The conference on historical materialism in New Delhi recently was a major step towards the creation of a new culture of the left. Left-wing teachers, students, writers and activists from around the world and from diverse political backgrounds sharply disagreed in some of the sessions but the debates were respectful rather than polemical.

Rohini Hensman ([email protected]) is a researcher and activist, and author of Workers, Unions and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India.

Historical Materialism (HM) is a leading Marxist journal which was founded in 1997 in London. According to its self-description,

it asserts that, notwithstanding the variety of its practical and theoretical articulations, Marxism constitutes the most fertile conceptual framework for analysing social phenomena, with an eye to their overhaul. In our selection of materials, we do not favour any one tendency, tradition or variant. Marx demanded the ‘merciless criticism of everything that exists’: for us that includes Marxism itself.

For around 10 years, annual international conferences inspired by the same broadly Marxist outlook have been organised in London every November, and in the past few years there have been attempts to hold such conferences in other parts of the world. The Delhi HM conference held in April 2013 was the first in south Asia, and adopted as its theme “New Cultures of the Left”.

At first, the organisers, who started holding meetings more than one-and-a-half years before the conference was held in Delhi, had modest expectations of the response to their call for papers put out on 12 June 2012, and therefore planned for a two-day meeting. However, the influx of high-quality paper and panel proposals (many from abroad) was so great that it became necessary to plan for a three-day conference with four parallel sessions, four time slots for panel discussions per day, and plenaries at the end of each day. In the end there were 130 presentations in all, including seven at the plenaries and three that were sent in to be read out by others. (The pr0gramme of the conference can be accessed at march-2.pdf).

The London HM conferences offer no facilities to participants, who have to fend for themselves so far as travel, visas (if they are needed), accommodation and food are concerned, but we felt that this would not work in India. Hence it was necessary to have a sponsor and to be able to raise funds. Kamal Chenoy offered to sponsor the conference at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory took on the onerous task of organising the conference with the help of staff and student volunteers, and their helpfulness proved invaluable to all participants. The Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) provided the funding for the entire venture while the Centre for Workers’ Management helped with logistics, and Harsh Kapoor handled the website and publicity.

A total of 1,579 participants registered at the conference, 912 of them students. While there were slightly more male than female presenters, women constituted at least half the participants. Given that four panel discussions were being conducted in each time slot, no one could attend them all, which some participants found frustrating!


A recurring theme in several panels was authoritarianism, communalism and fascism in south Asia. The session on fascism was an attempt to show why and in what sense the category of “fascism” is relevant to a characterisation and understanding of Indian politics today. While everyone might not have agreed, powerful arguments were put forward (both there and in the second-day plenary) for categorising both Hindutva and Islamist extremism as variants of fascism, and there was also a presentation on authoritarianism and militarism in post-war Sri Lanka. When the issue was raised again in the context of the plenary on the Arab uprisings, one speaker (Marieme Helie-Lucas) argued that Muslim fundamentalism in west Asia and north Africa represented a variant of fascism while the other (Gilbert Achcar) disagreed strongly. There was a well-attended panel on the lessons of the Gujarat genocide (Harsh Mander, Javed Anand), which ended with the release ofPursuing Elusive Justice: Mass Crimes in India and International Standards by Vahida Nainar and Saumya Uma. In a related session on fighting communalism, there was a revealing presentation on how Muslims are routinely arrested and framed in the aftermath of terrorist attacks (Manisha Sethi). A session on Nepal raised the question of whether the revolution there was one for capitalist development and “bourgeois democracy” or against capitalism.

A related theme was “nationalisms and the nation-state” with a debate in more than one session on whether struggles for national self-determination in south Asia and elsewhere were progressive or not, and what the attitude of socialists should be towards them as well as nationalism more generally. A presentation on Kashmir argued that opposing Indian nationalism and the gross human rights violations carried out in Kashmir by the Indian state demanded support for Kashmiri self-determination by socialists. Nirmala Rajasingam’s presentations on Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka, including one in the plenary on “Should Democracy and Human Rights Matter to Socialists?”, showed how a struggle for national self-determination, which initially drew in socialists opposed to right-wing Sinhala nationalism, turned into a totalitarian militaristic enterprise that was equally right-wing. The presentation on the Bodo struggle showed how the struggle for national self-determination could easily become a struggle to establish territory in which one ethnic group could violate the human rights of others with impunity.

