Confronting the Violence of Capital: Summary of Historical Materialism Toronto
Last weekend I attended the last two days of the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto, in the process gathering pages of notes I wanted to systematize in some way. With that established, I give you a four-part ode to the academic left. We launch books, we talk in echo-box classrooms, we line up for pizza like everyone else, and we pray the revolution won’t interrupt our careers. Let’s take it away.
Part 1: Book Launches
Among the conference panels I attended three were book launches. A book launch is basically a kick-off event for a block of paper that functions both as marketing and a chance for prospective readers to get conversational with the author. A panel of scholars mediate the event, all giving presentations on one or another aspect of the book they want to highlight. Normally, this also connects to their own research and generally includes both praise for the book in question and maybe some light criticism. After the presentations, questions are answered and––ideally––everyone leaves convinced to buy the book and tell their academic friends about it. A virtuous cycle, if you will.
My first panel was a peek at Paul Kellogg’s Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy after Left Nationalism. In short, the book is a slash-and-burn critique of nationalist tendencies in the study of the Canadian state and economy. Put briefly, the left nationalist tendency sees Canada as a satellite in the American orbit, a dependent raw materials producer that is underdeveloped by the dominance of American imperial power. While there was at one time a high concentration of American ownership of Canadian capital, even this empirical case for the nationalist side has collapsed since the 1980s. The importance of the book is, according to the panelists, that it decimates left nationalist arguments and firmly identifies Canada as an independent capitalist and imperialist country. That certainly accounts for the profligate destruction wrought by our mineral extraction industries throughout the world, not to mention Canada’s strategic location within NATO and its military interventions.
Keywords for Radicals was my second book launch, a rather eclectic panel for a very eclectic book. Drawing its name and inspiration from a much older Raymond Williams book, Keywords is a work of definition and debate, collecting over 50 essays on different words that cause friction within the radical left. Additionally, the hope was to map out the conflicts over words in a way that they could be an index of broader social contradictions, particularly within the left but in general society as well. Each panelist spoke on their own word, including “war,” “experience,” “space,” “history,” and “populism.” When I get around to reading the entire book, I’ll have more fleshed-out responses on some of these entries, but I would like to single out Bryan Palmer’s presentation on “history.” Given that this was not a historical conference and most of the audience members were probably not historians, I can understand why his presentation felt incomplete and surface-level to me. It was pitched at a general radical audience, not necessarily someone invested in academic arcana about historical agency, subjectivity, and heritage, etc. It’s certainly vital to point out, as he did, that history might be about the past but is always written for the present and pointing towards the future, but he left me wanting more. Then again, that might just be effective marketing.
The final book launch was for an English translation of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works, which includes his vital writings on the Turkish national question and his criticism of the pro-nationalist Kemalist left in Turkey. As this book could be better dealt with in a later section, I will leave this section with the note that both Kaypakkaya and Kellogg’s writing excoriated a left trapped by nationalist projects. While it’s important to recognize the liberating potential of certain nationalist movements, a lacking or blundering critical investigation can leave an entire radical group beached on shores they don’t belong on. Or else liquidated by reactionaries.
Part 2: Canadian State and Labour Movements
Speaking of Canadian nationalism, one of the core tenets of the 20th century postwar vision of Canada is the idea of peacekeeping and “good governance.” Canada projects good PR for capitalism, despite its history of repressing and jailing members of radical and labour movements and generally just strolling along as an ordinary capitalist state. Part of its aura, of course, comes from its proximity to the United States, which makes the more northerly country appear like less of a disaster area.
As for the panel, the most notable presentation was on the revolutionary stagey of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in the years between the world wars. From its early beginnings advocating immediate insurrection to what the presenter described as “militant economism” and finally to the ignominy of the popular front in the late 1930s. What distinguished the presentation was its historicization of revolutionary strategy in a large communist party, acknowledging internal struggles within the organization and its evolution over time, both in relation to its own social context and the international space of the Comintern. It lays the foundation for a more thorough theorization of the mistakes and successes of the CPC in its glory days––back when it was worth paying attention to––and might allow the left within so-called Canada to adapt its strategies in light of these theories.
