2013-14 Pembroke Seminar

"Socialism and Post-Socialism"
Linda Cook
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center
Professor of Political Science, Brown University

“Socialism and Post-Socialism”

The year 2014 will be the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of 20th century East European communism. All of the disciplines within the interpretive social sciences were thrown into disarray by these momentous events, as world history seemed suddenly to shift course.  The collapse of socialism transformed the geopolitics of Europe, and had more subtle, but very important, effects in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Mid-East.  The bi-polar world of the post-WWII decades imploded, patterns of international conflict shifted, cultural identities shifted salience, and international civil society as well as other non-state actors grew increasingly important.  Trade and capital regime liberalization opened states that were previously closed to mobile international capital, and new migration patterns began to transform global society and systems of stratification.  The outcomes, however, remained uncertain, and the process called “transition”  has been fraught with contingencies. New and exciting scholarly debates now focus on exploring these contingencies, and the Pembroke seminar theme, “Socialism and Post-socialism,” is a timely and intellectually-rich area for interdisciplinary collaboration at the Pembroke Center.

The academic year 2013-2014 is the ideal time to reflect on 20th century socialism, to see how scholars from different disciplinary perspectives are interpreting its legacies, and how the past influences or informs the political imagination of the present.  This is an especially challenging project because the nature of 20th century socialism remains contested both within and outside the societies where it existed, and in states such as China that still claim its mantle.  How did socialism repress women, and how did it at the same time liberate them?  Did it produce the atrophy of cultural life, or preserve great artistic traditions that are now dying?  Did it confine ethnic passions, or create a multi-national affirmative action politics that maintained social control?  Did it create the conditions for democracy, or make its failure much more likely; how did it produce stagnant economies such as the Soviet Union’s, and dynamic economies such as China’s; did it result in egalitarian welfare states or corrupt, backward autocracies?  In sum, there remain deeply-divergent understandings, both within and across disciplines, about what socialism was and whether or not it had any successes.

While the immediate post socialist era saw many scholars trying to produce the “correct” answers to these questions, a new generation of scholars is now re-examining and critically engaging with the past and present in less polarized terms.  Historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, literary and gender studies scholars all see the socialist era through different theoretical and methodological lenses, focusing on some problems to the exclusion of others.  Economists concern themselves with the successes or failures of central planning, political scientists with the legacies of authoritarianism, cultural anthropologists explore subtle changes that reshape rhythms of everyday life and work, and literary scholars focus on the changing nature of representation by artists and in popular media.  All of these disciplines, however, share a temporal framework that defines their questions and methodologies:  before and after 1989.

 In addition to the various contestations over the past experience of socialist regimes, there are heated debates about current states that claim the label “socialist” or “communist.” States such as China, Cuba or North Korea still claim descent from socialist regimes of the last century, while countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia are forging new paths toward something they call “socialism.” Marxist ideologies still inform political dissent in countries as diverse as Greece, Peru and Sri Lanka, and fuel the anti-globalization sentiments of a new generation of young activists around the world.  In the United States, our current political vocabulary is shaped by the legacy of Cold War stereotypes in which any form of wealth re-distribution or state regulation of the market is derided as “socialist,” a labeling that potentially erodes support for even the most sacrosanct of American social welfare programs.  Indeed, there is no country or region of the world that remains untouched by the legacies of the Cold War, and the superpower competition for ideological hegemony in the 20th century. 

The Pembroke Seminar welcomes scholars from all disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, looking broadly at the legacies of socialism for gender, culture, ideology, politics, and shifts in international relations.  It interrogates the shifting theoretical questions about the Cold War and its legacies, using the prism of gender and shifting gender relations as one way to hone discussions around a set of social and political issues related to women, families, distributive issues, welfare. representation, and power. The seminar will include, and be of interest to, scholars across the disciplines, facilitating engagement with a broad array of theoretical and methodological perspectives.  It connects well to the research of many young faculty and graduate students, including (but not limited to) those who work on gender issues.  The seminar will involve graduate students and junior faculty who share an interest in the topic, creating a vibrant, year-long community that will contribute to the intellectual energy and visibility of the Pembroke Center.