What Is Moral Socialism?

June 19 - 21, 6 - 8 PM
MIRIAM MAKEBA-Auditorium, Haus der Kulturen der Welt John-Foster-Dulles-Alee 10

Political theorist Lea Ypi from the London School of Economics will hold the Center’s Benjamin Chair in 2024. From June 19 to 21, 2024, Ypi will present her ideas on what is essential for a moral version of socialism in her Benjamin Lectures at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.


What is moral socialism? “If we seek an answer to the waverer who asks us whether he should be a socialist or not”, wrote the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer more than a century ago “we do need Kant’s ethics”. In this year’s Benjamin Lectures, Lea Ypi offers a critique of capitalism and a defence of socialism that focuses on the Enlightenment idea of freedom as moral agency. She makes an ethical case for socialism by exploring the political implications of the traditional definition of the Enlightenment as “the emergence of human beings from their own self-incurred immaturity”. The lectures examine three main themes: the critique of reason as the foundation of a new (post-capitalist) vision of society, the political implications of an analysis of freedom focused on the idea of human beings as ends in themselves, and the importance of a critical philosophy of history for resurrecting hope. Ypi explores these topics from both a historical and an analytical perspective, which draws on the history of philosophy, contemporary critical theory and liberal theories of justice, while also re-examining traditional Marxist interpretations of political and economic institutions. She also engages with postcolonial and postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment, showing their limitations for reimagining socialism for the 21st century. Finally, she defends the importance for socialism of a notion of political progress understood as the process of learning from the trials and the failures of the past, suggesting that this effort requires both reflecting on the tragedies of state socialism in the 20th century, and inspiring democracy to overcome capitalism in the 21st.

Wednesday, 19.06 – What can I know?

In this first lecture, Ypi defines some key terms and explores the Enlightenment conception of reason, with particular reference to the question of method and the effort to steer a path between dogmatism and scepticism. She suggests that this conception of reason has historically contributed to a critique of both vertical oppression from traditional authorities (the church, the monarchy, the empire) and horizontal oppression of commercial society and capitalist practices. She explores some standard materialist critiques to this view, and argues that they target a reductive, individualist, conception of the enlightenment which an adequate reinterpretation can avoid.

Wednesday, 20.06 – What should I do?

In this lecture, Ypi suggests that a critique of capitalism in the 21st century cannot be limited to showing its contradictions but needs to return to the fundamental question of its moral justification. Going back to a conception of practical reason focused on freedom, she argues that moral action is linked to the notion of a moral world where human beings relate to each other as ends in themselves. Far from being formalistic or solipsistic, this conception is crucial to diagnose the moral wrong of domination and exploitation entrenched in current capitalist practices.

Wednesday, 21.06 – What may I hope?

In this lecture, Ypi discusses what kind of political vision is needed to develop an alternative to capitalism. She defends a cosmopolitan socialist alternative that blends the critique of capitalism with a critique of nation states, and is guided by a concept of progress understood as learning from trials and failures of the past (including the failures of socialism in the 20th century). To this end, she defends a critical philosophy of history, and responds to some standard postcolonial and postmodern objections to her approach.

Political theorist Lea Ypi from the London School of Economics is one of those rare talents who combine theoretical acuity with narrative power. Her award-winning memoir “Free” has been translated into more than 30 languages. In the book, Ypi does not only tell the story of growing up in Albania, when one of the most paranoid and repressive socialist regimes in Europe ruled the country; she also gives an account of the actualization of diverging concepts of freedom and their failure. This analysis also explains why Ypi still holds on to socialist ideas. For Ypi, socialism is not a cipher for the nostalgic return to her childhood days before the liberal shock therapy introduced capitalism to Albania. It is the name of an orientation that she believes is necessary in order to overcome capitalism, neo-colonialism, and anti-migration policies so devastating in the peripheral zones of the capitalist centers. Apart from “Free” (Allen Lane 2021), Ypi is inter alia the author of “The Architectonic of Reason: Purposiveness and Systematic Unity in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” (Oxford University Press 2021) and “Global Justice & Avant-Garde Political Agency” (Oxford University Press 2017). Her op-eds appear in The Guardian and The New Statesman.

Further Material: Trajectories of Solidarity 2023–2024

What Is Moral Socialism?

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