2015 conference abstracts

Main speakers

Lea Ypi (LSE)
Revolutionary Partisanship

In this talk I explore some dilemmas related to the role of political parties in revolutionary circumstances. I argue that partisanship is as essential to revolution (in its genesis) as it is detrimental to it (in its completion). I consider the role of two theories of revolutionary organisation typically contrasted to each other: one which emphasises the central role of vanguard parties in preparing and educating the people for revolutionary transition (the democratic centralist theory) and another which emphasises the centrality of spontaneous partisan action and mass participation in revolutionary initiatives (what I call the spontaneist account). Both, I argue, can be seen as attempts to respond to the dilemma of revolutionary partisanship outlined above. While the democratic centralist account scores well when it comes to starting a revolution, it is less successful in constructing legitimate institutions once the revolution has succeeded. On the other hand, while the spontaneist account is more promising in strengthening the basis of legitimacy of a newly established political order, it is less successful in overcoming the paradox of revolutionary motivation at the start. I conclude with a more ‘mixed’ account that acknowledges the trade-offs involved in each case and suggests the need for a more contextual approach.

David Leopold (Oxford)
Marx’s Critique of Utopia

Karl Marx accepts the need for detailed critical accounts of existing capitalist society, but rejects the need for similarly detailed but positive accounts of what the future socialist society will look like. I identify three different kinds of Marxian objection to the provision of plans and blueprints for a socialist future: a normative objection that utopian plans and blueprints are undemocratic; an epistemological objection that utopian plans and blueprints require knowledge that is impossible to obtain; and an empirical objection that utopian plans and blueprints are simply redundant. These three lines of Marxian reasoning are sympathetically reconstructed and then criticised for failing to establish Marx’s conclusion (that we shouldn’t provide detailed plans and blueprints for a socialist future).

Gregory Claeys (Royal Holloway)
Marx, Marxism and Utopia

There are three traditional approaches to this topic. Firstly, we need to know something about Marx’s relationship to the utopian tradition, here principally Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and the other so-called “utopian socialists”, as well as Thomas Carlyle (though Thomas More remains relevant). Secondly, we need to assess whether or in what sense Marx was himself a “utopian”, in relation to his theory of alienation as well as the goals of his social and political thinking. Thirdly, we need to consider in what sense Marxism was “utopian”. Each of these queries depends upon a definition of the key term, “utopian”. This talk will discuss the definitional problem, then briefly summarise the issues involved in asking the first two questions. It will then concentrate on the question as to what relationship existed between the emergence of Stalinism as a “secular religion” and utopianism.

Graduate panel 1:

Paul Raekstad (Cambridge)
Marx’s realism, utopianism, and the role of vision

Many find it impossible to imagine an alternative to capitalism – some go as far as to claim that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world. If there really is no feasible alternative to capitalism, revolutionary organisation might justifiably be thought pointless. One line of reply to this is to develop more or less detailed visions of what a socialist society might look like. Common responses to such proposals include charges of utopianism and idealism. Usually one of four different things is meant by this: (1) any kind of conception of which direction our movement can and ought to move or societies in; (2) a broad substantial conception of what a future society might look like; (3) some more specific conceptions of the forms and procedures through which some of these substantial views can be instantiated; or (4) a complete description of what an alternative society would look like in toto. My paper will reconstruct Marx’s realist approach to political theory, clarifying his reasons for objecting to what he termed utopianism, and making an argument for the potentially positive role that a form of vision of a future society can play within this framework. My reconstruction of Marx’s approach will show that he was clearly committed to both (1) and (2) for central methodological reasons; and that he clearly rejected, for excellent reasons, variants of (4). I will argue that within Marx’s realistic approach to political theory a good case can be made for (3) as well. I will finish by showing how this – sometimes termed a form of utopianism – is entirely consistent with Marx’s realist methodology and unaffected by the arguments he advances against those he criticises as utopians.

Owen Holland (Cambridge)
Utopia and the suspension of the political: an unfinished conversation between E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson

A high watermark in critical discussion of the relationship between Marxism and utopia in Anglophone intellectual culture remains visible in E.P. Thompson’s 1976 postscript to William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Thompson drew heavily on the work of the French political theorist Miguel Abensour in order to recover a forgotten (or suppressed) point of juncture between two distinct traditions that had been separated by Engels in 1880. Thompson’s biography met with a polemical response from Perry Anderson, who had ousted Thompson from the editorship of the New Left Review in 1962. Anderson argued that Thompson’s reading of Morris had been conditioned by his intellectual debt to the Communist Party of Great Britain, which led Thompson to overlook Morris’s importance as a revolutionary strategist. Thompson and Abensour were united in seeing Morris’s utopianism as a heuristic means of estranging readers from the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois society; they identified the function of utopia with defamiliarisation, which, for Thompson, went against the logic of all that we understand by ‘politics’ or ‘political text’. This anti-political characterization of Morris’s utopianism finds echoes in Fredric Jameson’s more recent claims that ‘utopia emerges at the moment of the suspension of the political’. Thompson, however, had very little to say about the content of Morris’s utopian romance, News from Nowhere (1890). In this paper, I will revisit the debate between Thompson and Anderson by way of a new reading of Nowhere, a utopian text which, faithful to Thomas More’s punning coinage, contains an important double meaning in its title. Nowhere was both no-where and now-here. Read this way, the heuristic aspects of Morris’s utopianism, emphasized by Thompson, inevitably brush up against the political realities of the now-here, with concomitant possibilities for synthesis between the heuristic and the political.

