Academic Workshop Explores the Complexities of Socialism and Labour Movements

The University of Bergen recently hosted a two-day academic workshop as a follow-up to the GRIP Annual Lecture 2023, which focused on the theme “200 Years of Socialism: Revisiting the Old Dilemmas.” Esteemed scholars and researchers from various institutions gathered at Ulrikes Aula to delve deeper into the themes discussed in Marcel van der Linden’s keynote address.

The workshop commenced on Thursday, June 1, with opening statements delivered by Synnøve Bendixsen, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen. The first session, titled “Long Arch,” was chaired by Svati Shah from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This session explored the concept of cycles in relation to labour movements and political ecology. David Meyer from the University of Vienna presented a paper on the cyclical nature of labour’s relationship with technology and the environment, while John Barzman from Université Le Havre Normandie raised critical questions regarding the missed opportunities for socialism as a distinct idea separate from labour movements. Following this session, a brief discussion ensued regarding the emergence of the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ and the enquiry into whether socialism can be viewed historically as something that predated capitalism.


The subsequent session, titled “Forms,” was chaired by Christopher Senf from the University of Bergen. Sjaak Van der Velden from the International Institute of Social History discussed the future of strikes and trade unions, emphasising the necessity of accurate tracking beyond mere statistics. Independent scholar Rohini Hensman highlighted how the abandonment of democracy and internationalism has weakened the socialist movement, advocating for a holistic approach to address both economic and political challenges.


These discussions led to an exploration of the current geopolitical landscape, particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hensman argued that this event can be seen as the latest bifurcation point, prompting contemplation on the merits of studying counterfactual history and bifurcation points throughout the workshop.

The third session, titled “Revolutions,” was chaired by Ernesto Semán from the University of Bergen. Jairus Banaji from SOAS, University of London, presented a thought-provoking paper on rethinking the origins of Stalinism, while Lewis H. Siegelbaum from Michigan State University engaged the audience with a multifaceted analysis of Soviet inflection points. Dilip Simeon, an independent scholar, reflected on militant capitalism, the longing for total revolution, and the importance of global perspectives that extend beyond Russia, acknowledging diverse contexts such as India. Lucas Poy from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam examined the unexpected resurgence of the Second International in contemporary debates, reinforcing the need for a precise definition of the cycle of socialism. This engaging session touched upon several topics, ranging from personal experiences during the early days of the Maoist revolution to the creation of memes about Kautsky. Poy staunchly opposed the notion of counterfactual history, asserting that the significance lies in the way events unfolded rather than speculation on alternative outcomes.


The final session of the first day of the Academic Workshop broadened the scope to a more global perspective, as the euro-centrism of labour history came under widespread critique. Dilip commented that there is no inherent connection between an individual’s social and geographical space and their ideas. In a revolutionary spirit, participants argued that the capitalist state must be dismantled to ensure a fair and liveable future.

Continuing on Friday, June 2, the workshop progressed with a session titled “Countries,” chaired by Greg Ruiters from the University of the Western Cape. Kate Alexander from the University of Johannesburg underscored the importance of comprehending the working-class movements in South African labour history, shedding light on the challenges posed by state repression and racial division. Geert Van Goethem from Ghent University outlined the need for labour historians to expand their focus beyond traditional labour fields, incorporating international trade unions and global dynamics.


Alexander raised questions regarding how intellectuals of the working class can collaborate with organic intellectuals, which she deemed necessary to overthrow capitalism and empower the working class. The role of spontaneity in achieving success was highlighted. Van Goethem reminded participants to consider the inclusion of NGOs in their research and acknowledged the disconnection between international trade unions and national unions.

The subsequent session, titled “Citizenship,” was chaired by Anette Fagertun from Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. James Wickham from Trinity College Dublin explored the accomplishments of the working-class movement, noting the evolving perception of the welfare state and its impact on workers’ sense of entitlement. During this session, several nostalgic glimpses of pop music were shared, examining its connection to the labour movement. Concerns were raised about how workers no longer view the welfare state as their own, perceiving it as something determined by external forces.


The workshop concluded with closing reflections focused on predictions. Henry Bernstein from the University of London discussed the Russian Revolution as an outlier, arguing that western communist parties merely “civilised” capitalism without removing it. Göran Therborn from the University of Cambridge challenged the Euro-centric lens and stressed the global influence of socialism as a force for human emancipation.

Lastly, Don Kalb, the GRIP Academic Director who regrettably could not be present, pointed out via Zoom that he perceives the bifurcation point occurring in the late 1970s, and stressed the need for more profound examinations of neoliberal developments. Overall, the workshop provided a thought-provoking and engaging platform for scholars to delve into the complexities of socialism and labour movements, challenging prevailing narratives and exploring new dimensions within the history of socialism. It served as a crucial steppingstone for further research and collaboration, fostering a deeper understanding of the dilemmas and intricacies surrounding these topics.