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210164 SE M3: Political Theories and Research on Theory (2020S)

A Conceptual History of Radical Democracy. On the unexpected contribution of French Marxist intellectuals to the renewal of democratic theory

9.00 ECTS (2.00 SWS), SPL 21 - Politikwissenschaft
Continuous assessment of course work

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max. 40 participants
Language: English


Classes (iCal) - next class is marked with N

Saturday 21.03. 09:00 - 15:00 Hörsaal 2 (H2), NIG 2.Stock
Saturday 04.04. 09:00 - 16:00 Hörsaal 3 (H3), NIG 2. Stock
Saturday 16.05. 09:00 - 16:00 Hörsaal 2 (H2), NIG 2.Stock
Saturday 06.06. 09:00 - 16:00 Hörsaal 3 (H3), NIG 2. Stock


Aims, contents and method of the course

It is by now a truism to claim that democracy is an empty signifier. No definition, regardless of how refined or exhaustive it may be, will ever capture the multiplicity of its usages. But this polysemy does not imply that one must abdicate all pretence to understand democracy, though it is a clear invitation to theoretical modesty. In this seminar, we will attempt to avoid falling into the trap of meaninglessness that threatens any exploration of democracy by focusing our attention on one of its most peculiar definition that came to prominence in France in the late 1980s (and has since then inspired many political actors beyond France’s borders). Uncomfortable with the reduction of democracy to the mere institutionalization of multiparty competition, or to a negotiation between elites, several political theorists chose to specify its content by granting it an epithet. In their writings, democracy became “savage”, “anarchic”, “insurgent” or “insurrectional”. Which is perhaps best summed up by the claim that democracy is fundamentally “radical”. Interestingly, these writers (Claude Lefort, Miguel Abensour, Cornelius Castoriadis, Jacques Rancière, Etienne Balibar, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau) were all French-speakers and had all been associated with Marxism at a point in their past. Granted that Marx has frequently been chastised for having supposedly paved the way for totalitarianism, this indirect influence on the renewal of democratic theory is rather unexpected. In this seminar, we will pursue two goals. First, we will explore this surprising genealogy and highlight that ‘radical democracy’ often presented itself as a way to come out of Marxism on top, preserving Marx’s strongest intuitions while submitting its whole theoretical structure to a fierce critique. Second, we will submit the different models of ‘radical democracy’ to a comparative study to highlight that, though those left-leaning intellectuals share a same discontent towards minimalist definitions of democracy, they nevertheless provide us with very distinct pathways to a more demanding and egalitarian democracy.
This seminar will focus on contemporary democratic theory but will also add some elements of history of ideas into the mix. It is directed towards master students, who are willing and motivated to engage with complex theoretical texts, directly connected to current debates on the nature of democracy, and discuss them in class.

By the end of this seminar, students should be able to
1) discuss and explain various theoretical concepts;
2) articulate and deploy complex political theories and relate them to contemporary academic and public debates;
3) critically assess the adequacy of core political concepts in light of contemporary and historical events;
4) defend and justify written and spoken arguments with strong textual evidence.

Assessment and permitted materials

a) Active participation to the seminar (20%)
b) Oral presentation of a text in front of the class (20%)
c) Critical essay to submit by the end of the seminar on an article of political theory (50%)
d) An up-to-date bibliography on the issue considered in the essay (10%)

Minimum requirements and assessment criteria

In order to getting a passing grade, students are expected to participate to the discussions that will take place during the seminar, to summarize and briefly present orally one article of democratic theory to their co-students and to submit by the end of the seminar a short critical essay (1500 to maximum 2000 words) discussing in normative terms an article of political theory addressing the nature, principles or demands of democracy.

Examination topics

The seminar’s material covers both the texts discussed during the lectures and the content of the lectures themselves.

Reading list

Abensour, Miguel (2011), Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Movement, trans. Martin Breaugh, Polity Press.
Althusser, Louis (1962), “Contradiction and Overdetermination” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Penguin Press.
Badiou, Alain (2012), “The Democratic Emblem” in Democracy in what State?, trans. William McCuaig, Columbia University Press : 6-15.
Balibar, Etienne (1993), “’Rights of Man’ and ‘Rights of Citizens’. The modern dialectic of equality and freedom” in Masses, classes, ideas: Studies on politics and philosophy before and after Marx, trans. James Swenson, Routledge : 39-59.
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey, Polity Press.
Gauchet, Marcel (2015), “Democracy: From One Crisis to Another”, Social Imaginaries, 1(1), trans. Nathalie J. Doyle : 163-187.
Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal (2000), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (2nd edition), Verso.
Lefort, Claude (1986), “Politics and Human Rights” in The Political Forms of Modern Society, trans. John B. Thompson, Polity Press.
Manin, Bernard (1997), The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge University Press : 1-8.
Marx, Karl, (1844) “On the Jewish Question” in The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert Tucker, Norton & Company, 1978 : 26 – 46.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2006), “On the Meaning of Democracy”, Theoria, 53(111) : 1-5.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2010), The Truth of Democracy, trans. Pascal-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Fordham University Press.
Rancière, Jacques (2010), “Ten Theses on Politics” in Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran, Continuum : 27-44.
Rancière, Jacques (2011), Althusser’s Lesson, trans. Emiliano Battista, Continuum.
Schumpeter, Jospeh A. (1943), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Routledge : 250-273.

Association in the course directory

Last modified: Mo 07.09.2020 15:21