Gender Issues

A very interesting session on love, marriage and gender oppression raised questions about how socialist feminists should view male-female sexual relationships. Given the widespread occurrence of violence against choice marriages and so-called “honour” killings of young people who are involved in liaisons which their families oppose, would it be incumbent on socialist feminists to support such marriages, despite feminist critiques of marriage? And what would a socialist feminist position be on love, fidelity and sexual assault between comrades in a revolutionary organisation? Gender issues figured in many other sessions, including a panel on militarism and the plenary on democracy and human rights, where Vrinda Grover spoke about the use of the law to fight for human rights, with an emphasis on the law on sexual assault. A presentation on sex workers in the session on capitalism and marginalised forms of labour sparked a lively debate, with challenges from the floor to the claims of the presenters that sex work was no different from other forms of wage-labour and constituted socially necessary reproductive labour that would persist in a socialist society. A panel on the Arab uprisings included a vivid presentation on new forms of feminist struggle in Egypt and Tunisia. One of the panels on the left included a discussion of the theory and practice of left parties in India with respect to women’s liberation. Two presentations examined the alternative sexualities and “family” relationships of hijras.

Crises Discussed

Capitalism, labour, and the global crisis were taken up in several panels and one plenary. In the session entitled “New Perspectives on Marxian Theories of Crisis and Wages”, there were three presentations on the current crisis of finance capital and the impact of the crisis on the value of labour power. In another, competition between the US and China; the role of the US in post-war Okinawa; and the current relevance of the theory of combined and uneven development were discussed. One session was devoted to the global economic crisis and responses from the global South; another to capital accumulation and informal labour, with presentations on the political economy of the beedi industry in Tamil Nadu; neo-liberal politics and labour in the mining sector in Orissa; and an interesting argument that informal labour in fact constitutes a form of what Marx called the reserve army of labour.

The plenary on “The Global Crisis, Austerity and Responses from the Left” had excellent presentations on the impact of austerity policies in Europe and the need for the left to create a Europe-wide response (Lutz Achenbach); responses from the labour movement more generally, including trade unions in India (Gautam Mody); and an alternative energy paradigm that could revive the world economy without exacerbating climate change (Praful Bidwai). The panel on “Work, Workers and Unions in India” had presentations on caste and ethnicity in the tea plantations in north-east India; global supply chains and the labour process; and contemporary discourses on work and labour in capitalism. There were also presentations on the Tekel workers’ struggle in Turkey; new unionism in India; the struggle for an independent union at the Maruti plants in India; craft workers in Kachchh; undocumented migrant workers; and a panel on labour history.

The environmental crisis was a preoccupation in several presentations, including the plenary talk on the renewable energy paradigm. One panel on “Red and Green: An Integration of Perspectives” featured an interesting debate between a presentation arguing for an eco-socialist perspective on the global crisis integrating red and green politics on one side, and another that questioned the terms on which such an integration had so far taken place and arguing for a specifically Marxist environmental politics. The panel on “The Other Crisis: Capitalism as a Logic of Destruction” had presentations on late capitalism’s war against human beings and nature; the environmental crisis engendered by capitalism’s dependence on the production and sale of private cars; and the looming crisis due to the growing shortage of fresh water.

Left Positions

Histories and critiques of the left were a recurring theme. A panel on “Communist Histories” organised by LeftWord Books had presentations on communist internationalism and the anti-imperialist women’s movement in Asia; colonial surveillance, racial stereotyping and early communism in Calcutta; and the construction of agrarian struggles in 1940-55 by Godavari Parulekar, Sundarayya and Abini Lahiri. Another panel looked at feminisms and the Indian left; the erasure of left memory; and a comparison between determinants of left politics in Brazil and India. Other sessions debated the Leninist party and the Comintern as well as the crisis currently facing the Indian left, with a paper by Kumar Rana that criticised the left parties for their failure to enhance mass capabilities by taking up the critical issues of education, health, child nutrition, employment, and so on. The legacy of popular frontism and Indian left politics, and the environment and climate change as class struggle issues were also discussed. Finally, in the panel on “Socialism and Anarchism in the 21st Century”, there was significant convergence between the presentations on anarchist thought and the future of the left; a perspective towards 21st century socialism in India; and reimagining socialist revolution, in their common rejection of the dominant conception of socialist revolution as the capture of state power by a vanguard party.

