari estimated that almost 30 million workers in Indonesia lost their jobs during the economic crisis.
A representative from the newly formed Power of the Working Class organisation in South Korea told of worsening conditions for the South Korean working class. He argued that four features were necessary for trade union effectiveness and strength: democracy, independence, militancy and solidarity. Identifying the lack of international contact as one weakness of the South Korean movement, he explained that the conference was providing opportunities to overcome isolation. A video of the 1100-day, ongoing protest of workers dismissed by steel giant POSCO was shown, and many conference participants signed a petition demanding that the company reinstate the workers.
Farooq Tariq, Labour Party Pakistan general secretary, explained the state of workers’ struggle in Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalist organisations are now infiltrating the trade unions. Only six per cent of Pakistan’s working class is organised in trade unions, he said.
Other sessions on trade union activism included a workshop on the experiences of rank and file challenges to bureaucratic union leaderships in Australia, such as Members First in the Community and Public Sector Union in the ACT and the Workers First group, which recently won leadership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union in Victoria.
A plenary session on strategies for Marxist trade unionists made possible an exchange of ideas on how workers can be organised through trade unions and, through their experiences, become involved in the fight for socialism. Speakers described tactics and strategies for winning workers to socialism in advanced capitalist countries, where one of the main obstacles remains the grip of social democratic forces, such as the ALP [Australian Labor Party] in Australia, on the trade union movement.
Barry Sheppard, from Solidarity in the United States, maintained that unions must break with the capitalist state in order to become effective agents for workers’ struggles. Discussion of Marxist strategies for organising workers in less economically developed countries centred on issues of union independence and democracy, but also on working with other sectors such as students, peasants and the urban poor.
Tariq explained the effect on the Pakistani people of the October military coup. The coup’s leaders have billed their takeover as necessary to end the corruption of the previous government. Tariq explained, however, that far from the military providing a different direction for Pakistan, its leaders are carrying out the dictates of the imf, including privatisation of public utilities, a process started by the government that the military overthrew.
Tariq also said that religious fundamentalism, which is now presenting an ostensibly anti-imperialist face, is a growing problem.
B. Sivaraman, a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the editor of its journal Liberation, reported on the rapid rise of the Hindu right wing in his country, and on the neo-liberal agenda pushed by parties committed to India’s further subordination to the world capitalist economy. Under these conditions, India’s working people face extraordinary challenges, but a movement uniting the millions of workers and poor peasants could lead to a powerful socialist force.
Sivaraman also discussed the party’s stance on the issue of Kashmir, the subject of a bitter struggle between the Indian and Pakistani governments, which many fear may trigger the use of nuclear weapons.
Other international guest speakers from the Indian subcontinent included Nurul Anowar, general secretary of the Bangladesh Agricultural and Farm Labourers Federation, Pradip Nepal and Rajan Bhattarai from the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Priyantha Pushpakumara Wickramasingh from the Nava Sama Samaja Party of Sri Lanka.
The issue of self-determination of the Tamil people came up as amajor difference on the Sri Lankan left, and a member of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations addressed the Tamil national liberation struggle in a workshop.
Other questions of national liberation were raised throughout the five days, including the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the fight of the Cordillera and Bangsa Moro peoples in the Philippines.
The left in the Philippines was represented by Sonny Melencio, Reihana Mohideen and Rasti Delizo from the Socialist Party of Labour, Yusop Abutazil from Alab-Katipunan and Archie Buenaventura and Thelma Carnaje-Martinez from the National Federation of Labour. Francisco Nemenzo, president of the University of the Philippines and long-term Philippines socialist, had been billed as a keynote speaker but was refused permission to attend the conference by Philippines President Estrada. Maung Maung Than from the Free Burma Committee and Vikki Johns from the Bougainville Freedom Movement also prepared workshop presentations.
Socialist movements in Europe and North America were represented by activists from Alternatives in Quebec, Canada, the Revolutionary Communist League in France, the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity in the US. Solidarity activists Caroline Lund and Malik Miah were unable to attend due to illness, but Barry Sheppard and Hayden Perry from Solidarity reported on different aspects of the US socialist movement. Sheppard, a former leader of the US Socialist Workers Party, presented an educational series on the history and decline of that party.
Petras outlined the three waves of left parties and organisations in Latin America from the 1960s to present day organisations such as the Mexican Zapatistas, the Workers Party in Brazil and peasant movements for land reform. Speakers from the United Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) in Brazil and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) in Chile also addressed the conference.
From the Middle East, representatives of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq spoke, and Green Left Weekly correspondent Adam Hanieh reported the latest news from the Palestinian struggle. Another Green Left Weekly correspondent, Renfrey Clarke, recently returned from almost a decade in Russia, summarised his rich experience of Russian politics in a talk on the lessons of the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc countries.
DSP political committee member Lisa Macdonald addressed the question of women’s liberation and its relation to the fight for socialism. A range of talks and workshops examined issues faced by women today and explained the Marxist analysis of women’s oppression and liberation.
A Marxist educational series took up some of the classic writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and James P. Cannon, and Marxist economics and philosophy, while issue-based workshops addressed the environment crisis, the student movement, the history of revolutionary struggle and propaganda tools for socialist activists.
As at many conferences organised by the DSP, the politics continued well into the night, but in a more relaxed and unstructured style. Many of the international guests braved the stage to join in a Songs of Struggle evening, and what was sometimes lacking in talent was made up for in enthusiasm.
A rally featuring the work of the DSP, plus a multimedia presentation, showcased the breadth of political struggles in which the party is involved. Finally, political satire came to the fore with a cabaret on the last night of the conference.
The last conference session ended with a passionate singing of the socialist anthem, the “Internationale”. The fact that the rendition included several language versions sung simultaneously embodied the internationalist spirit that ran through this overwhelmingly successful Marxist conference.