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October conference in Limerick:  rebirth of a Marxist tradition in Irish Universities?

John McAnulty

30 October 2010

The Conference, Marxist Perspectives on Irish Society, was held in the University of Limerick on October 22nd - 23rd 2010.  It had been organised by a group of local academics who had formed a Marxist reading group. Perhaps its most important aspect was that it was held. It is a long time since there has been any sign of an academic Marxist tradition in Ireland and the last manifestation, by sympathizers of the Workers Party, was entirely reactionary and is perhaps symbolized by the elevation of former "Marxist" and Unionist advisor Paul Bew to the British House of Lords.

The Limerick conference was far to the left of that and may be taken as a forerunner of the hidden pressures within Irish society that demand an end to the corrupt consensus that applies today and the need for a working class response to austerity and economic bankruptcy.

The fact that over 100 people attended the opening lecture by Kieran Allen was a sign that there was a significant base for a new Marxist discourse. A number of the contributions showed the analytical power of Marxism and the ways in which it can contribute to an understanding of both the global and the Irish crisis. It was also noticeable that, forced into the constraints of theory, some of the participants moved somewhat from opportunist positions based mainly on the needs of their organizations towards some attempt to reflect on the needs of the working class.

That said, there were, as would be expected in a new movement, weaknesses. It was something of a dolly mixtures conference, with a wide range and quality of submissions. The number of papers also made it very difficult for any lengthy debate to take place. 

Some participants had given very considerable thought to their submissions. Some were gems of scholarship, some bizarre, some obscure and some could be with difficulty fitted into the category of Marxism.

Kieran Allen of the Socialist Workers Party made a strong submission. He attempted to explain the passivity of the working class and put forward the history of Social Partnership as a major factor. As with much of the output of the SWP, one was left with doubts about the honesty of the presentation. It is, after all, not so long ago that Allen produced a book on the collapse of the Celtic Tiger that managed to avoid mention of Social Partnership or of the role of the trade union bureaucracy.

The presentation by Clare Daly of the Socialist Party struck me as weak. There was a long lecture on the evils of privatization that seemed unnecessary for a socialist audience. The meat came at the end, with the suggestion that socialists should advance Keynesian demands to strengthen ties with the working class. Just when we would advance socialist demands was not clear. In essence it was a restatement of her party's policy, with little in the way of theoretical justification.

My own presentation, “The Hunger Strikes - A defeat for Republicanism, a defeat for the working-class”, caused some shock. It was clear that it had been some time since the majority of the participants had considered the national question as a class question and equally clear that a number had accepted the propaganda that the Good Friday Agreement had resolved the national question. The audience were however perfectly open to thinking again and there was a supportive discussion. It was actually observable that the link between the national question and class struggle was present in a number of the papers; D. R. O’ Connor Lysaght: The coming Revolution in Ireland, Stephen Ryan’s: Class Conflict in Drumsna and Dominic Haugh: A Lost Opportunity - The potential for Socialist Revolution in Ireland 1917 – 1922 and the role of Marxists in the workers movement during this period all come to mind.

Hellil Ticktin gave an opportunity to delve deeper into Marxist analysis. A major dispute among Marxists in explaining the economic crisis resolves around a concept by Marx involving the tendency of the rate of profit to fall over time. Some economists argue that that it was this tendency that caused the crisis while other Marxists argue that the rate of profit rose sharply in recent decades.

Ticktin indicated that the concept was central to Marxism but that told us nothing about the actual rate at any given time. What we should pay attention to was the strategy of capital, and this made it clear that there would be no Keynesian solution and responses based on this perspective would fall. Capitalist policies would produce a global depression, but they would continue the offensive until the workers responded with full-scale resistance.

A number of different strands were evident in the conference. There was the desire to popularize Marxism, to make use of it to explain the crisis of capital and to arrive at a common understanding and the hope that this might lead to a greater unity of left groups.

All of these elements face difficulty. Marxism will only be popular if it proves its usefulness. It could most easily do this if existing socialists were willing to come to a common understanding based on the application of Marxist concepts and for that to happen socialists would have to begin with the needs of the working class. Existing processes tend in the other direction. The groups start with their own needs. Discussion tends to be diplomacy about electoral pacts. Marxism is reduced to catch-phrases that members barely understand.

There is a way to break that vicious circle. Clear debate around central issues would clarify the usefulness of Marxism, increase understanding and reduce sectarianism. That points the way to a future conference: fewer papers, more sharply focused on the different elements of the current crisis and with much greater time for debate. 

I understand that the organizers of the Limerick conference intend to publish the submissions to the current conference and to organize it as an annual event. The building of an academic Marxist current in Ireland would be a significant step forward and should be supported.

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