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Radical Oxford Blues

Oxford Radical Forum, Wadham College, Oxford, 29 February - 2 March 2008

Maria Grasso, George Hoare and Lee Jones
posted 31 March 2008

This long weekend of talks and debates aimed at ‘re-energising popular discussion and action on the left’ was held at that purported bastion of left-wing radicalism, Wadham College, Oxford. This was certainly an interesting initiative in what often seem dispiritingly conservative times. If anything came out of the forum at all, however, it was a snapshot of the radical state of confusion on the left today, combining nostalgia for the themes and slogans of the past with many of the prejudices of the present.

The Manifesto on the Oxford Radical Forum’s website explains that ‘our belief in the need for an event in Oxford bringing together progressive politics stems both from a conviction in the continued and critical relevancy of Marxist and leftist ideas and theory and from the sad demise of focused or organised progressive political organisation within the university and the region at large, despite the very many who would under more favourable circumstances participate in such interventions’. To this end, the organisers, Wadham students James Norrie and Nadira Wallace, invited several Oxford academics to speak, and asked organisations like the Socialist Workers Party, Worker’s Liberty, Respect, Plane Stupid, Abortion Rights, and Living Wage Oxford to put on workshops.

The Abortion Rights workshop on the Friday could have served as a case study in the problems of radicalism today. Certainly, fighting for the right to abortion is a traditional concern of the radical left, but the argument seems distinctly less radical today. Charlotte Gage of Abortion Rights led a discussion on ‘The Threat to Women’s Reproductive Rights’, with about 20 fresh-faced, mostly-female attendees. As a group, we were told, Abortion Rights lobbies government and MPs to maintain the legal status of abortion (currently at up to 24 weeks) and to liberalise it by removing the need for two doctors’ signatures. Charlotte urged us to pass pro-choice motions in our college common rooms and to sign ready-made pro-choice postcards and send them to our MPs.

When asked why Abortion Rights doesn’t subscribe to the traditional, more radical slogan: ‘free abortion on demand, as early as possible and as late as necessary’, Charlotte said that personally, she agreed, but that as a group, Abortion Rights does not make those arguments for fear of alienating MPs and government committees. The state of affairs was, apparently, that the best we can hope for is to defend the current 24 weeks limit by fighting an evidence-based battle to refute anti-abortionists medical claims about fetal pain and women’s health, and other medicalised arguments against abortion. This, apparently, is the game they have to play. But while science may inform the medical practice of abortion, it will never tell us whether abortion is right in principle. Anti-abortion groups need to hide behind ‘the science’ because their arguments that abortion is always morally wrong fail to win people over. But the point about abortion is that it’s a moral and political question about a woman’s right to choose, and the ‘radical’ case is that the law should enshrine the patient’s final right to decide, as it does for other medical practices.

It is one thing for lobbyists to ‘play the game’ when dealing with government committees, but the failure of abortion campaigners to have out this harder argument means that there is political confusion even among the ranks of the ‘radical’. Strikingly, many of the attendees at this workshop thought perhaps fetuses do have rights, and many more strongly questioned whether it was a good idea to give women the right to have an abortion throughout the course of the pregnancy. It was argued that ‘some irresponsible women’ would terminate pregnancies the day before they were due to deliver – revealing the paternalistic assumption that women (or at least some kinds of women) cannot be trusted with the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. The argument that government has no right to interfere with women’s decisions about whether they want to have a child or not was met with outright disdain and disapproval. The case for free abortion on demand for all women throughout the course of pregnancy came under attack from the vast majority of the supposedly ‘radical’ (and mostly-female) attendees.

If the issue of abortion has been ‘deradicalised’ by pragmatic lobbyists who prefer scientific to political arguments, this surely reflects the broader diminishment of political struggle over the past generation. The clearest expression of this has been the demise of class politics. Accordingly, on Saturday morning the grand old Analytical Marxist Gerry Cohen addressed the question of ‘What Happened to the Working Class?’ Perhaps one of the most anticipated talks of the weekend, given Cohen’s academic standing and reputation for witty repartee, it was actually the letdown of the weekend. Rather than exploring the politics of class, Cohen elaborated a structural definition of the working class, which must fulfill conditions 1-4 based on size, need, production and exploitation, therefore condition 5 (having nothing to lose), therefore, neatly, condition 6 (revolution!) For Cohen, the working class as Marx described it in the late 19th century no longer exists: ergo, revolution is an impossibility.

This simply ignores the fundamental question of political agency and its dialectical relationship with the development of historical conditions, and thus obscures much more interesting (but also more difficult) political questions. First, why aren’t the structural conditions fulfilled, and how will labour continue to develop under capitalism? What is the role of culture, or ideology for a revolutionary class? Even, from a Marxist perspective, why does capitalism grow and develop in the way it does? Finally, and most importantly, what is coming next?

The only answer to this question was profoundly anti-Marxian: Cohen argued that, just as technological development in the West had segmented the working class, so the exact same process would occur to workers in India, China and elsewhere. Instead of a dynamic understanding of how societies develop and interact, Cohen presented a fatalistic account of history repeating itself. And while Marx’s dialectic was discarded in favour of a totally discredited cyclical model of history, Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ was replaced by a retreat into academic theorising, with Cohen entreating economists to work out how an economy might ideally be organised under communism. In stark opposition to the historical materialist method, Cohen’s only hopeful exhortation was that since ‘Marx and Engels were very bad on giving us a blueprint of socialist society, the task of socialist economists should be to work out exactly what the structure of society should be’.

