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Ideas Left Out: The joys of Marxist variance

August 22, 2012

By John Riddell. Ask nine Marxists on a weekend outing to give advice on “organizing for change,” and you must expect divergent answers. The themes raised by nine speakers at an Ideas Left Out weekend retreat near Ganonoque, Ontario on August 3-6, 2012, covered a lot of ground: presence, Palestine, Greece, negation, trust, diversity, opportunity, stamina, and solidarity.

Ideas Left Out is an independent Toronto-based discussion forum that aims to provide space for “non-sectarian, anti-imperialist, accessible, original, and creative ideas.” Its August weekend retreat, named “Ideas Left Outside,” was held on a small, rocky island on Charleston Lake, with an infrastructure of tents, pit toilets, and solar panels. Sixteen participants heard ten major presentations, in addition to the nine three-minute “micro-talks” on organizational lessons.

Equipped with stopwatch and a clamorous gong, chairs Paul Denison and Suzanne Weiss held all the micro-speakers to the three-minute limit. Here is a summary, based on my notes:

Presence: Capitalism cannot be politicized all at once. Rather than lose ourselves in the future, we must live in the present. What is revolutionary now is the fight for reform. We need to organize, but our stress should be not on organization, but on politics.

Palestine: Those who hold power vilify Palestinians as the quintessential terrorists. But to truly know Palestine is to shatter all these myths. Palestine is our ultimate friend, our movement, our soul, our Vietnam. Palestine is the ultimate enemy of empire.

Greece: Greece is an idea left out, site of a powerful workers’ upsurge and a menacing rightist movement; of a distinctive “Occupy” movement and of Syriza, a suddenly strong Socialist party. The message of Greece is: we need socialists who work together and put the movement first.

Negation: Revolutionary organization is gripped in anticipatory waiting. It must preserve itself – drawing toward itself oppositional strains that it must necessarily strengthen – while being prepared to be subsumed in a multidimensional space it can neither control nor surpass.

Trust: The example of Québec Solidaire shows that we must embrace a wide variety of traditions, trusting each other. This requires an act of will; we must not just go with the flow. In a word: think big, take risks, and put the movement first.

Diversity: If a group strives excessively for homogeneity, it risks losing the capacity for collective discussion and decision. Revolutionary groups need intellectual diversity, in order to be sensitive to the thinking and experience of diverse layers of working people – especially young people bringing us the ideas of a vibrant, distinctive milieu.

Opportunity: A global wave of resistance is giving reality to the concept, “Another world is possible.” Marxist currents, while part of this broad resistance, need to intervene in organized fashion. Social movements are diverse, not uniform; Marxist participation reflects a choice regarding what best advances the movement’s interests. Activists who agree need an organizational home.

Stamina: Revolutionaries run the hazard of seeing capitalism’s terminal crisis everywhere and always, and this leads to missing the real, tangible opportunities before us. Then, when the revolution does not happen, we drift apart. We must think like Gramsci and carry out a lengthy, protracted struggle.

Solidarity: In a society marked by a cult of individualism, young people relate to oppression in terms of identity politics. We need to engage with people in a way that overcomes the limits of individualism and provides a basis for solidarity and unification.

Abbie Bakan’s microtalk was written up; it is (with permission) reproduced below.

Ten (Other) Topics

Prior to the “micro-talks” session, presentations were a bit more relaxed, consisting of 20-30 minute papers. The topics:

  • “Boiling Mud: Oil, Capitalism, and the Environment in Venezuela and Alberta” (Paul Kellogg).
  • “Queer Rights Are Human Rights” (Amelia Murphy-Beaudoin).
  • “Marxism, Feminism, and Women’s Liberation” (Abbie Bakan).
  • “The Comintern: A School of Socialist Strategy” (John Riddell).
  • “My Journey from the Holocaust to Global Solidarity” (Suzanne Weiss).
  • “Seeing Things Differently” (Brian Donnelly).
  • “Seeing People Differently: The Idea of Blackness” (Joe Kelly).
  • “From the Street to the Ballot Box: Québec Politics after the ‘Printemps érable’” (Benoit Renaud).
  • “Vietnam War Resisters in the 1960s” (Jessica Squires).
  • “U.S. Imperialism in the Age of Obama” (Ashley Smith).

Between sessions, there was time for swimming, canoeing, sunning, singing, talking, and more talking, and all participants shared in cooking and cleaning.

