New Marxisms

Is it possible to conceive of new Marxisms?

I have attended several universities, and there are many commonalities. One of them is the revulsion the Socialist Alliance elicit. As a student, many left-leaning people would express their dismay at the SA’s combativeness and arrogance, and say things such as:

  • ‘This is the hard thing – I really agree with them, I do. But they are just despicable’
  • ‘They just like the idea of revolution’

I’ve found similar opinions among students at UniMelb, and have found that even the academic staff – from a broad range of political positions – find them irksome. At UQ, there was a ponytailed fellow and a fedora-wearing fellow. Each of these guys were treated a synecdoches of Marxism, or as representing the bad points about socialism – angry, unfashionable. People said that the SA were expressing good ideas, but were engaged in so much identity work that their group became repulsive.

What I’d like to know is how Marxist ideas maintain their appeal within this crowd. A week or so ago, I attended a public lecture organised by the SA about refugees asylum policy in Australia. Many things were said that I agreed with; humane ideas, decent hopes, and some salient political science. However, toward the end of the lecture, there was a discussion of an incident at Lady Cilentro Hospital in South Brisbane, where the medical personnel refused to discharge a refugee mother and her newborn daughter to Border Force, who intended to return them to Nauru, because they felt that it would compromise their commitment to care. These staff recognised the stories coming from the detention centres indicated that returning the patients back to these situations would compromise the Hippocratic Oath, and they refused to discharge. Many refugee advocates – including SA – camped out the front of Lady Cilentro Hospital, inspecting vehicles to see if Border Force personnel were in entering vehicles, or if the refugee mother and Baby Asha were in leaving ones.

An incredible event – Kon from the ASRC put out a tweet suggesting that Australians buy those in the blockade a pizza, and there were so many pizzas bought that large stacks of them were donated to community housing and homeless shelters in the area.

However, in the discussion at this public lecture, the speaker said that ‘the lowly payed employees, the cleaners and receptionists and wardies were the ones that orchestrated this – the people that make so little money, but who are the ones upon whom all the profits are made’ or words to this effect. Then they said ‘see what happens when the working class people band together?’ and the crowd nodded sagely.

However, in the Lady Cilentro event, it was nurses and doctors that refused to discharge – obviously cleaners have no power to discharge patients – and, from what I understand, it is the doctors and pharmacists that generate all the profit in health, not the cleaners and working class workers. Moreover, research indicates (forthcoming) that the working class of Australia (and the world) supports our governments cruel detention procedures. The traditional Marxist narrative of profit from the working class, revolution with the proletariat, doesn’t hold in this instance. But it was deployed and received comfortably.

I wonder what a new Marxism looks like, one that recognises that working class people are the people who are voting in large numbers for Trump in the US, or voting in support of the Coalition in Australia, and that it is minorities and educated, white middle-class people that typically vote for the ALP and Greens. The Marxist tropes don’t have the salience they once did.

This is not to say that socialism is wrong, Marx is useless etc. etc., but, on the topic of whether or not Marxism is fashionable, I wonder to what extent it can be – or to what extent it might need to be – refashioned in order to reflect our political realities, and not the tested ideas of struggle and resistance.

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