In the wake of the financial crisis Marxist thought is thriving, and in London leading names are discussing turning ideas into action
The death of Ken Coates last weekend silenced yet another strong and distinguished voice on the radical left. The past year or so has taken from us some of the most outstanding Marxist intellectuals of the 1968 generation – Giovanni Arrighi, Jerry Cohen, Peter Gowan, and, particularly painful for me, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaïd. In the supposedly ideology-free world of the Con-Lib coalition, it would be tempting to conclude that these individual disappearances are representative of a much broader decline of Marxism as an intellectual and political tradition.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the constitutionally myopic financial markets are beginning to wake up to the fact that capitalism is very badly broken. The Keynesian economist Paul Krugman wrote a few days ago: "We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression," following those of the late 19th century and of the 1930s. Marx described his own intellectual project as the critique of political economy: Marxism therefore lives or dies by its ability to make sense of the dynamics of capitalism and to offer a way out of it.
And Marxist political economists have indeed been, in the forefront, analysing the causes and tracing the trajectory of the global crisis. Just over the past year Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism, David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital, and my own Bonfire of Illusions have presented overviews. Costas Lapavitsas and the Research on Money and Finance group of young scholars based at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London have led the way in explaining the eurozone crisis and offering radical alternative policies for countries such as Greece.
This research activity has been accompanied by a renewal of interest in Marxism among the young that is now very visible in the English-speaking academy. When David Harvey visited London in April to launch his new book, he spoke to half a dozen meetings packed with audiences in their hundreds. One of them was at my own university, King's College London, hardly a traditional centre of revolution. The meeting was co-sponsored by the thriving King's group reading Marx's Capital, which also helped to organise last November a debate on the future of capitalism between Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and myself.
The journal Historical Materialism, set up by a group of young scholars in the mid-1990s, has been one of the main drivers of the academic revival of Marxism. Its annual conference in London every November now attracts more than 500 participants and has spun off North American counterparts in Toronto and New York.
But Marxism has, of course, always been about the effort not simply to develop better theories but to relate them to emancipatory political practice, as the lives of engaged intellectuals such as Coates, Harman, and Bensaïd bear witness. London, as it happens, provides an important venue for this effort. The five-day Marxism 2010 festival takes place in central London, starting today.
Organised by the Socialist Workers party, this forum for socialist ideas has been held every year since 1977 and expects to have more than 4,000 participants this year. There should be plenty of intellectual fireworks – Tariq Ali on Islamophobia, Slavoj Žižek, John Holloway and me on the idea of communism, Hester Eisenstein, Judith Orr, and Nina Power on the new sexism, along with a gallery of leftwing talent – Tony Benn, Eamonn McCann, Gareth Peirce, Steven Rose, Michael Rosen, Sheila Rowbotham, and the Guardian's Gary Younge.
But running through the sessions will be a more practical intent as well. As austerity sweeps through Europe, the Con-Lib coalition now seems intent on reinventing the sado-monetarism of the 1980s on a scale undreamt of even by Margaret Thatcher. The Marxist left is thriving intellectually. The real test it faces is political: can it help to develop effective resistance to the coalition's plans to devastate the public sector and the poor? Events in Greece show how neoliberal shock therapy can provoke social rebellion. The real future of Marxism depends on the scale on which these revolts develop and on the political direction they take.