Barcelona conference

Late last year there took place in Barcelona an international conference on the future of society. The idea was for a large number of speakers from across the world to take part in a week of discussion and debate on the question of social change. Contributors were to be of diverse political persuasions, so that the outcome would be representative, and conferences would be continued annually in different parts of the world over five years, returning to Barcelona in 1992. This first conference was timed to mark the twentieth anniversary of the events of 1968, and the radical pronouncements in the advance programme appeared promising, speaking enthusiastically of “a change in civilisation”, “models for the future” and even the need to “transform society”.


Having been offered the opportunity to take part in all of the seminars and debates. and to address one of the sessions, I was quite willing to see of what use this forum could be in the urgent task of propagating socialist ideas. This was in spite of the fact that speakers included certain philosophers of the “New Right”; unlike some political dim-wits of the Left who refuse to debate with those they allegedly disagree with, socialists are prepared to discuss and debate with political opponents of all persuasions. This is a point of principle based on our view that socialist revolution can only come with the winning over of a clear majority to our ideas. We can and must defeat in argument all kinds of antiquated myths which are peddled by many workers on behalf of their employers.


On arrival at the conference, however, all of my worst fears were confirmed. Although originally organised by a small group of ex-Trotskyists based around the University, the event had grown and begun to attract major sponsorship in a way that verged on the sinister and would have been comical had the wasted opportunity not been so obvious. The sponsors, it turned out. included the Sony Corporation, various banks and even government bodies. These financial institutions clearly knew a thing or two about buying off dissent, but with this intellectual mob the process clearly came pretty cheaply. Even the grandiose conference auditorium itself was situated in a bank!


The conference was opened by speeches full of pious waffle from non-entities such as a government minister and the Chairman of the bank in question. Anyone attending, other than the hundred or so invited speakers, had to pay ninety dollars just to take part. Almost all the main participants were senior academics of various disciplines. Lively debate was prevented by methods ranging from restricting to a few minutes at the end of a session, questions from the floor” to the outright censorship of taking points in writing for selection by the platform speakers.


Despite all these and other limitations, I was able to ensure that the genuine expression of socialism was heard loud and clear in several of the sessions, as well as in the text presented at one of the seminars (see separate article). It is, however, worth considering in detail some of the nonsense spoken, as this proved in the end to be a classic example of the chaos which results when capitalism’s apologists try to give the system a new lease of life by discussing so-called ‘alternatives” within it.


At the outset, the excited auditorium of two hundred or so were warned by an anthropologist called Buxó not to contemplate any return to the structures or values of primitive anthropological forms: far better no doubt to stick with the civilised certainties of the bomb and the dole queue. Lester Ruiz from New York spoke of the “deconstructivist” efforts facing us all, and the need for spiritual transformation. An ex-Communist party member from Paris called Garaudy stated that millions were dying of hunger while wheat is destroyed, but then showed his reluctance to leave the CP behind by singing the praises of Gorbachev and declaring his conversion to Islam. A born-again Christian called for a “mixed economy” with “God at the centre and love at its heart”. A Communist Party member and philosopher from Georgia, Merab Mamardashvili, spoke of the need for metaphysical rebirth and mourned the passing of the “pre-revolutionary spirit” of Tsarism, while insisting that as a Marxist and Party member, he knew what he was saying and “allowed” himself to say it. “The capitalist system does not exist”, he went on, and “life, in the strict sense of the term, is impossible”. Even the simultaneous-translation interpreters were in stitches of laughter at this learned philosopher’s ramblings. which culminated with the classic plea (quoted here verbatim) that: “I hope you understand me because I have difficulty in understanding what I’m saying myself”. This comment would make a fitting epitaph to much of the pompous event itself. Meanwhile, students and scholars in the aisles scribbled notes furiously and the next philosopher was helped to the stage.


Maximilien Rubel, who has written several times to the Letters column of the Socialist Standard, chided the conference for ignoring the threat of nuclear war and pointed out Marx’s recognition that the majority most affected by social problems must act to end their cause — the market system itself. He spoke against the state capitalist Russian Empire and attacked in advance next year’s Paris celebration of 1789. adding that rather than “indulge in vanity of inventing new cultures”, the speakers should declare themselves against “the insane nihilism of the political barbarians” who own and control the world. Rubel also pointed out that 1968 was a useless starting point unless it was recognised as a complete failure. Like others who spoke some sense or showed tell-tale signs of having ventured beyond their studies during the past year, he was patronised and dismissed by both the organisers and the majority present.


While these enthusiastic “experts” pontificated in a bank, the streets of Barcelona overflowed with some of the worst poverty in Europe. We were surrounded by social problems of which many speakers seemed ignorant, as they shunned as too “political” any talk of the majority repossessing the earth as the necessary prelude to any real social change. An official survey in the old quarter of Barcelona in 1985 found 25 per cent of the children there suffering malnutrition and more than half of the families living in sub-standard housing. Life expectancy was ten times lower than in other districts. These and other statistics were lucidly presented in a television documentary shown late last year (Cities Fit to Live In: Salud. Barcelona, TVE Barcelona/ Channel Four, November 1988), which ended with this refreshing piece of honest commentary:


  In the nineteenth century, Barcelona fought to demolish the stone walls hemming her in. The challenge she faces today is to bring down the invisible walls that divide one citizen from another, and to set all her citizens on an equal footing. Only then will it be possible to talk about health as a state of total physical, mental and social well-being, and not simply an absence of illness.


Clifford Slapper