This proved, if nothing else, the poverty of political theory and its estrangement from social reality, and re-emphasised the need for good sociological work to understand contemporary reality, to see where the contradictions lie and where agency might be applied – rather than throwing our hands up in despair, or constructing fantasy economies. The final nail in the coffin was that the only questions from the audience were from bearded old men; clearly the students who’d been interested enough to show up, perhaps even looking to be radicalised, were either demoralised or simply bewildered by Cohen’s structuralism. Not even an embarrassing sing-along of the radical anthem, ‘Solidarity Forever’, could rouse them.

If Cohen offered a slice of ahistorical structuralism, replete with the pessimistic conclusion that since certain conditions defining the 19th century working class were not fulfilled, socialists can no longer have confidence in societal change, then surely Marc Mullholland’s talk on ‘Marxism and History’ would bring some historical context and a consideration of political agency to the discussion? Forgetaboutit. While Mulholland was perhaps one of the more interesting speakers of the weekend, his talk was fundamentally an academic re-interpretation of Marx’s theory of history, offering little or no hope for the future.

Opening with the bold assertion that ‘dialectics should be abandoned’, Mulholland went on to reinterpret Marxism Thatcher-style: that it was all about independence from the collective and the human instinct for individual personal security. While this emphasis on the neglected role of the individual in Marxist theory should be lauded, Mulholland’s abandonment of dialectics meant that he missed the point about Marx’s analysis of the relationship between individual and society. For Marx, the social and historical context in which the individual is grounded are fundamental, but the individual is not purely the product of social forces (as argued by many on the left). Instead, there is a role for individual autonomy as part of the dialectical development of history and society: but it is social man who can act autonomously as an historical agent, not the atomistically conceived man of methodological individualism that Mulholland seemed to endorse. Privileging the individual over society does not restore individual autonomy, but rather obscures the very process that makes human agency possible. Static individualism is just as ahistorical as static collectivism.

The final debate, ‘Is Marxism still Necessary to Understand and Change the World?’ featured Peter Hitchens, Michael Prior, Pat Devine and Paul Blackledge: two ex-Marxists (one of whom openly wondered why he was on the panel – and so did we), one academic green Gramscian and a Socialist Workers Party activist lecturer. Given this line-up, the SWP’s Blackledge seemed the only ‘radical’ on the panel and certainly the only one who argued concretely for Marxism’s relevancy today in relation to his workplace union work, though his remarks on Iraq (that tired cliché, ‘no blood for oil’) and the environment (Marx was a green!) left much to be desired. Hitchens, a former Trotskyite, had all the cynicism of a poacher turned gamekeeper, arguing the working class does not exist, Marx was wrong all along, and thus Marxism has nothing to say.

Meanwhile, Devine’s dry recounting of Gramsci’s insights, without any application to present realities, bored rather than inspiring the audience. Indeed, Devine’s attempt to reconcile environmentalism and Marxism led him to the bizarre claim that Marx’s relevance today was illustrated by his warnings that ‘too much growth’(!) caused crises in society and environmental destruction. But in fact Marx saw capital’s great productive power as its sole historically redeeming quality. His point was that the problem with the capitalist system was not too much production, but the irrational limits placed on production and the fact that only some people could enjoy great wealth and consumption. For Marx, the point was to surpass capitalism and to wield the productive capacity it had developed in a more rational, socially-organised way, not to retreat from production or curb growth. Prior, a green ex-Marxist, expressed similar confusion, and exemplified a tendency towards personalised ideology, talking about ‘my Marxism’, a sort of ‘pick-n-mix’ of Marxism and contemporary ideas like environmentalism.

Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire that revolution cannot take its poetry from the past, but only from the future. The speakers at the Oxford Radical Forum too frequently ignored both the poetry of the past in contextualising the relevance of Marxism today, and the radical potential of talking seriously about the future. Questions such as what it means to be left-wing today in relation to the past, what is to be done, the future of the working class and the state of historical subjectivity, the unfolding of history, the clash between capitalism and the environment, which are fundamental to understanding where we are today and how we can take politics forward, were simply not addressed. The speakers were mostly academics with no real political allegiance to Marxism or any desire to argue for its potential to make a critical-historical analysis of society today and to elaborate a vision for change for the future. Instead, they were bent on distorting, dissecting and extracting dry empirical clauses from the writings of Marx, without ever grounding the insights of Marxist theory in the politics of the present.

Those eager for answers to the important political questions of the day, or at least some heated debate on some highly contested issues, could not have left without the feeling that the contemporary left’s answers, or even approaches to analysis, at least as reflected by the speakers at the forum, offer very little. The aspiration of the Oxford Radical Forum is still a good one, but its success will now depend on the desire and ability of those involved to look beyond the usual suspects and today’s off-the-peg ‘radical’ agenda, and to organise more discussions that will truly engage with and address the questions of the present with an eye to the future.

The authors are postgraduate students at the University of Oxford.


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