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The Ashby Lecture 2022

Date: Thursday 28 April 2022

Why the Left is not Woke

Photo: Ian Olsson

In April 2022, philosopher and writer Professor Susan Neiman gave the Ashby Lecture at Robinson Auditorium, followed by responses from Dr Christopher Brooke (Senior Lecturer in Political Theory; Fellow and Director of Studies in Politics at Homerton College, University of Cambridge); Dr Emma Mackinnon (University Lecturer in History; Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge); Professor Richard Bourke (Professor of the History of Political Thought; Fellow of King’s College, University of Cambridge); Dr Lars Vinx (Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge); Dr Rebecca Buxton (Assistant Professor and Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Cambridge); and Dr Samuel Zeitlin (Hong Kong Link Early Career Research Fellow and College Lecturer in Politics, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge).

‘I will discuss the ways in which contemporary voices who consider themselves leftist have abandoned philosophical ideas which are crucial to any left-wing standpoint: a commitment to universalism, a belief in the possibility of progress, and a firm distinction between power and justice. All these ideas are connected, as I’ll try to show, and have their roots in the much-maligned Enlightenment. Though I’ll be criticising positions on much of today’s left, I’m well aware that today’s right is far more dangerous. Nevertheless I fear that today’s left has deprived itself of concepts which are crucial for resisting the right-wing lurch. I’ll discuss the notions of power in some of the works of Carl Schmitt and Michel Foucault, and argue that they need to be abandoned. In discussing what are now common criticisms of the Enlightenment, I will show that the Enlightenment invented the critique of Eurocentrism as well as the critique of colonialism. I’ll also try to show how the mistaken view of the Enlightenment as racist, Eurocentrist and colonialist could arise by looking not only at philosophical texts but some of the histories in which they were written. Showing that the Enlightenment fought for human liberation and dignity allows us to uphold the genuine universalism they championed, and to show how to reconcile human dignity and human difference.’

Discover more about the Ashby Lecture on this page.