By Lisa Macdonald
The Socialist Scholars Conference, held at Melbourne University High on July 18-21 around the theme of Ecology, Socialism and Human Survival, was a resounding success according to both organisers and participants. The second such conference to be held in Australia, it attracted around 800 activists and academics from around the country.
More than 100 people presented papers, films and workshops on a broad range of issues and ideas in left theory and politics: from Marxist economic theory to green politics to struggles in the Third World to attacks on civil liberties and the public sector in Australia.
People came from 17 tertiary institutions, community media, trade unions, the environment movement, the Aboriginal community, Third World solidarity groups, progressive political parties and alliances and almost every social movement.
The conference was characterised by a lot of lively debate and discussion, reflecting the desire to think through and work together around the main issues, local and international, which face the left.
Featured were a range of international speakers who addressed the very different circumstances and issues confronting the left around the world in the early 1990s. The last-minute withdrawal due to ill health of well-known Marxist economist Ernest Mandel was disappointing for both organisers and participants, but did not dampen the enthusiasm with which each of the other international guests was received.
Both Roem Topatimasang, international relations officer for the Front for the Defence of Human Rights (INFIGHT) and Ismail Momoniet, from the South African Communist Party, spoke optimistically of the rapidly developing movements for freedom and justice in their countries, stressing the importance of Australian solidarity in these struggles.
In contrast, Hungarian historian Tamas Krausz, a founder of Left Alternative, spoke of the "Latin Americanisation" of Hungary as industry and agriculture are privatised, and unemployment and inflation escalate. He detailed the nature of the "new elite" in Hungary which, in replacing Communist Party rule, has maintained the bureaucratic and undemocratic practices of the previous regime.
Reporting on developments in the government, military, business community and the left in the Philippines today, the convener of
the Union for Socialist Ideas and Action (BISIG), Francisco Nemenzo, said politics in his country had been affected by both the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of Stalinism.
From the West, English eco-feminist Mary Mellor and board member of the Environmental Federation of America Peter Camejo spoke of the need for a new approach to the ecological crisis among socialists. Mellor outlined the bases for a new theory of society which gave equal weight to women, class relations and the environment, while Camejo stressed the importance of socialists identifying strategic issues which offer long-term solutions to the social and ecological crises while having immediate possibilities for political action.
Jim Anderton, MP and leader of the New Labour Party in New Zealand, outlined the consequences of the introduction in the mid-1980s of a monetarist economic strategy bringing a massive rolling back of welfare provisions, extensive privatisation, an increasingly unjust taxation system and growing levels of unemployment and poverty.
Another highlight was the well-attended series of major panel discussions around women's issues and feminist analysis covering women's fertility and control; women, science and technology; violence, pornography and censorship; and strategies for liberation. While these panels revealed a diversity of views on the origins of and solutions to women's oppression, the spirit of was one of openness and cooperation.
The conference closed with a plenary session addressed by a panel of speakers on the subject "Left politics: Where to now?". Including Joe Camilleri from the Rainbow Alliance, Louise Connor from the New Left Party, Ken Peak from the Australian Democrats, Reihana Mohideen from the Democratic Socialist Party and Ted Murphy from the Socialist Left faction of the ALP, this panel provided a forum to develop the presently limited dialogue between the main sections of the organised left in Australia.
The panel was interesting and timely, with most speakers pointing to the unprecedented challenges and opportunities confronting socialists as the crises of international capitalism and the global environment worsen. The general mood of the discussion was encapsulated in a call by Mohideen to continue the dialogue within and between the socialist and environment movements regardless of political differences, to organise and unify wherever and whenever possible around specific campaigns and issues, and to build a genuine alternative which is based on the power of the people and grassroots democracy.
Both Mohideen and Camilleri emphasised the need to look beyond parliamentarism in creating fundamental social change, while Peak spoke of the willingness of the Australian Democrats to consider all possibilities for merging or forming political alliances with
other sections of the Australian left.
Copies of video and audio tapes of all major sessions are also available by contacting the conference organisers at PO Box 314, Rozelle NSW 2039 or by telephoning (02) 690 1230.