The plenary on the Arab uprisings raised difficult questions about the response of socialists to popular struggles against authoritarian regimes in a context where the left was divided and weak whereas Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were in a far better position to take advantage of mass struggles for democracy. Should the left in these countries allow “moderate” Islamists (who nonetheless took hardline positions against equal rights for women, for example) to come to power through elections and then expose their authoritarianism and inability or refusal to change neo-liberal policies? Or would that risk the possibility that they would use the trappings of democracy to come to power but then abolish democratic elections and democracy in general? Was it feasible to postpone elections until the Left and liberals were stronger and more united? There was a heated but unresolved debate on all these questions.

It was clear from the discussion of caste and class that neither the left nor the trade union movement has taken up the issue of caste oppression with the seriousness it deserves, although attempts to integrate it into a class perspective have been made. On the other hand, dalits too have split along sub-caste lines, and Ambedkar’s perspective of abolishing caste altogether has been all but lost. Thus there is no simple resolution of this problem, and it needs continued discussion. Combating the oppression of adivasis too is not as simple as it at first appears; the session on “The New Capitalist Reality of Adivasi Lives” showed that many tribals have been completely proletarianised (Jan Breman), while a tiny minority have become integrated into the stratum of capitalist contractors. However, a large section continues to be forest dwellers and subject to threats of forcible displacement, an issue again taken up in two other panels, one on “Urban and Rural Dispossession and the Struggle for Land”, and on “Rural Impoverishment, Displacement and Political Responses”.

In addition, there were presentations on legal struggles over farmers’ rights, transgenic regulation and pharmaceutical patents; Marxist philosophy, ontology, dialectics and materialism in the work of Adorno, Guy Debord and Lukacs (by comrades from countries as far apart as Brazil, Italy and Australia); postcolonial theory, including a launch of Vivek Chibber’s book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalism(Achin Vanaik’s review of the book has since appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly). Political art, poetry, film and music; the dire state of universities and higher education both in India and globally; the revolutionary thought of Rabindranath Tagore, B R Ambedkar and Alvaro Cunhal; censorship and curbs on freedom of expression in India; neo-liberalism and the mass media in Iran and India were the subjects of other presentations.

Participants also discussed such varied subjects like inscribing property and ownership on biological entities; the mass mobilisation strategies of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev; a Gramscian analysis of Gandhi’s mass mobilisation strategy; and what shopping malls have come to mean to the new urban elites in India. There was a paper by Alberto Toscano on the ideas of the Italian critic and poet Franco Fortini on intellectuals and the need for autonomous collective institutions of cultural production; Gramsci’s ideas about counter-hegemony, political education and pedagogy (Andreas Merkens); an interactive session on the Palestinian struggle; and militarism and class formation in Turkey. The presentation on business and the Indian media highlighted the interesting paradox of major business groups in the country making substantial investments in the media industry despite recurrent and massive losses.

Public Reason

The holding of the conference was itself a major step towards the creation of a new culture of the left. It brought together left-wing teachers, students, writers and activists from around the world and from diverse political backgrounds. And although all were broadly Marxist there were inevitably, fairly sharp disagreements in some of the sessions. But issues were debated in a respectful rather than polemical fashion, with attempts to listen to the points made by opponents and respond appropriately instead of dismissing them outright. A good example, perhaps, of that “exercise of public reason” that Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen see as a defining feature of democracy in their new book An Uncertain Glory. There were numerous comments by participants on the cordial and friendly atmosphere throughout the conference, and how much they enjoyed being there, which was itself an endorsement of the event.

Of course, given the time constraints it was not possible to reach an agreement on contentious issues. In many cases there was a feeling of disappointment when a session ended, and sometimes discussions went on through the break until participants had to vacate the room for the next session! Consequently, many participants felt that there should be some way of continuing the process initiated by the conference. Two ways were suggested, not mutually exclusive: putting presentations online so that discussion could continue; and having more HM conferences in south Asia in future. There were also suggestions that some of the presentations could be developed and published. It remains to be seen whether such follow-up activities will be undertaken.

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