Historical Materialism – Welcome to Athens

After London, Sydney, New York, Beirut, Montreal, and Toronto, the Historical Materialism Conference was held in Southern Europe for the first time. From 2 to 5 May, hundreds of people met in the Greek capital to discuss resistance and strategy in times of crisis. A report follows, with particular focus on critical communication studies.

published at: medienblog.hypotheses.org (full version);

There were more than 450 presentations and about 1,000 attendees. This was the final count on Sunday when the Historical Materialism Conference concluded. Originally founded as a journal in 1995 at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in 2004 the leap was made to becoming a conference. Ever since, left scholars and activists from around the world have come together to present their research and their activism. By now it has become a major enterprise. In Athens there were up to eleven simultaneous panels and plenary sessions. From ‘The Political Economy of Latin American Struggles’ to ‘Women, Family, and Reproduction in Modern Greece’ to ‘Experiences of Refugees and Their Political Struggles’. It was almost too much; how could one choose? And where was the time to build networks with other critical researchers? Presumably, many people asked themselves this question, so that, despite the high rate of total participation, many sessions were sparsely attended. Or was the Acropolis too big a temptation?

This applied to communications studies panels, of which there were only a handful in the programme: 5 panels – in a total of 119 – on journalism and media – which sheds light on the state of critical media research.

The panel ‘Radical Journalism and Radical Politics in Dark Times: Investigating Radical Left and Fascist Media’ dealt, among other things, with right-wing newspapers in the Greek media system and their alleged ‘radicality’. Taking off from a critique of the extremism-horseshoe theory (see Forum für kritische Rechtsextremismusforschung 2011), Eugenia Siapera and Lambrini Papadopoulou used a content analysis to show that fascist newspapers in Greece in no way publish their own reports but only those taken over from big media, rewritten to suit their own narrative. Their point was that this cannot be called radical – meaning going to the root of the problem – since these newspapers especially target minorities such as refugees or Jews or the political left. Power structures are thus not really addressed or attacked; on the contrary, with positive reporting on the military and the police this structure is even upheld.

Through a critical language analysis of Greek, Danish, and German mainstream media, Yiannis Mylonas (2019) showed how racist, neoliberal stereotypes shaped the media construction of the so-called Greek Crisis: ‘the lazy Greeks’. A sensationalist and depoliticised form of reportage was meant to distract from the actual structures of political and economic power behind Europe’s economic crisis. The reports generally contained statements (by ‘experts’) that reproduced the point of view of the elites, for instance omitting historical perspectives. Mylonas maintained that one could discern a warning transmitted in these news reports on the ‘Greek freeloaders’ meant for working people in Germany and Denmark to the effect that they had better show public support for further neoliberal reforms because otherwise they could undergo what the Greeks have suffered.

In many contributions it was clear that the debate over ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ in scholarship has already made some progress by now. The question was no longer ‘whether’ but ‘how’. Many of the presenters were participants in the movements about which they spoke – for example, Olga Lafazani who spoke before several hundred attendees in the large plenary session ‘Migration – Marxism – Movements’ on Saturday evening, in her case specifically about the refugee project City Plaza of which she is one of the most important coordinators. She was preceded by Professor Sandro Mezzadra (Bologna) whose research focuses, among other things, on flight and border regimes. Last year, together with some colleagues (for example, Professor Michael Hardt), he organised a boat, the Mare Jonio, which rescued refugees in the Mediterranean. In March the ship was seized by the Italian authorities. Mezzadra saw this operation more as a political act against the criminalisation of rescuing people in distress than as humanitarian aid. When Professor Ranabir Samaddar, a member of the Calcutta Research Group in West Bengal (India), and the Marxist-feminist Shahrzad Mojab, originally from Iran but not at the University of Toronto, spoke the stage had only people from the global South – a positive and rare exception at conferences of this size.

A majority of the presenters were from Greece itself. They thus had an opportunity to speak about their own research. To the question in a media panel of whether the results will also be presented in the upcoming IAMCR conference in Madrid, the answer was: ‘too expensive, we cannot afford it’. For this very reason the decision to hold the conference in Athens, in the south of Europe, was the right one. Those for whom this was too far away can come on 7 to 10 November 2019 to the next Historical Materialism conference, which will be held in London.


Forum für kritische Rechtsextremismusforschung (ed.), Ordnung. Macht. Extremismus. Effekte und Alternativen des Extremismus-Modells, Heidelberg: Springer, 2011.

Yiannis Mylonas, The ‘Greek Crisis’ in Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2019.