The other two presentations can be seen as a pair, discussing a recent Supreme Court decision in Canada to enshrine the strike as a right and the history of labour defence leagues, respectively. Both talked about the same broad topic: the incorporation of the labour movement into the “normal procedures” of the capitalist state and the associated decline in labour militancy and will to fight. Given that the current labour movement poses no threat whatsoever to the Canadian state, and in fact often acts as an enabler for it, it appears unlikely that a militant break could occur in the foreseeable future.
Part 3: Ibrahim Kaypakkaya and the Kurdish Question
Two panels I attended covered the issue of the Middle East and its relationship to American imperialism, Turkey, and Kurdish liberation struggles. One of these was a panel proper while the other was the aforementioned book launch for Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works. They bled right into each other temporally and thematically, so I wanted to discuss them together.
The panel on the Middle East had one paper condemning Western left praise and support for Islamist movements. A simplistic focus on the groups’ supposed opposition to American imperialism, the presenter argued, leads to an uncritical stance on groups that are often reactionary to the core and a corresponding neglect of people’s democracy movements working in those countries. One incident he cited was Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at a commemoration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which addressed the 1953 coup and Britain’s complicity in it but of course neglected the immense suffering the theocrats have caused in their own country.
Two other panels focused on the Kurdish struggles in Turkey and Syria (Bakur and Rojava), with one analyzing the opposition of the PKK’s libertarian visions of the Middle East and the “dystopian” views of the fascist ISIS organization and Western imperialists. It further discussed the fact that the Kurds pose the main obstacle to Turkish state’s nationalistic aspirations. The second, meanwhile, focused on women’s civil defence units in Turkish Kurdistan, trying to protect Kurdish communities from Turkish military violence, sexual and otherwise. She highlighted the PKK’s strong emphasis on gender relations and women’s liberation within its base areas, all the while dealing with a war situation. Both presentations were illuminating but limited, for me, by my own lack of knowledge of the history of the Kurdish situation and its ramifications in Syria and Turkey today.
One way I might bulk up my knowledge of that area, however, would be through reading the Selected Works of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya. Kaypakkaya is a core figure in the history of Turkish Marxism, being one of the core members and founders of the Turkish Communist Party/Marxist Leninist (TKP/ML) and a leading theorist on the national question, semi-feudalism in Turkey, and the relationship between the Kurdish movement and the wider socialist project in Turkish state territory. The presenters and moderator on the panel did an excellent job of explaining Kaypakkaya’s importance and the timeliness of the book’s (long-delayed) release in an English translation, however flawed that translation might be. Given that Marxist work on the national question tends to be straitjacketed by Stalin’s dusty (if still relevant) articulation of nation and its relationship to the broader popular movement, I hope this book can make an impact worthy of its author.
Part 4: Conclusion
I shrink from making grand pronouncements on the “State of the Left.” My youth and inexperience are not the only reasons; I simply think that self-flagellation or self-glorification miss the point of what these conferences and similar gatherings are about. They’re about sharing knowledge, connecting with one another, and challenging each others’ failings. In many ways, we’re mired in a fog of war, a myopia that restricts us from seeing past our own local situations and understanding what solutions are needed for the broader quest for liberation. What I learned at HM Toronto was more of a confirmation than a new insight: academic work, particularly if not organically linked to peoples’ struggles, cannot overcome its inherent limitations. Put simply, even Marxist academics are restricted by publishing constraints, respectability, alienation from proletarian struggles, and career obligations. Nevertheless, I left HM Toronto more informed and more focused, and I’m confident that conferences like this are necessary if only for the indirect benefits they might have on academics who are also participating in live social movements and political projects.