Women on the Left: Summer Research Seminar – 8th June

Our final research seminar of the year will take place on 8th June in NN.0.07, Martin Hall, at 4 pm. As usual, we welcome two speakers from different disciplines.

Glyn Salton-Cox, (English), UC Santa Barbara, ‘“Red Loving Heart”: Reconstructing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lesbian Leninism.’

In an essay on Sylvia Townsend Warner and Patrick Hamilton, Arnold Rattenbury inveighs against how published editions of her correspondence and journals have ripped out the “red, loving heart” of his old friend and comrade. His polemic against the anti-Communist principles of selection deployed by her editors William Maxwell and Claire Harmon is based on personal recollection, but is amply confirmed by a close look at Townsend Warner’s archive at the Dorset County Museum. In this paper I read correspondence and journal entries excised from editions of Townsend Warner’s journals and correspondence, arguing that these missing documents reveal a strikingly assertive personal-political formation, that I name “queer vanguardism.” Crucially informed by engagements with Lenin and with other important Soviet figures such as Comintern chief Gregori Dimitrov and invigorated by her relationship with the equally politically committed Valentine Ackland, Townsend Warner fashions a uniquely lesbian Leninist conception of political praxis, according to which the dynamic pairing of herself and Ackland would bring political consciousness to the rural masses in Dorset.

This confident queer politics vitally informs her most famous novel, Summer Will Show (1936) in which the organized Sophia and the passionate Minna represent a distinctly Soviet dialectic of spontaneity and consciousness. Building on José Esteban Muñoz’s recent work on queer utopia, I thus argue that Warner opens up revolutionary forms of non-reproductive futurity. Finally, I situate Townsend Warner in a longer history of radical thought and activism, contending that the marked vanguardism of early gay liberation, and of certain strains of contemporary queer theory must be understood in a surprising genealogy stretching back not only to Soviet revolution, but to nineteenth-century Russian radicals such as Nikoli Chernyshevsky, whose 1863 novel What is to Be Done? not only provided Lenin with a title for his famous 1902 polemic, but also had a marked influence on Summer Will Show.

 

Ruth Kinna, (Political Thought), Loughborough, ‘Women Nihilists and Anarchist Ethics.’

West European interest in nihilism was sparked both the activism of Russian radical movements in the 1870s and 80s and by what appeared to be the negativity of the intellectual doctrines, famously modelled by Yevgeny Bazarov, the anti-hero of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862). In the period leading up to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, nihilism became associated with terrorism and moral degeneracy, often used interchangeably with anarchism. The popularisation of Nietzsche’s work helped seal the reputation for violence and linked nihilism with slave morality.

In this paper I present an alternative account of nihilism, one advanced by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Finding the cultural inspiration for nihilism in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Nikolai Chernyshevksy’s What is to be done?, Kropotkin argued that nihilism was primarily a women’s movement and that it was driven by resistance to dominating norms and, particularly, marriage conventions. The nihilists, Kropotkin argued, joined forces with socialists, transforming the socialist movement and provided the model for anarchist ethics.

By focusing on the Russian women’s movement, Kropotkin tapped into a popular conception of nihilism but painted an altogether different picture of the movement and the women who defined it to those that prevailed in Victorian England. After looking at some of the literatures that derided and denounced nihilism, I show how Kropotkin absorbed his conception of radical women’s activism into anarchism and explore the distinctive features of his understanding.

 

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