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Chris Walsh argues that the highly successful Festival of Dangerous Ideas shows that there are real possibilities for the left.

Until now, in recent years left-wing events could largely be characterized by a number of rather un-flattering attributes: attendees were generally familiar to one another and thus the events were insular; they were distinctly grey, with the young always representing the minority; if billed for a wider-audience they were drearily recruitment centric; attempts to synthesize politics and cultural events were invariably found lacking; rival groups typically wasted no opportunity for a sectarian bun fight and left the non-aligned baffled or disgusted; and too often dogmatic repetition prevailed over open and productive discourse. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas managed to spectacularly buck all of the aforementioned trends.

Immediately on arrival it was obvious that the festival offered something altogether more appetizing than the standard lefty fare. Instead of the traditional venue of the university campus or any other affordable conference space, the organizers elected to host the event in the Rich Mix cinema and cultural enterprise situated off Brick Lane in Shoreditch, East London. It would be easy to dismiss this as superficial and inconsequential; but the rewards were reaped. Over 600 people attended the sell-out event. Over 600 predominantly young people. More than this, many in attendance were locals from East London and were not in the habit of attending such events. The most encouraging characteristic of the festival was that when you looked around, the vast majority of the audience were not of the left, not party-affiliated; and no-one was forcibly trying to make them so. There were no militaristic recruitment rigmaroles, no-one was being harangued into purchasing publications. Make no mistake, the host organizations did recruit and plenty publications were sold; but this all took place within the designated space for stalls that attendees visited between sessions. We can build our organizations through the power of our ideas and our program for change rather the soft coercion that has become commonplace. A person recruited through the appeal of the former is far more likely to stay around than those ensnared through the latter.

As well as the fairly original practices outlined above, the itinerary of the event couldn’t fail to leave the audience impressed. A combination of Marxist intellectuals, progressive public figures, revolutionary artists and socialist and trade union activists provided a widely appealing array of speakers that made for a thoroughly dynamic and diverse event. Speakers included authors and academics such as Paul Mason (author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere), Owen Jones (author of Chavs), Peter Thomas (editor of Historical Materialism journal and author of The Gramscian Moment) and Nina Power (author of One Dimensional Woman); as well as international speakers from Egypt, Greece and France; activists from the host organizations Counterfire and the ISG; and exciting political artists like Robert Montgomery and Peter Kennard.

The sessions provided discussions on the tasks of Marxism today, feminism, new media and activism, the break-up of the British state, art for the people, the changing shape of the working class and the political upturn, crisis in the Eurozone, a Marxist history of the world and Imperialism, to name but a few. Each and every meeting was sophisticated and simultaneously engaging to the audience of fresh faces. In Peter Thomas’s discussion of his highly theoretical text, Nina Power began by asking very simple questions which allowed the entire audience to have some grasp on the more complex discussion which followed. When you looked around the room in the meeting on the Egyptian Revolution with John Rees and Egyptian political activists, as well as the audience, the bar staff and security in the room were completely transfixed by the speakers. It is no mean feat to pull-off an event that is at a high level but still accessible to the relative layman, yet that is what The Festival of Dangerous Ideas accomplished.

There have been left-wing events of 600 and more many times before; but never in recent history has such a young, fresh, vibrant and intelligent audience in Britain descended upon one place solely to discuss ideas about changing the world. Many risks were taken in the organization of The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, many old verities were challenged; but it paid off. We have to learn from this event and try to replicate it around the country. No single event in recent memory has offered such hope for real left-wing growth and renewal.

From International Socialist Group site.

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