Ships in the Proletarian Night: Contemporary Marxist Thought in France and Britain

25 March 2021 - 27 March 2021

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

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Convenors 

Joe Davidson (University of Cambridge)

Louis Klee (University of Cambridge)

Solange Manche (University of Cambridge)

 

Co-Convenor

Marion Leclair, Convenor of the seminar in Paris (University of Artois)

 

Speakers

Confirmed Keynote Address

Razmig Keucheyan (University of Bordeaux)

Stathis Kouvelakis 

Julia Nicholls (King’s College London)

Kristin Ross (Professor Emeritus in Comparative Literature, New York University)

 

Summary

In the 1840s, Marx moved west: exiled from Germany, forced into France, joining Engels in Britain. Each step was pivotal to the constitution of what we now know as Marxism, as German philosophy, French socialism and British economics came together in a powerful and enduring synthesis. An exchange between France and Britain thus stands at the beginning of the Marxist tradition of thought. Marx’s leap across the English Channel is not the only moment when a creative encounter between radical thought in Britain and France has occurred. One thinks, for instance, of the fertile moment of the 1870s and 1880s, when the event of the Paris Commune helped to spark a revival of British socialism; its significance captured by William Morris, the poet of Marxism, in his claim that the Commune laid ‘the foundation-stone of the new world that is to be’. We can also think here about the decade that followed the May 1968 events in Paris. The political eruption in France, and with it the revival of radical thinking, inaugurated a new moment of exchange. In particular, the Marxism of Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey and Nicos Poulantzas piqued critical, indeed at times caustic, interventions from Stuart Hall, Terry Eagleton and E. P. Thompson, as well as playing a crucial role in retooling the British tradition of Cultural Studies. 

These three moments of encounter provoke a query: What is the significance of the Anglo-French connection for contemporary Marxism? There are clearly viable currents of Marxist thought in both countries. The “lectures de Marx” seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, founded in 2009, is one sign of the continuing critical engagement with Marxist ideas in the French academic context. In Britain, there are similar tentative signs of a revival in Marxism, with forums such as the World Transformed festival and Salvage magazine, as well as the continuing strength of publishers such as Verso and Pluto, offering a stage for the rejuvenation of socialist thinking. Yet, these two tendencies seem strangely disconnected; like two ships in the night, the exchanges between French and British Marxism are fleeting, lacking the dynamism and drive of the post-Commune and post-1968 moments. Where are the reciprocal exchanges between the two traditions today? How can the productive polemics of the past be replicated in the contemporary moment? 

The concern here is not purely abstract; there are concrete reasons why a new encounter between French and British Marxism is of particular importance today. To borrow an Althusserian term, which was popularised by Stuart Hall, both countries face a conjuncture that shares certain key similarities. To take some obvious examples: the attempt to revive socialism through a left populist strategy, represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise; the rise of a new radical rightism in the form of the reactionary forces around the Brexit project and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National; the increased potency of contentious street and protest actions, whether in the form of national strikes against Macron’s pension reforms or Extinction Rebellion’s attempts to bring London to a standstill; an austerity politics, undergirded by forty years of neoliberalism, that takes aim at the last vestiges of the welfare state; and, finally, the legacies of colonialism, with postcolonial questions of nation, race and identity inflecting both the two polities. 

Ships in the Proletarian Night, then, has three aims. First, to explore the history of Anglo-French Marxist encounters, enriching our understanding of the history of exchanges between the two traditions. Second, to consider the contemporary state of Marxist thought in France and Britain, dwelling on the recent revivals of socialist thinking and action in each context. Third, to explore the latent possibilities for new encounters in the future, considering how tradition each might enrich the other, casting new light on the pressing questions of the contemporary conjuncture. 

 

About the Cambridge Reading Marx Seminar

Founded by Solange Manche, Louis Klee, and Joe Davidson in July 2019, the Cambridge Reading Marx Seminar is a multidisciplinary research forum based in King’s College and cooperates with the “lectures de Marx” seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (Ulm) in Paris. We run a reading group style discussion circle and host invited speakers, creating a space for discussion of Marx’s work.

 

Sponsors:

CRASSH Grey Logo

 

Supported by:

Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)

 

Organised by:

The Reading Marx Seminar at Cambridge

Séminaire «Lectures de Marx»  ENS (Ulm)

 

Conference assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk