Marxism is Ireland’s largest socialist conference and this year was the largest. Michael Collins gives his report of an inspiring conference which had young people and women to the fore, and ideas aplenty for the fight for a better world.
Eamonn McCann was asked a pertinent question during a discussion at Marxism 2018, titled 1968: Revolutionaries in Conversation. “Looking back at 1968, was there anything you would have done differently?” Seated next to Bernadette McAliskey and Aaron Dixon of the Black Panthers, McCann replied “I suppose I would have taken more time to sit back… to think, and to discuss. Strategy is important and we were caught in a whirlwind of activity then. My advice to people today would be to take ideas seriously, to take politics seriously, and to take the time to think!”
It was an insightful observation from Eamonn, and got to the heart of what conferences like Marxism are about. People convened from across the country for Ireland’s largest ever socialist conference last weekend to think, discuss and strategize the ways forward in the fight for a better world. And this year, there was added buoyancy and eagerness amongst participants. Because a significant step forward had been taken in Ireland in the fight for a better world, with the historic campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Repealing Capitalism, then, became the key theme of a conference which saw over 500 people in attendance, a record figure.
Discussions on Friday night opened with a fascinating talk by Somhairle Mag Uidhir on The Politics of the GAA. Simultaneous meetings were held on the topics of Imperialism in Syria, Socialists and Free Speech, Marxism and Mental Distress, The Politics of Pregnancy and James Connolly’s Marxism.
The broad topics of debate were an indicator of what was to come over the weekend, with a timetable packed full of diverse speakers and topics, from current activist struggles to more theoretical talks like Marx’s Theory of Alienation by Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, and Marnie Holborow’s talk on Social Reproduction and the Irish Family.
Undoubtedly the highlight of Friday’s proceedings was the evening’s plenary session 1968 Revolutionaries in Conversation, with Eamonn McCann, Bernadette McAliskey and Aaron Dixon. 50 years on from the events of 1968, it was inspiring to see 350 people pouring into an auditorium in Dublin to discuss the topic in of itself.
Aaron Dixon spoke of the events which inspired him to become a radical, particularly those of the Vietnam War. He recalled his father quoting Mohammed Ali as an early introduction to anti-war politics and left-wing ideas. Aaron recollected that opposition to the war in Vietnam and the inherent racism in the US inspired him to get involved in the civil rights campaign. Upon seeing key figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X assassinated, Aaron came to the conclusion that a more militant formation was needed: one that would attempt to defend black activists against the violent recriminations of the state. He founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers.
There was a brilliant rapport between the three veterans of global civil rights campaigns at Marxism 2018. Eamonn and Bernadette spoke of how they watched events in the US unfolding on their TV screens, and drew inspiration from the nonviolent civil disobedience of Martin Luther King. Outraged by the blatant discrimination that existed at home: the civil rights movement was born in Derry. It shook the Orange State to its foundations and won significant reforms for people, including the extension of the right to vote, and the formation of the Northern Housing Executive.
Saturday’s proceedings at the conference got off to a flyer with Aaron Dixon discussing his experience in the 60’s with the Black Panthers. The full live stream of his talk is available on the Marxism Facebook page. And continuing the theme of 1968, Matt Collins hosted a fascinating conversation with former People’s Democracy activists Fergus O’Hare, Brid Ruddy and John Gray, who reflected on the lessons of the period.
A panel on Resisting the Far Right drew huge crowds on Saturday at lunchtime. Ivanka Antova, chair of United Against Racism Belfast, gave an impassioned speech about the successful efforts to resist the far right mobilising in Belfast. Aaron Dixon condemned the vicious racist policies of Donald Trump, while Naima Omar talked about the campaign in the UK to resist the vile racism of Tommy Robinson. Memet Uludag and Eileen Flynn gave riveting presentations about the need to resist the racist policies of the Irish government, particularly the cruel racist system of Direct Provision, and the recent bile spewed by Peter Casey toward the Traveller community. Eileen’s talk was particularly emotive and addressed the Left directly, calling on activists to stand with the Traveller community whenever necessary.
Housing became the subject of energetic discussion at the Take Back the City panel, with hundreds of activists in attendance later on Saturday. The auditorium repeatedly erupted in applause at calls from speakers to attend the national demonstration for housing in Dublin, which we now know brought 10,000 to the streets of Dublin. The mood that took over the streets of Dublin on December 1st was just as defiant in the main auditorium at Marxism on 24th November.
A day of fervid discussion drew to a close with a jam-packed meeting discussing After Repeal: Winning Real Liberation and Equality. As Ailbhe Smith eloquently put it in her introduction: “The North is not next, the North is now!” There was an urgency, too, in Belfast activist Cailín McCaffery’s address for the need to step up the fight for abortion rights north of the border. She quoted recent examples of young women being dragged through the courts for procuring abortion pills, and pointed to the hypocrisy Sinn Féin for overseeing a power sharing government which had denied women basic rights for so long.
Journalist and author Una Mullally gave her insight into the impact of the media and young people in the Repeal campaign, before Melissa Halpin gave her inspirational account of the Repeal and the #metoo movement and encouraged people to get behind the #thisisnotconsent campaigns which have been springing up in the aftermath of the recent Cork rape trial. “Women are waking up across this island. A revolution is happening amongst women. This new women’s movement must combat the rotten conservative state in the south, and reject the divisive state in the North which continues to deny women rights.” The amount of people in the room who cheered and applauded her words was testament to the sentiment behind them.
The theme of women’s liberation continued on Sunday with Sinead Kennedy’s brilliant take on Marxism and Women’s Liberation, amidst a series of other discussions on topics as diverse, and timely, as the environment, LGBTQ liberation, the rise of China as a superpower, the US working class in the Trump era, and a brilliant and incisive history of the Irish Famine by Breandán McSuibhne.
On Sunday afternoon, a panel drew another packed crowd, with US guest Sarah Jaffe, Catarina Principe from the Left Bloc in Portugal, Fiona Ferguson of People Before Profit and TD Richard Boyd Barrett discussing The S Word: The Return of Socialism, which triggered a fascinating discussion from the floor about the urgency to make the ideas of socialism relevant in the 21st century, especially considering the impending reality of climate change. The importance, too, of internationalism and solidarity were key to the speeches of all speakers.
Of particular note was the afternoon panel later that day, titled No Stone Unturned: Accounting for State Violence, with an incredible panel of activists who have been campaigning against the violence of paramilitaries and the state. Kelly McAllister of the Ballymurphy families, Stephen Travers a survivor of the Maimi Showband Massacre and Alan McBride, campaigner for victims of the Shankill bombing, spoke alongside TD Brid Smith. It was a powerful panel, with personal testimonies from each of the activists, at the end of which Brid Smith took the opportunity to condemn the DUP for their continued attempts to pursue amnesty for British soldiers during the Troubles.
Sunday’s events closed with an impassioned final rallying call from TD Brid Smith and Carlow based activist Adrienne Wallace. Hundreds of people in the hall left inspired of a new vision for Ireland; one which rejects the skin-deep liberalism of Leo Varadkar, and seeks to tackle the rampant inequality and oppression North and South of the border.
This was the biggest ever Marxism conference in Ireland. It was noticeable that young people were at the fore of many of the debates and discussions. This surely bodes well for the future of the left on this island. Hopefully the best is yet to come for socialism here, both North and South.