Ideas Left Out began as a modest attempt by anti-capitalists in the universities and social movements to find a space for dialogue restricted in the academic sphere, and often lacking time or attention in the activist sphere. It has also served to provide common ground for those of different political persuasions and theoretical traditions.

Plans are under consideration for another weekend session next summer and for other discussions in Toronto during the intervening months. For more information or to receive notices, write

Appendix 1: Ideas Left Out Workshops, 2009-2012

Palestinian Resistance as Indigenous Resistance, August 21, 2009

Clara Zetkin and the Twenty-first Century Working Class, September 20, 2009

Queer Anti-Capitalism, November 22, 2009

José Carlos Mariátegui: Contributions towards Hybrid Marxism, January 10, 2010

Reflections on Party, Movement and Class: The Case of the BDS Movement, February 21, 2010

Reflections on Race and Class, March 28, 2010

Cultural Production, May 2, 2010

The Great Recession and the 1930s-Analogy Trap, June 6, 2010

Building a Rank-and-File Union in the Age of ‘Big Purple’: The Battle Over the Future of the US Labour, Nov 21, 2010

Biography of an Idea: Raya Dunayevskaya and Marxist Humanism, December 5, 2010

The Toronto Left in the 1970s, January 23, 2011

Bottom of the 4th Inning of the Great Game: Afghanistan is Now Open for Business, February 20, 2011

Looking Back at NAC: Canadian Feminism and the Politics of Whiteness, March 27, 2011

Jazz and the Popular Front: The Making of ‘America’s Classical Music’, June 5, 2011

Secular Yiddishkeit: Left Politics, Culture and Communication, November 27, 2011

Eurozone from Greece to Germany: Explaining the Crisis, January 29, 2012

A Communication History of Indonesian Communism: On Method, July 13, 2012

Ideas Left Outside, August 3-6, 2012

Appendix 2. Palestine Solidarity: Lessons for Marxists
Microtalk at Ideas Left Outside, August 6, 2012, by Abbie Bakan

Palestine. It is the unspeakable. The state that does not exist. The land without a people. The quintessential terrorist.

Men who are barbaric, violent, anti-Semitic, pre-modern, jihadist.

Women whose bodies bear newborn terrorists. Women whose veiled heads symbolize refusal to embrace liberation.

Youth who read, write, rap, video and slingshot hatred.

These are the myths of Palestine, framed in the western imperialist Orientalist imaginary as the age-old enemy of the “Jews”, and the 21st century enemy of America and the West.

Palestine is constructed as the universal ‘Other’. It is a racist construction, and it serves a purpose.

It allows for World War Two to morph from its vile inter-imperialist bloodbath to a “Judeo-Christian” story of the Allies “rescue” of the “Jewish people.” It justifies unlimited funds to support a military outpost in the most oil-rich region in the world.

To know Palestine, to really know Palestine, is to shatter all these stereotypes and myths and lies. Therefore, Palestine is the ultimate enemy of global empire.

For revolutionary Marxists, Palestine is our ultimate friend, our movement, our soul. It is our Vietnam.

And to know Palestinians is to know resistance. Stateless, racialized, diasporic, Muslim and Christian and atheist. Arab speaking, English speaking, Hebrew speaking, French speaking, Greek speaking.

Motivated over generations to return. And to resist.

To resist what? Present-day colonialism, in an age that insists it is post-colonial. Apartheid, in an age that insists it is post-apartheid. Through Palestine, we can understand Israel. And therefore we can understand the Jewish question in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Jewish question as not only about anti-Semitism, but also about Zionism, and occupation, and capital and oil and power.

And we can understand the settler project that is Canada, that pretends that history started only when the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people was almost complete. But not quite.

Marxists have historically been confused by Palestine. At the outbreak of the 1967 war, two Jewish Marxists, both Holocaust survivors, argued about which side to take.

Ralph Miliband got it wrong. He worried about the “survival” of Israel, thinking it was a continuation of Jewish survival after World War Two.

Marcel Liebman got it right. He looked to Palestine and to Palestinians. And he defended the oppressed against the Israeli tanks and settlers. Those tanks and settlers are still on occupied Palestinian land, as they were before in 1948.

Palestine is our Vietnam.

One Comment
  1. Brian Donnelly permalink

    Pretty good for, um, a non-organization. And it’s important to stop and take note of history (as I believe you know, John!) Thanks.

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