Sina Talachian (Amsterdam) Between universalism and particularism: the later Marx’s conception of reformism

There is an ongoing debate among those working in the Marxian tradition between strong universalists on the one side and those overly focused on the particular on the other. The debate strikes at the core of Marxist theory and method (Therborn 2008: 140-145). By foregoing any sense of universality the Marxist project – with its distinct concepts, analytic tools and analyses – becomes mortally imperiled, while overemphasizing the universal endangers its explanatory power due to the overlooking or explicit discounting of the relevance of the local and variable (Chatterjee 2013: 73-74). In my view there is an alternative, contextualist approach possible, one which strikes a balance between the universal and particular without dismissing the importance of either. It is an approach that I argue can be found in Marx’s later thought, which I aim to illuminate in this paper by focusing on one specific, concrete expression of it, namely his later conception of reformism. I will do so by first explicating the various conceptions of reformism Marx adhered to, with a focus on his later reformist turn that displays such a contextualist sensibility. The relation between this turn and his later thought more broadly will then be uncovered, displaying how it was but one aspect of a more general shift in approach toward contextualism. I will conclude by considering the consequences of this analysis for the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conceptions of reformism, the Leninist and humanist, which tend to ignore this later contextualist sensibility. By thus elucidating the nature of the contextualist approach of Marx’s later thought I hope to contribute to the ongoing debate between universalists and particularists by offering an example of an alternative which rejects the overemphasizing of either at the expense of the necessary and balanced unity of both.

Graduate panel 2:

Emily Cousens (Oxford Brookes)
Marx’s contribution to feminist thought

The influence of Marx’s work on feminist thought has most typically been understood as pertaining to the work of Marxist or Socialist Feminists. Subsequent dismissals of this body of work however as an ‘unhappy marriage’ whereby feminism gets subsumed within a totalizing economic narrative have left the relationship between Marx’s work and feminism at an impasse. This paper will argue that in fact his insights were invaluable to the work of certain Radical Feminists; in particular Dworkin, Millett and MacKinnon. Both Marx’s methodology and terminology are drawn on by these feminists. These thinkers have been frequently read through and dismissed according to the lens of post-structuralism. However this leads both to an oversight of an important body of feminist work and also to a supposed incompatibility between Marx and feminism that is unconstructive. Marx’s theory of history and his logic of the commodity are of particular importance to these feminist thinkers. Millett, Dworkin and MacKinnon were concerned to provide a theory that could both criticise existing social relations whilst allowing for historical change and diversity. A Marxian materialism provides this. As MacKinnon notes, ‘The feminist point is simple. ‘Men are women’s material conditions. If it happens to women, it happens’ (1989: 137). Moreover, Marx’s understanding of the commodity as characterised by its ‘mystical character’, because of the way it embodies social relations informs Millett’s understanding of the ‘reification of the female’ that ‘makes her more often a sexual object than a person’. Just as for Marx, the fetishised commodity is not its essential nature but its apparent nature under capitalism, the feminine subject is not its essential nature but its apparent nature under patriarchy. Thus for feminist theorizing of objectification and sexual violence, Marx’s account of social relations is indispensable.

Dimitri Kladiskakis (Sussex)
Marx and Heidegger: social ontology and the object

Both Marx and Heidegger have founded their theories on the inseparability between the human being and its surroundings. In the case of Heidegger, the point of entry for his exploration of the question of being is a departure from the Cartesian understanding of the subject and object. Accordingly, in Being and Time Heidegger introduces the concept of ‘ready-to-hand’, that is, things as they are immediately and non-reflectively used and goes on to argue that human beings interact with the world, for the most part, through this understanding of the object. For Marx, on the other hand, it is productive activity that defines humans as a historical beings, and therefore, the relationship between the human being and what is immediately useful is similarly emphasised. In this paper, I will attempt to draw parallels between these two approaches. In detail, I will argue that Marx’s conception of productive activity as marking the beginning of human history, and therefore as the birth of the historical human being itself, can be seen as complementary to Heidegger’s exploration of practical everyday life as a primary mode of being. In particular, I will proceed to focus on the primacy of the concept of equipment and production as these appear in Heidegger’s Being and Time and Marx and Engels’ German Ideology respectively, and look into the possibility of a conceptual unification of the two notions. The paper will therefore begin with a dialectic which will outline the aforementioned concepts of ‘equipment’ and ‘production’ and emphasise their importance to the understanding of the human ontological situation. After this assertion, a constructive dialogue will be attempted between the two, based on the primacy of practical activity, and finally a critical conclusion will discuss the possibilities of a concrete synthesis and elaborate on its consequences.

Chris Ferguson (Sussex)
Collective alienation in Marx’s early work

This paper will examine the concept of alienation in Marx’s early writings, drawing out the extent to which the process which it describes is primarily a collective phenomenon. It will begin by looking at the German Ideology to examine Marx and Engels’ appropriation of the Feuerbachian concept of alienation through the lens of Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner’s use of this concept, and to see in what sense Marx’s concept diverged from these. This will be followed by some reflections on the role of mental phenomena in Marx’s concept of alienation, drawing on a distinction between “ideas” and “intentionality”, as well as an examination of the way in which we are to understand the idea that “we create” the social institutions from which we are alienated on this account. Here it will be argued that there is an ambiguity at the core of the concept, relating to its collective nature, and that this requires further analysis. It will then turn to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to show a particularly clear instance of this ambiguity arising in the form of an ambiguous relation between collective-level alienation and an individual-level alienation occurring in the capitalist production process.