People, Power, Politics: (What) Can We (and Cultural Studies) Learn from British Marxism Today?
Workshop at the House of the History of the Ruhr Area / Institute for Social Movement Research (Haus
der Geschichte des Ruhrgebiets / Institut für soziale Bewegungen), Bochum, March 21, 2024.
The year 2024 marks the 100th birthdays of both E.P. Thompson and Ralph Miliband, social historian
and political scientist, both prominent British 20th-century public intellectuals. We take this
anniversary as an occasion for askingabout the continuing relevance (or otherwise) of the British
Marxist tradition(s) to which they contributed. AreThompson’s project of rescuing ordinary people’s
political agency from the ‘condescension of posterity’ and Miliband’s analysis of the limits of
‘parliamentary socialism’ in the straitjacket of the (British) capitalist state still relevant for leftwing
political-academic work today? Both thinkers emphasised the potential of people’s collective agency
to disturb the business of politics understood and practised merely as the administration of what is.
Both have influenced and actively participated in various political movements – from campaigns for
nuclear disarmament to attempts at challenging the reformist power centres of the British labour
movement, first of all the Labour Party. Both co-founded political-academic outlets that became
discussion forums for leftwing theoretical practice in Britain and elsewhere. Their considerations on
political agency beyond institutional politics were taken up by others and transferred and adapted to
new areas such as feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, party building, trade union activism,
(sub)cultural politics, etc.
These days, students in our classes frequently point to capitalism as the major source of the problems
threatening their very survival. Still, ideas about how to resist, transform,and transcend the capitalist
status quo remain vague at best, or, worse, are considered futile. Hence (and not only for our
students), we would like to initiate a discussion about the possibilities of transformative political
agency and the structural obstacles it has to overcome. Revisiting, and getting inspiration from, the
works of Thompson and Miliband, we would like to identify and discuss examples and models of
collective agency that confront and have the potential to transform political processes, organisations,
institutions, and power structures.
This is a tentative (and far from exhaustive) list of possible topics for contributions (whose form is
entirely up to the contributors):
The relationship of social movements and political parties
The relationship of social movements and the ‘broader public’/‘ordinary people’
Social movements and class(and gender, sexuality, ethnicity)
State theory, political economy, and political agency
Levers of change in(historical or contemporary)conjunctures of capitalist crises
Prefigurative politics and theirtransformativepotential
The relevant legacies of the worksof E.P. Thompson and/or RalphMiliband
Politics, social movements and Cultural Studies
Reflections on ‘the state’ and/or on social history in Cultural Studies
How to challenge power through subcultural activity...
Sebastian Berg & Claus-Ulrich Viol, Department of English and American Studies, Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum, Germany