Erasing Marx in the name of liberalism?

Image credit: Elliott Brown

The Philosophy Faculty today meets to discuss the proposed changes to the political philosophy syllabus. These changes greatly reduce all options that do not come under the remit of liberal political thought. The basic reason behind this is that the Faculty no longer has staff willing and able to teach the more diverse syllabus that has been offered to students in the past (a foreseeable result of recent hiring decisions).

However, the department claims that the changes are primarily responding to the contemporary research climate, as well as to student input, choices and interests. They claim that their proposals are not a narrowing-down of coverage but a ‘contextualisation’ of topics such as Marxism. The letter sent out to students justifying these changes suffers from precisely the confusions of poor definitions, blurred distinctions and unconvincing argumentation that an undergraduate philosophy course is supposed to teach students to recognise. It sounds like a sales pitch – and many of the students aren’t buying it. 

In the past weeks students have presented two separate petitions to the Faculty. The Faculty dismissed the first one, claiming that it was based on ‘misinformation’.  One staff-student meeting and one five-page piece of Faculty propaganda later, a second petition politely explained that students still don’t buy it. It remains to be seen whether they will be listened to this time.

The one remaining paper that professes to deal with non-liberal politics is a part II option entitled ‘Radical Politics’. ‘The moral limits of markets’ comes under this heading, which to even the most libertarian economist would not exactly constitute a ‘radical’ topic for discussion – and certainly post-2008 the inclusion of this under the heading ‘radical’ is strange.

I graduated in Philosophy in 2009, when the syllabus contained Marxism but basically no other non-liberal political philosophy. Feminism, for example, was taught only as liberal feminism. My experience studying political philosophy here left me with a strange and confused understanding of many things. For example, I presumed that socialism could be seen as just one option under liberalism, and that there was no obvious conflict between the two. I understood ‘liberalism’ to mean something vaguely associated with a pure and universal concept of ‘freedom’, rather than a culturally situated set of ideas that actually exclude most of the political systems and relations of power in the world today.

Today’s proposals look like a return to this situation but with the additional removal of the Marxism paper, guaranteeing that more students will leave as politically confused and uninformed as I did. Far from moving with the times, reducing coverage of topics like Marxism and Power seems particularly perverse in light of such significant contemporary political shifts as the Arab Spring, financial crisis, the entrenchment of neo-liberalism and the growth of anti-neoliberal opposition movements.

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