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Radical Philosophy Conference, 5th November 1988: Foundations of Hope



Report on the Radical Philosophy Conference,
5 November 1988
It was to be expected. A splendidly organised Conference, loads
of interesting discussions. Good comradely meetings, friends
everywhere. But I came away feeling that the title had somehow
turned against itself. Not so much Politics, Reason, Hope as
Politics (but let’s not lose ourselves in the concrete), Reason
(well, as long as you first say that you’ve no basis for asserting
it), and Just a little bit ofdespair. That’s not the organisers’ fault,
it is part of the very air I seem to be breathing a lot of recently.

More than 300 people queued up at the start, an awful lot with
prior registrations. Now that’s quite a crowd. It made me think
nervously of football and the national membership scheme. Soon
I suppose it’ll be signed-up conference fans only, and we’ll have
to have a computerised card for attenders. S till at least we can get
rid of persistent hecklers that way, or ban them from awayconferences …. Jay Bernstein and Carole Pateman kicked off, Jay
talking about the concept of ‘rights’ in Marx, and Marx’s attack
in The Jewish Question on the notion of the ‘Rights of Man’. It
was a rich vein he tapped, ending in a series of provocative
propositions about the idea of ‘rights within a community’. Good
rich philosophical stuff, just ripe for having the foundations
knocked out of it. Carole set about the job. Really, can we still
talk with such glibness about the rights of ‘man’, after twenty
years of third-wave feminism? Point taken, and she did go on to
argue that inside all the social contractors and natural righters
there was a clear case of gendering. Yet here, and again later, I
waited to see what piles would be put down instead. No go. This
was to be a conference without Foundations.

The first set of workshops had ringing titles: Paine and
Wollstonecraft, Hegel and B urke, Lenin and Gramsci, Marx and
Mill, Colonialism and Liberalism. I went to Lenin and Gramsci.

Francis Mulhern did a brave job arguing in defence of Lenin’s
notion of the Party as memory/organiser of the leading elements
of the Class, and even pointed to the hints in him of the Party as
precursor, in its internal relations, of the society that is to come.

The positivity of it stood out against much else in the conference,
and really only surfaced again at the end in Istvan Mezsaros.

David Forgacs on Gramsci seemed more in tune with the profound wish of the day to be complex, as he explored G’ s ideas on
intellectuals and Italy. One thing did stay with me, though, and
that was his interesting insistence that Gramsci’s Italy was much
more Eastern and undeveloped than we normally credit. Discussion, interesting and sharp, if a little deSUltory. A problem,
perhaps, of two speakers per workshop.

Friends tell me that the session with Anthony Arblaster (Tom
Paine) and Rosalind Delmar (Mary Wollstonecraft) was a good
‘un, Anthony boldly rescuing the radical bits (like, advocacy of
state pensions) inside old Tom, and Rosalind hailing the various
‘Marys’ that interpreters have made of her. Then there was the
fIrst of the ‘meetings’ between post-modernism and ‘the rest’, as


Robin Blackbum talked from his new book, arguing about the
part the slaves themselves played in determining the abolition of
slavery; and Gayatri Spivak opened her fIrst front on colonialist
mentality. The others happened, though I don’t know of them,
but no doubt gave delight to their listeners. But somehow I keep
feeling that these were sidelines to the conflict of foundationalists and anti-foundationalists that was quietly bubbling, even on
the bookstall.

In the afternoon, the workshops were more theme-based.

Griselda Pollock and Judith Williamson set aside their papers to
complain that the drift to Cultural Politics had somehow lost the
politics. They did it nice and quickly, and certainly set the
arguments rolling. An odd subtext ran through even quite opposed points of view (and there were plenty of those); that we
need culture/art precisely to give us back our sense of hope, of
utopia Elsewhere friends tell me Richard Norman and Anne
Phillips put up trenchant defences of the notion of ‘equality’ as
part of the socialist/feminist vision. Not popular ideas just now.

Meanwhile Ted Benton explored the neo-Malthusianism of certain strands of ecological thinking, while Kate Soper explored
the ambiguities in Marxism’s ability to think ‘green”‘. Again,
there were valuable Others I can’t report on. And then there was
the confrontation between Emesto Laclau, speaking for the
groundfloor demolition specialists and Peter Osborne, friend of
the Frankfurt School, over whether classical Marxism had any
life left in it; topped off, curiously, with Angus McDonald
talking about his research into the way notions of ‘democracy’

were used inside the GLC. Not perhaps getting the discussion it
deserved – easier to go round examining the strength of the

Perhaps the most important thing about conferences like this
is just the experience ofbeing there. Isnt that you’re persuaded to
a new point of view, it’s the seeing confIgurations emerge. In the
fmal plenary, for example, there was Gayatri Spivak carefully
distancing herself from the nigh-on relativism of Ernesto Laclau,
but without of course referring to any Foundation. And there was
Terry Eagleton playing pleasantly to the gallery, with a ‘Well,
there are good utopias and bad utopias, and marxism has the
good ones’ . And there, delighting me (because he spoke so much
more directly than he writes) was Istvan putting the issue for me
right on the line. Not a question of Foundations at all, he argued,
but a question of social agency. Utopia without an agent is a
recipe book without a cook. He spoke fIrst. Terry, Gayatri and
Ernesto discussed foundations, and I don’t think referred to him
once. He summed up. Finis. No meeting between the postmodernists (the majority) and the rest (whom I’m so tempted to
call ‘the Majority’, but that’s just being provocative…).

It was a good conference: well-organised, thought-provoking, a pleasure to be at But in the main, it very determinedly set
its faces against changing the world.

Martin Barker

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